The stick of boycott v the carrot of recognition

 
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By Khaled Diab

The targeted boycott of Israel should be complemented with Arab recognition of the Jewish state and grassroots engagement with ordinary Israelis.

Monday 1 October 2012

In a YouTube video, Chili Peppers express their excitement about their imminent Tel Aviv gig.

It is a mark of the phenomenal success of a certain band from Los Angeles that the words Red Hot Chili Peppers are primarily associated in the minds of millions with a unique flavour of funky sounds that has all the spice and kick of the piquant fruit they are named after. The Chili Peppers were an important and integral part of the soundtrack to my youth.

Appealing to the band’s sense of justice, many Palestinians and supporters of the cultural boycott against Israel called on the Chili Peppers to cancel their recent concert in Tel Aviv but to no avail.

“Art alone cannot break down a wall that appropriates Palestinian land and resources,” Palestinian-American poet, writer and activist Remi Kanazi, who is a member of the US Campaign for the Academic and Cultural Boycott of Israel, wrote in an article for al-Jazeera calling on the band to cancel their Israel gig. “But artists and their art can inspire millions to take conscientious action against occupation and discrimination.”

In ignoring this outcry, were Kiedis and his crew guilty of putting profit over principle and of hypocrisy?

In the past, I might have responded with an unqualified, “Yes, they were”, and advocates of the boycott against Israel see the Chili Peppers as having sold out the Palestinians by coming here and behaving as if there were no occupation. And to their discredit and shame, the band which has dedicated so many memorable lyrics to the racism and segregation suffered by African-Americans and the plight of Native Americans, despite expressing strong love for Israel, did not seem able even to spare a single word for the Palestinians of the West Bank and Gaza who live in enforced segregation.

That said, the situation is not entirely black and white. The Chili Peppers have a special emotional link with Israel, because the group’s original guitarist Hillel Slovak was Israeli, and Kiedis and crew may have decided that Israelis cannot be held collectively responsible for the crimes and injustices committed by their state.

For myself and the majority of Arabs, the idea of boycotting Israel is almost second nature, given that it has been an integral part of Arab political culture for decades. Even in Egypt, which has had a peace treaty with Israel for most my life, those who deal with Israel or Israelis are often depicted as unscrupulous opportunists who are out to profit from the misery of their Palestinian brethren.

Prior to moving here, I did not buy any Israeli products and, given my commitment to ethical spending, I still believe that a targeted economic boycott is justified to ensure that people do not bankroll the occupation and the subjugation of the Palestinians. In fact, in addition to the popular boycott, Western governments should not effectively be rewarding Israel for its intransigence and there is a case to be made for the United States to suspend military aid and the EU to downgrade relations with Israel – which the EU’s former foreign policy chief Javier Solana once described as an EU member in all but name – until a peace deal is reached.

However, I do have serious misgivings about the cultural and academic boycott. Although institutions which perpetuate the occupation, such as military research centres or universities on occupied land, should rightly not be dealt with, the Palestinian Campaign for the Academic and Cultural Boycott of Israel (PACBI) effectively calls for a blanket boycott, arguing that, “unless proven otherwise”, all Israeli academic and cultural bodies “are complicit in maintaining the Israeli occupation and denial of basic Palestinian rights”. But presuming guilt until innocence is proven is unjust, and this is a form of collective punishment, albeit not on the scale of the Gaza blockade.

On a more pragmatic level, it is also counterproductive. Take the case of the German documentary about Jerusalem which was set to feature both Palestinian and Israeli residents to show the reality of life in the divided city. Pressure from campaigners caused many Palestinians to pull out of the project, the upshot of which will be that the film is more likely to show only Israeli perspectives.

The veteran Palestinian journalist Daoud Kuttab – who co-founded the now-defunct Bitter Lemons journal where Palestinian and Israeli intellectuals engaged in oft-heated dialogue – described the furor as a form of “intellectual terrorism”. Other activists who advocate joint action and dialogue I have spoken to have complained of a growing rejection of their approach.

