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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Defining Egyptian democracy: “Not like America and not like Iran”

 
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By Josephine McCarthy

Provincial Egyptians believe that moderate Islamists can construct an Egyptian model of democracy that respects their traditions and identity.

Tuesday 20 December 2011

While on a research trip to Luxor, I decided to find out for myself what the ordinary people of Egypt really wanted from the revolution and to see if that matched in any way what was being reported in the UK’s popular press. So I donned my hijab, and my partner and I wandered the city for a few days before setting off and visiting the villages on the west bank of the Nile. We talked to a wide range of people over the space of a week, including a former English professor, hotel workers, farmers, felucca owners, beggars, shop keepers and women street vendors.

It became clear very quickly that, although language was not a barrier, vocabulary and its understanding was. People spoke freely, often with passion, with desperation at times and with a joy at being able to voice their opinions. They all, without exception, voiced fear of a religious government, a wish to have order, a fair share of wealth and proper jobs. The fear of a strict Islamic government was very clear, but there was also distaste for a Western-style amoral society. And that was the first hurdle of vocabulary for me to overcome. When someone says to me they do not want a religious government, I assume they want secularism. When in fact what most of the people seem to want is something in the middle, which would explain the rise of the Muslim Brotherhood.

“I don’t want to have to grow a beard and shut my wife up, but I don’t want that either,” said one felucca captain as he nodded at a passing tourist, female, in very little clothing. There is a strong belief on the streets of Luxor that secularism means decadence, greed, corruption and a lack of morals. His tale, like many of the personal stories I had in that week, was very sad. A man in his 60’s, very well educated, very well travelled, he could not get work anywhere except shunting tourists up and down the Nile for 20 Egyptian pounds (£2 sterling). He studied English literature, taught in Cairo in his younger days and travelled throughout Europe with his wife (she is my all, he said wistfully). He is also a practicing Muslim and feels that a life without God is no life. These days he wanders the east bank of the Nile, quoting Shakespeare to tourists in the hope of catching the attention of someone, someone who will hire his boat, someone who will pay him a pittance, so he can get through another day.

Photo: Josephine McCarthy

I asked him about the situation between Copts and Muslims, as it does seem to be an issue according to the UK news. “Pah” he says, “Luxor is 40% Copt, they are our brothers and sisters, our family. We have no problems between us. Our only problems are from the beards. By the way, don’t believe everything you hear on al-Jazeera.” I asked him if he had worked today. “No,” he said, “I have not had work for a week, thanks to newspapers scaring away tourists. You were not afraid to come, tell people to come, please.”  I told him that I had spent a lot of my childhood visiting Belfast, during the early 70’s, and that it takes a lot to scare me off. We could not leave him in such a way, so my partner hired him for the afternoon, at English rates, so they could chat further as they drifted down the Nile. I set off to wander the streets, to find other voices, other opinions.

“Come see my shit” was the opening line of a shopkeeper desperately trying to drag me in from the streets to ‘buy his shit’. I declined to make a purchase but we ended up chatting over hibiscus tea and tobacco. It did seem to be a good ‘drawing tool’, the fact that I dressed as an Egyptian woman and rolled my own tobacco. People were fascinated. They first assumed I was smoking hashish, but when I explained that it was just tobacco, they wanted to join in, drink tea and talk to this rather bizarre woman. Two other shopkeepers came, their business almost dead, to join in the tea and company. I asked them what life has been like since the revolution began and what their hopes for the future were.

The first thing that everyone mentioned was the absence of policing, the lack of regulation in the city that was causing mayhem for the shopkeepers. They bemoaned the fact that tourists had been scared away by reports of riots, and that the upcoming elections (2 days later) were confusing. There were many candidates, too many probably, and no one seemed to know what they stood for, who they were and what they would bring to society. Small images, often unrelated, identified the candidates and when I asked what the candidates offered, the shopkeepers shrugged. Do you want a secular society I asked. “Like America?” Yes, I replied. “No, we do not want that sort of mess.”

