Podcast: Baladi – from bread to dance

 
VN:F [1.9.22_1171]
Rating: 0 (from 0 votes)
VN:F [1.9.22_1171]
Rating: 0.0/10 (0 votes cast)

Baladi is one of those elusive Arabic words that can mean different things to different people at different times.

Tahiya Carioca

Thursday 27 June 2018

‘Baladi’ is one of those Arabic words that is hard to translate. In Egypt, it can mean native, local, authentic, folk, rustic, and even unrefined, uncouth, and low class.

Derived from ‘balad’, the Arabic for country, town or village, baladi can be used to describe traditional culture, music and cuisine, a little like the English adjective ‘country’. It is often used to refer to the native, in other words, the “local”, even if the baladi was once not local at all, as opposed to the foreign, mostly western.

‘Eish baladi’ describes the native round bread that Egyptians traditionally eat. And ‘Raqs baladi’ refers to what English speakers call belly-dancing. Before entering the cabaret and the fantasies of orientalists, it was the traditional form of dancing that Egyptian girls and many boys learnt and performed at family events, such as weddings and feasts, minus the glitzy, revealing outfits that have become the stuff of cliché.

There was a time, not long ago, when the world’s best and most innovative baladi dancers were Egyptians, and no Egyptian film was complete without an elaborate dance routine. Possibly the most legendary of the silver screen dancing queens was Tahiya Carioca, who began her illustrious career in the 1940s.

Today, fewer and fewer Egyptian women are dancing professionally. Paradoxically, this is both a sign of growing religious conservatism, which sees belly-dancing as sinful, and of rising gender equality, where ever more women feel that belly-dancing objectifies them.

Meanwhile, belly-dancing has become a popular fad amongst some European and American women, with schools popping up in some of the most unexpected of places, from Russia to the USA. Today, many belly-dancers in Egyptian and Arab nightclubs are from Eastern Europe, though Egyptian aficionados believe they lack the mischief and spontaneity of their Egyptian counterparts.

Egyptians feel both shame and pride, towards things that are baladi. While the so-called ‘foreigner complex’ means Egyptians often see western things as superior and local as inferior, nationalistic pride pulls them the other way. This leads to the bizarre situation where baladi forms of music can, at once, be the object of disdain for some, especially from better-off classes, but also the subject of celebration, especially among the young or the revolutionary, who are reclaiming and reinventing this heritage, often in hybrid form.

Amid all the upheavals since the revolution in 2011, baladi again carries street cred. This can be seen in the popularity of T-shirts with Arabic slogans and calligraphy, where English once ruled. You also see it in how traditional teahouses and eateries are now trendy amongst the middle and upper classes.

But as has long been in the case, Egyptians are finding new and creative ways to merge and fuse the baladi with the foreign to create new varieties and flavours of the local.

___

This recording first appeared on the BBC World Service’s The Cultural Frontline on 4 June 2018.

VN:F [1.9.22_1171]
Rating: 0.0/10 (0 votes cast)
VN:F [1.9.22_1171]
Rating: 0 (from 0 votes)

Related posts

What does being a Muslim actually mean?

 
VN:F [1.9.22_1171]
Rating: 0 (from 0 votes)
VN:F [1.9.22_1171]
Rating: 0.0/10 (0 votes cast)

By Khaled Diab

In much of the world, ‘Muslim’ is often used as a marker of ethnic origin rather than of religion. This must change.

Most ‘Muslims’ are labelled as such long before they can make any kind of informed decision about their faith.
Photo: ©Khaled Diab

Tuesday 26 June 2018

Islam is clearly a religion. People may disagree passionately about the nature of this faith, the validity of the various schools and sects, what is or is not ‘Islamic’, but there is a consensus that it is a belief system.

But does the same apply to Muslim? Is being a Muslim about faith? Is it social or political? Is it about culture? This is a question I have pondered on numerous occasions over the years.

Recently, I ran an unscientific poll on Twitter to get a taste of what people regarded as the central pillar of Muslim identity. I also canvassed Facebook friends for their opinions. I asked whether being ‘Muslim’ was founded on belief or whether it was a form of ethnic identity, or both.

Unsurprisingly, a clear majority (63%) were convinced that being Muslim is exclusively or primarily a question of faith. And, indeed, this is what Islam was originally about. Muhammad’s earliest followers were all presumed to be passionate believers and conversion was presumably the main source growth in the Muslim population for generations.

Of course, there are converts today but they constitute a negligible minority of the global population we classify as “Muslim”. Only an estimated 500,000 people converted to Islam between 2010 and 2015 (0.3% of the growth in the global Muslim population), according to the Pew Research Centre – which sheds a more telling light on why Islam is the fastest-growing major religion.

Although the Quran criticises the idea of passing down the faith, the notion that religion is a hereditary identity was a pre-Islamic practice across the region that was continued into the Islamic era, according to Ahmed Fekry Ibrahim, assistant professor of Islamic law at McGill University. “Most religions, especially since the Axial Age, in the context of universalist religions, have created ethnic and cultural layers of identification,” observes Ibrahim.

Today, we live in a situation where the overwhelming majority of Muslims around the world were born into the faith, and are labelled as “Muslim” by society, long before they can make any kind of informed decision for themselves. Moreover, we have little to no information on what the world’s 1.8 billion notional Muslims actually believe and how many of them practise their faith.

If being Muslim is truly a question of faith, then it should be a top priority to find out exactly what each one believes, free of coercion, before taking a headcount (same goes for other religions).

In the absence of this, labelling all these hundreds of millions of people as Muslim is presumptuous, to say the least, even if the majority do turn out to be zealous believers. It also means that actual belief is secondary, or even irrelevant, to membership of this global “tribe” – as is the case with Christianity.

This means that “Muslim” functions, in my view, like a de facto “ethnicity”, or a super-ethnicity. At this stage, I should point out that I do not believe that Islam should form the basis for any kind of ethnic identity nor do I find this desirable. I am merely describing a reality which prevails across the world.

My assertion sparked a heated online debate. “Stop trying to Judaise Islam with this ethno-religious nonsense,” one critic asserted, in no uncertain terms.

But I fail to see any fundamental or radical difference between how Islam and Judaism are passed on from one generation to the next, except that one is believed to be largely patrilineal and the other matrilineal. The only real difference between Islam and Judaism are the issues of conversion and proselytisation – both of which are considerably less common in modern Judaism than in Islam, though far from unheard of.

Where Muslims are in the minority, the perception that their identity, like that of Jews, is primarily “ethnic” is at its strongest, such as is the case with Sri Lanka’s so-called ‘Moors’. Likewise, the secular wing of India’s pre-partition Muslim League was in little doubt that Muslim was more an ethnic than religious marker, and that South Asian Muslims shared more with each other than they did with non-Muslims from their own state, region, language or ethnic group.

“[Islam and Hinduism] are not religions in the strict sense of the word, but are, in fact, different and distinct social orders; and it is a dream that the Hindus and Muslims can ever evolve a common nationality,” claimed Muhammad Ali Jinnah, the founding father of Pakistan. “Mussalmans are not a minority as it is commonly known and understood… Mussalmans are a nation according to any definition of a nation, and they must have their homelands, their territory, and their state.”

Among Europe’s more-established Muslim populations, they sometimes self-identified and were formally recognised as an ethnicity, such as in the former Yugoslovia, and there has been a long-standing dispute in China as to whether its Muslim minorities were an ethnicity or religious community. Unfortunately, this ethnicisation of Islam is occurring in Western Europe and America, where Muslim is often used nowadays as a marker of origin, rather than of a religion.

But when it comes to the sum of Muslim populations around the world, the “ethnic” label becomes more ambiguous and complicated to use. “There are hundreds of ethnicities in Islam,” one friend observed, echoing others who objected to ascribing the ‘ethnic’ label to Muslims.

Some suggested that the fact that Islam is made up of many local ethnicities, referring to Muslim as a kind of ethnicity would cause considerable confusion – and argued that an alternative term was required. Mega-ethnicity, perhaps?

A couple suggested, instead, “cultural Muslim”. Cultural Muslim is a great term for those who self-identify with Islamic culture but do not practise or do not believe in the faith, as well as those who belong to a minority religion in Muslim-majority societies but feel a strong affinity to the mainstream culture. “Arab Christians are all more or less Muslims by culture rather than by faith,” observes Liliane Daoud, a prominent Lebanese TV personality who was born to Christian and Muslim parents.

In addition, the term “cultural Muslim” fails to capture the fact that the status “Muslim” is not just a cultural label. In many Islamic contexts, it is also a social, political, legal and jurisprudential category.

Moreover, a similar situation of multi-layered ethnicity afflicts other accepted ethnic markers. For example, ‘Arab’ is accepted as an ethnicity, even though under this language-based umbrella stands a multitude of ethnic, national, racial, religious and tribal communities.

In addition, the multi-ethnic argument also applies to Judaism, which is also an umbrella label for numerous ethnic groups, including Mizrahim, Sephardim, Ashkenazim, all of which have numerous sub-ethnicities, not to mention Ethiopian, Indian, Chinese, and more. The only difference between ‘Jew’ and ‘Muslim’ here is one of magnitude and numbers, given the much wider spread of Islam.

Describing Muslim as an ethnicity is “likely to have negative unintended discursive consequences by reifying made-up ‘race’/’ethnic’ concepts,” in the words of Farrah, a friend and academic.

Of course, I am well aware of the dangers of conflating religion with ethnicity or race. One of the most destructive and infamous examples of this was the Nuremberg Race Laws, which defined Jewishness, not as a changeable religious allegiance, but as a fixed biological identity which could not be changed or erased, not even through conversion or total and complete assimilation.

And bad omens in this regard are appearing in the form of virulent anti-Semitism and a brand of Islamophobia that seems to regard Muslims as monolithically menacing, the kind of collective demonisation and essentialisation that informed Donald Trump’s expressed desire to impose a freeze on immigration from Muslim lands.

