The real battle against ISIS

 
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By Khaled Diab

If ISIS is a virus, then fighting it with the antibiotic of ill-conceived deadly force and repression could create ever-more deadly strains. 

Prompted by social media, pro

Monday 9 February 2015

The Abbasid caliphate was the stage for magical tales to fill a thousand and one nights. The Islamic State (ISIL/ISIS) “caliphate” gives us enough horrors to fill a thousand and one frights.

The latest graphic atrocity committed by the Islamist death cult was the apparent burning alive of felled Jordanian fighter pilot Moaz al-Kassasbeh, whose execution reportedly took place in early January.

The brutal murder has triggered horror and condemnation around the world. The news has hit home hard in Jordan, with disbelieving Jordanians stunned by the cruelty of the murder. Spurred on by an angry public mood, Jordan has promised swift retaliation.

“Our punishment and revenge will be as huge as the loss of the Jordanians,”  vowed Jordanian armed forces spokesman Mamdouh al-Ameri. And within hours, Jordan began executing jailed ISIS militants, including death row inmate Sajida al-Rishawi.

For his part, Jordan’s King Abdullah declared “relentless war” against ISIS. “We are waging this war to protect our faith, our values and human principles,” he said, vowing to “hit them in their own ground”. Towards that end, Jordan claims it has already carried out dozens of airstrikes against ISIS targets

Although the impulse for revenge is overpowering and it may even appear sweet at first sight, it leaves a bitter aftertaste and carries serious consequences.

Fighting fire with fire could very well backfire. Instead of neutralising the threat, the ill-conceived use of force could ignite a wave of violence in Jordan, which is high on ISIS’s hit list.

In addition, with the strain caused by 1.3 million Syrian refugees, Jordan is already teetering on the edge of instability. Despite the fact that this latest atrocity is bound to chip away at the limited popular support ISIS enjoyed in Salafist Jordanian circles, all it requires is a small band of dedicated sympathisers to wreak havoc.

If ISIS is a virus, as many contend, then fighting it with the antibiotic of violent repression might well only succeed in creating ever-more deadly strains. In fact, ISIS thrives on brutality. “[ISIS] believes not only in maximum but creative retaliatory and deterrent violence,” Hassan Hassan, a Syrian journalist and analyst who has co-authored an in-depth book about the Islamic State, told me.

One item of required reading among many ISIS militants, Hassan explains, is Idarat Al-tawahush (The Management of Savagery)  by Abu Bake Naji which makes the case that “Jihad is not about mercy but about excessive violence, and that the rest of religion is about mercy”.

Where did ISIS pick up such a nihilistic interpretation of Islam? A part of the answer is the cauldron of brutality in which it was conceived. “One cannot understand the violent mindset of ISIS members without recognising that Baathism is one of the ingredients that formed that mindset,” notes Hassan.

This was on full display during the 1982 Hama Massacre ordered by Hafez al-Assad and the past four years of carnage masterminded by his son, Bashar.

In neighbouring Iraq, Saddam Hussein – who bucked no dissent and believed in summary “justice” – used chemical weapons, with US acquiescence, against both Iranians and his own citizens. Add to that the vacuum left by the “shock and awe” of the US invasion which wrought devastation on a scale unseen since the Mongols in the 13th century, and your left with a perfect storm.

In fact, times of such calamitous ruin are often incubators for virulent extremism. Some eight centuries ago, while the Mongols were laying waste to much of the Middle East, Ibn Taymiyyah formulated a highly influential concept of Salafism and Jihad. These were to have a profound influence on the region, corroding the rationalism and free thought upon which Islamic civilisation’s golden age had been built.

What all this highlights is that, though ISIS needs to be fought on the battlefield too, the main battlegrounds are ideological, political, social and economic.

In order to dry up recruits, effective ways need to be devised to show how ISIS’s ideology and its self-styled “caliphate” are ahistorical and run contrary to the spirit that once made Islam robust and enlightened.

The socio-economic inequalities, the impunity of elites, their serving of foreign powers more than their own citizenry, and widespread corruption – all major recruiting platforms for radical groups – must be combated decisively.

In addition, it is high time that Arab societies properly defend freedom of belief and thought, in order to inoculate themselves against religious radicalisation by self-appointed defenders of the faith, whether they be individuals, groups or the state.

Those Arab countries which theoretically recognise such freedom need to implement it properly and consistently. Those which do not, such as the Gulf states, must start respecting pluralism and diversity. “So long as [Arab governments] shy away from a clear commitment to freedom of belief, their stance helps to legitimise the actions of groups such as [ISIS],” argues Brian Whitaker, the Guardian’s former Middle East editor.

More importantly, the region needs to address its democratic deficit. Despotism from above can and does breed tyranny from below, drawing in the disillusioned and disenchanted.

In short, to prove that violent Islamism is the illusion, we must make freedom, justice, equality and dignity the solution.

____

Follow Khaled Diab on Twitter.

This is an updated version of an article which first appeared on Al Jazeera on 4 February 2015.

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The language of Arab (dis)unity

 
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By Khaled Diab

The romantic myth that Arabs share “one heart and one spirit” led pan-Arabism to talk unity while walking the path of disunity.

Charismatic and a natural orator, Nasser appealed to millions of Arabs, including this crowd in Syria. Photo: al-Ahram.

Charismatic and a natural orator, Nasser appealed to millions of Arabs, including this crowd in Syria. Photo: al-Ahram.

Sunday 4 January 2015

Given how widely it is spoken and understood, Arabic is one of the UN’s six official languages, alongside English, French, Chinese, Russian and Spanish. Spoken by some 300 million people as a native language, Arabic is also used liturgically to varying degrees by the world’s 1.6 billion Muslims.

The Arabic language gave us not only timeless contributions to philosophy, the sciences, literature and art, but also to the formation of modern Arab identity and nationalism. “Every Arabic-speaking people is an Arab people. Every individual belonging to one of these Arabic-speaking peoples is an Arab,” claimed Sati al-Husri (1882-1968), an early Arab nationalist of Syrian extraction who, ironically, grew up in a well-to-do family which was closely linked to the Ottoman Empire.

Al-Husri believed that this common linguistic heritage gave Arabs “one heart and one spirit” which, in turn, qualified them both as a single nation and a single state. This romantic notion was central to efforts to create secular Arab nationalism, from Baathism to later Nasserism. Michel Aflaq, one of the founding fathers of pan-Arabist Baathism, believed that both language and history were unifying forces for Arabs.

But surveying the current state of destructive disunity plaguing the Arab world, one might be excused for wondering if Arabs truly are of “one spirit”, why it is they have failed so dismally to  beat together as “one heart”.

Not only did the dream of a single Arab nation collapse many years ago, even the individual nation states so despised by pan-Arabists are crumbling before our eyes, with the two strongholds of Baathist ideology, Syria and Iraq, lying in smouldering ruins.

How did we arrive at this sorry state?

Diehard pan-Arabists place the blame squarely with (neo-)imperialism, with the conservative Arab regimes and with the failure of the revolutionary regimes to implement pan-Arabism properly.

Some old-school Arab nationalists with whom I’ve spoken portray Syria as having been the last bastion of pan-Arabism and the last hope for the Arab nation, and that is why the West conspired to bring it down. Even the Islamic State (ISIS) is seen by some as being part of an elaborate Western plot.

The trouble with this theory is that Syria had long stopped even trying to pay lip service to pan-Arab ideals. In addition, the rot and corruption within had so weakened the state that when Bashar al-Assad decided ruthlessly to cling to power at any cost, it sent Syria into a reeling tailspin and meltdown, leaving it wide open to become a multinational battleground.

Moreover, placing the bulk of the blame at the outside world’s feet facilitates a dangerous level of self-deception. It also curtails an honest analysis of why pan-Arabism failed.

While it is true that, in its heyday, pan-Arabism, such as the Nasserist model, had many foes, both regionally and in the West, it also contained many of the seeds of its own downfall.

One major failing was the utopian idea that just because millions of people spoke the same language, they somehow constituted a single nation whose nature was unity and, so, any discord was seen as going against the natural order. This is in spite of the fact that, like in Europe until recently, the Arab world has never been unified except at the point of a sword – and often simultaneously under the control of competing empires or dynasties.

But even linguistically, Arabs are not unified. While some dialects of Arabic are mutually intelligible, others are so far removed that, in other contexts, they would be classified as separate languages. For example, even after years of exposure to Moroccans in Europe, I, as an Egyptian, still do not understand their darija.

The reason these dialects – which can be about as mutually intelligible as the Romance languages are to each other – are classed as “Arabic” is more political than linguistic.

This is why Arabs from different countries often resort to fusha (Modern Standard Arabic) to make themselves mutually intelligible, in a phenomenon known as diglossia. However, not all Arabs can speak fusha and those who do communicate with it use it as a second language.

And just like linguistic diversity is concealed under the umbrella of “Arabic”, social, cultural, economic and political diversity has traditionally been glossed over in pan-Arabist discourse, as if it were an inconvenience rather than a reality.

Despite some common features between clusters of Arab societies in terms of culture and history, there is a mind-boggling array of differences not only between Arab states but also within them. This clash between ideology and reality is one factor behind pan-Arabism’s efforts to suppress diversity rather than to accommodate and celebrate it.

To complicate matters further, Arab countries have and had radically different forms of government, levels of wealth and degrees of development. Even for the best-thought-out integration projects, this is a major challenge that requires years of serious planning and preparation.

