Shlomo Sand: “I am not a Jew. I am an Israeli.”

 
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By Khaled Diab

Bestselling Israeli historian Shlomo Sand on identity politics, political despair, why Lieberman is right… and drowning sorrows with Mahmoud Darwish.

Monday 12 March 2012

Shlomo Sand. Photo: Khaled Diab

Entering Shlomo Sand’s office at Tel Aviv university, the first thing that catches the eye are the numerous language versions of his controversial book, The Invention of the Jewish People, which has been a bestseller both in Israel and internationally. As an Egyptian with a keen interest in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, I had read his book with great interest  – and now I was meeting the man behind this intellectual earthquake.

Despite the title of his book, Sand, with his neatly cropped beard and air of the anti-establishment academic, is not polemical, neither in his writing or in person. Rather, he projects the image of what academia should be ultimately about, intellectual scepticism and deep questioning. However, his willingness to stand up and challenge sacred cows have left their mark, and he comes across as a deeply pessimistic person, although  he is highly approachable and possesses an irrepressible passion for debate and conversation.

The polemical reactions to his iconoclasm overlook numerous important points, including the fact that, although he does not believe that a “Jewish people” exists per se, he holds firm to the notion that the existence of an Israeli people is a concrete reality, but that these Israelis are both Jewish and Arab, and that Israel should not identify itself as the homeland of the Jewish people, but should, instead, define itself as the state of the Israeli people. Also, for Arabs and opponents of Israel, it is also crucial to point out that the “Jewish people” were not the only people who were “invented”. Sand stresses that similar cases can also be made  for other peoples, including Arabs and Palestinians, and that inventing mytho-histories is a central component of modern nation-building, especially the 19th-century model in eastern and central Europe.

Although I don’t agree with everything he asserts, his vision of two independent Israeli and Palestinian republics of all their citizens, with a minority Jewish and Arab population of equals in each, is a refreshing option to consider, as is the urgent need not only to reinvent the Israeli people but also the Palestinian people.

Without further ado, I’ll let Sand speak for himself.

Shlomo Sand: It’s very difficult for me because I have started to lose hope. If we jump to the end, if you want, I don’t believe peace will be reached.

Khaled Diab:  You mean, in the short term, in the long term?

In the long term, I don’t know, I’m not a prophet. In the short term, I mean. This is the subject of my latest book. I’ve finished it pessimistically. Even the Oslo agreement was a bluff.

Haidar Abdel-Shafi, the doctor, was the leader of the Palestinians in Gaza. He was in the delegation of 1989 to Madrid. I met him 23 years ago. He died a long time ago. I remember, I went with a few academics to Gaza – he invited us. He was a secularist from a kind of Marxist background, not a communist. I remember he said that he was against the Oslo agreement. I asked him if it was because he didn’t want to recognise the Israeli state.

He started laughing. He said, “I have recognised the Israeli state since 1948.” By the way, he had a Jewish lover… woman?…

Girlfriend?

Yes. He said, I recognised it before Arafat. “No, it’s not because of this that I am against it,” he said. “I think that the Israelis are going to manipulate us again.”

“We promised to try to stop the violence. Israelis did not promise to stop the colonisation,” he said. Arafat wanted to go back to Palestine so much that he signed it, and he lost.

When you say that it’s a bluff, how much of it do you think was an intentional bluff and how much of it do you think was down to the fact that the extremists within Israeli society were more organised and…

You have to know that this is the subject of my book, and it’s not about the extremists, it’s about the centre of power, especially the Labour party. I read, during my research, Rabin’s last speech in the Knesset. When he proposed the peace, he insisted that Jerusalem would be united with Ma’ale Adumim under Israeli sovereignty. There would not be any discussion about this point. And also the Jordan Valley would belong to Israel. That was the last speech of Rabin before he was assassinated.

They accept a kind of Bantustan – all of them, all of them. This doesn’t mean that Rabin could not have progressed after this if he wasn’t assassinated. But Rabin, at that point, proposed more or less what Bibi Netanyahu is now doing.

But isn’t he going even further than that?

Yes, he is going a little bit further than Rabin in ’94.

The concept of the Land of Israel, and also the power, the emitted power, cannot bring a coalition with the goodwill to deliver the rights of the Palestinians. This is because the “Land of Israel” (“Eretz Yisrael”) is seen as the land that belongs to Israel, do you understand? I didn’t use to understand this. I thought that pragmatism would prove stronger. No, no, it’s very deep. It’s not only deep among extremists. There is not a single political party that can make peace on the Israeli side.

Beyond political parties, do you think the people themselves, the Israeli people, have a desire to…

They have a desire to live in peace. At the time when the terror was very, very strong, a lot of people became very tired of the occupied territories. Now the impression of the average Israeli is that they can continue to live like this for another hundred years.

So they think the conflict is manageable?

Yes, the average. But more and more people not on the left feel that there is no solution. They feel that it is going to end, in some way or another, badly. There is, if you want, 20% of the population, I think, which is not proposing a solution but don’t believe in any solution. They are very pessimistic.

Now the majority. It’s one of the paradoxes, and I don’t like paradoxes, that Israeli society cannot sacrifice… has stopped wanting to and being capable of sacrificing soldiers, on the one side. On the other side, they don’t fight for peace.

You have to know, all of us studied the Bible for something like 12 years at school. The curriculum is based on a historical narrative that the land belongs to Jews. Basically, an average Jewish citizen of Israel cannot understand why we have to divide the land.

By necessity, if there was pressure from abroad, if the Americans really wanted to push Israel, I think there could be some compromise.

So you think no compromise is possible from inside, it has to be forced from the outside? So, do you think, for example, that the Jewish and Arab communities in America could help in pushing Israel in the right direction?

No… Young people in universities, professors like me are very critical of Israeli policy. But organised Judaism is very, very pro-Zionist. This development began in ’67. And they are on the right wing of the Israeli political system.

There is a movement now, J Street and the likes, but it is not serious and they are contradictory.

Don’t you think it could get stronger, something like J Street? And these young people, as they get older and take on positions of influence…

No, no, because there is also something very strange about this. Somebody who wants to take part in Jewish politics in the United States, and not mainstream American politics, you have to understand. Why is Woody Allen not active in Jewish politics, for example? Because he’s very American. Most professors I know who are critical of Israel do not organise themselves to fight against Israel.   

So you mean that American Jews are either organised and pro-Israel, or are apathetic and critical of Israel?

Exactly. Apathetic or critical but not organised…  There is J Street which is kind of leftist Zionism or liberal Zionism, in someway, but I don’t think that it will become a very strong movement. Because if they understand what’s happening in Israel, in some ways, they become less interested in Israel.

Is this because it conflicts with their principles?

Yeah. The only way this will change, because I know the history of Judaism in the United States before 1967 when it wasn’t so pro-Israeli. If there were to be a massacre in the Galilee and an American Jew would go out of his garage and the neighbours would look at him with a bad eye, something might change.

So you mean things have to get a lot worse to mobilise…

When they begin to feel that the image of a Jew cannot go with the aggressive politics of Israel, if it really becomes a contradiction, may be organised Judaism will start to change its politics.

Or if there is a net contradiction between the politics of Israel and American politics. For the moment, this is not really the case. Like it did in 1956 during the Sinai war. The Jewish community in the 1950s did not fight for Israel at all. It’s very important to understand this.

This is the only, only hope that I can see. Inside Israel, not. I think that Lieberman is right. He understands very well that the real danger for Israel is the Palestinian-Israelis.

Is that why he proposed those land swaps?

Yeah. He knows, and he’s right, that the real danger will be the Palestinian-Israelis and not the Palestinians.

Because they have a power centre within Israeli society and they’re frustrated?

Yes, and they are a better-educated and they have higher political awareness.

They understand Israeli society?

Much more. Relatively, they are less oppressed but mentally they are much more oppressed, because they have problems with their identity. They speak Hebrew. The young students, who are the most extreme, with every step, are becoming culturally more Israeli and they are becoming more active Israelis politically.

The problem is not only the occupied territories. Now, I don’t believe the leftists who are talking of a binational state. It’s a joke. I’m not against it. But to propose to Israelis to become, from one day to the next, a minority in their own state is a joke, do you understand.

But do you think they will become a minority?

It’s 5.9 million Israeli-Jews versus 5.6 million Palestinians. So, they are more or less equal in number. So, you can’t propose to Israelis to live in a state where they will become a minority, especially when the leftists are proposing the right of return. It’s a joke.

Do you mean it would never be accepted?

They would blow up the Middle East before, and they have the capacity.

You know, rationally, I’m for a two-state solution. But not a Jewish and an Arab state. An Israeli and a Palestinian republic.

And each one would have Arab and Jewish minorities?

Yeah. I say an Israeli state, and not a Muslim state or an Arab state, but a Palestinian state with Israelis living there. And, here, Palestinians living here as full citizens. Israel has to belong to its citizens and not the Jews of the world.

Isn’t that what the bi-national state is about?

No, the bi-national state, as I told you, is a very bad programme. The Arabs will become a majority, not as part of a gradual process.

Just at once…

Just at once. And I don’t think that this racist society, the Israeli Jewish society is a very racist society. You cannot propose this. First of all, if you are speaking about a bi-national state, okay, I’m not against it, but on one condition, throw out the Israeli army before. If not, it’s a kind of legitimisation of the occupation.

Well, how about, if you’re going to make it a state for all its citizens, that all the state institutions become open to all the citizens, like the army becomes a joint Israeli-Palestinian army.

