Cops, Robbers … and the Muslim Brotherhood?

Why the Egyptian government's propaganda version of CSI revealed more about its own paranoia than about its enemies.

A well-dressed, clean-shaven man sits at a table in a posh restaurant. Accompanying him is an attractive young woman whose attention he seems to hold with ease. He explains his deep regret that he never pursued their relationship more deeply: His budding career as a security officer had left him little time for worldly pleasures.

Meanwhile, across town, a violent clash between rival student gangs ends with a young man's body lying dead on the pavement. It looks like a new CSI spin-off -- except the action is taking place on the hot streets of Cairo. And these scenes aren't from another American cop drama. They're from the first episode of Egypt's controversial Ramadan series, "Al Gamaah" ("The Group").

"Al Gamaah," which purports to be a sort of Egyptian version of "24" or "The Wire," is actually a government-funded series of morality tales about the country's banned opposition group, the Muslim Brotherhood. The series can be summed up easily: A noble and courageous Egyptian security officer launches an investigation into the Brotherhood's past, and digs up some startling skeletons, as members of the illegal organization skulk around like Bond villains. The pilot episode ran on Arab satellite networks on the first night of Ramadan, and episodes continued nightly for the duration of the Islamic holy month (the Middle Eastern equivalent of American sweeps week). The public response has varied from admiration to total outrage.

Entertaining at times, the show was little more than heavy-handed propaganda. But it had some unintended ironies. In giving the Muslim Brotherhood a primetime treatment, the Egyptian government only made it obvious that its own affairs aren't quite ready for the spotlight.

The Muslim Brotherhood was founded in 1928, making it the oldest existing Islamic movement organization in the Arab world. Despite the more militant splinter groups that have emerged in recent years, the Brotherhood itself has a long tradition of renouncing violence and calling for democracy, the rule of law, and an end to the national state of emergency that has been in place in Egypt since 1981. It operates the largest network of social services in Egypt and participates in elections (though its candidates must run as independents), winning 88 parliamentary seats in the 2005 elections. It was also the organization that incubated future leaders of al Qaeda such as Ayman al-Zawahiri.

For years, the Egyptian regime has tried to limit the Brotherhood's impact, most recently by rewriting the laws on eligibility requirements so the group couldn't contest the parliamentary elections scheduled for next month. "Al Gama'ah" is the latest salvo in a war that has now lasted for decades.

The show's advocates argue that it offers a true appraisal of the Muslim Brotherhood. They defend its creator, the well-known and frequently controversial secularist TV and film writer* Wahid Hamid, claiming that he's an independent voice with no allegiances to the government. The Brotherhood's leaders, however, are up in arms. "Al Gamaah," they say, is a deliberate attempt by the regime of Hosni Mubarak to smear the group's reputation. And indeed, when Muslim Brotherhood leaders revealed that the regime had paid 25 million Egyptian pounds for the production of the series, a government official coolly responded that the figure was "only" 22 million.

The show's hyperbole was especially revealing. For example, "Al Gama'ah" depicts members of the Brotherhood as paranoid to a farcical extreme. Their reliance on coded messages, secret meeting locations, and decoy cars is meant to make them seem suspicious. But it also serves as a reminder that Egypt's political environment leaves opposition groups no other options. Any party, regardless of its intentions, would have to resort to secrecy in order to organize politically.

Similarly, the surveillance power of the state security agency, depicted as near-omniscient, is intended to demonstrate that no organized group, no matter how subversive or secretive, can evade the watchful eye of the regime. The show makes a clear distinction between those who warrant suspicion and deserve no right to privacy, on the one hand, and the majority of law-abiding citizens on the other. The wealth of information retrieved from strategically placed wiretaps appears to justify selective government intrusion into the homes and businesses of suspected Brotherhood members. But apparently the producers didn't realize that viewers might instead just be frightened or outraged by the government's trampling of personal freedom.

