The death throes of Arab thuggery

 
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By Khaled Diab

Arab civilisation has not collapsed but the thuggish political, economic and religious mafias dominating the region are dying violently.

Prompted by social media, pro

Prompted by social media, pro

Friday 17 October 2014

In an influential essay in Politico, the veteran Lebanese journalist Hisham Melhem who is the Washington bureau chief of Al Arabiya, sounded the death knell for Arab civilisation.

“Arab civilisation, such as we knew it, is all but gone,” was his bleak prognosis. “The Arab world today is more violent, unstable, fragmented and driven by extremism… than at any time since the collapse of the Ottoman Empire a century ago.”

Melhem then goes on to detail a long list of ills plaguing the Arab world: from the apparent defeat of the Arab Spring revolutions in most countries to the failure of Arab secular and monarchist regimes, not to mention the proliferation of fundamentalist violence.

“Is it any surprise that, like the vermin that take over a ruined city, the heirs to this self-destroyed civilisation should be the nihilistic thugs of the Islamic State?” he asks.

But to my mind, the domino-collapse of one state after another is not a sign of the death of Arab civilisation, but is rather the result of the implosion of three bankrupt forms of despotism: that of the tyrannical Arab state, Islamist demagoguery and foreign hegemony.

Despite the massive differences in the forms of government and the nature of the governed, most post-independence Arab states shared one thing in common: they all served a narrow elite to the detriment of society as a whole. Wherever you turn your gaze, you will find, almost without exception, seated in the place of the previous imperial overlords are local masters.

In addition, the foreign rule of yesteryear did not go away, it just changed its face and modus operandi. The loose-knit Ottoman empire in which local leaders and elites paid lip service and tribute to the Sultan but sometimes behaved like independent leaders, such as in Egypt, was replaced by the British and French who spoke the language of independence but often engaged in direct rule.

When the United States muscled out the old-world European powers, it spoke the language of self-determination and anti-imperialism but created its Pax Americana empire which exercised control through vassal leaders in client states and a ruthlessly punitive approach, including crippling sanctions and invasions, towards those who rejected its hegemony. The upshot of this is that Arab populations have lived under a double oppression: that of their native rulers and that imposed on them from distant capitals.

Just like Washington tolerates little regional dissent, domestically, Arab regimes have shared, to varying degrees, a ruthless attitude to opposition. This had the dual effect of robbing their societies of a clear cadre of effective alternative leaders and empowering ever-more extreme forms of opposition by side-lining or eliminating moderates.

Although a lot of attention has been directed at regime crackdowns against the Islamist opposition, especially the various chapters of the Muslim Brotherhood, less well-known is that secular dissidents suffered repression easily as harsh or more so, especially leftists.

This is to be expected of the Gulf monarchies whose claim to legitimacy is founded on dubious religious pretexts. However, the revolutionary republican regimes of Egypt, Syria and Iraq, despite their reputation in America for having been closet communists and pro-Soviet, not only dealt ruthlessly with the liberal opposition but were also bitterly anti-communist. For example, Nasserist Egypt not only banned the liberal nationalist al-Wafd party in 1953 but also carried out a harsh crackdown against leftists and communist critics. This was partly out of distrust of Moscow and partly to maintain their claim as the sole representatives of progressive values.

In Iraq, the communist party was, for decades, one of the most influential opposition currents, yet was not tolerated neither by the “liberal” royalists nor the “progressive” Free Officers and Ba’athists which came later. The most brutal anti-communist crackdowns were probably those carried out by pro-British Iraqi Prime Minister Nuri al-Said in the late 1940s and in the 1960s following a failed anti-Ba’ath coup attempt. Saddam Hussein also dealt ruthlessly with the party, both as head of security and intelligence in the late 1960s and on the eve of becoming president in the late 1970s.

Though the reasons varied, the decades-long oppression of secular opposition forces in the Arab world had far-reaching consequences. One was the decimation of the ranks of viable alternative leaders, which was acutely felt when the leaderless Arab uprisings did not manage to assemble a credible leadership quickly enough to consolidate their gains.