“Do you want a religious government, like Iran?” The men fell about laughing. “NO,” they all shouted in unison. “We want a government which is fair, not religious, that works for everybody and doesn’t tell us what to think.”

This highlighted for me the problem with vocabulary and understanding yet again. It would seem that people equated secularism with a decadent society of greed, disrespect and degeneration. I was beginning to see how the Muslim Brotherhood’s Freedom and Justice Party (FJP) was being so successful in the elections. They promise compromise, pragmatism and social justice.

“And if we do not like who gets in to government, then we will just kick them out again” was the parting words of one shopkeeper. It would seem that the people of Egypt had finally found a sense of their own power. As I walked back to my hotel, I came across a woman sitting by the side of the road, a pile of colourful scarves in her arms. She did not have the energy to chase the occasional tourist, instead she sat, holding out her arms as people walked by. I went and sat by her, bought some of her wares to ensure she had money for that day, and got into conversation with her. She was a divorcee, supporting her three children alone, and despite having a good education, the only work she could get was selling trinkets to tourists. What were her hopes and fears for the future of Egypt?

“I am afraid of Egypt becoming like Iran, that is my biggest fear of all for the future.  I am a Muslim, I love my family and I work hard, but I want our government to work for all of the people. I don’t think government should be religious, that is not it’s job.”  So I asked if she wanted a secular government?  No she replied, “People who do not believe in God cannot be good people.” It was becoming very obvious that ‘secular’ was being equated with ‘atheist’.

“What about a government made up of Muslims, Copts, etc., which just worked on government issues and not religious law? “That is the FJP, they will do that,” she replied. I hope she was right, I told her.

The following day, I set off the to the west bank villages, the place where the farmers and urban  manual workers lived. I struck up a conversation with a middle-aged sugar cane farmer who was curious as to why a woman in hijab was rolling tobacco (it always peaks curiosity and curiosity is the biggest opener of doors). I rolled him a cigarette and he produced the tea. It was a long and interesting conversation that would probably not have happened only 12 months ago. He was scathing in his attack on the government ,both now and under Mubarak. So I asked him what it was about the current government that was making him angry. “Corruption,” he replied, “corruption at every level”. Nothing had changed for him except that there was more crime on the streets now. He told me that, as a farmer, he sold raw sugar to the government for 90 Piastres a kilo. He then had to buy it back as processed sugar for his family at 7 Egyptian pounds a kilo. He could not understand why he got so little for his product and yet so much profit was obviously being made. We began talking about society in general and where he felt Egypt was heading. He spoke a lot about the region needing a sense of ‘right and wrong’, of a moral society that cared for all people. I asked him if he meant a Muslim Government. “Yes” he replied.

“Like, say, Iran for example?”

“Oh no, not like that, that is not Islamic anyhow, that is just ignorant bullying.”

So I asked him about the Muslim Brotherhood. Did he think they could do a good job? He nodded vigorously. “Yes, they care for our brother Copts as well as us. They care about all of us and they respect the poor. They will look after us, all of us.” So I ventured into more searching questions, and asked his opinion on the more traditional al-Nour party. The man shook his head while kicking the dirt at his feet. “We want our way, the Egyptian way, the respectable way, but we do not want to have to grow beards, we do not want to go backwards. We want to go forwards, but be respectable. You dress like a good Egyptian woman, you know what I mean.”

I nodded, I was beginning to understand. I asked him if a lot of people will vote tomorrow (Luxor elections) for al-Nour? He nodded sadly. “There are too many candidates, it’s too confusing and people are frightened. They are fearful of corruption, of decadence, of poverty. If someone says they will give money to the poor, they will get votes. We are also worried about becoming like the West. We are not the West, we are good people, we work hard and respect our families. We want tourists to keep coming, to bring their money, we do not want to be like Iran.”

It struck me that the Iranian model was none too popular and was frequently used as an example of what people did not want.