But the idea that speaking the same tongue makes us “one” has reduced the concept of Arab unity either to hollow slogans or to disastrous marriages that were rushed into hastily and impatiently, such as the damaging United Arab Republic (Syria and Egypt), the United Arab States (the UAR and North Yemen) the Federation of Arab Republics (Libya, Egypt and Syria) or the still-born Arab Islamic Republic (Libya and Tunisia).

That does not mean that the principle of pan-Arabism is necessarily a bad idea or an unattainable ideal. In certain respects, it was an unsurprising product of its times. The increasingly feverish and intolerant Turkish nationalism which accompanied the decline of the Ottoman Empire led Arab intellectuals, activists and reformers to grope around for an alternative.

Pan-Arab nationalism was an attempt to square the circle of gaining independence from Turkish repression while maintaining the advantages of  a frontierless region bestowed by the Ottomans. That partly explains why Egypt was not an early convert to this ideology, because it had already removed itself from the Sultan’s sphere of influence.

El-Qawmiya el-Arabiya also recognised that, alone, each Arab state would be weak.

Today, as much as a century ago, the region desperately needs to find a way to rise out of the ashes of conflict and weakness and towards a future of co-operation and strength. This time, the utopian dreams and hollow slogans of yesteryear are gone.

In their place, an organic, bottom-up process of common identity building is taking place, spearheaded largely by young people. From pan-Arab TV hits like Arab Idol to the previously unthinkable level of interaction facilitated by social media, Arabs are discovering their rich diversity as well as the shared features of their identities and common causes.

This loose sense of a common plight and a common destiny was reflected, exactly four years ago, in how the spark of hope lit in Tunisia spread like wildfire across the region. In the early days of the Egyptian revolution protesters borrowed Tunisian slogans and chanted “We are all Tunisia”, while activists exchanged tips for dealing with police and teargas.

Despite the ongoing collapse of the current Arab order, this grassroots route to greater co-operation offers some hope for the future.

____

Follow Khaled Diab on Twitter.

This article first appeared in The National on 20 December 2014.

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Arabic: The language of confusion?

 
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By Khaled Diab

If an Arab says he’ll kill you, don’t  worry – he wants to buy you dinner. Whether Arabic dialects are a single language is politcal, not linguistic.

Photo: Aieman Khimji / Wikimedia Commons

Photo: Aieman Khimji / Wikimedia Commons

Tuesday 30 December 2014

Earlier this month, the United Nations celebrated Arabic Language Day which got me musing about whether that should be in the singular or take the plural form, Arabic Languages Day.

It is something of a recurring joke among Egyptians who do not speak foreign languages to quip that they speak two languages: Egyptian and Fusha (Modern Standard Arabic).

For language purists and traditionalists, the various forms of colloquial Arabic (amiya or darija) are simply bastardisations of classical Arabic and do not merit much attention.

In fact, it took decades of struggle before Arabic vernaculars became accepted as more than spoken languages. The late colloquial poet Ahmed Fouad Negm – who managed to piss off three Egyptian presidents enough to jail him – did not just shock the establishment with his irreverence, dissent and obscenity but also his insistence on employing Egyptian working class Arabic, rather than the refined poetic language of classical Arabic, in his verse.

But Negm, and other trailblazers before and since, have given amiya authenticity, respectability and, most of all, street cred. And today colloquial Arabic is used regularly on TV, social media and even in literature.

This is just as well. As any frustrated foreign learner of Arabic can tell you, speaking the classical language can make you sound like you’ve stepped out of a TV period drama about, say, Saladin, or give people the impression that you’re a newscaster – in other words, it’s just not natural.

Not only does standard Arabic not feel natural to most Arabs, the differences between it and some vernaculars is so great that schoolchildren sometimes feel they are learning a second language, though not quite a foreign language.

But when it comes to the dozens of Arabic dialects, some would surely qualify as a foreign language. If the definition of a language is that its speakers can understand each other, then Arabic often fails this test, since some of its dialects are mutually unintelligible.

The decision to classify all these dialects as being the same language is both political and historical. Arabic is at the core of modern Arab identity and so promoting the idea of common nationhood has required the glossing over of these linguistic differences. Such apparent linguistic unity also encouraged the illusion that Arab unity was natural and inevitable, which meant that pan-Arabism rested more on sloganeering than on concrete efforts to bridge the huge cultural, economic, social and political differences in the region.

In addition, Arabic remains the only generally accepted liturgical language for Islam – which used to confound me as a child when I came across Pakistani and Indian friends in London who knew the Quran by heart but didn’t comprehend a word they recited.

Speakers of dialects from the Arab Mashriq (East) cannot generally understand people from the Arab Maghreb (West). Try as I may, I have never managed to decipher Algerian, and Moroccan is a serious challenge, even after encountering many Moroccans in Belgium. While travelling around Morocco, I was amused by the fact that it was sometimes easier to communicate with locals in French than in Arabic, since many were not well-versed in standard Arabic.

There is a certain level of mutual unintelligibility even between dialects in close geographical proximity. Even among mutually intelligible and relatively similar dialects, like Egyptian and Palestinian, there is plenty of room for confusion.

When I first moved here, to Jerusalem, I was surprised to discover just how different the words in Egyptian and Palestinian were for many basic items. These include bread (eish/khobez), shoes (gazma/kondara) and slippers (shebsheb/babouj). Many basic phrases also differ significantly: How are you? (ezayak/kefak?), good (kewayis/meneeh), What’s this? (Eh dah/Shoo hada?).

Many common verbs vary too: look (bos/itala’), run (igree/orkod), lift (sheel/irfa’a), hug (uhdon/a’ebot), etc. This is why I sometimes feel sorry for my son. At five, he is grappling with four languages (Arabic, Dutch, English and French), but the Arabic component must feel like more than one language to him.

Sometimes, and this is where the real fun begins, the same word exists but it can have quite a different meaning, leading to much mirth or confusion or even insult.

Palestinians have repeatedly described a person to me as “naseh”. To my Egyptian ears, this means smart, clever or even a wiseass. But here it means chubby. Some Palestinians have on occasion told me that I look “da’afan” which to my ears sounds like “weak” or “under the weather,” but to them it means “you’ve lost weight.”

Speaking of health, many Palestinians bid each other farewell by saying: “Ye’tek el-afiya” which literally means “May you be given rigour.” In Egypt, we only say that to sick people and so, in my early days here, I wondered why some people thought I was unwell.

Sometimes these dialectical differences can cause bewilderment. While “mabsout” in Egypt and some other countries means happy or in a good mood, in Iraq, it means to be “beaten up.” A friend relates an anecdote in which an ICRC worker visiting Iraqi prisoners asked them whether they were “mabsouteen” and they were utterly confused by the question.

Speaking of violence. A German friend of mine who went out to dinner with a Tunisian was told in no uncertain terms that her date would “khalas aleki.” In the Egyptian dialect she knew, it meant “finish her off.” Confused, she asked him why he wanted to kill her, to which he explained that, in Tunisia, it means that he was going to pick up the tab.

Sometimes, Arabs visiting other Arab countries can unintentionally cause insult. While in many dialects “marra” is just the normal way of referring to a woman, in Egypt, it is derogatory and verges on calling her a “slut.”

Even respectful terms like teacher (me’allem, for a man, or me’allema, for a woman) mean something different in Egypt. For Egyptians, a me’allem is the boss of a gang or a group of manual workers or craftsmen, while a me’allema is a head belly-dancer.

With all these mind-boggling variations, whether or not Arabic qualifies as a single language or many languages is really in the eyes, and ears, of the beholder.

If the idea of Arab unity is to have any kind of future, these linguistic differences, not to mention socio-economic and political ones, need to be recognised and accommodated. Arabs need not speak with a single voice, but need to find harmony among their chorus of divergent voices.

____

Follow Khaled Diab on Twitter.

This is an extended version of an article which first appeared in Haaretz on 18 December 2014.

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The dangers of a political crusade against Western jihadists

 
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By Khaled Diab

Inflammatory rhetoric and a solely punitive approach to Western jihadists is only likely to make matters worst, and could threaten multiculturalism.

British aid worker Peter Haine is the latest Westerner to be executed by ISIS.

British aid worker Peter Haine is the latest Westerner to be executed by ISIS.

Monday 15 September 2014

David Cameron, the UK prime minister, has unveiled a controversial raft of measures which he claims will help counter the threat posed by British jihadists fighting in Syria and northern Iraq. These include barring these citizens from re-entering the UK, seizing the passports of suspects before they depart and internally exiling radicals. Other European countries are also considering similar measures. Norway, for example, has announced that it is studying mechanisms for revoking the citizenship of Norwegians who take part in terror operations abroad or join foreign militaries, which would potentially also include Jews volunteering for the Israeli army.

“Adhering to British values is not an option or a choice,” Cameron told the House of Commons. “It is a duty for all those who live in these islands so we will stand up for our values.”

A “duty”, it would seem, if you are a member of a minority, but not if you are a posh Tory. Then, you can ride roughshod over these values and the principles underlying the British legal system, and grant the government even more arbitrary powers to encroach on civil liberties. Fair trials and the presumption of innocence are surely sacred British values, or is Cameron proposing a return to the medieval Germanic practice of  “guilty until proven innocent”? His home secretary certainly is, having stripped at least 37 dual nationality Britons of their citizenship with the stroke of a pen, without any kind of due process.