This, along with the weak, corrupt, incompetent and dysfunctional nature of Arab secular regimes – not to mention the “democratic” fig leaf the West used to disguise its interests – led to the discrediting of secularism in the minds of many, and, after decades of being in vogue, Westernisation became a dirty word rather than something to aspire to.

This left an ideological and political void which radical, anti-authoritarian Islamism managed to occupy, for a time.

To counter both the secularist and Islamist threat to their legitimacy and rule, a number of Gulf states went on the offensive and actively exported, lubricated by petro-dollars, their own brand of Islam, such as the ultra-conservative Wahhabi ideology from Saudi Arabia or Salafism from Qatar.

For a while, political Islamism’s simple “Islam is the solution” formula apparently won a lot of supporters as a counter to the failure both of secular pan-Arabism and conservative monarchism, but this is waning.

Though the secular opposition forces may have been down, they were definitely not out. This was reflected in the progressive, leftist, pro-democracy nature of the 2011 Arab uprisings, especially in Tunisia, Egypt and Syria.

This set alarm bells ringing in what had become the trinity dominating Arab politics: the Arab autocracies (whether republican or monarchist), the Islamist opposition and the US-led West. And each of these set in motion their own anti- or counterrevolutionary forces.

The one country where these forces did not manage to cause major mischief is the only place where the Arab Spring has been a relative success: Tunisia. For a time, Egypt looked like it might also escape this fate but, instead, turned into a battleground for regional and international forces.

But the worst proxy battleground has been Syria. Caught between the intransigent and murderous Assad regime and its allies in Russia, China and Iran, on the one hand, and the unholy alliance between the United States and the conservative Gulf monarchies, on the other hand, the peaceful, secular uprising didn’t stand a chance.

What the above reveals is that it is not Arab civilisation which has died, but the political order put in place almost a century ago following the collapse of the Ottoman empire is going through its death throes. And like dying wild animals, these beasts are at their most dangerous when fatally wounded.

Despite the surface decay in Arab society, submerged underneath are the fresh shoots of a robust, youthful, dynamic civilisation kept from blossoming by the stranglehold of the suffocating weed on the putrid top soil of the established order.

This is visible in the courageous youth who led the revolutionary charge against despotism, neo-liberalism and socioeconomic inequality. It can be seen in how tens of millions of Arabs have lost their deference to their leaders and their awe of authority. It can be traced in the innovative reinvention of religion and in the growing assertiveness of the a-religious, not to mention in the pent-up creative social, economic and even scientific energies eager to be unleashed and harnessed.

Once the crushing weight of the oppressive weed has been removed, future generations will have the space and opportunity to enable a true Arab Spring to bloom. But the road to recovery and then progress is long, hard and gruelling.

____

Follow Khaled Diab on Twitter.

This article first appeared in Haaretz on 2 October 2014.

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Arab leaders as human shields in Gaza

 
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By Khaled Diab

In order bring a halt to the multiplying human tragedy in Gaza, the Arab League should convene an emergency summit there. 

Instead of meeting in Cairo, Arab leaders should hold an emergency session of the Arab League in Gaza.

Instead of meeting in Cairo, Arab leaders should hold an emergency session of the Arab League in Gaza.

Monday 21 July 2014

Sunday was the bloodiest day of fighting since Israel lauched what it calls Operation Protective Edge. In almost two week, some 375 Palestinians, including 270 civilians, and 20 Israeli, including 2 civilians, have been killed, according to the United Nations.

The Arab League’s Secretary-General Nabil el-Araby described Israel’s shelling of the Shejaia neighbourhood in Gaza which killed at least 62 Palestinians on Sunday as a “war crime“. Despite this, the League has done precious little to intervene, beyond holding a foreign ministers meeting last week and urging international protection for Gaza’s civilians.

