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When Fanaticism Makes Sense: Nabil Ayouch on Horses of God

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It's easy to condemn the actions of suicide bombers, but it's much harder to understand why people embrace such toxic philosophies in the first place. Part of the reason director Nabil Ayouch's most recent film Horses of God is so engrossing is because it puts a human face on the 12 terrorists who attacked 2014-05-21-Nabil.jpg>Casablanca, Morocco on May 16, 2003 and killed 45 people (that number includes the bombers) in the process.

Working from Mahi Binebine's novel of the same name, Horses of God follows two brothers, Yacine (Abdelhakim Rachi) and Hamid (Abdelilah Rachid), who grow from being children playing soccer in the slums outside the city to violent fanatics. The film was presented Un Certain Regard at the 2012 Cannes Film Festival and is now being presented here in the States by Academy Award-winning filmmaker Jonathan Demme (The Silence of the Lambs, Philadelphia). The film opened last week at the Film Forum in New York and opens nationwide later.

Contacted by phone from the Big Apple, the Parisian-born Ayouch explains that Morocco's history is just as complicated and eclectic as our own and how understanding what makes people embrace these homicidal ideologies is the only practical way to combat them. For clarity, I have edited some of his remarks.

Horses of God reached me on a personal level because my hometown, Overland Park, Kan. (a Kansas City suburb) suffered through a senseless hate crime a few weeks ago. A white supremacist shot and killed three people at the Jewish Community Center and a retirement home. The Casablanca bombers hit similar targets. He was so blinded by his hatred that he failed to notice all three of his victims were fellow Christians.

What's most alarming about the situation depicted in Horses of God is that it could happen anywhere.

This film is so powerful, in part, because you explore why people can become attracted to these violent movements. What is it that makes some of these dangerous movements so appealing?

The first thing the film is saying is that there's not one reason why a young boy can turn into a suicide bomber. There are many of them.

Of course, poverty is a fertile ground for that, but I guess what I felt was most evident when I spent some time in the shanty town is that those people felt totally abandoned. Those young boys, it's like they're cut off, cut off from the rest of the society.

The family doesn't play its part anymore. There is no father authority. There is no family structure around them to give them care, love and authority. And the State doesn't play its part anymore, either.
So when those 2014-05-21-hog2.pngfanatic people come to them and tell them they have a future, even if this future isn't bright, even if this future is to become a martyr, they jump into it because the fruit is already mature.

The imam in Horses of God reminds me of American cult leaders. He isolates the people who do have relatives from them and keeps them away from outside influences that could contradict his teachings.

I'm sure you can find lots of similarities, yes, because the process is always the same. Wherever you go and wherever you come from, you can find similarities between extremists from different religions, and you can find similarities with the process of the Mafia. In that case it's more like the Mafia because these people don't really have any "glue" with religion at all.

The process is indeed to exclude, to make those young boys alone, to cut them off from their friends, their relations and everybody who could give them some light, actually.

What's really sad is that until May 16, 2003, Casablanca had been a refuge for people who had to flee persecution in their native countries. In World War II, many people fled from the Nazis to there.

For a very long time, Morocco has been a land for many religions, many cultures, many citizenships. The Moroccan identity built itself on diversity of races and religions and on tolerance. We had first the Berber people and then the Jews and then the Arabs and then Christians and then the Africans. This is the Moroccans. It's a mosaic of many people and races.

What those boys wanted to burn out in that May 16, 2013 was this basis on which Moroccan identity was built over the centuries, by targeting this Jewish Community Center, this Jewish cemetery -- and how silly it can be to target a cemetery, by targeting this Italian restaurant, by targeting Café Espania, a five-star hotel.

This is the sad thing, and this is why so many Moroccans demonstrated in the streets the day after because they were shouting -- we were shouting because I was part of them, "Don't touch my country!" We were saying don't touch the diversity of races and religions in my country.

Visually, it's really striking how the slums outside of Casablanca in the film seem to go on forever and could not look more different than the actual city. Was it challenging to capture that?

Actually, that's one of the things that stuck with me the most when I've been to those shanty towns. Fifty percent of the young people I met at that time had never been to Casablanca. They didn't know what the city means to them.

It was too far. It was too inaccessible. For them, the only issue was how to survive. They speak of the "open sky jail" that is their shanty town.

So that's what I wanted to screen in the film, giving the feeling that we're stuck, that we're imprisoned in an enclosed space, and to give this feeling, to have these area shots to show how big is the prison, and also to give a feeling of the distance between.

In the film, you point out that Moroccan society changed when King Hassan died in 1999 and King Muhammad succeeded him. How did that change the country?

Hassan II, the previous king, had an image among the Moroccan people of being a tough king with a strong authority. So when his son, Mohammad VI came on to the throne, he was more the "cool" king, the "king of the poor" was how we called him. He was very close to the people, very human with a big heart, which he is, actually.