However, whether or not we describe Muslim as an ethnicity does not remove the fact that it too often operates like one, and this has already caused considerable harm.

Numerous Muslim-majority countries, especially those whose personal and family laws retain a modern form of the classical ‘millet’ system, have hereditary Islam codified into their laws. This means that a faith is imposed on children before they have the chance to decide for themselves, and this shapes many of the most intimate aspects of their lives.

To add injury to presumption, and to place citizens in a catch-22, quite a few countries make it difficult and often impossible for people to remove or change the religion on their identity papers – and some states even punish as “apostates” those who reject their pre-determined Muslim identity or wish to convert to another religion. Some countries also limit citizenship to “Muslims”. This is the case in most of the Gulf states, which effectively disenfranchises millions of non-Muslim residents, some of whom may have been born there, while recent Muslim immigrants stand a greater chance of being naturalised.

If being Muslim is to become truly a question of faith and conviction, not a de facto ethnic identity, then the pious cannot have their cake and eat it. They must stop counting everyone born to presumed Muslim parents as an automatic Muslim. The ‘umma’ of believers should only be as large as those who voluntarily associate themselves with it.

In addition, the ridiculous and harmful discriminatory practices common in some Muslim countries should end. Countries which do so must stop assigning a religious identity to their citizens, must not attach extra social, economic or cultural benefits to being a Muslim, must not punish Muslims who leave the faith, and must not discriminate against non-Muslims.

Ultimately, religion is a personal choice but society is for everyone.

—-

This article first appeared in The New Arab on 11 June 2018.

 

 

VN:F [1.9.22_1171]
Rating: 0.0/10 (0 votes cast)
VN:F [1.9.22_1171]
Rating: 0 (from 0 votes)

Related posts

The drinker’s guide to Ramadan

 
VN:F [1.9.22_1171]
Rating: 0 (from 0 votes)
VN:F [1.9.22_1171]
Rating: 10.0/10 (1 vote cast)

By Khaled Diab

Ramadan is the time of year when hundreds of millions of Muslims around the world abstain from food or drink. But one group of fasters suffers a special variety of thirst this time of year: Muslims who drink alcohol.

Photo: ©Khaled Diab

Thursday 21 June 2018

Although alcohol is considered haram (prohibited or sinful) by the majority of Muslims, a significant minority of Muslims do drink, and those who do often outdrink their Western counterparts. When per-capita alcohol consumption is calculated, Chad and a number of other Muslim-majority countries top the global league. Fewer Muslim women drink than men but when they do, they can drink their western sisters under the table.

During Ramadan, though, many Muslim drinkers do abstain from consuming wine, beer or spirits of their own free will for the duration of the month. It’s the same as how some lapsed Christians will give up a vice for Lent but never set foot in a church except for christenings, weddings and funerals, or some secular Jews who eat bacon still give up bread for Passover [adding since I thought the analogy was apt!].

When I still fasted, I would get together with friends to have one for the road before we embarked on the long, arduous trek through the Ramadan dry lands, until Eid al-Fitr, the festival following Ramadan, made it safe to leap off the wagon once again.

Although I gave up Ramadan, and abandoned every last vestige of faith at the dawn of this millennium, I certainly still drink alcohol. Most Muslim drinkers I have met in my life do view drinking as a minor sin (even though they indulge in it) and thus, if they fast during Ramadan, they abstain for the month. This can lead to some peculiar situations. Last year, at a barbecue organised by European friends in Tunis, I debated, wine glass in hand, with a secular Tunisian, sipping on his fruit juice because had given up alcohol for the holy month, whether or not it was hypocritical and an infringement on personal freedom to ban the sale of alcohol during Ramadan.

Weirdest of all perhaps is the tiny minority of Muslims who fast and then drink at night after they have broken their fast, including a neighbour of mine. This may seem peculiar both to Muslims and non-Muslims alike, but it is not as odd as it appears. From Islam’s very inception, there was a debate about what exactly the vague passages on drinking in the Quran prohibited. Although the majority opinion holds that intoxicants – alcohol itself – are banned, a minority view is that it is intoxication – getting drunk that is forbidden.

Far more common are Muslim drinkers who do not fast and, hence, wish to continue drinking during Ramadan. Some are lapsed or vague believers who do not practise their faith, while others, like me, are out-and-out atheists or agnostics. For Ramadan drinkers, I know from experience, finding booze can get complicated. Sure, in the United States, Europe or the Muslim countries that allow alcohol sales during Ramadan, the only obstacle is your own conscience. But in many countries, including my native Egypt or in Tunisia, where I live now, which normally have booze in abundance, getting a drink during the fast requires foresight, planning and resourcefulness.

In Tunisia, as in Egypt, alcohol supplies dry up during the holy month, because stores are barred from selling booze and many bars close their doors. That confounded me when I first moved here last year, because drinking is a popular pastime, and Tunisia has a surprisingly wide range of quality local wines.

But humans are nothing if not adaptable. Rather than a forced abstention, as conservatives undoubtedly hoped to instill, drinkers simply build up a strategic stockpile before Ramadan begins. This usually results in a huge pre-Ramadan upsurge in business for alcohol suppliers, visible in the rapidly emptying alcohol aisles at my local supermarket in Tunis.

This stockpiling can make for awkward situations. Just before this Ramadan, we organised a pre-Ramadan party for friends, and when I went to the supermarket to stock up for the party and the next month, I bought what apparently struck non-drinkers as an unsettling amount of alcohol.

The young woman in a hijab at the checkout counter must never have experienced the pre-Ramadan rush on booze: Her face registered a look of mild panic. At one point, she got so confused trying to decipher the different types of wine that she smiled at me and said non-judgementally: “Forgive me, I can’t tell one type of wine from another.”

When it comes to drinking during Ramadan, though, I’m lucky to be a Belgian citizen, not a Tunisian: foreigners here are allowed to order alcoholic beverages at the few licensed restaurants and bars that do stay open during the holy month, but Tunisians generally can’t, though if you look Muslim or your name sounds Muslim, some places may object.

Similar regulations exist in my native Egypt. This always struck me as unfair to Egyptian drinkers, especially for Christians who have no religious restrictions on the consumption of alcohol – and I used to make noise about it, but bar staff would shrug apologetically and say they would love nothing more than to serve me, as Egyptians were their main customers.

I recall the first Ramadan I was in Egypt after I gained my Belgian nationality. I made a point of visiting one of my old watering holes with a mixed group of friends. When I ordered my beer, the waiter asked me discreetly whether I had a foreign passport, I flashed it to him, and his smile said that would do nicely. The staff turned a blind eye to the fact that the orange juices for the Egyptians without foreign passports in our midst had hardly been touched and that the ‘foreigners’ had ordered more drinks than normal.

This attitude of tolerating alcohol 11 months of the year but banning it during Ramadan is conflicted and contradictory, but it’s not unique to Muslim societies. For all the prevalent anti-Muslim sentiment today and fears that “Sharia law” might destroy the American way of life, the United States had a full-blown, Saudi-style total prohibition from 1920 to 1933. Today, alcohol is still banned in hundreds of local counties, representing an area that constitutes an estimated 10 percent of the land mass of the United States.

If it were up to me, I’d do away with all such restrictions. The state shouldn’t get to dictate to citizens how to be good Muslims – or not. This is an individual decision for each believer and non-believer to make. And the temporary ban doesn’t distinguish between Muslims and non-Muslims, which enlists people of other faiths who have no religious obligation to take part in Ramadan in a Muslim ritual.

But still, I’m relieved that I live in Tunisia and not some place where alcohol is banned, such as Saudi Arabia or Iran. Now that Ramadan is over Tunisia has reverted to its normal, laid-back self, just in time for the summer. And drinkers are able, once again, to toast each other in the open.

—-

This article appeared in The Washington Post on 31 May 2018.

VN:F [1.9.22_1171]
Rating: 10.0/10 (1 vote cast)
VN:F [1.9.22_1171]
Rating: 0 (from 0 votes)

Related posts

Bernard Lewis and the non-existent clash of civilisations

 
VN:F [1.9.22_1171]
Rating: 0 (from 0 votes)
VN:F [1.9.22_1171]
Rating: 0.0/10 (0 votes cast)

By Khaled Diab

Bernard Lewis was the orientalist scholar of choice for American neo-conservatives. His dangerous ‘clash of civilisations’ theory was not only wrong but caused enormous damage in the Middle East.

Tuesday 29 May 2018

Bernard Lewis, the British-American historian and probably the most influential orientalist thinker of his generation, was born as the Ottoman empire was tottering on its last legs. He died, just shy of his 102nd birthday, as the post-Ottoman Middle Eastern order is nearing complete collapse.

Although some of Lewis’s early academic work was groundbreaking, such as his research into medieval Islamic guilds and the insights he gleaned from the Ottoman archives, his work rapidly descended into politicised polemics, which proved extremely destructive to the Middle East.

“For the past several years Lewis has been engaged in preaching scholarship and practising politics,” Edward Said, the author of the groundbreaking study Orientalism, wrote in one of his regular heated exchanges with Lewis, back in 1982. “It is of course quite natural for scholars to have political views and even to impart those views to their students and colleagues in an honest manner. Lewis is guilty of no such balance or discipline.”

Lewis was the orientalist of choice for America’s neo-conservative establishment and “his wisdom is sought daily by policymakers, diplomats, fellow academics, and the news media,” in the words of former US Vice President Dick Cheney, and Lewis is credited, in parallel with Samuel Huntington, with providing the intellectual framework for the 2003 invasion of Iraq.

One of Lewis’s most damaging theories was that of the “clash of civilisations”. Although the term is most commonly associated with Huntington, Bernard Lewis used it earlier, and somewhat differently. While Huntington focused on perceived conflicts along the fault lines between half a dozen or so civilisations, Bernard Lewis’s theory focused on the alleged centuries-old clash between Islam and the West (formerly known as Christendom).