As we spoke, a group of young boys were touting trinkets to tourists. They were fashionably dressed and could have walked straight off a New York street. They chased the scantily clad tourists mercilessly, physically grabbing the women, and making a general nuisance of themselves. One of them spotted me rolling a cigarette and wandered over in curiosity. “You give me hashish?” said a boy who can’t have been more than 10-years-old. I waved him away as the farmer I was talking to shook his head. He nodded at the boys, whose passing comments to women would have turned a corpse red, and pointed out that he felt his whole country would become like them if they had a “godless” government.

My last interview victim was a Copt working in the city of Luxor. I was staying in a Coptic-owned hotel and had chatted with the staff throughout the week. He pointed out to me the need for elections sooner rather than later: the lack of stable government at both the local and national level was creating chaos on the streets. Too many taxi drivers, no policing: the country needed regulation and soon. What about the Muslim Brotherhood? “They will be ok, I think, but the Islamic parties are a worry if they get in. If they do, I am moving out.”

I pointed out that the Brotherhood is an Islamic party, and is seen in the West as a potential threat to democracy. The man smiled and shook his head. “We have nothing to fear from them, they are about government, not religion, if they know what is good for them and for Egypt, we will have a democracy with them. And if they do turn out to be too religious, then we will kick them out.” Yet again, this expressed the new sense of popular confidence and people power on the streets.

What about secular parties, I asked? “Liberals? La (no). What do they know of family responsibilities, they are not respectable people, they are not Egyptians,” was the Copt’s dismissive reaction.

Later, I sat by the Nile and pondered over the voices I had heard over the week as I watched the military trucks filled with soldiers park quietly up the back streets in preparation for voting. One thing had become patently obvious: the secularist parties were not listening to the people, to the ordinary rural folk trying to get through life with some dignity. The people needed straight talking, down-to-earth practical understandable solutions, agendas and a manifesto that fitted Egypt, not the West. Instead they bandied about concepts and issues that the local people could not relate to, and most important of all, they have done nothing to truly connect with the ordinary, everyday person outside of Cairo.

Maybe the FJP would be a good bridge to the future, if they kept in mind that the people will no longer tolerate oppressive rule. That would give the liberal parties chance to get their act together and find a way to speak for all of the people, not just the educated middle classes. This is a major turning point for Egypt and it has to work from the inside out, it has to come from the people, all of the people. Personally I think at this point in the game, a western style secular free market economy would be a cultural disaster for Egypt, it certainly is not the answer to all ills, as we are finding out in the west, for a number of reasons. There has to be a way to have a socially conscious government without religion being involved. Maybe Egypt will birth something new, a socially conscious society that is intellectually free and a government that keeps its nose out of people’s hearts and minds. We can all live in hope of such a dream.

 

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The sacred right to ‘insult’

 
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By Khaled Diab

Jailing Egyptians for insulting religion and the military goes against the revolution’s spirit, and violates people’s secular and sacred rights.

Monday 31 October 2011

The revolution seems to have made the Egyptian regime very quick to take offence from all those ungrateful pesky Egyptians. In April, the courageous blogger Maikel Nabil Sanad was jailed for three years on the ludicrous charge of “insulting the military” – which is an offence only to our intelligence. The posts that got him in trouble include one in which he contends that “the army and people were never a single hand” and another that accuses the interim regime of “recycling the same old shit” but this time on a china plate – not to mention his view that the Coptic Pope Shenouda III has a “long history of hypocrisy with [Egypt’s] leadership”.

In protest against his sentencing, Sanad began a long hunger strike in jail which has placed his health at serious risk. Now reports are emerging that he has been moved to a psychiatric hospital, drawing severe condemnation from Egypt’s mental health community. An interesting blog containing Sanad’s determinedly outspoken writings from prison has been set up by his friends.

Human rights activists cautioned at the time of Sanad’s imprisonment that it set a “dangerous precedent”, and their warning seems to have been sound. Since the revolution began in January, an estimated 12,000 civilians have stood in the dock before military courts, which is more than the total number of cases during the Mubarak era. This is despite the fact that one of the key demands of the revolution was to abolish the emergency laws that make it possible for the regime to execute such summary “justice”.