“Some regard any encounter with an Israel as ‘normalization’. I am against normalization… but dialogue is not normalization,” a prominent activist who has spent years promoting Israeli-Palestinian dialogue told me. “Peace is too precious to be left only to politicians,” she emphasised.

Part of the reason for this hardening of positions appears to be disillusionment and scepticism at the entire apparatus – which put some emphasis on dialogue and collaboration between the two sides – put in place as part of the failed and discredited “peace process”.

“The aim of most of these so-called dialogues is to give the impression that there is an exchange going on,” one young activist involved in the BDS movement told me. “But this happens without the recognition of our rights, without the acknowledgement that there is a people being oppressed.”

But by punishing sympathetic Israelis along with hostile ones, this kind of unenlightened boycott alienates the doves more than it isolates the hawks. Although the cultural boycott claims to target institutions and not individuals, individuals who work for these bodies more often than not fall prey to the boycott, regardless of their politics.

“They will not invite me to Ramallah because I teach at Tel Aviv University,” complained Shlomo Sand, the maverick Israeli historian and one-time friend of the Palestinian national poet Mahmoud Darwish, warning that the Palestinians were boycotting “the most liberal segment of the Israeli political culture”.

“It’s a very, very closed-minded tactic,” he told me.

Moreover, the Arabs have little to show for their decades of boycott, beyond perhaps the emotional satisfaction of not dealing with the enemy. Some suggest that it has even strengthened Israel. “I think that the reason for Israel’s prosperity is, ultimately, an unexpected result of the boycott,” believes Iraqi-Israeli poet Sasson Somekh, who was a close friend of Egyptian Nobel laureate Naguib Mahfouz.

“I am against boycotts, even of your worst enemies,” he told me. “If you want to influence them and change the status quo, you need to have dialogue with them, not boycott them.”

Counterintuitive as it may sound to many Arab ears, the best way forward is for ordinary Arabs, not just Palestinians, to engage more with ordinary Israelis – both in dialogue and joint action – because there can be no resolution to this conflict without an Israeli partner, and gaining that partner requires the empowering of Israel’s increasingly marginalized and embattled peace movement.

Moreover, the blanket Arab boycott belies a profound and damaging misunderstanding of the Israeli psyche and the existential angst Jews have suffered following the deadly pogroms of the previous century and the Holocaust. The majority of Israelis do not see the boycott as a principled stand in solidarity with the Palestinians, but as a manifestation of Arab rejection of Israel’s right to exist.

To allay such fears and deprive Israeli hawks of their intellectual and emotional prey, I think that the majority of Arab countries who have not yet done so, perhaps through the Arab League, should immediately recognize Israel within its pre-1967 borders. This simple, highly symbolic act – which actually costs the Arabs nothing and does no harm to the Palestinian cause – can help the Arab world, rather like Anwar Sadat once did, to go over the intransigent Israeli leadership’s heads and appeal directly to the Israeli public.

Sadat believed that a psychological barrier existed between Arabs and Israelis – a “barrier of suspicion, a barrier of rejection; a barrier of fear, or deception” – which constituted “70% of the whole problem”. While the percentage is open to question, in this, Sadat, for all his failings, was largely right.

Follow Khaled Diab on Twitter.

This article first appeared in Haaretz on 19 September 2012.

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Aanslag op Amerikaans consulaat in Benghazi valt niet uit de lucht

 
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Door Badra Djait

De aanslag op het consulaat in Benghazi was geen verrassing. De voortekens waren al lang zichtbaar.

Dinsdag 18 september 2012

De Amerikaanse ambassadeur in Libië, Christopher Stevens, is samen met drie andere medewerkers om het leven gekomen bij een raketaanval in Benghazi. Aanleiding voor de aanslag is een anti-Islam film uit America.

Hoe is het mogelijk dat er raketten konden worden afgevuurd op een Amerikaans consulaat, dat de Libische betogers het gebouw in brand konden steken, en dat het lichaam van de Amerikaanse ambassadeur voor het oog van de hele wereld over straat kon worden gesleurd? De Amerikanen hadden de aanslag in Benghazi minstens moeten voorzien.