“It should by now be clear that we are facing a mood and a movement far transcending the level of issues and policies and the governments that pursue them,” Lewis wrote in 1990, in what has proved to be one of the most influential essays of recent decades. “This is no less than a clash of civilisations – the perhaps irrational but surely historic reaction of an ancient rival against our Judaeo-Christian heritage, our secular present, and the worldwide expansion of both.”

Considering that two influential public intellectuals alleged that we are in the throes of a clash of civilisations, is there any evidence to back up their theory?

Yes, there is… but only if you are ideologically inclined – like neo-cons, Christian and Islamic fundamentalists, and modern-day jihadis – to believe in such a clash, and pick and choose the evidence to support your thesis, while ignoring inconvenient facts and realities.

In fact and in reality, though the term is relatively new, the notion that Christendom and Islam are age-old and irreconcilable foes has an ancient pedigree. Examples include the historical notions of jihads and crusades, not to mention the idea of ‘civilisation versus barbarism’ espoused by dominant powers and influential voices on both sides throughout the centuries.

But as I examine in a chapter dedicated to this crucial question in my new bookIslam for the Politically Incorrect, this clash exists mainly in the fevered imagination of the fanatic or the skilled political leader, but does not stand up to sustained political or historical scrutiny.

At this point, I should point out that conflicts are extremely complex issues, which are usually poorly understood even by those involved in them, that cannot be reduced to any single root cause. That said, religious identity and culture, in my analysis, have played a remarkably minor role in the interactions between Islam (the Middle East) and Christendom (the West), both today and historically.

This is underlined, in my view, by what I call the clash within civilisations (not to mention the clashes within individual societies), the conflicts which have plagued both sides and often posed a greater existential threat than the external enemy. This is exemplified by the two world wars and the current wildfire tearing through the Middle East.

It is also exemplified by the oft surreal cross-civilisational alliances that emerge. If civilisations truly clash over values, then the largely decades-old cosy relationship between the regressive Gulf monarchies and Britain then the United States should not exist, yet what I call the oiligarchy shows no sign of losing its potency, even under the stewardship of the Islamophobic Donald Trump.

And these alliances are scarcely new. Protestant England had a long-lasting alliance with the Ottomans against Catholic Spain. Caliph Harun al-Rashid and the Holy Roman Emperor Charlemagne were involved in a robust, multi-generational coalition against their mutual foes, the Byzantines and Umayyads. Going even further back, the conquest of Iberia by Muslim forces would not have occurred without the encouragement and aid of the very Christian Julian of Septem (Ceuta).

Over and beyond all this, there is what I call the mash of civilisations, through which Islam and Christendom have so influenced one another, and been influenced by the same precursors, including ancient Greek, Egyptian and Mesopotamian influences, that it is impossible to separate them into two distinct civilisations.

The conflicts we are witnessing today are not so much a clash between civilisations, as a crash of civilisation. By this, I do not mean the collapse of civilisation and the end of technologically advanced human society, but rather the more mundane and periodic crumbling of the dominant political, economic and social orders, as they become unsustainable, imploding and exploding under the weight of their contradictions.

It is far easier to blame monolithic metaphysical forces for our problems than to examine the actual socio-economic and geopolitical faultlines at play, because that would require changes few are willing or courageous enough to make. But continuing to ignore the painful realities in favour of comforting illusions and delusions will lead to serious misdiagnosis of the situation, and the prescribed medication, rather than offering a cure will threaten the very survival of the patient.

This article first appeared in the New Arab on 23 May 2018. 

VN:F [1.9.22_1171]
Rating: 0.0/10 (0 votes cast)
VN:F [1.9.22_1171]
Rating: 0 (from 0 votes)

Related posts

Egyptian atheists: Caught between Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde

 
VN:F [1.9.22_1171]
Rating: 0 (from 0 votes)
VN:F [1.9.22_1171]
Rating: 0.0/10 (0 votes cast)

By Khaled Diab

Atheists in Egypt have been enjoying greater public acceptance, but their increased visibility has also resulted in controversy, shrill panic and a growing tide of prosecutions.

Screen shot from one of Sherif Gaber’s YouTube videos.

Thursday 24 May 2018

For those who do not believe in divine judgement, a worldly reckoning can sometimes await them. This is the case for the controversial atheist and daring YouTuber Sherif Gaber who is caught in a sort of secular purgatory.

The prominent Egyptian human rights lawyer and activist Gamal Eid informed me that his organisation, the Arabic Network for Human Rights Information (ANHRI), had managed, on Monday 7 May, to help secure Gaber’s release from Cairo airport, where he had been unlawfully detained since the previous Wednesday because no official arrest warrant had been issued for him.

After his official release, Gaber vanished. He tweeted that, after four days “in hell”, he was “free”, but he failed to give details about his situation, leading to fears that he has been disappeared and that the security services had somehow taken over his Twitter account.

Even now that Gaber is presumed to be free, he is not actually free. In addition to being out on bail from an earlier trial, a new case has been brought against him. The young freethinker originally entered the public eye as a student at Suez Canal University following a smear campaign in 2013 by faculty members who did not approve of his views supporting homosexuality and criticising religion. As is often the case during such incidents, the case was as much, if not more, about questioning worldly authority than about doubting divine authority.

Following his sentencing on blasphemy charges in 2015, Gaber was released on bail pending a retrial. He went underground but courageously refused to be silenced. He dedicated himself to producing YouTube videos, some of which employ biting satire, the latest of which features two credulous missionaries trying to persuade a sceptic to convert to their imaginary religion, which bears a remarkable resemblance to Islam.

These videos have won him many fans amongst Egyptian and Arab non-believers and sceptics, but they have also provoked the ire of Islamists and conservatives. This came to a head late last month when a lawyer representing the ultra-conservative salafist Nour party brought a suit accusing Gaber of contempt of religion. This, along with threats he had been receiving, spooked Gaber and finally led him reluctantly to abandon his admirable commitment to stay in Egypt in spite of the risks, which was founded on the conviction that promoting freedom of thought “would have a more powerful effect to do it here, where we’re born and raised”.

“I suspect that he has been banned or will be banned from travelling abroad,” notes Gamal Eid, “but he will not know until he actually tries to travel.”

Gaber’s case underlines what I call Egypt’s Jekyll-and-Hyde attitude towards atheism. Since the revolution which engulfed the country in 2011, atheists, both young and old, have (re-)emerged from the shadows and taken on a more assertive public profile.

Atheists not only possess a strong presence on social media but have also appeared regularly on television to explain their thinking and to demand equal rights. There, they have often had to struggle against hostile interviewers, enormous prejudice and immense ignorance of what atheism actually is and means.

At its best, this greater openness and presence has led to a greater public acceptance of and tolerance towards the a-religious in society, even amongst some conservative Muslims. My personal experience has been a largely positive one – but this is liable to change at any moment. I have been writing about atheism and being an atheist for well over a decade now, I won a prestigious award for an essay I wrote on Arab atheists and the longest chapter in my new book, Islam for the Politically Incorrect, is dedicated to the topic.

In my book, I challenge the simplistic and ignorant views of both Muslim and Western bigots regarding the status of unbelievers and the rich history of atheism and scepticism in the Islamic context. Contrary to conservative myth, there is nothing new about atheists and sceptics in the Islamic tradition.

In fact, there have been plenty of them, especially during the so-called Golden Age of medieval Islam and in modern times. This ancient tradition reveals itself in how Muslim atheists draw inspiration from their own history, not just western tradition. An example of this is Sherif Gaber’s video, ‘Muslim Meets God‘. In the video, a young man stands at the gate to heaven but all his superstitions about the pious acts and pronouncements required to enter this rational version of paradise prove untrue and unfounded.

To my eyes, Gaber appears to have drawn inspiration from one of the ‘spiritual’ forefathers of Arab atheists, Abu al-Ala’ al-Ma’arri (973-1057), who penned The Epistle of Forgiveness, in which a bigoted sheikh is sent on a fantastical journey to paradise and hell. In this version of the aferlife, heaven is populated by pagan and irreverent poets and philosophers. Centuries later, al-Ma’ari’s Epistle influenced numerous secular Arab thinkers, including Iraqi poet, reformer and atheist Jamil Sidqi al-Zahawi (1863-1936) who published, in 1931, Revolution in
Hell, in which freethinkers condemned to hell storm paradise and claim it as their rightful abode.

At its worst, the more visible public profile of atheists in Egypt has resulted in shrill panic towards the atheism “tsunami”, mob rule, moral denunciation of atheists as “Satan worshippers” or mentally deranged, a government-sanctioned national plan to combat atheism spearheaded by Al Azhar, the foremost institute of Sunni orthodoxy, Islamist law suits and a regular stream of prosecutions, even though Egypt does not technically ban atheism.

This societal polarisation is reflected in Egypt’s confused legal framework. For example, Article 64 of the current constitution states that “freedom of belief is absolute”. However, Egypt’s penal code contains a number of clauses which effectively outlaw ‘blasphemy’. The vaguest of these is Article 98(f), which was originally passed in 1981 to protect religious minorities, but has been, in recent years, weaponised by Islamists and the state to target Christians, secular critics and atheists.

This ambiguity has left non-believers in a precarious situation, at mercy to the whims of individuals in Egypt’s labyrinthine and powerful security apparatuses, prosecutors’ offices and judiciary. This explains how it is possible that the worst I have so far encountered, aside from occasional online vitriol, is once, during an interrogation, to have been questioned about my religious convictions. The intelligence officer interviewing me expressed fascination and curiosity about the difference between agnosticism and atheism, while seemingly far more concerned about my negative opinions of President Abdel-Fattah al-Sisi. His insistence that he was “really enjoying our conversation” served more to unsettle than to reassure me.

Simultaneously, some other atheists, from Sherif Gaber to Alber Saber, have been prosecuted or persecuted, pursued by lawyers and prosecutors or pursued by vigilantes, tried in the courts or tried by the media, tortured in detention or tormented by the public, imprisoned in a jail cell or condemned to solitary societal confinement, not to mention exiled within or outside Egypt.