Then there's the outlandish portrayal of the Muslim Brotherhood's leaders, who are reminiscent of 1980s Chuck Norris villains. They are angry, unpredictable, and prone to violent outbursts. Ominous music follows them wherever they go. Their piety is about as superficial as their shiny suits or German cars. They eat lamb at their parties in a country where people are often hungry and where meat is a luxury.

In sharp contrast, the state security agent is a caricature of another sort: a sterling-souled hero. This is a not-so-subtle attempt to undo the bad reputation earned by the intelligence service over the last six decades. Since the reign of Gamal Abdel Nasser, Egypt's revolutionary leader, the mabahith has been a dreaded force. Innocents have routinely been swept away by "dawn visitors" from the intelligence service, and stories of torture and corruption are commonplace. The star agent in "Al Gamaah," however, would make even the most goody-two-shoes superhero roll his eyes. He is a model son and neighbor, courteous to those he interrogates, and devoted to lofty ideals, such as truth, justice, and love of country. The Mubarak regime could not ask for a more honorable representative -- which is perhaps how audiences know it's fictional.

The show takes even more troubling liberties with Egyptian history. In a subplot made up of flashback scenes depicting the early years of the Muslim Brotherhood, its founder, Hasan al-Banna, is shown as a political opportunist. He incites his followers to violence, accepts bribes, and even cooperates covertly with the British occupation.

While he is certainly not beyond reproach, Banna tends to be respected even among fierce critics of the Muslim Brotherhood. Meanwhile, "Al Gamaah"'s haphazard treatment of the period does truth no favors. In one particularly glaring misrepresentation, the show attributes to Banna the development of takfir, the controversial practice of excommunicating other Muslims. In fact, takfir, which is condemned by many mainstream Islamic scholars as a justification for violence, only emerged among Muslim Brotherhood fringe groups 20 years after the leader's death. Banna's surviving family members have filed a lawsuit against the government requesting that the program be pulled from TV networks. The suit claims that Banna's family was   never consulted in the development and production of the series and that the negative portrayal has totally distorted the truth.

Despite the overwhelmingly cynical slant of "Al Gamaah," the show does, on occasion, pose provocative questions. In one scene, a shop owner and Muslim Brotherhood elder tells a deli server to place Danish cheeses back on display now that the controversy over the Prophet cartoons has died down, suggesting that the Brotherhood is more concerned with outward appearances than it would like to admit. Two useful critiques of the Brotherhood also emerge. The show points out the generational gap between the group's leadership and the majority of its young followers, who are often unable to get anything done within the party because of its rigid hierarchy. The show also highlights the Brotherhood's lack of a coherent political program, a vulnerability that sprouts up during every election cycle. When an anguished father confronts a son who has been arrested for joining the Brotherhood, he cries out, "What do they offer that the rest of us Muslims don't have?" In the episode, the son remains silent. In real life, a frequent criticism of the Brotherhood is that they lack specific policy proposals.

The government's hope, clearly, is that "Al Gamaah" will make young Egyptians think twice about joining the opposition. But the tactic may instead prove costly to the regime. Any public discussion of the Muslim Brotherhood may just lend it more visibility and credibility. Web searches for "Hasan al-Banna" spiked dramatically in the month of August, when the show began. Young Egyptians are reportedly flocking to buy Banna's writings, while independent newspapers are publishing fresh reports on the historic investigation into his assassination. There are even rumors now that the Muslim Brotherhood is in the planning stages of its own rival TV series. If and when that show airs, it will surely be as slanted an account as Wahid Hamid's "Al Gamaah," although the villains and heroes are likely to have swapped sides.

Somewhere in between the competing narratives, there's probably some truth to be found. But as "Al Gamaah"'s star character Agent Ashraf says, "There is a difference between opinion and truth. When I find the truth, I'll tell you my opinion."


*This sentence originally referred to Wahid Hamid as a director, not a writer. It has been corrected to fix that editorial error.



The Talibanization of America

Viewed from Pakistan, the rise of U.S. Islamophobia looks depressingly familiar.

