- Title: Belgian writer explores radicalisation in "Jihad" play, hoping to deter youth
- Date: 24th January 2017
- Summary: SAIDI CRYING ON STAGE AND SHOUTING (French): "Yes, I regret it. Why did we come here? Why did we come here? Who is the enemy? Who is the enemy? One day, it's the Jews, the next day it's the Christians, the next it's the Sunnis, the next it's the Shi-ites."
- Embargoed: 7th February 2017 11:01
- Keywords: Jihad play theatre radicalisation youth Syria Iraq Belgium France
- Location: VALENCIENNES, FRANCE/ SCHAERBEEK DISTRICT, BRUSSELS, BELGIUM
- City: VALENCIENNES, FRANCE/ SCHAERBEEK DISTRICT, BRUSSELS, BELGIUM
- Country: Belgium
- Topics: Conflicts/War/Peace,Military Conflicts
- Reuters ID: LVA00860FX9AF
- Aspect Ratio: 16:9
- Story Text: A Belgian playwright exposed to radicalisation in his youth is hoping theatre will deter youngsters away from the path of extremism.
"Jihad", a play by 40-year-old Ismael Saidi, is a dark comedy which follows three young Brussels-based men who decide to leave for Syria and fight along other jihadists.
Europeans fighting alongside Islamist groups in Syria and Iraq have been high on the agenda of European security concerns for several years.
Returned fighters have been involved in the November 13 attacks in Paris that left 130 people dead and, four months later, the Brussels bombings that killed 32 people.
A study in 2016 by the Netherlands-based International Centre for Counter-Terrorism found that French, Germans and Britons make up the highest number of foreign fighters in the Syrian rebel ranks from European countries, but Belgium is the largest contributor in proportion to its population.
In addition, only 18 percent of fighters from Belgium had returned, compared to 50 percent of those who had left from Denmark.
The play, which attempts to analyse the causes of departure to try to prevent it, has seen wide support in Belgium and has been recognised by French Education Minister Najat Vallaud-Belkacem as a tool to prevent radicalisation.
Saidi was born to Moroccan parents and raised in the Brussels district of Schaerbeek, an area of the Belgian capital which has faced with radicalisation. He had never turned extreme, Saidi said, but he was exposed to such views in his youth.
Some of his childhood friends went to Syria and he was approached in the nineties to sign up to travel to Iraq during the war.
"When you are young and you have someone who tells you some truths that you know, in fact, which are still happening. It's true that it makes you think. What frightens me with jihad - and I think it's really disturbed me since the beginning - is that I wrote a story which was supposed to take place 25 years ago. It was not meant to be current; it was not meant to reach out to young people. And when the media says to me you were a visionary, I respond: 'No, I was outdated. I wrote a thing of the past.' What's pathetic, is that it actually speaks to them," he told Reuters in his dressing room, after his play was performed in northern France.
An idle life in Belgium pushes characters Ben, Reda and Ismael, played by Said, into believing they should fight in the name of their religion.
Along the route from Schaerbeek to the Syrian town of Homs via Istanbul, the three men reveal the various reasons that pushed them to leave.
When they arrive in Syria, the world of "jihad" is far from the ideal they had imagined.
Saidi said governments needed to lower the threshold when determining the route to radicalisation.
"What do the governments call 'radicalised'? Where do you put the threshold? That's what I ask. If the threshold is too high, telling you it's when they leave, and that they will come back to kill, it's because you want to protect yourself from radicals. I don't have a problem with that; I understand. You raise the threshold, but we're not out of the woods yet. I think that, for me, with jihad, the bar is very, very low. For me, from the moment you make a six-year-old girl wear a veil, we have a problem. From the moment I teach my son that eating pork sends him to hell, and that he will spend some time with your son, that's a problem in fact. I created the gulf, me. I created the 'them and us', I created it," he said.
"Jihad" was shown in Belgium for over a year before being brought to France, and has since been shown 214 times to a total of 40,000 young people aged between 14 and 17.
Back in Schaerbeek, 36-year-old local storekeeper Bekkay Ziani was sceptical the play would work.
"I explain (the idea of jihadism) to my son better than a play can. I'm the one who has the responsibility at home. What can a play explain in an hour? Life lasts for years and years, for centuries, and my children are with me each morning and each evening. Each day, I explain to them what happens and that that, it's not normal," the father of four said.
After watching the performance in Valenciennes, young pupils reacted positively to the show.
"They've never read the Koran. They go there, and they find themselves in situations, and they say to themselves: 'how is it possible that we're here? We can't have gone there,'" 13-year-old Hicham Sayed said.
Saidi holds an interactive question-and-answer session with audience members after the show.
"It really moved me because it's really a problem that is created these days in society, that we must fight against. So it's with plays like that that we can change things, I think. So that it raises awareness among young people and so they can be aware of jihad, as we could see it."
16-year-old pupil Sarah Moussaddak, who is a practicing Muslim, said.
Saidi, a former policeman, said he wrote the play to say "enough is enough" to those pursuing the route of jihad.
"I know what it is to be born to foreign parents, from another country, and to grow up, mess around, listen to bullshit imams, listen to bullshit speeches, find rotten books. I know all of that, I know it. That has to stop. The play is that. The play says: 'this has to stop, guys.' The proof is in how it ends," he said.
The play ends with Saidi's character Ismael being blocked from receiving a job due to his past. He was tempted to commit an attack, until his friend Reda stops him.
Saidi has since premiered a new play in Belgium called "Gehenn", in which a radicalised man attacks a Jewish day-care centre, killing several children.
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