No, I’m speaking about two states, two republics that are confederated. You cannot… We cannot live here without Arabs. If somebody doesn’t want to live with Arabs, I tell my students, he has to go to Paris and not live in the Middle East.

Well, even in Paris, you’ve got plenty of Arabs.

It’s a joke. Well, anyway, I say that living in the Middle East is living with Arabs.

So, what’s your vision? That we would have the two-state solution with the 1967 borders but the Jews who live in the West Bank can continue to live in the West Bank but under Palestinian rule, as Palestinian citizens.

Yes, with the same and equal rights, not with 16 times more water than the Palestinians, like they have today.

So, the settlements would become joint Arab-Jewish neighbourhoods, for example, under full Palestinian control, something like that?

They would have an option to go back to their homeland, Israel.

And those who want to stay can stay as Palestinian citizens?

With equal rights.

Not as Israeli citizens living in Palestine?

They can have dual nationality, citizenship. You know, I also have French citizenship.

So the same can also apply to Palestinian-Israelis?

Yes, they can have double nationality, and they can move if they want to, but they don’t want to.

But then there are a lot of barriers even to that idea. For example, I’ve met the settlers in Hebron and they refuse the idea of living under Palestinian rule.

They would have a choice. They could go back to the homeland. You know, in 1962, millions of Europeans had to leave Algeria, half a million Israelis can leave the occupied territories. Now, you say a lot of them will not. Okay, they can accept to live in a Palestinian state.

Do you think that the Palestinian state will accept them? That’s another question, because they fear they will be discriminated against or become second-class citizens.

They have to behave nicely so as not to become second-class citizens, and they have to submit themselves to Palestinian authority, to live without problems. Most of them will leave.

I don’t believe any of this will happen but it is the only rational proposition. The future is a state that belongs to all its citizens, like France, like Britain, like the United States.

Speaking of Britain, one idea I’ve had is that, one huge barrier to coexistence is identity, so I thought the way to make a two-people federation work would be to come up with an additional national layer. So you would have an Israeli identity, a Palestinian identity, with the two of them joined together in a supra-identity, if you like, which we could call something like Canaan, or New Canaan.

We can start with the form of Europe. Europe today is a confederation. It will finish up like Switzerland. But it is a process.

But how about using Britain as a model? Britain is a good example. The way four different nations exist together under an umbrella identity called “British”.

First of all, I want to create a real umbrella within Israel itself, the principle being that the state is an Israeli state and not a Jewish state. This is the first step to existing in the Middle East. The second step, as you say, is a process that my children and grandchildren have to build in the future. We have to live in the Middle East with Arabs.

As a historian, I can say that if Israel is not to disappear, it has to become something completely different in the future, a part of the Middle East, a part of the goodness of the Middle East, not of the badness. For the moment, the democratisation in the Middle East is developing according to Islamic beliefs, but it is a democratisation.

In my concept, there is a difference between democratisation and liberalisation. The process we are seeing is democratisation and, unfortunately, not enough liberalisation. I am for a liberal democracy, a social, liberal democracy.

I am also for democratisation. Every time in history that somebody tried to stop democratisation, it created perversion, like in Germany in the 19th century, like in Algeria in the early 1990s. Now, in Egypt, I am for democratisation. I am against the army. The United States is doing everything possible to keep the military in power, and Israel supports it.

When I speak about our world in the Middle East, Egypt can become like Brazil, with Saudi money, oil. Egypt with Saudi could become the Brazil of the Middle East, like Nasser dreamed. But Nasser was afraid of the masses.

Nasser was willing to make peace with Israel, but he was afraid of the reaction on the street.

He was always afraid of the reaction on the street.

That’s why he marched blindly into the 1967 war. He could’ve avoided war…

Exactly. I am very angry at him. Do you know Eric Rouleau? Eric Rouleau was one of the greatest journalists of the Middle East. He wrote for Le Monde. He was a personal friend of Nasser’s, as well as of Mitterand. He became France’s ambassador to Tunisia. He invited me to spend three days at his house. He is writing his memoirs. He read my book and he was fascinated by it. By the way, he’s originally Egyptian, a Jewish-Egyptian. He was very young when he left. He was a communist, like a few others.

He ran away and then became a very important journalist. He told me about the first time he met Nasser. The only thing that made me angry at Eric Rouleau, who is really a great journalist, is that he admired Nasser. I don’t admire him, at all. I think Nasser is one of those responsible for what is happening between Israelis and Palestinians today.

Now, during our discussions, he tried to defend Nasser. We know today that Nasser didn’t want war in 1967. But I judge him as a leader and not by his intentions.

This is what he told me: the first time he met Nasser, Nasser invited him to his house. He knew that Eric Rouleau was Egyptian, and Eric Rouleau asked him, why are you not freeing all the political prisoners. Nasser looked at him and said, at the end of this month, they will all be free. Second question: why don’t you liberate Egypt’s political life, why don’t you allow political parties? Nasser said to him that he would not stay in power for one month if he did that. They continued to be friends till the end.

Eric Rouleau said to me that Nasser was a real head of state. So, I asked him, how about Arafat? He said, no. Arafat is the chief of a tribe, he said. But I don’t agree with this admiration of Nasser.

You see, the 1967 war shows that he was not a real leader… The bankruptcy of Arab nationalism – Ba’athism and Nasserism – is tragic. You see, it’s tragic for the Middle East. That cannot change. I wanted the Middle East to be like South America today.

Speaking of Arab nationalism, you talk about the invention of the Jewish people, but when I was reading your book, I was struck that you could equally write a book called The invention of the Arab people.

Well, there is a book in French called The invention of the Palestinian people.

But I’m talking about the Arab, not the Palestinian people.

I’ll give you an example. They think they are shocking the world by saying this. Yes, I think that the Palestinians were not a real people a hundred years ago. If they had been a real people, then the Zionist colonisation could not have succeeded.

In some ways, the idea of an Arab people is a myth. There is Arab culture, or cultures in plural. There is Arab civilisation. But people started to develop themselves… See, when I say that the Jewish people don’t exist, and I don’t believe that the Jewish people exist, nevertheless, I think that the Israeli-Jewish people exist. They created their own culture, cinema, a language.

The Arab world is in a very tragic situation. On the one hand, there is no one Arab people with the solidarity which you can find among the peoples of Europe. Unfortunately, you don’t have one Arab people, but you also don’t have a real Syrian people, a real Egyptian people. It’s a process. You know, when I look at the demonstrations last year in Tahrir, I saw a lot of Egyptian flags. I saw that, with all the Islamic discourse, they kept the flag, the Egyptian flag. In all the interviews, on the street, there was always a lot of Egyptian national feeling. I am not a specialist, but I felt that it was a kind of national revolution – something that crystallised around the idea of Egypt, this mass movement.

I don’t believe in the concept of the pan-nationalism of my ex-friend Azmi Bishara. It’s a bluff. They have played with it for too long without any power, any power to resist foreign imperialism. Arab nationalism as a force didn’t succeed. It failed. A lot of people now think that the Islamic, the New Muslims will create a kind of anti-imperialism. I don’t believe it will.

Yes, it’s already failed. Some people haven’t noticed yet but it failed a long time ago.

Then, we have to start again from the beginning, on the basis of the Egyptian people.

I’m not a professional historian, but I’m struck by how once fluid ideas of identity have become so rigid and fossilised. For example, it was completely normal, even up to 60 or 70 years ago, for someone to describe themselves as both an Arab and a Jew. Today, you know, that’s complete heresy to say something like that.

One moment, it’s very important what you said because I’m dealing with it now, in my new book. I’m writing about how I stopped being a Jew. The term “Arab Jews”… By the way, I’ve met people that define themselves in this way, a long time ago. Abraham Sarfati, he was an Arab Jew, in some way, a Moroccan Arab Jew. I think that the immigrants who came here were Arab Jews because their language was Arabic.

It’s very interesting, and I’m trying to work on it. You take an immigrant who came from Egypt or came from Morocco or from Iraq to here. His secular, daily culture was Arab. His religious culture was Jewish. It wasn’t like in Eastern Europe where Jews had a daily secular life which was different from their neighbours.

Now, this immigration, this poor immigration which came here, to the Zionist enterprise, they quickly learnt that the very lowest level in society was the Palestinian Arab. So, they tried to separate themselves. In the ‘50s and in the ‘60s, these immigrants, these Jewish Arab immigrants, or Arab Jewish immigrants, tried to hide their Arab daily culture and put forward their Jewish religious culture. Then, Zionism, which is a secular nationalist movement, stopped the secularisation of these immigrants.

The process of secularisation stopped because they wanted to be Jews, and every sign of Jewishness was religious. They didn’t have a Jewish secular culture. An Arab Jewish secular culture did not exist. You know, in Iraq it was different, the intellectuals from the Maghreb went to France and to Canada, only the poor arrived here. They were crushed by the Ashkenazi culture. In Eastern Europe, they had a strong, Yiddish secular culture. Sometimes I use the word Yiddish people, and not Jewish people, because they had a language, a daily culture, they were different to their neighbours, they had theatre, they had literature.

But didn’t the Sephardim have Ladino?

You see, the Ladino phenomenon could have become like Yiddish but it was too sparse. There was no concentration like there was in Eastern Europe. It didn’t become like Yiddish for two reasons. First of all, the Jews in North Africa, who came from Spain, and in Turkey, in the Ottoman Empire, they were very integrated into the local cultures, not like in Eastern Europe. Under Islam, they lived completely differently than in Christendom. This is the reason, for example, that I try to fight against the concept of Judeo-Christianity.