At that time there was a sense that there was going to be less authority in the neighborhood. And then the militias of Islamists came up at that time, and they made their own laws. They decided by themselves what they could do or what the people of those neighborhoods could do and not do. And they forced people, especially forcing women to veil themselves. They killed some drunkards and so on.

I remember clearly this period of two or three years where there was this new Morocco where there was more freedom of speech, civil rights for people and everybody was very happy with that.

But for some categories of people, they thought they could make their own law.

You seem to be making the film for two audiences because, even though, it's in the local languages (Arabic, French) in Casablanca, it also seems to be designed to make life in Morocco easier for outsiders to grasp.

You're right. When I did Horses of God, I'm not targeting only the Moroccan Arab audience because this is a topic that is so important and so wide. And in this global world, suicide bombings can happen everywhere at any time. So, we're all concerned.

But as long as we are coming up to the topic of radical Islamism, and we can see very clearly in Hollywood movies and the way it is treated, I guess it's important that people all over the world, in America and in Europe, that they hear another voice about this topic.

When I see those Hollywood movies, I understand the point of view, but I don't agree with them most of the time because they are trying to uniformize violence, to take off faces, names from the people who are committing the violence. This violence has no name, no source, as if it came from nowhere.

For me, it's not true. For me, violence comes from somewhere. Violence has a source, and it's not black or white. We have to really pay attention to why a ten-year-old boy can become a suicide bomber. To me, it's important not to make a bad mix between religion and violence, between Islam and terrorism and so on.

Sometimes it's important to get into the real life of those people, from the very beginning, from where the story begins. Some Arab directors like me who live in the middle of the Arab world, close to the shanty towns. I spent lots of years there with those boys before making the film. I did lots of research on the ground, with writers, specialists. It's important that the film speak to an Arab audience.

In America, the emotional and political impact of 9/11 was instantaneous, but in Horses of God, the impact and reaction to the attack and the blowback seems more gradual in Morocco. It's over a period of a couple of years where the imam in the film gains power.

I was going to say it's simple, but it's not simple. In the '70s and the '80s, to fight the Moroccan leftists at that time, King Hassan II opened the doors of Morocco to radical Islamists from Saudi Arabia, the Salafists, the Wahhabists.

In Morocco, we have another sect in Islam called the Malikites, and it's more tolerant.

As I told you at the beginning, it's more open. And then when we saw those people coming from Saudi Arabia in the '70s and the '80s to fight against the leftists, they integrated the whole society, especially the schools and the universities. Sociology and philosophy were forbidden during this period.

So, we slowly saw how the perception of Islam should be taught, on which precepts it should be taught changing. It was not us anymore. And those people (the outsiders), they went especially to the poor areas. They were in areas where people don't have social care, where they can't buy sheep for Eid (the last day of the holy month of Ramadan).

They went there and said, "You don't have money for that? We can a sheep for you. You don't have money to send your son to the schools? Don't worry. They don't have to go to the schools. They can come to our schools. We can teach them what Islam is."2014-05-21-hog1.jpg
They don't have social support. "We can pay for your grandmother." It's like we show in the film.

In those villages, far away from the cities, in the shantytowns, in the places that were cut off from the rest of the society and the economic development, they introduced people to strong positions. That's how it came.

You can see it in your Yacine's brother, Hamid. When he comes back from prison, he looks healthy and his clothes are so clean they shine.

Exactly. Instead of coming out as a broken man, he comes out from jail as a new man.

I've had friends rediscover their faith, and they're better people for it, so it horrifies me to see what happens to the members of the cult in your film.

I am agnostic. I am not practicing any religion. I'm coming from a half-Muslim background. My father is Muslim. My mother is Jewish, and I graduated from a Catholic school. I know pretty well all the religions of the book.

Although I'm agnostic, I think there should be some nice way to practice religion today in this world.

Instead people give religion, especially Islam, an image we don't want to see because, actually, it's not true.

I had a friend who was Pakistani, and he told me that 9/11 was the worst thing that could have happened to Muslims living here in the States. On one hand, the terrorists wanted to kill him simply because he was living here. On the other hand, people constantly looked at him with suspicion simply because he was a Muslim.

That was a bad period. I was here actually in the months after September 11.

But at the same time in the big cities, I remember clearly in the big cities like New York and Los Angeles, I noticed a big interest in the American people toward Islam. I was going to bookstores, and the salesmen were all telling me that people were coming to know more about Islam. They wanted to buy the Qur'an. They wanted to understand where this came from.

At the same time, I think it was sad and good because those Americans who went to university wanted to know more about the religion.

All photos © 2014 Kino Lorber. Used by permission.

Official Trailer for Horses of God.