Islamism is the illusion

 
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By Khaled Diab

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

Saturday 17 August 2013

SONY DSC“The people want to apply God’s law,” one group of male protesters chanted.

“Islamic, Islamic, Egypt rejects secularism,” a group of women sang in rhyming Arabic prose, their tone that of a wedding party.

As if that wasn’t enough, all over the Raba’a al-Adawiya encampment, what seems to be a current hit on the Islamist charts was urging everyone within earshot of a loudspeaker to “Tell the world that Egypt is Islamic.”

But that is not exactly the message that has been reaching the international community from the pro-Morsi camp. Although only a single letter separates the two in Arabic, there is a world of difference between the democratic legitimacy (Shari’ya) the Muslim Brotherhood asks of the world and the Shari’a protesters were loudly demanding.

“I want to defend my religion and my country’s Islamic identity,” Mohamed Eissa, 20, told me, adding that he wanted Egypt to implement Shari’a. And what about democracy, I wondered? “If we apply Shari’a, we will have the best democracy in the world,” he claimed.

I doubt many non-Islamists when they think of Morsi’s “democratic legitimacy” would ever associate that with implementing Shari’a, as countries which have done so sit near the bottom of the league in terms of freedoms and rights.

Photo: ©Khaled Diab

Photo: ©Khaled Diab

As I stood there in Raba’a, a scarce secular soul, I pondered a question I have asked myself repeatedly: what exactly is the point of the Islamist project in a Muslim society?

After all, Egypt already implements Shari’a in its personal and family law, with all the gender and other inequalities that involves. In addition, there is absolutely nothing to stop a devout Muslim from practising every facet of his or her faith.

In contrast, Egypt has no civilian family courts for those who wish to run their personal affairs according to modern, secular standards. Moreover, though freedom of expression is a constitutional right, this freedom has been severely curtailed in recent years by the obscure, vague and innovative legal concept of “insulting religion”.

But does centuries-old Islam, the world’s second largest religion, really need self-appointed defenders to shield it from “insult”, when the Qur’an itself welcomes doubt, questioning and even ridicule?

And why do these self-appointed defenders of the faith contradict the example of the prophet they claim to emulate? For instance, Muhammad pardoned one of his scribes, Abdullah Ibn Saad, even after he claimed that the Qur’an was invented and Muhammad was a false prophet.

These examples highlight how Islamism, rather than providing the solution, as it claims, is actually built on an illusion.

Islamist discourse, on the whole, holds that the reason for the Muslim world’s decline is its deviation from Islamic law and values. That explains why Hassan al-Banna, despite his attempts to inject some elements of modernity into traditional Islamic thought, fixated on questions of morality and Shari’a. One of his ideological descendants, Sayyid Qutb, went so far as to invent the dangerous idea that Muslims were living a period of modern “Jahiliyyah” (pre-Islamic ignorance).

But by misdiagnosing the malaise afflicting society, Islamists have prescribed totally the wrong medicine, with severe and debilitating side effects.

Any objective, dispassionate reading of Islamic history reveals that Islam’s former glory was actually built on a largely secular foundation. In addition, the start of its decline coincided with the victory of rigid dogma and orthodoxy – represented by the likes of the “father of Salafism” Ibn Taymiyyah in the 14th century – over reason and intellect.

Muhammad himself never established anything resembling what we would call an “Islamic state” today. His secular-sounding Constitution of Medina actually defines Jews, Christians and pagans – i.e. every member of Medina’s society – as being full and equal members of the Ummah.

During what is widely regarded as Islam’s “golden age”, the political and social mechanisms governing the lives of Muslims were generally secular. Though the Umayyad and Abbasid caliphs derived their claim to legitimacy from Islam, they were essentially secular rulers, presiding over secular governments. They were autocratic, not theocratic.

In fact, their honorific title “commanders of the faithful”suggests that caliphs derived their authority from their Muslim (and other) subjects and not from Islam itself. Moreover, most enlightened caliphs were derided by conservatives and traditionalists as immoral and decadent.

Take Harun al-Rashid, the fifth Abbasid caliph and stuff of legends. Under his rule, the sciences, culture and the arts flourished, despite clergy’s disapproval of the company he and his libertine son, al-Amin kept, including the outrageous and camp court poet, Abu Nuwas, considered the greatest poet of his time.

Freethinking philosophy also flourished during this era, both under the Abbasids and the Umayyads. The Muʿtazilah, for example, held that rationality, expressed through reasoned debate known as “kalam”, are the “final arbiter” that trumps “sacred precedent”.

In such a climate, it is unsurprising that non-belief was accepted and atheistic scholars, such as Ibn al-Rawandi were published, only to have their works destroyed by later, less tolerant generations.

The reasons for Islam’s subsequent relative decline are manifold: the loss of dominance over global trade, the Mongol invasions, intellectual stagnation, infighting and factionalism, colonialism, and more.

However, deviation from some imagined “pure” moral state is not one of the factors, and belief in this illusory mirage will delay effective reform. In the 21st century, the best system that encompasses the spirit of past Muslim success is enlightened secularism. That might explain why the renowned 19th-century reformer Muhammad Abduh once said that in France he saw “Islam without Muslims”.

 

Note: This article was written before the violent dispersal of the pro-Morsi encampments occurred.

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Follow Khaled Diab on Twitter.

This is the extended version of an article which first appeared in The National on 15 August 2013.

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Intimate strangers in a splintering world

 
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By Khaled Diab

Multiculturalism is enriching and as easy as child’s play. But as the winds of intolerance blow harder, it may become a liability for my son and his generation.

Monday 29 April 2013

You don’t need to belong to a place to have a sense of belonging and you can be a foreigner in your own land. Image: ©Khaled Diab

You don’t need to belong to a place to have a sense of belonging and you can be a foreigner in your own land. Image: ©Khaled Diab

As Iskander and I enjoy a rare sunny Sunday during this northern European spring that has not yet found its spring, our son quite literally sings the praises of multiculturalism, as he recites nursery rhymes and songs he likes in different languages.

While I bask in his sonshine, I marvel at how the intricacies of different cultures and identities become, in his tiny hands, quite simply child’s play.

Not only does he act at home in his two native cultures, Belgium and Egypt, he also took the complexities of the Holy Land, where he spent more than half his short life, in his, at first wobbly, stride. In that sun-kissed, trouble-drenched corner of the world, his blond locks went down a treat on both sides of the bitter divide, as did his nonchalance, charm and tenderness.

When we returned to Belgium recently from our 20-month stint in Israel-Palestine, we were a little concerned about how long it would take him to adjust to life back in Europe, especially the demanding task of starting pre-school.

But he took to it like a rubber duck to bubbly bathwater. Within a few short weeks, Dutch switched back to being his dominant language after a hybrid Palestinian-Egyptian Arabic had been during most of our time in Jerusalem.

Multilingualism, as researchers are increasingly discovering, enhances children’s cognitive abilities and helps them to do better in school. As the world continues to shrink, Iskander’s polyglottic childhood should place him in a good position to enjoy an international adulthood.

Although like any parents we hope that the future is bright for our son, there are a number of clouds on the horizon that trouble me. My wife and I take the benefits of multiculturalism as a given, as do most people in our circles. Not only is the microcosm of our family confirmation of this, but our own experiences back up this conviction.

For my part, I find that dividing my childhood, youth and adulthood between the Middle East and Europe has been a generally enriching experience, despite certain challenges – I feel both out of place and at home everywhere. My well-heeled Belgian wife developed a keen wanderlust early on which influenced her choice of studies, her extensive travels and her choice of careers.

Iskander is the next step along this evolutionary line. While both my wife and I grew up in monocultural families, Iskander has been born into diversity, with all its inherent richness and complexities.

My own personal experiences have taught me that in human interactions personal culture and disposition are more vital factors than collective culture. For example, my wife and I – both secular progressives with an inclusive, humanist outlook – have far more in common with each other than we do with our supposed cultural kin.