One of the lessons from the Quran-burning circus in Florida, whether it ever actually takes place or not, is that the labels we use to make sense of the world are becoming more and more complex. This is bad news. Labels are supposed to simplify life, not make it more complicated. Nine years to the day since al Qaeda attacked New York City, murdered nearly 3,000 people, and changed the world we live in, our labels seem to be leading us down some strange paths.

In Pakistan, "Talibanization" is a label used to describe regressive and parochial conservatism, not just the political ascendancy of Mullah Omar and his extremist disciples. When we use the label "mullah," it is not the same thing as honoring someone by calling him "Father" or "Reverend."  Instead, we're most likely referring to a person's narrow-mindedness, bigotry, and possible racism. So when we try to explain to fellow Pakistanis how the United States is much grander than the pettiness of Quran-burning circuses or mosque-defying extremists, we don't use the same labels that Americans would. Describing the ideological kith and kin of opponents of the Park51 project -- including the fringe element of folks like Terry Jones and his flock at the Dove World Outreach Center -- with terms like the moral majority, far-right evangelicals, or even neocons is useless.

Instead, when we try to explain what is happening in America, we simply say that a great country is going through a kind of Talibanization -- led by mullahs like Newt Gingrich, Pamela Geller, and the occasional Terry Jones.

On the ninth anniversary of the atrocities of September 11, 2001, applying these labels to right-of-center America may seem provocative and harsh. After all, even the most grotesque Islamophobia in the United States is not guilty of the horrors enacted by the Taliban, in Afghanistan and beyond. More than any other sin, the Taliban tolerated Osama bin Laden, defended his right to stay among them, and refused to hand him over after he boastfully acknowledged his role as the chairman and CEO of al Qaeda's war on America.

But consider the alternative: What if we didn't present the Quran-burners and mosque-attackers as part of a fringe movement of ideologically driven extremists? Then of course, the only other possibility is for us to accept that International Quran Burning Day and the controversy over the Park51 community center both in different ways signify mainstream America's growing discomfort with Islam. Simply put, if the Islamophobia of an American fringe is in fact not on the fringes, but in the mainstream, then the United States has an Islamophobia problem.

And an Islamophobia problem in America is a problem everywhere else. Of all the things that can destroy the fragile and momentous little steps of progress across the Muslim world, this might be the most potent and lethal. In some of the most world's important Muslim majority countries, already, America is deeply unpopular. A Pew Global Attitudes survey this year revealed that the four countries with the deepest anti-American sentiment are Egypt, Jordan, Turkey, and Pakistan. Three of these receive busloads of U.S. taxpayer cash, as aid. The fourth, Turkey, is the only modern nation-state from among almost 60 Muslim-majority countries in the world.

State Department do-gooders in Washington and around the world may wonder whether the United States can afford any further ill will in these countries. But the real problem is that the already fraught balance between Islam and the rest of the world can't afford the kind of bitterness and hatred that an Islamophobic America -- real or imagined -- would unleash. Muslims with feet in both worlds often try to bridge the distance between these worlds by invoking the freedom and vitality of Islam in America. The specter of an irrational Islamophobia in America would gut that argument.

Until recently, growing up Muslim in America was arguably one of the most uniquely Islamic experiences in the world. Muslims in the United States enjoy the ironclad protections of the First Amendment, the overwhelming, if often grudging support of the liberal establishment, and at the microlevel (between individuals and families) common cause with their Christian and Jewish cousins of the Abrahamic faith tradition. For the most part, unless you happened to be a Muslim African-American, Muslims had it good in America.

That explains, at least partially, why the most progressive and robust religious voices in global Islam aren't coming from Pakistan, or India, or Indonesia, or the Arab world. Instead, they are coming from places like California's Zaytuna Institute, and from a certain New York community leader named Feisal Abdul Rauf.

In the places where the 9/11 attacks were planned, financed, and conceived, meanwhile, the warm and fuzzy Islam of America's suburbs is a nonexistent fantasy. On the Muslim Main Street, in Saudi Arabia, in Afghanistan, and in flood-ravaged Pakistan, Muslims can't see past the Talibanized narrative of the U.S. mid-term election. Just as the mainstream news media in America cannot be held responsible for transforming Terry Jones from a walking punch line into an international celebrity, mainstream media in a country like Pakistan can hardly be blamed for reporting Jones's shenanigans to 180 million -- mostly Muslim -- Pakistanis.

