Revolution@1: Sex and the citizen in Egypt and America

 
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Fundamentalists in America and Egypt are obsessed with “virtue “and “vice”. But the rise of Islamists threatens to bind Egyptian women in a moral vice.

Thursday 26 January 2012

Photo by Gigi Ibrahim

It is a longstanding marketing truism that sex sells. But it (well, hostility towards it) doesn’t just market products, it can also be marshalled to sell wholly unsexy politicians. This was amply demonstrated by what has been dubbed as the “War on Sex” during the Republican primaries, with candidates vying to outlaw birth control and promote abstinence, ban pornography and act against the “sin” of homosexuality. This has led some bloggers and journalists to compare Republican candidates, such as Rick Santorum, unfavourably to the leaders of Pakistan and Afghanistan.

“If someone wants to ban pornography, make life as hard as possible for homosexuals, and stigmatize sex before marriage… exactly what is it about Sharia law they don’t like?” asks Front Toward Enemy  in the Daily Kos.

And for all their mutual loathing and belief in a clash of civilisations, in the form of a global “jihad” against Christianity or an international “crusade” against Islam, the Christian and Muslim religious right are fighting on the same side, albeit in different trenches, in what can be called their War against Modernity, especially when it comes to sexuality and gender equality.

Half a world away, Egypt’s first post-revolution parliamentary election was, thanks to the Islamists, dominated by similar issues. Egypt is facing a spate of urgent political, social and economic issues, such as mass youth unemployment, a tanking economy and a cabal of diehard generals who just refuse to call it quits.

But you wouldn’t know it from listening to the discourse of Islamists, particularly that of the hardline Salafist Nour party, who have focused excessive attention on issues of “morality”, including talk of banning booze (as if prohibition has ever worked or Islam ever actually stopped Muslims from drinking), prohibiting or restricting bikinis and censoring “sex scenes” in Egypt’s vibrant film industry, known as the Hollywood of the Middle East.

Although brave women from all walks of life have been at the forefront of the popular uprising and are treated as relative equals by the revolutionary youth movement which has orchestrated the revolution, the burden of this moralising, as is often the case, has fallen on the shoulders of women. This has led Egypt’s secular, liberal women and feminists to look to the immediate future with a mixture of apprehension and worry.

“When Egyptian media spends hours and hours discussing bikinis and alcohol with presidential candidates, it tells you where women are going,” says Marwa Rakha, an Egyptian writer, broadcaster and blogger. “After the revolution, we saw women exposed to humiliating virginity tests, fired at, beaten up, arrested, molested, and stripped naked by army officers. Why would I be optimistic?”

But why is Egypt’s Islamic right so obsessed with sex and women, and seems to view both as the root of all evil?

One reason could be that with all the apparently insurmountable problems facing Egypt, it is a cynical populist ploy. “They want attention, lights, and media presence. How else will they get there unless they talk about women and their evil bodies?” opines Rakha.

“These are issues that people can relate to on a personal level,” explains Karima Abedeen, a secular British-Egyptian living in Cairo. “They are also vague and not quantifiable and most of the people who use these issues as their platform haven’t a clue about how to solve any of the other, more urgent social and political issues.”

On a more ideological plain, Muslim conservatives have quite successfully painted sexual liberty and gender equality as a Western import designed to weaken Egypt’s Islamic identity and corrupt Egyptians, and it is only by embracing Islamic traditions and morals wholeheartedly that Egyptians can resist Western hegemony and recreate their past glory.

“Focusing on issues of morality sends a message to the community that parties like the Muslim Brotherhood and the Salafis will protect our Islamic identity against the Western identity which liberals try to promote,” observes Gihan Abou Zeid, an Egyptian activist and feminist who is working on a book about the women who took part in the revolution. “Many Egyptians believe that following Islamic orders would fix many of the current challenges that Egypt is facing.”

In this, Islamists and their supporters are confusing the symptoms with the disease. In addition to complex international geopolitics, the reason Egypt has not made sufficient headway is not because it has veered too far from tradition, but because it has not embraced secular modernity enough and is suffering from the relative marginalisation not only of women but of young people too.

Moreover, similarly to Christian fundamentalists, Islamists and other social conservatives are alarmed by the corrosion of the traditional patriarchal order caused by the increasing emancipation of women. The loss of centuries of male privilege, especially in the public sphere, that this entails fuels the panicky public fixation on and obsession with what should be private issues, such as virginity and promiscuity. In this world view, strong, independent women are regarded with suspicion, as if they are carrying a volatile sex bomb that will explode upon contact with freedom and mushroom out to shred the fabric of society in its wake.

That said, despite the clear similarities between Egyptian Muslim and American Christian conservatives, the social context in which they operate is quite different. Egyptians on the whole may not necessarily be more religious than Americans, who seem far less inclined to abandon their faith than Europeans, but Egyptians interpret their faith far more traditionally.

