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A letter to Mel Gibson, Director, 'The Passion of the Christ'

Written exclusively for Salaam by al-Maktabi

Dear Mel

‘The Passion of the Christ’ is cinematographic masterpiece that stirs the emotions. It has memorable scenes of Jesus’s calmness and trust in God, and of Mary’s patience and nobility. You have been criticised for depicting brutalities and portraying the high priests of the Jewish assembly as callous schemers. Yet it is now almost a week since I saw your film on my local big screen, and what I retain is not a sense of horror or any judeo-phobia, but rather a heightened respect for the sanctity of Jesus and Mary.

Jesus’s last seven words in the film are “Father, into your hands I commend my spirit” are so similar to our prayer tawakaltu ‘ala Allah – In You, Allah, we repose our trust. Another powerful moment in the film is when Jesus declares to the Roman governor, “My kingdom is not of this world”. Recent films on Jesus have either been flippant – the Pythonesque ‘Life of Brian’ (1979) or scandalous - such as Scorsese’s ‘The Last Temptation of Christ’ (1988), but it is only in your block buster that the Catholic reverence for Jesus is truly captured. It is a welcome intrusion of moral instruction into mass culture – who knows what the lasting impact will be? Even the radical-chic Julie Burchill (“All I ever wanted from life was love and money”) recently declared herself a ‘God-botherer’.

However what has amazed me is the vitriol directed against you by the very persons who so stridently uphold ‘traditional values’. Take for example Melanie Phillips. Not long ago, she wrote, “we can create the good society by moving from ‘me’ to ‘we’. We need to rediscover our bearings through restoring moral habits and a framework of virtue…..” (2001). The very same keen advocate of tradition is ready to overlook the moral message of your film to pick one gripe: “It portrays the Jews as a bloodthirsty mob, led by cruel and malicious leaders, who repeatedly bay for Jesus to be crucified. It makes no acknowledgement of the fact that, writing decades after the death of Jesus and under the yoke of Roman tyranny, the Gospel writers would almost certainly have wanted to present the Jews in the worst possible light rather than the Romans who actually crucified Jesus along with many other Jews” (The Daily Mail, 29 February 2004). It is breathtaking how Ms Phillips, who so frequently celebrates ‘Judeo-Christian values’ is so ready to ditch one half of the equation.

Prior to the general release of the film, there was talk of the efforts being made to have it banned. Dr Yitzchak Schochet, associated with the Chief Rabbi’s office was reported as stating: "This film should not be shown. I hope they ban it” (Daily Telegraph, 27 February 2004). Neville Nagler, of the Jewish Board of Deputies, said: "It would have been better if this film had never been made”. Gaza Vermes, formerly professor of Jewish Studies at Oxford University declared, “I hope I will never be obliged to see something so dreadful again” (The Guardian, 27 February). Rabbi Julia Neuberger did not fail to make a disparaging reference that is easy to decipher:”Violence is also increasingly used to impose the power of one faith group over another – violence in the name of God. Does Mel Gibson want to adulate the use of violence in God’s name even more?” (The Guardian, 19 March 2004). The Israeli Supreme Court was reported as giving consideration to banning the film – after all the Israeli Board of Censors had recently banned a documentary on the battle in Jenin .

It is strange how arguments of freedom of expression, freedom of the artist, tolerance suddenly melt away – perhaps they only apply when Muslims are at the receiving end? Apparently it was intolerant and fanatical for Muslims to seek the banning of the sacrilegious ‘Satanic Verses’, but quite OK for others to call for the banning of your film, Mel. In fact this is history repeating itself. In 1987 Jim Allen’s play ‘Perdition’ was ditched by the Royal Court Theatre because it raised sensitivities by discussing Zionist collaboration with the Nazi regime. Even Solzhenitsyn came under fire for his book ‘Two Hundred Years Together’ in 2003 when Jewish leaders were offended by references to the role of their co-religionists in the Bolshevik and Stalinist purges. The censorship even extends to academia: in 2001 a paper in the journal ‘Human Immunology’ was removed because its finding that Jews and Palestinians had a close genetic relationship! (For details see Nature 414, 382). In October last year MP Ruth Ellman, vice-chair of the Inter-Parliamentary Council against Anti-Semitism, successfully blocked a lecture by Tony Martin, professor of Africana at Wellesley College, Massachusetts at a GLA sponsored event, because he had spoken at two Holocaust revisionism conferences (Jewish Chronicle, 17 October 2003). Earlier this year, pressure was put on Christian Aid to stop the display of an art work by John Keane because it depicted the death of 12 year-old Muhammad al-Durra shot by Israeli soldiers. The Board of Deputies and other bodies had complained that this art work was causing “hatred of Jews”. So it is best you take heart, Mel, stand by your religious genius and be prepared for pressures to come. Father Kit Cunningham observes about your work: “This film is not anti-semitic. Any who say that it is are intent on stirring trouble. Jewish organisations protest too much, and are keen to personalise any historical facts” (The Guardian, 19 March 2004).