But as the winds of monocultural intolerance swirl evermore-menacingly overhead, not everyone sees the situation this way. A growing number of people (re)subscribe to the notion that there is an innate, cliquey cultural essence which unites a certain group to the exclusion of others.

This is partly a by-product of the social and economic alienation many people encounter, and the consequent desire to manufacture a sense of belonging. As I get older, I’m growing to understand better the attraction some people feel to having deep roots: the security derived from the familiar, the ability to read the various chapters of your life inscribed on every paving stone for miles around, and the convenience of being in the comforting proximity of family and lifelong friends.

But you don’t need to belong to a place to have a sense of belonging and you can be a foreigner in your own land. I know people who have lived in the same place their entire lives and feel alienated from their surroundings. I know others who move constantly but settle into each station as if it were their final destination.

With petty nationalism seemingly on the rise, partly on the back of the crisis afflicting global capitalism, this exclusiveness often manifests itself along nationalistic, even patriotic, lines. Given our aversion to nationalism, we hope that Iskander will grow up to become a proud citizen of the human nation.

But I appreciate that peer pressure, or rejection, may force him to jettison, or at least to underplay, one of his identities. And so, paradoxically, he may come full circle: returning to one of the monocultural roots of his multicultural parents.

Although balancing national identities can be done relatively painlessly, especially between societies that are not in conflict, a tougher nut to crack is religion. Of course, Iskander is still too young for religion to be a real issue, but we plan to raise our son to appreciate the beauty of his triple heritage – the secular, non-aligned humanism of his parents, his father’s Muslim and his mother’s Christian heritage – and to choose his faith for himself.

Even though the millet system, which gave a high degree of autonomy for recognized religious communities, was once an admirable expression of pluralist tolerance in action, its survival in much of what was once the Ottoman empire, including Israel and Palestine, grates against 21st century reality and aspirations. This outdated system defines faith as a birth right, no matter how wrongly or incorrectly this may describe a person’s actual convictions.

In Egypt, this means that my identity papers say that I am a “Muslim” – which I partly am, in the cultural sense of the word. In addition, given the legal assumption that the son of a Muslim man is also, by default, a Muslim, Iskander, regardless of his actual beliefs, would still be a Muslim in the state’s eye. If Iskander rejects Islam or religion in general, this could result in the surreal situation where two generations of non-believers are still officially defined as Muslim – a situation not unlike that of the historian Shlomo Sand in Israel, who is a third-generation non-believer, but cannot change his ID card to reflect this.

However, the sands may be slowly shifting: the well-known writer Yoram Kaniuk has won the right in the courts to be registered as “without religion”.

Our refusal to predefine our son’s convictions have made me so far reluctant to register Iskander’s birth in Egypt, in the hopes that one day the religion field will disappear from birth certificates and IDs, or until I find a legal means to keep it blank.

However, even if the state becomes more amenable to diversity – which seems unlikely under the current Islamist stewardship but is conceivable under new management given the  protection of personal freedoms guaranteed by the new constitution – society as a whole will not necessarily follow suit.

In Egypt, especially in traditional and conservative circles, the idea that religious identity is inherited runs deep, both among Muslims and Christians, and the traditional model of tolerance is to live as good neighbours and friends but not generally to intermarry. That said, I have met a number of conservative Muslims who accept the rights of other Muslims to convert and even to become atheists.

More troublingly, the increasing marginalisation of Christians in society and their targeting by Islamic extremists bodes ill if the country fails to rediscover its pluralism. For Iskander, this could be problematic if he decides to pursue his Christian identity or, worst, in the eyes of society, abandons religion altogether. And even if he chooses to become a Muslim, it would cause him to feel shame towards an integral part of his personal heritage.

But our son’s mixed heritage is not just potentially problematic in the Middle East, it can also cause him difficulty in Europe. Although European society has evolved into a multicultural kaleidoscope which, at its best, is incredibly tolerant and accepting of diversity, there are numerous worrying undercurrents.

Here in Belgium, the law guarantees equality regardless of background and people possess the legal freedom – both nationally and at the EU level – to choose the belief system that suits them. Moreover, the apparent unceremonious death of organised religion has left questions of faith almost completely in the private and personal sphere.

But even if Christianity has to a large extent fallen by the wayside, Christian rituals have been secularised, as reflected in the enduring popularity of Catholic sacraments, such as baptism and confirmation. Moreover, for some, old Christian prejudices have combined with secular distrust of religion or old-fashioned racism, to stigmatise Muslims. This manifests itself in the increasing mainstreaming of Islamophobia, as well as xenophobia in general.

The trouble with the push towards greater monocultural conformity, whether in Europe or the Middle East, is that the rolling boulder of intolerance gathers no nuance as it hurtles down the slippery slope to ever-greater rejection. Today’s “in” could easily become tomorrow’s “other”, as eloquently expressed by pastor Martin Niemöller in his famous “First they came for…” statement.

This is reflected in how certain salafist groups devolved from the rejection of the non-Muslim other to declaring Muslims who have a different interpretation of Islam to theirs as the enemy within. It can also be seen in how extremist settlers have widened their attacks on Palestinians, to target Jewish-Israeli peace activists and even the Israeli army, as well as the growing segregation between the religious and secular within Israeli society.

For the sake of my son, and all our children, I hope that multiculturalism prevails. In this, we can takea leaf out of Iskander’s book, who shares his affections indiscriminately, based solely on a person’s individual merit, without regard to nationality, religion, gender, ethnicity or creed.

Follow Khaled Diab on Twitter.

This article first appeared in Haaretz on 23 April 2013.

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Gay pride (and prejudice) through the ages

 
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By Khaled Diab

Historical examples of homosexuality being tolerated by Judaism, Christianity and Islam can help overcome homophobia and reinvent these faiths.

Thursday 28 February 2013

Were the Christian martyrs Saint Sergius and Saint Bacchus involved in a medieval "same-sex union"?

Were the Christian martyrs Saint Sergius and Saint Bacchus involved in a medieval “same-sex union”?

It is almost spring, and love, of the gay variety, seems truly to be in the air. The last few weeks have brought a constant stream of good news for LGBT communities in Europe, not to mention encouraging developments in the United States and even within the Catholic Church.

British and French MPs spread the love in the run up to Valentine’s Day by giving non-heterosexual marriage a resounding vote of confidence, while Germany’s Constitutional Court ruled in favour of so-called “successive adoption” by same-sex couples.

Across the Atlantic, where same-sex marriage has faced stiff opposition from religious and social conservatives, a pro-gay marriage ad campaign featuring prominent Democrats and Republicans, including Dick Cheney and Colin Powell, has just been released, while there is talk that Barack Obama is planning to utilise the Supreme Court to push for same-sex matrimony.

Homosexuals, not to mention feminists, have toasted the resignation of Pope Benedict XVI, who “made homophobia one of his battle cries”, according to one activist. This has left many in the LGBT community hopeful that the next and future popes will be more relaxed towards questions of sexuality, while activists have been urging the Vatican to wake up to reality.

“There are absolutely no grounds for considering homosexual unions to be in any way similar or even remotely analogous to God’s plan for marriage and family,”  wrote Cardinal Ratzinger, the Holy Father’s previous incarnation, in an opinion he wrote for his predecessor Pope John Paul II in 2003 on the issue of same-sex marriage.

Why? Apparently, because “marriage is holy, while homosexual acts go against the natural moral law”.

Although the argument that homosexuality is unnatural is contrary to the available scientific evidence and undoubtedly angers gay communities and their supporters, this idea is common not only in the Catholic Church, but in other branches of Christianity, Judaism and Islam.

However, despite Ratzinger’s protestations, deep, deep inside Christianity’s historic closet, there was greater tolerance of homosexuality than appears at first sight. Although the medieval and pre-modern church, especially during the various inquisitions, was well-known for persecuting and killing homosexuals, it may, at least at times, have been rather gay-friendly.

For example, though the modern clergy, with the exception of some reformist churches, tends to reject the idea of gay marriage, it appears that two men – but not women – could sometimes be joined in holy union in the Middle Ages.

