Let us not presume that Saudi leadership is not alive to the sensibilities of Muslims. We will know once the show begins.
The decision by Saudi Arabia government to reopen cinemas in the country has triggered a debate in Kashmir, much like many parts of the Muslim world. In Kashmir, some have supported the move including Chief Minister Mehbooba Mufti. She tweeted: ”I welcome the decision by Saudi Arabia to lift a decade-long ban on cinemas as part of a series of social reforms by the crown prince. Introspection & self-reform are marks of a progressive society.î But many Kashmiris, as is reflected in the comments on the social media, believe the move is tantamount to undermining the Islamic values as the country is home to the holiest of Islamic cities and birth place of Prophet Muhammad (PBUH). Separatist leader Syed Ali Shah Geelani has also condemned the move. He has called the decision un-Islamic in view of the sanctity of the holy places there. The aging leader said the decision was disheartening and unacceptable. He has cautioned the Saudi leaders about the consequences of the move and said it was unfortunate that present ruling elite is allowing and promoting same obscene culture, which Islam prohibits.
Indeed, the revival of the cinemas in the kingdom represents a paradigm shift in the policy of Saudi government as its citizens will now have access to a source of entertainment that was forbidden in the country 35 years ago for promoting vice. So far, we don’t have the details of this policy shift, but it’s confirmed that like most public spaces in Saudi Arabia, the rule of segregation between men and women will apply to cinemas too. We don’t know yet what the Saudi public thinks with regard to re-opening of the cinemas, but we do know that the entertainment events that the Saudi government recently organised – music concerts, a Comic-Con pop culture festival and a mixed-gender national day celebration- evoked good participation of Saudis who danced on the streets to thumping music. The latest decision, yet another by Crown Prince Muhammad Bin Salman, has come on the heels of allowing Saudi women drive from June, 2018, which was truely a landmark decision and was hailed across the globe.
Kashmiris who are opposed to the reopening of the cinemas in Saudia Arabia must remember the Saudi filmmakers have long argued that a ban on cinemas does not make sense in the age of YouTube. It really doesn’t as is evident from the fact that people in Kashmir continued to watch movies after the militants shutdown movie theatres in the 90s.
People in Kashmir have even found ways to dodge the government restrictions on the use of social media. The Saudis’ already have access to 24/7 satellite channels that beam all kinds of programmes including movies into people’s homes over which the government has no control. The Saudi films have won great appreciation outside the kingdom through internet that circumvents the need for distributors and the censor board. Cinema is a powerful medium to create awareness and deliver a message. It is an effective medium to acquaint the young, especially, children with important historical events. It’s because of the movie like ‘Omar Mukhtar ‘(Lion of Desert) that Kashmiris came to know about the struggle for Independence by Libyan people against Italy. Also the movie ëThe Message ( Muhammad,
The Messenger of God)í by Syrian director Moustapha Al Akkad touched a chord with the people in Kashmir. How well the late director ‘s master piece connected millions of Muslims to the events that unfolded after Prophet Muhammad (PBUH) started preaching Islam in Mecca. Cinema has also given us movies like the Jurassic Park in which director Steven Spielberg literally brought to life the extinct mighty Dinosaurs. Wasn’t that enthralling? Rather than jumping the gun, we need to wait and see what opening of cinemas in the Islamic kingdom entails. And we don’t know what the Saudi public has to say about their government’s decison to screen films in the theatres. There is no denying the fact that respect to the holy Islamic sites is central to the faith of every Muslim in the world.
But let us not presume that Saudi leadership is not alive to the sensibilities of Muslims. We will know once the show begins.