The Ottawa Citizen- April 28, 2005
The tale is history, but the conflict is now
Although Kingdom of Heaven aims to deplore religious fanaticism,
critics fear the film will just inspire more hatred.
By Joanne Laucius
Muslims and Christians clash in the desert. There are bloody battles, power struggles and even gruesome decapitations, all in the name of faith.
Familiar as this may seem to any consumer of the nightly news, this is Gladiator director Ridley Scott's tale Kingdom of Heaven, to be splashed across the big screen starting next week. The film is about the Crusades, a centuries-old subject that is history to most Westerners, but is still an open wound to many Muslims.
Kingdom of Heaven focuses on the events between 1185 and 1187. After a period of peaceful Christian-Muslim coexistence in the Holy Land, the militant Knights Templar began attacking Muslim caravans. In response, the brilliant Muslim general Saladin and his vast army laid siege to Jerusalem.
Orlando Bloom stars as the French knight Balian, a fictionalized version of a historic figure who defends Jerusalem, but loses against Saladin.
Mr. Scott has said he wants the film to show that religious fanaticism destroyed the balance of peace.
Ghassan Massoud, the Syrian actor who plays Saladin, has defended the film, insisting that he couldn't get involved in a production that would perpetuate negative Muslim stereotypes. He said he wanted to show the facets of Saladin, a figure who is revered by Muslims and admired by many Western historians. "If we can show all these parts of him, I think we can make a good impact with audiences in West and East," he has said.
But even a few weeks ago, it appeared that the film would burn bridges between Christians and Muslims. Khaled Abou El Fadl, a professor of Islamic law at the University of California Los Angeles, was concerned and angered after a reporter handed him an advance copy of the script.
The scenes included one of victorious Muslim soldiers spitting on the Christian relic known as the True Cross and several scenes in which a Muslim cleric, in contrast to his reasonable and more secularized Christian counterpart, is portrayed as "a raving lunatic."
Mr. Abou El Fadl warned that the film would spark hate crimes against Muslims. "People will go see it on a weekend and decide to teach some turbanhead a lesson."
Even 800 years after the fact, the Crusades are still a tender -- and dangerous -- topic in Christian-Muslim relations.
"For Muslims, the Crusades represent a very painful memory, akin to the memory of the Holocaust for Jews. Millions of Muslims were killed in repeated invasions," said Mr. Abou El Fadl, who points to the immediate Muslim outcry against U.S. President George W. Bush's use of the word "crusade."
"This is an extremely charged issue and a dangerous field to mess around in right now," he warns. "A movie like this could be dangerous. For those who have a readiness to be fanatics and extremists, it could tip them over to wholesale extremism."
Paul L. Williams, an author who has a doctorate in medieval theology and has acted as a consultant on internal terrorism issues with the FBI, said the Crusades were barbarous times. "Osama bin Laden speaks of the Crusades as if they happened yesterday," said Mr. Williams, author of Osama's Revenge: the Next 9/11 and The Complete Idiot's Guide to the Crusades.
In 1097, about 70,000 Muslims were slaughtered by Crusaders in one day. Christian Crusaders also engaged in one of the first recorded acts of biological terrorism -- they hacked off the heads of plague victims and lobbed the severed heads over the walls of Muslim fortifications with catapults.
"If you really presented the unblemished truth, it would offend everybody," said Mr. Williams, who points out that the real Balian's contemporaries thought he was a coward for surrendering Jerusalem.
Last week, members of the Council on American-Islamic Relations were offered a sneak peak at the final version of Kingdom of Heaven. The scenes that so disturbed Mr. Abou El Fadl were not in the final version.
The council had already fielded a number of concerned phone calls from American Muslims who feared the film would expose them to hatred and ridicule, said spokeswoman Rabiah Ahmed.
The film they viewed had been cut down to two hours and 22 minutes from the original three hours and 40 minutes. Ms. Ahmed concluded that the Muslim filmgoer could leave the theatre feeling good about the portrayal of Islam.