In a practice known as Adelphopoiesis, two men would be joined in what American history professor John Boswell has controversially described as “same-sex unions”, although his contention has been challenged by the clergy and other scholars who insist that, though the practice walked and talked rather like a church wedding, the union in question was actually a spiritual and celibate one and closer to the concept of “blood brotherhood”.

Although the practice of Adelphopoiesis may strike the modern reader as surprising, once it is placed in the context of Greco-Roman culture, which had a profound impact on early Christian and Muslim ideals, it is not. In the male-centric classical view, men’s affection for each other was the most sublime form of love, while women didn’t really count for much, as attested to by the absence or belittling of lesbianism in classical, Judaic, Christian and Islamic traditions.

This idea of the superiority of male love, and the tolerance thereof, can be seen in the odes to homoerotic passion of the camp and irreverent Abu Nuwas, the Abbasid court laureate who was believed to be the greatest poet in Islam, and whose work was not censored, strangely enough, until the early 20th century.

Moreover, medieval Islamic scholars tended to hold that male homosexual acts did not merit worldly punishment, rather like how ancient Jewish legal practices upheld such strict rules of evidence in cases of “sodomy” that it was near impossible to prove and secure a death sentence. This is a far cry from the contemporary puritanical attitude towards homosexuality in much of the Muslim world, where gay people often potentially face the death penalty

The sublimation of mutual male affection has been (re-)interpreted by modern scholars, commentators and even clergy as a sign of homosexuality in the most unexpected quarters. Not only have many interpreted Jalal al-Din Rumi’s love poetry, or ghazal, dedicated to his older spiritual master Shams-e-Tabrizi, as a sign that the legendary Sufi poet had homosexual tendencies, there have even been suggestions that none other than Jesus Christ was gay.

That a man in his 30s apparently had no wife or girlfriend, even though Jewish law would have allowed him to marry, but was friends with a prostitute, hung out with a dozen other blokes, including one “Beloved Disciple”, in the words of the Gospel of John, could be interpreted as repressed homosexuality by the modern secular ear. Needless to say, the very suggestion is rejected as outrageous and insulting by the church and the majority of Christians.

Although early Christianity and medieval Islam seemed to have adopted some elements of the classical tolerance of certain aspects of homosexuality, at least the male variety of it, all the Abrahamic faiths have inherited the Old Testament tradition which condemns as sinful homosexual acts (the idea of homosexuality or sexual orientation did not really exist until modern times, or was at the very least more fluid).

For instance, both Christianity and Judaism draw on the Book of Leviticus (18:22) which commands the believer: “Thou shalt not lie with mankind, as with womankind: it is abomination.”

One reason why homosexuality elicits such a disproportionate reaction in all three religions is because of its powerful potential to subvert the traditional patriarchal order. Traditional models of marriage, after all, are more about procreation than recreation, and about prescribing and cementing a strict gender hierarchy, in which man sits on the throne and woman washes his royal feet. “Same-sex marriage fundamentally challenges the basic sexual premises of marriage as a contract,” writes Kecia Ali, a professor of religion, in her taboo-shaking book Sexual Ethics and Islam.

The most common justification for the prohibition on homosexual behaviour in the Judeo-Christian-Islamic tradition is, of course, the allegorical tale of Sodom and Gomorrah, two Biblical cities which were destroyed by fire and brimstone for their sinfulness. Although none of the scriptures spell out homosexuality as the nature of the sins committed by the Sodomites, who wanted to rape God’s angels, sodomy, or liwat (i.e. pertaining to Lot’s people) to Muslims, has for centuries been assumed to relate to anal sex, or more broadly, homosexual male intercourse.

This is not a valid connection to make, many contemporary activists claim. “Reading the story of Sodom as being about homosexuality is like reading the story of an axe murderer as being about an axe,” writes Jay Michaelson, the American-Jewish academic and activist.

But is such revisionism honest? I believe that, in the balance of things, the Abrahamic tradition is homophobic, as was the Greco-Roman tradition, though to a lesser degree. Nevertheless, though such revisionism may not be honest, it is useful and perhaps even necessary, to bring religion into the 21st century.

While I personally reject religion because of its intrinsic contradictions and inherent unfairness, I accept that faith can give a structure to the world for believers, and a perceived higher purpose to their lives.

That is why religion has been invented and reinvented endlessly over the centuries. What we call Judaism, Christianity and Islam today, for instance, bears little resemblance to their original counterparts. And just as no modern believer seriously accepts their religions’ ancient attitudes towards, for example, slavery and warfare, people will one day hopefully look back on the current debate over homosexuality and faith as archaic.

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Follow Khaled Diab on Twitter.

This article first appeared in Haaretz on 26 February 2013.

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Egypt’s women of mass destruction

 
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By Khaled Diab

Does a gaff about rural women’s breasts belie the belief among Egypt’s new Islamist leadership that women are the source of all society’s ills?

Wednesday 13 February 2013

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When it comes to confessionals, Egypt’s unpopular prime minister Hisham Qandil has redefined the term “making a clean breast of things”. With the country in the grips of a new wave of protests and street clashes and the economy in tatters, the premier decided to get a vital matter off his chest during an open meeting with the media: rural women’s breast.

“There are villages in Egypt in the 21st century where children get diarrhoea [because] the mother nurses them and out of ignorance does not undertake personal hygiene of her breasts,” he said, to the visible discomfort of his audience, especially the women in it.

Qandil’s remarks have been met with widespread derision and mockery in Egypt’s famously sarcastic social and independent media, with many requesting advice from the PM on other health and domestic issues. “A question to his eminence the prime minister,” one twitter user wrote, “can I wash my boy’s clothes with his father’s white galabiya or will the colours bleed?”

“Mum says she wants the recipe for Balah el-Sham in your next press conference,” another requested.

“Soon, they’ll be broadcasting Qandil’s press conferences on Fatafeat (a cookery channel),” one wit predicted.

There are other unexpected causes of the runs, one commenter revealed: “I’m the one who got diarrhoea when I realised you were Egypt’s prime minister.” And this observer is not alone: millions of Egyptians view this former irrigation minister as Egypt’s new secretary of state for irritation.

Although stage fright – or performance anxiety – caused by speaking before the tame cameras of Egypt’s state television may have caused Qandil to confuse women’s nipples with the teats of baby bottles, there is the possibility, however faint, that the prime minister is privy to some groundbreaking research which the rest of us humble mortals are unaware of.

After all, unlike the “ignorant peasants” he lambasts, Qandil has a master’s degree and a PhD in agricultural engineering from two different US universities, though one is located in Utah, where his views of science may have been coloured by the local culture. If “creationist” pseudoscience can posit that the universe was created less than 10,000 years ago and advocate what I call the “Fred Flintstone” theory of the Jurassic age, why can’t Qandil find a causal link between dirty boobs and the runs?

However, a cursory perusal of the scientific literature on breastfeeding uncovers no connection between the cleanliness of a mother’s breasts and diarrhoea in her infant. In fact, mother’s milk is described by doctors as “liquid gold” and is a good preventer of and antidote against diarrhoea.

Qandil’s remarks confirm previous theories that denial truly is a river running through the minds of Egyptian officials.

But wouldn’t life be so much easier for the new PM if his theory were correct? Then, instead of being forced to grapple with the problems his government has inherited from the former regime – poverty, pollution, unhygienic water supplies, poor nutrition, high illiteracy – he could solve the daunting challenge of high infant mortality in the countryside by simply going online and ordering millions of packets of antibacterial wipes or, more ambitiously yet, install a power shower in each rural mud-brick home.

The cynic in me suspects that this could be what is behind Qandil’s gaff: the desire to divert attention from his government’s failure to do anything constructive about, and find simplistic, quick fixes for the country’s nagging socio-economic problems.

This interpretation would actually be a relief in comparison with the prospect that Qandil, a supposedly highly educated man, actually believes what he said. But I fear that the prime minister may well have been deadly serious.

