Writer: Jamal Belmahi, based on the book by Mahi Binebine
“I was very interested in violence itself because I believe violence has a source. It has a reason why; it doesn’t come from the sky. I was interested in the genesis of violence.”
– Nabil Ayouch
“The name that can be named is not the eternal name.”
– The Tao Te Ching
On the 16th of May, 2003, 12 suicide bombers set off explosions in five different locations in Casablanca, Morocco—locations chosen for the number of Jews and Christians expected to be present—killing forty-five people. Horses of God is the imagined backstory of this shocking event.
Most North Americans know little about the city of Casablanca other than its having been the setting of the classic Hollywood film set there and named after it. But let’s imagine that just as Ingrid Bergman and Humphrey Bogart are reuniting over the dulcet tones of Dooley Wilson singing “As Time Goes By,” a group of dour young men stroll into the bar and blow up the joint. You may have some idea of the shock caused by the terrorist act of May 16, 2003.
Backtrack. Brothers Yachine and Hamid are a couple of street urchins growing up in in Sidi Moumen, a slum outside Casablanca. Their mother is a shrew, their father seems to be suffering from PTSD, and their older brother appears to have suffered some kind of drug-induced brain damage. They struggle to help their families survive—even though there appears to be no future worth surviving for. Like so many of their peers, they’re learning how to drown their misery in violence, drugs, and alcohol. And these are the smart ones.
As counterintuitive as it seems, suicide bombers and other terrorists are no more likely to be stupid or mentally ill than you or I. It’s tempting to dehumanise terrorists by thinking of them as either simpleminded or criminally insane, but the research is clear: the only things that distinguish the terrorist from everyone else are their special circumstances and their willingness to follow orders.
Horses of God forms a very clear picture of the conditions that lead to terrorist acts. One has only to do a short study of martyrs from the history of any religion to see that those willing to martyr themselves were generally humiliated, hopeless human beings looking for some way to escape their wretched lives with a shred of dignity and the hope of a reward beyond the grave.
Although it doesn’t come across as preachy, Horses of God, in its roundabout way, suggests a solution. The German psychoanalyst Karen Horney wrote that a neurosis could only be cured by removing the conditions keeping that neurosis alive; the same might be said about stopping terrorism: remove the conditions that make religious extremism attractive, and you just might prevent acts of terror.
So what are the conditions that lead these young men to commit this crime? Poverty, poor education, social marginalisation, hopelessness, television images portraying a prosperous life in the west, and an astonishing ignorance of those elements within their own culture and religion which might have pulled them out of the morass.
In comparison with the slum’s poverty, debauchery, ugliness, vulgarity, and churlishness, the world of Islamist devotion is an oasis— clean, neat, orderly, respectful, polite, disciplined, calm, and ripe with a sense of divine purpose.
You want to believe that it’s the smart ones who resist the call, but not so; in fact it’s the most dissolute young men who reject the Salafists’ program and the smartest ones who accept it.
Entering a terrorist ring is for these young men simply the lesser of two evils; like it or not the world of religious zeal looks better in every way than the lives they’re abandoning; among the pious brothers they’re fed, clothed, taught, and granted a sense of belonging and respect. You can see how such deprived young people might be attracted to this kind of life. By the time Yachine dons his djellaba and joins the well-dressed men and boys headed to the mosque, you’re ready to cheer even though you know full well where all this is headed.
What looks to be devotion eventually shows itself to be a persecution complex complete with violent revenge fantasies. The brothers spout doubtful Hadiths and quote scripture out of context to justify the pain and destruction they wreak on innocent human beings.
The message can easily be extended to the bigger picture. The leaders of this cell demand martyrdom of the young men under them (as opposed to sacrificing themselves) in the name of the higher good they claim to love; it’s all part of a sick power game, a ploy used by tyrants to exercise an unnatural power over others. But are the brothers so different from nations that send young soldiers to war, reeling them in with nationalist propaganda?
The cinematography is dark, yet detailed. A zenith of gritty realism in which nothing sensational distracts from the film’s power to lead us into a state of empathy. We see a lot of long tracking shots of the slum, showing the ugliness of the poverty there. The acting also is formidably good, particularly that of Abdelilah Rachid in the role of Hamid; his steady gaze encompasses good and evil and begins to take on the will to good, as if to say that even within this cesspool of human ignorance and confusion there exists a redeeming radiance that can reverse the tidal wave of extremist violence.