Well, this is just where our fine Arab leaders can really throw their weight and show us their mettle by acting as human shields.

Instead of foreign ministers meeting to discuss Gaza in Cairo, the Arab League’s heads of state and government should gather in Gaza itself in what would certainly constitute an “extraordinary session” in both word and deed.

Like the courageous international activists holed up in a Gaza hospital to protect it against planned Israeli airstrikes, Arab leaders can become a highly potent and symbolic human shield to protect the vulnerable and captive population of Gaza.

Just picture the scene. Abdel-Fattah Al-Sisi, the two King Abdullahs and other Arab leaders pass through the hermetically sealed Rafah crossing in a long and snaking motorcade which is met by a weary but relieved crowd pleased that the Arab world has finally showed its solidarity with them in such a high-profile manner.

In a show of sympathy with the suffering population, they could also visit hospitals, destroyed homes and grieving families. This would not only win them plaudits in Palestinian circles but also with their own publics at home.

The deployment of such a top-level Arab peace corps would almost certainly bring about a ceasefire, as the possible death of a president or monarch would constitute too great a risk for Israel, which wouldn’t want to widen the scope of the conflict. As for Hamas, it would, after such a spectacular gesture, want to keep fellow Arab leaders on side as it seeks to emerge from its international and regional isolation.

On the Gazan-Israeli front, which is stuck in a short-play time loop that is gradually spiralling towards total disaster, a cessation of hostilities will not be sufficient to stop history from repeating itself as tragedy and farce simultaneously.

In Gaza, the assembled Arab leaders with a mandate from the rest of the Arab League should offer to help the UN assemble a blue-helmeted peacekeeping force which would be deployed along all Gaza’s borders. Its mission would be to stop the targeting of civilians, which constitutes a war crime for both sides, albeit of hugely varying magnitudes, since Israel has only had two civilian death so far.

The blue helmets would, first and foremost, protect Gaza’s vulnerable and besieged civilians from the wounding trauma of being trapped and under attack. In addition, the international force would protect the socially marginalised and economically deprived residents of southern Israel from the militant rockets which – though they have caused only a fraction of the deaths and damage that results from Israel’s far superior firepower – nonetheless have resulted in significant fear, especially among children. These civilians deserve to live in security.

More importantly, Gaza needs to emerge from its isolation, which is both inhumane and has caused a humanitarian disaster. At the extraordinary session in Gaza, Egypt should indicate that, for the sake of the people of Gaza and regardless of what Cairo thinks of the Hamas regime, it will unilaterally end its side of the Israeli-Egyptian blockade, while the Arab league would announce the creation of a special Gaza fund to rebuild the battered strip and its shattered economy. This should be the minimum Arabs aim for, and bringing Gaza into the Arab fold can be achieved without Israel’s acquiescence or co-operation.

Beyond this, the Arab League should demand Israel to follow suit and end its sea and land blockade of Gaza and any future military operations there, in return for guarantees that Gaza-based militants will stop attacks against Israel. The details of such a wide-ranging package can be hammered out in Cairo between representatives of Hamas and Israel, whom, given the hostility between the two sides, can convene separately under Egyptian auspices.

More fundamentally, the League could use this golden and highly symbolic opportunity in Gaza to go over the heads of Israel’s intransigent and extremist government to appeal directly to the Israeli electorate and public by re-floating its 2002 Arab Peace Initiative, which offers Israel comprehensive peace in return for a comprehensive settlement.

It is highly improbable that the vision I have outlined here will have many takers or stands much of a chance of success, as there are too many barriers which stand in the way. These include the Israeli government’s intransigence and ultra-nationalism, Hamas’s re-emerging radicalism and traditional rejectionist stance towards peace efforts, despite its indication that it would accept a Palestinian state on the pre-1967 borders, divisions within Palestinian ranks, despite the recent national unity agreement, and the current turbulent and divided nature of the wider Arab world.

