"Schindler's List' faces censorship in Muslim nations

Published April 17, 1994|Updated Oct. 7, 2005

The film is an unflinching look at the horror of genocide. The world looks on with cowardly paralysis while the perpetrators, masked in righteousness, methodically "cleanse" out an ethnic and religious minority.

It could happen anywhere. The horror was felt by Jews in Nazi Germany; it is felt now by Muslims in the former Yugoslavian republic of Bosnia.

Arab and Muslim countries have often criticized the apathy of Western nations toward the plight of Muslims in Bosnia. Now, many of them plan to censor or ban Schindler's List, the celebrated film that recreates the terror of the Holocaust and, to many, acts as a reminder of the contemporary tragedy in Bosnia.

"It shocks me because I thought the Islamic countries would feel this film could be an instrument of their own issues in what was happening in Bosnia," the film's director, Steven Spielberg, told the New York Times recently.

The arbitrary and coldly casual killing of ordinary people in Schindler's List is universal _ it could mirror ethnic "cleansing" seen in the tribal conflicts of Liberia and Rwanda, it could represent the pain of Palestinians in the occupied territories.

But many Muslim countries don't think so. They see Schindler's List as part of a Zionist conspiracy to glorify Jews and exaggerate their historic suffering.

They see it as a piece of propaganda that keeps alive the old memory of Jews as victims even though, in their eyes, the same Jews account for the ongoing suffering and displacement of the world's 5-million Palestinians.

They see it as confirmation that America and Western nations have always sympathized with their antagonists, the Jews, and have produced a slew of books and films on the Holocaust. Meanwhile, they think, the suffering of Palestinians has gone unmarked, and Muslims are usually portrayed in Western films as babbling fanatics and depraved terrorists.

The fact that the world's Muslims also share the West's apathy toward violence in the former Yugoslavia, or that Muslims too can make their own movies to ennoble themselves, remains beside the point.

Jordan has banned Schindler's List. Offered shortly after the killing in a Hebron mosque of 29 Muslims, it was rejected. Kuwait also banned it. In Indonesia, the most populous Muslim nation, censors are still considering the film, but there have been large and loud demonstrations by Muslim fundamentalists calling for its ban.

The film has yet to be offered to audiences in Pakistan, Saudi Arabia and other Persian Gulf countries, but Malaysia's censors already recommended a ban.

"The story of the film reflects the privilege of virtues of a certain race only," Malaysia's board of censors wrote to the distributors of Schindler's List. "It seems the illustration is propaganda with the purpose of asking for sympathy as well as to tarnish the other race," it added.

Spielberg has also refused to tolerate any cuts of scenes with nudity and violence, saying these aren't gratuitous touches. His adamance has given many of these countries a somewhat graceful excuse to reject the film by saying it doesn't hew to their local standards of decency.

But the politics of the rejection are clearly part of a larger trend of religious conservatism and intolerance growing in the world. In the former Yugoslavia, a land grab by Christians is disguised as part of a historical crusade against encroaching Muslims. In India, Hindu fundamentalism is winning more Hindus who share their belief that Muslims are an ungrateful minority pampered by their secular government.

In Indonesia, also an officially secular country, corruption and an increasing wealth gap between the rich and poor are pushing many of its Muslims toward fundamentalist fervor.

In Bangladesh, fundamentalists have called the government's attention not to the obscene wretchedness that the majority of the country lives in, but to the provocative novels and opinions of Taslima Nasrin, a feminist writer. They have demanded her execution. In Egypt, many writers have been assassinated by fundamentalists because they questioned religious orthodoxy and the power of clerics.

A book or film banned here, a writer assassinated there _ all because they propagate unpalatable ideas. The harm done may seem small, but pretty soon the arbitrary assassination of people and ideas simply because they are labeled dangerous makes room for mindless tyranny. And isn't Schindler's List a portrayal of what happens under just such a tyranny?

Reena Shah Stamets writes about world affairs for the Times.