In my first book, there is a sentence which asks why my aunt, when they took her to Auschwitz, didn’t know that she lived in a Judeo-Christian civilisation? Now a lot of French intellectuals of Jewish origin don’t stop talking about Judeo-Christianity. In my new book, I try to explain that the difference between Judaism and Christianity is much greater than the difference between Judaism and Islam. First of all, there is no Son of God, and the problem with the Son of God.  And also, if I look at the history of the Jews under Islam, it wasn’t at all a paradise, but you cannot compare it at all to the experience of Jews in the Christian world.

But Jewish life in Christendom also had its high points, like German Judaism prior to Nazism, American Judaism today.

You are making a mistake.

Is this a mistake?

Yeah, because it wasn’t Judaism. What do you mean by Judaism?

Well, I mean Jews…

They were so integrated that most of them did not consider themselves to be Jews. You know what is the most tragic thing that I read? It was about a comedian and an agent who were arrested in 1936 and sent to the concentration camps. He went to the concentration camp and said I met communists, socialists – the most tragic were the Jews because they did not know why they were in the concentration camp.

Because they believed that they were fully German?

They were. This is your mistake. They were. Who is more German Heinrich Heine or Hitler’s father?

I don’t know Hitler’s father but Heinrich Heine was a great German poet.

Well, you know, Hitler’s father was a petty clerk that spoke the local dialect of his region of Austria. He didn’t know High German, you know Hochdeutsche.

Well, some say that the Jews were really the most German of people because they were raised…

They built the German culture. They were much more in the city… They were not peasants. The concept of the nation, of the German nation, with the language started from… I’m becoming more and more convinced that the Nazi reaction, the antisemitic, Nazi reaction was not against the marginalised, it was the revolt of the marginalised against the centre. Jews were at the centre in terms of their way of life, they were citizens. They were Germans. They spoke German better than Hitler. By the way, they called themselves Israelites, not Jews. They didn’t like the term Jews. Even the religious said they were Israelites, the people of Moses’ religion. They didn’t describe themselves as Jews. Now you want to make them Jews again? After Hitler decided they were Jews?

Most of them, and I’m not speaking about Jews from Eastern Europe, I’m talking about German, French. They didn’t understand what antisemitism was doing with them. Now I respect everyone. If someone says that he is a Jew, I don’t care. Secular Jew, okay. But they don’t give me the right to define myself as a non-Jew.

You mean that people should have the freedom to define themselves the way they wish?

Yes. In reality, I don’t think that I am Jew because I am a non-believer. You know, I am of Jewish origin. This can be important sometimes. The fact that I am writing this book, it means that it was important for me. But, no, my horizon is humanity and my daily life is that of an Israeli – shitty Israeli culture, okay. But it is not Jewish. My grandfather, if he were before me now, he would start to laugh if I said that I was a Jew.

How can someone become a secular Jew? You can become a religious Jew. You can become a Muslim. You can become a member of the Labour party. You can become British. You can become Israeli. How can you become a secular Jew? And then I realised that it was a closed club.

In this age, at the beginning of the 21st century, I decided that I don’t want to belong to a closed club, if I have the choice.

So I can’t become a secular Jew, you mean?

You cannot.

But I could become a religious Jew by converting.

But you can’t become a secular Jew. And I don’t want to belong to a closed club. We suffered – I mean my parents and my grandparents – suffered too much from closed clubs. The Arian club was closed to them. German nationalism was closed. In our past, we suffered too much from closed clubs.

All my life I said that I would continue to be a Jew until the last antisemite was removed from this Earth. Now, I’ve stopped with this. I don’t want to be a Jew.

But others will continue to define you as a Jew.

Well, Hitler defined me as a Jew. That doesn’t mean that he was right. Yes, others will continue. They don’t let me. I cannot change my identity card. They won’t let me change my ID. I want to write Israeli as my nationality. But I have Jewish nationality. This is a good reason not to define myself as a Jew. I see that I am Israeli, a shitty Israeli citizen, a shitty Israeli writer and a shitty Israeli historian.

Speaking of defining a religion as a nationality, there is also a strong parallel between Jewish nationalism and Muslim nationalism in the Indian subcontinent. Pakistan is very similar to Israel.

The nation of Pakistan is built on the principle of religion. Also, in Sri Lanka in some way. Ireland is also somewhat similar. But Ireland had to change its laws to join the EU. Israel cannot join the EU with its laws.

So, the original idea, the old idea of a “Jewish nation”, if I’ve understood it correctly, of “umma”, is similar to the idea of the “Islamic umma”, the idea that all Muslims have a spiritual link to each other.

Yes, yes.

So, in a way, Israel is like the idea of an Islamic caliphate.

[Laughs] Yeah, yes, in some way. Yes, because the word “umma” means the Islamic “umma”. They took this word to replace the word “nation”.

You talk about reinventing identities. Well, there was a time when Palestinian equally meant a Jew. Now it’s exclusive only to Christians and Muslims.

By the way, Golda Meir, at the beginning of the ‘70s when the word “Palestinian people” started to be popular, she was astonished. She said, “I’m a Palestinian.” She had a Palestinian passport issued by the British mandate authorities.

And you also said in your book, if I recall correctly, that the Zionist movement managed to create this creative, convincing identity in order to build a nation, so why not reinvent it. But can that equally be said for the Arab side, for the Palestinians, that the way to move forward is to try to creatively reinvent identities to make them more inclusive of each other?

You see, I hope, you know, the past 40 or 50 years, the idea of the Palestinian people was crystallised. I don’t believe that the Palestinian people existed 100 years ago. For example, the culture and identity of the Arabs of the Galilee was much nearer to the Lebanese.

Now, to create nations, you have to be an engineer in some way. All nations are a creation. My formula is, to create a nation, you need to invent people into the past. In order to create a future nation, you invent a story, you know, a mythological history. The Palestinians needed one too. You know a lot of Palestinians believe that they are the descendants of the Canaanites.

Some of them might be.

In my book, I say that most of them were Canaanites who became Jews and the later they became Muslims. This applies to part of them, some of them, because this is a part of the world where everybody moves. But to create nations, to crystallise a nation, you need myths. The idea that a people existed for 2,000 years is a myth.

I had a discussion with a Palestinian painter at the Bozar who tried to convince me that they are the real Canaanites. No, this is a myth. The concept of people is modern. You can imagine that a thousand years ago an agrarian society with a very low level of communication, without newspapers, without books, without schools, without TV, without the internet. You can imagine a village of your great, great, great, great grandparents, they knew that they belonged to the village.

A thousand years ago, every valley, every mountain had a different dialect. To speak about peoples in the modern sense of the word is unbelievable. When they speak about the Jewish people 2,000 years ago, you see they didn’t have a single language. In the capital of the kingdom, they spoke differently than in the villages. The vocabulary of a peasant was so poor – he didn’t need a broad vocabulary. Can you imagine speaking about a people without schools?

In your book and at the beginning of our conversation, you talked about, before we started recording, you talked about Mahmoud Darwish. You’ve met him a number of times and you were friends, right?

We were very young. He wrote a poem about me.

Yes, about an Israeli soldier who felt remorse.

I have here Majda al-Rumi singing this song about the soldier in front of Mubarak and all your generals. She sings it without mentioning it’s about an Israeli soldier.

Well, that brings me to an interesting point. You describe, after the war of ’67, the drunken night you had with him.

You remember that I mention he drank alcohol. You know that the Arabic translator, he took out the alcohol. But I said, sorry. He said, but it’s not important, we don’t need to mention the alcohol.

It’s absolutely important, I think. It shows that culture…

Yes, I insisted that they publish the story of the alcohol.

Well, in the Arab world, for decades, you’ve had the idea of a cultural boycott of Israel. Now they’re taking that even further by trying to get the West on board. But then you have someone like Mahmoud Darwish, the national poet of the Palestinian people, had contacts with Israelis, with Israeli Jews, and had friends who were Israeli Jews. And yet many activists today think that’s a big no-no, a taboo.

Elias Khoury was attacked because he wrote nice things about me. Then, he wrote again, saying you attacked because I am a friend of Shlomo Sand, but he’s a friend of Mahmoud Darwish. He used this against his critics. “I am a friend of a friend of Mahmoud Darwish and you are against it?” he asked.

I don’t want to comment because I don’t want to insult Palestinians, but you know, the victims are not always clever.

So, you think that the cultural boycott is not productive?

Not completely.

 So, you think it should be targeted and not a blanket one?

They will not invite me to Ramallah because I teach at Tel Aviv university.

Even though you wrote a book that was translated in Ramallah and is popular among Arab readers.

Now, any pressure that is not terror is welcome. But be careful. You have started to boycott the most liberal segment of the Israeli political culture. It’s a very, very closed-minded tactic. Do you agree?

Well, I’m in your office, after all. The way I see it is that there can be no just resolution to the Palestinian cause without a strong Israeli involvement.

 

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Can Hizbullah reinvent itself?

 
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By Amira Mohsen Galal

As Hizbullah sides with its brutal backers in Damascus, are the Shi’ite movement’s days numbered or can it regain its popularity and credibility?

Monday 27 February 2012

Photo: ©K. Maes

Many of the idealistic, youth-driven uprisings in the Arab world have been manipulated to serve a much bigger regional game, pitting revolutionary against counter-revolutionary forces, not to mention in-fighting between revolutionaries, with international powers vying to maintain or enhance their influence in the region.

