Bassem Youssef and the Self-Imposed Limitations of the Nice Muslim
Review of "Tickling Giants" and "Revolution for Dummies."
Tickling Giants is a 111-minute, 2017 documentary that tells the story of “Egypt’s Jon Stewart.” Tickling Giants is produced, written and directed by Sara Taksler. She’s a relative unknown who does a technically excellent job, earning her 100% fresh rating at RottenTomatoes.
Bassem Youssef is a cardiothoracic surgeon with movie-star looks and charisma. In 2011, when he was 37, he began broadcasting satirical commentary on the Arab Spring. He produced videos in the laundry room of his apartment and posted them on YouTube. He hoped for a few thousand hits. He reached millions of viewers.
Youssef graduated to TV. An estimated forty million viewers watched his show – the largest ratings in Egyptian TV history. Jon Stewart had around two million viewers per show. Tickling Giants’ account of Youssef’s career is captivating and inspirational, occasionally funny and often quite sad. It was shot mostly in Cairo. Unless I blinked and missed it, you never see a pyramid, but, rather, street scenes, traffic, the Nile, and protests in Tahrir Square. Tickling Giants depicts appreciative Egyptian audiences gathering in outdoor cafes to laugh at Youssef’s show on big-screen TVs.
Youssef satirized Islamists, the Muslim Brotherhood, Hosni Mubarak, Mohamed Morsi, the Egyptian army and Egypt’s current president, Abdel Fattah el-Sisi. Youssef faced tighter and tighter restrictions on what he could say. He and his staff faced greater and greater personal threats. Thugs, possibly paid by the government, chanted “Death to Youssef” outside his studio. An imam discussed whether it would be permissible to kill Youssef. The imam counseled, “Not yet.” Youssef’s collaborator, Tarek, had to abandon Egypt. Tarek’s father and brother were arrested and held for months without any reason. Youssef himself eventually was forced out of Egypt. Tickling Giants ends with Youssef in exile, giving talks in support of free speech at prestigious awards ceremonies in Western nations. He now lives in the US with his wife and children.
Youssef’s show had a large staff of creative, young, dynamos. The scenes of these idealists gazing out the window of their offices at the thugs calling for their deaths, and the arrival of armed troops to form a cordon in front of their studio, reminded me of life in Poland in 1989. The year that Soviet-imposed Polish communism breathed its last, I participated in demonstrations organized by the Orange Alternative, a group that undermined the authorities through humor. We held a rally celebrating the Red Army. Young Polish rebels gave elaborate, satirical speeches expressing “gratitude” for being “liberated” by the Russians.
As fine as Tickling Giants is, and as much as I could identify with its revolutionary spirit, I kept seeing the empty spaces where the censor’s X-Acto knife had sliced out key elements of the Arab Spring story.
In 2011, the year Youssef’s show launched, journalist Lara Logan was beaten and sexually assaulted by hundreds of men in Tahrir Square. They called her a Jew. She is not Jewish. The assailants used their cellphones to record their assault.
That same year, the otherwise anonymous “Girl in the Blue Bra” was dragged across pavement, beaten with batons, and kicked by Egyptian military. After they stripped off her abaya, one soldier stepped directly on her breasts, clothed only in a blue bra. Her abused image traveled round the world. Hillary Clinton decried “the systematic degradation of Egyptian women.”
Tahrir Square is inextricably linked with taharrush. Men encircle women, sexually assault them, and video-record the assaults. Al Akhbar describes taharrush as a “prominent feature” of life in Egypt, and reports that Egyptian women as well as men tend to blame the victim. President Sisi visited a taharrush victim in the hospital. The Guardian, a liberal newspaper, ran an article entitled, “80 Sexual Assaults in One Day – The Other Story Of Tahrir Square.” During New Year’s celebrations in 2015-16, Muslim men committed mass sexual assaults in Europe. Maajid Nawaz and others pointed to Tahrir Square as the possible petri dish of this contagion.
In Tickling Giants, the protestors are all right-thinking idealists, engaged in a communal effort as wholesome as an Amish barn-raising. Women are prominent as onscreen spokespersons.