The future for atheists in Egypt is uncertain. The Sisi regime, which intensely dislikes all forms of dissent, may have won accolades in the West for its reformist claims but, in reality, it is juggling a dual image both as the guarantor of freedom of belief and the moral protector of Egypt’s Islamic identity.

When the Muslim Brotherhood was deemed Public Enemy Number One, it was useful for the regime to flaunt its secular credentials. But a key ally in this battle were the even more conservative salafists, and now they expect payback. This tension is playing itself out in Egypt’s largely fig-leaf parliament, where there have been motions both to repeal Egypt’s blasphemy laws and, more recently, to outlaw atheism.

As it heads into the unknown, I hope Egypt will follow the lead of Muslim-majority countries like Albania, where freedom of belief is truly absolute, rather than Iran or Saudi Arabia, where atheism and secularism are defined as forms of “terrorism” and atheists are routinely jailed and even executed.

—-

This is the extended version of an article which first appeared in The New Arab on 17 May 2018.

VN:F [1.9.22_1171]
Rating: 0.0/10 (0 votes cast)
VN:F [1.9.22_1171]
Rating: 0 (from 0 votes)

Related posts

“Instead of protecting me, they treated me like a murderer”

 
VN:F [1.9.22_1171]
Rating: 0 (from 0 votes)
VN:F [1.9.22_1171]
Rating: 0.0/10 (0 votes cast)

By Boštjan Videmšek/DELO

In the two years since the EU’s inhumane deal with Turkey, the plight of traumatised refugees arriving on the Greek islands has worsened significantly. Instead of refuge, they are being offered prison.

Image: ©Boštjan Videmšek

Sunday 18 March 2018

It has been seven years since the conflict in Syria erupted and two years since the Balkan refugee route was shut down and the EU-Turkey deal to return refugees arriving in Greece to Turkey was set in motion, which have led to a severe worsening of the plight of refugees and migrants. Last August, when the Greek authorities succumbed to pressure from Brussels and took on a number of duties previously performed by various NGOs and solidarity initiatives, the conditions on the ground have reached new lows. As things stand, some 13,000 people remain trapped on the Aegean Islands, mostly in what used to be called ‘hotspots‘ but have now been euphemistically re-branded to become ‘reception centres’. A further 30,000 are still stranded on the mainland, many of them for two years or longer.

The Greek authorities have been efficient at guzzling up the European funds pouring in as payment for having turned the country into a buffer against all comers. But when it comes to the actual aid received by the refugees and the migrants, Greece has distinguished itself as slow, sloppy and often completely unresponsive.

The fate of tens of thousands has, thus, been handed over to an incompetent bureaucratic machine, whose main purpose seems to be stalling things to a standstill. Its second objective is to repel the ‘invaders’ massing at the borders. But the refugees and migrants keep pushing in. Owing to the horrendously escalated situation in Syria and the Turkish crackdown on Kurds in Afrin, a substantial mass of people is again making its way to the Aegean Islands. As for Turkey … Well, that destination is currently safe only for the loyal supporters of President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan and his authoritarian policies.

***

“If you’re waiting to die, you can just as safely do that in Syria,” Majd Tabhet, 24, said with a rueful grin. At a glance, it was clear that the articulate and urbane young man had grown highly adept at masking his pain.

After a few hours of conversation – actually a monologue – I was left with the burning question: how was it possible for this young man, who had undergone all the dehumanising savagery of European anti-refugee policies, to retain his basic sanity? And how could he still bear to look into anyone’s eyes without lashing out?

Majd, from Damascus, left his homeland in the wake of the first year of war. On receiving his conscription notice, he realised he that he was absolutely against taking up arms. He preferred to risk everything than to start butchering his friends, colleagues and neighbours, yet he still could not quite bring himself to believe the country had degenerated into all-out war.

“You see, my life was barely starting,” he shrugged helplessly, during our conversation at a social centre on Samos run by volunteers from all over the globe.

Prior to the escalation, Majd had been following the developments in Tunisia, Egypt and Libya. He had been listening in on his elders’ talk, and many of them had been foretelling the tragedy. It seemed obvious to Majd that pent-up hatred was boiling on every doorstep. Unfortunately, the regime had been prepared for the ensuing wave of protests. And Bashar al-Assad proved highly skilled at learning from his fellow tyrants’ missteps.

Majd’s conscription into the state military was followed by a very similar ‘invitation’ to join the ranks of the Free Syrian Army (FSA). Fortunately, the young man had already applied for the post of a steward with a Saudi charter jet company. He hadn’t exactly held high hopes of getting the job, but his perfect English and his innate resourcefulness and charm had apparently made an impression on his future employers.

Instead of to the barracks and the frontline, he was relocated high above to the Asian sky.

“I was so relieved. I managed to avoid the slaughter. And it was a good job, you know. But I simply couldn’t adjust to life in Saudi Arabia. Being a moderate Muslim, I found pretty much all of it alien, intrusive, unnatural and just plain weird. Everything there revolves around faith and countless ‘special rules’ one never heard of in Syria. I must confess it had a very repelling effect on me. My ideas about Islam were beginning to crumble. I was tumbling into an identity crisis. My personality was beginning to split,” Majd recalled.

As had been the case with thousands of his fellow refugees, his asylum application had been twice rejected by the Greek authorities. His current fate was to await deportation to Turkey, according to the provisions of the EU-Turkey deal.

Image: ©Boštjan Videmšek

Majd has spent most of his stay on the island at the infamous Vathy refugee camp, where the living standards are even worse than those at the similar hot-spots on Lesbos and Chios. On the day we met, two days of incessant rain had finally let up. For a long while now, no journalists had been allowed into these hellholes of human misery. But I managed to enter Vathy with the help of a group of residents, who didn’t need much to persuade me of the outrageousness of their situation.

The camp itself had been set up on a slope above the island’s capital. A muddy creek was running down the steep incline forming the ground floor, with drying laundry hanging off the ubiquitous barbed wire. A thin, knock-kneed boy was sitting in the mud and eating what remained of his breakfast. Suddenly, a rat shot by.

It was a far from uncommon sight. The camp was riddled with vermin. But for the most part, this was the least of the refugees’ concerns. On some days, the camp’s residents needed to queue for up to two hours to get fed. Their tents were so thin they were only suited for warm and dry summer nights. In the camp’s upper section, where the unaccompanied children were being housed, the ground was strewn with broken glass and all possible kinds of refuse. The boys and the young men were simply left to fend for themselves. A gag-inducing reek was blowing in from what could only charitably be described as toilet facilities. Many of the families here were spending most of their time hiding inside the containers. The campsite was simply not safe, especially for women.

Here, sexual violence has long become the norm. Alcohol, drugs and vicious brawls are abundant. Many of the camp’s traumatised and thoroughly humiliated inmates were finally beginning to lose their patience. Their anger was primarily directed at the continent of Europe, whose bureaucrats had seemingly solved the refugee problem by turning it into a life-sized Raft of the Medusa.

Anywhere but home

In 2015, three years after Majd arrived in Saudi Arabia, all the Syrian employees in Saudi companies were notified they were to return to their homeland. Syria and Saudi Arabia had severed all contact. Majd had ten days to decide on his next destination. All he knew for certain was that he would not be returning to Syria.

Had he been foolish enough to do so, he would have been jailed – either by the government or by the rebels. During his three-year stint abroad, both regime troops and rebel soldiers had repeatedly visited his family to look for him.

Given that Majd only possessed a Syrian passport, he was not exactly spoiled for choice. So he flew to Turkey. He had managed to save up some money, but he was painfully aware that he would be unable to go home for a long time. He rented a room in a house in Istanbul, where 22 other Syrians were already residing. Many of them had just recently arrived straight from the battlefield. They were exhausted and traumatised veteran soldiers. Many of them had also been thoroughly radicalised. Having already turned his back on Islam, Majd found their company exceedingly unpleasant. Since so few of them had work, they spent their empty hours preaching their religious and political doctrines to him.

“‘Leave me alone,'” I would tell them. ‘I don’t believe a word you say,'” Majd would tell them. “So they grew hostile. Had we been in Syria, I’m sure I would simply be murdered. Fortunately, they didn’t quite dare do that in Turkey. I was all alone and very exposed. But I refused to pretend and go along with them. It’s not in my nature. I lasted four months among them, then I was forced to leave.”

Through his connections he managed to land a well-paid job with a private company specialising in airplane rentals. During this period, bombs started crashing down on the section of Damascus where Majd’s family lived. Tanks were invading the outskirts of his neighbourhood.

It was the first half of 2015, when countless thousands of Syrian refugees had already struck off for the Aegean islands and beyond … hoping to reach Germany and northern Europe. Majd’s family – father, mother, brother, sister – decided to flee for Turkey. They arrived virtually penniless. For the period he remained in Turkey, it fell to Majd to support them. They were barely scraping by.

Throughout this period, the serious and introspective young man kept exploring Christianity and ‘seeking out a new way’. Following his visit to a small Orthodox church on the outskirts of Istanbul, a gang of young men beat him for being an ‘infidel’.

At the hospital where he was taken afterwards, he was questioned by the police. The Turkish policemen added a number of their own threats to the bargain. Majd no longer felt safe in Turkey. He knew he needed to push on to anywhere in the European Union, which he thought of as the Land of Freedom and Democracy – anywhere he could freely exercise his religious beliefs and address as many complex issues as he pleased.

“Well, I couldn’t have been more wrong about Europe,” he confessed 18 months after his arrival in Samos, speaking in a quiet, weary, all but defeated tone.

Monolithic migrant masses

“European refugee policy, and especially the conditions at the reception centres, is stripping the refugees of all dignity. They are being treated as a homogeneous mass, instead of as human beings, instead of as individuals with unique fates,” Aliki Meimaridou, the woman in charge of a Samos refugee mental-health support project run by Médecins sans Frontières (MSF).