Ten eerste is zes jaar geleden iets gelijkaardigs gebeurd naar aanleiding van de Deense Muhammad cartoons. Toen in Libië bekend werd dat een Italiaanse minister, Roberto Calderoli, een T-shirt met een spotprent van de profeet droeg, verzamelden spontaan een duizendtal mensen zich voor het Italiaans consulaat in Benghazi op 17 februari 2006. De betogers waren er zelfs in geslaagd het Italiaans consulaat in lichterlaaie te zetten, waarop de Libische politie het vuur opende op de betogers. Minstens tien doden waren er gevallen.

Vijf jaar later – toen de Arabische revolutie uitbrak – riep de Libische oppositie op om de dood van de betogers tegen de Muhammad cartoons te herinneren. Er moest betoogd worden tegen Gaddafi op 17 februari 2011 omdat die bij de demonstratie tegen de cartoons de zijde van het Westen had gekozen tegen de Islam. Vandaar dat de Libische revolutie van 2011 ook wel de “cartoonrevolutie” werd genoemd.

Met andere woorden, de ambassadeur en zijn medewerkers hadden de Libische ambassade moeten verlaten, eens het protest in Cairo aan de Amerikaanse ambassade tegen de spotfilm over Muhammad is uitgebroken.

Een tweede reden waarom de VS de aanslag op het consulaat hadden moeten voorzien, is dat ze wist dat Benghazi bekend staat als een bolwerk voor gevoelige extremisten. Uit het rapport al-Qaeda’s Foreign Fighters in Iraq van de US Military Academy bleek dat 18% van de al-Qaedastrijders uit de wereld die naar Irak kwamen om te vechten tegen de geallieerde troepen voornamelijk afkomstig waren uit Oost-Libië, waaronder Benghazi.

Verbaast het dan dat na de NAVO-interventie de voorzitter van de Libische oppositie, Mustafa Abdel Jalil, in zijn overwinningstoespraak in Benghazi liet weten dat Libië de sharia tot de officiële wet van het land zal verklaren. De eerder liberale voorzitter moest rekening houden met de ideeën van zijn conservatieve achterban. Zelfs de vlag van al-Qaeda werd er omhoog gehesen op het gerechtsgebouw van Benghazi na de bevrijding van het land door de NAVO.

Ten derde is het adagium van het buitenlands beleid “de vijand van mijn vijand is mijn vriend” op korte tijd zo vaak toegepast met wisselende vijanden en vrienden dat de Libiërs de Amerikanen niet meer konden vertrouwen.

De religieuze extremisten die voornamelijk in Oost-Libië zaten, waren vanaf de jaren tachtig bekend als beduchte politieke vijanden van Gaddafi. De toenmalige Libische gevangenissen waren vol met de “bebaarde mannen”. Dat is ook de reden waarom het westen na 9/11 toenadering zocht tot Gaddafi op zoek naar steun voor haar “war on terror”.  De CIA, de Britse en de Libische inlichtingendiensten wisselden toen honderden namen van Libische islamistische verdachten uit. Vandaar dat Moussa Koussa, voormalig hoofd van de Libische inlichtingendiensten vorig jaar veilig werd overgebracht naar Qatar na een tussenstop in Groot-Brittanië.

Niet alleen werden gegevens over islamistische verdachten uitgewisseld, ook wilde de VS de marteling van al-Qaeda verdachten uitbesteden aan gevangenissen buiten hun controle. Een bekend voorbeeld is Abdelhakim Belhadj, de voormalige leider van het fundamentalistische Libyan Islamic Fighting Group (LIFG). Hij werd samen met zijn zwangere vrouw opgepakt in Maleisië. Beiden werden gemarteld door de CIA in Bangkok en vervolgens uitgeleverd aan de willekeur van Gaddafi. Dat werd recent nogmaals bevestigd door het rapport van Human Rights Watch getiteld ‘Delivered into enemy hands. US-led abuse and rendition of opponents to Gaddafi’s Libya‘.