His outburst is reflective of the new Islamist leadership’s – and the conservative constituency they represent – obsession with women and the female body, and their apparent conviction that all society’s ills can be traced back to a woman’s breasts and vagina, and a family’s and society’s honour hangs on that flimsy thread known as the hymen.

This reality about Egypt’s body politic was on full display during the recent controversy surrounding the nude Egyptian protester, Aliaa ElMahdy, whose naked body was transformed by conservatives into some kind of biological WMD – a dirty bomb – amid suggestions that she could singlehandedly obliterate Egypt’s social fabric.

Interestingly, from a psychological perspective, is how religious conservatives appear to be obsessed by what they find most reprehensible, and fantasise, like the “Desert Fathers” did of Satan tempting them away from their solitude with sexual dreams, about the female body.

An extreme, and extremely warped, example of this was the infamous and widely condemned fatwa by a cleric of al-Azhar who creatively resolved the conservative conundrum over mixed workplaces by suggesting women breastfeed their male colleagues, thereby becoming their “mothers”.

Rather than the “penis envy” Freud developed, it would appear that Egypt, and patriarchal society in general, is obsessed with breast and vagina envy. Echoing the “War on Women” across the Atlantic, Islamists, particularly ultra-conservative Salafists, have launched a far more vicious offensive against Egyptian women, which has played itself out on the streets, in the form of violence, including the rape, of female protesters and then blaming the victim for the crime she endured.

But Egyptian women and their allies have not taken this passively, and have been out in force demanding their rights – and granting them full equality will be good both for women and society as a whole, despite the anxieties of the patriarchy.

Follow Khaled Diab on Twitter.

This article first appeared in The Huffington Post on 7 February 2013.

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Disempowering Egyptian citizens

 
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By Khaled Diab

Despite its democratic aspirations, Egypt’s draft constitution excludes millions of Egyptians from enjoying full citizenship.

Monday 29 October 2012

Congratulations to all conservative, middle-aged male Muslims in Egypt. According to the draft constitution, you qualify as the model Egyptian “citizen”, and the state will be there for you all the way to uphold your rights and defend your freedoms.

However, if you happen to be a woman, a Christian, a follower of a non-Abrahamic faith or an atheist, or simply young, then Egypt’s contradictory constitution – which attempts but fails to strike a balance between secular liberal and conservative religious forces – leaves you vulnerable to the whims and wiles of the powers that be.

The document reflects the raging battle for the soul of Egypt between conservative Islamic and liberal revolutionary forces.

This is nowhere more apparent than in the constitution’s attitude to a full half of the population – women. Article 68 (one of the most hotly debated) begins promisingly by informing us that “the state will do everything to promote equality between women and men”, before delivering the sting in its tail, “without abandoning the judgments of Islamic law”.

The state will also patronisingly help women to “strike a balance between their family duties and their work in society”. So, the constitution is basically telling Egyptian women they are “equal” to men, as long as they obey their husbands or fathers and accept their secondary religious status.

In other respects, the new constitution contains numerous articles that, at first sight, are music to the ears of advocates of democracy and individual freedom. Article 1 tells us that Egypt is governed by a “democratic regime” which, according to article 6, is founded on “consultation, equal citizenship … pluralism [and] respect for human rights”. Other articles guarantee equality for all – regardless of gender, race or faith – and recognise personal freedom as a “natural right” and the right of everyone to a sense of “human dignity”.

Freedom of thought and expression is also safeguarded, and journalists, who have faced decades of draconian restrictions, should, in theory at least, rejoice at the constitution’s protection of their right to pursue their profession freely and to set up media outlets, with the only stipulation being that they notify the authorities.

Unfortunately, however, a lot of what the constitution giveth, it promptly taketh away.

Though the constitution guarantees freedom of belief, albeit only for Abrahamic religions, article 2 describes Islam as the “state’s religion” and vaguely refers to the “principles of shari’a” as the primary source of legislation. This is a ticking time bomb for Christians, whose current marginalisation could become open persecution if this stipulation is exploited to the full by radical Islamists.

Fortunately, the demand by some Islamists that Islamic law should be the sole source of legislation did not make it into the constitution, though the current statement that it is the “primary” source leaves the door ajar both to the modern reinterpretation of Islamic jurisprudence and to the continued reliance on other, secular sources of legislation.

Nevertheless, no matter how liberally shari’a is interpreted, there is an essential tension between Islamic and modern, liberal secular law – at least in the mainstream view of it. This is eloquently expressed in other parts of the constitution. For instance, article 38 prohibits attacks on and affronts to “the prophets” – essentially an anti-blasphemy measure.

While for many pious Egyptians this will appear to be an even-handed way of protecting the sanctity of not just Islam but every religion, it conflicts with the principles of free expression the constitution claims to uphold. For instance, if I, as an agnostic atheist, express my heartfelt conviction that the Qur’an was authored by Muhammad or another human hand, and that the devil, who does not exist, had no hand in the “satanic verses“, will the state defend my freedom of expression or prosecute me for insulting the prophet?

Even among the religious, there is a wide spectrum relating to what is regarded as “insulting” to people’s essential beliefs. In fact, as I’ve pointed out before, the very presence of Judaism, Christianity and Islam can be regarded as a tripartite insult, since each exists because it believes the others contain falsehoods.

This was dramatically demonstrated by the Egyptian Islamist preacher Abu Islam Ahmed Abdullah who, taking a scorched leaf out Pastor Terry Jones’s book, recently set fire to a Bible.

Defending himself against legal charges that his action was insulting to Egyptian Christians, he claimed – rather offensively – that “There is no such thing as the Bible or the Torah, there is only the Qur’an.” This sounds remarkably similar to Pastor Jones – who is apparently running for president of the United States – attitudes to the Qur’an.

In a free country, and in a state that does not wish to turn wackos into martyrs, both Abu Islam and Terry Jones should be left to express their burning hatred, as long as they do not actually hurt or call for the hurting of others.

Even more troubling are the parts of the constitution that transform the state into a sort of Big (Muslim) Brother. Article 10 empowers the government to “safeguard and protect morality and public decency” and to “maintain a refined level of upbringing, religious and nationalist values and scientific facts”, while article 69 tasks the authorities with overseeing, among other things, “the spiritual, moral and cultural development” of young people.

This is not only a paternalistic insult to the generation that taught Egyptians the value of their dignity and freedom, it also raises the thorny question of whose morality. And what should happen to those youth who do not wish to live by the conservative Islamic morality that the authors almost certainly intended?

And the powers of this religious nanny state do not end there. Describing the family as the “cornerstone of society”, article 9 grants the state the power to preserve the “authentic nature of the Egyptian family … protecting its traditions and moral values”.

My personal experience of Egyptian families is that they possess thousands of different “traditions and moral values” – so which will the state enforce and does it have the right or power to impose its own vision?

And what will the state do to families that refuse to abide by its vision? “Re-educate” them? Take their children into its care? This is a truly scary prospect. For instance, my wife and I are raising our child without religion and have decided to let him choose whichever system of beliefs suits him once he is old enough.

If we move back to Egypt, will the state preserve our “natural right” to personal freedom and our constitutional right to human dignity or will it try to force us to raise our child as a “decent Muslim”?

The inherent contradictions in Egypt’s draft constitution, if it ever enters into force, will leave it wide open to individual interpretation and so Egypt’s future as a progressive, enlightened and tolerant state rests in the ability of liberal, secular, pluralistic forces to seize the upper hand from the Islamists.

Follow Khaled Diab on Twitter.

This is the extended version of an article which first appeared in The Guardian’s Comment is Free on 23 October 2012.

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The mash of civilisations

 
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By Khaled Diab

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

Tuesday 25 September 2012

Is there really a clash of civilisations? Do “they” really hate us for our beliefs?

Karl Marx once said that history repeats itself, first as tragedy, then as farce. The riots and Iranian fatwa calling for the death of Salman Rushdie which forced the British-Kashmiri author into hiding for 13 years, can only be described as tragic – for him and for the cause of freedom and tolerance.

