“Who is this bearded man? A relative of yours?”
“Of course not! This is Che Guevara!”
“Is he a freedom fighter?”
“Yes, one of history’s greatest freedom fighters.”
This is part of a scene in an Egyptian film called “The Terrorist.” The film tells the story of a jihadist who, after carrying out a major terrorist operation, hides undercover with an upper-middle class family in a Cairo suburb and starts acquiring a different perspective as he becomes exposed to the typical “infidels” he has been taught to eliminate in order to “purify” society and establish an Islamic state.
The above-mentioned bit is part of an exchange between this terrorist and one of the members of the family he stays with and with whom he shares his room. His comment on Guevara’s portrait gives insight into the mindset of someone who has been brainwashed into thinking that freedom fighting only happens in Afghanistan and that only Muslim militants deserve to have their pictures hung on walls. That explains the gasp he let out upon knowing that the so-called great fighter is in fact Communist and serves as a prelude to his perception of the entire family. “I am staying with a family of apostates,” the terrorist tells his senior over the phone.
The protagonist is an Egyptian actor who was recently sentenced to jail on charges of “deriding Islam” in a number of his movies that tackled terrorism and fundamentalist Islamists, on top of which comes this one of course. I am no big fan of the actor not only for finding his performance quite average, but also owing to the way his movies on religious extremism came as part of a regime-backed propaganda campaign that glorified State Security and supported government claims about repression being the only means to protect the country form the ever-looming specter of terrorism. For me, his movies on this topic were more or less a justification of state terrorism not only because they have always adopted the official story, but also due to the way they overlooked the complexity of the relationship between security and jihadists and which over the years have seen a spat of alliances between the two against the Egyptian people who were meant to stay scared and submissive all the time.
All this aside, I have to admit that simplistic and didactic as it is, a movie like “The Terrorist” honestly depicted a time in Egypt that I personally find one of the most disturbing. The scenes that featured the operations in which the protagonist is involved summed up the nightmare in which Egyptians lived in the early 1990s when attacks on Christians, the killing of tourists, booby trapped cars in residential areas, and the assassination of intellectuals was everyday news. So regardless of the motive for making such a film or the lack of depth that marred both script and on-screen adaptation, the facts were true and terrorism in the name of religion and on such a brutal scale was an indisputable part of our reality at the time. It is, therefore, quite baffling to have a lawsuit filed against the actor for his role in deriding Islam in this movie and its likes, namely those that depict Islamist extremists.
The question is: What exactly is it that really bothered the ultra-conservative lawyer who filed the suit? Is it, like he claimed, the mocking of what he saw as Islamic symbols? Maybe a look at those symbols will help in answering the question. According to the plaintiff, several of the actor’s movies made fun of the type of appearance/outfit pertaining to conservative Muslims like the beard for men and the face veil for women. Another question has to follow: If we assume that mockery and not the depiction of reality was the films’ sole purpose, does that constitute an insult to Islam as a religion? I do agree that with many observers that the verdict against the actor is what actually demeans Islam because it reduces the religion to a few hairs on the chin or a black cloth over the face. Yet, I have to admit that this is not my main concern. The main argument should not be about which work of art breaks what taboos, but rather the catastrophe of having those works subjected to censorship in the first place. Sadly enough, I believe that this is a very advanced stage that we are not likely to reach any time soon, at least not while such relentless attempts at demonizing all sorts of difference or “otherness” are ongoing at such scary pace.
If we set aside the flagrant violation of the right to creativity and artistic expression at the moment and just focus on this specific lawsuit and if we decide to become reasonable enough to realize that it is not about beards and veils, another question pops up: What is the real motive behind filing the lawsuit, which, I believe, is not the unilateral action of a disgruntled conservative who saw his faith threatened by a couple of reels?
Let us first agree that the timing of such a lawsuit could not have been better. With the fall of a regime seen as the archenemy of Islamist powers and which despite the several deals they struck together still remained the powerful partner that had at its mercy any faction that did not toe the line and with the sweeping ascension of Islamists to power, a lawsuit of that type was expected to garner considerable popular support from a category of the population that is now more vocal than ever about its resentment of liberalism and the civil state. Yet, it was not from a position of power that this lawsuit was filed. True, Islamists are at the helm now and liberals, including the real revolutionaries, are gradually shriveling to a voiceless minority, but this did not in any way eliminate the accumulated insecurities of the current majority and which basically stems from a history that can be anything but spotless, transparent, or guilt-free.
One of the main issues raised right after the sweeping victory of Islamists in parliamentary elections was the fact that a sizable portion of the new MPs were at some point or another jail inmates, some as political prisoners and others for actual criminal charges that involved terrorism and killing of civilians. I remember this psychiatrist who said on TV that people who spend long years in jail cannot just come out to practice politics not only because many of them are criminals, but also because in general the jail experience, especially under a repressive regime, is traumatic enough to render prisoners unable to live normally for a while after their release let alone occupy decision-making positions and be in charge of charting an entire country’s future. “Those people need years of rehabilitation in order to go back to being normal human beings,” he said. Of course, the duration and effect of this rehabilitation differs according to the crime, for while it is possible for those who were imprisoned just for belonging to one outlawed group or another, I don’t see it applicable to actual murderers who are expected to resort to violence again whenever they see fit.
What this actor did was not insulting Islam or tarnishing the image of Muslims, for extremist Islamists are already doing that as masterfully as can be and no one can outdo their amazing ability at deriding religion. He is, in fact, guilty of a much graver offence: the depiction and documentation of a phase in their lives that they are doing their best to obliterate as they attempt to pose in front of a gullible as men of God who will salvage the nation from the hands of apostates. Egyptians are generally an emotional people known to forgive too fast those who wrong them and the sympathy they felt for Mubarak after one of his cheesy speeches during the revolution serves as the best example.
Suing this actor is part of an attempt to destroy as much implicating evidence as possible ─ not because his films will be obliterated from the memory of the film industry ─ but rather because his indictment will serve as a proof of how much of a liar he was when he portrayed them in this way. For them, he is part of the former regime, and he indeed is. Yet, they are not concerned about the regime as a repressive entity that stripped the people of their rights since this is exactly what they have started doing the moment they came to power. They only traces of the old regime they are keen on eliminating are the ones that bear witness to their appalling past and otherwise they will be duplicating it and we will be surprised at how well they would do that.
The deriding awards ceremony has just started and this actor will not be the last to mount the stage to be handed the verdict and maybe allowed a goodbye speech before being ushered to the stake.
It will then be only a matter of time before history takes a different course and Guevara is crowned an official member of the Afghan mujahedeen.