Maar Gaddafi behandelde de islamisten én hun familieleden zo slecht dat de modale Libiër zich begon te keren tegen Gaddafi. Toen Fathi Terbil werd gearresteerd in februari 2011 – Fathi Terbil was een mensenrechtenactivist die de familieleden vertegenwoordigde van de honderden gevangenen die bij rellen in de beruchte Abu Salim gevangenis in Tripoli in 1996 door veiligheidsdiensten werden vermoord en van de gedode betogers in 2006 naar aanleiding van de Muhammad cartoons – begon de oppositie in het oosten van Libië zich serieus te roeren.

De Libische oppositie kreeg al snel steun van het westen. En plots werden de “voormalige al-Qaeda verdachten” de vrienden van het westen, en werd Gaddafi de gemeenschappelijke vijand. Getuige het feit dat de door de CIA gemartelde Belhadj werd benoemd tot de militaire leider van de Libische oppositie.

Het is dan ook wereldvreemd dat de VS zich publiekelijk afvraagt “hoe zo’n aanslag kon gebeuren in een land dat met Amerikaanse steun werd bevrijd”, terwijl voorgaande info in Libië als algemene kennis wordt beschouwd. De Libiërs zien de VS niet als een land dat hen bevrijd heeft omdat ze democratie wilde brengen, wel omdat ze eigen belangen heeft. Het principe “vergeven en vergeten” geldt hier niet. De aanslag op het consulaat in Benghazi valt dus niet uit de lucht.

 

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نصف يوم مع “آخِر” يهودي عربي

 
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بقلم خالد دياب

يعتقد ساسون سومخ، الشاعر والكاتب وصديق الأديب المصري الراحل نجيب محفوظ، ان الأدب  يتسامى على السياسة

الخميس 9 اغسطس 2012

English version

بوجود هذا الغموض الذي يكتنف الجو، هذه أوقات مزعجة للعلاقات العربي الإسرائيلية. ولكن رجلاً واحداً يصرّ على الحفاظ على أرجله مزروعة بعمق على جانبي هذا الصدع

يصف ساسون سومخ نفسه كيهودي وعربي في الوقت نفسه، كعراقي وإسرائيلي. دعاني هذا الشاعر والأكاديمي والكاتب ومترجم الأدب العربي إلى العبرية لقضاء “نصف يوم” معه في تلميح ذكي لقصة قصيرة غير شائعة كتبها نجيب محفوظ، المصري الحائز على جائزة نوبل. تسرد هذه الرواية الرمزية التي كُتبت في سنوات نجيب محفوظ المتأخرة الكثيرة الإنتاج، أحداث نصف يوم فقط يدخل فيها الراوي أبواب المدرسة للمرة الأولى كفتى صغير في الصباح ويخرج في المساء رجلاً كبيراً في السن

“كيف حدث ذلك كله في نصف يوم، بين الصباح المبكر والغروب؟”، يتساءل الراوي المسن محتاراً

تساءلْت مثله، بينما أبحر هذا الرجل السلحفاة المتقد ذكاءاً، البطئ في حركته والسريع في تفكيره عبر الزمن والمساحة ليأخذني في رحلة مذهلة من إسرائيل المعاصرة في سنواته الفضية عودة إلى عالم شبابه الذي اختفى في بغداد اليهودية، والذي يستحضره ببلاغة في مذكراته “بغداد الأمس”، عبر صالونات الأدب المصري في شبابه

يستذكر سومخ، الذي ولد في بغداد عام 1933 في أسرة يهودية ميسورة من الطبقة الوسطى، أوقاتاً قضاها يسبح في نهر دجلة العظيم ويذهب في رحلات ونزهات حوله. “تلك كانت أكثر أيام حياتي بهجة وسروراً”، يستذكر بحزن

شكّل اليهود في تلك الأيام حوالي ثلث سكان العاصمة العراقية. “عندما كنتَ تمشي في شارع الرشيد الرئيسي في بغداد، كان نصف أسماء المتاجر والمكاتب يهودية”، يشير سومخ

أدى الوجود اليهودي القديم في العراق إلى أشكال مثيرة للانتباه من التكامل الثقافي: كان اليهود العراقيون يكتبون العربية تقليدياً بالحروف العبرية، وكان اليهود البغداديون يتكلّمون لهجة عامية كانت قد ماتت بين المسلمين والمسيحيين. أثّر اليهود كذلك على حياة العراق اليومية. على سبيل المثال، يستذكر سومخ بعض الشيعة الذين عملوا لدى بعض الأعمال اليهودية وهم يحوّلون يوم إجازتهم الأسبوعية إلى السبت.

