As if the Pope’s remarks were not enough, Sacha Baron Cohen’s new movie is poised to precipitate yet another international crisis. Kazakhstan president Nursultan Nazarbayev plans to bring up Cohen’s Borat character, a bumbling Kazakh journalist who hardly brings credit to his countrymen, at a meeting with President Bush.
Cohen is the British comedian who created Ali G, a satirical character who either mocks black street culture, or whites who throng to embrace it.
The academic world hasn’t quite figured out which of these is true. This is not surprising. Cohen, who was educated at Cambridge, built his stage personality on acting clueless and stupid, and seems to be several steps ahead of his audience, who can’t quite figure him out. His “Throw the Jews Down the Well” routine, which really mocks antisemites, seemed so real and authentic that Jew-haters responded with glee to the suggestion. British Rabbis have urged Cohen – whose parents attend an Orthodox synagogue to drop his immensely popular Ali G persona, because its mockery of others is not consistent with Jewish values, and fans resentment towards other Jews. (Ali G has since migrated to the other side of the Atlantic, and has taken up residence on HBO. I guess he’s our problem now.)
Cohen’s new Borat film was recently unwrapped to appreciative audiences at a Toronto film festival. Kazakhs find Borat deeply offensive for completely misrepresenting their country as they see it.
Kazakhstan, second largest of the former Soviet republics, is not well known to Westerners. It is no typical backwater. It has shown real growth in its GDP, won an investment-grade credit rating, pursued a rational foreign policy friendly to its strongest neighbors (Russian and China) as well as the West. It’s literacy rate is close to 99%. It paid its debt (the first former Soviet republic to do so) seven years ahead of schedule. Jews live there relatively undisturbed, and President Nazarbayev personally intervened years ago on behalf of thirteen Jews imprisoned by Iran on an espionage charge.
Did I mention that Kazakhstan’s largest religious group (almost 50%) is Muslim?
So what does this largely Muslim state do, in a week that saw Muslims riot, murder, plunder and issue death-threats, to prove that the Pope was wrong in suggesting that they were violent?
Kazakhs did not issue a fatwa against Baron Cohen. They did not disrupt oil pipelines, torch movie theaters, or burn churches and synagogues.
Instead they hired two PR firms to take their case directly to the public with ads and articles bent on educating Americans about the true Kazakhstan. What a novel idea – using rational discourse instead of firebombs!
I am not going to predict that Kazakhstan will win the battle with Baron Cohen.
I think they already have.