Press freedom is not a license to malign religious beliefs
HIGH GROUND By William M. Esposo 2006-02-13
The Jyllands-Posten Mohammed cartoons row rages on and portends to get even uglier. Reprints by newspapers in the UK, Germany, Spain and France and later, comments made by Islamic figures of respect and authority to journalists form part of the evolving collage of developments pitting two extreme cultures and mindsets.
On the one hand, we have Denmark representing perhaps the more extreme from of Western-style values founded on openness, liberalism and the various forms of democratic freedoms. Denmark legalized pornography in 1960, was the first country to legalize gay marriages and has long been identified with various ‘blasphemous’ practices, including an officially-commissioned mural of a naked Jesus with an erect penis at a railway station.

On the other hand, we have the extreme side of Islam—which by Western standards is religion far too obsolete, restrictive and inflexible. Islamic nations run according to Allah’s laws and many Muslims find difficulty understanding the Danish dual perspective on belief and individual freedoms. To many Muslims, the Mohammed cartoons are an unforgivable insult and must be dealt with most severely.

Muslims all over the world spilled out into the streets in violent protest. Anything Danish was taboo, from products to Danish nationals to foreign diplomatic postings. The managing editor of France Soir was sacked for echoing the sentiments of most Europeans that the Muslim reprisal was an infringement on press freedom.

It took more than four months before Jyllands-Polsten had decided to apologize—and only because the worldwide outrage had reached very alarming proportions. All this conjures a déjà vu of Salman Rushdie’s nightmare for having authored “Satanic Verses” which had put him on the death list of the more fundamentalist sects of Islam. Iran had issued a Fatwa prescribing a death sentence on Rushdie in 1989. A Fatwa is a binding directive issued by an Islamic religious authority. Rushdie went into hiding. Wary of the risk of inviting Islamic reprisal that would endanger passengers, Air Canada refused to take him on any of their flights.

Muslim piety is seen by other people as fanaticism. Catholics honor martyrs for dying for their faith but the idea of strapping a bomb around one’s body to die for an Islamic cause would be unthinkable. To the Muslim, this is the shortest and surest path to paradise.

In 1976, the movie, “The Message” (starred Anthony Quinn and Irene Papas) told the story of Islam and the Prophet Mohammed. This caused a stir among Muslims, although not to the extent of triggering a Fatwa. But Muslim clerics banned the faithful from patronizing the movie. Muslim countries forbade its exhibition. The issue focused on the depiction of the Prophet in a movie, a gross impropriety to Muslim religious leaders.

That surprised me because I saw the movie and from my Catholic orientation I could not perceive anything irreverent. What I saw was a depiction of the Prophet Mohammed rendered in the pre-‘60s mode of depicting Jesus Christ—no front facial view. During that time, moviemakers (mostly Italians) believed that face shots would be most inappropriate and a form of disrespect to the Son of God whose image and divinity can never be replicated by any mortal actor.

But belief is reality to the believer. The stronger one’s religious convictions, the more one will fight to uphold them. The longest-drawn wars and conflicts involved leaders and nations driven by the fires of religious fervor. The conflict between Islam and Judaism (and Judeo-Christianity) in the Middle East as well as the conflict between Islam and Judeo-Christianity in the Balkans prove that.

Moviemakers, writers and artists who play around themes of faith and religion tread on sensitive or even sometimes, dangerous grounds. Religious tenets cannot be subjected to creative license.

In 1988, the movie “The Last Temptation of Christ” which was directed by Michael Scorsese riled Christian sensitivities.

Since Dan Brown’s book “The Da Vinci Code” broke records on the bestsellers lists and in through the current run-up to the release of its movie version, Christian scholars and Church authorities had been busy trying to crack the code. On the February 3 edition of the Jonathan Mann-hosted CNN INSIGHT, “The Da Vinci Code,” fiction though it is, was called an elaborate libel done on the Roman Catholic Church.

A year ago, Mel Gibson’s “The Passion” had its own share of controversy. In this case, the Jews felt that they had been unjustly and excessively portrayed as mean, cruel and brutal. But this issue was not as critical as those involving “The Last Temptation of Christ” and “The Da Vinci Code” because:

1. The point that some Jews raised had nothing to do with mangling the essential beliefs of a faith.

2. The portrayal of meanness and cruelty has solid basis in the Biblical accounts.

In the case of the “The Last Temptation of Christ”—Christians protested the creative license that showed more than the known and accepted relationship of Christ with Mary Magdalene. The movie contained scenes and dialogues that had absolutely no basis in the accounts of the New Testament. One such scene was when Christ visited Mary Magdalene (alleged to be a harlot) at work, servicing her customers—a scene that was not in any of the New Testament versions written by the four evangelists. These scenes and dialogues were mere creations of the film makers.

Because of the controversy, I rented a laser disc (before it became a useless piece of technology) of “The Last Temptation of Christ” so I can draw my own conclusions. Although I do have a bit of the liberal and the conservative with regard certain issues, I do tend to be more liberal in the case of creative works. Writers, after all, find their truths by having a free roam of the landscape. Being in the business of film distribution myself, I would have another reason to favor the liberal line.

Not having even completed a quarter of the film, I was filled with disgust at film’s utter disregard for Christian piety and devotion to Jesus Christ. That was the only time I grudgingly had to agree with the views of former censors chief Manoling Morato

I now remember my reaction to the Scorsese film when I read about the debate surrounding “The Da Vinci Code” which is clearly a work of fiction but has now seemed to have taken a ‘factual’ life of its own. I have no intention to discuss the points of debate on “The Da Vinci Code” but rather to delve on the impropriety of toying around with the foundations of a faith just to exercise one’s creative license or to provide entertainment. To me, the sensibilities of a person’s religious belief are neither the material for creative license nor a source for entertainment.

Silly question to ask now is if anyone of these religion-taunting filmmakers would still want to do a potentially controversial film on the life of the Prophet Mohammed. Or, would any actor/actress, movie crew or what not want to have anything to do with it?

Western-oriented writers, on the other hand get away twittering Christian sensitivities just because most Christians practice a separation of Church and State and value democratic freedoms. In the end something’s gotta give.

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