Should You Report When the Public Doesn’t Care?

I apologise for my long silence. The few days’ illness turned into 2 weeks spent in bed. I’m re-establishing my rhythm.

This article summarizes my thoughts about reporting for countries and societies that have no interest in the truth, but rather confirmation for their own biases and opinions:

Covering wars for a polarized nation has destroyed the civic mission I once found in journalism. Why risk it all to get the facts for people who increasingly seem only to seek out the information they want and brand the stories and facts that don’t conform to their opinions as biased or inaccurate?

And without a higher purpose, what is a career as a reporter? It may count among the so-called “glamor jobs” sought after by recent graduates, but one careers website has listed newspaper reporting as the second worst job in America, based on factors such as stress, pay, and employment uncertainty; toiling as a janitor, dishwasher, or garbage collector all scored better. Even if you love the work, it’s hard not to get worn down by a job that sometimes requires you to risk life and limb for readers who wonder if maybe you suffer all the downsides and hazards just to support some hidden agenda.

Every day when I write or argue or think about Egypt, I wonder what is the point when even the most prominent activists are deflated and considering giving up. I’m coming to politics and journalism much later in life than most reporters;yet, I feel a lot of their same disillusionment, frustration, and futility.

I no longer call or consider myself a ‘revolutionary’ because I was never in the streets like others and I never fought on any of the frontlines: media, courts, social activism, so on. This feeling that I am not at all worthy to be called an activist came from reading Alaa’s open letter published yesterday.

What are we reporting for?

The Complexity of Islamism in Egypt and the Middle East

El-Watan News reported this morning that Egyptian security services uncovered and detained 13 jihadists involved in planning to set up a local chapter affiliated to the Islamic State (IS).

The most striking part of the article is the following:

وقال أبوصهيب الليبى، القيادى بـ«داعش»، فى فيديو مصور بثته مواقع جهادية، أمس الأول، بعنوان «رسائل من أرض الملاحم»، … ، إن أول من سيبدأ بقتله تنظيم الدولة الإسلامية، حال دخوله مصر، هو الرئيس المعزول محمد مرسى، الطاغوت والمجرم الأكبر، لأنه كان يتمسح بالدين ويتستر به، مضيفاً: «العوام والغلابة كانوا يقولون إنه أكثر حافظ للقرآن، ويقيم الصلاة، لكنه مجرم، وقريباً نتقرب إلى الله بقتل المرتدين والطواغيت فى مصر».

My own translation:

Suhaib el-Libi said 2 days ago in a recorded broadcast, entitled “Messages from the Epic Lands” on a jihadist website … that [upon his entry into Egypt] the first one to be killed is the ousted president Mohamed Morsy because he flirted with the use of religion and used it as protection. He added that common people and the poor would say of him that he knew the Quraan well and attended to his prayers but he is a criminal. Soon we will near ourselves to God by killing the [Muslim] apostates and oppressors in Egypt.

El-Libi won’t be able to achieve this because he died in a military operation in Syria after the broadcast of the video. Clip about Egypt below:

For most commentators and viewers, this is a strange and confusing message. Middle Eastern and Western governments have developed their rhetoric by lumping together all Islamists under one term “terrorism”. But, here is a militant Islamist hoping for the blood on his hands of another Islamist. With this report and yesterday’s piece by Omar Ashour on Al-Jazeera English, a different picture emerges. Key sections of Ashour’s essay below:

In the 1990s, during a low-level insurgency led by the Egyptian Islamic Group (EIG) and the Egyptian al-Jihad Organisation (EJO), the MB offered “assistance” to the Mubarak regime to combat these groups. These political positions aroused the ire of a younger, radical generation of Islamist activists, represented by Ayman al-Zawahiri’s 1993 book, The Bitter Harvest of the Muslim Brothers, in which he criticised the MB’s pragmatic behaviour and gradualist ideology in general and the post-1970 changes in particular.

When the “de-radicalisation” process of the EIG ensued in 1997 with their unilateral ceasefire declaration, the MB supported the transition. In 2002, the leadership of the EIG renounced its radical literature, and declared that it replaced its curricula with those of the MB, to signal an acceptance of non-violent gradualist reformism. Overall, from the 1970s onwards, the MB presented itself as a transnational movement that upholds the “correct” form of Islamist sociopolitical activism, which is anti-jihadi and anti-takfiri. From the 1980s, the MB was perceived as an alternative and a rival to Saudi-style Wahabbi form of Islamism. 