Nevertheless, what I seek to demonstrate with this thought experiment and wishful mental exercise is that, without creative and fundamental solutions to the Gaza question and the wider conflict, history will continue to repeat itself indefinitely, while the human tragedy will multiply and mushroom.

____

Follow Khaled Diab on Twitter.

An earlier version of this article appeared in Daily News Egypt on 15 July 2014.

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Send Qatar off and bring on Tunisia for 2022 World Cup

 
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By Khaled Diab

If Qatar gets a red card for the 2022 World Cup, Arabs should enter a joint bid to host it in Tunisia, regional role model for revolution and reform.

Jubliant Qataris celebrate news of 2022 win. Image: Qatar 2022 official site

Jubliant Qataris celebrate news of 2022 win. Image: Qatar 2022 official site

Thursday 12 June 2014

Like many people of conscience around the world, I am alarmed that Qatar is set to host the 2022 World Cup.

Qatar’s successful bid to organise football’s greatest tournament has trained the international spotlight on the inhumane and dangerous treatment of South Asian migrant workers in the tiny emirate and the wider Gulf region.

Many Qataris and some other Arabs see hypocrisy in the controversy. “Over 20 countries have organised the tournament and they only make this fuss about Qatar,” one Twitter user complained.

Some went even further: “We have to stand assertively against this kind of racist behaviour,” said Kuwaiti politician Ahmad al-Fahad al-Ahmed al-Sabah, who is also the president of the Olympic Council of Asia.

Though I don’t think racism comes into it, at a certain level there do appear to be double standards.  After all, there is a long history of the World Cup being abused as a political football by unscrupulous regimes: from fascist Italy in 1934 to junta-ruled Argentina in 1978. Inmates at the notorious Esma detention centre could hear the ecstatic crowds cheer Argentina to victory against the Netherlands in the final.

Even the 2014 Brazil world cup has not been without controversy, with protests over the costs and the treatment of indigenous tribes.

But it looks likely that allegations of bribery, which Qatar denies, rather than human rights abuses, may drive the final nail in the coffin of the Qatari tournament.

Both Qatar’s initial awarding of the 2022 World Cup and the possibility that it may lose it have stirred mixed emotions in the wider Arab world. It sparked enthusiasm in Qatar and some quarters that an Arab country had finally joined the major league of organising football.

“Congratulations to Qatar and to us for the football victory,” wrote Jihan al-Khazen in the pan-Arab daily al-Hayat back in 2010. “Winning the right to host the championship is an honour to all Arabs.”

Even if they were perplexed as to why minute Qatar with little footballing tradition to speak of had gained this “honour”, many Arabs echoed al-Khazen’s sentiments. For example, both Egyptian fans and the Egyptian Football Association sent Qatar congratulatory messages at the time.

However, the recent strain in Egyptian-Qatari relations over allegations that Qatar bankrolled and supported the despised Muslim Brotherhood have curbed the enthusiasm of some Egyptians.

This prompted Kamal Amer of pro-government Rose al-Youssef to urge his readers last year to overlook what he described as temporary differences and to focus on the “Arab, Middle Eastern and Islamic dream” of hosting the World Cup. He even suggested that Qatar could benefit from Egyptian expertise in the run-up to the event.

So far, the latest round of allegations has elicited little reaction in Egypt, which is preoccupied with meatier matters, such as the recent presidential elections and the anointing of its probable latest dictator, Abdel-Fattah al-Sisi.  Nevertheless, the FIFA corruption allegations have received a civil handling. For example, the outspoken, pro-regime TV presenter Amr Adeeb, rather than gloat at Qatar’s predicament, focused on the ethics of the matter.

“It’s not a question of whether Qatar should host the World Cup, it’s a question of morality,” he said on his popular talk show Cairo Today. “We were happy that Qatar was the first Arab country that would embrace the World Cup,” Adeeb noted.