وخلال سنوات مراهقته، كان سومخ شاعراً واعداً قضى أوقاتاً في صالونات بغداد الأدبية النشطة، ونجح في نشر بعض أشعاره وقصائده. ولكن أحلامه الشابة الوردية بمستقبلاً أدبياً لامعاً في وطنه توقفت بوقاحة من قبل التاريخ والصفائح التكتونية للسياسات الجغرافية

ورغم أن الغالبية الساحقة لليهود العراقيين لم تلعب دوراً في ما حصل للفلسطينيين، إلا أن اللائمة ألقيت عليهم رغم ذلك، وأصبح الوضع غير محتمل لهم بحلول العام 1951

جرى إسكان المهاجرين اليهود في إسرائيل، مثلهم مثل الفلسطينيين في مخيمات مؤقتة، وكانت تلك خطوة هائلة إلى الأسفل بالنسبة لعائلة سومخ، التي انتقلت من وسائل الراحة والنفوذ والاحترام التي تمتعت بها في بغداد. ولكن الأسرة وقفت على قدميها في نهاية المطاف، ورفض ساسون سومخ الشاب الاستسلام وترك أحلامه الأدبية، “الأدب هو الأدب. السياسة لا تدخل به”، أخبرني ببساطة لا تترك لك مجالاً للنقاش.

لم ينخرط سومخ في المجلة الأدبية الإسرائيلية الوحيدة باللغة العربية فحسب، وإنما ضاعف جهوده لتعلُّم العبرية حتى يتمكن من ترجمة الشعر العربي إلى لغته القديمة الجديدة

كان الإنجاز الكبير لسومخ هو أنه أصبح واحداً من المراجع الرئيسية حول نجيب محفوظ. عندما اهتم سومخ للمرة الأولى بالكاتب المصري كان محفوظ ما يزال غير معروف تقريباً خارج العالم العربي

تفتّح الاهتمام الفكري بسرعة ليصبح صداقة خلافية (إذا أخذنا بالاعتبار المقاطعة العربية لإسرائيل) بين الكاتب المصري وناقده الإسرائيلي. حافظ الرجلان على تواصل لسنوات عديدة، وتمكن صديق المراسلة أخيراً من دعم صداقتهما عندما انتقل سومخ إلى القاهرة في منتصف تسعينات القرن الماضي

“عرف شعبانا صداقة استثنائية”، قال محفوظ لسومخ في إحدى المرات. “أحلم بيوم تصبح فيه المنطقة وطناً يفيض بأنوار العلوم، تباركه أعلى ميادين الجنة، بفضل التعاون بيننا”

كانت تلك هي رؤية التسوية العربية الإسرائيلية النهائية التي يبدو أن سومخ، الذي يصف نفسه بأنه “آخر يهودي عربي”، لأن جيله هو آخر جيل يهودي يتذكر بوضوح العيش بسلام بين العرب، قد كرّس حياته من خلالها، لبناء جسور التفاهم الثقافي

ورغم أنه يعترف أن جهوده لم تؤتِ أية نتائج ذات أهمية، إلا أنه يعمل بجد رغم ذلك. وربما في يوم من الأيام، وفي مستقبل أكثر سلاماً، سوف نلقي نظرة إلى الوراء على سومخ ومحفوظ وغيرهما من أمثالهما، ليس كغريبي أطوار مضللين، وإنما كأصحاب رؤية شجعان

This article which was first published by The Common Ground News Service on Tuesday 31 July 2012.

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Half a day with the “last Arab Jew”

 
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By Khaled Diab

Sasson Somekh, critic and friend of the late Egyptian Nobel laureate Naguib Mahfouz, believes literature transcends politics and can bridge cultures.

