Killing Comedy in the New Egypt

The Arab world's most famous funny-man, Adel Imam, is sentenced in court for "defaming Islam."

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.

Allert also writes that German comedians themselves used the ridiculous Hitler salute, a comedic action in itself, to mock the new regime. He relates in his book that one such intrepid Berlin cabaret performer would, to start a show, raise his arm and give a ringing “Heil --” Then, feigning confusion, he would next ask the onlookers, " -- um, how does the rest of it go?” Fortunately, this particular performer was only banned from the stage.

As the Imam case indicates, the Arab Spring effected little change in Islamist persecution of members of Egypt’s artistic and intellectual community. Such maltreatment has been going on for many years. The most famous victim of Islamist hatred during Mubarak’s time was Naguib Mahfouz, Egypt’s and the Arab world’s only Nobel Prize winner in literature. Mahfouz was awarded the honor in 1988, largely for his Cairo Trilogy.

Like Imam, Mahfouz’s international stature could not protect him against Islamist intolerance. An assassination attempt was made against Egypt’s leading man of letters in 1994 when an Islamist stabbed him in the neck outside his home. Mahfouz was 83 and ailing at the time of the cowardly assault.

American journalist Anne Weaver, who interviewed Mahfouz in the hospital after the attack, wrote in her book A Portrait of Egypt that the famous Egyptian writer “came to the Islamists’ attention more than thirty years ago, when the powerful religious institute of al-Azhar had judged one of his books, Children of Gebelaawi, to be heretical.” Weaver also noted that Islamists had been threatening to assassinate Mahfouz on the anniversary of his winning the Nobel Prize. Perhaps as a metaphor for the future of the arts, freedom of expression and religious tolerance in Egypt, Mahfouz’s writing hand was paralyzed in the attack, leaving the Nobel Prize Laureate for Literature barely able to sign his name.

Imam’s supporters also see this month’s legal verdict as a continuation of the Islamist practice of using the courts to persecute Egyptian artists and intellectuals. This began in 1993 with the trial of a Cairo University professor of Islamic studies, Dr. Nasr Hamed Abu Zeid, for apostasy. Weaver relates Zeid first knew he was on trial when he read it in the paper one morning after waking up. The professor’s sin in the eyes of the Islamists is that he wanted to modernize Islam, claiming some Koranic passages were appropriate only for the time they were written in.

The Islamist lawyers made their case against Dr. Zeid in an Egyptian family court where Shariah law holds sway. In a scenario worthy of Franz Kafka, they sued Zeid for divorce on behalf of his wife, even though she did not want to divorce him and had no intention of leaving him. But since the Islamists claim no Muslim woman can be married to a non-Muslim, they went ahead with their case and eventually got a decision that declared Dr. Zeid an apostate and forcibly divorced him from his spouse. Weaver said the case was unprecedented in Egypt.

But the persecution didn’t end there. After he was legally declared an apostate, calls for Dr. Zeid’s death began since, according to Shariah law, apostates are to be killed. Zeid ultimately had to flee to Holland with his wife.

While no attempt has been made – so far - on Imam’s life, a fatwa calling for his assassination was issued in Algeria in 2009 after the Egyptian entertainment icon had criticised Hamas, saying its actions against Israel had “resulted in the killings of hundreds of innocent Palestinians.” But sentencing a 72-year-old man to hard labor in prison could be interpreted as a death penalty in all but name. And even if Imam does win the appeal, one can safely assume this will not be the end of the Islamist-inspired court cases against him.

If people laugh, a comedian is successful. And since smiles and laughter accompanied Adel Imam wherever he went, he has enjoyed, and is still enjoying, a very successful career. But with Egypt looking every day more like Saudi Arabia instead of Switzerland, laughter is destined to become a rare commodity in the "new" Egypt as its creators, like Adel Imam, come under increasing attacks from humorless Islamists.

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