However, if Qatar gets the red card for the 2022 championship, which I think it should still stay in the region. The World Cup has left its traditional venues of Europe and Latin America, to visit Asia, the United States and Africa, so the Arab world should get a shot too.

Although I prefer the idea of a fixed venue  classified as international territory, I believe holding the World Cup in the Middle East can be an opportunity to honour all those who sacrificed for the dream of the Arab Spring, provide relief to a troubled region and promote some inter-Arab co-operation amid the strained relations afflicting the region. This can be done through a joint Arab bid from several countries.

Given how it spearheaded the Arab revolutionary wave and has been a relative trailblazer in democratic reform, I would argue that the honour should go to Tunisia to be the actual host. Moreover, the Eagles of Carthage have significant footballing pedigree. Tunisia has qualified for four World Cups and was the first African side to win a match at the championship, back in 1978.

However, given the country’s modest means, a regional fund should be established, bankrolled by the rich Gulf states, including even Qatar, to finance preparations for the tournament. Other regional footballing heavyweights – like Egypt, Algeria and Morocco – can provide their technical expertise.

In addition, to avoid the waste associated with the tournament (which can only truly be curbed with a fixed venue), a blueprint should be drawn up that creates the maximum number of jobs ethically and every piece of infrastructure must be recyclable.

This would not only help to raise Tunisia’s prestige and stimulate investment in the country, creating much-needed jobs, it would also promote a deeper sense of shared identity across the region.

____

Follow Khaled Diab on Twitter.

This article first appeared in The Guardian on 5 June 2014.

 

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Special focus: Godless Arabs and Muslims

 
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Here you will find years of coverage of the under-reported issues relating to non-believers of an Arab and Muslim background. Yes, they do exist.

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

The Arab world’s rebels without a god

March 2014 – 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.

Is atheism Egypt’s fastest-growing ‘religion’?

October 2013 – Despite the risks, more and more atheists are coming out of the closet in Egypt, emboldened by the revolution’s ethos of freedom and dignity.

إعترافات ملحد مصري

اكتوبر 2013 – رغم عدم الإعتراف بهم، الملحدين ايضاً اولاد بلد ويجب على الدولة والمجتمع ان يعطوهم حقوقهم

Confessions of an Egyptian infidel

August 2013 – Though never officially recognised, atheists and agnostics have always been part of Egypt. Society now needs to grant us our right not to believe.

Islamism is the illusion

August 2013 – Islamism is not the solution but is built on an illusion. Islam’s past strength was actually a secular one based on free thought.

Religious freedom from birth

July 2013 – Unlike eye colour and skin tone, religion is not hereditary. This reality must be reflected in Egyptian identity documents and personal status laws.

Egypt’s clash of freedoms

July 2013 – Events in Egypt are not just a conflict between Islamists, secularists and the military. It is a fundamental clash over conflicting ideas of “freedom”.

The mash of civilisations

September 2012 – There is no conflict between Islam and the West – only clashes of interests between and within them. But there is a very real mash of civilisations.

Holy month, holy city, unholy Egyptian

August 2012 – Even for a non-believing Egyptian, Ramadan in Jerusalem – where the three Abrahamic faiths coincide and oft collide – is a fascinating experience.

Secular Egypt: dream or delusion?

December 2011 – Is Egypt on the road to theocracy or will it manage to build a secular, pluralist democracy?

The sacred right to ‘insult’

October 2011 – Jailing Egyptians for insulting religion and the military goes against the revolution’s spirit, and violates people’s secular and sacred rights.

Atheists: Egypt’s forgotten minority

July 2011 – Egyptian atheists and religious sceptics are a minority that exists in reality but not in official statistics.

Less Catholic than the pope

October 2010 - ‘Catholic’ education thrives in Belgium, but the decision between principle and pragmatism is not easy when choosing a school.

A question of upbringing

April 2010 – In multicultural families, deciding on where to raise your child is no easy matter and has profound implications for the future.

Faith in our children

November 2009 – Much as we’d like our children to hold the same things dear as we do, we should have enough faith in them to let them choose their own belief system.

