A ‘War on Error’ against radical anti-Islam

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By Khaled Diab

Given how many New Atheists, Christian fundamentalists and neo-cons share a distorted view of Islam and Muslims, it’s high time for a War on Error 

Tuesday 19 May 2015

What do the high priests of “New Atheism”, Christian fundamentalists and neo-conservatives have in common?

Though this may sound like the opening line to a joke, the punchline is actually not terribly funny, especially given its dire consequences. Even though New Atheists feel contempt for Christian fundamentalists, both parties share a deep distrust and a profound misunderstanding of Islam and the Muslim world.

This was amply illustrated in a recent e-mail exchange in which the well-known neuroscientist and New Atheist Sam Harris decided, uninvited, to pick an intellectual fight with America’s leading political dissident, the scholar Noam Chomsky. After reading the debate, I was left with the impression that Harris has a knack for speaking truth to the powerless, while Chomsky follows the true path of the dissident, of speaking truth to power.

Given how broad and, hence dangerous, these misperceptions are, I believe it is high time that we launch a “War on Error” to spread the values of sensibility and common sense.

Moral equivalence and moral relativism

One of the most popular methods used by some New Atheists – and which they paradoxically share with neo-cons and Christian fundamentalists – is to slam what they regard as the “moral (or ethical) relativism” of the presumably self-hating left and multiculturalists.

As someone with powerful humanist convictions, I would love nothing more than to live in a world in which the universal values of individual human rights, equality and tolerance of others are the norms.

However, my experience is that those who inveigh the loudest against “moral relativism” are the first to invoke it in the form of “moral equivalence”. When people like me try to use the same ethical yardstick for all, they explicitly or implicitly invoke American or Western exceptionalism.

Take Sam Harris, who employs both concepts in his exchange with Chomsky. He defends torture, which contravenes the universal values he claims to uphold, such as the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, as something that “may be an ethical necessity in our war on terror,” yet issues wholesale condemnations of the “cruelty,” “barbarity” and “approach to criminal justice” of Muslim society.

“Any honest witness to current events will realise that there is no moral equivalence between the kind of force civilised democracies project in the world, warts and all, and the internecine violence that is perpetrated by Muslim militants, or indeed by Muslim governments.,” Harris writes in his 2004 The End of Faith,” an excerpt he includes as part of the email debate with Chomsky .

In this, he sounds like prominent neo-cons and Cold War warriors. During the Reagan era, for instance, US ambassador to the UN Jeane Kirkpatrick penned a scathing article in which she attacked what she claimed was the “myth of moral equivalence” between America and the Soviet Union.

Though Harris, a supporter of the Iraq war, repeatedly ignored Chomsky’s question about what he made of George W Bush’s belief that God guided him to invade Iraq and his description of the war there as a “Crusade”, forutnately, not all the intellectual leaders of New Atheism are so disingenuous. To his credit, Richard Dawkins was an outspoken and staunch opponent of perhaps the largest and deadliest military folly of this young century. “George Bush is a catastrophe for the world. And a dream for Bin Laden,” he concluded in no uncertain terms, at the time.

Shackled minds and the liberation of thought

“The inhabitants of the earth are of two sorts: those with brains but no religion, and those with religion but no brains.”

The citation above may sound like it was uttered by Richard Dawkins but it is actually a quotation taken from Abu al-Ala’ al-Ma’arri (973-1057), the blind Syrian poet, philosopher, rationalist and hermit who was both a vegetarian and an early advocate of extreme birth control, i.e. not having children.

Despite his strident and uncompromising atheism, the Syrian was a highly respected scholar of his day, who is still admired in Syria, and lived to the ripe old age of 84. His life and ideas, as well as that of numerous other Arab and Muslim intellectuals throughout the ages, eloquently expresses how Islam and free thought are not necessarily incompatible, as many modern critics claim, and how this tradition continues into the modern day, despite the conservative backlash.

Equally eloquently, the posthumous beheading of statues and busts of al-Maari by the Nusra Front show how far modern-day jihadists and Islamists have strayed from this spirit of tolerance and acceptance, and how al-Maari was better off in the Syria of the 10th century than that of the 21st.