In the years since the 1989 fatwa, the rage expressed at perceived Western “insults” to Islam and its prophet, Muhammad, have transcended tragedy to become farcical, with often tragic consequences. Rushdie’s Satanic Verses – which, as those who have actually read it are aware, betrays a profound admiration and respect for the person of Muhammad, despite its criticism of religion and human nature – at least had the merit of artistic and literary quality.

In contrast, most subsequent targets of this brand of outrage have been crude and amateurish, such as the Danish cartoons mocking Muhammad, and consciously out to provoke a reaction, like the poorly scripted and badly acted Innocence of Muslims, which those “pre-incited”, “pre-programmed”, as the film’s spokesperson Steve Klein described them, Muslim protesters obligingly did.

At a certain level, I can understand, though I am personally not a believer, why Muslims would find offensive the infantile suggestions contained in the film that their prophet got the inspiration to establish his faith by performing cunnilingus on his first wife, Khadijah, or that the Qu’ran was authored for him by a Coptic monk.

To my mind, the best reaction to this so-called ‘film’ – which looks like it cost about $10 to make over a weekend, but was rumoured to have cost $5 million – would have been not to dignify it with a response, then its makers would have been left to wallow in the bitter realisation that their endeavour did not capture an audience beyond the 10 people who turned up to watch its one and only screening.

The Muslims who expressed their outrage peacefully had every right to, since freedom of expression guarantees not only the right to cause offence but also the right to take offence. However, the minority who chose violence not only went against liberal, secular values, but also the teachings of their own prophet and an ancient tradition of mockery of religion in their own societies.

Moreover, the protesters triggered widespread disapproval and disbelief across the Arab world. “The only thing that seems to mobilise the Arab street is a movie, a cartoon or an insult, but not the pool of blood in Syria,” tweeted one dismayed Syrian activist.

So why did a production that is so out there it wouldn’t even qualify as the lunatic fringe provoke such outrage and violence?

Part of the reason is a simple case of ignorance. Many Muslim conservatives fail or refuse to understand that the United States and many other Western countries hold freedom of speech, at least in principle, in higher regard than religious sensibilities. That would help explain why so many protesters called on the United States to apologise for the film and ban it, despite the first amendment of the US constitution which guarantees freedom of speech.

But before Westerners take too much of a holier-than-thou attitude towards their commitment to free speech, they would do well to remember that up until very recently Christian conservatives had a powerful influence on constraining freedom of expression. This shows that it is religion in general (or rigid secular ideological orthodoxy) that is a significant barrier to free thought and inquiry, not just Islam.

In fact, a number of majority Christian European countries, as well as Israel, still have laws against blasphemy or insulting religion on their books, and though most no longer apply them, some still do, such as Poland and Greece. Meanwhile, nearby Albania is a majority Muslim country which has a long history of atheism and no laws against blasphemy or insulting religion, and has never prosecuted anyone for such a crime.

In Russia, the punk-rock band Pussy Riot was recently convicted for “hooliganism motivated by religious hatred”, though how their “punk prayer” was offensive to Christianity is unclear, though it was highly insulting to Russia’s earthly deity, President Vladimir Putin.

Further West, cinematic classics, such as Martin Scorsese’s The Last Temptation of Christ, elicited angry protests across the Christian world, including the firebombing of a Paris movie theatre, and was banned outright in Mexico, Chile and Argentina.

Likewise, The Life of Brian, also elicited widespread protest – despite Monty Python’s respectful portrayal of Jesus and their insistence that the film is not blasphemous but only lampoons modern organised religion and the sheep-like mentality it inspires in followers – was banned in parts of the UK, in Norway and in Ireland, and British television declined to show it.

But the current protests are paradoxically both about Muhammad but also have absolutely nothing to do with him. The insult to Muhammad was just an issue of convenience and, had it been absent, another cause would have emerged for popular frustration and fury.

This is not because, as some Westerners seem to believe, that rage and fury are fulltime occupations for Muslims, but because they are fed up with American hegemony (and local corruption) and dominance over their lives, from the bloody wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, to the decades spent supporting and propping up corrupt and brutal dictators, while paying lip service to the haughty ideals of freedom and democracy.

This fact has been conveniently overlooked by Pax Americana’s cheerleaders who, despite having been thrown off kilter by the revolutionary wave which has swept the Middle East, are now returning to business as usual with their suggestions that the fury unleashed by the anti-Muhammad film is incontrovertible proof of the irreconcilability of Western and Islamic values.

Describing herself as a “combatant in the clash of civilisations”, Ayaan Hirsi Ali, the Somali-Dutch feminist, atheist and advocate of neo-con policies uses the latest flare up to call for more, not less, US intervention in the region to bring down political Islam “in the same way we helped bring about the demise of the former Soviet Union”.

Although I admire Hirsi Ali’s courage in standing by her convictions despite death threats, I cannot abide her politics, her wilful myopia to the destructiveness of much of America’s interventions, and her insistence that there is a “clash of civilsations”.

In my view, there are clashes of many things in this world – trivilisations, idiocies, fundamentalisms – but no clash of civilisations. Although culture and ideology can on rare occasions lead to conflict, for the most part, societies enter into conflicts due to clashes of interests.

That would explain, for instance, why the United States decided to invade Saddam Hussein’s secular Iraq, even though it was a sworn enemy of al-Qaeda and Jihadist Islam, yet is bosom buddies with Saudi Arabia, the hotbed of reactionary Wahhabism and the home of most of the alleged hijackers who took part in the 11 September 2001 attacks. It also sheds light on why Israel once short-sightedly backed Islamist Hamas as a counterweight against the secular PLO.

Despite the mutually exclusive historical narratives of Dar al-Islam and Christendom, of Crusades and Jihads promoted by extremists, any deep reading of history will soon reveal that conflicts within self-identified cultural or civilisational groups are greater than those between them. Christians and Muslims have gone to war and killed more of their coreligionists than each other. Take, for example, World War II, whose Christian-on-Christian carnage far surpassed anything the Muslims had ever inflicted. Moreover, the mutual hatred of Catholics and Protestants and Sunnis and Shia’a has often surpassed the rivalry between Islam and Christianity.

Add to that the fact that alliances regularly cut across presumed civilisational lines, such as the Arabs allying themselves with the British and the French against the Turks, or the Ottomans fighting alongside the Germans against the British, French and Russians. In fact, throughout its centuries as a major power, the Ottoman Empire’s alliances shifted between various Christian European states, including France, Poland, as well as the Protestant Reformation against the Catholic House of Habsburg.

More fundamentally, despite popular references to a “Judeo-Christian” civilisation, Islam actually also belongs to the same civilisational group, with common roots in the Abrahamic tradition, not to mention the Greek and Hellenistic, Mesopotamian and Egyptian influences. In fact, Europe and the Middle East, especially the Mediterranean countries, have more in common with each other than they do with their co-religionists in Africa and further east in Asia.

Some will undoubtedly protest that, even if this is true, the Enlightenment and its values, such as freedom of expression, have largely passed the Arab and Muslim world by. But the reality is far more complex and nuanced. Although Arabs and Muslims generally lag behind scientifically, this is not just down to local cultural factors. There are plenty of geopolitical and economic factors which are beyond their control holding them back.

More importantly, the values of the Enlightenment have been an integral part of the secularising and modernising reform project in the Middle East that began in Turkey and Egypt in the 19th century. More recently, it was the desire for freedom and democracy – as well as economic justice – which lured millions of protesters onto the streets, and even if mainstream Islamists have made the biggest gains for now, they have had to adapt their discourse to suit this public mood.

What all this demonstrates is that the clash of civilisations exists mostly in the fevered imaginations of extremists on both sides, but we are in danger of it becoming a self-fulfilling prophecy if we allow ourselves to fall for the divisive, though alluring in its simplicity, logic of the prophets of doom. To remedy and challenge this, moderates on all sides must join forces to highlight the reality and benefits of the mash of civilisations in which we really live.

Follow Khaled Diab on Twitter.

This article first appeared in Haaretz on 23 September 2012.

