5 reasons to object to the banning of Exodus

Two weeks ago I went to watch Ridley Scott’s Exodus: Gods and Kings here in New York after reading several reviews that were mostly negative, and, of course, after learning about the minister of culture’s decision to ban the movie in Egypt.

Although my expectations were already very low, the movie still managed to underwhelm me. I wouldn’t say it completely failed to deliver. The visual effects were definitely impressive. The story, however, even by Hollywood’s standards, was shallow and cinematically implausible — no character development, nothing new or interesting about an all-too-familiar plot, and the characters lacked any psychological depth that would make us identify with them on a human level.

The costumes were rather silly and uncreative: Christian Bale (Moses) was dressed in black, while Joel Edgerton (Ramses) wore white and gold. Portraying God as a school boy may be a bold move, but it added no meaning or dramatic depth. So, half an hour into the movie I was so bored that I wanted to walk out. Even the epic scenes — it was a 3D show, so the visual effects were rather dramatic — bored me and gave me a headache. But, I bit the bullet and forced myself to watch it through to the end so I could write my take on it.

In fact, the only thing that outweighed my boredom was my outrage at the minister of culture’s decision to ban the movie in Egypt.

I have so many reasons to object to the ban, but I’ll limit myself to only five points.

The first is how frustrating it was to watch a movie that was partly shot in Egypt and is set in Egypt, yet is banned in Egypt. I was particularly frustrated because I won’t be able to discuss the movie with my friends in Egypt, just because the minister of culture decided to spare them the confusion that he apparently thought would ensue if they watch a movie that challenges their values and principles. Many of those who commented on the ban have rightly ridiculed this patronizing attitude of the Ministry of Culture.

The second reason, as others have mentioned, is that our government still thinks that censorship works, and that it is possible to protect people’s values and principles with an administrative decision. In response, I won’t say this is the age of the Internet, and in only a matter of weeks the movie will be available on YouTube, Netflix and DVD. I will just say that censorship as a practice has never succeeded — unless the minister of culture aims at a total ban not only for movies but for books, music, plays, etc., in other words, unless what he has in mind is for  Egypt to be another North Korea, which from the look of things, does not seem very farfetched.

By force of habit I can’t help but go back to the 19th century for an example of the futility of censorship. A few years after the Bulaq Press was founded and after we actually started to have a book market, the state’s institutions realized the importance of regulating and controlling what people read. The procedures back then were pretty similar to nowadays: the police, or the  Cairo governorate would confiscate a few copies of a new book and send them to Al-Azhar for review. Moreover,  the mufti would step in to issue his opinion on the matter.

For instance, let’s look at the response of Sheikh Al-Abassi al-Mahdi, the grand mufti of Egypt for half a century — he was appointed by Ibrahim Pasha in 1848 and remained in the post till shortly before his death in 1897 — to the governorate’s request, dated February 5, 1869, with the following contents: “The director of Bulaq Press sent a letter stating that Mr. Abd Allah Nur al-Din wants to print the book Shams al-Maarif, by Al-Buni, at his own expense, and since the book was not previously printed in the press, the aforementioned director of the press wishes to address His Excellency the Sheikh of Al-Azhar and Your Excellency [the mufti] to know whether or not it is permissible  to publish. His Excellency, the  Sheikh [of Al-Azhar] informed us that the book in question is a spiritual book that deals with Quranic verses and divine secrets, and that there is no objection to publishing it. Thus it was necessary to inform Your Excellency to acquire your missive, in order to notify the press director as requested by him.”

The mufti’s interesting response is very similar in its logic to the current views of His Excellency, the minister of culture: “This book contains chapters on the science of letters, simiya and alchemy, and methods for one person to destroy another or another’s home, to tie another’s tongue, or to induce hatred between one another, and so forth. It also includes some matters that are offensive to Quranic verses, such as writing a certain verse and washing it off with drainage water. Such acts are all forbidden, according to the teachings of our great Imam Abu Hanifa, may God be pleased with him; Accordingly, printing [the aforementioned book] would make it a widely spread object of interest, resulting in either a waste of money to no avail, or harming God’s creatures, which are both contrary to Sharia, and the Exalted God knows best.”

Of course, back then the authority that performed confiscation was the mufti, whereas now it is the Central Administration of Censorship on Audio and Visual Media in cooperation with the Ministry of Culture. What’s striking, though, is that the principle of patriarchal condescension is the same. Moreover, the way authorities try to outdo each other hasn’t changed, either. Just like the mufti outdid the sheikh of Al-Azhar back then, the minister of culture is responding to a holier-than-thou attitude, effectively telling Al-Azhar that it is his ministry, not the age-old religious seminary, that is responsible for protecting the people’s morals and preventing misconceptions from seeping into their minds.

More importantly, those patriarchal authorities aren’t aware that censorship doesn’t work: just as Shams al-Maarif has been available to the public ever since, people will find a million ways to watch Scott’s Exodus.

Thirdly, according to the minister’s press release, the ban was decided by two committees. The first was a committee of three, formed by the Central Administration of Censorship and headed by the director of the General Administration of Censoring Foreign Films, and the second was formed by the minister himself, headed by Cairo University professor Mohamed Afifi, and included the Chief of Censorship, Abdel Sattar Fathy, and two professors of Egyptian archaeology as members.

