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The new Egypt of the Arab Spring is looking more and more like the Egypt of old – at least as far as freedom of expression goes.
In what appears to be a settling of scores, an Egyptian court sentenced earlier this month 72-year-old Adel Imam, one of the Arab world’s most famous comedian-actors, for allegedly “defaming” Islam in productions he took part in years ago. The lawsuit against Imam, a stage and film performer for 40 years, had been brought before the court by a lawyer described as having “ties to Islamist groups.” And since the verdict came only a few weeks after the Muslim Brotherhood won the final round of Egypt’s elections, Imam’s supporters are questioning its timing.
“I will appeal the ruling,” said Imam, who did not attend the proceedings. “Some people seeking fame have filed a suit against me over works I have done which they consider insulting to Islam, and this of course is not true.”
Imam’s renown is not just restricted to Egypt. For his work on stage and screen, he was internationally recognized in 2000 with an appointment as a United Nations goodwill ambassador for refugees along with such luminaries as Angelina Jolie and Italian fashion designer Giorgio Armani. But Imam’s international profile and his recognized life-long battle on behalf of human rights could not save the Egyptian thespian from the Islamists’ vindictiveness. Imam says his past works the religious hardliners dislike the most are a comedy called “The Leader” and “The Terrorist.”
“All the works in which I have starred went through the censors,” said Imam after the verdict. “Had they been found to be defamatory, the censors would have banned them.”
Like Charlie Chaplin in “The Great Dictator,” in “The Leader” Imam made fun of the Middle East’s authoritarian military rulers, while in “The Terrorist” he portrayed an Islamic extremist. The fact that Muammar Gaddafi banned “The Leader” in Libya attests both to the effectiveness of the production’s theme and Imam’s starring performance. (Apparently not one to hold a grudge, Imam said in his typically irreverent fashion that has gained him millions of fans in the Arab world that one of his “life-long dreams” was to have Gaddafi play a role in one of his comedies since the Libyan dictator was “a nutcase,” who would be a great draw.)
People possessing totalitarian mindsets, like Gaddafi and Egypt’s Islamists, have always taken a particular dislike to comedy, especially when it is directed at them. Besides the fact they don’t like laughter in the first place, no self-respecting military dictator could ever allow himself to be made fun of by talented comedians like Chaplin and Imam whose comical uniforms, clownish chest swellings and amusing speech would puncture their vanity balloons and get people laughing at them.
The ludicrous actions of Germany’s Nazi dictatorship indicate how seriously totalitarians regard the power of comedy as a weapon of subversion. In the early days of the Nazi regime, when German Vaudeville comedians had their trained chimpanzees perform the newly instituted Hitler salute on stage, authorities bizarrely ordered the primates enacting the ritualistic greeting to be destroyed. German professor Tilman Allert writes in his book The Hitler Salute: On The Meaning Of Gesture that “the animals were obviously guilty of profanation, and only through their sacrifice could the sin be expiated.” And when all is said and done, the Nazis were probably eliminating their most dangerous intellectual competition as well.
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