Fortunately, the British establishment has balked at Cameron’s demagoguery, forcing him to backpedal somewhat from the strident statement of intent he gave on Friday 29 August.

Moreover, “it absolutely sticks in the craw”, to borrow one of the prime minister’s own expressions, and beggars belief that Cameron himself posed a far greater threat to British values and the safety of British citizens than a handful of jihadistst. After all, Cameron supported the illegal and bloody invasion of Iraq, against the will of millions of Britons. And this disastrous enterprise,  which triggered serious blowback, created the vacuum from which ISIS emerged and helped radicalise some Muslims towards Britain, could not have gone ahead without his party’s support.

Should Cameron voluntarily hand over his passport for so recklessly having undermined British values and the security of his fellow citizens? Should he refuse the jet-setting Tony Blair re-entry into the UK and exile him to the Hague?

The rank hypocrisy of politicians and bigots aside, I understand and sympathise with European anxieties, especially following the murder of a third Western hostage held by ISIS, British aid worker David Haines. I witnessed, in the 1990s, the disruptive influence of returning Egyptian jihadists – then from Western-sanctioned Afghanistan. As an agnostic-atheist who believes in secularism and multiculturalism, I observe with alarm the rise, in Syria and Iraq, of violent Islamists who make al-Qaeda look like boy scouts. Their murderous brutality, historical ignorance and cluelessness about religion is worthy of the highest contempt and mockery. But they are a catastrophe for the Middle East, not the West.

That said, Europeans fighting in Syria and Iraq do pose a potential threat to their home countries. However, the British legal system is already equipped with all the legislation necessary and the security services possess the power – too much power – to protect citizens against this threat and to punish perpetrators of atrocities, but this must only occur as a result of free and fair trials.

Moreover, a solely punitive approach is far from useful. In fact, radicalisation experts say it is counterproductive and dangerous. “Treating all foreign fighters as terrorists… risks becoming a self-fulfilling prophecy,” wrote Shiraz Maher and Peter Neumann of the International Centre for the Study of Radicalisation (ICSR) at King’s College London. “It may sound tough, but it isn’t likely to be effective.”

Why? Because “their motivations for travelling to Syria are diverse, and it is wrong to think of them as a homogenous group,” explain Maher and Neumann.

In the fog of war, it is not only unclear just how many foreign fighters there are in Syria but also who they are fighting alongside and to what end. An ICSR report from the end of last year emphasised that the group affiliations for foreign fighters were known in only a fifth of cases. Of the remaining four-fifths, it is impossible to know how many are of the headline-grabbing ISIS variety of grizzly mass murderers, and how many are young idealists drawn to fight against a murderous dictator with moderate rebel groups, like generations of Europeans before them.

Even among those who go to wage jihad, many experience a change of heart once their abstract dreams are replaced by the gruesome reality. “We’re forced to stay and fight, what choice do we have? It’s sad,” one disillusioned jihadist who was afraid to return home admitted to ICSR.

This is the situation many disenchanted Arab jihadists found themselves in when their home countries stripped them of their nationality following the war in Afghanistan, forcing them further down the road to extremism and providing the nascent Al Qaeda with a core of fighters it would otherwise have been deprived of.

Egypt and some other Arab countries have since drawn lessons from this. Rather than banishing jihadists, they have put in place de-radicalisation programmes. Effective de-radicalisation initiatives can reap a threefold benefit in Europe: regaining productive citizens, mitigating a terrorist threat and providing the best advertisement against the lure of jihad for would-be hotheads.

Moreover, radicalisation is not something that only afflicts minorities. Segments of the European majorities are also being radicalised by economic and social insecurity, demagoguery and false narratives, just like Muslims, as reflected by the extremely troubling rise of the far-right and neo-Nazism.

In addition, radicalisation is partly generational. After an implicit post-war social pact in which youth expected to lead better lives than their parents, we have reached an impasse where young people are both worse off than baby-boomers and have dwindling prospects, with rampant unemployment, especially in the 18-25 age group, unaffordable housing, few pension prospects, etc.

And rather than sympathy, the plight of youth has brought them contempt. Contrary to popular belief, it is not older Europeans who are the worst victims of ageism but those under the age of 25 –  a problem that’s particularly acute in the UK and Scandinavia. This has led to huge disillusionment among youngsters, some of whom turn to various forms of radicalism. Minority youth have the additional burden of racial and cultural discrimination.

This reflects how vital it is that the problem of foreign jihadists, troubling as it is, is not blown out of all proportions by vested interest groups and bigots. No more than 500 Brits, by Cameron’s own estimate, have taken up arms in Syria (and mostly for unknown reasons). Yet the prime minister claimed outlandishly that this disparate group, which would barely make up a battalion in a regular army, was the single greatest threat facing the UK, bizarrely overlooking Ukraine and other major crises affecting Europe.

This kind of rhetoric, which panders to the far right and Islamophobic elements in European society, is reckless and potentially perilous. Stigmatising and vilifying minorities or certain ethnic groups can lead to ugly repression and persecution, as Europe’s own history shows and many parts of the contemporary Middle East are currently illustrating. In fact, what history seems to tell us is that when there’s a “problem” with a minority, one should look to the majority first because that’s where the real problem usually lies.

Although some critics are well-meaning and well-intentioned, many of the loudest voices declaring the failure of multiculturalism and demanding that minorities assimilate are those who never bought into diversity in the first place and harken back to an idealised, mythological past in which society was purer and nobler.

But multiculturalism hasn’t failed. Despite its many enemies and its learn-as-you-go approach, it has been generally a roaring success. Only two or three generations ago, western European countries were largely homogenous. Today, they are a cultural kaleidoscope of diversity in which disparate groups manage to live together in peace and relative harmony.

As the once-diverse Middle East increasingly sheds its cultural variety and persecution on the basis of ethnicity and religion grows, Britain and western Europe should cherish and safeguard the beauty of their newfound multicultural reality.

____

Follow Khaled Diab on Twitter.

This article first appeared in Haaretz on 4 September 2014.

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From the Chronikles – 2048: A peace odyssey

 
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By Khaled Diab

A century after war broke out, jubilant Israeli and Palestinian crowds celebrate each other’s independence as they march hand-in-hand into the future.

14 May 2048*

Israelis took to the streets today in jubilation to mark the 100th anniversary of the violent birth of their once-troubled nation. In Palestine, Palestinians, who also today celebrate 15 years of independent nationhood and the fulfilment of their national aspirations, extended warm congratulations to their Jewish neighbours.

The legendary one-time Israeli and Palestinian premiers, after attending separate independence day rallies in their respective capitals, Tel Avivand Ramallah, walked out together onto a raised podium in jointly administered Jerusalem, the two nations’ spiritual and federal capital, for a celebration with thousands of revellers.

“Words cannot express my pride and joy on this special day,” a clearly emotional Shalom V, the charismatic Israeli ex-prime minister, told the assembled crowd as he fought back the tears. “I am proud to be alive at this important moment in the Jewish people’s history. Today, we can truly hold our heads up high as proud members of the family of nations, now that we and the Palestinians have found a way of living together in peace and prosperity. I would like to take this opportunity to wish our brothers and sisters in Palestine a happy 15th anniversary for their nation.”

A deafening roar gripped the mixed audience of Palestinians and Israelis who spontaneously began to chant the name of Salama B, the popular Palestinian ex-prime minister. “Just 20 years ago, the idea that a Palestinian leader could be standing here wishing Israel a happy birthday was still unthinkable. It has not been easy for my people, who have shown for decades fortitude and steadfastness in the face of adversity, to come to terms with the painful reality that accompanied the loss of our land in 1948, but our Jewish brothers and sisters also suffered in their exile. Now they are safe among their brethren.”

Back in 2007, while the world was marking the 40th anniversary of the1967 war, Israel was strangling Gaza and repressing the West Bank, and Hamas and Fatah were at war, Salama was on his fifth year in administrative detention in an Israeli prison. The passionate young idealist, a doctor, was spurred by the images of Ariel Sharon entering the Holy Sanctuary with hundreds of troops to join the al-Aqsa martyrs brigade.

He was engaged in a number of gun battles with the better-armed IDF soldiers, but was opposed to suicide bombings and attacking civilians. This set him on a collision course with the more extreme factions of the group, but the imminent standoff was averted by his capture and arrest during another shoot out with the Israeli army, ironically while tending to the soldier he’d critically wounded.

The Israeli officer in charge of Salama did not sympathise with Salama’s assertion that, in a war, it was legitimate to attack soldiers. “And if what you say is true, you’re my POW until the end of this war,” the hawkish officer famously said.

Little did this officer suspect that he was aiding the prospects for peace. In prison, Salama learnt to speak fluent Hebrew and discovered a passion for history – and what he learnt about Jewish history did not quell the anger in his breast that he felt at the plight of his people, but it caused him to feel compassion for the other side.

In 2008, Israel’s 60th anniversary caused Shalom, then a junior Knesset member and historian, to suffer, in addition to his tearful joy, a crisis of conscience. He and Salama needed to reach out to the other side and started off a correspondence through which they became best friends before they ever met.

Together, they realised the explosive effect of the past and of ideology and so set about to defuse it. Slowly, they formulated a common narrative which gave credence to both sides. It sought to replace the current epic Israeli and Palestinian histories with more nuanced ones.

