Perhaps the devout Muslim who toes the line has nothing to fear, but woe to all those who culturally decide to stray. Not content with letting Allah be the judge, religious police and ‘Virtue vs. Vice’ commitees are hellbent on punishing blasphemers, government anarchists and plain old hooligans, and it doesn’t matter if you’re a commoner or a celebrity figure. Just ask Aliaa Magdy, Adel Imam or Al-Haqed.
With a career that spans decades and hundreds of films, TV programs and theatre pieces under his belt, comedian Adel Imam is a bonafied star in Egypt. It seemed every channel I clicked on whilst in Egypt was showing a program featuring him; even the Arabic TV channel here in NYC recently showed his film roughly titled “Take Care of Your Neighbors.” But just recently, Adel Imam was sentenced to several months of jailtime for insulting Islam, proving that even movie stars are not above the cultural police. While blasphemy is punishable in most (all?) Muslim countries, what’s unique about Imam’s case is that the 71 yr-old actor himself didn’t speak ill of Islam: it was the characters he portrayed in films many years ago which were condemned for their immorality.
Clearly, Egyptian judges are not willing to show tolerance for differences, nor do they have a sense of humor. A film, even a silly comedy, is not just simply a ‘film,’ but it doesn’t mean that by showing a character drinking or doing something “unIslamic” that the film director is promoting vice or encouraging people to be unIslamic. And it certainly isn’t the actors fault, nor do the words he speaks/way he behaves in the film reflect his own personal opinions, although it could be argued that a truly good Muslim would not want to portray someone who was immoral. Clearly, freedom of speech doesn’t even extend to fiction when it comes to ‘insulting Islam.’
Another famous figurehead who recently got in trouble with the law was Moroccan rapper Al-Haqed, whose name ironically means “The Enraged One.” After rapping his contempt for the police on one of his songs, the rapper was sentenced to a year in jail. “You are paid to protect the citizens, not to steal their money,” resonates in much of the Middle East (and, lets face it, most of the developping world), where police take bribes to look the other way. Granted, Al-Haqed could be viewed as promoting anarchy against the state, but the Moroccan court would rather silence it’s opposers and continue tolerating corruption and oppression rather than tolerate the idea of a more pure (and a more Islamic!) Morocco.
Remember Aliaa Magda al-Mahdy, the young Egyptian activist who posted a nude photo of herself online to protest the lack of freedom of speech in her country? Lest one think that receiving death threats and being socially shunned weren’t enough to make her feel pain, legal action was formally started in the aftermath of her exposure back in November by a group of Coalition of Islamic law graduates, accusing her of “violating morals, inciting indecency and insulting Islam.” (If anyone knows more information on the legal procedings or Aliaa’s current situation, please add your comment to the bottom of this article!) Nevermind the fact that Aliaa is a self-proclaimed Atheist and therefore Islamic law shouldn’t apply to her. Forget the honorable act of pardoning, or forgiving, one for their sins: instead of letting Allah weigh on Aliaa’s deeds in the afterlife, Egyptian society would prefer to take matters into their own hands and play the role of God.
In short, tolerance seems to be in short supply in the Middle East, which is somewhat ironic when one considers that, for many years-decades, even-Arabs ‘tolerated’ intensely corrupt governments and leaders without nary a complain. Of course, that could be because-cue Al-Haqed’s case-it is against the law to criticize the state, but herein lies the paradox: government and religion must be obeyed, no compromises made, but individuality will not be tolerated. These three legal situations, two involving celebrity figures, remind us of the T.S. Lawrence quote that I cited in my last blog post on Saudi Arabia, inwhich Lawrence insists (I’m paraphrasing) that Arabs are “all about black and white extremes, no grey areas.” Indeed, grey areas are glossed over: certainly the fact that Adel Imam, whose fictional character he portrayed went against Islamic thought, would be a grey area in the terms of shariah law. By eliminating the grey areas in life, shariah law effectively denounces compromise between the difficult, touchy areas in life which are not easily explained.
Man should not tolerate corrupt governments, theives, murderers or people who actively set out to physically harm others. Man should, however, tolerate individuality and personal choice, as long as those choices don’t hurt others. Freedom of speech and opinion, even if it differs from a strict interpretation of Islam, shoudl be allowed. With Saudi Arabia probably being the one exception (and even there, there exist Christian expats and the much-detested Shiite sect of Islam), most countries of the world are very diverse and therefore compromises must be made so that all people are happy and accepted by the majority. The words compromise and tolerance do exist in Arabic (حل وسط for compromise, تسامح for tolerance), so let’s see these words and concepts exercised!