Now Egypt’s civilian courts have joined the fray of Egyptian institutions making offenders out of bloggers who cause offence. Ayman Youssef Mansour also received three years, but this time not for offending the demigods of the military but rather for “insulting” Islam, “promoting extremist ideas” and “inciting sectarianism” on Facebook.

Unfortunately, the court gave absolutely no details about what exactly Mansour had written and my repeated attempts to dig up his writings online only led me to the empty shell of his Facebook page. But judging from other online content, which has riled pious Egyptians, I suspect that, though Mansour’s page may have caused offence, especially if it was atheistic, it probably did not incite sectarianism or fitna.

Although atheism can be just as oppressive as any other belief system if it becomes the official ‘religion’ of a repressive state, as the Soviet Union amply demonstrated, I’ve never heard of any member of Egypt’s marginalised, unrecognised and forgotten atheist minority ever calling for a ‘jihad’ or ‘crusade’ against believers.

For instance, many Egyptians have been campaigning for the removal of a controversial satirical Facebook page, which mocks religion mercilessly. The content of the page ranges from juvenile and absurdist humour – “If a prophet comes who declare ‘Aha‘ [‘Oh Shit’] I shall believe in him” – to biting political satire and social commentary, but it is all rather harmless.

One post, citing God’s various haughty titles such as “King of Kings”, asks whether “God suffers from megalomania or is just the Muammar Gaddafi of the heavens”. Another post, mocking Mubarak’s attempts to hold on to power by ostensibly delegating his authority to his intelligence chief, Omar Suleiman, reports: “God has declared … that he does not intend to run for a second godly term and that he is handing over all his powers to the angel Gabriel.”

Though each of these posts gets dozens of likes, indicating that many Egyptians and Arabs approve of this brand of humour, they also elicit hundreds of comments, many of them condemnations and childish insults by believers, many of which are, ironically, blasphemous in nature.

Of course, I can see why, in a largely religious society, the mocking or deriding of the most fundamental beliefs people hold dear can cause anger. But trying to shut down such debate or jail those who hold contrary views goes against the spirit of freedom embodied in the Egyptian revolution. And even for those Muslims who do not believe in modern secularism, Islam itself has traditionally guaranteed freedom of belief for all. This is spelt out, for example, in the constitution of Medina and the long tradition Muslim societies have had of tolerating criticism and the ridiculing of Islam.

More pragmatically, it is in every Egyptian’s interest to scrap the vague legislation that outlaws the “ridiculing or insulting” of any of the Abrahamic faiths. Though the law appears to accord all Egyptians equal rights, this is only the case if we assume that all Egyptians are Muslims, Christians or Jews – but there are those who belong to other religions or none. Then there are those with alternative, more liberal interpretations of their faith, such as academics, novelists and film-makers who have had cases brought against them by Islamists. And not only is this vague law a gift to ultra-conservative Islamists, it was also thoroughly exploited by the former regime to silence its critics.

And far from preventing the fitna the law is apparently designed to do, it may actually stoke the fires of sectarianism and division by creating a new battleground in the courts. This can be seen in how some conservative Christians have taken the Islamists’ lead and are, too, bringing cases to the courts against those they perceive as having defamed their faith.

And who is to determine what’s defamatory? In some ways the very existence of Islam and Christianity can be seen, at one level, as being mutually insulting to each other. After all, regardless of the respect Muslims hold for Christians and their faith, Islam ultimately emerged as a ‘corrective’ for the deviations that Christianity had apparently taken from the ‘true faith’, and challenges some fundamental Christian beliefs. Could that not be interpreted as insulting?

Similarly, Christianity still exists because Christians do not accept that Muhammad is a true prophet, regardless of how much many Christians admire and respect him as a man, leader and visionary. So, it is best for everyone just to live and let live.

The new Egypt must uphold the rights of everyone to believe in what they want and speak freely about their beliefs. It must also protect its minorities, not only Christians and Baha’is but also the officially voiceless but significant nonbelieving minority.

 

This article first appeared in The Guardian’s Comment is Free section on 27 October 2011. Read the related discussion

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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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