They also agreed to work together on “bread and butter” issues. Shalom, then only 31 and with no military background, began a clever and charismatic grassroots campaign calling for Salama’s release. Once out of prison in 2009, Salama faced some suspicion of being a “collaborator”, but his natural intelligence and charm and his simple message of “individual dignity before national pride” won him many converts among the hard-pressed and downtrodden Palestinian population, at a time of Israeli closures and crushing occupation, international embargo, and civil war. And the many scattered groups involved in non-violent activism found in him and Shalom natural leaders.

Together, Salama and Shalom effectively turned the Palestinian struggle into a civil rights movement for the next decade or so, winning Palestinians the hard-earned right to work and move freely across the entire land, which helped the two sides to see the human in the other. By around 2018, the movement they’d spawned turned its attention to Palestinian autonomy, which was achieved in 2021.

The vexed issue of refugees was handled through a sustainable number of Palestinians being allowed to return each year, compensation for those willing to stay away – and the entire Palestinian diaspora being allowed to visit freely. Some Arab countries which had had significant Jewish populations, such as Morocco, also instigated a right of return for those Middle Eastern Jews who had been made refugees after the creation of Israel and their offspring wishing to return to their ancestral homelands and revive the once-vibrant Jewish minorities there. Most of those who returned came from Europe or the US, but some also moved from Israel.

After a dozen years of autonomy, rapid economic growth and convergence between Israel and Palestine, the time came to decide on the fate of the two nations. In 2033, two separate referenda were held among the two peoples outlining the options ahead. A majority of Palestinians and Israelis voted for the creation of an independent Palestinian state, but then, to the surprise of many, for its immediate entry into a federal union with Israel.

The Palestinian state was born on the same day as the Israeli one 85 years previously, so that the day of Israel’s joy – traditionally associated with Palestinian tragedy and despair – would also be that of Palestine’s, marked according to the Gregorian calendar, rather than the former practice of using the lunar calendar common to Judaism and Islam. In addition, Israeli remembrance day was broadened to include the Palestinian nakba.

“Given the small size of this land and the proximity of our two peoples, that is the only sensible option,” Shalom remarked at the time.

“In the past, we had our hands at each others’ throats. Today, our two peoples have voted to walk into the future hand-in-hand,” said Salama, independent Palestine’s first premier, as he and Shalom grabbed each others’ hands and raised them triumphantly in the air, hugging emotionally like the old comrades that they were.

___

Follow Khaled Diab on Twitter.

*This article was republished on 5 May 2014. It originally appeared in The Guardian on 23 April 2008.

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الرجل العربي الجديد

 
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بقلم خالد دياب

   لوحظ في الأونة الأخيرة تزايد الرجال المناصرة لحقوق المرأة عربياً، مقدمين مثالاُ رائعاً في تحدي المعنى التقليدي للرجولة الشرقية.

Sexual harass protest

Photo: Maged Tawfiles

Read in English

الأربعاء 2 ابريل 2014

قد بلغ التحرش الجنسي في مصر مستويات وبائية حتى وصل الى الحرم الجامعي لأقدم الجامعات العلمانية في البلاد بصورةٍ فجة. وراء هذا الوباء نماذج غير واقعية ومضرة للرجل المثالي والمرأة المثالية.

في السنوات الأخيرة، وخاصةً منذ اندلاع الثورة المصرية في عام 2011، بدأت النساء تتمرد ضد التيارات المتشددة التي اجتاحت مختلف أنـحاء البلاد منذ أواخر السبعينيات من القرن الماضي.

وقد أثار هذا رد فعل ضخم من التيارات المتشددة، مما جعل التحرش الجنسي يزداد عنفًا وإذلالاٍ كأحد ظواهر هذا رد الفعل. غير أن بعض الرجال قرروا أن يسبحوا ضد التيار، ليسوا فقط منادين يحقوق المرأة، ولكن أيضاً متحديين المفاهيم التقليدية للذكورة.

وهذه الصحوة من بعض الرجال لم تتركز فقط على النُخب الفكرية والاقتصادية، لكنها أيضًا قد صنعت فروقاً في جميع أنـحاء البلاد وكل طبقات المجتمع.

(ديفيد عصام)، شاب نشأ في أسرة تقليدية في المنيا في صعيد مصر، وهي من أكثر المحافظات المتحافظة في مصر.

في بداية الأمر يعترف (عصام) قائلاً: “في البداية، لم أكن أعتقد أن المرأة لديها حقوق. كنت فقط أراها كمُكمل لحياة الرجل”.

ولكن تضافرت عدد من العوامل التي صنعت تحولاً كبيراً في أفكار ومواقف (عصام). أهم تلك العوامل هو أخته الوحيدة، وعلى وجه التحديد حين رفضت القيود المفروضة عليها من قبل الأم، والتي بطبيعة الحال في الصعيد كانت تقيد حريتها في الكثير من الأمور.

وثمة عامل آخر وهو انخراطه في القراءة خاصة لبعض الكُتاب النسويين وعلى رأسهم الكاتبة (نوال السعداوي)؛ ولكن ربما كان العامل الأكثر أهمية في تغير أفكار (عصام) هو بعض الصداقات التي اكتسبها من بعد قيام الثورة المصرية، والتي تسببت في زلزال في وعي وضمير (عصام).

يضيف (عصام) “توجهات بعض الشباب والشابات المهتمين بقضايا المرأة جعلني أكثر وعيًا، وقادراً على تحدي الظروف المحيطة”، مشيراً إلى أنه الآن يتطوع دائماً في  فعاليات تعزيز الحقوق الاجتماعية والقانونية للنساء، وفعاليات مكافحة التحرش الجنسي.

على الرغم من أن الثورة قد صنعت جيل جديد أكثر وعياً، إلا أن ثقافة الرجل العربي الجديد ليست جديدة على الاطلاق، حقيقةً أول الأفكار النسوية في العالم العربي كانت، وليس مفاجأ في مجتمع يسيطر عليه الرجال في ذلك الوقت، حيث أن أول من نادى بتلك الأفكار كان رجلاً.

“على مر الأجيال كانت المرأة تابعة لحكم القوى الذكورية، ومُسيطر عليها من قبل طغيان قوة الرجال،” هكذا كتب قاسم أمين في تحرير المرأة في عام 1899م؛ مضيفاً “إن موقف الإسلام المُقلل من شأن المرأة هو أكبر العقبات التي تمنعنا من التقدم نـحو ما هو مُفيد بالنسبة لنا”.

كثير من الرجال ممن لهم أفكار علمانية والذين ظهروا قبل انتشار التيار الإسلامي المتشدد تعتبر المساواة بين الجنسين أمرًا مفروغًا منه، على الأقل من حيث المبدأ. وهناك أيضاً من ينفذه فعليا.

“لدي طفلان، صبي وفتاة، اعمالهما بأقصى درجات المساواة، من حيث النشأة، مصروف الجيب، والمسؤوليات، والواجبات، والتعليم، وتعليمهما احترام الذات”، هكذا بدء سعيد السعيد كلامه، وهو موظف فلسطيني في القطاع الخاص متقاعد وقد سافر إلى سويسرا منذ أكثر من 35 عامًا. ويضيف أيضًا “لقد تحدثت إلى كل منهما عن المسؤولية الجنسية، وقدمت كل علبة من الواقي الذكري عندما شعرت أن الوقت قد حان”.

قد ينسب البعض مواقف (السعيد) إلى مكوثه طويلاً في أوروبا، وهو يستبعد هذا الرأي تماما، قائلا “بفضل والديا، وتحديدا والدي، لم أكن أتقبل ابدا كيف تُعامل النساء في الشرق الأوسط”.

هذا هو حال الكثيرين من أبناء جيله، خاصةً من نشأوا في أسر يسارية، فلديهم ذكريات مماثلة؛ تحكي (سعاد العامري) وهي مهندسة وكاتبة فلسطينية بارزة، كيفية تعامل والدها معها ومساواته بينها وبين جميع أشقائها على حدٍ سواء بصورة تخالف الأعراف المتوارثة حينها.

تقول (العامري): “أنه يطلق على نفسه اسم (أبو أروى)، حتى أن بعض الناس لم يكن يعرفوا أن لدي ابن اسمه (أيمن)”، وأضاف “انه أطلق على نفسه هذا الأسم نسبةً لأبنته البكر (أروى)” منافياً التقاليد المتعارف عليها في التسمية باسم الولد وليس البنت.

بالطبع بلاد الشام، وخاصة لبنان، لديها موقف مستنير نسبيًا تجاه قضايا المرأة. ولكن حتى في أكثر المجتماعات تحفظا في العالم العربي تمر أيضا بصحوتها الخاصة، ولكن من نقطة بداية اقل.

في ضوء القيود الشديدة المفروضة على المرأة السعودية، المتمثلة في نظام الوصاية القمعي، انه ربما من المتوقع أن يكون من أبرظ الداعين بحقوق المرأة هناك رجلاً.

في ما يُعتبر نقطة فاصلة في قضية حقوق المرأة في المملكة العربية السعودية، استطاع المحامي والناشط الحقوقي (وليد أبو الخير) أن يحصل على حكم بالافراج عن (سمر بدوي) والتي كانت قد سُجنت بتهمة عصيان والدها رغم أنه كان يسيء لها.

خلافا للرأي السائد والصورة الإصلاحية التي تحاول العائلة المالكة السعودية أن تُظهرها للعالم الخارجي؛ فإن (أبو الخير) يُحمل النظام مسؤلية الأوضاع المزرية للنساء في السعودية.