The Arab Spring included notorious attacks by Muslims on Christians in Egypt and throughout the Middle East. “Arab Spring, Christian Fall?” asked many observers. Numerous deadly attacks occurred in Egypt alone. “In post-Arab-Spring Egypt, Muslim attacks on Christians are rising,” The Washington Post reported. Youssef lived in a city, Cairo, where the army killed dozens, and injured hundreds of Christians in the October, 2011, Maspero Massacre. Asianews reported that on August 16, 2013, a Christian cab driver was dragged from his vehicle by a Muslim mob and beaten to death. His body was later beheaded. In 2015, by which time Youssef was a resident fellow at Harvard’s John F. Kennedy School of Government, ISIS decapitated twenty-one Copts. There is an archive of similar attacks of Muslims on Christians here. This incomplete list includes 129 attacks on Christians in Egypt since 2004. Tickling Giants makes no significant reference to the Arab Spring’s deadly persecution of Christians.
It’s possible that Sara Taksler left out some of the darker aspects of the Arab Spring because of time constraints. In a June, 2017, “Talks at Google” interview, though, Taksler may have provided a clue as to another reason. “Oprah was the first black friend many white Americans ever had,” Taksler said. “In a time of Muslim bans I want viewers to feel close to a Muslim.” Perhaps Taksler concluded that her viewers, to feel close to a Muslim, required a whitewashed version of the Arab Spring.
Two more things the X-Acto knife left out of Tickling Giants. What, exactly, was Bassem Youssef risking his life to resist? And what, exactly, was Bassem Youssef risking his life to support? In Poland in ‘89 we knew what we were against and what we were for. “Sowieci do domu,” “My chcemy boga,” and “Niech zyje Polska niepodlegla,” we chanted: “Soviets go home,” “We want God,” and “Long live independent Poland.” In the documentary, the closest Youssef comes to a manifesto is in pro-humor statements like “If people can laugh at their differences maybe they can laugh at each other rather than hate each other.”
Youssef’s 285-page, 2017 Harper Collins memoir, Revolution for Dummies: Laughing through the Arab Spring offers a bit more of a manifesto than does the film. Youssef writes that the revolution’s liberals wanted something like the American Bill of Rights. “Islamists were fighting for a divine cause but we liberals were viewed as wusses who had nothing left in us to fight for our cause … maybe because other than not wanting to be ruled by religious dogma or a military dictatorship and seeking equality for all and other hippie principles, we hadn’t really settled on a clearly defined cause.” His “hippie principles” included “human rights and freedom.”
Youssef, in his book, is much more aware of Muslim anti-Christian violence and hate, and much more open in his contempt for religious demagogues than is the Youssef of Tickling Giants. The beating of The Girl in the Blue Bra caused him to break down in tears. “I can’t remember if what I was writing was funny or not, but I remember that I wanted to go after all those assholes with a vengeance.” He procured a video of “one of the most watched religious channels that showed the scumbags making fun of her.” On his own TV show, Youssef was depicted watching clerics denigrating The Girl in the Blue Bra. While he watched this, he spat. “It gave the message that I was literally spitting on the ‘holy sheikhs.’ … In the Arab world, this is a major insult at religious authority. I didn’t care. I was proud of my defiance.”
Youssef is insightful and frank about his fellow Muslims’ hypocrisy. While vilifying the West, Muslims yearn to enjoy everything the West has accomplished. “We hate your guts, but we would kill to get your visa,” he writes. “Outside the American embassy, you can find lines for visas longer than the ones outside of best Buy on Black Friday.” “If Muslims were given a choice to vote for either a secular or a religious state they would vote for the religious state and flee to live in the secular one.” A Salafi who publicly justified an attack on the American embassy, was, three years later, finishing up a Harvard degree. The mother and sister of another Salafi, Hazem Salah Abu Ismail, are American citizens.
The book makes clear that Youssef’s idealistic colleagues were not representatives of an organized, politically viable demographic in Egypt. Youssef’s own mother criticized his show. This caused a rift so severe that he did not speak to her for a long time; after he did so, she died in her sleep. Tarek’s father and brother were Muslim Brotherhood supporters. Show staff were pressured by their own families. When “even some of your extended family members share posts on Facebook accusing you of treason,” you lose enthusiasm to continue the revolution.
In his memoir, with thudding repetitiveness, Youssef voices cultural relativism. I can list only a few examples.
