CAIRO — Eight-year-old Abdel Mohsen Medwahi lived for Pokemon. Pokemon trading cards. Pokemon comic books. Pokemon clothing. Pokemon toys. Everything and anything Pokemon.
So it stunned his father, Omar, when the boy solemnly reported the troubling news he had just heard from friends: " 'Pokemon' means 'There is no God in the universe.' "
As a faithful Muslim in Saudi Arabia, a devoutly Muslim country, Omar Medwahi decided to check up on the seemingly harmless make-believe creatures. He called the local Pokemon distributor, who reassured him that Pokemon was short for "pocket monster" and had no religious connotation.
And that would have been the end of it in the Medwahi household. But the rumor took hold, and spread, until Saudi Arabia's top religious authority issued an outright ban, saying Pokemon promotes anti-Islamic behavior--and is suspiciously Jewish. Pokemon was stripped from store shelves, cartons arriving at local ports were turned away, orders were canceled, and schools set up collection points to turn in clothing decorated with Pokemon figures.
Saudi Arabia's response may seem extreme, but its outrage is hardly unique. Pokemon has become a target of religious leaders throughout the Arab world who charge that the game promotes theories of evolution, encourages gambling and, at its core, is part of a Jewish conspiracy aimed at turning children away from Islam.
Despite denials of an anti-Islam bias from Nintendo, the Japanese manufacturer of the cards and electronic games, Muslim leaders in Oman, Qatar, Dubai, Jordan and Egypt have also said Pokemon is religiously unacceptable. Japanese embassies throughout the region have received inquiries from parents and officials who had heard that Pokemon was Japanese for "I am a Jew."
That the issue has erupted into a firestorm in the Arab world tells much about the climate in the region, where tensions between Arabs and Jews are at least as bad as they have ever been, where traditional Arab governments are increasingly worried about cultural assimilation with the West and where rumor is often more powerful than reality.
The Pokemon issue has its roots in the same frustrations experienced by parents everywhere. Children became obsessed with the game, taking the trading cards to school, staying glued to the television program, pestering parents to purchase Pokemon items. But religious faith is so central to everyday life here that social issues automatically become filtered through the religious establishment.