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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