Meirmaidu had been working on the island since last November. In her assessment, the refugees’ living conditions are absolutely scandalous. “Housing them amid all the mud and the rats in these overcrowded camps is humiliating. It is also not safe, especially for the women. There is a great deal of stress, depression and self-harm,” she explains. “These people have lost all control over their lives. Here on Samos, all the international human-rights conventions are being violated on a daily basis. Everything is just wrong. The procedures for obtaining asylum status are slow and chaotic, and the bureaucrats can do pretty much as they please.”

But the hardships the inmates face do not end there. “Their mental health is getting progressively worse,” the Greek humanitarian worker was quick to add. “Severe new traumas are piling up onto the prior ones. Relief is almost non-existent. The local solidarity movement has done its utmost to help. But I have to tell you: our mission here ends in March, and we shall leave highly frustrated… It shouldn’t be our task to plug up the holes in the official refugee policies. It is an almost purely political problem. One has to wonder where all the money pouring into Greece is ending up.”

Aliki Meimaridou also explained how the so-called ‘hierarchy of vulnerability’ system has led some refugees harm themselves intentionally and even to a number of calculated pregnancies because they see how pregnant women are granted swifter passage through the hell of Samos. “All this is pure pathology. These poor, aggressively passivised people are afraid to confess to getting better. Why? Because they know it would surely rob them of any chance of obtaining the medical certificate enabling them to proceed to Athens.”

Too late for refuge

Majd Tabhet arrived in Greece on 11 October 2016, just over six months after the so-called Balkan refugee route was shut off. Although Majd knew he was too late, he crossed into Greece anyway because staying in Turkey was growing too dangerous.

After he undertook a perilous night voyage on an overcrowded rubber boat, the police threw him into a huge tent outside a refugee camp. It was raining, and everything was covered in mud. “There were so many people crowded into that tent. We were utterly devastated. Hungry. Filthy. They were treating us like common criminals. We were insulted and pushed around. I could not believe my eyes: this was how Europe was treating refugees? I couldn’t bear to remain in that tent. I escaped the very first night.”

And on that very first night, he was promptly caught and beaten by the island’s police. This left him thoroughly confused, which he remains to this day, in spite of all his subsequent dismal dealings with the Greek bureaucracy. His suffering, however, had gradually delivered him from all his illusions and expectations.

“I had fled slaughter and religious violence, but here they were treating me like a criminal, like a piece of garbage. I had to ask myself: why should I even apply for a Greek asylum? It was clear this was not a good place. And also not a safe place, at least not for me,” he said. “But what choice did I have? I put in my application and spent the next several months in that camp. Among the rats. In an atmosphere of barely contained violence. With absolutely terrible food and severe overcrowding. Amid all this human chaos.”

Majd tried to manage as best as he could. He co-operated with the local solidarity movement and the various NGOs. He put in many hours as a translator. He helped out the stream of refugees arriving at the island. He sought out a local orthodox priest and informed him of his plight. The priest lost little time initiating him into the faith.

Crisis of faith

For Majd, Islam was now firmly consigned to the past, and he started learning about the rituals and the basic tenets of the Orthodox church. Soon after, he was baptised. He arrived at his first asylum interview with a broken nose. The previous day, he had been roughed up by a band of refugees who saw him emerging from the church. After a five month wait, his application was turned down. A local lawyer helped him formulate an appeal. But it got turned down as well. Majd’s status as a single young male had stripped him of most of his chances. The first time he was turned down, Majd was shocked. The second time his entire world came crashing down.

“All I wanted was to be safe,” he told me with tears in his eyes. Majd had by then realised he was to be deported. He was sharing a tiny tent with two and sometimes three companions in a chaotic and very dangerous camp. The camp’s official capacity was 700 people, but it was currently housing at least 1,500. Last August and September, as many as 2,200 were crammed there in absolutely savage conditions. And fresh refugees were arriving all the time. Every other day, a fresh boatload of them was delivered to Samos. The situation on the other Aegean Islands was much the same.

The UNHCR spokesperson Boris Cheshirkov confirms that recent months has seen a steady flow of vulnerable refugees into Greece: “Roughly 40% of those arriving in this last period are children. Many of them are parentless. There has also been an increase in invalids among the new arrivals. The situation is extremely sensitive.” Cheshirkov also drew the attention to the severe overcrowding and catastrophic conditions at the reception centres on the islands, especially on Lesbos and Samos. The most vulnerable refugees are being transferred to the mainland. “The reception centres have become a dangerous environment for women. There is very little oversight of what goes on. Sexual violence is on the rise. We at the UNHCR have recently pointed all this out in our official report,” he explains.

 

 

A hundreds days of destitution

To avoid deportation, Majd Tabhet accepted his Orthodox priest’s offer to move in to the monastery for a while. But he knew he would not be able to hide for long. After a few weeks, he was apprehended by the police. This was during last autumn. Majd was immediately put in a small detention cell at the local police station. Over the next few months, he was to share the cubicle with all sorts of criminals and a number of fellow refugees.

It marked the beginning of the worst hundred days of his life.

Several times, Majd was convinced he was losing his mind. It felt like he was constantly fending off demons. He refused to be put on antidepressants or any other kind of medicine. He was subjected to the vagaries of his various cellmates’ fates. Apart from them, he was completely cut off from the world. His lawyer could not – or would not – help. The humanitarian workers were powerless, as they themselves were exposed to increased regulation from Brussels and Athens.

For a hundred days, Majd did not see the light of day. There was no room to exercise in the overcrowded prison. Sleep was very hard to come by. Hygiene was horrendous, to put it mildly. The food was a disaster as well.

Twice, the Syrian convert was transported to a different location. At one of those two detention facilities, the cell he shared with three Algerian men was constantly illuminated by a bright red light. It was pure torture. Then, one morning, Majd simply collapsed. He was taken to a hospital to run some tests. Upon reading the results, the attending doctor announced that sugar levels in his blood were in the potentially lethal range. She gave the policeman who brought him a good talking to. Then she wrote a recommendation that Majd should be released immediately.

However, the Greek bureaucracy refused to give in without a fight. Majd’s release certificate took 12 days to arrive from Athens. In the meantime, the exhausted and severely ill young man nearly lost his mind. “I’ve been to many places, but they only jailed me in Europe,” Majd spat. “Instead of protecting me, they treated me like a murderer.”

The words were pouring out of the young man along with his tears. “The whole system here is rotten, I simply can’t understand it. They had all the relevant information about me, but it didn’t seem to matter one bit. If I had lied or faked severe illness or lunacy, I would have long reached Germany. But I’m still stuck here. I’m not even on my way to Athens. I have fought, I have suffered … And now I’m completely lost, with no chance of continuing my journey. I’m trapped on this island, and sooner or later I’ll get deported to Turkey. It simply doesn’t make any sense.”

On any given day now, Majd runs the risk of being approached on the street by police officers who could either send him off to Turkey or imprison him again. By this point, he wouldn’t mind returning to Turkey that much, he admitted. The crestfallen refugee couldn’t find a single reason to sustain his faith in Europe. His life melting away, every day here seemed lost to him. Seeing that he was obviously running out of energy, it was little wonder his days were getting shorter and shorter. All he felt like doing was sleeping.

From talking to him, it was clear that the years of suffering had seriously hurt him. He knew very well he needed help. But there was none to be had, even from the God whom he had so feverishly sought out. “When you’re beaten to the ground, nobody will pick you up. Not even God. I managed to learn that much.”

From wedding planner to war photographer

Majida Ali, 41, hails from the vicinity of the besieged Eastern Ghouta. She spent years suffering in both regime and rebel prisons, where her body and soul were stolen from her. Utterly ruined, she eventually managed to flee to Greece through Turkey. Once she arrived, she was forced to face the entire spectrum of local bureaucratic savagery.

Before the war broke out, Majida was living some of the best years of her life. After completing her degree in economics and political science, she started a wedding planning company, which became a huge success in Damascus. For a time, Majida was able enjoy the finer things in life, turning herself into a minor celebrity in the process. That last part was to prove the engine of her undoing.

In the spring of 2011 war broke out. Majida had grown up in a military family: her late father had been a high-ranking officer in the Syrian army. Owing to her tremendous respect for the army, she refused to give credence to the reports of regime atrocities against protesters. She was also unable to believe the news of the sudden emergence of foreign fighters is some parts of Damascus.

No, she firmly told herself: such a thing was simply impossible in the Syria she knew.

So she took to the streets to establish what was actually going on. She took many pictures of the protests and the first tanks rolling through the streets of her home town. Frantically darting her way through the initial shoot-outs and bombings, she took in the first heaps of corpses.

It took a few weeks for the last of her illusions to crumble. What she found hardest to grasp was how perfectly ordinary people could overnight morph into cold-blooded killers… And how easily the old, repressed hatreds could be catalysed into outbreaks of collective lunacy.

Eight years later, no end to the lunacy is in sight.

Turning herself into a citizen-journalist, Majida set out to document the various forms of violence erupting around her. Then her friends and relatives started disappearing. After a few months, she was arrested by government soldiers. On account of the photographs found on her camera’s memory card, she was immediately jailed. For a month she was beaten and tortured. She became the victim of several sexual assaults. She could see people dying all around her from the wounds sustained through torture.

Majida eventually managed to secure her release from the government prison by drawing on her family’s connections. She knew very well she could not remain home. She wandered all over Syria: writing, taking photos and reinventing herself as she went along.

It wasn’t long before she was apprehended by the members of the Free Syrian Army (FSA). At first, she believed their intentions were honourable. But she was wrong. She was accused of collaborating with the regime and thrown into an improvised jail cell. There, the whole sordid tale of the regime prison repeated itself, until, as she puts it, the woman in her was eviscerated.

“During the five war years I spent in Syria,” she told me, “I spent about half that time in various prisons. It didn’t much matter if they were of the government, rebel or Islamist variety: the jailers’ approach was basically the same. Yet I also managed to learn so much. Some of the worst criminals had taught me a number of things. You know, I can turn myself into a regular Ali Baba.”