Why doesn’t God use Faithbook?

September 2010 – If God wants to reach out to humanity, why rely on prophets and scripture when he presumably has the power to connect with each of us directly?

Face to faith: Ramadan for the faith-challenged

August 2009 – Ramadan possesses a certain secular appeal but fasting requires the non-believer to square the philosophical circle.

The mythical European Umma

August 2009 – Given that only about 4% of the EU’s population is Muslim, why is the fear of a coming Eurabia so strong in certain quarters?

Promises of immortality

July 2009 – An English scientist is on a one-man mission to eliminate mortality – but would you like to live in a society without death?

On a ring and a prayer

March 2009 – God now has a number. Sadly, it goes straight to voicemail, but I’ve got my messages ready. What about you?

Contemplating God-free zones

July 2008 – Britain is not entirely godless – but whether you or I believe in God is up to us to decide, not the cardinals, imams or rabbis.

Jailhouse blog

November 2007 – On Friday, people of all faiths will join forces outside Egyptian embassies to express solidarity with a jailed blogger.

Faith and punishment

August 2007 – In Islam, apostasy and faithlessness are sins, but they are not worldly crimes. Those who claim otherwise are making a mistake.

June 2007 – Ridiculing and questioning Islam, Muhammad, the Qur’an and religion in general is an ancient tradition in Muslim countries.
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Special focus: The new Arab man

 
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Photo: ©Khaled Diab

Photo: ©Khaled Diab

The articles in this section are dedicated to the new Arab man who believes in and lives gender equality. These men champion women’s rights and/or challenge traditional ideas of masculinity. Although these progressive men are still, sadly, a minority in the Arab world – they exist and their ranks are growing.

Nevertheless, they too often fly undetected under the radar, even though there is nothing new about them and they have been around for decades. The Arab patriarchy fears them because they undermine the current male order from within. In the West, they lack visibility out of ignorance, intellectual bias and the reductionist political need by some for binaries: Arab woman, oppressed; Arab man, oppressor.

But progressive Arab man need to raise their voices and be heard, not only to help the emancipation of women, but also to empower the average Mo, as it were, by providing him with positive role models of a new and confident masculinity that is not threatenend by strong and equal women.

If you would like to contribute an article or ideas to this special focus, please drop us a line at info@chronikler.com

الرجل العربي الجديد

ابريل 2014 – لوحظ في الأونة الأخيرة تزايد الرجال المناصرة لحقوق المرأة عربياً، مقدمين مثالاُ رائعاً في تحدي المعنى التقليدي للرجولة الشرقية.

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

April 2014 – 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.

The battle for the soul of the Arab man

May 2012 – The polarised debate over Arab women overlooks the fact that men can be victims of the patriarchy too and their identity is a cultural battlefield.

International Women’s Day: Empowering the average Mo

March 2012 – Arab men who do not fit the traditional ideal of manhood are often regarded as inferior, and this stereotype holds back the emancipation of women.

The Arab man’s burden

November 2010 – Some in the west are more likely to believe in elves in Middle Earth than in Arab men in the Middle East who are secular and do not oppress women.

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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 2001, 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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From peace now to peace how

 
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By Khaled Diab

As John Kerry’s efforts appear doomed, Palestinian and Israeli peace activists are left with an impossible challenge: peace how? Ask the people.

Wednesday 29 January 2014

In a speech to the World Economic Forum in Davos, US secretary of state John Kerry sounded a doubtful note on the “intractable” Israeli-Palestinian conflict, but emphasised that the US is committed to finding a solution. Kerry’s determination seems to reflect his conviction that Israel can be brought to make peace with the Arab world.

Earlier this month,  Kerry commended Palestinian president Mahmoud Abbas for having “demonstrated courageous and determined leadership”. But in the real world, Palestinian negotiators are in open mutiny against Abbas, settlement building is continuing apace and senior Israeli officials are urging the government to reject any proposals put forward by the “messianic” Kerry, as Israeli Defence Minister Moshe Yaalon described him.

