Hey, get this: an atheist, a feminist, and two Algerian Islamists walk into a bar and . . .
Well, ok, not quite, but almost.
In the play Madah-Sartre: The Kidnapping, Trial and Conver(sat/s)ion of Jean-Paul Sartre and Simone de Beauvoir by Algerian Francophone playwright Alek Baylee Toumi, French intellectuals Jean-Paul Sartre and Simone de Beauvoir show up in Algeria at the 1993 funeral of Tahar Djaout, a writer who was assassinated by Islamists. (Wait, you say, Sartre died in 1980 and De Beauvoir in 1986! Yes, but this is fiction.)
Islamists kidnap Sartre and De Beauvoir at gunpoint and then threaten them with death unless they convert to Islam. An international outcry leads to a flurry of activity and an ineffective “diplomatic waltz.” As for the captives, already being dead gives them a great advantage: Sartre and De Beauvoir have utterly nothing to fear in the face of a death threat. They challenge their captors—intellectually, of course.
So begins Madah-Sartre, written originally in French, and now available in English translation. What follows is a spirited debate between Madah (part of a group of Islamist thugs) and Sartre, and a debate of somewhat less substance between Madah’s nameless female counterpart “Chief Chador” (reflecting her leadership role among the female Islamists and veiled attire) and De Beauvoir.
Madah and his Islamist gang view intellectuals as their movement’s greatest threat. As a result, they desperately seek to convert Sartre and De Beauvoir to Islam.
Yet Madah is more desperate than he is clever. Early on he gives Sartre a Quran to read in between “conversion” sessions. Madah returns from a weekend hiatus expecting that Sartre’s reading of the Quran has led him to embrace Madah’s Islamism. Quite to the contrary, Sartre has been armed with arguments against Madah’s fundamentalist ideology. The philosopher contrasts what he has learned from the Quran about respect for “people of the Book” (Christians and Jews) with the extreme restrictions in Algeria placed not only on Christians, Jews, and atheists, but on Muslims who disagree with the Islamist creed.
Sartre launches into a hefty argument in favor of religious freedom for believers and non-believers alike. Sartre defends rights for Madah which Madah denies for Sartre; Sartre asserts, “Democracy and freedom are not Western luxuries, but rights for everyone. I have defended, and still defend, liberty and justice for all, including you Madah.” Madah has no substantive response; he just calls Sartre a heretic. (Sartre’s “heresy” in the play is, however, not atheism. Sartre and De Beauvoir now live in heaven where they have encountered God.)
Madah seems to have quite a high opinion of himself and his ideology. But Sartre is unimpressed. He bluntly points out that his captors have failed in providing their people with such basics as food, literacy, and an economic livelihood, all because Madah and his cohorts pursue their “obsession” with “eliminating others who are different, at all costs.”
Rather than just sitting back smugly and condemning their captors while patting themselves on the back for their own tolerance and critical thinking, Sartre and De Beauvoir engage their opponents, trying to unravel the fundamentalism which has their captors tied in mental knots. It is listening to the arguments of their captors that enables Sartre and De Beauvoir to counter their captors’ arguments, and from time to time even toss in a slam-dunk argument which leaves their captors dumbfounded. Engagement leads to cracks in an ideology which had thrived in isolation. The partial success Sartre has in his debates with Madah comes not by self-promotion, but rather by focusing on Madah's ideology and highlighting the weaknesses in it. Sartre does not try to change Madah's mind by promoting all-things-French and all-things-existentialist the way State Department public diplomacy seems to believe that if they just repeat promotion of "U.S.A.! U.S.A.! U.S.A.!" like a broken record it will sway our adversaries to turn away from hateful ideologies.
In all this, Toumi may nudge some play-watchers and play-readers out of their comfort zones. His proposal is a bold one. It asserts that Islamists should be met by arguments, and not just by guns, wiretaps, and airport screening lines.
The juxtaposition of Islamists with super secular Europeans advancing superior arguments might make one wonder if the plot is anti-Muslim. Au contraire. Before the play even starts Toumi includes a “WARNING”. He notes, “The victims are Muslims, while the killers, the assassins, the terrorists are Islamists” (emphasis his). In the play itself Toumi stresses repeatedly that Madah and Chief Chador do not represent Islam. Toumi’s portrayal of “man-on-the-street” Muslims is sympathetic.
The play’s most powerful testament to the suffering of peaceful Muslims at the hands of Islamists is the character of the taxi driver—a nameless, hardworking, faithful Muslim man just trying to feed his nine children and wife, and care for his ailing mother. He does not, like Madah, drive around in a Saudi-provided Rolls Royce. Rather, the taxi driver struggles terribly to meet day-to-day needs and is treated badly at every turn: bullied by Islamist thugs, bullied by government thugs, unable to get basic healthcare in a healthcare system void of “care” but full of corruption.
Still, reading these debates in which only anti-religious secularists get a say against the Islamists left me wondering what Muslims who favor peace and are comfortable with pluralism (like the taxi driver) would say to Madah and Chief Chador. Toumi’s amusing creativity has developed a plot with potential beyond just this play. Imagine a television series in which Muslim champions of peace and creativity return to have a word or two with Madah and Chief Chador. Just for starters, Pathan leader Badshah Khan (1890-1988), an effective Muslim advocate of non-violence, Iranian poet/painter Sohrab Sepheri (1928-1980), a voice for beauty and joy, and Sufi Rabia (717-801), who highlighted God’s love, would, be candidates. Of course one would hope that already being dead would not be a prerequisite for intellectual engagement free from fear. Stay tuned.