Is Ridley Scott's New Movie About the Crusades Fair?

Roundup: Talking About History

Joanne Laucius, in the Ottawa Citizen (4-28-05):

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.

The film is expected to be a blockbuster.

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 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....

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