***

Before her final escape from the war-torn land, she was again imprisoned by the regime. This time, she was convinced she would not make it. The authorities had actually notified her family that she was dead. What remained of her relatives even held a symbolic funeral for her.

After all the violence and suffering, Majida finally lost the connection to her soul. Her connection with the outside world had been broken long ago. On 17 March 2016, she was released. The help of friends got her first to Turkey, and then two weeks later, here, to Greece. But she was too late. The Balkan corridor had been welded shut.

“When we arrived on Samos,” Majida Ali went on, “We were all put inside a closed camp. It was just one more prison. I can tell you I wasn’t myself at the time. I was profoundly traumatised. I even lost my memory for a while. I didn’t have a clear idea of who or what I was. I had no home left. I was so alone and vulnerable. I wasn’t at all familiar with my rights. I was in dire need of all kinds of assistance.”

Throughout our conversation, she kept flicking anxious glances at her cell phone. She was perpetually terrified of receiving a call from Eastern Ghouta and the Damascan quarters that had been bombed hard over the past few weeks. Ten days earlier, the regime bombardment had cost her another sister. Altogether, she had lost 45 relatives in the Syrian war.

Her three brothers were currently held in three different prisons. She had no clear confirmation they were even still alive. Her gravest fears concerned her mother, who, after the bombs had flattened the family home, had moved to a safer part of Damascus where she now spends her days preparing meals for four hundred people.

“My mother is my hero, you know,” Maida related, laughing and crying at the same time. “She is the only one I can trust. She tells me not to worry. She sometimes scolds me for giving in to panic – she says my time would be better spent improving my situation.”

Their refugee status is nothing new for Majida Ali’s family. Her grandfather had been a reputable Palestinian businessman. Fleeing Israeli violence, he left the country in 1949. He bought a large plot of land on the outskirts of Damascus and built housing for numerous Palestinian families.

“I don’t know, it seems being refugees is my family’s eternal fate. And the fate of thousands of other families from our country. Together, we are a mirror to the world. The mirror to all of us,” Majida observed. “Maybe that’s why I can’t bear to plan for the future. My very genes are aware that tomorrow my world could be turned upside down again.”

For five months Majida had been residing at Vathy, a 21st-century concentration camp and one of Europe’s human landfills. Once more utterly alone, she was again exposed to sexual harassment. It was her first contact with the continent of Europe: danger instead of safety, prison instead of aid, humiliation in place of dignity; bureaucracy masquerading as justice. It took 14 months after she filed her application for the first official interview to take place.

“It was a time of extreme hardship for me. I think it’s not that much of an exaggeration to say I didn’t exist at all. I made my bed here in the mud and tried to help the others. I got in touch with the local solidarity movement. I took it upon myself to organise a school for the women and children,” recalled the Syrian wedding planner, turned war photographer, turned prisoner of conscience, turned torture victim, turned refugee. “I tried to stay active. Every day, I work very hard to dam the flood of my poisonous thoughts. It is all I can do not to completely lose it. I’m fighting off my pain all the time, all the time… And I’m always steeling myself against the next loss.”

Integrating into the community

When we took a stroll around the island, Majida was cordially greeted by every other person we passed. During the two years she has spent on Samos, she has taken an active part in the local community, even if that community was so conservative it first refused to accept that Majida was still wearing a headscarf.

But things have changed. The derogatory remarks were much rarer now, and as for threats, they all but vanished. For the past few months, Majida had been employed at the Help Now NGO, where she specialises in helping refugees. The people here have got used to her, and she has grown accustomed to them.

When they ask her about the war and her own life story, she usually gives out very vague and generalised answers. She knows that very few people can comprehend what she has been through. And what she is still going through. She has learned to avoid a certain type of men. “I know those eyes,” she told me. “I know what they want.”

Her wish was simply to live, she added. But not on charity – never charity. She has consistently refused any form of monetary aid. Her aim is to live exclusively off her own labour. Until now, she has been successful at the task. Her driving force has become helping out her traumatised peers. She has no intention of returning to her homeland, now or ever. Her Syria no longer exists. Perhaps it never had. Perhaps it had all just been a big illusion, a sordid lie. In fact, this interpretation struck her as the most plausible. How could she otherwise explain that it all ended in such slaughter?

“When I was granted asylum, I decided to stay here on Samos. My friends and acquaintances weren’t sending me very good news of their stay in Europe,” she explains. “Many of them have been badly disappointed. Some of them have been broken by the experience. I, myself, decided to put an end to years of suffering. It was my choice: I decided to choose life.”

 

 

VN:F [1.9.22_1171]
Rating: 0.0/10 (0 votes cast)
VN:F [1.9.22_1171]
Rating: 0 (from 0 votes)

Related posts

The truth about Islamic reformations

 
VN:F [1.9.22_1171]
Rating: +1 (from 1 vote)
VN:F [1.9.22_1171]
Rating: 9.5/10 (2 votes cast)

By Khaled Diab

Islam needs a reformation for Muslim societies to develop and prosper, is one of those rare convictions shared by both Islamophiles and Islamophobes. Tunisia has done just that: radically reformed its brand of Islam and established a vibrant democracy to boot, yet prosperity eludes it. Why?

This protester spray paints the question: “What are you waiting for?”
Photo: ©Khaled Diab

 Thursday 18 January 2018

Seven years after the downfall of Tunisia’s long-time dictator Zine El Abidine Ben Ali, Tunisians have been out on the streets once again, in one of the most sustained waves of protest since the 2010/11 revolution.

Paraphrasing the calls demanding the removal of the president in January 2011, the demonstrators of January 2018 have been chanting: “The people want to topple the budget.”

The 2018 budget fuelling public anger led to spikes in value-added tax and social security contributions and a planned slashing of the budget deficit demanded by the IMF, which will cause Tunisia’s poor continued pain. In a bid to counter public anger, the government of President Beji Caid Essebsi unveiled plans to reform medical care, housing and increase aid to the poor.

But the upheavals in Tunisia should, by right, not be happening, according to the received wisdom. Public intellectuals and media celebrities in the West, as well as many Muslim reformers, have been informing us for many years that Islam desperately needs a reformation. This would enable Muslims to shake off benighted Islamic dogma and embrace democracy, heralding an era of freedom and prosperity.

For example, more than a dozen years ago, Thomas Friedman, the guru of hollow, superficial punditry, urged Muslims to embark on a Lutheranesque Reformation to create “an Islam different from the lifeless, anti-modern, anti-Western fundamentalism being imposed in Iran and propagated by the Saudi Wahhabi clerics” – never mind that Martin Luther was a fundamentalist zealot and his reformation plunged Europe into generations of war and conflict.

Friedman also believed that America could expedite this reform process towards an Islamic enlightenment by bombing Iraq and resurrecting it as a beacon of freedom, free markets and democracy –  and we all saw how well that worked out.

Although American ordnance and weapons, unsurprisingly, set Iraq back generations, some countries have found their own way towards democracy and a reformed Islam without the need for trillion-dollar American wars.

Tunisia has, over the past seven years, built up a vibrant and functioning democracy, which has not only avoided the nightmare counter-revolutions and wars which have consumed other countries in the region whose people dared to dream of a better tomorrow, but it also guarantees an impressive range of fundamental freedoms for Tunisian citizens.

Moreover, Tunisia boasts more female representatives than the United States: almost a third of seats in Tunisia’s parliament is held by women, compared with under a fifth in the American Congress. In addition, Tunisia possesses an essential plank of social democracy which has been almost completely dismantled in America: a vibrant trade unions movement.

As for reinventing Islam, Tunisia has been doing that for the past century and a half, which has led to a distinctly Tunisian brand of the religion. In the 19th century, numerous Tunisian intellectuals and activists sought ways to reconcile their faith with modernity and science. In the 1950s, the government led by liberation leader Habib Bourguiba secularised the country and introduced a radical reformist personal status law which equalised the relationship between men and women and banned polygamy.

Fears that reforms would be slowed or reversed by the revolution have proved unfounded. Rather than Islamise society, Tunisian society has secularised the country’s main Islamic party Ennahdha, which has gone from an overtly Islamist platform to reinvent itself as a party of ‘Muslim democrats’.

In recent months, Tunisia has rolled out an impressive package of reforms which will have profound implications on the local brand of Islam, and perhaps Islam in other parts of the Muslim world.

Tunisia’s parliament pushed through landmark legislation to outlaw all forms of violence against women, from street harassment to domestic violence, as well as the scrapping of the controversial practice of allowing a rapist to escape punishment by marrying his victim.

In addition, the government has removed the bureaucratic hurdle that prevented Muslim women from marrying outside their religion. Most ambitiously of all, Tunisia is pursuing legislation that will grant women equal inheritance rights to men, which has provoked the ire of the conservative Muslim establishment elsewhere, including Sunni Islam’s leading institution, Al Azhar.

Despite this impressive political, social, cultural and religious progress, Tunisia’s economic fortunes have not kept pace, the treasure at the end of Friedman’s freedom rainbow has failed to materialise. The economy still grows, but more sluggishly than before, while inflation and unemployment remain high.

So how come Tunisia has not been able to cash in on its reforms?

In my new book, Islam for the Politically Incorrect, I offer an explanation for this apparent paradox. At one level, this is because reformations do not lead to socio-economic development but are, instead, the product of it.

In addition, religious, social and political reforms are what you might call the software of development, and Tunisia has given itself a major upgrade in these areas. However, the software is useless without the appropriate hardware. What use is having the operating system for a supercomputer when you only possess a punch-card mainframe to run it on?

And the economic hardware requirements today are exponentially higher than they were when Europe had its Reformation, Counter-Reformation and Enlightenment. Whereas back then, when Christendom was pirating the latest software from Islamic culture and competing to smash Islam’s monopoly on global trade, the hardware requirements, in terms of resources and infrastructure, were relatively modest, today that is no longer the case.

