Islamist-driven democracy is not a snowball in hell

 
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By Osama Diab 

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

Friday 28 October 2011

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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A drinker’s guide to Islam

 
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By Khaled Diab

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

Tuesday 12 October 2011

Photo: © Khaled Diab

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

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

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

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

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

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

Taybeh by night. Photo: ©Khaled Diab

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 
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By Khaled Diab

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

Monday 12 September 2011

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Confessions of a ‘self-hating Arab’

 
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By Khaled Diab

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

22 August 2011

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

 
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By Osama Diab

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

Tuesday 2 August 2011

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Atheists: Egypt’s forgotten minority

 
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By Osama Diab

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

Thursday 7 July 2011

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

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

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

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

90-94% Sunni Muslim

6-10% Coptic Orthodox Christians

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Lost in demonisation

 
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 By Khaled Diab

Israelis and Arabs tend to believe that they share little in common. But in reality they are more alike than they like to admit.

1 July 2011

One might be excused for thinking that the only thing Arabs and Israelis have in common is a shared passion for hummus. But even that simple pleasure has become highly politicised, as illustrated by the recent ‘Hummus Wars’ in which Israelis, Lebanese and Palestinians sought to show that size does matter.

Israelis claim hummus as their national dish, while Palestinians protest that it was theirs first and fear that the occupation has taken over their kitchens, too. Under different circumstances, who got there first wouldn’t matter and the shared fondness for the same food could be utilised as a unifying factor – after all, the best way to a people’s heart is through their stomachs – but, instead, any common ground is too often lost in demonisation.

Against the backdrop of a bitter decades-long conflict, Israelis and Arabs are prone to believe that they may be neighbours geographically but they are worlds apart in all other senses. Too many Israelis seem to view Arabs as die-hard (or is that die-willingly?) fans of fanaticism whose only idea of fun is fundamentalism. It’s almost as if Arabs are career jihadis who chase promotion in the cut-throat corporate world of martyrdom in the hope of gaining access to the executive club in the sky, with its 72 sexy personal assistants and rivers of gushing vintage wine.

This automatic suspicion has been demonstrated to me repeatedly since our arrival here. The security at the airport’s cargo village turned the van I was in inside out, and even combed it for explosive traces, for no other reason than I was apparently carrying a ‘suspicious package’ in the form of my toddler son, whose presence seemed to miff the soldiers at the gate.

 This benighted Arab extremism contrasts sharply with Israel’s self-image as the region’s only liberal, enlightened society – “an outpost of civilisation as opposed to barbarism,” according to Herzl, or more colourfully the “villa in the jungle,” in Ehud Barak’s view.

There are Israelis I have met who have reacted in disbelief when I talk about secular Arabs, as if their existence in the Middle East (outside Israel, that is) is as mythical as that of elves in Middle Earth. Though Arabs are generally more conservative than non-Jerusalemite Israelis, this stereotype overlooks the presence of places like laisse-faire Lebanon and egalitarian Tunisia, whose laws are possibly more secular than Israel’s, not to mention the tens of millions of secular Arabs in Egypt, Syria, Iraq and beyond.

It also overlooks Israel’s own reality. I am surprised by how much sway the religious community holds here, such as how much religious law the Orthodox have forced into Israel’s legal system, how the pious force much of the rest of the country to keep come to a grinding halt during Shabbat, and how pigs will fly before you find any pork in Jerusalem shops. In fact, some parts of Jerusalem behave like theocratic city statelets.

For their part, Arabs tend to view Israelis as comic-book – or spy thriller – villains whose sole occupation in life is to be soldiers, settlers and/or spies. Although the Mossad, like other intelligence agencies, is involved in real-life conspiracies, the conspiracy theories, such as in my native Egypt, far outstrip and defy any possible realities: chewing gum that makes decent Egyptian youth horny, radioactive seatbelt buckles, shampoo that makes your hair fall out, and even creams that gnarl your skin.

Fortunately, Egyptians have interpreted the recent arrest of the maverick Israeli-American revolution tourist Ilan Grapel as a distractionary tactic by the generals currently running the country.

And it’s not just fear and demonisation of the ‘enemy’ that Arabs and Israelis share in common, despite their protestations to the contrary. Actually, the diversity within each group dwarfs the differences between the two collectives.