Additionally, secularisation has progressed far more in America than in Egypt, where it has been partially discredited through its association both with Western neo-imperialism and the corruption and failure of Egypt’s secular dictatorships. In addition, American Christian fundamentalism is a strong movement founded on freedom and imperial swagger, whereas Egyptian Islamism is a reaction to weakness and decline, where people who have, for decades, been stripped of power in society focus on those few areas on which they can exercise control, i.e. “morality”.

Photo by Gigi Ibrahim

This means that, whereas religion is a fairly flexible and personal affair in America, in Egypt, by contrast, religion, or tradition, is more often than not about conformity and rigidity. And those who challenge this hegemonic view often suffer greatly for their “indiscretion”, as witnessed by the massive overreaction by Egyptian society pretty much in its entirety to the decision by a bold art student, Aliaa Elmahdy, to post naked images of herself on her blog to protest the growing Islamisation of society and demand her freedom of expression.

This traditionalist mindset could also partly explain the paradox that, although millions of Egyptian women have entered academia and the workforce, often outdoing and outperforming men, they have not become sexually freer but have had to compromise by stressing their “virtue” through such coping mechanisms as the hijab. As men lose control of women in the public sphere, they try harder to control them in the family, suggests Abou Zeid.

In fact, it would seem that, in Egypt, secularists, although they view women more as their equals, share the Islamists fear of female sexuality and their objectification of the female form. “The secularists and the conservatives are two faces of the same coin when it comes to women,” concludes Rakha. “Most of the politicians in both currents objectify women – one side wants to cover us and lock us up, while the other wants to strip us naked and show us off.”

Be that as it may, it would be a mistake to view the attitudes and agendas of secularists, many of whom believe in relative gender equality, and Islamists towards women as being identical. Moreover, even the Islamist camp is split between the right-of-centre and heterogenous Muslim Brotherhood’s Freedom and Justice Party (FJP) and the “Tea Party” Salafis. For example, Abou Zeid points to the fact that the Brotherhood is not against women working, albeit within limits, but the Salafis want them to “return” to the home.

The Salafis, she also adds, want to force women to cover their faces, as demonstrated by their vigilante “morality police” which has been roaming rural areas of Egypt, though, fortunately, Egyptian women have been fighting back.

A version of this article appeared in Salon on 23 January 2012.

Some are even more equivocal. “The Salafis are mad. They represent the very, very dark ages. The Muslim Brotherhood are not all bad,” says Abedeen. “I think the fact that the Salafis exist should push the Muslim Brotherhood towards a less conservative approach.”

In addition to the likelihood that the FJP will align itself to liberal, albeit economically conservative, parties, the wind is not yet out of the sails of the secular revolutionaries who have so far spearheaded change in Egypt, as illustrated by the defiant “Revolution Continues” movement.

One consequence of the revolution is that it has empowered the previously marginalised, namely the young and women, and made them believe that they can be agents of their own destiny. “Attitudes towards women are better among the young generation, particularly the middle class, to which most of the politically active women belong,” notes Abou Zeid.

This is bound to widen the gap between the young generation and secularists, on the one hand, and older generations and traditionalists, on the other, leading to a more polarised social landscape. “I think that women’s attitudes towards themselves have changed,” observes Abedeen. “The new generation of women is much stronger than older generations and is much less willing to compromise.”

Abedeen also believes that, once Egyptians see what the Islamists are like in power, they will soon fall out of love with them. “I am trying to stay positive and tell myself that it is natural that people should gravitate towards a more conservative option, hoping that these people will not be corrupt,” she says. “I am hoping, down the road, that people will realise that is not the way forward for Egypt, but we will have to see.”

But when all is said and done, it will be largely up to Egyptian women to carve out their rightful place in society. “Looking at Egypt now, I see a lot of courageous defiant women, but I also see millions who realise how oppressed they are yet do nothing about it,” surveys Rakha. “It is up to each woman on her own, in her house, at her desk, in her car, on her way to and from places. This is an individual fight whose collective gains and losses will reflect on the status of Egyptian women.”

 

A version of this article was published by Salon on 23 January 2012. This article is part of a special Chronikler series to mark the first anniversary of the Egyptian revolution.

 

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A drinker’s guide to Islam

 
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By Khaled Diab

Although alcohol is ‘haraam’, Muslim societies have rarely managed to stay on the wagon, and vital parts of their culture have developed under the influence.

Tuesday 12 October 2011

Photo: © Khaled Diab

If I said that we went to an Oktoberfest last weekend, readers may wonder why I am writing about it. If I added that the beer festival in question was in the West Bank and there we encountered a couple of self-deprecating young Germans dressed in lederhosen, some may start asking themselves what I’ve been drinking, or perhaps smoking. 