It seems more likely that the ties between different Islamist groups are more fluid, morphing with the times, circumstances, and political conditions of their respective countries. An example of this is that IS was a part of Al-Qaeda until February this year.

Going back to Egypt, understanding the dynamics and shifting ties between different groups becomes very critical. It may help to understand who burnt the Coptic churches last year in southern Egypt after the violent dispersals of the sitins at Rab’aa and Nahda squares.




The Pointless Furor over “The Beauty of Roh” (حلاوة روح)

Haifa Wahby, Bassem Samra, and the young actor Karim el-Abnoudi

Egyptian Prime Minister banned the controversial film The Beauty of Roh, directed by Sameh Abd-el Aziz, in April 2014 after deeming certain scenes in the film ‘culturally inappropriate sexualized scenes’, as reported by Egypt Independent. The banning was welcomed by swathes of Egyptian society as a much-needed blow to the decadent immorality portrayed in the film and others produced by the megaproduction house of El-Sobky.

Public outcry centered on the rape scene of Haifa Wahby’s character Roh by Mohamed Lotfy’s ‘Jaguar’ (nickname for the character in the film). It would be very dishonest to call the action of the scene rape and it would be very generous to call this a controversial film.

The scene is drenched in the well-lit, overacted, unrealistic melodrama of the main glut of mainstream Egyptian films. This is sad given that a few of el-Sobky’s past films (Ahmed Abdallah’s The Wedding and Cabaret) bucked the trend and chose to eschew realism. However, The Beauty of Roh gives into the temptation and builds as its centerpiece a strange scene, which looks more like non-consenual heavy petty and clothes-ripping. The neurotic and overpowering musical score screams “This is horrid! This is horrid” more than the sheer brutality of a man assaulting and raping a woman. I understand that as someone living outside Egypt and one used to the blunt reality of Western films, this film still is jarring to the average Egyptian viewer. Still, I found it very hard to suspend belief while watching this scene.

I wonder if people in Egypt don’t understand what rape is all about or if directors are so wearied by censorship that their storytelling muscles have atrophied. It becomes easier to just suggest the fuck out of something rather than depict it frankly with cinematic tools.

After watching the film, I was reminded of El-Karnak (The Karnak) – another infamous and controversial film with a rape scene. I had not seen the film but decided to find the scene for the purposes of this review.

I can see where The Beauty of Roh gets its inspiration. Watch.

It’s awkward to watch because it looks or feels nothing like sexual assault. If you’re not going to watch The Beauty of Roh, I’ll save you the money for the cinema ticket or data used and tell you that it’s almost the same. No penetration or sexual abuse. Just physical violence, exposed cleavage, screaming, crying, and a lot of writhing on the floor.

Discounting the supposed horror of the rape scene, the rest of The Beauty of Roh is a poorly constructed and boring film. It’s not clear, not even at the end of the film, if it’s about the relationship between Sayed and Roh or about Roh and her life without her husband or the questionable sources of income of Bassem Samra’s character or a clumsy take on sexual politics and women’s bodies in Egypt.

Bassem Samra is the only redeeming aspect of the film with his visceral and deft characterization. It’s a confused and glossy film with little content, a lot of Wahby’s body, and a dream sequence/music video with Hakeem. The film can’t even manage sending a message out about people to stand up against sexual assault without resorting to a Brechtian “IT’S ABOUT TO GET MORAL UP IN HERE” moment.

You won’t lose much by skipping this film. For a more honest and well-made film about sexual assault, watch 6,7,8, starring Bushra, Bassem Samra, and Nilly Kareem.

On the Implications of the Recent Muhammad Film

This was originally written on September 11 on the day of the attacks on the US Embassy in Cairo, Egypt. Some sections were updated to reflect the changes in the story.

After wading through and digesting the scores of reports on yesterday’s protest at the Egyptian Embassy, I stopped and thought about what all this really meant.

I watched this film only once because as a student of film and theology, I couldn’t put myself through a second viewing.  I am not Muslim but I was offended and angered. It is a poorly executed and constructed film. There is neither plot nor story. Everything centers around the consistent, thoughtless, and sustained humiliation of the Prophet Muhammad. I only watched the original English version first, then saw clips of the version dubbed in Egyptian Arabic. I can immediately say that there are both immigrant and native Egyptians involved in making this film; we can see the immigrants acting and we can see the natives lace the Arabic dub with references to Tahrir Square. This saddens and angers me but this won’t restrict me from commenting on this later.

