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Provocative, stereotypical or both: Why is new Netflix thriller ‘Messiah’ causing a stir?

Some are wary of show's influence on viewers and its impact on image of Islam
Netflix's latest original show explores how the world might react to a messianic figure in the modern day (Screengrab/Netflix)

A Middle Eastern man with messianic qualities appears in war-torn Damascus to lead thousands of Palestinian refugees through the desert into Israel while being pursued by the CIA. A light bit of viewing to welcome in the new year.

Netflix released its latest original show, Messiah, yesterday, and it’s already causing a stir worldwide. The 10-part series revolves around a character known as "Al-Masih", a mysterious preacher who inspires a spiritual movement, performing apparent miracles along the way. Is he a prophet or is he just a fraud, the show asks. 

Despite being partially filmed in Jordan, the country’s Royal Film Commission (RFC) asked Netflix not to stream the show in the Hashemite Kingdom.

“The story is purely fictional and so are the characters. Yet the RFC deems that the content of the series could be largely perceived or interpreted as infringing on the sanctity of religion, thus possibly contravening the laws in the country," the RFC said in a statement.

Jordan wasn't the only entity concerned. A petition signed by more than 4,000 people called for the show to be boycotted for peddling “evil and anti-Islamic propaganda”. 

The protagonist's name "Al-Masih" means "messiah" in Arabic, and is used in Islam to refer to Jesus Christ. It is also the name with which Muslims believe the Dajjal - a false prophet comparable to the Christian understanding of the Antichrist - will announce himself. 

With that in mind, some viewers pointed out that Netflix may have inadvertently revealed a major plot twist to all Muslims watching - from the very first episode. 

Muslims on social media were divided about whether to watch the show or not. 

Some said that viewers should first read up on the topic of Dajjal. 

Others said that people should not let TV shows influence their faith. 

Aside from theology, many users on social media were concerned about the show reinforcing stereotypes of Muslims and the Middle East.

Speaking to AFP, the show’s creator Michael Petroni said: “Yes it’s provocative - the show is provocative. But provocative isn’t offensive." 

This article is available in French on Middle East Eye French edition.