“الملوم في هذه القيود جميعها هي السلطة السياسية بالتأكيد، والتي بدورها تلقي باللوم على المجتمع وتصفه بأنه عصي على الإصلاح،” يقول (أبو الخير). “بينما الحقيقة وعبر تجربة على الأرض أن السلطة تريد من المجتمع أن يبقى محافظاً وأن يظل الرجل مسيطر على المرأة لأنها بذلك تعطل نصف المجتمع ليبقى النصف الآخر يسهل قياده”. لهذا السبب، يرى (أبو الخير) أن الصراع على حقوق المرأة ذا صلة وثيقة وجزء لا يتجزء من الصراع على حقوق الأنسان كافة. “الجميع هنا مقموع ولا نريد أن نساوي مقموعاً بمن هو أخف قمعاً منه،” يصف الناشط السعودي. “والمرأة ليست مشكلتها كما أعتقد مع الرجل في السعودية وإنما مشكلتها مع السلطة أولاً وأخيرا”.

يعتقد (أبو الخير) أنه إذا اتخذت المؤسسات الوهابية موقفًا محايدًا تجاه الحقوق الشخصية وتركوا للناس الحق ليقرروا بأنفسهم، فإن هذا سيساعد على صنع نقلة كبيرة وإنجازاً في قضية حقوق المرأة في المملكة العربية السعودية، وخاصةً في الغرب؛ ويضيف (أبو الخير) ” وفي مجتمعي حيث أعيش، أي في الحجاز، الأغلبية يؤمنون فعلا باحترام المرأة وحفظ حقوقها وكان هذا الإيمان واضحاً أكثر قبل تغلغل الوهابية في مجتمعنا بفعل السلطة “.

كان من الطبيعي أن يثير نشاط (أبو الخير) عدم رضاء التيار المتشدد عنه، وبالتالي الدخول في مصادمات حادة مع السلطات السعودية؛ ورغم جميع المعارك القانونية والتي تسببت في اعتقاله العديد من المرات ومنعه من السفر وتحديد أقامته، إلا أنه وجد من تشاركه في حروبه وآلامه، (سمر بدوي) اختارت أن تشارك (أبو الخير) في قضاياه وحياته كزوجةٍ له. بعد أن كان (أبو الخير) هو محامي (سمر البدوي)، أصبحت هي ناشطة بارزة في مجال حقوق المرأة في بلدها، فهي من قدمت أول دعوى قضائية في المملكة لمنح المرأة حق التصويت، كما شاركت في الحملات المطالبة بحق المرأة في قيادة السيارة.

على الرغم من كل التحديات والصعوبات التي تواجه قضايا المرأة في المجتمع العربي، إلا أن (أبو الخير) متفائل بشأن المستقبل؛ ويوضح قائلاً ” والمعطيات الحالية تؤكد أن المرأة في طريقها لكسب حقوقها، نظراً للتحولات الكبيرة التي يشهدها المجتمع”.

في البلدان العربية التي اكتسابت فيها المرأة حصة كبيرة من حقوقها، يخاف البعض من التراجع النسبي.

“بشكل عام، فإن وضع (المرأة الفلسطينية واللبنانية) قد تراجع، مع صعود التيارات المتشددة دينياً؛” يعتقد (سعيد السعيد)، حيث يلوم على الأمهات نظراً لتبنيهم ثقافة”(الصبي الأمير على حساب أخوته البنات”.

وتعكس تجربة (ديفيد عصام) الخاصة في هذا المجال التحدي الذي يتماثل في التعامل مع دور المرأة بوصفها هي الداعم للنظام الأبوي في بعض الأحيان؛ ويصرح قائلاً “والدتي سعيدة من شكل علاقتي بأختي لما فيها من حب ورعاية واهتمام؛ لكنها تعترض على مساندتي لها في التفكير للسفر والعمل، وتكوين صداقات في الجامعة”.

وهناك آخرون ممن خالفوا التقاليد الاجتماعية تمامًا، متجاوزً المساواة البسيطة وصولاً لمرحلة الانعكاس التام؛ وهذا هو حال (عمر وهبة)؛ بعد فترة من الانفصال القسري من زوجته التي كان تعمل في جنيف، قرر أن يرمي بجميع التقاليد المتوارثة عرض الحائط، وترك عمله في القاهرة ليتفرغ لتربية طفله، على الرغم من اعتراض عائلته  التي تؤمن بأن دور الرجل انه يقود والمرأة دورها ان تتبع زوجها.

“كانت أول مرة لي ان اكون رب المنزل”، كما يعترف “لقد استمتعت بجوانب عديدة منها كتعلم طهي الطعام، والقراءة أكثر، التأمل في حياتي، التفكير في اقامة عمل خاص، والبقاء مع طفلي أوقات أطول”.

على الرغم من أن (عمر وهبة) أستطاع الحصول على وظيفة في جنيف، إلا أنه الوقت الذي قضاه في الاهتمام بالشئون المنزلية غرس فيه المزيد من التقدير والاحترام للادوار التقليدية المسندة للمرأة، ويقول أنه لا يزال يُسهم في الاعمال المنزلية وتربية الاطفال.

على الرغم من الاضطرابات التي تمر بها مصر ووسط تصاعد حدة التيارات المتشددة منذ قيام الثورة، إلا أن (وهبة) متفائل ويأمل في وضع أفضل للمساواة بين الجنسين في المستقبل.

“أنا متفائل بشأن الجيل الصاعد من الشباب، فهم أكثر مرونة وقابلية للتغيير” ويكمل قائلاً “أعتقد أن الكثيرين أصبحوا لا يؤمنون بالأدوار التقليدية للرجل والمرأة، وأنهم يدركون أن الأفضل هو أن يعملا سوياً لتحسين مجتمعهم وتحريكه للامام”.

نشكر ديفيد عصام لهذه الترجمة.

___

Follow Khaled Diab on Twitter.

This feature first appeared in Your Middle East on 30 March 2014.

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The new Arab man: The Middle East’s male awakening

 
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By Khaled Diab

In the first of a Chronikler series on the new Arab man, we meet men who champion women’s rights and challenge traditional ideals of masculinity.

Sexual harass protest

Egyptian men protest sexual harassment in solidarity with women. Photo: Maged Tawfiles https://www.facebook.com/photo.php?fbid=10151910105340644&set=a.10151910085410644.883325.538750643&type=3&theater

Tuesday 1 April 2014

Sexual harassment in Egypt has reached such epidemic proportions that it has eveninfiltrated the campus of the country’s oldest secular university. At the heart of this plague, I have argued, are toxic, unrealistic and demeaning gender ideals and stereotypes.

In recent years, and especially since the eruption of the Egyptian revolution in 2011, women have been rebelling against the conservative current that has swept across the country starting from the late 1970s.

This has provoked a massive conservative backlash, of which increasingly violent sexual harassment and humiliation are one manifestation. But what is lost, even drowned out, by this tidal wave of misogyny are the men who have chosen to swim against the current, and not only champion women’s rights but also to challenge traditional concepts of masculinity.

And this male awakening is not just focused among the intellectual and economic elite but has made in-roads across the country and in every strata of society.

Take David Esam, who was raised in a traditional household in al-Minya, which lies in Middle Egypt, the entry point to ultra-conservative Upper Egypt.

“At first, I didn’t think that women had rights. I just viewed them as complements to a man’s life,” he confessed to me.

A number of factors combined to set in motion a major shift in Esam’s attitudes. One was his sister, and specifically a quarrel they had over the restrictions his mother imposed on his sister’s freedom.

Another factor was the books he started reading, including the writings of Egypt’s foremost living feminist Nawal al-Saadawi. But perhaps the most critical factor has been the friendships he has made since the Egyptian revolution, which triggered an earthquake in Esam’s consciousness and conscience.

“Encountering young women and men interested in the women’s cause made me more self-aware and critical of my surroundings,” observes Esam, noting that he is now active in promoting social and legal rights for women and volunteers in the movement combatting sexual harassment.

Although the revolution has awoken the consciousness of a new generation of men, this new Arab man is actually not new at all. In fact, possibly the Arab world’s first feminist, which was unsurprising in the male-dominated society at the time, was a man.

“Throughout the generations our women have continued to be subordinate to the rule of the strong and are overcome by the powerful tyranny of men,” Qasim Amin wrote in The Liberation of Women in 1899. “The inferior position of Muslim women is the greatest obstacle that prevents us from advancing toward what is beneficial for us.”

Many secular men raised before the spread of Islamist conservatism actually take gender equality for granted, at least in principle. And there are some who implement it almost religiously.

“I have two children, a boy and a girl, whom I treated equally, in terms of upbringing, pocket money, responsibilities, duties, schooling and self-respect,” says Said El-Said, a retired Palestinian professional who has been based in Switzerland for more than 35 years. “I talked to both of them about sexual responsibility and gave each a box of condoms when I felt the time was right.”

Some are bound to attribute El-Said’s attitudes to his long sojourn in Europe, but he insists that nothing could be further from the truth. “Thanks to my parents, specifically my father… I never accepted how women were treated in the Middle East,” he explains.

And others of his generation, especially those raised in leftist households, have similar recollections. Suad Amiry, the prominent Palestinian architect-turned-author, recalled how her father treated all her siblings equally to the extent that he bucked even the most deep-rooted conventions.