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Policing the beard

 
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By Osama Diab

In Egypt, beards have gone from indicating piety to symbolising political affiliation. Police neutrality requires officers to remove their facial hair.

Sunday 8 July 2012

Should Egyptian policemen remain clean shaven? Photo: ©Khaled Diab

A few months ago, a group of police officers decided to challenge the current Interior Ministry ban forbidding police officers from growing beards or long hair.

A few police officers decided to defy the ministerial code that regulates the appearance of police officers and let their facial hair go.

As a consequence, the ministry referred them to a disciplinary council, which is the procedure outlined in an Interior Ministry decree. The officers appealed this referral before the Cairo Administrative Court, but their appeal was rejected on Wednesday.

This new assertiveness within the police force could possibly be encouraged by the Islamists’ political triumphs over the past year, in both the parliamentary and presidential elections, which has emboldened them to rebel against their previous wholesale exclusion from many aspects of public life.

Other manifestations of this trend include last week’s launch of the first TV channel where all the presenters are women who wear the full-face veil.

Before the active participation of Islamists in Egypt’s political life, it was hard to imagine a bearded man in a police uniform or a face-veiled woman presenting a TV show.

According to a report by the daily al-Masry al-Youm, the police officers said they should be allowed to express themselves freely, which is a right protected by the constitution.

They also argue that the ministry’s decree contravenes the principles of Islamic law, which is an important source of legislation, and with international agreements and conventions that Egypt has signed.

Even though their argument might have some validity to it, would allowing police officers to grow their beards threaten the aspired-for political impartiality of state institutions? Would secularists be guilty of double standards by calling for freedom of religion and expression while preventing police officers from freely expressing their own beliefs?

Until recently, the Islamic beard (especially the Salafist version of it) used to signify piety and symbolise a greater commitment to one’s faith, that is, a purely religious symbol. However, now that Salafist groups have extended their activities beyond preaching and into politics, does the beard still remain a purely religious symbol, or does it have political and partisan connotations to it?

Since the establishment of post-revolutionary political parties in Egypt, especially the Salafist al-Nour party, whose members almost to a man grow their facial hair in a very distinctive fashion, the beard has become a clear indicator of partisanship and political affiliation.

In times of political turmoil such as we are currently experiencing, building politically neutral state institutions is all the more challenging because most have still not recovered from the blow dealt them by the 25 January revolution. Without careful monitoring, they could become easy prey for rising political powers to infiltrate and manipulate to their own favour.

Egyptians have long suffered from a police state whose main role was to safeguard the interests of a corrupt and authoritarian regime. During protests against the ruling party or president and during any kind of elections, the police, and other state institutions including the judiciary and the media, used to side with the regime. State security used to closely monitor dissident activities and, in many cases, arbitrarily arrest and torture those who they defined as a threat to the regime.

The political neutrality of the police force is one of the most important goals in the process of transitional justice that Egypt is supposedly undergoing.

This case is about the neutrality of state institutions more than it is about religious freedom. And unfortunately it is Islamists groups who are creating these deep philosophical concerns by mixing religion with politics and then calling for religious freedom in politically sensitive institutions.

The rising influence of political Islam combined with the police’s long history as an oppressive politicised tool in the hands of the regime makes it risky, at least during a transitional period, for this massive monster to take sides in political battles.

The memory of state brutality is still too fresh to allow the police to fall under any party’s control, especially those with questionable democratic credentials.

—-

Follow Osama Diab on Twitter at https://twitter.com/OsamaDiab

This article first appeared in The Daily Newson 8 July 2012. Republished here with the author’s consent.

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Religious rites and wrongs

 
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By Osama Diab

The banning of a Jewish festival this year in Egypt is wrong, both from a secular and religious perspective.

Tuesday 17 January 2012

One of the conservative views in the United States during the debate on the construction of a mosque near ‘Ground Zero’ in New York was that Saudi Arabia does not t allow the construction of churches, so why then should we, Americans, be so broad-minded about this mosque?

The simple and easy answer to this is that you cannot react to Saudi Arabia’s low standards of freedom of belief and religion by adopting similar norms yourself. The standard of religious freedom in Saudi Arabia should be for no one to aspire to. Freedom of religion and belief are non-scalable rights and violations in one country should not be used to justify imposing restrictions elsewhere.

But it is not just the American Christian right which is playing this game. In Egypt, a Jewish religious ceremony, known as a “moulid” in Arabic, to commemorate the death of the Moroccan Rabbi Yaakov Abu Hasira, which takes place every year in January and attracts hundreds of Jews to the city of Damanhour, near Alexandria, usually takes place around this time of year. Security concerns have been commonplace during the festivities due to local residents’ anger over the festival. The deployment of thousands of security forces, extremely tight security measures and little media coverage was the only way to prevent any clashes from taking place during the celebration.

However, in the aftermath of the revolution, the government of Egypt has decided to cancel the celebration altogether because the time is just not right due to the current political turmoil and lack of security.

This barring of Israeli pilgrims comes as no great surprise. Despite the presence of a three-decade-old peace treaty and the successful avoidance of any wide-scale military confrontation for almost years after fighting at least four wars in a quarter century, Egyptian-Israeli relations remain strained and the flow of citizens between the neighbouring countries is still rather limited.

Over the years, several court cases calling for the cancellation of the Abu Hasira moulid have been filed but the verdicts were ignored by the government. In 2004, the Supreme Administrative Court, whose rulings were regularly dismissed by the former President Hosni Mubarak’s regime, supported a lower court’s decision in 2001 to outlaw the annual festival.

The celebrations, which include a number of Jewish rituals, have mobilised various political groups from all across the political spectrum to sign a joint statement rejecting the Abu Hasira festival. Bloggers Against Abu Hasira, the Nasserist Trend, the Muslim Brotherhood, the Freedom and Justice Party, the April 6 Youth Movement and the Mohamed ElBaradei campaign have all signed the statement in what seems like a national consensus on the matter. The 2001 court decision linked the status of the site and the festival to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. This was also the main motivation behind the rejection of Abu Hasira by political groups mentioned above.

But this is an unacceptable example of mixing politics and religion. It is important that we, and more importantly the judiciary and politicians, distinguish between tensions between states and religious celebrations. This moulid should have nothing to do with normalisation with Israel and the Palestinian conflict. As a religious festival, it immediately becomes a matter of religious freedom, protected by the constitution, which clearly says that “the state guarantees the freedom of creed, and the freedom to practice religious rites”. This means that the ban on the festival is, therefore, unconstitutional.

Even though the pilgrims are mainly from Israel, due to its geographical proximity and because this is many of Abu Hasira’s co-religionists live today, Jews from other countries also attend the festival. If the point is to object to the actions of the Israeli state, it becomes crucial to distinguish between Judaism as a faith and Israel, which you have all right to criticise and even boycott.

Remember how moderate Muslims felt when they got lumped together with extremists in the aftermath of 9/11? Also, Egyptians and other Arabs cry “freedom of religion” and criticise Israel when it, for example, imposes restrictions on which Palestinians may pray at the Aqsa Mosque, so why the double standard in this case?

Moreover, there are so many other ways to protest the actions of the Israeli state while giving a good example of protecting religious freedoms. Egypt should not condemn suppression elsewhere by adopting similar measures at home. Two wrongs don’t make a right.

Over and above these secular arguments, even Islam recognises Judaism as a “heavenly” religion and Jews as “people of the book”, along with Christians and Sabians. The essence of Islam is to treasure the members of the other Abarahmic faiths. The Qur’an quite clearly defines those who will be salvaged on judgement day: “Those who believe (in the Qur’an) those who follow the Jewish (Scriptures) and the Sabians and the Christians―any who believe in Allāh and the Last Day, and did righteousness―on them shall be no fear, nor shall they grieve.” Verse 5:69.

Islam also allows Muslim men to marry Jewish women (some older traditions even allow Muslim women to do the same). Paradoxically, this means that, both religiously and legally, a Jewish woman can raise the child of a Muslim man who lives across the road from Abu Hasira but not be allowed to visit the shrine.