Islam, the root of all evil

Though he lived a millennium earlier, al-Ma’arri differed from New Atheism’s high priests in one significant respect – he regarded all religions, prophets and scriptures as being equally “fabrications” and “idle tales”. In contrast, some of his contemporary counterparts possess an inexplicable soft spot for their own religious heritage.

“I regard Islam as one of the great evils in the world,” self-described “secular Christian” Dawkins contends because “there is a belief that every word of the Quran is literally true.”

While I agree that this is highly problematic, Dawkins conveniently glosses over the fact that a quarter of the citizens of the world’s most powerful nation believes the Bible should be taken literally and another half believes it to be the word of God.

Sadly, Dawkins’ view of Islam as the greatest evil echoes that of the lunatic Christian right in America, and has an ancient pedigree in Christian thought. For instance, prominent evangelist Franklin Graham, shortly after 9/11, repeatedly described Islam as “wicked and evil”. “I don’t believe this is a wonderful, peaceful religion” and “It wasn’t Methodists flying into those buildings, it wasn’t Lutherans.” Among evangelical Christians, 52% believe that “Islam is essentially a violent religion,” according to a 2013 poll.

Both Dawkins and Franklin, despite their undoubted mutual contempt, seem to draw from the same ancient roots of mutual distrust and rivalry between Christianity and Islam, eloquently illustrated by Dante’s Divine Comedy, where Muhammad is so evil that he must occupy one of the lowest circle of hell, where he suffers unspeakable torture. Likewise, far too many Muslims are convinced that there is a Christian crusade against Islam, which is clearly untrue.

Though it would be wonderful if all Christians were like a good-natured and eccentric Vicar of Dibley, the truth is that away from the West, wide-scale death and destruction have been wrought in the name of Christianity, from the ISIS of Christendom, the Lord’s Resistance Army, to the carnage of the anti-condom movement in Africa.

Fortunately, the New Atheists’ distorted views of Islam do not accurately reflect the views of the people for whom they are presumed to speak, given that just 20% of people who claim no faith or are agnostic believe that Islam is violent, according to the same Barna Group poll cited above. Similarly, the poll found that 62% of evangelical Christians have an unfavourable perception of Islam, compared with just 7 percent of agnostics or people with no faith.

Dreams of Nirvana

As a further sign of Dawkins’s religious naivety and that of  many others, great geographical distance seems to have warped people’s view of “Eastern religions”. “Hinduism and Buddhism offer much more sophisticated worldviews (or philosophies) and I see nothing wrong with these religions,” Dawkins claims, apparently oblivious to the deadly effects of Hindu and Buddhist violent nationalist and fundamentalist movements.

If even Buddhism, widely perceived as the true “religion of peace”, can be exploited for the purposes of hate, intolerance and persecution, this reveals an important truth: religions are faulty and imperfect, but so is the human condition.

What this suggests is that if Islam (and religion as a whole) died out tomorrow, we would not necessarily reach a state of enlightened secular Nirvana. The godless utopia could easily turn into a dystopia as well, as the Soviet experiment taught us.

Any ideology, even rationalism and atheism, can be twisted for the political gain of the few and to inflict unbelievable pain and suffering on the many.


Follow Khaled Diab on Twitter.

This is the extended version of an article which first appeared in Haaretz on 14 May 2015.

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Revolution@1: Sex and the citizen in Egypt and America

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Fundamentalists in America and Egypt are obsessed with “virtue “and “vice”. But the rise of Islamists threatens to bind Egyptian women in a moral vice.

Thursday 26 January 2012

Photo by Gigi Ibrahim

It is a longstanding marketing truism that sex sells. But it (well, hostility towards it) doesn’t just market products, it can also be marshalled to sell wholly unsexy politicians. This was amply demonstrated by what has been dubbed as the “War on Sex” during the Republican primaries, with candidates vying to outlaw birth control and promote abstinence, ban pornography and act against the “sin” of homosexuality. This has led some bloggers and journalists to compare Republican candidates, such as Rick Santorum, unfavourably to the leaders of Pakistan and Afghanistan.