Wednesday 1 August 2012

النسخة العربية

These are troubling times for Arab-Israeli relations. Arabs watch on with rising alarm as Israel continues to cement its hold on the occupied Palestinian territories and toys with the idea of denying that there even is an occupation. Meanwhile, Israelis look on with mounting apprehension as Egypt elects the unknown quantity of its first Islamist president and Syria slips further into civil war.

Amid all this uncertainty and distrust, one man insists on keeping his feet firmly planted on both sides of this chasm. Sasson Somekh describes himself as both a Jew and an Arab, as both Iraqi and Israeli.

This poet, academic, writer and translator of Arabic literature into Hebrew invited me to spend “half a day” with him, in a witty allusion to a little-known short story by Egyptian Nobel laureate Naguib Mahfouz. Penned in the latter years of Mahfouz’s prolific career, this allegorical tale relates the events of just half a day in which the narrator enters the school gate for the first time as a young boy in the morning and emerges as an old man in the afternoon.

“How could all this have happened in half a day, between early morning and sunset?” the elderly narrator asked, perplexed.

I wondered the same, as this sharp-witted tortoise of a man, slow of body but swift of mind, snailed through time and space to take me on a riveting journey from the contemporary Israel of his silver years, back to the disappeared world of his youth, Jewish Baghdad (which he eloquently evokes in the first part of his memoirs, Baghdad, Yesterday), via the literary salons of his middle age in Egypt.

Born in Baghdad in 1933 into a well-to-do, middle-class Jewish family, Somekh remembers summers spent swimming in and loungingby the majestic Tigris, the river along whose banks some of the first human civilisations were born. When temperatures soared and water levels dipped, a patchwork of small islets would emerge, providing ideal seclusion for family picnics, consisting primarily of fish grilled on a special covered Iraqi barbecue. “Those were the most enjoyable days of my life,” he recalled wistfully.

At the time, Baghdad was a very Jewish city, with Jews – who were active in all walks of life, including commerce, the professions, politics and the arts – comprising as much as a third of the Iraqi capital’s population. “When you walked down Baghdad’s main street, al-Rashid, half the names on the shops and offices were Jewish,” he noted.

Iraqi Jews were so enmeshed in their country’s social fabric that they described themselves, and were regarded, as “Arabs”, and viewed Judaism as a religion and not an ethnicity. As Somekh put it, he grew up with Arabic as his mother tongue and Arab culture as his reference point.

The ancient Jewish presence in Iraq led to some interesting cultural symbioses: Iraqi Jews traditionally wrote Arabic in Hebrew script and Baghdadi Jews spoke a vernacular that had died out among Muslims and Christians. Jews also affected Iraq’s daily life. For example, Somekh recalls, some Shi’ites, who worked for Jewish businesses switching their own day of worship to Saturday, the Jewish Sabbath, during which Muslim neighbours often helped perform tasks Jews were ritually forbidden to carry out, such as lighting stoves.

Despite the image in Israel of Middle Eastern Jews being very traditional and religious, the educated or wealthy Jewish elites did not keep Sabbath and were very secular. Somekh, whose father was a senior clerk at a British bank, grew up knowing very little about his religious heritage, which was not even taught at the Jewish schools he attended.

During his teenage years, Somekh was a promising young poet who hung out in Baghdad’s vibrant literary salons and managed to get some of his poetry published. But his youthful dreams of a glittering literary career in his homeland were rudely interrupted by history and the shifting tectonic plates of geopolitics.

Though the vast majority of Iraqi Jews played no part in what befell the Palestinians, they were nonetheless blamed for it. And by 1951 the situation had become untenable.

Iraqi Jewish refugees in Israel were, like the Palestinians, settled in makeshift camps, a huge step down for the Somekhs from the comfort and prestige they had enjoyed in Baghdad. But eventually the family got back on its feet, and the young Sasson Somekh refused to give up on his literary dreams. “Literature is literature. Politics does not enter into it,” he told me with disarming simplicity.

Somekh not only became involved with the only Israeli literary magazine in Arabic at the time, one run by the Israeli communist movement, he also redoubled his efforts to learn Hebrew so that he could translate Arabic poetry into this new-old language.