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Hebron settlers: The art of peace

 
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By Khaled Diab

The settlers in Hebron are widely regarded as the enemies of peace. That’s why I, as an Egyptian, decided it was essential to get to know them.

Tuesday 4 January 2012

The Cave of the Patriarchs/Ibrahimi Sanctuary. Photo: ©Khaled Diab

Meeting outside the Cave of the Patriarchs in Hebron, aka the Sanctuary of Abraham, seemed to be not just convenient but symbolically fitting. After all, it is this holy site which is the main reason why a few hundred religious settlers stubbornly insist on remaining in Hebron, despite being labelled as an “obstacle to peace”, not only by Palestinians and the international community, but also by many Israelis, including descendants of the city’s original Jewish community.

My guide and interlocutor was David Wilder, the veteran American-Israeli spokesman for the settler community in Hebron. With his long, flowing grey beard, Wilder had something of the patriarchal look about him, while the gun holstered on the side of his trousers bore a silent testimony to the Wild West Bank lifestyle of the settler community here.

Owing to unforeseen illness and a trip to the United States on Wilder’s part, it had taken several weeks for me finally to get this audience. During the long wait, I couldn’t quite shake the suspicion that Wilder was not exactly wildly enthusiastic about a visit from an Egyptian journalist, who was likely to be, at the very least, unsympathetic, if not outright hostile, towards his community.

But persistence ultimately paid off, as undoubtedly did the curiosity factor, which some Israeli friends suggested would prove irresistible, although others worried about the prospect of potential hostility. Personally, I expected civility but didn’t rule out other possibilities.

As we headed to and entered Wilder’s office in his battered old car, he was curious to learn more about me and what had motivated me to make this visit.

Ghost shopping street in Hebron. Photo: ©Khaled Diab

Part of my motivation was undoubtedly curiosity. I have visited the Palestinian side of Hebron on several occasions, both with a Palestinian human rights group and on my own or with friends. I have seen for myself the massive humanitarian impact, including the complete closure of all businesses on al-Shuhada street and in parts of the old city’s souq in the Qasbah, not to mention the severe restrictions on movement this draconian security entails. I have also spoken to Palestinians affected by the settler presence.

And now I wanted to see how the other side lived and what made them tick. In the Art of War, Sun Tzu says that if you know your enemy and you know yourself, then you can win a hundred battles without suffering a single loss. I don’t know if this is entirely the case or not, but in the Art of Peace to which I subscribe, knowing the enemies of peace, not just its friends, is essential if we are to find a way to end the battle and cut our losses.

Besides, I’m not one who likes to make easy and lazy judgements and I am a passionate believer in the idea that everyone has the right to have their case heard. With this in mind, I decided that it was important for me to cross the line, and it was a little surreal to see the inside of the settlements that stood behind the thick gate outside which I had stood.

An elderly Palestinian walks past a Hebron settlemet. Photo: ©Khaled Diab

On a couple of occasions, I have stood outside the gate of the Beit Romano settlement to protest the weekly Shabbat “Qasbah tour” which leaves from there, because of the heavy Israeli military guard it requires and the barring of Palestinian entry to the old city during the tour.

It is called a tour but it is more like a tour of duty. First, an advance party of heavily armed and nervous IDF soldiers, some looking little older than child soldiers, leaves the settlement, pointing their rifles in all directions in an absurdist mime. Their mission: to check the route. Some time later, out come the “tourists” and their “guide”, surrounded on all sides by even more IDF soldiers – all provided courtesy of compulsory national service and the Israeli (as well as American) taxpayer.

The last time I did it, I even draped a Palestinian keffiyah – one that was actually made in Hebron and not in China – which I had just purchased from a shopkeeper who had seen his business reach near collapse due to the closure of most of the shops on his street. This acted as a provocative red rag to the younger settlers on the tour and the beleaguered Israeli soldiers guarding them had a hard time keeping them away from me, which led them to implore me to move away, which I refused to do arguing that I had as much right to be on this street as they did. Reflecting on this incident, I wondered what Wilder would make of it.

Beit Hadassah in Hebron, which once housed a clinic and now contains a museum dedicated to the 1929 massacre. Photo: ©Khaled Diab

As I toured Jewish Hebron with Wilder, I figured that I must have been the only Arab there and wondered what the settlers would make of me if they found out that I was an Egyptian, especially given the regular reports of settler violence and attacks against Palestinians and their property. I saw a couple of yeshivas, an archaeological site which seemed to confirm the Biblical narrative in Wilder’s view, and a historically de-contextualised museum dedicated to the tragic 1929 Hebron massacre.

In visiting the Jewish settlements of Hebron, I wanted to develop a deeper understanding of what motivates a small group of people to live amid such hostility and exist in self-imposed isolation, not only from their physical neighbours but also from their co-religionists and compatriots.

The long, in-depth conversation I had with Wilder, who is an eloquent and passionate speaker, was enlightening, and that is why I have decided to serialise it in full. To me, it not only revealed a group of people with a worldview that is so completely different to my own that I felt I had indeed landed there “from the moon”, as Wilder invited me to do at one point.

One major impression I got from our conversation was not only the sense of divine entitlement and righteousness the settlers possessed, but also their rather paranoid narrative of victimhood and historical grievance, some of which is justified, despite the substantial power they yield. They feel not only hated by the Arabs, but misunderstood by Israelis and unfairly labelled as extremists. They criticise and lament Arab rejection of their presence in Hebron and their identity, yet they reject Palestinian identity and, judging by Wilder’s discourse, are opposed to granting them equal rights.

Although I do not believe in God-given rights, given the religious importance of Hebron to Jews and given my unwavering belief in multiculturalism, I believe that a Jewish presence in Hebron is necessary. However, that presence must be one built on equality and justice, not on segregation, oppression and occupation.

Informative as my encounter with Wilder was, it did not increase my optimism for the future. Following our encounter, I was left with the impression that the situation in Hebron, and the West Bank at large, is as intractable as ever, with the ideological settlers holding the Palestinian and Israeli public to ransom.

Nevertheless, I am still convinced that it was a useful exercise, that it helped humanise the situation and that it is through continued dialogue that the walls of prejudice and distrust can be gradually broken down to lay the groundwork for peace. In addition, the first step to resolving a problem, no matter how insoluble it seems, is through building a deeper understanding of the situation and the key players.

Now this preamble has gone on long enough. I’ll let the interview with Wilder speak for itself and you can make your own mind up about the thorny issues it raises. The interview will be serialised over the next couple of weeks, so do check back for the latest instalments.

Part II –  From secular America to religious Hebron

Part III – “We are not extremists”

Part IV – “I don’t like Tel Aviv, does that mean we should tear Tel Aviv down”

Part V – Palestinian people do not exist, are “PR bluff”

Part VI – Living with Palestinian “dhimmis”

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The ghost of Christmas past

 
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By Khaled Diab

The Holy Land is where Christmas began. But with the relative decline of Christianity there, does the yuletide still retain its spirit?

Wednesday 28 December 2011

Santa on the Via Dolorosa. ©Khaled Diab

In one of the bizarre contrasts I’ve grown to associate with Jerusalem, one of the first signs of the approach of Christmas was actually an unintentionally symbolic juxtaposition of birth and death: a kitsch inflatable version of the legendary gift bearer Father Christmas (Santa Claus) watching over pilgrims – and shoppers – as they progress along the sombre Via Dolorosa (Way of Grief), the route Jesus is believed to have followed on the way to his crucifixion.

In the land that quite literally put the Christ into Christmas, the run-up to the holiday season in the public sphere is pretty low key, given that the majority of the population is either Jewish or Muslim. “You see some decoration around, but Christmas here is a normal time of year,” says Dimitri Karkar, a Palestinian Christian businessman. Karkar lives in Ramallah, which has grown, with the influx of refugees from other parts of historic Palestine and Israel’s continued annexation of East Jerusalem, from being a small Christian village to become the de facto administrative capital of Palestine, where about a quarter of its population today is Christian.