“He called himself Abu Arwa, so many people didn’t think we had a brother called Ayman,” Amiry remembers. “He named himself after his eldest daughter and not after the boy.”

Of course, the Levant, especially Lebanon, has a relatively enlightened attitude to women. But even in the most conservative quarters of the Arab world are experiencing their own version of a male awakening, albeit from a lower starting point.

It is perhaps unsurprising in light of the severe restrictions on Saudi women, such as the repressive guardianship system, that one of Saudi Arabia’s most prominent advocates of women’s rights is actually a man.

In what was a watershed case for women’s rights in the kingdom, the lawyer and human rights activist Waleed Abulkhair successfully secured the release of Samar Badawi, who had been imprisoned for disobeying her abusive father.

Contrary to popular opinion and the “reformist” image the Saudi royal family attempts to project abroad, Abulkhair holds the regime responsible for the poor status of women.

“The political establishment is to blame for all these restrictions, but it blames society which it describes as ‘unreformable’,” he says. “But in reality, the establishment wants society to remain conservative and for men to continue to dominate women, thereby neutralising half of society, while making the other half easier to control.”

For this reason, Abulkhair sees women’s rights as intimately, and holistically, connected to the wider struggle for human rights.

“Everyone here is repressed and we don’t want an equality of repression,” he claims. “In my view, the Saudi woman’s problem is not with men but with the system.”

Abulkhair is convinced that if the Wahhabi establishment would take a neutral stance towards personal rights and leave people to decide for themselves, then women’s rights would take a giant leap forward in Saudi Arabia, especially in the west of the country. “Where I live, in Hijaz, the majority believes in respecting women and upholding their rights, and this was more apparent before the spread of Wahhabism at the hands of the authorities.”

Unsurprisingly, Abulkhair’s activism has not endeared him to conservatives and has got him into hot water with the authorities. Throughout all his legal battles, detentions and the travel ban still in force, he has found a willing accomplice, defender and champion in the form of his wife, Samar Badawi. Since Abulkhair represented her, Badawi has become a prominent activist in her own right, filing the kingdom’s first lawsuit for women’s suffrage and involved in the women’s driving campaign.

Despite all the challenges and difficulties, Abulkhair is upbeat about the future. “The current situation indicates that (Saudi) women are on their way to gaining their rights due to the enormous changes society is undergoing,” he concludes.

Some fear that the reverse may be true in Arab countries where women have already wrested significant rights.

“In general, the status (of Palestinian and Lebanese women) is regressing, with the rise of religious fervour,” believes Said El-Said. “I blame mothers for perpetuating the tradition of the ‘boy prince’ at the expense of their daughters.”

And David Esam’s own experience reflects the challenge of dealing with the role of women as gatekeepers of the patriarchy.

“My mother is happy with the love, care and attention in my relationship with my sister,” he explains. “But she does not approve of some of my positions encouraging my sister to pursue her interests in work, travel and friendships at university.”

There are others who, bucking social convention altogether, have moved beyond simple equality to engage in role reversal. Omar Weheba is a case in point.

After a period of forced separation from his wife who was working in Geneva, he decided to throw tradition to the wind and quit his job in Cairo to become a trailing spouse, despite his family’s conviction that “it was important that the man take the lead”.

“Being a stay-at-home dad was a first for me,” he admits. “I enjoyed aspects of it like learning how to cook, reading more, reflecting more on life, thinking of doing my own business, staying with my kid more.”

Although Weheba has now found a job in Geneva, his time as a home-carer has instilled in him a greater appreciation and respect for the traditional role ascribed to women, and he still shares in the child-rearing and housework.

Despite the turbulence Egypt is going through and the conservative and religious backlash unleashed since the revolution, Weheba is hopeful about the future of gender equality.

“I am optimistic about the younger generation… They are more flexible and malleable to change,” he argues. “I believe many realise that there is no clear-cut traditional role anymore for a man or a woman. What they know is that it’s best to work together… to better their society and move it forward.”

___

Follow Khaled Diab on Twitter.

This feature first appeared in Your Middle East on 30 March 2014.

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The Arab world’s rebels without a god

 
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By Khaled Diab

In Egypt and other Arab countries, the atheism taboo has been broken. Atheists are rebelling against the status quo and demanding to be seen and heard.

Atheists are carving out a space in the Arab world's narrowly defined religious landscape. Photo: ©Khaled Diab

Atheists are carving out a space in the Arab world’s narrowly defined religious landscape. Photo: ©Khaled Diab

Wednesday 26 March 2014

Sometimes a film can change your life. This is exactly what happened to Alber Saber, but not in the way people usually mean. Little did the young activist suspect that the fevered imaginings and rantings of a religious bigot on the other side of the world would spark furious chaos right outside his front door. The “film” – or, more accurately, trailer – in question was Innocence of Muslims, the low-budget YouTube sensation that caused global controversy in 2012 for its crass and offensive depiction of Muhammad.

On 12 September 2012, a mob of angry neighbours gathered outside the apartment building where Saber lived with his family, angered by rumours that the boy next door had posted the controversial video on his Facebook page.

In fact, Saber had not posted the video. So why did the angry mob target him? Perhaps because Saber comes from a Coptic family – like the maker of Innocence of Muslims – and, unlike him, is an atheist.

Distressed and concerned, Saber’s mother phoned the police, expecting them to turn up and protect her son and the rest of the family. Instead, the police returned the next day to arrest the outspoken blogger and activist who was actively expressing his atheistic convictions on social media. Saber was insulted during his interrogation and a junior officer incited fellow prisoners against him, provoking one of them to cut him with a razor on his throat.

In December 2012, Saber was sentenced to three years for “insulting” and “disdaining” religion by “creating webpages, including Crazy Dictator and Egyptian Atheists”. “This made me feel that anyone who thinks differently to the religion or ideology of the state is a criminal,” he asserts. “But I will not give up my right to think.”

During his appeal, the young activist fled the country. “I really miss my life in Egypt because I am now living in Switzerland far away from my family, friends and country,” he told me from his exile, “even if my country does not respect my rights and has caused me a lot of trouble.”

Saber admits that despite the dangers he faced in Egypt, he did not want to flee. “If it were up to me I would stay and defend myself even if I were to be executed,” he said in an interview at the time.

The sensationalist corners of the media had a field day during Saber’s ordeal, depicting him as the atheistic equivalent of the Islamophobic, Quran-burning American pastor, Terry Jones. “A segment of the media inserted untruths about my case. They alleged that I burnt or tore up the Quran,” he recounts. “Many people still believe this, even though my case revolved around the articles and videos I made about my personal beliefs.”

And it is not just Saber. Ever since the revolution took off in 2011, Egyptian non-believers have felt emboldened and empowered, emerging from the shadows to carve out a space for themselves on social media.

This has had a ripple effect on the mainstream media.

For example, the widely watched 90 Minute talk show recently hosted a young atheist and social media activist, Ismail Mohamed, in an episode titled ‘Penetrating the secret world of atheists in Egypt’. While the programme brought the subject of atheism to a public platform, it was a missed opportunity to promote a mature public debate on non-belief. Despite the presenter’s assertions that she wished to give Mohamed a podium to express his views, she displayed blatant hostility towards the subject. Her guests included a psychiatrist who suggested that atheism was caused – as is similarly suggested about homosexuality in the Arab world – by psychological, financial and family problems and so atheists deserved patience and pity.

The inconvenient truth is that atheism is not a psychological disorder. “I did not become an atheist,” counters Milad Suleiman, a young atheist blogger from Imbaba, a poor Cairo suburb that was gripped by an Islamist insurgency in the 1990s. “Atheism is a state of thought. It has no specific starting point.”

Paradoxically, many atheists arrive at their convictions as the product of an attempt to deepen their faith, understand their religion better or silence doubts plaguing their consciences. “When I started university in the 1980s, I realised that I was very knowledgeable about lots of things, except my own religion. So I decided that I was going to delve deep into it and be as expert as possible,” Ayman Abdel-Fattah, a socially minded businessman and affably outspoken atheist in his late 40s, told me in a noisy watering hole in the upscale Cairo neighbourhood of Zamalek. But  instead of reaffirming his faith, this exercise, Abdel-Fattah admits, “gave me the shock of my life” because he found that the founding fathers and mothers of Islam were very human, for the most part cynically political, motivated by self-interest and riven by infighting, jealousy and overriding ambition.

Others begin their journey as deeply conservative believers. “I was a very religious person when I was a teenager. I used to teach kids in church and remote villages about Christianity and Jesus,” recalls Mena Bassily, a young Egyptian computer scientist now living in New Zealand. Unsatisfied with the clergy’s textbook responses to his growing doubts, Bassily embarked on a journey of spiritual self-discovery that eventually led him to jettison his faith.

Before the revolution, Abdel-Fattah says, Egyptians preferred to adopt a deathly silence on the subject. “There was not a single attempt for any serious academic study or genuine analysis of the social repercussions of the trend, despite the fact that it was easily observable through the blogosphere and social media at large,” he points out.

So what prompted the media to wake up to this phenomenon? “[Everything] changed after it became apparent [that] the Islamists were going to take over,” Abdel-Fattah explains. “[The media] concluded there was one, and only one, reason for this ‘atheism tsunami.’ It was the Islamists’ rule.”

