Last month, the enormous streaming and production company Netflix canceled the TV thriller Messiah, (launched Jan 1, 2020) after allegations it contained “anti-Islamic propaganda.” Once again, it seems that intimidation campaigns, backed by Islamists, are spreading censorship and paranoia.
On December 4, 2019 – shortly after the Messiah trailer was released – California resident Zeynaba Dahir launched a petition on Change.org that lobbied for the movie to be canceled. The petition gathered nearly 6,000 signatures.
The consternation is about Al-Masih (Arabic for Messiah), the eponymous lead character, who is seen to resemble an evil figure in Islamic eschatology called Al-Masih ad-Dajjal (or the Antichrist). Ms. Dahir writes: “Messiah by definition means a leader or savior…However, the Dajjal [Antichrist] is no savior but someone who will deceive you. Clearly this is a sign of propaganda eventually causing people to be misled.” She added that “this slow exposure of evil and anti-Islamic propaganda will slowly turn hearts.”
Dahir’s campaign was picked up by Islamist activists. The Mad Mamluks (TMM) is an Islamist YouTube channel, which regularly features Islamists from all over the world, promotes the boycott, divest, sanctions movement aimed at the world’s only Jewish state, and has broadcast programs in support of convicted terror financier Sami Al-Arian.
On January 22, Imran Muneer, founder and host of TMM, held a panel discussion about Messiah, with speakers including Amir Saeed, Resident Scholar at the channel, as well as the co-host of the sister YouTube channel MuzzyBuzz, known only as Mort. Saeed believes that Messiah’s message is confusing to Muslims, while Mort said that the Messiah might be a Christian plot to encourage Christians to evangelize Muslims in the Middle East.
Other prominent Islamists who denounced the Messiah included Yasmin Mogahed of Al-Maghrib Institute (AMI). Other AMI instructors are predominantly Salafi clerics, who have propagated anti-Semitism, and Holocaust denial.
Mogahed wrote in an Instagram post that Messiah has “the typical political agenda” and that the show portrays “violent Israelis” as “redeemable” while showing Muslims as suicide bombers. She protests that one suicide bomber in the show was ostensibly radicalized by one Quranic verse, while nothing is said of the purported grievances and the injustice Muslims suffer.
Mogahed concludes, “this is the most poisonous narrative which need [sic] to recognize, reject, and speak out against.”
Messiah indirectly deals with religion and politics in the Middle East and America, and the refugee border crisis in the U.S.
In a previous response to the criticism, a Netflix spokesperson said, “Messiah is a work of fiction. It is not based on any one character, figure or religion. All Netflix shows feature ratings and information to help members make their own decisions about what’s right for them and their families.”
When I asked Netflix about its decision to cancel, a spokesperson said, “the show received a lot of bad reviews, and when this is the case, Netflix does not renew the contract with the producer…we are not biased.”
Ms. Dahir accused Netflix of being “anti-Islamic.” But she did this based on the movie trailer, and before the show was broadcast.
The real problem here is Islamism, not “Islamophobia.” And Islamist attacks on free expression have a long history.
In 1989, the late Iranian leader, the Ayatollah Khomeini, issued a fatwa (edict) calling for the death of author Salman Rushdie, amid the uproar over his fictional work The Satanic Verses. Since the fatwa was issued, Rushdie has been in hiding. Khomeini declared that all those who published or sold the book should be killed “so that no one will dare to insult the Islamic sanctity.”
After the 9/11 terrorist attacks, British author Salman Rushdie described the position of those who reject all criticism of Islamist supremacy as “paranoid Islam.” He said that these fundamentalists believe that the “remedy is the closing of those societies to the rival project of modernity…”
In 2016, the Iranian regime raised the bounty on Rushdie’s head to four million dollars.
No doubt, Netflix fears violent repercussions against the Messiah cast, as well as a Muslim boycott worldwide. And they have good reason for such fears.
On November 2, 2004, Dutch playwright Theo van Gogh was shot dead by a young Muslim. The murder was triggered by a documentary he made earlier that year with Ayaan Hirsi Ali, a Somali-born feminist and politician. After receiving death threats, Ms. Hirsi Ali sought asylum in the U.S., where she now lives.
On September 30, 2005, Danish newspaper Jyllands-Posten published cartoons that depicted Muhammad, the prophet of Islam. The cartoons sparked worldwide demonstrations and riots in many Muslim majority countries. Churches were burned and dozens killed. One of the cartoonists, Kurt Westergaard, was attacked in his home by an assailant wielding an axe and a knife.
On September 13, 2012, after the release of the anti-Islamic 14-minute film Innocence of Muslims, protests and riots spread in twenty countries, in which ten people died.
On January 7, 2015, two brothers of Algerian descent attacked the offices of the French satirical weekly Charlie Hebdo in Paris. Twelve people were killed and eleven injured. Al-Qaeda claimed responsibility for the massacre. Nasr al-Ansi, the top leader of al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP), said that it was in “vengeance for the prophet [Muhammad],” because the weekly had published cartoons of Muhammad, and that was considered “an insult to Islam.”
Islamism is a totalitarian ideology that intends to exclude all other voices. Yet such sensitivity toward fictional works of art in Islam is not historically the case. Today, much of it is the result of the Islamization of Muslim communities in the West, led by Islamists who have learned to exploit the sensitivities of Western societies, amid a growing willingness in the West to regard free expression as harmful.
No one has been killed because of the Netflix’s Messiah. No one has been hurt. But officials at Netflix know that such anger can all too easily turn to violence. Modern, lawful Islamists do not need fatwas and firebombs. They work instead through social media accounts and carefully crafted claims of victimhood, relying on timid publishers and producers to fear the implicitness of Islamist warnings.
Hesham Shehab is the Chicago Fellow at the Counter-Islamist Grid, an initiative of the Middle East Forum.