This demographic reality inevitably affects the spirit of the season. “On Christmas Day, the majority of people are working, so most Christians work too,” notes Karkar, although he does point out that Orthodox Christmas, which is on 7 January, has been made a public holiday for Christians and Muslims alike in the West Bank. “My wife and kids are travelling but I have to keep my restaurant open.”

Although there is not much sign of Christmas in the public sphere in either Israel or Palestine, in private, the spirit of the season is alive and well. “I most enjoy the family gatherings,” Ameer Sader, a young Christian from Haifa, one of the major Arab population centres in Israel which is notable for its relatively good track record of coexistence. “The colours make me cheerful and full of holiday spirit.”

The way Christmas sheepishly sneaks up on you in Israel and Palestine sits in sharp contrast with the all-pervasive festive cheer in Europe and the United States. “Christmas here feels spiritless and meaningless in comparison to the West,” reflects Sader, who teaches English and works as a young guide at the National Museum of Science and Technology. “I’ve had the opportunity to celebrate Christmas in Paris. I felt the religious meaning of Christmas for two weeks long, as the midnight mass was an integral part of Christmas and the highlight of the celebrations,” he adds, while stressing that he is not a religious person.

With church attendance at an all-time low in Western Europe and the near-comprehensive secularisation of the festival in recent decades, Sader’s idealised description of Christmas in Paris would come as something of a revelation to many Europeans, who spend much of the advent period making offerings for their loved ones at the altar of consumerism, while the “spirit” of the season tends to be a merry genie inside a bottle shared with family and friends.

For their part, foreign Christians and pilgrims tend to romanticise the “purity” of Christmas in the Holy Land. “Christmas here is fantastic because there’s absolutely no sign of the trappings of materialism,” believes Richard Meryon, who is the director of Jerusalem’s Garden Tomb, which is in a kind of spiritual territorial dispute with the Church of the nearby Holy Sepulchre due to its claim to be a strong candidate for the location of the crucifixion, burial and resurrection of Jesus.

“People in England hardly know the difference between Santa Claus and Jesus,” jokes Meryon, who has something of the quintessential English vicar about him, while a group of Singaporean pilgrims sing melodic hymns in the background. “Commercialism has taken Jesus out of Christmas.”

Pilgrims sing Jesus' praise. ©Khaled Diab

And the guitar-strumming young Singaporean who had led his evangelist group of pilgrims in song seemed to share Meryon’s sentiments. “Being here is incredible. I can see Jesus all around me,” he said, I imagine, figuratively. Lacking any semblance of religious faith and not being of a spiritual disposition, in all my time in Jerusalem, I have never seen Christ figuratively. I have, however, repeatedly spotted a pilgrim fitting his description making his lonely way through the old city.

The reality of Christmas here seems to me to lie somewhere in the middle between what Sader and Meryon describe. In a land where people are generally more religious than in the West – whether they be Christians, Muslims or Jews – church attendance is high.

For obvious reasons, Bethlehem, whose population today is still about half Christian, is a popular pull for local Christians and pilgrims alike, with the highlight for the faithful being the midnight mass at the Church of the Nativity on Christmas Eve. And like for Joseph and Mary, those who leave it too long to book find that there’s no more room at the inn. “I just enjoy the whole atmosphere of worshipping in the place where Jesus was born, but it doesn’t look like a smelly cave with a manger and cows and cow poo,” says Meryon.

Despite the greater spirituality and religiosity, consumerism has been making rapid gains in Palestinian society, as reflected, for instance, by the ostentatious nature of weddings, which can last days and consume vast quantities of fireworks. In his grandparents’ day things were different, says Sader. “People back then couldn’t afford the extravagance which we are witnessing nowadays,” he explains, recalling his grandmother’s stories of how she and her sisters would spend days making new clothes for the children and baking Christmas cakes.

Back then, the Holy Land was far more Christian that it is now. During the British mandate, Christians comprised nearly 10% of the population of Palestine in 1922 and around 8% in 1946. Today, Christians make up about 4% of the West Bank’s population, although there are still a few Christian-majority villages about, such as Taybeh, whose skyline is dominated by church spires and produces the only Palestinian beer. Meanwhile, in Israel, though Christians make up 10% of its Palestinian population, they only constitute 2.5% of the total population. In Gaza, the Christian minority is even smaller, representing just 1% of the population.

A variety of push and pull factors are behind this relative decline. One major push factor is the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. The Arab-Israeli war of 1948 caused hundreds of thousands of Palestinians to flee or be driven out of their homes, most never to return – and each subsequent war has led to more Palestinians leaving. Today, though Palestinians are often materially better off than other Arabs, restrictions on movement, lack of economic opportunity, unemployment and the constant indignity of living under occupation prompt many to seek out new homes.

And being relatively better educated and sharing a common religion with the West, Palestinian Christians have generally been better placed to make the move. “Many Christians prioritise their religion over their nationality, thus feeling at home in western Christian countries as immigrants,” says Sader. “Also, the fertility rate among Christians is the lowest within Israel and Palestine, playing a role, however small it is, in their decline.”

But it would be a mistake to see this as a predominantly Christian phenomenon. “What is often ignored is the huge number of young Muslims who are leaving. And don’t forget there are more Palestinian Muslims living abroad than Christians,” points out Karkar.

Paradoxically, Christian charities and missionaries, who often do valuable work here, have played an unwitting role in this dynamic. “I think that an awful lot of well-meaning Christians in the West, whether they are in America, Britain or other places, have poured a lot of money into the West Bank, and specifically into the churches and ministries here,” observes Meryon. This, he notes, “is causing a haemorrhaging of Palestinian believers”, although, as a counterbalance, the numbers of foreign believers and Messianic Jews who believe in Jesus are rising, he points out.

Of course, not all Christian activity has been “well-meaning” towards Palestinian Christians. For example, so-called Zionist Christians are passionately, even virulently, pro-Israeli, and many come to the Holy Land, including mounted on Harley Davidsons, to express their support.

This undermining role was rhetorically summed up by Republican presidential contender Newt Gingrich, who in an apparent bid to court the Christian Zionist and pro-Israel right, made the outrageous claim that “We have invented the Palestinian people”, as if the Palestinians I encounter every day here are a figments of my imagination created in a Hollywood basement somewhere.

Nevertheless, Palestinian Christians in Palestine and Israel I have met insist that, although they may face a certain amount of discrimination from the country’s two major faith groups, especially with the rising tide of Islamic and Jewish fundamentalism, they are by no means “persecuted”. “Being a minority inside a minority is not a healthy and helpful situation,” contends Sader. “Christians feel rejected by their Muslim brothers (and vice versa) and of course by non-Arabs in the country.”

“There is no Islamic persecution here,” insists Karkar, who points out that it was a Muslim, the late Yasser Arafat, who not only symbolised national unity by marrying a Christian but also restored the status of Christmas in Bethlehem after years of Israeli-imposed isolation had made it impossible for Palestinian Christians from other parts to visit the birthplace of Christ. Karkar also contends that even the Islamist movement, Hamas, is not “anti-Christian”.

And in light of the pride Palestinian Christians hold in having produced some of Palestine’s most notable political and intellectual luminaries, Karkar’s assertionis understandable, especially given the traditionally secular nature of the Palestinian struggle for statehood. However, the recent rise of Islamism, although it may not have yet led to outright persecution, has certainly made Christians grow more uncomfortable as they are viewed with greater suspicion.

This discourse of “national unity” notwithstanding, not all is well in communal relations between Muslims and Christians. This is manifested in the growing significance of religious identity politics, as reflected, for example, in the increasingly overt displays of religious dress and the regularity with which I get asked whether I’m a Copt or a Muslim.

The future health of Christians and Christianity in the Holy Land will depend largely on politics and whether Israelis and Palestinians will be able to find a just resolution to their conflict. If peace and justice reign, many diaspora Palestinian Christians may be encouraged to return and help build a brighter and more inclusive future for all.

 

This is the extended version of an article that appeared in Salon on 23 December 2011.

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