Israelis share with Arabs – particularly their Mediterranean neighbours – a keen sense of Middle Eastern hospitality, though Israelis have a more direct manner and behave with greater swagger, and are even hospitable to one another when they meet on the individual level, as I have discovered here and some Israelis I know found out in Egypt. We also share a love of loud conversation and gesticulation, and a passion for large gatherings and spontaneity in public spaces. Family is also of paramount importance on both sides of the divide.

Having suffered for centuries under foreign hegemony or as vulnerable minorities, Arabs and Israelis share a sense of victimhood and persecution, not to mention their penchant for believing elaborate conspiracy theories that confirm their belief that the entire world is out to get them.

Moreover, many of the challenges facing Arab and Israeli societies are remarkably similar, such as the battle for the soul of society between secularists, fundamentalists, modernists and traditionalists.

In addition, contrary to the Arab proverb that ‘what has passed has died’, in Israeli and Arab eyes, the past is not relegated to the annals of ancient history but is a living, breathing, oft-oppressive creature. But as the revolutionary wave gripping the region turns attention towards the future, I hope that Arabs and Israelis will find a way to work together to draft a tolerant, inclusive and just chapter in their as yet unwritten history.

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Special report: Making harassment history

 
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This Chronikler special report examines, through personal testimonies and analyses, the causes and consequences of sexual harassment and what can be done about it.

Some blame women for sexual harassment, saying the way they dress and act "invites" unwanted male attention. Both statistical and anecdotal evidence show this to be a myth.   Photo: ©Khaled Diab

Some blame women for sexual harassment, saying the way they dress and act “invites” unwanted male attention. Both statistical and anecdotal evidence show this to be a myth.
Photo: ©Khaled Diab

This special focus section was launched on 20 June 2011, which Egyptian activists had declared as a day for blogging against sexual harassment. Since then, The Chronikler has sought to shed light on this troubling social phenomenon, its causes and consequences, the pain and distress it causes women, the insult it represents for men who do not harass, and its ramifications for society as a whole.

Though many of those who harass and humiliate women in this way dismiss sexual harassment as little more than a bit of fun and harmless ‘teasing’ (‘mua’kasa‘), sexual harrasment, despite being a universal phenonmenon, has reached crisis proportion in Egypt and some other parts of the Arab world, making going out in public a living hell for millions of women: conservative or liberal, young or old, educated or uneducated, rich or poor.

In Egypt, the situation has gone from crisis to catastrophe since the Egyptian revolution. Some blame the victims, saying the way women dress and act “invites” unwanted male attention. Both statistical and anecdotal evidence show this to be a myth. This intensifying of the situation is partly due to the breakdown in law and order, the deployment of sexual harassment as a political weapon, the increasing assertiveness of women and the accompanying backlash from the threatened male order.

The articles below relate the personal trauma and humilation harassment causes, the socio-economic and cultural factors behind it, and what can be done to combat it.

The antidote to Egypt’s sexual harassment epidemic

March 2014 - The cure for Egypt’s sexual harassment crisis is to liberate society from outdated and toxic gender ideals and to rethink notions of “honour”.

Sexual harassment: Undressing naked prejudice

March 2014 - To those who believe the way a woman dresses invites harassment, hear this: she is not to blame – her harassers are, reiterates Nadine Marroushi.

I was harassed and I’m stupefied!

June 2011- Until the revolution in social attitudes comes, women should face their harassers with a loud voice and a shebsheb (a slipper), insists Yosra Zoghby.

No online way out

June 2011 – Blogging won’t raise awareness about sexual harassment more than it already has. We must focus our efforts on lobbying the government to do more, argues Osama Diab.

18-day social revolutions do not exist

June 2011 – Tackling harassment requires much more than a political revolution: it needs a social movement that restores people’s dignity and promotes equality, says Kholoud Khalifa.

Dreaming of a harassment-free Egypt

June 2011 – Efforts to break the silence and taboo surrounding sexual harassment will eventually lead to a harassment-free Egypt, believes Rasha Dewedar.

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The fall of Egypt’s symbol of progressive Islam

 
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By Osama Diab

 Joining itself with an authoritarian regime caused harm to the millennium-long history of al-Azhar University.

Thursday 12 May 2011

al-Azhar in Cairo. ©Khaled Diab

“[Egypt] didn’t change the basic tenets of Islam, but its cultural weight gave Islam a new voice, one it didn’t have back in Arabia. Egypt embraced an Islam that was moderate, tolerant and non-extremist.” With these words, Naguib Mahfouz, winner of the 1988 Nobel Prize in Literature, gave his last statement about Islam, after decades of being on the death lists of extremist Islamist groups and an assassination attempt in 1994.