To add to the bizarreness of the situation, this Oktoberfest, the seventh of its kind, took place not in hip Ramallah but in the remote village of Taybeh, perched picturesquely at 850m above sea level and with a population of just 1,500. Moreover, as my wife pointed out, fellow Belgians – who possess not only the world’s best beers but also perhaps the greatest per-capita distribution of breweries – and other Europeans may wonder why thousands upon thousands of revellers had trekked all this way to attend a beer festival with only one beer on tap. 

Secular Palestinians, expats and even leftist Israelis equipped with glasses of Taybeh beer wandered around food and handicraft stands, watched traditional Dabke dancers  – which our toddler son strutted his stuff to – modern music, comedy and theatrical performances. 

Despite its remoteness and tiny proportions, Taybeh has earned its place on the cultural and social map as being the location of the only Palestinian beer brewery. It has battled the restrictions imposed by the Israeli occupation and the rise of Islamic fundamentalism to become a rare Palestinian business and cultural success story. 

This may explain why Taybeh once adopted “Taste the revolution” as its advertising slogan. And, judging by its micro-brewery quality, the revolution tastes pretty good. 

The very existence of Taybeh overturns the stereotype associated with Palestinians – and Arabs in general – as teetotal, fanatical Muslims. This caricature has been reinforced since Hamas’s takeover of Gaza, where the Islamist party has imposed a de facto ban on alcohol, though bootlegging has become a popular, if risky, pastime

Taybeh by night. Photo: ©Khaled Diab

There are those who will protest that Taybeh is the exception that proves the rule. After all, it is the only Palestinian brewery, and it is owned and run by Christians. But the absence of local competitors has more to do with the difficulty of setting up a viable business in the Palestinian territories, which requires a certain foolhardiness and courage – and, anyway, most of the people who drink Taybeh are Muslims. 

In the wider Arab and Muslim context, booze is widely available. Although alcohol is generally considered to be haraam (forbidden) in Islam, only the most conservative countries actually impose a legal ban on it. Egypt, for instance, has a booming local alcohol industry that has been growing for years. 

This is not just a recent Western import or “innovation“, as conservative Muslims might believe. In fact, the history of the region where beer and wine were probably invented shows that most societies there have a long track record of falling off the wagon. The prominent 19th-century orientalist Edward William Lane – famous for his incredibly observant if somewhat condescending book, Manners and Customs of the Modern Egyptians – provides, in one of his lesser-known works, some fascinating details about the drinking habits of Egyptians. 

“From the conversations and writings of Arabs,” he notes, “drinking wine in private and by select parties is far from being uncommon among modern Muslims.” Lane also alludes to the fact that boozing was even more common in earlier centuries, before the introduction of tobacco and coffee as substitutes. Interestingly, the Arabic word for coffee, from which the English word derives, originally meant “wine”. That’s something to mull over while sipping on your morning caffeine shot. 

There is plenty of historical evidence to back Lane’s assertion. Numerous prominent Muslims throughout the ages drank alcohol. Even caliphs, such as the Abbasid ruler Haroun al-Rashid of One Thousand and One Nights fame, were reputed to indulge, despite their title of “commanders of the faithful”. 

Alcohol has played so prominent a role in Islamic history that many aspects of its various cultures and societies were formed under the influence, so to speak. This is evident not only in the starring (or should that be staggering?) role that booze has played over the decades on the silver screen, but also in traditional poetry and song.

Pre-Islamic Arabic poetry is famous for its odes to wine, known as khamariyat, and this tradition continued into the Islamic era. Take Abu Nuwas, Haroun al-Rashid’s camp court poet. In addition to his homoerotic ghazal, he penned endless verse in praise of wine. 

Although he was considered to be the greatest Arab poet ever during his lifetime, Nuwas has fallen out of favour with the modern Muslim reader. But he is not alone in talking up the virtues of drink. The celebrated poet and polymath Omar Khayyám wrote extensively about wine and love, as did the legendary Sufi mystic Rumi.

Modern-day puritans will argue that Khayyám and Rumi used wine and drunkenness as a metaphor for spiritual intoxication. But there’s no reason why their poetry should not be read both literally and figuratively, as mystics have long used alcohol (after all, we do use the term “spirit” to describe some drinks) and other drugs to alter their consciousness in pursuit of the divine.

The relatively relaxed attitude to alcohol in the earlier centuries of Islam may have been due to doubts, in the days before the religion had hardened into rigid orthodoxy, as to whether the Qur’an actually prohibits the consumption of alcohol or merely recommends moderation and/or abstinence. Some hadith (traditions of the prophet) even suggest that Muhammad may have actually drunk mildly alcoholic beverages.

Regardless of whether this is the case or not, devout Muslims have every right to consider alcohol haraam and not part of Islam the religion. But they must also accept that alcohol has always been an integral and largely tolerated aspect of Islamic culture.