On Sept. 10, as Afghans celebrated Eid, many decided to protest against the Islamophobic events planned in Florida. During the protests, NATO troops, surrounded by angry protesters, opened fire, killing at least one person in Badakshan province. It is easy to become partisan in assigning blame for this death. Many will blame Terry Jones. Others will blame the media. Many others will blame the mullahs who stoked Afghan anger. No doubt, some pundit at Fox News will blame the protester himself, and most people in Afghanistan will blame NATO.

It barely matters anymore who pulled the trigger in Badakhshan. The point is that progressive thought is being lost in the places where it would matter the most. In the nine years since 9/11, there has not been a single domestic Muslim reawakening in any of the Organization of the Islamic Conference's almost 60 Muslim-majority countries. In countries like Pakistan, mosque leaders still make the same anti-American references. They still exhibit the same resistance to change. They still get treated with kid gloves by governments that are run by culturally dislocated Muslims.

Stuck between the growing contempt for traditional Muslim values in the American mainstream, and the regressive inertia of traditional Muslim societies around the world, are the real victims of bin Laden's perverted violence, as well as the disproportionate and self-defeating military responses thatnow have the seal of approval of two successive U.S. presidents.

The most dubious aspect of the industrious coverage of burning Qurans and protests against the building of a Muslim community center of course, is that on this ninth anniversary, justice and closure seem as far away for the victims of 9/11 as they did nine years ago. The hundreds of thousands of dead Iraqis and Afghans have brought little, if any comfort to the 9/11 families.

Drone attacks in Pakistan may offer some, but only as long as the faces and names of the innocent victims of those drones remain shrouded in mystery. Conversely, all the rage and anti-Americanism can't seem to liberate countries like Pakistan and Egypt from their corrupt, self-serving, and vicious elite. Instead, vitriolic protests and U.S. flag burning ceremonies help keep those elite firmly ensconced in power -- as they milk the emotions of their people with one hand, and the ever-ready teet of U.S. military and civilian assistance with the other.

In the United States, decent people are unleashing unkind and hateful words upon Muslims around the world because they can. Their rage has nothing to do with Islam. It has everything to do with living in a country that is up to its eyeballs in debt and cannot seem to generate new jobs or new ideas, even under a president who was supposed to lift their country out of this morass.

Still, all hope is not lost, in America, or around the Muslim world. Mikey Weinstein's Military Religious Freedom Foundation promises to donate one Quran to the Afghan National Army for every Quran burned by Terry Jones' congregation.

The American Jewish tradition of defending civil liberties has been reawakened, with numerous Jewish groups rallying to the defense of Islam in America. Among them are the Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism, the National Council of Jewish Women, and a host of others. They are all acting in concert with various Christian denominations to support the Interfaith Coalition on Mosques -- which has pledged to act as a watchdog on Islamophobia when it comes to mosque building in the United States.

Terry Jones's own home state of Florida has offered a poignant reminder of America's multifaith tradition. Larry Reimer, a minister at the United Church of Gainesville, has decided, "If they can burn it, then we can read it." On Sept. 12, his congregation will include, as part of its Sunday worship, a reading from the Quran.

Perhaps the most brilliant ray of light in this darkness comes from a Facebook group to which I was invited this week. A number of young Pakistanis set up "BLESS the Bible Day on September 11." As I'm writing this, the group already has 150 members -- more than three times the number that Pastor Terry Jones cons into listening to him every Sunday.

There is much to be worried about on this ninth anniversary of 9/11. It is hard, however, to worry too much in the face of the mercy and love of people of all faiths reaching out to each other to fight the hatred and bitterness. Had that spirit prevailed across the mainstream media in the United States, perhaps we'd have a lot less to talk about this 9/11 -- focusing instead on the tremendous strength of the innocent families that lost loved ones on that day.