The expression “atheism tsunami,” evoking images of a Biblical god flooding the world with atheists rather than the more conventional water, fire or brimstone, was memorably used by Amr Adeeb, the loud-mouthed host of the popular talk show al-Qahira al-Youm (Cairo Today). The ‘experts’ on Adeeb’s show concluded that young people were turning to atheism as a reaction to the reactionary brand of Islam that had taken hold in Egypt.

“Following the coup, a lot of people reacted against religion as a rejection of Morsi and the Muslim Brotherhood,” observes Amira Mohsen, a British-Egyptian journalist and media analyst.  In addition, the military regime has manipulated the widespread fear that Egypt could become the next Saudi Arabia to demonise the Muslim Brotherhood and justify its persecution of the movement.

Blaming radical Islamists appeals both to atheists and religious moderates. For atheists, it supports the hope that society will, one day, throw off the shackles of conservative religion and choose secularism instead.

For religious moderates, placing blame elsewhere sustains their belief that it is not religion which is the problem but the way it is abused by extremists.

But while disgust at the surge of Islamic extremism may have prompted a number of Egyptians to abandon their faith, far greater influences appear to be intellectual conviction, more openness sparked by the 2011 revolution, and a gradual discarding of old, tired philosophies that tried to create homogeneity by ignoring the country’s diversity.

“Egyptian society has always been diverse and varied in terms of beliefs, opinions and cultures,” notes Alber Saber, the exiled blogger. “This has made many tolerant of those with differing outlooks.”

Beyond Egypt’s mainstream media, a profound public debate on belief has begun. This can be observed particularly in social media, which has seen a profusion of blogs, citizen journalism and films tackling this complex topic.  

In the progressive ranks of the Egyptian media, there have also been efforts to portray atheists sympathetically. For instance, the online al-Badil (Alternative), which describes itself as “the voice of the weak”, produced a video documentary in which a number of atheists were given the space and freedom to elaborate on their beliefs, lives, concerns and worries.

Atheists hope that the revolution of consciousness which has overtaken Egyptian society will expand to include them. “I don’t think I will witness any earth-shattering changes for atheists’ rights or recognition in my lifetime,” concludes Ayman Abdel-Fattah, “but I’m also certain that the momentum has reached an irreversible point.”

Tunisia: the atheist spring?

Tunisia, the unexpected epicentre of the revolutionary wave that washed across the Arab world is once again providing lessons to the rest of the region in what freedom truly means.

The only difference is that this time around, instead of being the first to rise against a despotic regime, Tunisians were the first to pass a new constitution. This is a document that, despite being drafted in compromise with the moderate Islamist al-Nahda party, guarantees “freedom of belief and conscience” and, most notably, contains no references to Sharia.

Calling the constitution entirely secular may, however, be a bit of a stretch. Islam is still defined as the religion of the state and it is clearly stated that the president must be a Muslim. Also potentially problematic is the state’s dual duty to “protect the sacred” and to “prohibit charges of apostasy”. This could one day potentially be used to curb freedom of belief, a right that includes that of questioning the sacred and being an “apostate”.

It is in fact no coincidence that, although Tunisia tolerates non-believers more than most other places in the Arab world, atheism is still a taboo. This limitation is especially noticeable in the media, segments of which deliberately spread lies about what atheists are and what they believe. One example is that of the male student OM, whose name was concealed for undisclosed reasons. In an interview with Tunisialive, he complained about a journalist who interviewed him about his beliefs and afterwards wrote that “atheists worship stones and the sun, and that they drink urine and blood”.

Until recently most Tunisian atheists kept their convictions behind closed doors, but since the post-revolutionary rise of Islamist parties, more and more are starting to become vocal. At the same time, there seems to be a growing acceptance of atheistic beliefs.

“There are a number of associations that have made the defence of atheists’ rights their main battles,” says OM. “I am hopeful that we will reach a stage when atheism is tolerated.”

Unholy in the Holy Land

The Dome of the Rock. The Holy Sepulchre. The Western Wall. As the cradle of the Abrahamic faiths, the Holy Land is better known for belief than non-belief, yet atheists walk amongst the faithful.

However, when it comes to Palestinian non-believers, life can be lonely and finding like-minded people difficult. “I don’t know many non-believers,” George, a Palestinian atheist from Jerusalem who works in IT, told me.

Whether this is a sign that Palestinian atheists are few and far between or that they keep a low profile is unclear. “The Palestinian media doesn’t deal with the issue,” George explains.

Atheism wasn’t always confined to the sidelines as it is today. In 1948, after the loss of Palestine doubts about the importance of religion were widespread. For the first decades of the Palestinian struggle against Israel, communists played a prominent role in Palestinian politics and society. Although Palestinian and Arab communists were ambiguous about their convictions regarding the existence of God, they were openly sceptical or hostile towards organised religion.

For instance, the writings of both Mahmoud Darwish and Ghassan Kanafani deal with shaken faith. “God does not come to the poor,” Darwish declares in one of his poems, while a character in one of Kanafani’s stories declaims: “May the curse of the God who does not exist anywhere pour down on you.”

Non-belief in the cradle of Islam

As a strict Wahhabi theocracy, Saudi Arabia does not tolerate the presence of other religions or other branches of Islam in the public space. Conversion and atheism are both considered “apostasy” and according to the Kingdom’s law are punishable by death.

Unsurprisingly, citizens and foreigners living in Saudi are very careful when expressing their views about religion. But there are a growing number of exceptions who are challenging these restrictions.

One example is Saudi poet Hamza Kashgari who, in early 2012, posted three tweets on an imaginary encounter with Muhammad during the festival of the prophet’s birthday (mawlid) in which he declared “I shall not bow to you” and “I have loved aspects of you, hated others”. After more than a year and a half in prison for his “blasphemous” outburst, Kashgari was finally released in October 2013.

This is part of a broader backlash against Saudi’s Wahhabi establishment which has included a civil disobedience campaign by women wishing to drive. Even the fearsome Mutaween, the once untouchable religious police, is coming in for increasingly harsh criticism and opposition, including lawsuits and protest actions, especially after its agents drove two young brothers who were playing music off a bridge to their deaths in a high-speed car chase.

Despite the risks involved, an anonymous and secretive atheistic underground movement, albeit a small one, has emerged in Saudi. In order to discuss and share ideas this group of dissident atheists mostly gathers in online forums and chats, but in rare occasions it also manages to meet face to face. “We non-believers have meetings and groups in a lot of Saudi cities,” one atheist told Your Middle East in 2013. “If you go into them, then you will be shocked by the numbers and elements of society.

___

Follow Khaled Diab on Twitter.

This feature first appeared in the March 2014 edition of The Outpost.

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Spain, return and the other 1492

 
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By Khaled Diab

Spain’s recognition of the Jews it expelled ignores another historical crime: the Muslims forced out of Andalusia.

Granada was the last Muslim stronghold to fall to the Reconquista. Image: Bernjan

Granada was the last Muslim stronghold to fall to the Reconquista. Image: Bernjan

Thursday 20 February 2014

Spain has further opened its doors to the descendants of Jews expelled from its land half a millennium ago – though the actual application process remains as mysterious as alchemy.

It is welcome that Spain is striving to right a historical wrong. However, what is overlooked in Spain’s public atonement is that it was not only Jews who were expelled during the Reconquista and the subsequent Inquisition, but also an untold number of Muslims.

A decade or so after the fall of Granada and the expulsion of the Jews who refused to embrace Christianity, Muslims were given the option either to convert or leave. But even the converts, known as Moriscos, were forced out a century later.

This omission has caused some anger among North African Muslims. Jamal Bin Ammar al-Ahmar, an Algerian professor at the Ferhat Abbas University in Sétif, was outraged by “the injustice inflicted on the Muslim population of Andalusia who are still suffering in the diaspora in exile since 1492.”

There have actually been some low-level attempts in Spain to address this. For example, in 2006, the Andalusian parliament considered the issue of granting the Moriscos’ descendants Spanish citizenship.

But even if Spain were to extend an equivalent right of return to the descendants of Moriscos as it is offering Sephardi Jews, it would involve enormous practical difficulties. It is already a major challenge determining, some 20 generations later, who exactly qualifies as a descendant of an Andalusian Jew. In fact, many Jews, including those not belonging to Sephardi Judaism, and even non-Jews, could have Sephardi ancestry.

Four centuries after the expulsion of the last Moriscos, ascertaining who their descendants are is even tougher, given that they blended into the general population far more than the traditionally more isolationist Jews did.

Intriguingly, however, all these centuries down the line, there are still pockets that proudly identify as Morisco and trace their families back to Andalusia. For instance, there are even Morisco towns in Tunisia, such as Sidi Bou Said, Testour and Sloughia which maintain their unique Andalusian identity.

“It was very rare for Andalusians to marry ‘outsiders’, that is, Arabs not of the same origin,” explained Professor Abdeljelil Temimi, one of the foremost experts on Morisco influence and heritage in the Arab world, in an interview in the early 1990s. “This is one of the biggest reasons so much of their heritage still exists today.”

And many still feel nostalgia towards the old country. “Being Morisco to me is belonging to a historic time that comes from Valencia, a civilisation, culture, art, agriculture,” Moez Chtiba who is from Zaghouan but traces his family back to Andalusia was quoted as saying.

And I can understand the source of the nostalgia. In its heyday, multicultural Andalusia was the most advanced and cultured place in the Europe of the time, where science, philosophy and art flourished. As I discovered when visiting Spain, this can still be detected in the region’s architectural gems, from the Mesquita in Cordoba to the breath-taking Alhambra in Granada.

