Satire in the arab world: not a western phenomenon

The attack on "Charlie Hebdo" is condemned in the Arab media. Often enough, authors of satire there become victims of violence.

Actors of the TV program "Daulat Al-Khurafa" (Myths of the State). Picture: reuters

From Azhar University, one of the highest authorities in Sunni Islam, to Arab journalists’ associations, the attack in Paris is condemned as a criminal act. "The West is now drinking from the same glass as the Egyptians," says commentator Tamer Amin on Egyptian state television. There one feels confirmed. The Egyptian government is repeatedly accused by Europe of fighting terror with dictatorial means. Now Europe itself is feeling the terror.

But people who are attacked by militant Islamists for their opinions and their work are not a Western monopoly. Most of the victims are themselves from the Islamic or Arab world. The most prominent is probably the Nobel Prize winner for literature Nagib Mahfuz, who has since died.

In his book "The Children of Our Alley," he described the coexistence of several prophets. Behind Adham, Gabal, Rifaa and Kasim, with whom he symbolically depicts human history in an alley, are Adam, Moses, Jesus and Mohammed. In 1994, the literary depiction of the prophets was enough for his militant attacker to drive a knife into Mahfuz’s neck. The writer was seriously injured but survived.

Two years earlier, Egyptian publicist Farag Foda had been shot dead by members of the militant group Gama’a Islamija. He was known for his sharp articles and satires against the radical Islamists. According to his own statement, he wanted to protect Islam against the distortions of the radicals and paid for it with death.

Satire booms

In the last four years, satire has experienced a boom in the Arab world following the uprisings in Tunisia and Egypt. However, the king of Arab satire, Egypt’s Bassem Yussuf, was deposed by his Saudi broadcaster MBC after the Egyptian military government intervened against the program. The satire went too far for the rulers.

But satire against the militant Islamists remains popular. Today, it is primarily against the self-proclaimed jihadists of the "Islamic State." The Iraqi series "State of Myths" is well-known. The title comes from a play on words. Daulat al-Khalifa", meaning "State of the Caliphate", became "Daulat al-Khurafa", State of Myths. The series takes aim at the militants’ entire ideology. In one scene, for example, the self-appointed guardians of Islam come to a vegetable vendor and demand that he strictly separate male and female vegetables with different grammatical Arabic endings.

The 30 episodes of the al-Iraqiya television channel can also be received in the territory of the Islamic State. All the actors know that they would pay for their commitment with their lives should the IS militia advance as far as Baghdad. This is one reason why some of the scriptwriters prefer to remain anonymous.

Lebanese television station LBC also broadcasts anti-IS sketches. In one of them, a Christian couple drives anxiously along a country road and gets caught in a roadblock with IS fighters. "If you are Christians, Shiites, or apostates, we will slaughter you," their leader threatens with a glued-on beard. "Quote me a sura from the Koran," he asks the driver. The starts quoting and the IS commander starts smiling. "They are Muslims, let them drive on," he instructs his men. As they drive on, the woman turns to her husband in wonder. "You didn’t quote from the Koran at all, but from the Bible, why are we still alive?" The man mischievously replies, "If they knew the Koran, they wouldn’t be slaughtering people." In the background, the jihadists wave a friendly goodbye.