* “If the Muslim Brotherhood were the Southern Baptists, the Salafis were the Westboro Baptist Church.”
* Tahrir Square protesters are comparable to Occupy Wall Street protesters.
* “Salafis who cover women in black potato sacks are no different from what the extreme Hasidic Jews do to their women.”
* Muslim men want to have sex with “four teenage brides” while Catholics want to have sex with “An altar boy in a Catholic church … then it’s God’s will.”
* On meeting Jon Stewart: “When we compared the politics of hate and xenophobia in both of our countries we found things to be sadly similar.”
* Salafist politician Hazem Salah Abu Ismail insists that Pepsi stands for “pay every penny to save Israel.” He wants an Egyptian morality police comparable to Saudi Arabia’s, that enforces the mandatory veiling of women. Abu Ismail also recommends hand amputation for thieves. According to Youssef, Abu Ismail is comparable to Mike Huckabee, Ted Cruz, Michelle Bachman, and Sarah Palin.
* Salafis, “with their stupidity and bigotry,” are “our Muslim rednecks” or “Muslim hillbillies.”
* Islam is “just going through puberty. Christianity and Judaism have already gone through their rebellious phases. Judaism with its ancient weird rules and destructive wars and Christianity with the Inquisition and the Crusades.”
* Youssef worries about his daughter. “I wondered if her beautiful brown skin and her curly black hair will cause her any trouble” in America.
* Youssef suggests that American media invented the problematic side of Islam. “Exhausted stereotypes of women wearing black potato sacks from foreheads to pinkie toes depicted in Indiana Jones movies.” There were no “scary terrorists” in the “1940s, 50s, and 60s,” he says. Only after “the real Soviet Union collapsed and the American media needed a scarecrow” did Muslims “step in to fill the gap.”
* Youssef blames America for supporting Israel “every time they bombed the shit out of the Palestinians.” Youssef never mentions Palestinian-on-Israeli violence. Youssef reports that Israel “has fought four wars with Egypt.” Youssef does not report that Egypt invaded Israel and threatened Israel’s very right to exist.
Youssef sought asylum in the US. Since arrival, he has used American freedom to criticize America and Christians as hateful, xenophobic, and Islamophobic, and responsible for the problems in the Muslim world. See for example here, here, and here.
Bassem Youssef really did risk his life to criticize, not just Middle Eastern strongmen like Mubarak, Morsi, and Sisi, but he risked his life to criticize Muslims and Islam. And this Muslim, this heroic, chance-taking Muslim, this brilliant, multilingual heart surgeon and TV star, is still wrong about Islam, Christianity, and even what he himself is fighting for. Youssef’s failings give us a clue about the hope for reform from within the Muslim world. If a courageous, celebrated risk-taker and iconoclast like Bassem Youssef can’t bring himself directly to critique what Islam has done to his own people, who will?
I wish I could address Bassem Youssef directly. I wish I could grab his impeccably tailored lapels and say to him, “Let’s get real. No, the Crusades are not comparable to Jihad. No, the Spanish Inquisition is not comparable to Islamic repression. Read these articles, here and here. They both take on the Inquisitions and Crusades logical fallacies. When you are done, come back, because, Bassem, I want to talk to you about what you were fighting for, and what you were fighting against.
Bassem, you can’t yet bring yourself to come out and say it, but what you were fighting against is what Islam has done to your beloved country. What you were fighting for were not, as you put it, “Hippie principles,” but, rather, Judeo-Christian, Western values.
Back in 2002, the Arab Human Development Report shocked readers. In spite of being awash in petro-dollars, the Arab world, the heart of Islam, is rotting. Non-Muslim nations, including formerly poor nations like South Korea, surpass it. Hindu India, once part of the same land as Muslim Pakistan, has been able to create and sustain democracy. In the Arab World, the New York Times wrote, “Per capita income growth has shrunk in the last 20 years to a level just above that of sub-Saharan Africa. Productivity is declining. Research and development are weak or nonexistent. Science and technology are dormant. Intellectuals flee a stultifying – if not repressive – political and social environment.”
