Death sentence for Jesus play shows Islamic isolation

By Michael Medved

This time, religious conservatives have gone too far: they’ve issued a death sentence on an award winning gay playwright who wrote disrespectfully about Jesus Christ.

If fundamentalist Christians had perpetrated this gesture of murderous censorship, all right-thinking people would have exploded in righteous outrage. But since it’s a Muslim religious court demanding the execution of a prominent artist whose work they dislike, trendy multi-culturalists face a painful dilemma. Since they’ve insisted so many times that Islam is a religion of peace, and that it’s no more backward or oppressive than Christianity, then how do they deal with this unique example of deadly intolerance?

Perhaps the most surprising aspect of this latest controversy involves its origin not in the militant fever swamps of the Middle East or Central Asia, but in the purportedly pluralistic precincts of Great Britain. In late September, the Shari’ah Court of the United Kingdom issued a “fatwa” condemning dramatist Terrence McNally to death for writing the controversial play, “Corpus Christi.” In the course of that drama, a Jesus figure in Texas enjoys a torrid sexual interlude with Judas Iscariot and later endures crucifixion as “King of the Queers.”

Outside the opening night performance at the Pleasance Theatre in North London, representatives of the Islamic Court solemnly handed out copies of their fatwa, a religious edict signed by Sheikh Omar Bakri Muhammad, judge of the Shari’ah Court of the United Kingdom. The Sheikh reminded the press that Muslims revere Jesus as a messenger of God, even though they discount the story of his resurrection. Sheikh Bakri Muhammad declared: “The fatwa is to express the Islamic point of view that those who are insulting to Allah and the messengers of God, they must understand it is a crime.”

This declaration accompanied a cautionary word to British Muslims: Don’t-try-this-at-home.

“We would warn individual Muslims not to try to carry it out,” the sheikh helpfully explained. If Mr. McNally travels to an Islamic state, however, he certainly risks arrest and execution. “We do not believe in political assassination, but obviously he would face capital punishment,” Bakri Muhammad affirmed. “He will be arrested and there will be capital punishment.” He concluded that if Mr. McNally repented of his blasphemy he would still be killed, but his family would receive care and protection from the Islamic state. The only way that the condemned playwright himself could escape the fatal fatwa would be to undergo an immediate conversion to Islam.

This bizarre incident represents only the vaguest threat to the physical safety of Terrence McNally – after all, even the far more influential death sentence by the Iranian Ayatollahs against Salman Rushdie failed to end that novelist’s life or career. The judgment of the British Islamic court does, however, speak volumes about the distance between western Muslims and the societies in which they live.

In an odd sense, the fatwa may have represented a pathetic attempt by Islamic authorities – who’ve received a great deal of negative publicity for their connections with al-Qaida – to spruce up their public image and to form an alliance with British Christians. They may not understand that in Europe and America, even the most conservative Christian leaders feel horrified at the idea of a death sentence for blasphemy, notwithstanding the provocation of openly sacrilegious and salacious works of art.

When “Corpus Christi” opened at the Manhattan Theatre Center three years ago, Christian conservatives marched in protest and carried angry signs, but no religious authorities threatened the playwright or his actors with punishment. In 1988, the wildly divisive motion picture “The Last Temptation of Christ” provoked denunciation, boycotts and demonstrations around the world, but failed to produce public calls for the execution of its creators. Fortunately, Hollywood has never produced a movie sequel called “The Last Temptation of Muhammad.”

Islam, in short, stands out among the major world religions for its continued criminalization of expression and opinions. Five centuries ago, Christians might still burn heretics at the stake, but in the last two hundred years no Christian society (or Jewish society, for that matter) has punished religious dissenters with execution or imprisonment. In Pakistan, Iran, Saudi Arabia and other Islamic states, on the other hand, the death penalty still applies for the crime of blasphemy. Islam remains the only faith on earth that attempts to impose strictly theocratic rule through the governments it controls. In the United States, Pat Robertson or Jerry Falwell may sound dangerous to suspicious secularists, they’ve never called for applying criminal penalties to those who question the divinity of Jesus or violate the Sabbath.

In other words, the new fatwa by the British Muslims may have attempted to convince Christians that they have more in common with their Islamic neighbors than they do with their secular leaders, but it will inevitably produce the opposite effect. A death sentence for blasphemy should remind believers and skeptics in Western societies that they share with one another a commitment to pluralism and basic human rights, and that Islam stands alone in the world as the last remaining bastion of poisonous religious medievalism.