The age-old rivalry between Russia and the West is being played out in the Middle East, pitting the largely Sunni Muslim Arab states against Russia’s satellite in the region, Iran. An important player bridging the gap between Shi’ite Iran and the Arab Sunnis is Lebanon’s Shi’ite resistance movement Hizbullah.

Hizbullah has enjoyed enormous popularity across the entire region, where it is perceived by many as the champion of the Arab cause, successfully standing up to the bully in the playground, Israel. There was a time when the portrait of Hassan Nasrallah hung on the walls of homes and cafes from Baghdad to Casablanca. Yet, following the relatively cool reception of Nasrallah’s speech on 16 February , one got the distinct impression that the Lebanese resistance leader may not enjoy the same popularity he once did with the Arab masses.

A simple explanation might be Hizbullah’s unequivocal support for Bashar el-Assad’s regime in Syria.  In a speech broadcast by al-Manar on 25 May 2011, Nasrallah declared his group’s strong support for the Assad regime. He hailed Syria for its support of the resistance movement in Lebanon and Palestine. Many have been unable to comprehend why the former champions of the resistance would side with the regime against the people, especially considering their unreserved support for the uprisings in Egypt, Tunisia and Bahrain. This has eroded the party’s popularity not only among Sunnis in Syria, who dominate the opposition, but also in the Arab world at large as regional tensions intensify between Shi’ite Iran and the predominantly Sunni Arab states.

Ironically, the very cause which won Hizbullah respect from thousands across the region also lost them the support of their own people. Throughout the 1990s, the Lebanese, regardless of sect, were united behind Hizbullah’s resistance to the Israeli occupation of South Lebanon and again, in 2006, when Israel threatened re-invasion. Critics point to Hizbullah’s reluctance to disarm as the main source of national instability. Samir Geagea, a veteran Lebanese politician and senior figure in the 14 March Alliance, asserted that: “The ones who are involving Lebanon [in crises] are those wielding power outside the Lebanese state,” demanding that Hizbullah lay down its arms and integrate itself with the official Lebanese army and government.

In a similar vein, Hizbullah has alienated many followers by becoming embroiled in a petty tit-for-tat exchange with the 14 March coalition over the Special Tribunal for Lebanon, which was charged with investigating the 2005 assassination of former Prime Minister Rafiq el-Hariri.  In the past, many, regardless of their politics, had respected Nasrallah for his commitment to his cause and ability to avoid entanglement in party politics.

Though not Hizbullah’s fault, as such, the persisting devastation of the socio-economic condition and  infrastructure of South Lebanon has also served as a harsh reminder, to the organisation’s critics, of the consequences of war.

In The Asia Times, Sami Moubayed, describes Hassan Nasrallah’s total withdrawal from public life in Lebanon in recent years, choosing, instead, to address his supporters on live television rather than the massive public rallies for which he has been famed. His disappearance has been due to security fears. However, this has made it difficult for followers to connect with him. It is also now harder to draw in new supporters from across the Arab and Islamic worlds.

Despite its somewhat dented popularity, Hizbullah is still massively important on a strategic level.

In a speech broadcast by al-Manar on the 25 August 2011, Nasrallah named Syria as a vital ally in the region. “Syrian support has been crucial. A great deal of the Iranian support comes through Syria. If it had not been for the will of Syria, even the Iranian support would have been blocked,” he claimed.  So, it is reasonable to assume that the fall of the Assad regime would serve as a tremendous blow to Hizbullah, and would also act as the catalyst for a power struggle within the country. A regime in Syria based on the Sunni Muslim majority would most likely be friendly to Hizbullah’s local rivals in the 14 March coalition. Such a regime would likely also develop good ties with regional powers opposed to the Hizbullah movement over sectarian and political issues.

A post-Assad Syria may prompt Hizbullah, in order to ensure its political survival, to integrate fully into the Lebanese politics and military. Since its inception, Hizbullah has proven itself to be a resilient, relevant, military and political force within Lebanon as well as across the Middle East. The organisation has already undergone many changes, but can it continue to transform itself and achieve success in being perceived as a legitimate political actor participating in Lebanese government?

Political integration is problematic for Hizbullah, since it must balance its need to be a legitimate actor within Lebanon’s political system with its continued insistence on ‘resistance’ to Israel, despite Israel’s withdrawal and the growing domestic opposition to the movement’s confrontationalism. In addition, Hizbullah must contend with the question of whether greater integration into the Lebanese political landscape will advance or set back its ability to represent the interests of the politically and economically marginalised  Shi’ite community. Though difficult, achieving a balance of these various interests is not impossible, although Hizbullah may have to update its stance on various issues if it is to succeed.

Hizbullah finds itself in the unenviable position of choosing between its Iranian financial backer and its Arab popular support base. The Shi’ite movement may need to tone down its fiery rhetoric and work harder at integrating itself further into Lebanese mainstream politics without becoming enmeshed in petty disputes and factionalism. This is by no means an easy task, but it is one that Hizbullah will have to rise to if it is to maintain its significance and standing.

 

This article is published here with the author’s consent.

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Peace in New Canaan

 
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By Khaled Diab

As Israeli-Palestinian peace talks fail again, it is time to build a New Canaan of diversity, tolerance and peace based on reimagined identities.

Monday 30 January 2012

The resumption of direct Israeli-Palestinian negotiations in Jordan this month has resulted in deadlock and mutual recriminations over the issues of borders and security. Meanwhile, Palestinian youth activists have held numerous small demonstrations to protest against the talks in the absence of a settlement freeze and a clear vision of the future borders of an independent Palestinian state.

In a way, there is really little left to negotiate over. This was depressingly highlighted in the latest Peace Now report which said that the unprecedented rate of settlement construction threatened to torpedo the two-state solution. Personally, I think Israel blew that option out of the water some years ago.

Simply put, the scraps of land left over in the West Bank cannot be meaningfully weaved together to form the fabric of a feasible Palestinian state, while Gaza floats like a lone and isolated meteoroid in the Israeli cosmos.

Moreover, for Israel, evacuating the half million settlers in the West Bank and East Jerusalem to make way for a viable Palestine not only runs the risk of precipitating severe internal divisions and even conflict, it would also carry a substantial economic price tag.

Although the settlements are largely built on seized land, Israel has nevertheless invested, according to a comprehensive 2010 study, an estimated $17 billion in building homes and infrastructure in the West Bank, while the market value of these properties is probably several factors higher. That’s not to mention the enormous material and human cost of the 1967 war and the subsequent occupation.

The Palestinians, who have seen much of their homeland vanish to make way for Israel, feel that they have compromised enough by accepting a state on a fifth of historic Palestine and are in no mood to settle for less, even if Israel petrifies their dreams in concrete. In a last desperate bid to arrest this state of decline, the Palestinians have gone to the UN to seek symbolic statehood first.

But concrete walls and paper states are not the answer and will not resolve this longstanding conflict. A far better solution would be for Israelis and Palestinians to accept that they are stuck together on this increasingly indivisible land and to find creative ways to coexist peacefully and justly.

Instead of this generations-old and outdated nationalist fixation on ethnicity and the romanticisation land, it is time for both sides to shift their attention away from the soil and towards the people living on it, to create a society of equal citizens, regardless of whether they identify themselves as Israeli or Palestinian, or as Jew, Muslim, Christian or atheist.

For this to work requires the creative re-imagining of the current ethnocentric nationalism, and to remould it along egalitarian civic lines. An important psychological hurdle would be to end the negationist tendency on both sides, which only serves, whether wittingly or unwittingly, to delegitimise the claim of one side or the other to live on this land and, hence, breeds immense distrust.

Israelis, especially the right wing, need to accept that a Palestinian people exist and stop dismissing them as Arab newcomers, invaders and usurpers. In my view, describing the Arabic-speaking population as Palestinian is more accurate than saying they are Arab. The only true Arabs are the inhabitants of Arabia, while the rest of what we refer to today as Arabs are a diverse spectrum of Arabised peoples whose only universal denominator is that they speak Arabic, although most share numerous common cultural and religious features.

In fact, the idea of a unified “Arab people” as imagined by pan-Arab nationalism is every bit as invented and constructed as the idea of a “Jewish people”, as if sharing a common language, in the former, and a common religion, in the latter, somehow automatically instils its members with a unique essence.

Similarly, Palestinians, particularly the Islamists, need to accept that an Israeli people exist and that they are not merely European colonists. Even though Zionism was born in Europe as an ideology, today’s Israeli Jewish population is a diverse mix of Jews from Europe, the Middle East, Africa and Asia – and this melting pot forged a distinctive Israeli identity which is neither here nor there.

Moreover, even though a lot of Israel’s behaviour is colonial in nature and the Zionist project involved the dispossession of an enormous number of people, Zionism was also a liberation movement for the Jews, who have suffered, despite a number of “golden ages”, marginalisation, discrimination and periodic persecution for centuries, with the worst example being the Holocaust.

Once the two sides have accepted each other, the next step is to create a hybrid cultural and national identity that is more inclusive of the other. This does not mean that Israelis and Palestinians need to abandon their respective identities. Instead, they should create a new, unifying meta-identity.

In this, both Israelis and Palestinians can build on their cultural tradition of diversity to expand their respective identities to encompass the other side.  In addition to a core that has remained on this land since the times of ancient Canaan, the modern Palestinian population is a melting pot of peoples from across the Middle East, Europe and even sub-Saharan Africa, as reflected in many place names, such as the Armenian quarter, and family names, such as al-Masry (the Egyptian). This malleable identity once also included the Jews of Palestine.