This film, regardless of whether it was made by an Israeli Jew or an Egyptian-American Christian, is nothing more than political and social pornography. I could say that today is the birthday of such pornography. This is every anti-Islam bigot’s wet dream. The film takes the collective thoughts, emotions, feelings, and rage of any and every Christian who’s ever hated Islam, Muhammad, or Muslims, and compacted it into 13 minutes of pure cinematic garbage. It’s as if the writer sat in on an Islam-bashing session with Egyptian Christians or fanatic American Christians and documented with precise detail the comments made. But through the trite excuse of a film, you can see globules and chunks of human shit: hate, disrespect, and unadulterated disdain for another man’s religion.

The reaction by the masses at the US Embassy in Cairo yesterday, after watching the film, is understandable. However, I disagree with all of them that the film has caused direct harm to Islam, Muhammad, and them. This is not correct; the film has caused deep offense. And this is what was acknowledged by the US government’s statement after the storming of the embassy, that the “religious feelings of Muslims have been hurt”. The direct harm now is actually the death of US diplomats in the Middle East. You can’t quantify the deep offense caused to Muslims, but you will be able to count caskets of dead American people. This is the epitome of the modern “I’m offended!” phenomenon because it’s happening to a group of people who will exact revenge upon you when offended. This is how they defend the honor of their religion. Whether I agree or not with the reaction, whether the reaction is good for the country, whether their defamatory actions should be decried or not, all frankly fall away because right now we have a far more serious issue at hand.

When will the non-Westernized and non-Western world accept that Islam, in the hands of its current radical stewards, cannot accept critique of the Prophet in any shape or form?

For all those inflamed and outraged by this incident, there is no room for artistic nor critical nor cultural output when it comes to the Prophet. Ultimately, this is both a clash of civilizations and a clash of basic values. This is the war between ‘all ideas can compete’ and ‘no ideas can compete if it goes against a core idea’. This is the war between Facebook activists who hit Share before going out to have a beer and people who will kill you for a tasteless joke about the Prophet. The West is about a cacophony of views and lifestyles; the East is about a single bullet aimed for your brain if you dare to defy. The pragmatic philosopher John Stuart Mills argues that a marketplace for ideas helps to promote knowledge and truth by subjecting all ideas to the challenges of public examination and debate. I really don’t think any discussion, whether serious or slanderous like the Muhammad film, about Islam can feature in this marketplace. It doesn’t matter where the film was made, by whom it’s made, or by whom it’s endorsed. For radical Muslims, it’s a dead parrot.

Free expression or freedom of speech is deemed an important value to the non-religious or the religious yet moderate. But to radicals, it’s not even a value. It’s not even something to be considered if it will offend the very core of their faith. You can shy away from this all you want but this is the era of radicalism. The main movements in Christianity and Islam today are radical ones. Although the moderate, the liberal, the liberated may seem to dominate the media landscape, the real rudder is controlled by the radicals. We may seem to see liberals blog and tweet; but from Kansas to Cairo, it’s the radical movements mobilizing people into action on the streets.

To the radical, religion is maximalist – touching all spheres of life. The moderate or liberal or non-religious sees religion as another facet of life. The radical sees religion as the mould for life; everything else must fit inside it. Radical Islam thoroughly believes that it must maintain a rigid determination to preserve the sanctity of the Koran against all insult, as Keenan Malik writes in this essay. He goes on to say that the effects of the Ayatollah Khomeini’s fatwa against Salman Rushdie’s Satanic Verses has brought about in the consciousness of the West that is it is morally unacceptable to cause offense to other cultures. No one seems to want to accept this or people just forget about it, hoping that this one time, Muslims will just laugh off a dumb film or a stupid cartoon about the Prophet.

This is most applicable to Islam in Egypt. The radical Muslim in Egypt is looking at Mohammed Morsi for decrees on all matters. He’s not just the civic president; he’s supposed to be a fellow Muslim. It seems completely logical and reasonable to thus call on President Morsi to expel the US Ambassador and then engage in extreme acts of defiance to defame the US. In the psyche of the radical, a government or state in their mind does and will not allow any insult to God, religion, and Mohammad. So, when radicals in Egypt and Libya didn’t see any real action from their respective perspectives, they took to the streets and to the necks of innocent Americans. For us non-radicals, it doesn’t make any sense but oh well, it’s not our world anymore.