Somekh’s crowning achievement was to become one of the foremost authorities on Naguib Mahfouz. When Somekh first took an interest in the Egyptian novelist, Mahfouz was almost unknown outside the Arab world. As there was so little information available on Mahfouz’s literature in English, the Nobel committee, according to Somekh, relied heavily on his PhD thesis to assess the Egyptian novelist’s work.

Intellectual interest soon blossomed into an improbable and controversial (given the Arab boycott of Israel) friendship between the Egyptian writer and his Israeli critic. The two men kept up a correspondence for years, and the pen pals were finally able to further their friendship when Somekh moved to Cairo in the mid-1990s, to head the Israeli Academic Centre.

“Our two peoples knew extraordinary partnership,” Mahfouz once confided in Somekh. “I dream of the day when, thanks to the co-operation between us, this region will become a home overflowing with the light of science, blessed by the highest principles of heaven.”

And it is this vision of eventual Arab-Israeli conciliation that Somekh – who describes himself as the “last Arab Jew” because his is the last generation of Jews that clearly remembers living in peace among Arabs – seems to have dedicated his life to through his attempts to build bridges of cultural understanding.

Though he admits that his efforts have not yielded any significant results, he labours on regardless. And perhaps one day, in a more peaceful future, we will look back on Somekh and Mahfouz and others like them not as misguided eccentrics, but as bold visionaries.

This is the extended version of an article which was first published by The Common Ground News Service on Tuesday 31 July 2012.
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Behind the ‘Zion Curtain’

 
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By Khaled Diab

Living behind the ‘Zion Curtain’ reveals how alike Israelis and Palestinians are and how ordinary people must build common ground on this shared land.

Thursday 19 July 2012

Sharing the same land has caused Israelis and Palestinians to become more alike. Can this be used to build common ground? Photo: ©Khaled Diab

Not so long ago, an Iron Curtain split Europe. Similarly, a sort of “Zion Curtain” still divides the Middle East. But unlike communism and capitalism, Zionism and pan-Arabism are remarkably similar: both have sought to unify and empower diverse cultures who share a common religious heritage, on the one side, and a common language, on the other.

In addition to the physical barriers separating most Israelis and Palestinians from one another and the Holy Land’s isolation from the wider region, there are the apparently insurmountable psychological and emotional walls behind which each side takes cover, lest they unwittingly catch a glimpse of the human face peering across that political minefield littered with the explosive remnants of history.

Carrying as little political baggage as possible, I took the rare initiative – for an Egyptian – and stole across this no-man’s-land a few years ago in a personal bid to connect with ordinary people and see for myself the reality on the ground. Last year, I returned – this time with my wife and toddler son – to deepen my knowledge and do my little bit for the cause.

Egyptian intellectuals in the past who have preceded me on similar journeys have often faced censure and even ostracism, because their critics confuse dialogue and sympathy with Israelis with normalisation with Israel and approval of its policies towards the Palestinians. Despite the Camp David peace agreement, there is little traffic between Egypt and Israel. However, though I am a rarity in this land, I am by no means the only Egyptian who has made this journey. In addition to diplomats and some Christian pilgrims, a steady trickle of Egyptian pacifists has crossed the border.

Most Israelis are aware of the late president Anwar al-Sadat’s historic visit in 1977, but he was not the first Egyptian to cross the border. Some years earlier, when Egypt and Israel were still in a state of war, a young maverick and idealistic PhD student by the name of Sana Hasan threw caution to the wind and crossed the border. During her three-year sojourn, Hasan met just about everyone and did just about everything in her bid to understand her enemy and extend a hand of peace. She even wrote a memorable book about her exploits.

Another notable example is the leftist Ali Salem, the famous satirist and playwright who wrote perhaps the most famous Arabic-language stage comedy of the 20th century. In the more optimistic early 1990s, the portly, larger-than-life Salem mounted his trusted stead – a Soviet-era Niva jeep – and set off on a conspicuous road trip through Israel, which he fashioned into a bestselling book.

Both these brave individuals faced more condemnation than approval for daring to cross enemy lines. Personally, despite some criticism, I have encountered a great deal of positive reactions and encouragement, especially from Palestinians themselves. For their part, many Israelis I encounter are thrilled to connect with a genuine McAhmed Egyptian, and ply me with so many questions that I sometimes feel like I’m the sole representative of an alien race from a faraway planet.

