Watching Arab movies on Friday afternoon was a household tradition in Israel during the 1980s and 90s, but with the recent rise to power of the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt, these films may be getting an "Islamic touch."
Following the election of Mohamed Morsi as president of Egypt, secular groups voiced their concern that the Islamist regime would impose stricter censorship on the arts. To the surprise of many, young Muslim Brotherhood activists have been trying to alleviate these fears – through film.
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By launching a new project titled, "Cinema Ikhwan (Brotherhood): upscale art has an address," the young Islamists are trying to encourage the production of films that reflect the concerns of ordinary Egyptians in an "Islamic manner."
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Yasser Said, a media student, is one of the leaders of “Cinema Ikhwan.” He told the Egyptian daily Al-Masry Al-Youm that "art is not new to the Muslim Brotherhood; it has been a part of the movement since its inception. The Brotherhood strives to create a meaningful art form to serve as an alternative to the art which attempts to corrupt our culture and customs.
"This is why we, a number of young members, decided to (launch the project) – so the world could see that the Muslim Brotherhood is not an extremist movement, but one that supports the arts," he said.
The first step was to create a private Youtube channel where the films are screened. One such film is the short comedy “the anti-heretic unit,” which aims to dispel the notion that the Brotherhood is a fanatical movement. In the film, a bearded, elderly man dressed in Islamic garb pays a surprise visit to the home of an ordinary Egyptian, who is watching soccer on TV. The elderly man says he has come to measure the young man's "level of heresy."
The film concludes with narration that urges Egyptians not to believe "silly rumors" about the extremism of the Muslim Brotherhood.
In the English version of another video produced by Cinema Ikhwan, two youngsters are involved in a car accident and their entire lives flash before their eyes – including all-night parties and long hours in front of the computer. Towards the end of the clip the youngsters yearn for their previous way of life – before they abandoned their habit of praying regularly.
'Art that builds society'
Sayed Darwish, chairman of the Brotherhood's Art Committee, told the movement's official English website that "those who claim that the art of the Muslim Brotherhood is purely preaching are simply following the falsehoods of the former regime that painted the Brotherhood as the frightening scarecrow - to frighten the entire public. An observant on-looker following the works of the Brotherhood will find that they carry ideas and comedy, free from vulgarity of all kinds."
"We are seeking to adapt all the tools of art, and to use all available talents to produce serious works that respect the intelligence of the audience and improve the fabric of the community – art that builds and promotes society rather than trying to destroy its morals and values. We will endeavor to rid art of the residues of the former regime, which relied on instilling the 'values' of moral laxity, perversion and chaos," he said.
Mira Tzoreff, a lecturer at Tel Aviv University's Middle East Department, told Ynet that the cinematic initiative's target audiences are: Those who did not vote for the Brotherhood's candidate and fear the movement will turn Egypt into "another Afghanistan, particularly from the cultural standpoint; young Brotherhood members; and "most importantly, young Egyptians who quit the movement and preferred to connect with young liberals."
"This idea (of a different kind of cinema) shows that young Brotherhood members are not giving up on any cultural or artistic element. They are critical of the Egyptian film industry, which, according to them, is not Islamic and deals with the worst kind of heresy," she said.
"As far as the Brotherhood is concerned, daily moral conduct in both the public and private spheres must be Islamic. The movement's cinematic project is trying to present itself as an alternative to popular cinema. This means that, in essence, they are fighting the enemy with its own weapons."
New cultural reality
In February, Egypt's leading comic actor Adel Imam (71) became one of the first victim's of the new cultural reality in the Arab country when he was sentenced to three months in prison and fined $170 for insulting Islam in his films and plays.
The case against Imam was brought by Attorney Asran Mansour, who is associated with the extremist Salafi movement. Mansour accused the actor of frequently mocking the authorities and politicians in his films and plays, and offending Islam and its symbols.
Addressing the affair, Tzoreff said "Imam is a cinematic genius, but to the revolutionaries he is a cultural remnant of the previous regime. During the uprising he served as one of the regime's spokespeople and urged the revolutionaries to go home."
So where is Egyptian culture headed? According to Tzoreff, President Morsi is well aware that those who brought him to power can also oust him. "An Islamic cultural autocracy is not a possibility," she said. "Morsi knows he is under the media's magnifying glass.
"The days of muzzling are over, but what's clear is that the Brotherhood will offer an alternative cultural agenda. This does not mean that the Egyptian opera will close or that belly-dancing shows will be outlawed – because these are part of the Arab culture that Morsi recognizes. It does not mean that Egyptian cinema will solely produce Brotherhood flicks, but there will be an alternative cultural channel that can be associated with the Brotherhood's set of beliefs," Tzoreff predicted.
"There is a chance that the Brotherhood cinema will become mainstream, but this will not be determined by Morsi or (Brotherhood leader) Mohammed Badie; it will be determined by the Tahrir Square public, which finally has a voice," she argued.
Mahmoud, a 20-year-old student from Cairo, is an enthusiastic supporter of the Brotherhood's film project. "The Brotherhood will combat films that contain promiscuous content by producing its own movies," he told Ynet. "But now, Egyptian artists will be able to do things they could not do under the Mubarak regime – such as criticize the president and the government and tackle the country's problems from different perspectives."
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