Egyptian film Mawlana tackles issue of religion and state

Sunday 29/01/2017
Egyptians walk past an advertisement featuring the Egyptian film Mawlana at a cinema in Cairo, on January 23rd. (Reuters)

Cairo - An Egyptian box office hit that highlights the re­ligious establishment’s cosy relations with the state has provoked a backlash from Sunni Muslim cler­ics, with some calling for the film to be banned.

Adapted from a novel by promi­nent journalist Ibrahim Eissa, Maw­lana — The Preacher — tells the story of a popular television preacher who struggles to reconcile his re­ligious principles with demands and pressures from politicians and security agencies as well as human temptations.

Through the protagonist, a cleric from al-Azhar, Cairo’s 1,000-year-old centre of Islamic learning, the film lays bare the complex and troubling interplay between the state, religious establishment, mass media and Islamist extremism in Egypt.

The issue could not be more time­ly.

Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi, a former army general, over­threw the Muslim Brotherhood gov­ernment in 2013 and is still battling radical Islamists. The day after the film’s premiere, a suicide bomber killed 28 people in an attack claimed by the Islamic State (ISIS) on Cairo’s main Coptic Christian cathedral.

Clerics at al-Azhar responded an­grily to the film, which they say tar­nishes the image of establishment Islam just as it steps up efforts to rein in violent extremism.

“The film came out at a bad time. This is a time when people are ask­ing to renew religious discourse and improve al-Azhar’s image. The film coming out now is very wrong. Even its title is problematic,” said Sameh Mohamed, a preacher at al-Azhar.

Mohamed said the film, in which the televangelist initially bends to the demands of senior officials be­fore having a change of heart, paints clerics as unprincipled and state-controlled.

Film director Magdy Ahmed Ali begs to differ. “This is the perfect time for the film,” he said. “The army is fighting terrorism, extrem­ism is on the rise and people are calling for a renewal of religious dis­course.”

Sisi has made combating extrem­ism a priority and assigned al-Azhar a central role in defending main­stream Islam. Egyptian courts have jailed thousands of Muslim Brother­hood followers during his rule.

Shortly after the military ousted the Brotherhood’s Muhammad Morsi from the presidency in 2013, the Religious Endowments Ministry fired 55,000 preachers not author­ised by al-Azhar.

The preachers were accused of inciting violence, spreading ex­tremist views or supporting the Brotherhood, the world’s oldest Islamist movement. The Brother­hood, which has been outlawed as a terrorist organisation, says it is peaceful.

Variety, the US entertainment trade paper, called the film “a forth­right critique of corruption and fun­damentalism” that was “certain to be one of the most discussed mov­ies” in Egypt.

Mawlana is showing to packed houses in regular commercial cine­mas, not just a few art houses in Cai­ro. It had taken in nearly $400,000 by its third week — a strong showing for a local film.

Apart from Sunni-Shia tensions, the film explores the origins and ef­fects of sectarian tensions that have flared in recent years between Mus­lims and Christians. Egypt’s Copts are the largest Christian minority in the Middle East, making up about 10% of the country’s population.

In the film’s dramatic climax, a young man blows up a church. Life imitated art the day after its pre­miere with the suicide bomb attack on Cairo’s Saint Mark’s Cathedral, the seat of the Coptic papacy.

“Religion, with power, with mon­ey is a killer triangle,” Eissa, who helped adapt the script for cinema, said. “This triangle is responsible for all the intellectual, political and social decline we are in.”