And part of that, aside from the removal of the scenes flagged by Mr. Abou El Fadl as inflammatory, was the portrayal of Saladin as a humane and complex individual, said Ms. Ahmed.
Mr. Williams said Saladin's Christian contemporaries admired him for his knightly virtues. When Saladin's soldiers entered Jerusalem, for example, he forbade them to kill or rob civilians. And when the sick English Crusader Richard the Lionheart asked for water and fruit, Saladin had snow and fruit delivered to the feverish king.
But Saladin also demanded ransoms for those captured in Jerusalem, and if their relatives couldn't pay, Saladin ordered them sold as slaves in Damascus. He also ordered mass beheadings of captives. "These were not the acts of a humanitarian," said Mr. Williams…..
April 30, 2005
'Kingdom of Heaven' may aid interfaith dialogue
By Dr. Parvez Ahmed
Because Sir Ridely Scott's new epic "Kingdom of Heaven" was filmed against the backdrop of the Crusades, it is likely to stir up religious passions still associated with that centuries-long conflict. ("Kingdom" is scheduled to open in theaters nationwide May 6.)
Many Muslims were concerned about the possibility of religious or ethnic stereotyping when they first heard that yet another Hollywood movie would feature Arab-Muslim characters. That concern was not without valid precedent.
In his exemplary book "Reel Bad Arabs," Professor Jack Shaheen notes that only Native Americans outdistance Arabs and Muslims in being vilified by Hollywood. Dr. Shaheen details a sad history of stereotypes in films that portray Arab-Muslims as terrorists ("Black Sunday," "The Siege"), greed mongers intent on controlling U.S. banks ("Rollover") or bumbling comic foils ("Ishtar," "Protocol," "Jewel of the Nile"). He notes that only a handful of films have portrayed Arabs and Muslims with any sympathy ("Three Kings," "The 13th Warrior").
Bucking the general trend, "Kingdom of Heaven" provides a balanced portrayal of a painful historical conflict. It refrains from the usual stereotyping or dehumanizing of Muslims.
American Muslim representatives recently took part in a screening of "Kingdom." They said the film is a "positive" depiction of Islamic culture during the Crusades. They also said that one of the film's most striking
messages, that Muslims and Christians can live together in peace, will provide an opportunity for increased interfaith dialogue.
In the film, the bad guys are not all Muslims and the Christians are not all angels. Perhaps "Kingdom of Heaven" will do for Muslims that Kevin Costner's "Dances with Wolves" did for Native Americans, humanize a perceived "other."
Unfortunately, Internet chat rooms and talk radio shows are already abuzz with the concerns of those who cannot fathom how Muslims can be portrayed as dignified, proud and humane people for whom the ends did not justify the means. Media reports indicated that some conservative Christian are "marshalling their forces" against the film, claiming it is "insulting and unfair."
Perhaps all of us could take a lesson or two from Salahuddin Ayubi the great Muslim general depicted in the film who, even when attacked, upheld Islamic traditions of hospitality, prohibiting the killing of non-combatants and advocating kindness to people of other faiths.
The Quran, Islam's revealed text states: "Fight in God's cause against those who wage war against you, but do not commit aggression - for, verily, God does not love aggressors." (2:190) And also: "As for those who do not fight against you on account of [your] faith, and neither drive you forth from your homelands, God does not forbid you to show them kindness and to behave towards them with full equity: for, verily, God loves those who act equitably." (60:8)
Stereotypes about Islam and Muslims used to rally the Crusaders persist to this day. These misperceptions are not mere footnotes in history, they continue to have a negative impact, sometimes influencing our nation's policies when dealing with Muslims both at home and abroad.
If nothing else, "Kingdom of Heaven" may spark renewed efforts to promote interfaith understanding and reconciliation based on an appreciation for the real history of that violent period in the histories of both Christianity and Islam.
We must all take advantage of this film to take whatever constructive steps are necessary to ensure that we learn from, and do not repeat, the mistakes of the past.
Dr. Parvez Ahmed, Ph.D., is a national board member of the Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR), the nation's largest Muslim civil liberties and advocacy group.