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Translating the hate preacher

In his film "Hamburg Lessons", Romuald Karmakar uses radical reduction to reveal the Islamist mindset

The media's canon of imagery associated with Islam is as limited as it is omnipresent: the Turkish girl with the headscarf, men praying in the mosque, fanatic demonstrators, the invariable rubble-strewn landscape of the Gaza Strip, and of course the video message of the gaunt old man with the beard and Kalashnikov. Some people in the West cannot let these images go. The Islamist threat has taken centre stage in our political image of the world. Some people have become so tired of these images that they prefer to repress the reality depicted in them, however distorted and cliched it might be.

Manfred Zapatka in "Hamburg Lessons"
© Pantera Film

Opinions are divided over the question of how high the Islamist threat should sit on the political agenda. Is it the challenge of an epoch for Western culture - the new totalitarianism in the face of which we must stand up for our freedom? Or is it "merely" a very complex security problem. Television images provide no answers here. They do not show how and what Islamists think.

Romuald Karmakar's film "Hamburger Lektionen" (Hamburg lessons) makes this thinking visible by opting for extreme asceticism. The only thing you see in the actor Manfred Zapatka. Wearing a black suit and dark shirt, he reads the answers that the Imam in Hamburg's Al-Quds mosque (more) gave in 2000 in two "lessons" to questions that arose among the believers gathered in the prayer room. The only trace elements of any "acting" come when Zapatza reaches for some notes which are handed to him by a shadow or are placed on a stool next to him.

Mohammed Fazazi's lessons were recorded anonymously on video and distributed as propaganda material. The film's script is nothing more than the German translation. Zapatka reads the text in a neutral and distanced voice, he presents it, makes it known. The prospect of having to sit through 133 minutes of an Imam's theological hair-splitting and the thickness of the manuscript in Zapakta's hands is enough to make any viewer balk. Get out of the cinema quick, says the voice in your head. But the effect of this minimal set-up soon starts to work. Not the extreme images in the daily flood of news, but the words of a man speaking deliberately to a virtually stationary camera open up the cosmos of the Islamist mind, revealing the mentality of its propagandists and making tangible the atmosphere of the parallel world of the mosques and prayer houses.

Fazazi, who came to Hamburg at the end of the nineties, was given a 30-year sentence in Morocco for abetting the suicide bombings in Casablanca. Three of the pilots responsible for 9/11 were regulars at his Hamburg mosque. There is no way of ascertaining whether they attended the lessons in 2000. But it is not ridiculous to imagine that in the dingy building in Hamburg's red-light district – twice the film shows a view of the street for a few seconds – a monstrous crime ripened that was to become a caesura in the world's history.

Karmakar's film communicates this insight without resorting to investigative or revelatory tactics. It does not show hidden connections and machinations, just what is right in front of our eyes, for us to translate. The exposure of criminal political networks which merits any amount of reporter's sweat is one point. The other is the sequestered world of thought that is shared by Muslims living among us. The "Hamburg Lessons" takes us through it.

The issues include when exactly Ramadan starts or what exigencies might allow a Muslima to travel without her husband or a male relative. Fazazi's answers to such questions about practical living leave no doubt that for him, Islam dictates every last detail in the life of the believer. Unlike Judaism or Christianity, it is the only "complete", "perfect" religion, to which the law, politics and private life must submit. The appalling physical punishments of Sharia serve to guarantee the well-being of the Islamic community, the Umma. And this community is in the process of fighting a war against the "unbelievers". The West declared war on Islam which is why Muslims living in Germany and other European countries are in hostile surroundings. The Germans, French and English are not non-believers with whom the Muslim can live together in peace by agreement, but rather wartime enemies who one may kill "by slitting the throat" at any time. Whether or not it comes to that depends on the balance of power. After centuries of colonial exploitation, the Islamic world is in a position of weakness. Muslims have to use their strength cleverly. Fazazi's audience – so the subtitles inform us – likes to giggle when the Imam gives this sort of advice.

This is the second time that Karmakar has resorted to radical reduction to break through the curtain of mass media images. In "The Himmler Project" Zapatka read out the Posner speech of the SS chief and peeled the SS costume packaging off of his biological racist extermination thinking. "Hamburg Lessons" proves anew that enlightening cinema can involve the renunciation of images.


This article originally appeared in Die Welt on September 19, 2007.

Eckhard Fuhr is editor of the Feuilleton section at Die Welt.

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