As a small illustration, the OECD group of industrialised states spent, in 2009, $874 billion on research and development. To put that in context, the gross domestic product of Egypt, the most populous Arab country, was $336 billion in 2016, while Tunisia’s is a mere $42 billion, less than half Google’s annual revenue.

And that is just annual spending on R&D. That does not include the huge amounts the West and other advanced economies invest in education, not to mention the generations-long construction of legacy intellectual and technological capital.

Gaining Tunisia and the wider region, not to mention other poorer countries, access to the phenomenal levels of necessary resources will require both a pooling of regional wealth as well as radical policies to address global interstate inequalities. In the absence of enlightened mechanisms for wealth and knowledge sharing and redistribution, we are likely to see the burgeoning of regional and global conflicts that may make the current upheavals seem minor in comparison.

Of course, whether or not democratisation and enlightenment lead to prosperity, they are noble goals to pursue in their own right for the sake of freedom, fairness, justice, knowledge and human dignity. However, if they do not deliver on the economic bottomline, these advances are fragile and can quickly be shattered by popular discontent and populist authoritarian forces. If human enlightenment is to survive, let alone thrive, we need global solutions, not local illusions.

 

VN:F [1.9.22_1171]
Rating: 9.5/10 (2 votes cast)
VN:F [1.9.22_1171]
Rating: +1 (from 1 vote)

Related posts

Hypocrisy and the Holy Land

 
VN:F [1.9.22_1171]
Rating: 0 (from 0 votes)
VN:F [1.9.22_1171]
Rating: 0.0/10 (0 votes cast)

By Khaled Diab

In their reactions to Donald Trump’s hypocritical Jerusalem declaration, many Arab and Muslims leaders have exhibited their own grotesque double standards.

At the behest of the Turkish president, Islamic leaders gathered for an extraordinary summit to denounce Trump’s declaration.
Source: Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s Twitter account

Tuesday 19 December 2017

Exercising his peerless talent to make enemies and infuriate people, Donald Trump’s decision to recognise Jerusalem as Israel’s capital and move the US embassy there changes nothing on the ground – except perhaps highlighting the extent of American hypocrisy and how Washington was never an impartial broker.

Nevertheless, Jerusalem is a city of enormous symbolic significance, not just to Jews and westerners but also to Arab Muslims and Christians, and the Palestinian struggle has been at the heart of Arab and Muslim consciousness for generations.

This partly explains why a merely symbolic announcement from Trump has triggered such angry reactions both in Arab corridors of power and on the streets. Another factor is the need to forge a semblance of unity in this bitterly divided region.

Arab League foreign ministers warned that Trump’s move “deepens tension, ignites anger and threatens to plunge the region into more violence and chaos,” as though it was not already mired in both.

In keeping with the League’s track record of futile, toothless endeavours, the ministers said they would seek a UN Security Council resolution rejecting Trump’s move, as though the US was not a veto-wielding permanent member.

Lebanon’s foreign minister, Gebran Bassil, urged the Arab world to adopt economic sanctions against the United States. While Bassil was outspoken in his defence of Palestine, his position towards Palestinians is a different matter.

The foreign minister has previously stirred controversy with his opposition to the naturalisation of not only the recently arrived Syrian refugees but also the Palestinian refugees who have lived in Lebanon for decades. Bassil is even against allowing Lebanese women to pass on their nationality to their children if they are married to a Palestinian or a Syrian.

While Bassil is an extreme and bigoted example, loving Palestine but disliking the Palestinians is a fairly common dissonance in Lebanon. This is reflected in how angry protesters clashed with riot police outside the American embassy in Beirut, with some denouncing the US as the “enemy of Palestine”.

Meanwhile, nearly half a million registered Palestinian refugees call Lebanon home, many of whom live in poverty and socio-economic marginalisation, excluded from numerous professions, in one of the country’s 12 Palestinian refugee camps, including the infamous Shatila in southern Beirut.

Of course, Lebanon has been a frontline state in the Arab-Israeli conflict. It has integrated some Palestinians and its failure to integrate the remainder partly rests on the fear of what this would do to the country’s delicate balance of power, which dangerously and precariously hinges on a sectarian fulcrum. Some Lebanese are opposed to the integration of Palestinians on the grounds that this keeps the Palestinian cause alive, even if it exacts a heavy human cost.

At a rally in Beirut last week, Hizbullah leader Hassan Nasrallah, speaking by video link, urged Palestinians to rise up against Israel and vowed that “Jerusalem and Palestine and the Palestinian people and the Palestinian resistance in all its factions” would become his group’s top priority.

One wonders why the Palestinians of Syria were not a priority for Nasrallah, whose militia has been actively supporting the Assad regime in its destruction of Syria, including Yarmouk, the Palestinian refugee camp in southern Damascus, upon which the regime and its allies have inflicted a cruel siege and fought a number of battles.

Not to be outdone, Turkey’s Recep Tayyip Erdoğan vowed to lead Islamic efforts to resist the US move, even hosting a summit of the Organisation of Islamic Co-operation to prove his point. Calling Israel a “child-murderer state”, Erdoğan pledged to “continue our struggle within law and democracy… Our road map will show that it will not be easy for them to realize their plans.” What Erdoğan failed to mention is that he has almost destroyed Turkey’s democracy and undermined the rule of law through a systematic campaign to jail journalists and critics and to purge the state of opponents and enemies, both real and perceived.

After the summit, Erdoğan pledged to open a Turkish embassy in East Jerusalem. However, he built a cunning escape hatch into his plan by claiming that he could not, for now, open this embassy, because East Jerusalem is under occupation. This sounds like low-risk grandstanding to me, as Turkey already has a consulate in Sheikh Jarrah. He could declare that the embassy, if he really wanted, and hang a sign outside, even if it pissed off the Israelis or led to the Israeli taking action against the consulate-cum-embassy.

The reason Erdoğan talks the walk but does not walk the talk is because of all the Turkish interests at stake. What is also absent from Erdoğan’s inflammatory remarks is that, increasingly isolated like Israel’s Binyamin Netanyahu, he ratified a lucrative reconciliation deal last year with Israel, the country he accused of infanticide.

While Turkey has longstanding official relations with Israel, Saudi Arabia, which severely reprimanded Egypt for its peace deal with Israel and ostensibly upholds the Arab boycott of Israel, is seeking closer ties, not to work towards peace and reconciliation in the Arab-Israeli conflict, but to build a mutual alliance against Iran, Riyadh’s belligerent regional rival.

Regardless of which side of the Gulf spat they stand on, much of the Gulf Co-operation Council has been hungrily eyeing Israeli technology, with Saudi Arabia, the UAE and Qatar all finding covert paths, via middle countries, through which to import Israeli products, including military ones.

This, along with Saudi Arabia’s hatred of Hamas and murderous starvation of Yemen, could explain the muted reaction from Riyadh compared with other Arab and Muslim capitals. Moreover, Saudi Arabia, under the de facto leadership of Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, is keen to build an axis of autocrats with wannabe dictator Donald Trump in Washington.

Egypt’s reaction has also been fairly reserved. This is partly because of the mutual appreciation society President Abdel-Fattah al-Sisi enjoys with Donald Trump, and partly because Egypt has an ambivalent relationship with the Palestinians.

On the one hand, the Egyptian regime has helped Israel maintain its blockade of Gaza by keeping its Rafah crossing mostly closed and has stoked hatred and fear towards Hamas. On the other hand, Egypt has been a central mediator, though hardly an unbiased broker, in intra-Palestinian efforts to mend bridges, helping clinch the recent reconciliation accord between Fatah and Hamas.

Beyond the regimes, on the street, where outrage is generally more genuine, much of the anger has been on behalf of stones and symbols rather than flesh and blood humans, and has featured a troubling element of religious bigotry.

Over and above the chanting of tired and outdated slogans, there has been little in the way of creative new approaches to break the deadlock and support the Palestinians.

____

This is the updated version of an article which first appeared in German in Die Zeit on 14 December 2017.

VN:F [1.9.22_1171]
Rating: 0.0/10 (0 votes cast)
VN:F [1.9.22_1171]
Rating: 0 (from 0 votes)

Related posts

A US embassy in Jerusalem changes nothing and everything

 
VN:F [1.9.22_1171]
Rating: 0 (from 0 votes)
VN:F [1.9.22_1171]
Rating: 0.0/10 (0 votes cast)

By Khaled Diab

Donald Trump’s announcement on Jerusalem changes nothing on the ground but everything on the horizon. It is the final death certificate of the peace process. Now it’s time for something completely different.

Photo: ©Khaled Diab

Saturday 9 December 2017

Donald Trump has recognised Jerusalem as the capital of Israel and pledged to move the American embassy in Israel from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem.

Moving the embassy to Jerusalem would change nothing on the ground, as America already recognises Jerusalem in deed, and even in words, as reflected in the constantly deferred Jerusalem Embassy Act which was passed by Congress in 1995.

In addition, numerous countries operate consulates-general in Jerusalem, which officially do not report to neither the Israeli nor the Palestinian authorities. This is both a throwback to the original conception of Jerusalem in the 1947 UN partition plan as an internationally administered ‘corpus separatum’ and a tool of convenience for diplomats wanting to deal with both the Israelis and Palestinians. In fact, some of these consulates-general are embassies in all but name.

Whether or not America or any other country recognises Jerusalem as Israel’s capital, Israel regards it as such and is pursuing that goal aggressively through a blend of policies. Immediately following its conquest of East Jerusalem, Israel annexed the Palestinian part of the city and widened its municipal boundaries to cover large swathes of the West Bank. In addition, the Knesset, the prime minister’s office and Israel’s ministries are all located there.

Recent years have brought about accelerated settlement building in and around the annexed municipal area, effectively joining greater Jerusalem into a contiguous ring suffocating East Jerusalem and splitting up the West Bank in such a way as to make a Palestinian state unfeasible To anyone who has spent any significant period of time in Jerusalem, like myself, the rate and speed of construction is truly breathtaking.