Why does Islam affect countries this way? Bassem, you say you hate authoritarianism. In Islam, half of the human race is placed inextricably beneath the other half. It’s as if, 1400 years ago, a building collapsed on half of all humanity in the Muslim world, and those crushed humans have had to function as best they can with unbearable compression on their lungs, brains, and hearts. Men are advised to beat women. Women are unworthy to testify as men do. Women inherit a fraction of what men inherit. In the diya, or blood money, system, human inequality is enshrined. Blood money for a Muslim man is magnitudes higher than blood money for a non-Muslim female.
Bassem, you fret about your daughter’s fate in America. Please. Muslim countries, including Egypt, consistently monopolize lists of the worst places on earth to be a woman. Ten of the worst ten countries for women in the World Economic Forum list are Muslim-majority countries. Eight of the ten countries on The Georgetown Institute for Women, Peace and Security’s list are Muslim-majority countries. Bassem you know darn well, but don’t want to admit, that your daughter’s horizon in the US is much brighter than it would have been in her Muslim homeland.
A third of Egyptian women are illiterate. Egypt’s abysmal gap between male literacy rates and female literacy rates is echoed throughout the Muslim world. Approximately 90% of females in Egypt have undergone some form of FGM. Your fellow Egyptian physician, Nawal el-Saadawi, describes her FGM as an act of misogynist terrorism. You can read Dr. el-Saadawi’s first person account here. Egypt is a “high sex ratio” country, where there are more males than females. Women and girls are simply less likely to survive in Egypt than in Judeo-Christian cultures.
Bassem you say you support freedom of conscience. Muslims have told me that verses like Koran 49:15 inform them that even a second’s doubt in Allah will result in their going to Hell. The only assurance any Muslim has of avoiding Hell is dying in jihad.
Bassem, you want an Egypt where power can be criticized. Islam dictates that whoever insults Mohammed, the Koran, or Islam must be killed. Whoever loses his Islamic faith must be killed. Even merely stating that the Koran was created is a capital crime. Bassem, show me a Muslim-majority nation with freedom of conscience, freedom of speech, and political satire. Turkey is often held up as a Muslim democracy. Turkey jails more journalists than any other nation, according to the Committee to Protect Journalists. Turkish Nobel Prize Winner Orhan Pamuk was put on trial for mentioning the Armenian Genocide. Booker Prize Winner Salman Rushdie lives with a death threat hanging over his head. Egyptian Nobel Prize Winner Naguib Mahfouz was stabbed in the neck for writing a novel that an imam didn’t like.
Andrew Bostom quoted Bernard Lewis in his piece on “Totalitarian Islam.” “The political history of Islam is one of almost unrelieved autocracy … authoritarian, often arbitrary, sometimes tyrannical. There are no parliaments or representative assemblies of any kind, no councils or communes, no chambers of nobility or estates, no municipalities in the history of Islam; nothing but the sovereign power, to which the subject owed complete and unwavering obedience as a religious duty imposed by the Holy Law.” Bassem, you blame US interference for the Middle East’s totalitarian regimes. Please address Lewis’ points, above, and tell me how free the Muslim World was during the millennium before the US came onto the world stage.
Bassem, you say you want a world without hate. You write, “It was normal for Christians to hear hateful speeches against them during Friday prayer sermons blasted through the microphones from mosques near their homes” but this is “not necessarily a religious thing. It is more of an authority thing.”
Bassem, Muslims pray five times a day not to be like Jews, who anger God, or Christians, who have gone astray. Tell me how you can eliminate hate in Egypt when the Koran tells Muslims not to take Jews or Christians as friends, that non-Muslims are “vile,” and to be harsh to non-Muslims. Tell me, Bassem, how you will bring about your cherished hate-free, equality and human-rights-respecting Egypt under the Pact of Umar, which commands the complete subjugation of non-Muslims, a subjugation that is detailed in multiple Islamic canonical sources.