Likewise, the modern Israeli identity not only managed to assimilate diverse Jewish populations from around the world, it has also, albeit uncomfortably, managed to integrate the Palestinian population that remained within Israel after 1948. These Palestinian-Israelis offer a possible, yet incomplete, blueprint for deeper future symbiosis, as does the complex identity of Mizrahi and Sephardi Jews, who, though their heritage is both Jewish and Arab, have thus far not managed to bridge the contemporary chasm separating the two.

Politically, this supra-identity can be expressed in the creation of an umbrella state which I propose to call New Canaan, since Canaan is the original name of this land, and the identity of the original Canaanites is shrouded in mystery. I add the prefix “New” both because this union will be future-looking and because it will work to overcome the petty tribal and religious divisions, rivalries and conflicts that have marked this land since antiquity.

Within this federated state, where freedom of movement and equality will be guaranteed for all, cultural and social issues can be the preserve of Israeli and Palestinian community governments, while common issues relating to the economy, defence, foreign policy and the protection of fundamental rights can be handled by a joint bi-national parliament.

And to reach this secular “promised land” requires peace-seekers on both sides to embark on an exodus away from the captivity of their past towards the freedom of the future. It’s high time for Israeli and Palestinian doves of a feather to flock together against the hawks.

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Secular Egypt: dream or delusion?

 
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By Khaled Diab

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

Thursday 15 December 2011

The roller-coaster sensation of elation followed by deflation which I and millions of others felt in the early weeks of the revolution has been back recently. Dozens of protesters killed and hundreds injured – anger and depression. Activists defiantly risk life and limb to launch part two of the revolution and demand the army returns to the barracks – admiration mixed with pride.

Generals ignore their demands and go ahead with faulty parliamentary elections – bitter disappointment. Millions turn out and queue for hours (miraculously for Egypt, in orderly lines) to make their vote count – delight. Islamists make the biggest gains in the first round – concern mixed with a little fright.

For those of a progressive and secular disposition, the preliminary results of the first phase of Egypt’s first post-revolution parliamentary elections make for sobering reading. The Muslim Brotherhood-dominated Freedom and Justice party (FJP) list is unsurprisingly in pole position, with some 36% of the vote.

Al-Nour (The Light), the coalition of Salafist parties, emerged, almost out of the blue, to eclipse partially the dawn of Egyptian democracy by garnering an impressive quarter of the first phase vote, almost double what the secular leftist Egyptian Bloc – a major force in the revolution which was expected to come second – managed to salvage from their electoral train wreck.

Despite its bright name, if al-Nour ever has its way completely, Egypt would be run according to its ultra-conservative interpretation of shari’a, albeit in a “gradual way that suits the nature of society”, because, in their fundamentalist view, Islam cannot be separated from the state and secularism is tantamount to atheism (a common misconception among Egyptians).

The unexpectedly strong performance of the Salafists and poor showing of the secularists has been the subject of frenzied and worried debate in liberal and progressive Egyptian circles, including among my friends and acquaintances. Overseas, the early fears that Egypt would become the next Iran have been reawakened, and some Western friends who have been terrified by the prospect of an Islamist takeover of Egypt have been wagging an “I told you so” finger at my alleged naivety.

But is there cause for panic?

Of course, the Salafist vision for Egypt is not only terrifying to “godless” secularists, socialists and liberals but many aspects of it trouble pious Egyptians, even many of those who voted for the parties.

And sadly Salafism has regressed a long way from its original proponents. In the 19th century, “Salafis” were at the forefront of Egypt’s modernising drive and revival, which has come to be known as the “Egyptian Renaissance”. Muhammad Abdu, a reformist Azharite cleric, for example, once famously summed up his thought by saying: “I went to the West and saw Islam, but no Muslims. I returned to the East and saw Muslims, but no Islam.”

In his and other early reformers’ worldview, the West had successfully captured the ingredients of early Islamic greatness, and the only way for Islam to catch up and match this was to return to the spirit of the “Salaf”, the early generations of Muslims who innovatively and creatively interpreted their faith to suit the spirit of the times.

Inspired by the reactionary Ahmad ibn Hanbal, who believed that the graves of even pious “innovators” within religion was a “barren pit”, and spearheaded by such figures as Sayyid Qutb, the spiritual father of modern, radical Islamism, the contemporary brand of Salafism became not only hostile to the West but also to its values. In order to counteract Western hegemony, Salafists believe, Muslims must reject the West and live as the early Muslims did. This idealised view of the past has led many Islamists to interpret their religion rigidly and literally, at least the parts of it that suit them, and to get caught up in the minutiae of how the prophet walked, talked and even urinated.

An example of this is their fossilised attitude towards tourism. Although al-Nour’s economic platform has focused on reforming the banking sector along Islamic lines by outlawing interest (something that is bound to be popular among borrowers), it has steered cleverly away from delving too deeply into its position on tourism as being “un-Islamic”.

Salafists are well-known for their opposition to tourism for its “immorality” and “decadence” and many leading Salafi preachers call for it to be banned, while the violent extremists of the 1990s specifically targeted tourists, not only to undermine the government but also as a reflection of their rejection of the industry. One wacky manifestation of this opposition is the bizarre call by al-Da’awa al-Salafiyya (which founded al-Nour) to cover all Egypt’s ancient statues in wax veils.

But this kind of idol gesture is unlikely to go down well, since millions of Egyptians depend on tourism for their economic well-being and millions more are proud that their country – “the mother of the world”, as they call it – is the subject of such international fascination and reverence, and they love to say “Welcome” to foreigners.

But do the gains made by Salafists and the more moderate Muslim Brotherhood indicate that Egypt is on the slippery slope to theocracy or can it still build a democracy, albeit one with a pronounced Islamic flavour?

Although this result would suggest Egypt is far from the secular, progressive society I and like-minded Egyptians dream of seeing emerge, it is far from being the unmitigated disaster that doomsayers have been warning about.

For a start, the fear that the Islamists will form some kind of unified bloc in parliament is possible but appears unlikely at this juncture. After all, the Brotherhood and the Salafists, though their worldviews may overlap on numerous issues, are bitter rivals and the al-Nour party was formed by a breakaway faction from the FJP alliance that was unhappy with the moderate, pluralist line the FJP was towing.

Moreover, the FJP did not actually collect 36% of the vote – it was the entire Democratic Alliance of 11 parties, mostly secular ones. As the dominant member, the FJP is estimated to account for some 60-70%, which means that it captured between 22% and 25% of the vote.

On the bright side, this means that, combined, the Islamist vote accounts for half the total and the secularist for the other half. On the downside, it means that the relatively moderate Muslim Brotherhood and the extremist Salafists are neck and neck.

In addition, there is a good chance that the FJP will do more than pay lip service to its expressed commitment to secularism and pluralism in order to avoid spooking SCAF and the West and to avoid a replay of what occurred in Algeria. And after 90 years of oppression and inhabiting the political wilderness, the Muslim Brotherhood finally wants a shot at some form of direct power.

And perhaps after all these decades, it’s time they actually got an official stake in running the country, partly because this is only fair, and partly because allowing the movement to join the mainstream in earnest would finally rob them of the luxury of criticising loudly from the sidelines without actually having any of their ideas and contradictions put to the test. In parliament, the electorate can judge them on their actual performance and not just their sloganeering and grandstanding. Then voters can truly learn whether Islam, at least the version of it they preach, is the solution or part of the problem.

Perhaps one reason behind al-Nour’s unexpected success actually has little to do with religion, but is related to the far more mundane and worldly reality of economic inequality. With the revolutionaries focusing all their efforts on what might seem to the average Egyptian like abstract issues of political reform and the liberal parties, particularly the neo-liberal FJP, refusing to countenance the idea of radical income redistribution, al-Nour’s calls for a “fair and equal distribution” of not only income but wealth is bound to appeal to Egypt’s oppressed and downtrodden masses, many of whom are forced to live on less than $2 a day.  And so the unexpected success of the Salafists may actually be more of a protest vote against the other parties than a vote of confidence in al-Nour.

Some months ago, I cautioned that the revolution and the interim regime ignored or downplayed the economic aspect of the uprising, what I called the revolution’s bottom line, at their peril. “You can have all the democracy and personal freedoms in the world, but without addressing the bread and butter issues of poverty and economic injustice, reform will be incomplete and hollow,” I wrote.

Given Egypt’s pressing practical socio-economic issues, we may actually find that the first parliament is not preoccupied with identity politics but rather with more urgent bread-and-butter issues (at least, any sensible parliament should be). This may, paradoxically, lead to some weird alliances of convenience forming not around cultural or identity issues but around economic outlook. So, just as the Muslim Brotherhood has allied itself to al-Ghad partly based of the similarity in their economic outlook, so too might al-Nour, if it is sincere about its economic programme, find itself in an uncomfortable partnership with secular leftists, at least on issues of economic justice.

But there is another bottom line that we have not yet explored. Will the new parliament have real legislative teeth, will it manage to challenge the “pharonic” powers of the eventual president, or will it be yet another rubberstamp assembly? There is a widespread fear among activists and revolutionaries that SCAF has no intention of ceding (at least ultimate) power to the people. Even if the army does ostensibly return to the barracks, there is the real and present danger that they will form a shadow government there that will exercise an ultimate veto over the civilian government.

