Djihad: Belgium’s hit anti-radicalisation tragi-comedy


As a teenager in the Schaerbeek district of Brussels, Ismaël Saïdi could easily have been consumed by a different kind of “djihad”, as it’s spelled in his native French. Recruiters were in his streets, in his mosque, trying to convince young Belgian Muslims to go fight with the anti-Soviet mujaheddin.

“When I was 14, they were already trying to get us to go on planes to Afghanistan — it was not Syria then, it was Afghanistan,” Saïdi recounts, alluding to today’s phenomenon of young Belgians going in record numbers to Islamist battlefields in the Middle East.

“Everyone knew” it was happening then, Saïdi tells Equal Times, from the local community to the federal government, and even encouraged those efforts to help drive out the Soviets during the Cold War.

Some of Saïdi’s friends did get on those planes and he never saw them again. He went the other direction, becoming first a policeman, but soon, a playwright, focusing on Muslim cultural issues.

He says authorities knew young people were being lured away to Syria in recent years, too. But, he says, they “were sleeping” instead of finding ways to stop the radicalisation process until Belgium had become the country with the most citizens fighting there per capita.

So Saïdi, 39, knew exactly what he was doing in late 2014 – the year before the deadly terror attacks in Paris - when he chose the name Djihad for his play aimed at making vulnerable youth think twice before choosing that path.

“As an artist it was important for me to say that we can use any word,” Saïdi says, that “there aren’t words that we shouldn’t use because they’re sacred for someone.”

Saidi’s publicist Lucile Poulain says the name did make her life difficult as she struggled to promote a play carrying such a loaded title. “Journalists didn’t want to hear from us,” she laughs. “They didn’t even want to even write the name Djihad on their cultural events calendars of events.

“I received phone calls and emails [asking] me ’seriously, you named your play Djihad? Are you crazy or something?’” Poulain says people thought the show would somehow be calling people to arms.

The next shock is that it makes a comedy out of one of the most neuralgic issues in Belgium. And once the public got wind of just how cleverly it packages the counter-radicalisation message, Djihad took Belgium by storm.

The story of three rather directionless, disillusioned young men who somehow find themselves stumbling from a Brussels park to the killing fields of Syria has become a sensation.

Within weeks of its opening in December 2014, the Belgian Education Ministry declared it a “public service” and helped finance its continuation, paying for schools to bring their students for afternoon showings.

The initial five shows Saïdi funded himself has grown to well over a hundred, many of them sold out, scheduled all the way into 2017. It’s been translated and had its debut in the Netherlands; it goes to Paris in April. “The play that triumphs in Belgium,” says French newspaper Le Figaro.


Self-ridicule the key

The ’secret’ to the play’s success with both the general public and people who may be vulnerable to terrorist recruitment, Saïdi says, is that he is a Muslim making fun of Muslims.

“I’m laughing about me,” he explains, “and then I’m laughing about society.” He believes you can “laugh about anything” if you start with yourself.

Saïdi wrote it, directs it and plays the lead, an earnest young guy who always wanted to be an artist but was told Islam wouldn’t allow it. His two pals in the play are real-life friends Ben Hamidou and Reda Chebchoubi.

Ben gets laughs secretly playing out his Elvis obsession, complete with hip gyrations, while his friends sleep, and Reda’s cluelessness about what they are doing — including the revelation their trip to Syria is his first time on a plane — endears him to all.

Crowds all over Belgium have enthusiastically clapped, sung and laughed with the characters who are anything but stereotypical terrorists yet are still there in the Syrian desert bearing weapons for Islamist extremists.

Saïdi draws the audience into empathising with the men’s feelings of isolation, hopelessness and confusion within their religion and society.

The characters evolve over the play by discussing various interpretations of Islam and rejecting the most dogmatic. The group ends up befriending a Christian; Reda decides to go back to Belgium and pursue the love of his life, a non-Muslim woman named Valerie who he’d abandoned at his mother’s insistence – a true story.

Things don’t work out for the young men and audience members are often surprised, Saïdi says, to find themselves in tears. That’s all part of the experience he carefully crafts. “If you have the ability to feel something about those guys,” Saïdi says, “maybe everything’s not over.”

At a recent performance in Binche, students from the Collège Notre Dame de Bon Secours went into the show skeptical they’d find anything about jihad funny and came out filled with emotions.


Joking, seriously

Emma Innocente, age 17, said she still doesn’t understand how people her age can run off to Syria but now she does understand better why they feel isolated in Belgium. She hoped her school would make sure the conversation continued past the event of seeing the play.

“We don’t much have the opportunity to talk about this problem,” Innocente said, “and when we do it it’s because it’s on the newspaper or on TV. Now we can talk about it through laughing and through jokes and I think it was very interesting to have another point of view on the problem.”

But Saïdi’s strongest and most controversial message is for Muslims themselves, who he unapologetically says have not been taking responsibility for the way their young people feel about themselves and their futures.

“We have a problem,” he says bluntly. “We as Muslims create the origin of what we call today as radicalisation.” He says Muslim parents must teach their children to be integrated, to play with kids of other religions and backgrounds, to pursue whatever career or partner makes them happy.

Saïdi has said he’s not bothered by threats and won’t discuss whether any have been made to the team. But Poulain says everyone in the production is constantly aware it’s a distinct possibility.

After the recent terrorist attacks in Europe — carried out at least in part by European jihadists trained in Syria — some theatres cancelled performances. Shaking his head, Saïdi says he’s been told it would be like “pouring oil on fire” to advertise and host anything called Djihad, even as a deterrent.

Poulain says the troupe is undaunted. ”Of course we are afraid ourselves,” she says. “But the comedians are very courageous, very brave. And they want to stand for something.”