Add to this the various Israeli policies being used to squeeze or push Palestinian Jerusalemites out, such as the near impossibility of Palestinians acquiring permits to build, home demolitions, the revocation of residence permits, not to mention the economic, social and political isolation of East Jerusalem from the rest of the West Bank thanks to the Israeli wall and barrier.

On the Israeli side of the equation, American recognition will not magically render Jerusalem Israel’s “united and eternal” capital, and not just because nothing is eternal, not even eternity, but also because Jerusalem is a bafflingly dysfunctional and divided city, and words and wishful thinking will not magically change that reality.

Over and above the headline fault lines dividing Jerusalem’s Israeli and Palestinian residents, there are also simmering tensions within each community between the religious and the secular. This has got so bad on the Israeli side that recent decades have seen an exodus of many secular Jerusalemites towards Israel’s more liberal coastal regions, transforming many Jerusalem neighbourhoods into pictures of black and white uniformity, the colours of choice of ultra-orthodox Jews.

Although America’s recognition of Jerusalem as Israel’s capital changes nothing on the ground, it has the potential to change everything on the horizon. Jerusalem, after all, is at the heart of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and is a potent cultural and religious symbol for Palestinians and Israelis alike.

This is reflected in how the old city’s skyline, dominated by the Dome of the Rock, features on everything from pre-partition Zionist posters inviting Jews to visit or come to Palestine, to the calendars and posters hanging on the walls of Palestinians in Jerusalem, the West Bank, Gaza and the diaspora. “Next year in Jerusalem,” is a Jewish payer recited in the disapora for centuries. Similarly, when Palestinian refugees think of return, they tend to picture Jerusalem.

Not being able to access Jerusalem is a constant source of frustration and disappointment for Palestinians who live in the West Bank, some within spitting distance of the holy city, and in Gaza because they lack the required Israeli permits. The number of Palestinian millennials I know who have never seen Jerusalem or last saw it when they were very young. One young Palestinian woman who was attending the same conference as me when the announcement was made could more easily travel to Brussels, where we were, than the half a dozen kilometres from Bethlehem to Jerusalem, which she’d last visited as a child.

Beyond the symbolism, Jerusalem is a microcosm of Palestinian suffering under occupation and their dispossession. For a bitterly disenchanted, disappointed and divided people, it is also a potent issue around which to rally. Where years of talks have faltered, Donald Trump has succeeded in uniting all Palestinian political factions in their opposition to his move, prompting them to call for “days of rage”, with the Friday protests leading to sporadic clashes and the death of at least two Palestinians, in Gaza.

Whether or not this leads to a fresh outbreak of prolonged protest or a new intifada depends on many factors. But with an intransigent Israel, no clear and consensual vision for Palestinian politics and no visionary leadership to channel public sentiment, any coming wave of protest is likely to be as directionless and futile as recent waves have been.

Meanwhile, some fear that Trump’s decision will embolden Israel to accelerate its settlement building. However, what this overlooks is that Trump’s very presence in the White House has emboldened the extremist Israeli government, and this is not the first nor will it be the last green light the US president will give the settler movement.

Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas has cautioned that moving the embassy would have “dangerous consequences” for “the peace process and to the peace, security and stability of the region and of the world”.

Trump’s announcement has already brought protesters out on the streets of many Arab and Muslim countries, with some of the largest demonstrations in Tunisia, which is a bastion of pro-Palestinian sentiment and where freedom of assembly and expression are a protected right. How long such street protests will last and what effect they will have is unclear.

Moreover, it is impossible to predict what consequences this decision will have on an already volatile and inflamed Middle East. It could lead to a regional flare up and conflagration, as many fear and some even hope. But if it does, it will be more a function of already brewing tensions and longstanding grievances than this decision specifically.

However, it could also have no immediate consequences because much of the region is embroiled in its own problems and some, like Saudi Arabia, are interested in forging a cynical, implicit or explicit, alliance with Israel against Iran. What is certain is that it will fuel popular resentment, and with it hatred and bigotry.

As for fears about what this will mean for the peace process, I ask, what process? As I and many other critics of the Oslo accords have argued for years, the ‘peace process’ died a long, long time ago. In fact, it was still-born, partly due to its fatal birth defects and partly due to the events which followed. This latest move is an implicit confirmation of this reality by Washington, which has never been an “honest broker”.

It is high time for the Palestinian leadership to recognise this fact and to replace this futile process with a civil rights struggle, and to demand that the international community, especially Europe, support Palestinians in their efforts to gain concrete equal civil, political and economic rights, instead of forever chasing the mirage of a independent state for which no space exists any more.

—–

This is the updated version of an article which first appeared in Italian in Corriere della Sera on Wednesday 6 December 2017.

Follow Khaled Diab on Twitter

VN:F [1.9.22_1171]
Rating: 0.0/10 (0 votes cast)
VN:F [1.9.22_1171]
Rating: 0 (from 0 votes)

Related posts

Angela Merkel: The ‘Arab’ chancellor

 
VN:F [1.9.22_1171]
Rating: 0 (from 0 votes)
VN:F [1.9.22_1171]
Rating: 0.0/10 (0 votes cast)

By Khaled Diab

If Arabs could have voted, Angela Merkel would have won by a landslide, rather than the embattled situation she currently finds herself in following the shock gains scored by the far-right.

Monday 25 September 2017

Unlike the ‘Hussein’ in Barack Obama’s name, Angela Merkel Muhammed is not related to a conspiracy theory that the German chancellor is a secret Muslim. Born in August in Münster, the Angela in question is the daughter of a grateful Syrian couple who fled the danger and desolation in their devastated homeland and were granted asylum in Germany in 2015.

Prior to this, like many Arabs on the progressive or leftist end of the political spectrum, I had not been impressed by Merkel’s destructive neo-liberal policies and economic nationalism, most notably demonstrated in her handling of the Greek debt crisis. But Merkel’s willingness to gamble her political future to defend the weak and vulnerable strengthened her image in my eyes.

Although unaware of it herself, Baby Angela embodies the admiration her adult namesake has earned in the Arab world since Merkel defied a sceptical and hostile Europe, and her own conservative and far-right opponents at home, to welcome hundreds of thousands of refugees and migrants in 2015.

While Merkel was being booed by far-right protesters in Germany, Syrians and Arabs were sending her messages of love and admiration on social media. “We will tell our children that Syrian migrants fled their country to come to Europe when Mecca and Muslim lands were closer to them,” one Facebook user reportedly wrote in an expression of gratitude.

Merkel’s principled stance on refugees in the face of stiff opposition and a number of Islamist terrorist attacks earned her a great deal of respect and numerous Arab commentators showered her with praise. “Despite all this, Ms Merkel courageously refused to ‘shut the door’ in the face of any/all asylum seekers found to be legitimate refugees,” wrote London-based journalist Faisal J Abbas in July 2016, while urging Syrian refugees to become more adept at “cultural diplomacy” and “to show more keenness to integrate and respect the culture of their new home countries”.

However, Merkel has subsequently flip-flopped on the issue of refugees, supporting the much-criticised EU-Turkey deal and pursuing similar ‘one in, one out’ deals with North African countries. This may have shored up her support among conservatives at home but has damaged her image somewhat in the Arab world.

The EU’s efforts to block the migrant flow from war-torn Libya, where the central state has completely collapsed, has helped fuel what many witnesses and observers, including the UN, have classed as the emergence of a modern-day slave trade.

Although many Arabs echo the western praise of Merkel as the new ‘leader of the free world’ due to her willingness to stand up to Donald Trump, Arab pro-democracy and human rights activists, as well as opposition figures, are perplexed and critical of Merkel’s willingness to collaborate with dictators and despots to deal with the flow of refugees, to combat terrorism… and to do lucrative business.

While lauded and applauded in the pro-regime Egyptian press, Egyptian President Abdel-fattah al-Sisi’s visit to Germany in 2015 and Merkel’s visit to Egypt in March of this year, drew condemnation from human rights groups and Egyptian opposition figures. “After Merkel’s visit, Sisi is full of confidence that the big hitters have got his back, that they will turn a blind eye to his human rights crimes, with the excuse that he is fighting against terrorism,” wrote Wael Kandil, a journalist and liberal politician who went from opposing ousted Egyptian President Mohamed Morsi to supporting him, becoming an outspoken opponent of Sisi in the process.

Some go even further and see Merkel as not only maintaining a cynical silence in the face of Sisi’s human rights abuses but of being a “tyrant” in her own right. “When it is in a certain direction, selling weapons, plundering economies, manipulating politics, bombing people, [it] is called business, diplomacy or humanitarian military intervention,” wrote Walid el-Houri of Berlin’s Institute for Cultural Inquiry, in 2015. “The human cost, the lives destroyed, the blood spilled by the German government, among many others, is no less than that by Sisi’s, and the two are no less than complicit.”

Despite such harsh criticism, Angela Merkel received generally glowing coverage ahead of the forthcoming elections in the Arab press. In the run up to the elections in Germany, many Arabic-language newspapers ran admiring profiles of the chancellor, focusing on her unusual path to power, her early life as a scientist in East Germany, and her apparent frugality and modesty.

Despite my own personal reservations about her economic policies and convenient embracing of certain dictators, this generally positive image resonates with many ordinary Arabs I know. “I like, respect and trust her,” said Marwan El Nashar, an Egyptian comic artist. “As someone who was a minister of women, youth and environment and with a scientific background, she’s [been] able to find a balanced formula in Germany and Europe,” echoes Nancy Sadiq, a Palestinian peace activist.

Judging by such reactions, if Arabs could have voted in this weekend’s federal election, it seems Merkel would have won by a landslide, rather than the embattled situation she currently finds herself in following the shock gains scored by the far-right Alternative für Deutschland (AfD).

____

A version of this article appeared in German in Die Zeit on 20 September 2017.

 

VN:F [1.9.22_1171]
Rating: 0.0/10 (0 votes cast)
VN:F [1.9.22_1171]
Rating: 0 (from 0 votes)

Related posts