Malaysia Won't Allow Muslims to See Gibson's 'The Passion'

By Patrick Goodenough | July 7, 2008 | 8:15 PM EDT

Pacific Rim Bureau ( - Mel Gibson's movie "The Passion of the Christ" may have packed theaters in many parts of the world, including the Middle East, but the authorities in Malaysia don't want Muslims to see it.

Gibson's interpretation of the biblical account of the crucifixion opens in the Southeast Asian country next month, but moviegoers will have to show national identification cards -- which show religious affiliation -- at cinemas to ensure that only Christians are allowed in.

The story of the crucifixion contradicts the Koran, which characterizes Jesus not as the Son of God who died for mankind's sins, but as a Muslim prophet who was taken up to heaven without dying. Islam also regards the portrayal of prophets through pictures or images as a sin.

Just over 60 percent of Malaysia's 25 million people are Muslims, and only some nine percent are Christians. There are also large ethnic Indian and Chinese minorities.

The government's censors originally were expected to ban the movie altogether -- a frequent occurrence in Malaysia -- and therefore the distributors did not even bother to submit a copy for a decision.

After Christians leaders lobbied in favor of the movie, it was revealed in parliament earlier this month that it had been approved for screening at designated cinemas -- to be seen by Christians only.

Teresa Kok, a lawmaker with the Chinese-dominated Democratic Action Party, said in a statement the decision contradicted the government's stated policy of promoting racial and religious tolerance and also violated the federal constitution.

She asked whether the government was planning a policy that would only allow Muslims to watch movies concerning Islam.

"Isn't this regulation against the spirit of a multi-racial society where mutual understanding of each other's belief and religion is most needed to promote unity among the people in the country?"

Kok urged the government to stop treating people "like children."

Bishop Paul Tan Chee Ing told a Catholic publication he was "perplexed and disappointed" by the decision, adding that the movie could be "a wonderful jumping-off point for inter-religious dialogue to enhance mutual understanding and acceptance."

Conversion fears

Although Malaysia is a multi-cultural and multi-ethnic country, Islam is the official religion.

In 2001, former prime minister Mahathir Mohamad declared it an Islamic state, although some analysts at the time said that move was primarily designed to stave off criticism from the main Islamist opposition party, which questioned the government's piety.

Article 11 of the country's constitution gives every citizen the right to "profess and practice" his or her religion, although critics say these rights are not always upheld in practice when it comes to non-Muslims.

A citizens' right to "propagate" a particular religion is limited by a clause that says laws may "control or restrict the propagation of any religious doctrine or belief among persons professing the religion of Islam."

According to the most recent State Department report on religious freedom, it is official policy in Malaysia to "infuse Islamic values" into the country's administration, and it is very difficult for Muslims to legally change religion.

"Proselytizing of Muslims by members of other religions is strictly prohibited, although proselytizing of non-Muslims faces no obstacles," the report says.

Many Christians have viewed The Passion as a significant evangelistic tool, believing the depiction of Christ's suffering for the world would be a powerful incentive to conversion.

The government of Malaysia, like those of many other Muslim countries, worries about Muslims converting to other faiths.

As such, there are guidelines forbidding the use in non-Muslim books of some words, like "Allah," into the Malaysian language, lest Muslims become confused.

Last year, this issue prompted a government decision to ban a Bible published in the tongue of a small indigenous ethnic group, although the ban was reversed after an outcry.

In most Muslim societies "apostasy" - or conversion away from Islam - is a punishable crime.

Ironically, despite the concern in many Muslim countries about Christian proselytizing, The Passion was popular in some Islamic countries for another reason altogether - its depiction of the Jews.

Long before its release, many Jewish groups worried that the movie would inspire anti-Semitic sentiment.

Last May, despite the fact that the Koran says the crucifixion never happened, a monthly Islamic magazine in Malaysia called for The Passion to be shown in the country because "it exposes ... that the Jews were Christ-killers."

Pirated copies

According to the home affairs ministry, more than 1,500 foreign films have been banned in Malaysia since 2000.

Disallowed movies include those with sexual content, but some decisions have also been seen as blatantly political, such as the move to ban the harrowing Holocaust film, Schindler's List.

Even the Prince of Egypt, the animated story of the Israelites' exodus from Egypt, was banned because Islam also regards Moses as a Muslim prophet -- as it does many biblical figures, from Adam onwards.

The editor of the Catholic Herald weekly in Kuala Lumpur, the Rev. Lawrence Andrew, said Wednesday by the time "The Passion" comes out in Malaysia many Christians will already have seen it -- on pirated DVDs.

While he conceded that for Christians there could be an ethical problem with buying pirated copies, Andrew said many would have regarded doing so as "the lesser of the two evils" during the months when the movie was not otherwise accessible, especially around Easter when interest was at its peak.

Pirated DVD of the movie were widely-available, peddled by hawkers for around $2 each. "I'm sure many Muslims have also seen it."

Andrew, who went to Singapore to see the movie "on the big screen," said the question of letting Muslims watch the movie on general release was a sensitive one, relating to "the wider question, are we an Islamic state?"

Under the new prime minister, Abdullah Badawi, there was a general feeling that freedom of religious expression in Malaysia was safe, Andrew said, but added that "I think he has forces around him who may curtail his openness."

"The Passion" has screened in many Arab countries and other Islamic nations, including Iran and - with some scenes cut - in Indonesia.

See also:
Stung by Outcry, Malaysia Gov't Reverses Bible Ban (May 01, 2003)

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Patrick Goodenough
Patrick Goodenough
Spencer Journalism Fellow