This article first appeared in The Guardian’s Comment is Free section on 8 October 2011. The related discussion can be viewed here.

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Rejected by the right, Western Muslims are only left with the left

 
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By Osama Diab

No Muslim in their right mind would support far-right Christian groups in the West, though they may well symathise with their Muslim equivalents elsewhere.

Tuesday 2 August 2011

I can still remember the excitement on the faces of many of my Egyptian friends when they learnt that, in 21st-century America, some still believe in abstinence and, despite all the freedom at their disposal, they choose to keep themselves ‘pure’ for their future spouses.

Many young Egyptian dream of an opportunity to start a life in an affluent Western society, but they are always worried about the cultural differences. Muslims are often concerned with what to expect if they tie the knot with a Westerner who might belong to a different faith or even to no organised religion at all, especially when it comes to the thorny question of raising children. Most importantly, many are concerned  about the discrimination they may face or how they may be made to feel like unwanted members of society amidst all the unfortunate events that have unfolded over the past decade, culminating with the recent attacks in the Norwegian capital, Oslo, which were carried out by a far-right fundamentalist Christian who was angry at Europe for accommodating so many Muslims who, in his view, threaten the continent’s Christian identity.

With so many questions running through the average pious Muslim’s head, it is understandable that many find the idea appealing that some in the West share the same values, especially regarding sexuality, gender roles, abortion, marriage and premarital sex.

However, what many don’t realise is that those who seemingly share the same values would probably belong to the far-right on the political spectrum. They are at best not particularly amused by the fact that they live side by side with Muslims, Arabs and immigrants in general, and some even resort to more violent means of expressing their hatred towards non-white and non-Christian minorities, such as Anders Behring Breivik, the perpetrator of the Oslo attacks.

Ironically, Breiviks’s views are in a way identical to those of conservative Muslims, the very same group he and his ilk are fighting. “Ladies should be wives and homemakers, not cops or soldiers, and men should still hold doors open for ladies. Children should not be born out of wedlock. Glorification of homosexuality should be shunned,” wrote the Norwegian terrorist in his 1,500-page manifesto, which he sent by e-mail to a mailing list of about a thousand addresses shortly before he carried out his attacks.

In contrast, those who defend multiculturalism, uphold the rights of minorities including Muslims, and express support for the Palestinian cause, are more left-leaning in their political views.

For conservative Muslims, the dilemma, again, is that these minorities, marginalised or vulnerable groups that leftists defend include – alongside Muslims – homosexuals, women, adherents of non-Abrahamic faiths and atheists. Likewise, for leftists – especially gay rights activists, feminists and atheists – the dilemma is that many of the Muslims they stand up for do not approve of their lifestyle choices or beliefs.

So should a conservative Muslim relate more to the camp that shares her/his values but cannot tolerate their presence, or with the camp that holds a fundamentally different set of morals but sees Muslim as a necessary thread in the colourful fabric of a multicultural society?

The US president, Barack Obama, a radical liberal by US standards, is a sign of shifting allegiances for at least American Muslims. US Muslims, who traditionally voted Republican, overwhelmingly voted for Obama, probably as a reaction to the acts and deeds of the George W Bush administration during their eight-year rule which involved two wide-scale wars against Muslim countries and the growing tension between “them” and “us”, as the former American president liked to put it.

In Sweden, it is believed that 80-90% of Muslims vote left-wing despite the fact that many of them do not hold leftist views. In the UK, Muslims have for long been more likely to vote Labour than Conservative and, despite the war in Iraq which was launched by a Labour government, most Muslims still see the centre-left party as the most friendly to Muslims in Britain.

Voting left is only normal since most far-right wing groups, as well as some more centrist right parties, have long been openly hostile towards Muslims. In May, the far-right group Ataka attacked Bulgarian Muslims performing their Friday prayers in the country’s capital, Sofia. British extremist right-wing white-only parties, such as the British National Party and the National Front, have been hard-line critics of non-European immigrants in general and the Muslim minority in particular, and always adopt programmes that have at their centre the “repatriation” of non-white immigrants.

This implies that most people would agree to make concessions in return for co-existence, especially when they are a vulnerable minority. Since most Muslims approve of liberal politics, despite not necessarily holding liberal views, when they are a minority, they would only be able to avoid accusations of hypocrisy if they apply their implicit approval of liberal politics in their Muslim-majority home countries. They should support the treatment of all minorities in Muslim-majority countries the same way they like to be treated as religious minorities in Western democracies.

This is not only common sense, but the Qur’an also confirms this concept. “Woe to those… who, when they have to receive by measure from men, they demand exact full measure, but when they have to give by measure or weight to men, give less than due.”

This article is part of a special Chronikler series on far-right extremism. Published here with the author’s consent. ©Osama Diab. All rights reserved.

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