Usual Suspect

Posted in Terrorism , Africa | 10-Sep-03 | Author: Morgan Meis| Source: The American Prospect

Last month's bombings suggest the enduring significance of Casablanca -- and Casablanca.

Last month, suicide bombers struck almost simultaneously at various points around the Moroccan city of Casablanca. The targets were places where foreigners or Jews were known to congregate. Seeing Casablanca in international headlines has the effect, at least for most Americans, of calling to mind the film of the same name. It's a film that almost everyone knows something about even if they haven't seen it themselves. And it contains a number of insights that are not unrelated to the recent bombings.

By most accounts, Casablanca was something of an accident. Six screenwriters were modifying a play called Everybody Comes to Rick's; they changed the script daily. But the end result, however indebted to chance, was a work very difficult not to like -- and one that illuminated much about the state of the world in 1942.

One is reminded that Hollywood was itself a kind of Casablanca at the time. It was filled with the talent that had fled the Old World. The studios had the pick of some of the finest character actors of that generation. Many of them -- representing 34 nationalities -- were themselves part of the general migration fleeing Nazi Europe. And so the movie, from the very beginning, is also a movie about itself.

And that is why the film manages, as most do not, to be one of ideas -- even though few of these ideas are explicitly articulated onscreen. Casablanca has no great debates or brilliant insights about politics. But it is political through and through because the characters are nothing, and mean nothing, outside of the political situation in which they find themselves.

It was Aristotle who once said that man is a political animal. He meant, of course, that human beings are most human within the broadly social realm that we call politics. Casablanca is a movie about that way of being; it glories in that way of being.

Rick's Café American is, at its most basic, civil society as it has been cobbled together and jerry-rigged between competing governmental authorities. The fact that Casablanca belongs not wholly to anyone, to Morocco or France or Germany, means that it can partly belong to Rick. As the camera wanders around Rick's place, it stumbles across a set of civil institutions in the making, a societal framework both entirely new and carried over in fragments from the home nations of the participants. Its newness is captured in the following lines:

Carl: Madame, he [Rick] never drinks with customers. Never. I have never seen it.
Female companion: What makes saloonkeeper so snobbish?
Gentleman: Perhaps if you told him I ran the second-largest banking house in Amsterdam.
Carl: The second largest? That wouldn't interest Rick -- the leading banker in Amsterdam is now the pastry chef in our kitchen --
Gentleman: We have something to look forward to.
Carl: -- and his father is the bellboy!
Something of the movie's political context, meanwhile, is revealed in the scene where Ilsa and Rick meet for the first time since they left Paris:
Rick: Not an easy day to forget.
Ilsa: No.
Rick: I remember every detail. The Germans wore gray. You wore blue.
Ilsa: Yes. I put that dress away. When the Germans march out, I'll wear it again.
Renault: Ricky, you're becoming quite human. I suppose we have to thank you for that, mademoiselle.
Casablanca is, at its core, a tribute to civil society, to faith in the institution-building aspect of human reason. It is an homage to human capacity as that capacity is viewed through the lens of hope.In February 2003, Osama bin Laden issued an audiotape on which he urged his followers to attack Arab countries. He specifically named Morocco. On the tape, bin Laden said, "True Muslims should act, incite and mobilize the nation in such great events . . . in order to break free from the slavery of these tyrannic and apostate regimes enslaved by America." The bombs that exploded in Casablanca last month killed 41 people. It is interesting that the bombs were not primarily targeted at Moroccan or foreign governmental sites. One blast occurred near the Belgian consulate and may have been targeting a Jewish-owned restaurant. The others struck a Jewish community center, a Spanish restaurant and social club, and the Hotel Safir. They struck, in a sense, Rick's place, or what Rick's place has developed into over the years.

As Sonja Hegazy put it in her 1998 article "Civil Society: Democratization in the Arab World," published by the Ibn Khaldun Center for Development Studies:

Over the last ten years Morocco has undergone enormous changes. Its press is one of the most free in the Arab world. In the summer of 1994 all political prisoners on the lists of Amnesty International were released -- except for the Sahraouis. The infamous Tazmamart prison was levelled to the ground and the media today can actually write about it. Non-governmental organizations have also gained ground. In doing so they have developed creative ways to advance such civil society ideals as the right of dissent, free access to information, the right to an independent opinion and the right to initiate public debate. Legal aid organizations, community-based initiatives and non-governmental vocational training centers, as well as many journalists, artists, actors and writers, violate old taboos in their work. They present the core of a potential civil society.
It is this potential that was attacked when the bombs went off in Casablanca. The attack seemed designed to head off the trend noted by the International Forum for Islamic Dialogue, which explained that "the Moroccan experience has many attributes indicating its dynamism and the possibility of becoming a model for a peaceful transformation from autocracy to democracy."

That said, it has never been the sole project of Islamic fundamentalism to destroy civil society, nor has it ever been the sole project of Western modernity to protect it. For the movie Casablanca is, of course, a movie partly about Europe's descent into terror and the eradication of its civil space. This is another thing that Western and Islamic societies share: the fragility of space and certain kinds of social arrangements. And the fight to preserve and build these arrangements keeps coming back to Casablanca, the Casablanca that, not coincidentally, held the First International Conference of the Arab Human Rights Movement in 1999. Surely Casablanca is a world city now more than ever. With its fresh wounds, we shouldn't forget about Casablanca and we shouldn't forget about Rick's.