The moderate Islam that Mahfouz was referring to had a protector and a promoter: al-Azhar University. Throughout its long and proud history, al-Azhar had remained unrivalled as the prime centre of Islamic teaching, attracting millions of Muslim students from all over the world to its campus in Cairo. Many of the most notable liberal reformists in Egypt’s history, especially in the 19th century, were Azhar graduates. Tolerance and not getting too involved with state affairs have been central to its teaching for centuries.

The father of Islamic modernism, Rifa’a al-Tahtawi, a 19th-century scholar and an Azhar graduate, saw no contradiction between Islamic thought and ideologies drawn from the European Age of Enlightenment. He studied in France and, on his return to Egypt, he worked at modernising the country, calling for liberal reform in the Muslim world.

Mohamed Abduh followed in al-Tahtawi’s footsteps, urging open dialogue with European civilisation and the reformation of Islamic thought, arguing that Muslims can’t rely on medieval interpretations of religious texts. He also argued for the secularisation of Muslim countries. Both scholars spoke European languages fluently and wrote positively about their experiences in Europe.

My fatwa against yours

However, it seems that slowly this progressive form of Islam is being replaced with a more radical Salafist ideology, one that blatantly calls for a return to the practices of the first three generations of Muslims, who lived more than 1,400 years ago. Salafi Islam is considered Muslim orthodoxy at its strictest, and is influenced by the teachings of Muhammad ibn Abdel Wahab, an 18th-century Muslim theologian whose radical ideas still shape how the Saud family runs its kingdom today. Evidently, al-Azhar in Egypt is falling prey to ideologies funded and encouraged from across the Red Sea in Saudi Arabia.

Speaking to al-Youm al-Sabei newspaper, Mahmoud Ashour, the former deputy of al-Azhar, said that the Salafist ideology has infiltrated the university. He blamed the phenomenon on young Egyptians’ feeling that society is unjust and their refusal to believe what they are told without experiencing reform on the ground, the paper reported.

A few months ago, in reaction to news of the rising influence of Salafi ideology within the walls of the university, the president of Tajikistan recalled 134 students he had sent to study at al-Azhar.

The clash between the two credos, Salafism and moderate Islam, reached its peak in 2009 when Mohamed Sayed Tantawi, a former sheikh of Azhar, called for a ban on the niqab – the full face veil – inside schools. The growing popularity of the niqab is a manifestation of the growing ascendancy of Salafi ideas among young Egyptians. Protests and sit-ins held by face-veiled students broke out, not just at al-Azhar, but at many other universities across the nation, all protesting against the cleric’s declaration.

Another collision took place when the Azhar Scholar Front (ASF), which was dissolved in 1999 after rejecting some of the fatwas issued by Tantawi, restarted its activities unofficially from Kuwait in 2007. The ASF is now considered attractive for those who split from al-Azhar due to opposing views, and usually adopts more radical positions, such as the ASF’s call a few months ago for an economic boycott of all Egyptian Christians as a riposte to an alleged kidnap by churchmen of a Coptic woman who had converted to Islam. Declarations of conflicting fatwas and heated exchanges have been common since the ASF was informally re-established.

But another reason why many have turned their back on al-Azhar’s ideology and fallen prey to more radical views is al-Azhar’s close association with the former president Hosni Mubarak and his increasingly disfavoured authoritarian regime, which many think has impoverished Egyptians.

The appointment of the sheikh of al-Azhar, the highest Sunni Muslim authority in the world, was the gift of Egyptian leaders by presidential decree. The sheikhs were usually loyal to the presidential palace and hardly ever issued fatwas that would go against the regime’s will or policy.

Chief whip of journalists

Tantawi was also notorious for his tailored fatwas to “Islamically” back up some of the regime’s actions, such as supporting the building of an underground wall on the border with Gaza and prohibiting anti-government street protests.

He also famously called for the “whipping” of journalists who publish false reports, after the appearance of a 2007 article by Ibrahim Eissa, a former editor of al-Dostour newspaper, questioning Mubarak’s health and the future of the presidency in Egypt.

What’s more, the recently appointed new sheikh of al-Azhar, Ahmed al-Tayeb, was a member of the policy committee in what used to be the ruling National Democratic Party. The policy committee division of the NDP was led by Gamal Mubarak, the president’s son.