Bassem, you used your star power to mock and humiliate Andy Hallinan, who responded to jihadi murder of innocent Americans by declaring his Florida gun store a “Muslim-free zone.” Bassem, rather than humiliating Hallinan, you could talk to him as an equal. You could say, “I’m sorry that Muslims murder innocents. Let’s work on solving this problem together.” You say that “The overwhelming majority of Muslims deplore” terrorist acts, “just as much as the rest of you.” Bassem, the 2013 Pew Poll revealed that millions of Muslims endorse suicide bombing, including almost one in three Egyptians. Seventy-five percent of Egyptians don’t believe that Arabs carried out the 9-11 terror attacks. Seventy-four percent of Egyptians want Sharia as the national law. Eighty-seven percent of Muslims in your region say that a woman must obey her husband. Only about half of Egyptians say they have a positive view of Christians – more Americans have a positive view of Muslims. And yet you insist that Americans “hate Muslims.” And you trot poor Andy Hallinan out on your American TV show and insist that American “rednecks” are the real problem.
Bassem, in your book, you wrote, “Secularism is a fair playground. … When I disagree with a liberal or a socialist, I can knock his theories and politics out the window. I can simply tell him that they are wrong by logically arguing my position. But how can … I tell you that you are wrong when you claim to be speaking in the name of God? I can’t compete with God and I can’t tell you that God is wrong … If you are labeled as someone who disrespects Islam it is like having an opponent with a royal flush in a game of poker. Nothing beats it; there is no trump card.” The Salafist Abu Ismail, you report, defended his “ISIS-like thoughts” with “I didn’t make this up; they are only God’s words.”
Bassem, you understood what you were up against when you wrote the above lines. Why, then, when you came to the US, did you attack Christians? Why not take your critique of Islam to its logical conclusions, as did you fellow Egyptian Nonie Darwish?
Bassem, you insist that Islamism is merely a product of American media. You say it didn’t exist before the 1940s. You chastise “extremists” who called for the destruction of the pyramids, just as the Taliban vandals, in 2001, destroyed Afghanistan’s 1,500-year-old Bamiyan Buddhas, once the largest standing Buddha sculptures in the world, just as ISIS destroyed ancient treasures. You say that any Muslim targeting the pyramids “could be viewed as a crazy man who had no weight and no real merit in the Islamist community.” Bassem, would-be pyramid destroyers represent canonical Islam. And Islam was like this well before the 1940s. There is a gash in the Menkaure pyramid. It was put there by Saladin’s son, hardly a fringe figure. On the basis of Islamic values, al-Malek al-Aziz Othman ben Yusuf tried to destroy the pyramids. The only reason he stopped was because destruction was too much work.
Bassem, you make excuses for Islam. “It’s young,” you insist. Mormonism, at about two-hundred-years-old, is much younger. Mormons are not destroying pyramids, murdering apostates, and sexually mutilating the genitals of defenseless little girls. Some argue that regional cultures and poverty are the problem. Let’s look at Africa, your natal continent. African Christians, living side-by-side with Muslims, are more than twice as likely to be educated than Muslims. I lived in an African village, in the C.A.R. The village had no electricity, running water, or paved roads. Christians attended a Western-style school, where they learned math, science, and foreign languages, and Muslim males attended a madrassa. They squatted, day after day, memorizing the Koran – the alpha and omega of their education.
In your beloved Egypt, Bassem, the story goes that the books of the great library of Alexandria were used to heat the bath water of a Muslim conqueror’s troops. “If these books contain material already in the Koran, they are redundant,” he said. “If they contain material that is not in the Koran, they are heretical.” No one knows if this story is true, but an astute observer commented that people believed it to be true, because of Islamic hostility to formal education.
Want current statistics rather than ancient anecdotes? Again, from the UN Arab Development Report, “The total number of books translated into Arabic in the last 1,000 years is fewer than those translated into Spanish in one year. Greece – with a population of fewer than 11 million – translates five times as many books from abroad into Greek annually as the 22 Arab countries combined, with a total population of more than 300 million, translate into Arabic … only two Egyptians per million people were granted patents, compared to 30 in Greece and 35 in Israel (for Syria, the figure was zero).”
Bassem, you recently said that “Religious fundamentalists and military fundamentalists are basically the same. They both want to ignore the truth and replace it with propaganda.” You reject hate, you embrace equality, human rights and women’s rights, and you want a world safe for political satire. Bassem, you aren’t at the point where you can admit it yet, but you reject Islam, and you have embraced Western Values. I look forward to the day when you can say so openly. You’ll be joining a great bunch of people, including Ayaan Hirsi Ali, Mosab Hassan Yousef, Nabeel Qureshi, Wafa Sultan, and Nonie Darwish.