Monday, March 20, 2017

Revolution for Dummies, by Bassem Youssef

Bassem Youssef became a media sensation in the wake of the Arab Spring in Egypt.  He started a YouTube program which expanded into a weekly TV show that became one of the most successful television shows of any kind in the Arab world.  His brand of political satire, which was inspired by his hero, the American satirist Jon Stewart, ruffled feathers on every side of the social, religious, and political scene in Egypt.  He writes about his rise from surgeon to TV star to exile in Revolution for Dummies: Laughing Through the Arab Spring.

The events and factions of the Arab Spring are mostly mysterious to Americans, so Youssef's narrative and explanations are welcome.  He acknowledges his own inadequacies, and refers the reader to boring scholarly books for a more historically accurate account.  He writes, "Let me give you some advice: if you think you are ever going to truly understand what is happening in the Middle East . . . stop!"  Still, as he tells his perspective, a clearer picture of this period in Egyptian history comes into view.

Since Youssef came to fame as a political satirist, I expected this book to be funny.  He gets in a couple of good one-liners, like "This is how you know you are in an Arab country: you are either stuck in a revolution or in traffic."  But other than a couple of zingers, it wasn't funny.  Not at all.  I'm guessing his show was much funnier.

My overall impression of Youssef is that he is arrogant and unlikable.  He built his reputation on being a contrarian, calling out Egypt's changing constellation of leadership for their hypocrisy.  He does that, but the problem is that everyone who disagrees with him is an a--hole.  He claims to be Muslim, but I never heard a good statement of what that means to him.  To him, every Muslim leader in Egypt is hypocritical and power driven.  No matter who is in power, he opposes their every word.  That seems like an unprincipled, untenable way to live.

He lets his criticism spill over into American politics as well.  Trying to emulate his hero Jon Stewart, he tries to trump Stewart's anti-Trumpism.  But it comes off as artificial and overblown.  His attempts to equate Trump with Egyptian regimes that run over peacefully demonstrating civilians with tanks don't fly.  His comparisons of Fox News to the the Egyptian broadcasters who work hand-in-hand (or maybe hand-in-glove) with the government similarly fall flat.  If he wants to see examples of government and the news media working together, perhaps he should have paid more attention to the Obama administration and Hillary Clinton's presidential campaign.

Youssef, perhaps inadvertently, gives support to Trump's position on Islam.  He writes about that crazy YouTube movie that someone made about Mohammed.  (He buys Secretary of State Clinton's line that the attack on the Benghazi embassy was a reaction to the video.)  Muslims throughout the Arab world rioted, issued death threats, etc.  Youssef writes, "Isn't it a wonder that when people accuse Islam and its Prophet of being violent and extreme, the first reaction out of Muslims is violence and extremism?"  On Trump's immigration policies, Youssef says, "When Muslims worry about Trump becoming president and how he will deal with Muslims, they are just worried they will be treated the same way they treat non-Muslims in their countries.  Like sh--."

I would like to have read some reflections on political Islam from someone who is both a faithful Muslim and who is in favor of religious freedom and diversity.  I am in no position to judge Youssef, of course.  I have never met him.  But I feel like someone who so flagrantly displays his opposition to Muslim practices and theology is probably not a good representative of the faith.  E.g.: A sheik "proffered that freedom devoid of religious control would inevitably lead to sexual freedom and orgies happening in the streets (which sounds like heaven on earth to me)."

Instead we get a guy who wants to kiss up to liberal Americans by parroting anti-Trump, anti-Fox news one liners, who equates the political and religious cesspool that his country has turned into with the American political and religious atmosphere.  Sure, there are parallels.  He says that "radical Christians and radical Muslims are not that different," while failing to acknowledge the yawning chasm that exists between radical religionists in the U.S. and in the Arab world.  Again, I don't see Christian clergy crushing protestors in the streets of New York.

Youssef faced opposition and personal peril to himself and his family due to his outspoken political statements.  He gained a large following in Egypt, where there was no tradition to vocal opposition to the government.  For that, the recognition he has received for being an influential voice in his home country is warranted.  But as he tries to continue his caustic brand of commentary across the Atlantic the result is more screeching than substantial.

Thanks to Edelweiss and the publisher for the complimentary electronic review copy!

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