And SCAF’s behaviour has done little to allay these concerns. Not only has it said that it will have final say over the country’s new constitution, it has also indicated that the new parliament will have no oversight over the military’s budget.

It also seems that the generals are unimaginatively following the well-trodden path of Egyptian leaders over the past three decades and playing with Islamists fire. It is true that the Islamists undoubtedly hold appeal to certain segments of the population and the nascent revolutionary groups’ failure to score significant electoral success so far is partly due to their disorganisation and disarray.

Nevertheless, all indications reveal that the dice were loaded in favour of the Islamists, as part of what appears to be a counterrevolution. Not only did the country’s provisional constitution make it difficult to form parties, which handicapped the secular activist who launched the revolution, the rule that bans the formation of religious parties does not seem to have been applied to the salafists for some mysterious reason.

In addition, the SCAF’s policy of obfuscation and delay since the revolution erupted harmed the electoral chances of the revolutionaries because it enabled the regime and the Muslim Brotherhood to convince quite a number of Egyptians that the resulting instability was the fault of the activists and not the old guard. Had the army handed over power immediately to an interim “Council of the Wise” and had genuine elections been held during the early period of euphoria following Mubarak’s downfall, then the courageous and visionary revolutionary youth could well have led the political pack in Egypt’s parliament, rather than being left with almost nothing.

But why would the SCAF form an unholy alliance with the Islamists? For a number of reasons. Pragmatically, the generals realised that the Brotherhood, particularly its old and conservative leadership, was the lesser of two evils. The revolutionaries want complete regime change. In contrast, the Brotherhood – whose current leadership has been saying for years that good Muslims are obliged to obey their leaders even if they are tyrants – is willing to compromise and live with a power-sharing arrangement.

Additionally, there is an element of intergenerational conflict: the young revolutionaries, including the younger members of the Brotherhood itself, appeared to be a common enemy both to the ageing generals and the ageing Islamists at the top of the movement. And with the Brotherhood’s commitment to free market economics and its reassurances that it would not rock the boat with Egypt’s allies, the FJP must seem like the best guarantor of the elusive “stability” Washington so covets.

And like Mubarak before them, Field Marshall Tantawi and his inner circle may be trying to put the fear of God, so to speak, into the hearts of Egyptian secularists and the Western powers alike – perhaps as a prelude to freezing, rolling back or delaying further reforms.

When all is said done, this is still only the first phase of the elections, and the staggered nature of the vote may actually work in favour of the secularists, whose poor showing so far may prod them to redouble their efforts to win over voters in the rest of the country. It may also focus the minds of voters and prompt them to deny the Islamists, particularly the salafists, further significant gains. At the very least, it might encourage more Egyptians to vote for the FJP as the only realistic bulwark against al-Nour.

That said, what effect would an Islamist-dominated parliament have on vulnerable groups, including women, Christians and other minorities, such as Baha’is, atheists and simply those with alternative interpretations of their faith?

Well, at a certain level, the Islamisation of Egypt culturally and socially has been taking place for decades. When the 1952 revolution failed to deliver on its promise of granting Egyptians their full political and social freedom, and Gamal Abdel-Nasser mercilessly stamped out both secular and Islamist opposition to his rule, the discrediting of secularism began in earnest. The crushing defeat of 1967, and the accompanying destruction of the pan-Arabist dream, dealt a decisive blow to secularism and empowered the Islamists.

Then, in the 1970s, Anwar al-Sadat openly and cynically (though, of course, he had once been a member of the Muslim Brotherhood in his youth) began embracing the conservative Islamic current to counterbalance the fierce secular opposition he was facing, which he crushed ruthlessly, and when the inevitable blowback came, it was too late for him to turn back the tide.

His successor, Hosni Mubarak, tried to play both sides off against each other in a classic example of divide and rule. Under Mubarak’s leadership, the regime tried both to portray itself as the guarantor of secular freedoms and the defender of Islamic decency. Meanwhile, the sectarian tensions this awoke were ignored and swept under the carpet because it went against the prevalent discourse of national unity, until the ugly monster of sectarianism had grown to unmanageable proportions.

So, even without Islamist domination of the next parliament, it will take years of effort, dialogue, education and trust building to slay the dragon of sectarianism and rebuild the confidence of Christians that they are full and equal citizens of the country. Of course, an Islamist victory could well delay or set back such a process.

Likewise, the Islamists have succeeded in setting in motion a counter-feminist revolution which has reversed or frozen many of the gains made by women in their struggle for equality. And, paradoxically, as more and more women go out into the workplace and public sphere, they must do so heavily cloaked in piety and “decency” and, hence, not as equals to men. So, as misogyny is not limited to Islamists in Egypt and the sex divide has reached an unsustainable level, it is unclear whether matters will actually get worse for women.

Liberal, pluralist secularism also became contaminated through its association with the exercise of Western hegemony in the region, which was often conducted cynically under the banner of spreading “freedom” and “democracy”.

The upshot of all this is that, without being in power, Islamists have exercised a powerful and stifling influence on Egyptian society for years, as reflected in the growing pre-eminence of the conservative religious dress and the hounding and persecution of those who criticise religion. Whereas in the 1950s-1970s, many intellectuals in Egypt and other secular republics, despite the (more tolerant) piety of the general population, held proudly sceptical and even hostile views of religion and were openly atheistic. Today, even mild criticism of religion can land you in hot water.

This has resulted in the growing marginalisation and ostracisation of Egyptians who do not fit the mainstream Islamic mould, whether they be secularists, Christians, Baha’is or non-believers, a minority that might outnumber Christians if Egypt did not turn an official blind eye to atheists and agnosts and if people were allowed to be fully open about their beliefs, some suggest.

However, that is not the entire story. The Egyptian revolution has revealed a trend that has been going on under the radar for years. Millions of Egyptians who hold a wide spectrum of socially and politically liberal and progressive views have come out into the open, while Egypt’s tattered and bedraggled secular forces are regrouping, discovering a new sense of confidence and assertiveness which they will not cede easily to the righteous bullying of the Islamists and other religious conservatives. In addition, mainstream Islamists have been undergoing a process which I call “secularism in a veil“.

This means that, rather than a theocratic Egypt, what we might well see emerge is a battle between two increasingly polarised trends: the reactionary religious and pluralistically secular. Moreover, as Islamism is truly put to the test, we may look back in the future on this period as the “high point” of the Islamist political movement, as the electorate quickly grows disillusioned when its vision too fails to deliver improvements and results.

Egypt’s first democratic parliamentary elections since the 1952 revolution – faulty as they were – began on 28 November, our son’s second birthday. This led me to wonder whether the process this will unleash will be one that will create a new Egypt that will make him proud or ashamed of his Egyptian half. A truly democratic, free, tolerant and pluralistic Egypt – even if it is achieved politically – will probably take generations to implement socially, and will depend on decent education and economic prospects for all.

Here’s to hoping that our children and grandchildren will inherit an Egypt that they can live in and have a stake in.

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Islamist-driven democracy is not a snowball in hell

 
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By Osama Diab 

Islamists are not all Osama bin Laden and secularists are not all Atatürk . They can work together to achieve democracy.

Friday 28 October 2011

After the announcement of Libya’s transitional leader Mustafa Abdul Jalil that the country will be embracing Islamic law and the victory of the moderate Islamist an-Nahda party in the Tunisian parliamentary elections and the expectation of a similar result next month in Egypt’s parliamentary elections, secularists not just need to accept the fact that Islamists will be part of the region’s political future, they actually might be at the forefront of shaping it.

Secularists should not panic though, as being at the political forefront during this difficult transition to democracy might be more of a curse than a blessing. Likewise, to make up for their lack of experience in handling such historical responsibilities, Islamists should start learning a lesson or two from recent events in the region and also lessons from the broader historical context. There are many facts that – if realised – could actually turn Islamists from a feared group of religious fanatics into a force pushing for more civil liberties.

Firstly, the realisation that the current political demographics that seem to be on their side are not eternal. The number of political parties and ideologies that once seemed invincible and now only exist in history books are numerous. Nazism, Fascism, Communism and even regional political movements like Arab Nationalism, were all once sweeping ideologies in certain historical and regional contexts. The systematic mistreatment of citizens, human rights violations and restriction on freedoms is what accelerated the demise of these ideologies.

If Islamists don’t push for more civil rights, their power might be unsustainable and short-lived. The revolutions across the Arab world were not for or against specific ideologies; they were rebellions against abuse, corruption and dictatorship.

Islamists should not be deceived by the support of their core ideological followers. This support is not necessarily unconditional. For example, even though Egypt’s Hosni Mubarak imposed a relatively secular regime and fought a fierce battle with Islamist groups, that didn’t stop millions of pro-democracy secularists from revolting against him. Similarly, former Tunisian president Zien el-Abidine Ben Ali also presented himself as the last defence line against fanatical Islamists, yet hundreds of thousands of Tunisian secularists preferred the risk of ending up with an elected Islamist regime to Ben Ali’s secular dictatorship.

Even within the realm of Islamism, many young Muslim Brotherhood members have rebelled against their old guard and conservative leaders, and decided to join and form other – often secular – parties.

Ruling by Islam is not the ultimate protection either. The Ottoman Empire, which was the Caliphate of Islam and stretched over three continents and more than 15 countries until the early 20th century, was dismantled by the progressive Young Turks laying the foundation for what had later become the secular Republic of Turkey.

