Allah v. Disney in the South China Sea

Dr. Timothy White (National University of Singapore) and Mr. Emmeff Winn (Auburn University) presented a thought-provoking paper at Farnham, which went a long way to explaining the reception of Disney’s latest feature Aladdin in those parts of the world with significantly high Muslim populations.

These parts include Indonesia, which has the largest Muslim population in the world, Brunei and Malaysia predominantly Muslim, and Singapore with a significant minority.

Their paper focused on the film’s reception in Malaysia although other nations were mentioned. It has been claimed that the film could be deemed offensive to Muslims and Arabs, that if a film stereotyped African-Americans or Jews as Aladdin did Arabs it would never have been released, and that: “. .although Jasmine and Aladdin are positive Arab characters, they speak American English, as opposed to the heavily-accented English of the evil characters” (An observation made by Don Bustany, president of the Los Angeles chapter of the American-Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee and reported by David I. Fox in the Los Angeles Times, 10 July 1993.).

Aladdin © The Walt Disney Company.

When the film opened throughout the major part of western Malaysia in May 1993, the Malaysian Muslim Youth Movement (Abim) wanted the film, together with the soundtrack cassette recordings and compact discs all banned. They alleged that the lyrics of the opening song was racist. They objected to an Arab character singing: “Oh, I come from a land, From a faraway place, Where the caravan camels roam. Where they cut off your ear if they don’t like your face. It’s barbaric, but, hey, its home.”

However, Dr. White and Mr. Winn’s research has shown that despite Abim and other groups opposition to Aladdin, there was surprisingly little publicity in the Malaysian press. To explain the media oversight, they said we should realize that although the Malays are Muslims, they are not Arabs. They did not mean to suggest that the Malay are insensitive to insults to their Arab brothers and sisters but that the Malaysian attitude would have been much more negative if the film’s stereotypes had been more obviously Muslims.

The public perception of animation as cartoons, just something for children to watch, was advanced as a further reason for not taking the film too seriously, be they Occidental or Oriental. Warner Brothers strengthened this perception when at its premiere in Kuala Lumpar at a benefit for orphans Warner showed the film for free to 146 orphans aged between 6 – 12 years. A month later in Kuching, capitol of Sarawak (Eastern state), families of five were granted a special admission price of 20 Malaysian ringgit (about US $7) – and free sweets were given to all children present.

In the event, Aladdin, like The Little Mermaid and Beauty and the Beast before it, did appeal to the majority of Malaysian viewers. Wisely, Warner Bros. had arranged that the release of the film would coincide with school holidays thereby consciously or unconsciously strengthening the aforementioned public perception of animation.

The researchers asserted that: “Although it may seem odd to Westerners that a film that is fairly widely regarded as offensive to Arabs and to a lesser extent, to Muslim people, the film Aladdin in most respects is exactly what Malaysians love in a motion picture. It is melodramatic (or overly melodramatic, some would argue); it tells a love story about two attractive characters, a beautiful girl and a handsome young man, one rich and one poor; it contains many romantic songs; and it even has some mild violence thrown in for good measure. In other words, in most respects it is an animated version of the typical Malay movie. And the depictions of Islamic law in the film – for example the threatened punishment of the amputation of Jasmine’s hand for inadvertently stealing an apple, or the beheading (that didn’t actually occur) of Aladdin for stealing a loaf of bread (or for consorting with the princess Jasmine; it never is made quite clear) – is rather tame compared to the punishments meted out in many Malaysian period films, in which characters routinely suffer amputations of various body parts, or are speared, beheaded, and/or burned alive, all in the name of Allah. Anyone familiar with Malaysian cinema should have no problem understanding why audiences, in general, chose to ignore calls to ban or boycott the film and instead treated themselves to an evening of song and romance.

Another factor which might explain the reticence of Malaysian newspapers to give publicity to the calls to ban the film may be the fact that the newspaper proprietors rely heavily on advertising revenues from motion picture theatres. Many, if not most, cinemas in Malaysia are owned by Chinese Malaysians who may not be especially sensitive to the opinions of Muslims.

The Malaysian government in the form of the ruling party had little to gain from interfering with the films distribution in the absence of strong public pressure to do so, in view of the fact both the people and government seem to have a generally non-combative attitude towards the West.

Indonesia on the other hand has an understandably more hostile attitude toward the West. It has a more highly developed film industry to protect against the perceived Hollywood threat to take over film distribution and exhibition completely in their country. Whereas if Malaysian cinemas were deprived of American films they would in all likelihood go out of business, the Indonesian film industry is quite capable of maintaining a steady supply and “the Indonesian government has little sympathy for the American film industry and its films, animated or otherwise.” It is not surprising therefore that they insisted on a change to the lyric of the song.

Ironically, videocassette pirates cost the Disney organization an estimated US $7 million in 1992, pirated videotapes generally of low quality were readily available throughout Malaysia months before the film was officially released on cassette, which means the version most often seen in Malaysia is the copy containing the offensive’ lyric. Whilst less Muslim but more heavily policed areas of the world had to be content with the ‘cleaned-up’ version of Aladdin in which the lyrics “Where they cut off your ear, If they don’t like your face” has been replaced with “Where its flat and immense, And the heat is intense.” In both versions, however, the land of the Arabs remains “barbaric, but, hey, its home”.

Précis by Ken Clark.

Printed in Animator Issue 32 (Spring 1995)