CAIRO » As a new constitution engraves Islam ever more firmly into Egyptian law, a young comic’s escalating battle with a group of ultraconservative television sheiks has become an early skirmish over the application of Islamic law, or Shariah.
In the weeks leading up to the referendum over the Islamist-backed charter, sheiks hosting Islamist variations on "The 700 Club" have spent weeks attacking the protesters who clogged Cairo’s streets, calling them perverts, drug users, paid thugs and Christians. When a 38-year-old television comedian, Bassem Youssef, began mocking the sheiks for their outlandish allegations, they turned on him, too, accusing him of sexual immorality and even poor hygiene.
"Bassem Zipper," one called him, "the varmint." Youssef "doesn’t know how to wash after he uses the bathroom," another one said.
Far from offended, Youssef replayed clips of their attacks. "To those who tell me, ‘You insult the sheiks and scholars,’ I say, ‘The equation is very simple,"’ he told his audience. "‘Just like you don’t consider us Muslims, to us, you’re not sheiks or scholars."’
Youssef, who takes "The Daily Show" and Jon Stewart as models, has used parody to argue that the ultraconservatives, known as Salafis, are distorting Islam, and for the moment, his satire appears to have trumped their sanctimony. Youssef is winning not only the laughs of young audiences but also the endorsements of respected Muslim scholars. He even won a grudging apology from one of his critics.
"They outdo each over Shariah in a way that demeans Shariah and has no basis in Shariah," said Sheik Ahmed Kerima of the Al Azhar mosque-university, defending Youssef.
Habib Ali al-Jifri, an internationally known Islamic scholar based in Yemen, proclaimed that "if the enemies of Islam used all their resources to abuse it, they wouldn’t have been able to do what the sheiks did." They had passed off their own "low morals," he wrote, as divine teachings.
No one pretends that a late-night comedy show can erase the popular support of the Salafis or the more mainstream Muslim Brotherhood, another target of Youssef’s humor. But during his war of words with the sheiks, young men at street cafes in poor neighborhoods far from Cairo could be seen watching his show and shaking with laughter.
Egyptian liberals, delighted, say they have found a new champion.
"He makes a point of saying, ‘We are reclaiming Islam. Islam belongs to us and not you. As Muslims we are offended by what you are saying, so we are defending our religion by ridiculing you,"’ said Hossam Bahgat, executive director of the Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights. At the same time, Bahgat said, "he is very good with the sexual innuendos as well."
"You could write a Ph.D. dissertation on the contradictions in Salafi discourse, or I could write a human rights report about its bigoted rhetoric," Bahgat added, "but none of this is half as effective as one of Bassem’s weekly shows."
Youssef stumbled into satire. A heart surgeon trained in the United States, he decided to take advantage of the media freedom after the ouster of Hosni Mubarak by making his own online parody of a news program, ridiculing liberals and revolutionaries just as much as conservatives and reactionaries. Appearing first only on YouTube, the show was soon picked up by private satellite networks and is now known as "Al-Bernameg," or "The Program." In the spring, Youssef even appeared as a guest alongside Stewart on "The Daily Show."
During the sometimes violent struggle over the Islamist-backed constitution, though, Youssef turned with special attention to what he called the "merchants of religion," the pious Islamist television shows also newly emboldened after Mubarak.
After a night of deadly street fighting between the Islamists and their opponents, Youssef played clips in which one sheik after another demonized the protesters in much the same way that Mubarak’s state-run news media once portrayed the demonstrators in Tahrir Square, Youssef noted. But the Islamists were more vulgar.
"A bunch of thugs and female dancers," Gamal Saber, an ultraconservative Islamist spokesman, called the protesters who camped outside the presidential palace. "You saw with your eyes the alcohol bottles they drank from — those who claim to be revolutionaries — and the coal they used to light their water pipes," he said, citing as evidence of their decadence only piles of apples and juice boxes that he insisted had been found at the site of the camp.
In another clip, a member of the Salafi movement’s main governing council listened solemnly as a caller purported to describe even more sordid discoveries. "I swear to the glory of Allah, I found money in — I’m sorry about the word, excuse me — a man’s backside," the caller said. Another Salafi sheik, Shabaan Mahmoud, told his audience that his supporters had found "the best and most sophisticated kinds of liquor" as well as "vaginal wash that prevented pregnancy after sex." Ashraf Badr el-Din, a former lawmaker from the Brotherhood’s political party, insisted there were condoms as well. "Why would protesters have condoms?" he asked.
Others were sure the protesters were gay. Or they described discoveries of sexual lubricants, money or receipts from Persian Gulf monarchies hostile to the Islamists.
"So far, those protesters have drugs, coal for water pipes, condoms and money," Youssef told his audience incredulously. "All they need is a couple of belly dancers and five men from the Gulf to open a nightclub."
Youssef played Christmas carols over clips of the sheiks condemning the protesters as Christians.
"A message to the Egyptian Church," Safwat Hegazy, a conservative television preacher close to the Muslim Brotherhood, thundered to an Islamist rally in one of the clips. "Never ally with the remnants of the old government," he said. "We will never allow for 60 percent of those around the presidential palace to be Christians who chant against the legitimate authority."
Another Salafi sheik, apparently speaking in a mosque, urged his listeners to recapture Tahrir Square from protesters. "No matter who dies and no matter who’s killed," he said. "And the rule is well known: Our dead are in heaven, and their dead are in hell."
"So to become a martyr, you need apply for the party’s ID card?" Youssef asked, displaying a membership card for the Brotherhood’s political arm. "Is everyone going to tailor the path to paradise to their own measurements?"
Soon the sheiks were aiming their fury mainly at Youssef. Sheik Khaled Abdullah, another television preacher, lashed out at Youssef’s audience, calling them "paid kids from downtown." Nabih el Wahsh, a lawyer and frequent guest on Salafi networks, called the same viewers "a bunch of gays and hermaphrodites."
Sheik Abu Islam Ahmed Abdullah, who owns his own satellite channel, joined in the verbal assault. "Yes, we’re the ones who were told by God to tell people how to go to heaven and how to go to hell," he said to Youssef over the airwaves, quoting the Quran to back up his insults.
"The Quran itself cursed at the likes of Bassem Youssef," Abdullah said.
But after reprimands for reducing Islam to an exchange of insults with late-night comic, Abdullah last week professed a change of heart. He asked Youssef’s forgiveness for being "tough on him."
In apparent attempt at humor, Abdullah then presented an altered picture of Youssef in a Muslim woman’s veil. His face was so beautiful he ought to cover it, too, Abdullah said. "You have to cover your eyes," he said, weirdly, laughing. "God bless your eyes, your lips, and your head and your tongue."
Faced with such compliments, Youssef did not know what to say. "This case is becoming very difficult," Youssef responded dryly via Twitter.