This year’s uprisings against some of the cruellest military dictatorships in the region show that no regime, regardless of its material strength, is immune to popular revolts. Amidst this appetite for protest and political activity, it will be increasingly hard for any group, including Islamists, to practise absolute power and disregard the needs of the majority and the rights of the minorities.

Unlike many other secularists, I wouldn’t be quick to announce the clinical death of democracy before it is even born just because a religious conservative party, which has even expressed its commitment to secular democracy, has won a 40% relative majority in the Tunisian parliament. Islamism is an umbrella term that covers a wide variety of thought. Self-described Islamists include many highly educated academics, and widely disagree over fundamental issues even among themselves. The portrayal of an Islamist as a one-dimensional evil fanatic inspired by the Taliban is just a simplistic, lazy and inaccurate view.

Islamists are not all Osama bin Laden, and sharing some of the legislative power with them doesn’t necessarily put democracy at risk if they learn to understand the rules of the democratic game. Secularists need to be there fighting against and with Islamists to achieve democracy in the next parliamentary and presidential elections, and Islamists need to understand that a secular government and institutions that respect human rights regardless of religion, gender, political affiliation, etc. is the only guarantee for the stability and sustainability of the political process as a whole and a safeguard for Islamists as an integral part of this process.

The moderate and progressive views of some Islamists was the reason why Karim Medhat Ennarah, a devoted, left-wing human rights activist, decided to support the former senior Brotherhood member Abdelmoniem Aboul Fotouh: “I have always had a lot of respect for Aboul Fotouh, despite my disagreements with the Muslim Brotherhood. He’s had a reputable career as an opposition figure, most notably his work with the Arab Doctors Federation and his efforts to break the siege on Gaza.”

Ennarah beleivesAboul Fotouh has expressed progressive views on issues relating to personal and religious liberties and is more proactive on the ground and among the people than Mohamed Elbaradei, a liberal opposition leader and a potential presidential candidate whom Ennarah previously supported.

I have vowed to never resist democratic change just because ‘I’ think its outcome might be unfavourable. This is not at all a call for secularists to raise the white flag without a fight. An Islamist victory in next month’s Egyptian elections is not yet a foregone conclusion. Secularists should fight the parliamentary battle fiercely, yet peacefully and gracefully, and act as a lobbying power for more democratic gains in the future even if parliament does become dominated by Islamists.
“I don’t know if Islamists can be a threat to pluralism if they were in power. There are so many uncertainties surrounding them,” says Ennarah. “But I do know, however, that wholesale exclusion of a political group that has the support of a significant percentage of the population is a much more tangible threat to pluralism.”

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A drinker’s guide to Islam

 
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By Khaled Diab

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

Tuesday 12 October 2011

Photo: © Khaled Diab

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

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

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

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

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

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

Taybeh by night. Photo: ©Khaled Diab

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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9/12: Turning over a new leaf in the Middle East

 
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By Khaled Diab

On the 10th anniversary of the day after 9/11, it is high time to trash the ‘clash of civilisations’ theory and the ‘war on terror’ and start a new chapter in the West’s relationship with the new Middle East.

Monday 12 September 2011

Most people recall vividly where they were on 11 September 2001, when four passenger jets were hijacked and used as highly effective targeted missiles, bringing down the World Trade Centre’s ‘twin towers’ in New York and damaging the Pentagon in Washington. In all, nearly 3,000 people were killed, making this the most devastating terrorist attack ever on American soil.

Sadly, the massive outpouring of global sympathy, support and solidarity – with people around the world saying “We are all Americans now” – was to prove short-lived, especially in Arab and Muslim countries, as the Bush administration and its neo-conservative allies hijacked this monumental tragedy to serve their own narrow interests.

After apparently taking a break for over a decade, following Francis Fukuyama’s confident assertion that history had ended with the collapse of communism in 1989, history re-awoke on 9/12, to an apparently monumental ‘clash of civilisations’ – despite the abundant evidence that most clashes are those of interests and that ‘civilisations’ more often clash within their civilisational group than outside it – which pitted the enlightened West against the benighted forces of Islam(ism).

Equipped with a brand new enemy to replace the ‘reds under the bed’, Washington declared its ‘war on terror’ to hunt down those baddie Jihadis and launched a raft of initiatives to civilise the Muslim world.

Providing strong evidence of where the administration’s actual priorities lay, hours after the attacks, then Defence Secretary Donald Rumsfeld was already going out of his way to link the atrocity to Iraq, despite the secular nature of Baghdad’s Ba’ath regime and the mutual hatred between Saddam Hussein and Osama Bin Laden.

Washington’s democratising and civilising mission focused mainly on invading and bombing to smithereens two countries: first Afghanistan (in October 2001) and then Iraq (in March 2003), not to mention the more recent involvement in Pakistan.

Despite at least a quarter of a million deaths and up to $4 trillion in costs to the US tax payer,  the decade-old war on terror has resulted in little but death, destruction and destitution, particularly in Iraq which was once one of the most developed and prosperous countries in the Middle East.

The true gains for freedom and democracy in the Middle East have been delivered – as critics of the War on Terror have long been arguing – by the peoples concerned themselves, as demonstrated by the ongoing Arab Spring or Arab Awakening.

In fact, the Arab revolutions undermine many of the assumptions underpinning the US approach over the past decade, even under the Obama administration which took over many of its predecessor’s policies, namely that liberty and liberal values could be imposed from outside by a paternalistic West, that freedom is synonymous with free markets, and that democracy and free markets automatically bring greater prosperity and rights to the masses. Another shattered myth is that the United State is a benign power operating for the greater good and not out of the narrow self-interest of its economic and political elite at the expense not only of hundreds of millions around the world but also of ordinary Americans who have been left with a near-bankrupt system, as the recent “default crisis” frighteningly illustrated.

For the Arab revolutionary wave to succeed requires not only that Arabs successfully redefine and reinvent their relationship with those that govern them but also that the relationship between Arab, not to mention other developing, countries with the West and the wealthy industrialised nations.

Although the Arab uprisings are against dictatorship and despotism, they are also against the dictates of Western hegemony and have an economic bottom line. They are part and parcel of a global backlash against growing inequalities triggered by neo-liberal economics and the increasing economic marginalisation of the young.

Tackling this not only requires deep domestic economic reform by Arab regimes but also the reinvention and reconfiguration of the global economic order – which is currently skewed towards the interests of he West, other OECD countries and, increasingly, the emerging might of China and a few other heavy hitters in the developing world – to make it fairer and more equitable.

If the second decade following the 9/11 attacks is to be a brighter one, then Washington and its Western allies need to abandon their paternalistic approach to the Middle East, see the region as more than the sum of its oil wells and allow its people to gain their fair share of the global economic pie.

But with a major energy crisis on the horizon and with Western economies on the verge of bankruptcy, not to mention massive global and regional overpopulation, there are troubling signs that the wrong lessons will be drawn from the first post-9/11 decade. But here’s to hoping that enlightened self-interest will win out over destructive selfishness.

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Confessions of a ‘self-hating Arab’

 
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By Khaled Diab

Only self-hating Arabs and Jews can save the Middle East from itself.

22 August 2011

I have a confession to make: I’m a ‘self-hating Arab’. In fact, some readers of my articles believe that I suffer from a rare form of political Tourette’s in which I cannot help but blurt out irrationally hateful criticism. I write regularly about all the ills I perceive in Egyptian and Arab society, including authoritarianism, corruption, gaping inequalities, human rights abuses, gender issues, insufficient intellectual freedom, etc.

As I’m in a confessional mood, and a good confession requires full disclosure, let me also admit that my self-hating does not end at the borders of the Middle East. Despite having spent the greater part of my life in Europe – namely in the UK and Belgium – it seems that I cannot help but criticise the West, particularly its colonial past, neo-colonial present and the attitudes of some towards minorities.

Almost a year to the day before Anders Behring Breivik mounted his deadly attacks in Oslo, I warned that far-right groups in Europe were probably a more dangerous threat than Islamist extremists and that we should not close our eyes to the violent fringe and its ambitions to execute major attacks. This predictably led to some accusations that I was an ‘Islamofascist’ who entertains sympathies for Islamists, jihadis and other breeds of baddies.

On the other side of the spectrum, I have been dismissed by some as a ‘closet orientalist’, an ‘Islamophobe’, a ‘neocon’, a ‘house negro’, an ‘Uncle Tom’ and even a ‘Zionist’. But the memo about my alleged Zionist sympathises has not reached the powers that be in Israel who, despite my European passport and based on my name and ethnicity, give me a special kind of ‘VIP treatment’.

At Ben Gurion airport last week, for example, I was stopped before I’d even entered the terminal and interrogated at the gate while hundreds of other passengers passed unharassed.

When I asked out of curiosity why I’d been singled out, the security guard answered unhelpfully and rather cryptically from behind the impenetrable barrier of his mirror sunglasses that it was “his job” – and it seemed to be the job of his colleagues to accompany me every step of the way.

While I can understand that the safety and security of flights needs to be ensured, surely the thorough searching of my luggage, including combing them for traces of explosives, and the massage-like frisking are enough on that count. But what exactly do the repeated questionings, the insulting infringement on my privacy and the long unexplained waits outside offices achieve except to send out the message that people of Arab origin are unwelcome guests here?

Naturally, some Arab critics will view my living in Jerusalem as another sign of my self-loathing and will regard the above treatment as nothing more than my just deserts for trying to connect with Israelis with both empathy and sympathy.