Viewed from the inside, one of the most striking things about this tiny land – whose combined Jewish and Arab population is barely half that of my hometown, Cairo – is its sheer, dizzying diversity, which could be its most powerful asset in the absence of conflict.

Not only do you have two self-identified nations and three main religious groups, you also have enormous ethnic, social and cultural variety within Israeli and Palestinian ranks. Jerusalem is a colourful – and often monochromatic – catwalk of the variously attired faithful, while Tel Aviv and Ramallah are the choice hangouts for the secular.

The downside of this variety is discord. While the outside world is acutely aware of the conflict between Israelis and Palestinians, less noticed are the fault lines within each society, between the religious and the secular, hawks and doves, maximalists and pragmatists, to take just a sample.

Another striking feature is how much Israelis and Palestinians have in common, despite their bitter political differences. For instance, though Israel is variously perceived as an “outpost” of Western civilisation or a Western “implant,” depending on your political convictions, culturally and socially it is also very Middle Eastern, not only because a significant proportion of its population is of Mizrahi Jewish descent, but also because of the direction in which Israeli society has evolved. I am sometimes surprised by how much Arab culture has sunk into the Israeli mainstream, despite the Ashkenazi cultural dominance. In fact, despite Israel’s European aspirations, Israel certainly does not feel like part of Europe: it is an odd blend of Middle Eastern colour and tradition, Eastern European austerity and communalism, and, like other parts of the region, sprayed over with a recent layer of superficial American consumerism.

In fact, I would hazard to say that Israelis, Palestinians and the people of the wider Levant resemble each other more than they do the Jewish Diaspora or Arabs from, say, the Gulf. Israelis and Palestinians share a wide range of attitudes to family, education, work, friendship, socialising, driving, and even creaking bureaucracies and rough-round-the-edges finishing. Moreover, even though many Israelis in public are somewhat abrasive and direct, they often have a Middle Eastern attitude to helpfulness and, in private, share regional notions of hospitality, as I have personally experienced.

Moreover, the close proximity in which Israelis and Palestinians live – and the very extensive contact that occurred between the two peoples prior to the current segregation, as recalled oft-nostalgically by older people – has profoundly influenced both sides. In Israel, the Arab influence is clear to see in the culture, music, cuisine and language, while the Israeli influence, as well as the necessities of the conflict, seems to have made Palestinians more individualistic and anti-authoritarian than many of their Arab neighbours.

In terms of language, modern Hebrew was profoundly influenced by Arabic, while Palestinian Arabic is increasingly borrowing from Hebrew. Sometimes Palestinians use Hebrew words, yet are convinced they are Arabic, such as “ramzor,” the word for “traffic light.” Moreover, young Palestinian-Israelis speak in a confusing mix of Hebrew and Palestinian Arabic, while older Iraqi Jews liberally inject Baghdadi Arabic into their Hebrew.

When it comes to cuisine, while Israel’s acquisition of hummus as its national dish has led to the so-called “Hummus Wars,” Palestinians too have borrowed, albeit to a lesser extent, food from their Jewish neighbours. The prime example is, as I discovered, the surprising popularity of schnitzel among Palestinians.

The decades-old conflict has also profoundly shaped the psyche of both peoples, though it takes a far greater physical and material toll on the Palestinians. Most Palestinians and Israelis alive today were born into conflict, and this has bred a deep level of insecurity, paranoia and despair. This translates not only into positive attitudes towards, for instance, education, solidarity and steadfastness, but also into self-destructive notions that the world is against them, and the conflict is insoluble.

But the conflict is resolvable, not in any dramatic, comprehensive, final manner, but gradually, inch by painful inch, as pragmatism and the need to coexist slowly defeat ideology and intolerance. And the key to that future lies not with the failed leadership on both sides, or the ineffectual international community, but with ordinary people, Israelis and Palestinians willing to work together to transform the land they share into a true common ground.

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This is the extended version of an article first published in Haaretz on 17 July 2012.

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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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