This kind of co-operation with Mubarak’s regime is what made al-Azhar lose credibility. Paradoxically, it also made it easy for other, more radical Islamic groups, which were usually in conflict with the unpopular regime, to “infiltrate” the influential university.

At this critical phase, Egypt needs al-Azhar as a defence wall against extremist ideologies, to promote a culture of peace, progression, citizenship and dialogue with the West, and to thwart a rising Salafi influence that incites nothing but regression, hate and violence, clashing with and discriminating against the other. Egypt and the entire Muslim world, now more than ever, are in desperate need of enlightened scholars such as al-Tahtawi and Abduh to move it forward to modernity, instead of attempting to take us back to a 7th-century culture.

This article first appeared in the New Statesmanon 7 April 2011. Published here with the author’s consent. ©Osama Diab. All rights reserved.


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Egypt’s counter-revolutionary bogeyman

 
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By Osama Diab

Fear of retaliation from the old regime shouldn’t be used to limit Egyptians’ hard-won freedoms and attack peaceful protesters.

Monday 2 May 2011

Egyptian hopes for a more democratic future were crushed on Friday when security forces from the police and military raided Tahrir Square in Cairo, leaving two people dead and arresting 41. The army blamed counter-revolutionary elements for provoking the clashes and denied responsibility for the bloodshed.

The attacks on protesters came two weeks after the recently appointed cabinet passed a law restricting protests. The minister of justice, Mohamed Abdelaziz el-Guindy, told Egyptian television that this was a measure to protect the revolution.

The violence in Tahrir wasn’t the only act justified with this scapegoat. The demolition of Sufi shrines, the burning of a Christian church in Atfih and the subsequent violence, and even labour strikes and sit-ins have all been described as counter-revolutionary acts.

The law, which was approved by the ruling supreme council of the armed forces in the absence of a parliament, makes participating in protests and strikes that hinder the work of public institutions or authorities during a state of emergency illegal. This kind of vagueness and open-endedness could make any strike or protest subject to this law, which provides for punishment of up to three years in prison.

Deposed president Hosni Mubarak ruled Egypt for 30 years with an emergency law that was instituted after the assassination of former president Anwar el-Sadat by Islamists in 1981. Since then, Mubarak used Islamists as an excuse to crack down on any attempt at political change. Just a few hours before leaving office, he told Christiane Amanpour of ABC television that if he left now, the Muslim Brotherhood would take power in Egypt.

With a new military regime in place, signs of similar Mubarak tactics are starting to emerge. This time, Islamists, last season’s scare tactic, are replaced with the remnants of the previous regime – Egypt’s new bogeyman.

This fear of a counter-revolution could potentially be extended to include all sorts of freedoms. Restrictions could be put on the media and civil society, for example, claiming that some of its elements are part of a counter-revolutionary plan.

The law against demonstrations, nevertheless, was welcomed by many to end the “politics of the street” in which whoever has control over the streets of Egypt has influence over public policy.

Despite the harm that might occur from taking every simple demand to the streets during this critical time, this should have been dealt with through swift reforms rather than criminalising protests.

Political stability is always something to aspire to, but the best means of achieving it is still up for debate. What Egypt needs now is genuine stability driven by social equality, political freedom and a fair enforcement of law, rather than a fake stability imposed by oppressive laws and the heavy hand of brutal security. The policies of Mubarak and his cohort of Arab dictators have all led to instability, despite an endless number of oppressive laws and brutal security forces.

There are plenty of existing laws that could be used against remnants of Mubarak’s regime who try to instigate chaos. Corruption, hooliganism and vandalism are already punishable in the courts.

“Any move to curb freedom of assembly and the right to strike in Egypt would be an alarming step backwards and an insult to those who risked – and lost – their lives calling for change over the last two months,” an Amnesty International spokesperson said.

Egypt has had enough of the politics of fear and division, and if the revolution is to achieve its goals, loose accusations of “counter-revolution” should not be used by any group to win support or justify actions that otherwise cannot be justified.

Until now, no one has had a clear understanding of what this counter-revolutionary threat is, what its goals are, what is it trying to achieve, or its methods of achieving it. But it has been used by some groups to accuse their opponents and abused by those in power to restrict freedoms.

This column appeared in The Guardian Unlimited’s Comment is Free section on 11 April 2011. Read the related discussion. Reprinted here with the author’s permission. © Osama Diab. All rights reserved.

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