Many are saying right now that this film, although deplorable and objectionable, is free speech. Sam Bacile and those involved in its writing are allowed to freely express their views. My response is that the film was done freely and under no censorship, but it’s hardly speech. It’s hardly anything intelligent. It’s hardly anything intelligible. There’s nothing engaging in this film; it’s just gratuitous slander and slander does not contribute anything valuable to a rational discourse. Sam Bacile has exercised his freedom to insult Muslims, Islam, and the Prophet Muhammad. Even the most non-critical viewer should surely see that the film is just out to insult and humiliate. In the recent scandal in South Africa over the “Spear” painting, SACP general secretary Blade Nzimande said that freedom of speech is not the same as freedom to insult.

What real ideas is the film trying to communicate? None.

What views is it trying to convince the viewer? That Muslims are deluded.

What the film has highlighted here is the confusion between the freedom to express the content of his views or thoughts and his way of exercise or implementing them in the public sphere. He, like all his fellow Egyptian Christians who thought it would be really cool and politically expedient to take a potshot against Islam, think that you can somehow separate this freedom to express his views from the actual content of his views. And then suddenly, when people are offended and they’re out for his blood, him and others are running for the (American suburban) hills, hiding from the savage Muslims who now want them dead. The Muhammad film blurs the line between free speech and hate speech and somehow is based on the notion of absolute freedom of expression, that I can say anything I want to anyone I choose and he’s not allowed to bludgeon me with a Katyusha.

All these dumb, ignorant Egyptian Christians – those who celebrated smugly this film’s release and those who took part in the film’s production – think that they are winning crowns in heaven for their redemptive work for their fellow Copts in Egypt. Whenever these lost souls of the Egyptian immigrant community want to exercise freedom of speech about Islam, they also want the freedom from consequence that may arise from that speech expressed and he wants immunity, too. They do it from the safety of the West because they had and still have no balls to do it in Egypt. This will not and will never be the real activism Egyptian Christians, in better socioeconomic and political conditions, can do for their country and fellow Christians.

So, Sam Bacile, you made this steaming turd of a film and now you fear for your life. Seriously? If you felt so strongly about this film, that you went off and raised $5 million dollars, why don’t you feel just as strong about defending it? While you hide like a coward in LA, radical Egyptian Islamists have grabbed this opportunity to attack Christians in Egypt and lump us together with deluded douchebags like your friend Maurice Sadeq.

Thanks to Sam Bacile, we’re now all spineless sloths and slanderous infidels. We’re all out to attack and defame Islam. It doesn’t matter anymore if you’re an Egyptian Christian and you care more than just about Christians; today’s attacks and the Muhammad film have nullified, in the collective consciousness of Muslims, any efforts Egyptian Christians make towards making a better Egypt for all. We’re all out to be agents for the West to attack Egypt, oppress Palestine, and further Israel’s agenda. And even as the Egyptian Orthodox and Evangelical churches both scrambled to distance themselves from the film, the radical Islamists, dominating the Egyptian street, will spout shit that all Copts are sellouts. People like Maurice Sadeq and Esmat Zaqlama represent the very tired and sad myopia of politically active Egyptian Christian in the lands of immigration, who still think that Copts walk around Heliopolis with blue necks, that only Copts can’t find jobs, that only Copts are below the poverty line, and that only Copts are struggling to make ends meet. And given that the political voices of Egyptian Copts inside Egypt are faint, the voices of the deluded douches are the only ones that the radical Islamist establishment hears and thus thinks that they represent all of us. All these idiotic Egyptian Christians, who barely go visit the Egypt they supposedly defend, just can’t accept that everyone is suffering in Egypt, that the problems of Egypt’s economy and society are those which must be solved for all citizens.

It’s a sad day for all Muslims and Christians in Egypt and abroad, that people, seeped in their hate and fundamentalism, could be so maniacally retarded to take on a worldview and culture that has no understanding of criticism. And so that Sadeq, Zaqlama, and Jones could make their stupid film about Islam, Egypt and the US now suffers.