In his press release, the minister stated categorically that, “religion had nothing to do with the ban,” and that the real reason for banning the movie was that it contained “historical inaccuracies, […] which projected a false, erroneous and inaccurate view of Egypt’s history.” Among the examples of historical inaccuracies referred to by both committees are that “the film presents a very racist view of Moses’ Jews [sic], portraying them not as a weak minority in Egypt, but rather as a group capable of armed resistance, blowing up commercial ships, burning down Egyptians’ houses, and forcing the Pharaoh to exit.”

The film also “depicts Egyptians as savages who brutally kill, hang, torture and desecrate the bodies of Moses’ Jews. This is historically incorrect, because hanging did not exist in ancient Egypt, and these events lack historical evidence. They never happened and have never been historically proven.”

I’m actually surprised by the examples of historical inaccuracies singled out by both committees. If we were to examine historical accuracy — not how much the film’s narrative agrees with the Old Testament, or the Quran’s account of the Exodus, then the real problem would be that there’s no historical and scientific evidence whatsoever of the whole Exodus account. The extensive and meticulous records of ancient Egyptian history say nothing about having thousands of foreign slaves in Egypt for decades, let alone centuries.

It’s also very difficult to find a scientific explanation for the parting of sea story. The Sinai excavations, moreover,  show no proof of the thousands of nomads who crossed, wandered and lived there for many years. There’s not a single shard of pottery with Hebrew writing on it to prove the presence of the Israelites in Sinai. Even the excavations in Palestine haven’t shown signs of the influx of large tribes who allegedly fled Egypt.

In short, if this were a matter of historical accuracy, and if it were true that religion had nothing to do with the ban, as claimed by the minister, then the committee should have said that the whole Exodus account is historically fallacious, and that the real reason for banning the film is because it doesn’t adhere to the holy books. However, for the committees to claim that they are scientific and concerned only with the “grave historical inaccuracies” in the film, without ever being bothered by the historical evidence of the Exodus account — all this makes me wonder about the committees’ real reasons for banning the film.

The fourth and most important reason is the grounds on which the decision was based, as mentioned in the first committee’s report. After listing the historical inaccuracies in the film, the committee concluded the report by saying: “Thereupon, we would have liked  to allow the screening of this movie in order to uphold the principle  of freedom of expression and creativity. However, this may lead to spreading the misconceptions conveyed by the film to a generation that receives most of its knowledge and culture through such films, which shatter the basis of Egyptian history. Therefore, the committee recommends the rejection of the film and not allowing it to be screened in Egyptian theaters.”

I don’t think the real problem here is limited to the implied patriarchal condescension. I think the problem lies in one word — “however.” Had the committee really believed in freedom of opinion, their statement should have used “although,” instead of “however.” Accordingly, it should have read as follows: “Thereupon, we recommend allowing the screening of this movie in favor of the principle of freedom of expression and creativity, although this may lead to spreading the misconceptions conveyed by the film.”

What am I getting at?

What I’m getting at here is that the principle of freedom of opinion and expression would be meaningless and irrelevant if the movie wasn’t controversial, if its ideas were undisputed and not shocking. Freedom of opinion and expression matter the most when I want to say something shocking, controversial and unfamiliar. Because, if everyone agrees with what I’m saying, then there’s no problem, and the principle of free speech wouldn’t be called for in the first place.

The principle of free speech becomes significant when any voice — whether in a movie, play, book, poetry or any work of art — is shocking and when it hurts people’s feelings and confuses them. But one may ask, “Why should we defend different opinions? Why allow something that might hurt people’s feelings? Why screen films that might perplex the youth with confusing ideas?”

The answer is simple, and it can be summed up in two main reasons: First, because this is the best way to achieve mental and political maturity. Good citizenship requires critical thinking in order for citizens to be able to make decisions and to assume responsibilities. That’s why a good citizen doesn’t only need accurate information, but also different explanations and opinions that can oftentimes be conflicting and confusing. A good citizen is particularly good when s/he can think and discuss with fellow citizens, and when the information available to them is not censored or supervised.

Secondly, history tells us that sometimes mainstream ideas, those that the majority ascribes to, can be wrong, and that a new, shocking, unfamiliar idea that people find strange and unacceptable may, at the end of the day, carry salvation, and that this idea may end up being useful for all members of society, not only for the one who expresses it.

The fifth reason that makes me strongly object to the minister’s decision to ban the movie is related to the previous reason. I know that some will respond by saying: “Come on, you’re being an idealist. This good citizen stuff doesn’t work here. We in Egypt are not ready for democracy yet, and our society isn’t ready to accept your ideas.” Others will say: “What you’re saying is dangerous. Don’t you know that we’re being targeted? Don’t you realize that there are many foreign powers looking after their interests here, trying to mess with our children’s minds and weaken their sense of belonging.”

My answer is that I’ve heard this, and I keep hearing it, in the oldest and strongest democratic countries. I’ve lived more than 25 years in western countries — in the UK and the US — and I have often encountered these ideas there as well. Even there, one occasionally hears voices suggesting that we should give up some of our freedoms to achieve some security, especially in times of wars and crises. I am also aware that these voices sometimes prevail and occasionally manage to restrict freedom of speech. The best example is the US Patriot Act, which allowed the authorities to spy on citizens’ calls, put them under surveillance and restrict free speech and expression.

In any society there will always be those who fear free speech, saying that opinions should be regulated and that otherwise our principles will be compromised and our national interests or national security threatened.

One difference is that in democracies those voices are marginal and are always countered by louder voices defending free speech, reminding everyone how crucial it is for any democratic society.

Another difference is that in democracies, those who attack and fear free speech are usually members of intelligence agencies, the church or the military. But here, the one who fears free speech is none other than His Excellency, the minister of culture.

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Khaled Fahmy