Because Sir Ridley 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. 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.
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