Notwithstanding the film’s uplifting message and possibility for resetting the moral compasses, for me as a Muslim it is not quite historical reality. A number of writers, most notably A.N. Wilson (see his ‘Jesus’, 1993) now argue that practices and dogmas in Christianity such as the Eucharist (“this cup is the new covenant in my blood. Whenever you drink it, do this as a memorial of me”) arose from the influences of a Hellenised Pharisee, St Paul: “…with Paul, the essence of Catholic Christianity is born” (p22. Flaming edition). For a view of Jesus’s mission without this Pauline influence, Mel, please consider this extract from the Qur’an:

“Behold! the angels said: "O Mary! Allah giveth thee glad tidings of a Word from Him: his name will be Christ Jesus, the son of Mary, held in honour in this world and the Hereafter and of (the company of) those nearest to Allah; He shall speak to the people in childhood and in maturity. And he shall be (of the company) of the righteous. She said: ‘O my Lord! How shall I have a son when no man hath touched me?’ He said: ‘Even so: Allah createth what He willeth: When He hath decreed a plan, He but saith to it, 'Be,' and it is!’

And Allah will teach him the Book and Wisdom, the Law and the Gospel, And (appoint him) a messenger to the Children of Israel, (with this message): "'I have come to you, with a Sign from your Lord, in that I make for you out of clay, as it were, the figure of a bird, and breathe into it, and it becomes a bird by Allah's leave: And I heal those born blind, and the lepers, and I quicken the dead, by Allah's leave; and I declare to you what ye eat, and what ye store in your houses. Surely therein is a Sign for you if ye did believe; (I have come to you), to attest the Law which was before me. And to make lawful to you part of what was (Before) forbidden to you; I have come to you with a Sign from your Lord. So fear Allah, and obey me. It is Allah Who is my Lord and your Lord; then worship Him. This is a Way that is straight. When Jesus found Unbelief on their part He said: "Who will be My helpers to (the work of) Allah?" Said the disciples: "We are Allah's helpers: We believe in Allah, and do thou bear witness that we are Muslims. Our Lord! we believe in what Thou hast revealed, and we follow the Messenger; then write us down among those who bear witness.

And (the unbelievers) plotted and planned, and Allah too planned, and the best of planners is Allah. Behold! Allah said: "O Jesus! I will take thee and raise thee to Myself and clear thee (of the falsehoods) of those who blaspheme; I will make those who follow thee superior to those who reject faith, to the Day of Resurrection: Then shall ye all return unto me, and I will judge between you of the matters wherein ye dispute. (The Qur’an, 3: 45-55)

This is not to say, Mel, that there isn’t common ground between us. The sanctity bestowed on Jesus and Mary are clear from the above extract. I share with you the appeal from the Cambridge don Tarif Khalidi:

“He [Jesus] is a miracle of God… He is the prophet of peace. He is…a word and a spirit of God. And he is given the special privilege of announcing the coming of Muhammad, so he is the harbinger of Islam. Now if one adds to this the other images that he projects in the Islamic literary tradition - the ascetic, the prophet of the heart, the gentle teacher of manners, the mystic, the lord of nature, the healer of spiritual ills - one arrives at a description of him, which in a sense complements that of the Four Gospels….. One religion will often act as a hinterland of another. I suppose one might say that all religions should be examined ecumenically. The case of Jesus and Islam is a very salient example. Here is the central spiritual figure of one religion taken over and adopted by another to complement its own witness. This phenomenon would seem to me to be an important part of any agenda of modern Christian-Muslim dialogue.”
(see http://www.jqf-jerusalem.org/2002/jqf15/MuslimJesus.htm)

In fact Muslims take a stand whenever Jesus or Mary are blasphemed. Here in Britain the UK Action Committee on Islamic Affairs voiced objections to Scorsese’ film, particularly its insinuations on the relationship between the prophet and Mary Magdelene.

Your film Mel depicts the human degradation that can arise from the abuse of power. Jesus was almost scourged to death by the centurions; the crown of thorns was pressed so tight around his head that they opened wounds. At about the time I saw your film, the newspaper front pages had this picture of the hooded and wired Iraqi prisoner in Abu Ghraib with his arms outstretched - a modern day enactment of the scene at Golgotha – the place of the skull – where the crucifixion crosses were sited. Plus ca change, plus c’est la meme chose.

Yours avidly

Al Maktabi

Links:

  • Jesus in the Quran by Reza Shah-Kazemi