Mel Gibson: Arab world messiah

"The Passion" sells out theaters, spreads through $1 bootlegs, and fuels more claims of Jewish villainy.

Michelle Goldberg
April 7, 2004 1:56AM (UTC)

Mel Gibson's "The Passion of the Christ" has been playing on four screens at the Mecca Mall here for nearly three weeks, but the front desk employee at my hotel still suggested that I get to the theater an hour early to buy tickets for a Sunday evening show. She had seen it the night before in a sold-out theater and pronounced it "really amazing."

"Muslims are going to see it much more than Christians," she said, "because they want to see the truth of how Jesus was tortured by the Jews."


Throughout the Middle East, Muslims and Christians alike are flocking to "The Passion," making the movie a phenomenon to rival "Titanic." Many are driven by simple curiosity, their interests piqued by the controversy surrounding the film. As in America, some people are leaving theaters disgusted by Gibson's Grand Guignol sadism.

Many more, though, are leaving theaters believing that Jewish villainy is confirmed by the gospels. And thanks to widespread piracy, this message has already quickly spread throughout a region already saturated with religious animosity.

According to a March 24 Hollywood Reporter story, "When Mel Gibson's 'The Passion of the Christ' opens in Egypt next month, theater owners are anticipating record ticket sales even though many people in this Muslim country already have seen the biblical epic on bootlegged cassettes or downloads from the Internet." In a poor Cairo neighborhood, the article said, pirated copies were selling for less than $1.


Similarly, even before it opened on March 16 in Jordan, a country that's only about 5 percent Christian, many in Amman watched it on pirated DVDs, easily available for a few Jordanian dinars. But that didn't stop people from filling theaters. According to Dima Amin, the black-clad, honey-haired girl working the Mecca Mall ticket counter Sunday night, all the hourly shows sold out for the first two weeks that "The Passion" played. "Now it's just on the weekend" that tickets are scarce, she says. This despite the fact that tickets cost 5 dinars, the equivalent of $7, and a significant amount of money in a country where the per capita income is around $1,650.

In Lebanon, says As'ad AbuKhalil, a California State University professor of political science, the movie "is playing to great reviews. It was screened for the Lebanese president, who rendered a very strong verdict in favor. He attributed all the controversy to Zionist conspiracy. It was also screened for the Maronite Christian patriarch in Lebanon, who also gave it rave reviews. The verdict has been very positive uniformly. Newspapers are covering the controversy and using it to indicate Zionist intimidation."

Gibson's American partisans have denied that his sanguinary passion play works, even inadvertently, as anti-Jewish propaganda. In the Middle East, though, just a few miles from the scene of the crime, audiences are interpreting the movie much like the Denver preacher whose church sign declared, "Jews Killed the Lord Jesus." With its claims of historical truth, "The Passion," which portrays a weary Pontius Pilate coerced into brutality against Jesus by a vicious, fawning cabal of hook-nosed Jewish priests, is being taken as further evidence of the Jews' elemental cruelty.


"This is an injection of medieval anti-Semitism, and not only in the U.S.," AbuKhalil says of the film. "The judgment of this movie should not be confined to whether this is going to result in anti-Jewish manifestations around American movie theaters but, more importantly, whether this movie will inject classic medieval anti-Semitism into world public opinion."

Despite the rabid Judeophobia of many Muslim fundamentalists, medieval anti-Semitism is an uneasy fit with Islamic doctrine. For Muslims, of course, Jesus isn't the Lord, and, according to the Quran, Jews didn't kill him. In Islamic doctrine, Jesus, a prophet, wasn't crucified at all -- it only seemed that way. "They said, 'We killed Christ Jesus the son of Mary, the Messenger of Allah' -- but they killed him not, nor crucified him. But so it was made to appear to them," says the Quran.


Yet now, thanks at least in part to Gibson, the ancient calumny that Jews are Christ killers is gaining currency even among people who don't believe that Christ was killed.

Outside the theater on Sunday night, Yaquob Hamdan, a 23-year-old Muslim salesman, called the film "beautiful and interesting." But doesn't it contradict the Quran? Yes, he allowed, but "it has some truth in it. The Jews are responsible for his killing. They're the ones who accuse him and spread chaos."

Kuwait bans the cinematic depiction of Muslim prophets, but according to the AP, a top cleric has called for an exception for Gibson's opus because it "reveals crimes committed by Jews against Christ."


This is hardly the first time that European Christian anti-Semitic iconography is resonating in the Muslim Middle East. Last year, many opinion makers in America were apoplectic about an Egyptian miniseries called "Knight Without a Horse," a dramatization of the Protocols of the Elders of Zion, a Russian forgery that served as a mainstay of Nazi ideology. The so-called blood libel, the rumor that Jews bake their unleavened Passover bread with the blood of Christian children, has also migrated from Europe to many Muslim countries.

"There is no indigenous literature of anti-Semitism in Islamic heritage," says AbuKhalil. "So if you are Hamas or Islamic Jihad, you fall back on these sources."

Indeed, a column in Jordan's English-language Jordan Times interprets "The Passion" as a kind of parable of Israel's assassination of Sheik Yassin.


"Maybe the obvious discrepancy between the delicacy of Christ's body and the sensitivity of his soul on one hand, and the violent punishment and its cruelty on the other hand, is what makes the audience leave the theatre carrying feelings of anger more than feelings of sadness or pity," writes Taher Riad, before switching rather abruptly to the killing of the spiritual leader of Hamas.

"Did this weak and paralysed body need all these aeroplanes and bombs to explode it?" Riad asks. "Did this weak old man on his wheelchair really pose a threat to one of the mightiest military powers in the world? Finally, how many Christs are going to be tortured and crucified in the land of Christ by the hands of the Pharisees' descendants before another Mel Gibson comes along to depict their sufferings and pains?"

At the theater, Amin was enthusing about Gibson-inspired transcendence. "A lot of Muslims come to see what Christians think about the Christ," she said. "When Christians watch this movie, a lot of them come out crying. This film is very important to a lot of people. This film is making history."

Is it making people angrier with the Jews?


"Yeah," she said. "Yes, of course."

Michelle Goldberg

Michelle Goldberg is a frequent contributor to Salon and the author of "Kingdom Coming: The Rise of Christian Nationalism" (WW Norton).

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