And to me it is unclear just how Kerry intends to breathe life back into the failed Oslo framework, especially as the race against space for the two-state solution was lost many years ago and Washington shows no signs of bringing anything new or imaginative to the table.

This has left peace activists contemplating peace how more than peace now. “Despite all Kerry’s efforts, I am not optimistic at all,” confesses Nancy Sadiq, the director of Panorama, a Palestinian pro-democracy and peace NGO in Ramallah. “I guess Netanyahu and Abbas are playing a game of political poker and they’re waiting to see who will blink first.”

“And Kerry has no Plan B,” she added for emphasis.

Sadiq co-organised the recent annual conference – which took place in Beit Sahour near Bethlehem – of the Palestinian-Israeli Peace NGO Forum, an umbrella group of around 100 pro-peace organisations, where the mood struck me as being similarly dour.

Gathered at the forum were Palestinians and Israelis from all walks of life and backgrounds – from secular types whose national background could not be determined easily to Muslim men in beards and women in headscarves, as well as Jewish men in kippas and women in wigs or colourful headscarves. There was even a man with a Moshe Dayan-style eye-patch.

This reflects the fact that, despite growing mutual hostility and rejection, not to mention the huge contraction of the active peace camp, a broad cross-section of both societies still mobilises for peace. “Peace is too dear to be left to politicians,” as one speaker put it.

Though the conference met under the banner of a “Palestinian state now”, one major overriding focus was to plan a course of action in the likely event that negotiations broke down.

“We are the peace police. We are the peace firefighters,” emphasised Yossi Beilin, the co-architect of the embattled and defunct Oslo process and the grassroots Geneva peace initiative, the sabotaging of which, the late Ariel Sharon admitted, was part of  the motivation behind his Gaza disengagement, which many leftist Israelis disastrously supported.

And preparing for a breakdown, rather than a breakthrough, seemed to be the order of the day. “There is a fear that talks will fail which will make the work of peace NGOs very difficult,” one Palestinian participant said, echoing the general sentiment.

Some participants suggested that both societies needed to focus on laying the psychological groundwork for resolution through promoting peace education and a deeper commitment to mutual non-violence.

“I wish that there was room for grassroots activities for peace, separate and joint, but it seems that the time is not yet ripe for that,” veteran Israeli peace activist Gershon Baskin told me. “While a majority of Israelis and Palestinians want peace, a majority on both sides, roughly the same size, does not believe that it is possible… because each believes that there is no partner for peace on the other side.”

Personally, I think the problem runs much deeper and relates to the political infantilisation of the public. Efforts to bring about a resolution to the conflict have largely been top-down and from the outside-in, side-lining the actual parties who will have to implement and live with any agreement – the people themselves.

In addition, the two populations have been kept artificially apart, creating fear and distrust, while no leaders of the stature of the late Nelson Mandela or FW de Klerk have emerged. These factors create ideal conditions for extremists to have their way and to reinforce the downwardly spiralling status quo.

For that reason, I do not share Baskin’s optimism that Kerry can bring about a framework agreement, and if he does, it will likely fall apart under the combined fire of extremists, fear and hatred.

In my view, the only sustainable way forward is to launch a true people’s peace process in which a bi-national conversation and negotiations involving all segments of both societies is launched to bring all the issues out clearly in the open.

In addition, anyone should be free to suggest actions and any proposals which garner enough support should be voted on by the Israeli and Palestinian publics. Any measure which the majority on both sides vote for should be implemented immediately. This will help build traction and a virtuous circle of gradual change, rather than the all-or-nothing game currently in play.

“You know what I would like to see?” Nancy Sadiq asks. “The grassroots on both sides gathering in their masses until the white smoke of peace rises from the chimney of conflict.”

Follow Khaled Diab on Twitter.

This article first appeared in The National on 26 January 2014.

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