Andalusia also had a profound cultural impact on Europe, even defining the concept of Western “cool” and teaching Europeans how to “love” in a poetic, courtly and tormented fashion.

Yet Spain has failed to recognise Moriscos, while embracing Sephardi Jews. One Moroccan journalist called the oversight “flagrant segregation and unquestionable discrimination, as both communities suffered equally in Spain at that time.”

And this is partly true, given the centuries of bad blood between Muslims and Christians and the rampant Islamophobia on the European right, as reflected in a UK opinion piece arguing Spain has no reason to apologise for expelling its Muslim population and freeing itself from “Islamic Jihadist rule.”

But another reason is simple and straightforward demographics. While there is potentially a couple of million Jews who could theoretically qualify for Spanish citizenship, probably only a few thousand at most will actually bother to apply.

In contrast, there are unknown millions of Arabs and Muslims who may be able to trace themselves back to Andalusia, from Morocco in the Maghreb to as far afield as Turkey, where the Ottomans gave refuge to Andalusian refugees.

If only a fraction of these were to apply, it could significantly and rapidly alter Spain’s demographic make-up. And in a country that was devoid of Muslims for half a millennium but lies on the fault line separating the two “civilisations,” this could well spark civil strife or even conflict.

Then, there are those who would argue that the circumstances of Jews and Muslims were different: while Jews were an oppressed minority, Muslims represented the conqueror. In many ways, this would be like asking the Levant to grant the descendants of the Crusaders the right to return and live in their midst.

Though true, this misses a number of important nuances.

One is the fact that during its seven centuries of presence in the Iberian peninsula, Islam became an indigenous faith, not just an elite one. There is plenty of historical evidence that Islam permeated all strata of society, and that Arabic was spoken widely, as reflected in its extensive fossilised remains in modern Spanish.

Moreover, the Moriscos, like other Conversos, were so attached to their homes that they preferred to, at least ostensibly, abandon their faith rather than be banished from their homes.

Regardless of whether or not the descendants of Moriscos will ever be granted the right to move to Spain and become Spanish citizens, Spain at the very least owes them an apology.

Much closer in terms of space and time, as a first step towards reconciliation, Israel owes the Palestinian an unreserved apology. Likewise, the Arab countries that were once home to significant Jewish minorities need to apologise unreservedly to their former citizens and would-be citizens.

One day perhaps we will even see Arab countries and Israel extending some kind of right of return, which would be a boon to a region that has seriously lost its diversity, would spell the end to exclusionary nationalisms and would prove that Arabs and Jews are “brothers” and “sisters,” not feuding “cousins”.

Follow Khaled Diab on Twitter.

This article first appeared in Haaretz on 18 February 2014.

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The Arabs, apartheid South Africa and Israel

 
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By Khaled Diab

Reactions to apartheid South Africa differed across the Arab world and were coloured both by anti-colonial solidarity and the Arab-Israeli conflict.

Nelson Mandela with troops from the Algerian Liberation Army. Photo: www.sahistory.org.za

Nelson Mandela with troops from the Algerian Liberation Army. Photo: www.sahistory.org.za

Friday 27 December 2013

Like just about everywhere else, the death of Nelson Mandela triggered passionate responses across the Arab world. “Men and women everywhere feel they have lost someone very close to them,” said the respected international diplomat and peace envoy Lakhdar Brahimi.

“Humanity has lost its greatest son,” tweeted former IAEA chief, prominent anti-Mubarak opponent and short-lived transitional vice-president Mohamed ElBaradei, himself also the winner of a Nobel peace prize.

Egypt even took the extraordinary measure of announcing three days of national mourning to mark the great man’s death. Algerian president Abdel-Aziz Bouteflika went a step further and ordered eight days of national mourning during which all flags were to be flown at half-mast.

Unlike in the West, however, Arab sentiment and sympathy towards Nelson Mandela stretch back decades, back to the days he was a radical rebel and not yet a hallowed peacemaker – some Arabs even prefer that Mandela of yesteryear.

Previous generations of Arabs saw in the long and bitter struggle against apartheid and its precursors in South Africa – spearheaded by the African National Congress (ANC) – the reflection of their own plight under the boot of European colonialism and imperialism. This was particularly the case in North Africa, which also felt a sense of African solidarity.

According to Mandela himself, who admired Algeria’s long battle for independence, the situation in French Algeria most closely paralleled that of South Africa.

In this light, it is unsurprising that the ANC received training, funds and support from Algeria. In 1961, during his clandestine Africa tour after which he was arrested, Nelson Mandela spent time with the Algerian Liberation Army and the rebels of the National Liberation Front in Algeria.

Although Mandela was impressed by what he saw, even back then he realised that “there was no point in trying to overthrow the apartheid regime; the ANC had to force them to the negotiating table.”

Algeria also provided the ANC with constant diplomatic support, such as helping spearhead the pan-African charge against apartheid South Africa. For instance, Abdel-Aziz Bouteflika, when he was president of the UN General Assembly in 1974, ruled that South Africa could not participate in its proceedings.

And Algeria was there right to the end. For example, Lakhdar Ibrahimi was the UN Special Envoy for South Africa and monitored the transition to democracy. Ibrahimi is also a member of The Elders, a group of world leaders founded by Mandela to promote global peace.

Nasser’s Egypt also provided the ANC with strong support, in its multiple roles as a member of the United Nations, the Arab League, the Organisation of African Unity (OAU) and the Non-Aligned Movement. Although Egypt did not shut down the South African embassy in Cairo until May 1961, the Egyptian capital hosted offices for the ANC from the late 1950s.

Mandela’s time in Egypt clearly impressed him, both in cultural and historic terms, but also for the new regime’s efforts to develop the country. “President Nasser had an impressive programme of economic development based on African socialism,” he wrote in his unpublished memoirs written on Robben Island.

Solidarity was not one way either, and the ANC supported Egypt whenever it could. In Egypt’s hour of need during the Suez Crisis, known as the Tripartite Aggression in Arabic, the ANC said: “We pledge our solidarity with the Egyptian people and are confident that the people of Africa will not allow themselves to be used against their fellow Africans in any predatory war.”

Showing early signs of his conciliatory humanism and inclusiveness, Mandela spoke up and lobbied robustly in 1962 against strong sub-Saharan African opposition to the entry of North Africa to the Pan-African Freedom Movement for East and Central Africa (PAFMECA), which became the Organisation for African Unity (OAU) and eventually evolved into today’s African Union.

“An aspect that particularly disturbed me was the attitude of most delegates in the PAFMECSA area to visitors from West Africa and the Arab countries,” Mandela recalled. “The whole issue upset me and I felt I could not keep quiet.”

“The trouble Nelson is that in North Africa you have Africans who are not Africans,” one delegate yelled out, not without justification. Nevertheless, Mandela carried the day and paved the way to Egypt, Algeria and the rest of North Africa to become full members of the African club.

It should be pointed out that the Arab world was not uniform in its stance towards apartheid. North Africa and the secular, revolutionary states were generally more sympathetic to the ANC than the conservative monarchist regimes, which feared that the contagion of radical socialist politics would spread within their own borders.

Moreover, some corners of the Arab world, namely some countries in the Gulf, still lived under the dark shadow of perhaps the worst form of apartheid: slavery. Saudi Arabia, for instance, did not abolish slavery until 1962, and only under immense pressure from Egypt’s then-unrivalled propaganda apparatus.

This may in part explain the Saudi regime’s ambivalent attitude towards apartheid and how Riyadh was quite happy to supply South Africa with oil until the oil embargo which accompanied the 1973 war with Israel forced its hand. This may have not lasted long, however, as there is some evidence to suggest that Saudi became South Africa’s leading supplier during the sanctions-busting secret trade of the 1980s.

That said, Saudi Arabia, despite its contradictions, also deserves credit for being among the first nations to push for international action against the apartheid regime. It was, for instance, a co-signatory of a 1952 letter to the UN Secretary-General asking for South Africa’s apartheid policies to be placed on the General Assembly’s agenda.

In addition to anti-colonial solidarity, many Arabs saw South Africa through the prism of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, drawing parallels between the two. This remains the case, as the rest of the region, the general view goes, has gained its independence but the Palestinians continue to live under occupation and subjugation. While this is sadly true, this overlooks the fact that there are others who remain deprived of their right to self-determination, such as the Kurds and Sahrawis.

The ANC and Mandela’s sympathy for the Palestinian cause has won them many Arab hearts and minds, as illustrated by the genuine sense of grief felt across Palestine at Mandela’s passing.

However, what both Palestinians and Israeli critics of Mandela do not seem to realise  is that the great reconciler’s solidarity with the Palestinian struggle did not equate to hostility towards Israelis. “I always thought it unrealistic to ignore the existence of Israel and maintained that the Jewish people are as entitled as any other nation in the world to have their own national home,” Mandela reflected on Robben Island.

Beyond the Holy Land, South Africa’s experience continues to resonate and remains relevant. As Arabs struggle against dictatorship, Mandela stands as a shining example of a liberation leader who not only established a largely functioning democracy but also stepped down graciously, in stark contrast to the Arab model of leader-for-life or until revolution strikes.

Despite post-apartheid South Africa’s many imperfections, this rainbow nation also provides our bitterly divided region with an inspiring model of reconciliation and healing.

Follow Khaled Diab on Twitter.

This article first appeared in Haaretz on 19 December 2013.

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