Likewise, Israelis and Jews who try to reach out across the chasm of animosity, distrust and hatred to express understanding and sympathy for the plight of the Palestinians are similarly labelled.

“The self-hating thing is a weird one. It is supposed to refer to people who have so little pride in their history and culture that they are willing to sell themselves and their fellow Jews out to ‘the man’,” one alleged Jewish self-hater confessed. “It is a pejorative which tries to get you in a really rather personal and painful way.”

Naturally, it goes without saying that, like any self-respecting ‘self-hater’, I don’t regard myself as such. Rather, I believe that many of the people who fire off accusations of self-loathing are usually self-righteous and cannot admit their side commits any wrongs. They tend to abide by the precept that it is ‘my side, right or wrong’ and that we shouldn’t ‘hang our dirty laundry’ out in public.

So, why do some people adopt such harsh tones against members of their group who express dissenting views, no matter how rationally or honestly expressed?

In general terms, not conforming to the mainstream view of your community carries with it the risk of ostracisation. More specifically, the concept of ‘self-hate’ seems to enjoy the most currency among groups, minorities and peoples who feel under attack, threatened marginalised or demonised and so feel that it is important for all members to pull rank.

In the Jewish context, the long and painful history of anti-Semitism and discrimination, not to mention pogroms and the Holocaust, as well as popular Arab hostility towards Israel, has bred a level of hyper-defensiveness in the minds of many.

This explains why the ‘self-hate’ label – which gained popular currency following Theodor Lessing’s 1930 book Der Jüdische Selbsthass (Jewish Self-hatred) – probably has a longer history among Jews than among other groups. It can also be particularly virulent, as illustrated by the toxic Jewish SHIT list of over 7,000 allegedly “Self-Hating and Israel-Threatening” Jews.

This sense of embattlement engenders the misguided belief in the mainstream of the Jewish psyche that Israel should be defended at any cost and regardless of its actions.

Similarly, though Arabs have not experienced anything as apocalyptic as the Holocaust, most of the Middle East lived through centuries of foreign domination (Greek and Hellenic, Roman and Byzantine, Persian, Arabian, Turkic and Ottoman, British and French, etc.) in which the locals more often than not lived as effective second-class citizens in their own countries, over-taxed, oppressed and largely excluded from the corridors of power.

So, when the promise of independence came around after the collapse of the Ottoman Empire, the fact that the Palestinians were the first Arabs to be denied their freedom has transformed the Palestinian question into one of the most emotive issues in the collective Arab conscience, leading many to view it with greater irrationality than most other issues.

So, does that mean that ‘self-hatred’ doesn’t exist and no one deserves the label? Of course it does, especially among people whose history or contemporary reality makes them feel inferior to or persecuted by other groups.

For instance, what is termed ‘uqdet el-khawaga’ (‘the foreigner complex’) is fairly prevalent among Arabs, who have internalised orientalist stereotypes about themselves, and exhibits itself in aloofness towards all things local, good or bad, and praise of all things Western, also good or bad. More damagingly, there are and have been certain opportunist Arabs who are willing to collaborate, intellectually or practically, with foreign powers out to hurt their home countries, usually in return for material rewards.

Likewise, some of history’s most virulent anti-Semites have been Jewish. In addition, the condescension exhibited by some assimilated German Jews – who also internalised negative orientalist stereotypes – towards their Eastern European co-religionists, while not exactly ‘self-hatred’, did betray a certain discomfort with their background and heritage.

The trouble is that self-hatred and self-loathing is not used as an honest intellectual tool to examine the motives of a tiny minority who fit the bill. Rather, it is used as a powerful weapon to silence criticism and dissent from within one’s own supposed camp. But the only thing these alleged self-loathers hate is injustice, no matter who commits it, and so they should, instead, be called justice-lovers.

In a context where ‘us’ and ‘them’ threatens to submerge us before them, we are in desperate need of those who not only love their own side but are willing to show compassion and even love for the other side. And if that is self-hatred, then I’m proud to say that I hate myself.

 

This article first appeared in The Jerusalem Post on 21 August 2011.

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

 
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By Osama Diab

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

Tuesday 2 August 2011

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Atheists: Egypt’s forgotten minority

 
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By Osama Diab

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

Thursday 7 July 2011

Denial has been the primary strategy used by successive governments in Egypt regarding certain issues they deem to be ‘sensitive’, even though turning a blind eye has proven to be ineffective when it comes to handling these critical issues.

For example, in the minds and the statements of successive government officials, Egypt has always been free of HIV/AIDS, sectarian tension, political dissent and even sexual harassment.

This same denial strategy extends to religion and belief. Identity cards, which are used to give undisputed facts about their holders, such as their name, date of birth, etc., cites a person’s father’s religion as their own. This implies that one’s religion and personal beliefs are undisputed facts the same way, for example, that their gender or name is.

In Egypt , everyone by law belongs to one of the three main Abrahamic religions: Islam, Christianity, and Judaism – the only religions recognised by the state. Accordingly Egyptian statistics on religious belief are usually very simple:

90-94% Sunni Muslim

6-10% Coptic Orthodox Christians

And that’s it – except for some statistics that acknowledge the existence of a very small number of people adhering to the Baha’i faith and a handful of Jews.

Most polls and statistics completely ignore that among these “Muslims” and “Christians” are a number of people who choose not to define themselves as such. Due to the official and social stigmatisation of people holding alternative beliefs,  religion-related surveys in Egypt are often skewed. The most dramatic example of this was when Gallup decided, based on its research, that Egypt is the world’s most religious country because 100% of its population is religious. These polls and statistics obviously lack statistical and factual accuracy due to the taboo status of the surveyed topic. A statistic like Gallup’s technically means that it only takes a few people who don’t consider themselves to be religious to disprove it.

“There are more non-believers in Egypt than most people think,” says Tarek Elshabini, a 23-year old Cairo-based engineering student who doesn’t identify with his parents’ religion and defines himself as an atheist.

Elshabini thinks that religious sceptics are concentrated in educated and wealthy urban circles. He says they are mostly men, due to the patriarchal nature of the culture he was raised in where men have better chances and more freedom to be exposed to different ways of thinking.

“Most of the works written or made by ‘infidel’ thinkers and artists were never properly translated into Arabic, The God Delusion by Richard Dawkins is a very good example. This book was even banned in most of the Middle East, and the only reason someone like me knew about it, is that I can read English and have access to the  internet,” explains Elshabini.

Unlike Elshabini, Ahmed Amin, a Cairo-based project manager in his 20s who also defines himself as an atheist, thinks that irreligiousity is not confined to wealthier circles and that the less fortunate also have their doubts about religion. He believes that the scepticism of those who belong to lower socio-economic classes is driven by the injustice and unfairness they suffer.

Based on the same assumption, he also thinks that many Egyptian women started to walk this path because of the discrimination they experience, often in the name of religion. “I don’t know the exact percentage of non-believers in Egypt, since we do not have any statistics that show the religious distribution here. Even regarding Christianity, Muslim Brotherhood members or Salafi Muslims, we still don’t know their exact numbers either,” says Amin. “However, I think that there is a small number of non-believers here in Egypt, but what I’m sure of is that this small number is increasing.”

People like Tarek and Ahmed never appear in statistics for a number of reasons. Firstly, the state forces everyone into a religion a few hours into their birth – birth certificates, like ID cards, state the newly born’s religion . Secondly, non-theism or religious scepticism is still frowned upon, if not persecuted, in Egypt, which means that most non-believers won’t admit to it in public.

Some of the victims of religious intolerance include a large number of thinkers who didn’t even come close to announcing their non-belief , but only expressed an unconventional opinion on a “sensitive” religious issue. Farag Fouda, an Egyptian writer and human rights activist who was assassinated by Islamists in the early 1990s, did not even declare his apostasy but was only critical of the violence of militant Islamist groups.

Likewise, Nasr Hamed Abu Zaid, who defined himself as an Islamic scholar, was declared an apostate by a court ruling based on what he wrote in his PhD thesis. Hw was subsequently forcibly divorced from his wife because he was no longer considered a Muslim and, therefore, shouldn’t be allowed to remain married to his Muslim wife.In order to remain with his wife, he had to escape to the Netherlands until shortly before his death about a year ago.

Raising this issue is especially important now, in the wake of the 25 January revolution which has left Egypt struggling to define and shape its new identity. The main debate in this post-revolutionary period is whether Egypt’s identity should be secular or Islamic, and if individual liberties should include belief in any religion or lack thereof.

hose who call for a religious state argue that the vast majority of the population wants that based on these distorted and inaccurate statistics, which are in turn based on social stigma and intimidation faced by anyone who might have second thoughts about what they have been born into.

Given the secular nature of the revolution and the secularism of the young people who set it in motion, it’s simply not a fair game for Islamists to reap the political benefits now, after years of intimidating and violently draining their opponents by threatening their lives, putting their reputations at risk or simply accusing them of being “at war with Islam”.

Many have been talking about the rights of Coptic Christians, Baha’is and other religious minorities, but everyone, even the most devoted rights activists, have chosen to ignore the rights of those who chose to embrace none of the Abarahamic state-condoned religions, and who are possibly the most vulnerable ‘religious’ minority in the country.

“The way I see it, Egyptians will never start treating us with respect, unless we start being honest and come out,” says Elshabini “Only then, when we’re able to talk about our beliefs and ideologies openly without fear, will they realise how normal we actually are, and they will want to kill us less,” he concludes.

This article is published here with the author’s consent. ©Osama Diab. All rights reserved.

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