Playwright Terrence McNally, whose controversial play Corpus Christi caused a media controversy when it opened last year in New York, has been named the subject of an Islamic "Fatwa" in Britain, following the play's opening there at London's Pleasance Theatre. Being the target of a Fatwa is a serious matter, and is widely viewed by Westerners as a death sentence.
The British Theatre News reported on Oct. 31 that a British Muslim group, the Shari' Ah Court, had issued the Fatwa against McNally, "over his 'Gay Christ' play Corpus Christi.... Sheik Omar Bakri Muhammed, the Court's Judge, said the Fatwa was issued as 'those who are insulting to Allah and his messengers must learn that it is a crime,'" the British service said.
Jeff Schneider, press representative at the William Morris Agency, which represents McNally, told Playbill On-Line, "We have no comment and he has no comment." McNally is typically reticent with the press and a comment is not expected.
The New York City Police Department's Deputy Commissioner of Public Affairs (DCPI) did not have a comment at press time, but it was reported in London that the NYPD had warned McNally, informing him of the Fatwa.
The Fatwa is similar to that issued against British author Salman Rushdie by the Ayatollah Khomeini in Iran, but there are differences in the nature, source, and reaction to the individual Fatwas. There is some confusion over the source and legitimacy of the Fatwa and whether or not it can only be carried out in a Muslim state. (The Islamic Center in New York is still preparing background information for Playbill On-Line at this time).
The British News Service reported that Sheik Bakri Muhammed warned British Muslims not to attempt to carry out the sentence. At the same time, if McNally were to visit a Muslim state, the news service said, "he would be liable to immediate arrest and execution. "
A spokesman from the Islamic Cultural Center and Central London Mosque told Playbill On-Line that there are many mainstream Muslims who consider the source of the McNally Fatwa, the Shari' Ah Court of the UK, a fundamentalist splinter group, and that it should not be confused with the two established Shari' Ah Councils in London
"This is a new 'so-called' Shari'Ah Council," explained Ali, a spokesperson from the Islamic Center. "This is the first time they have done this, and we've never heard of this Shari' Ah Council before and they have no authority whatsoever to issue a Fatwa or any matter of concern to the Muslims of Britain."
Ali said the term Shari'Ah literally means spring or river, and symbolizes a place where people congregate safely and collect water.
"The word is borrowed and applied for all the laws which govern the lives of Muslims as designated by Allah, " Ali said. "It is meant to be a place that is safe for them where they can [find reconciliation with] the laws designated by Allah. "
Ali said he and members of the staff at his center, which he described as Europe's largest, often feel hurt by such developments because they are "the first to be asked about our reaction about what they've issued in Fatwas or statements.
"We have nothing to do with it," Ali explained. "This is a very small evangelical group, perhaps like what you have in the United States where they are murdering the doctors of the abortion clinics. This action is not part of the mainstream of Islam and we are very angry indeed. From the Shari' Ah point of view, this is not valid."
McNally's Corpus Christi depicts a modern, Christ-like figure as being gay and having sexual relations with his disciples. When Off Broadway's Manhattan Theatre Club announced they would present the play, the resulting outcry against the play (including anonymous death and bomb threats) caused the theatre to briefly cancel the drama's run. Protests from the art community resulted in the reinstatement of the production. During its run, the show was subject to various sidewalk protests by Catholic and other groups, and audiences were forced to pass through a metal detector. The play itself received lukewarm reviews from the critics.
-- By Murdoch McBride