Bahrain, Qatar, the United Arab Emirates, Malaysia, Indonesia… and now China.
All of these countries have reportedly banned the film Noah on religious grounds in recent months. The first five Muslim-majority countries justified the ban by claiming that the film’s depiction of a prophet violates Islamic law. But China’s government and the majority of its population are irreligious. What gives?
A source told The Hollywood Reporter last week that censors derailed Noah’s China debut “for religious reasons, though it seems the whole issue was quite complicated.”
Complicated indeed. Commercial concerns could have played a role in the film being shelved, but the idea that religion was a deciding factor certainly seems plausible.
The ruling Chinese Communist Party, officially an atheist organization, hasn’t altogether banned religion, but it does heavily restrict religious expression in the world’s most populous state.
Only five religious groups — Buddhists, Taoists, Muslims, Catholics and Protestants — can register with the government and legally hold services. Uighur Muslims, Tibetan Buddhists and Falun Gong practitioners face forced conversion, torture and imprisonment.
Why the heavy-handed restrictions? Because China’s government fears anything that could threaten its authority.
Repressive governments aren’t stupid. They know how powerful organized religion can be in motivating and mobilizing the masses. Just look at North Korea. The officially atheist state is one of the worst when it comes to religious freedom. Get caught with a Bible in the Kim necrocracy and you’re looking at imprisonment, torture or even death.
China’s no North Korea, but it’s motivations are much the same. Maintain harmony. Maintain control.
Censorship is an ultimate act of control, but it often backfires, especially in the digital age. Declaring something to be off-limits just makes people want it more. And as China’s 600 million Internet users grow increasingly web savvy, they’ll get better and better at accessing banned content.
Pirated DVDs may be more difficult to find in Beijing today than was the case several years ago, but as the government continues to arbitrarily censor online media, people will continue to find new ways to do whatever they please—including watching ‘Noah’ illegally in HD.
Before all these bans, Noah was nowhere near the top of my “must-watch” list for 2014. But censorship has a way of piquing my interest. I’ll give it a shot on my next long-haul flight. Maybe to China.