“If someone wants to ban pornography, make life as hard as possible for homosexuals, and stigmatize sex before marriage… exactly what is it about Sharia law they don’t like?” asks Front Toward Enemy  in the Daily Kos.

And for all their mutual loathing and belief in a clash of civilisations, in the form of a global “jihad” against Christianity or an international “crusade” against Islam, the Christian and Muslim religious right are fighting on the same side, albeit in different trenches, in what can be called their War against Modernity, especially when it comes to sexuality and gender equality.

Half a world away, Egypt’s first post-revolution parliamentary election was, thanks to the Islamists, dominated by similar issues. Egypt is facing a spate of urgent political, social and economic issues, such as mass youth unemployment, a tanking economy and a cabal of diehard generals who just refuse to call it quits.

But you wouldn’t know it from listening to the discourse of Islamists, particularly that of the hardline Salafist Nour party, who have focused excessive attention on issues of “morality”, including talk of banning booze (as if prohibition has ever worked or Islam ever actually stopped Muslims from drinking), prohibiting or restricting bikinis and censoring “sex scenes” in Egypt’s vibrant film industry, known as the Hollywood of the Middle East.

Although brave women from all walks of life have been at the forefront of the popular uprising and are treated as relative equals by the revolutionary youth movement which has orchestrated the revolution, the burden of this moralising, as is often the case, has fallen on the shoulders of women. This has led Egypt’s secular, liberal women and feminists to look to the immediate future with a mixture of apprehension and worry.

“When Egyptian media spends hours and hours discussing bikinis and alcohol with presidential candidates, it tells you where women are going,” says Marwa Rakha, an Egyptian writer, broadcaster and blogger. “After the revolution, we saw women exposed to humiliating virginity tests, fired at, beaten up, arrested, molested, and stripped naked by army officers. Why would I be optimistic?”

But why is Egypt’s Islamic right so obsessed with sex and women, and seems to view both as the root of all evil?

One reason could be that with all the apparently insurmountable problems facing Egypt, it is a cynical populist ploy. “They want attention, lights, and media presence. How else will they get there unless they talk about women and their evil bodies?” opines Rakha.

“These are issues that people can relate to on a personal level,” explains Karima Abedeen, a secular British-Egyptian living in Cairo. “They are also vague and not quantifiable and most of the people who use these issues as their platform haven’t a clue about how to solve any of the other, more urgent social and political issues.”

On a more ideological plain, Muslim conservatives have quite successfully painted sexual liberty and gender equality as a Western import designed to weaken Egypt’s Islamic identity and corrupt Egyptians, and it is only by embracing Islamic traditions and morals wholeheartedly that Egyptians can resist Western hegemony and recreate their past glory.

“Focusing on issues of morality sends a message to the community that parties like the Muslim Brotherhood and the Salafis will protect our Islamic identity against the Western identity which liberals try to promote,” observes Gihan Abou Zeid, an Egyptian activist and feminist who is working on a book about the women who took part in the revolution. “Many Egyptians believe that following Islamic orders would fix many of the current challenges that Egypt is facing.”

In this, Islamists and their supporters are confusing the symptoms with the disease. In addition to complex international geopolitics, the reason Egypt has not made sufficient headway is not because it has veered too far from tradition, but because it has not embraced secular modernity enough and is suffering from the relative marginalisation not only of women but of young people too.

Moreover, similarly to Christian fundamentalists, Islamists and other social conservatives are alarmed by the corrosion of the traditional patriarchal order caused by the increasing emancipation of women. The loss of centuries of male privilege, especially in the public sphere, that this entails fuels the panicky public fixation on and obsession with what should be private issues, such as virginity and promiscuity. In this world view, strong, independent women are regarded with suspicion, as if they are carrying a volatile sex bomb that will explode upon contact with freedom and mushroom out to shred the fabric of society in its wake.

That said, despite the clear similarities between Egyptian Muslim and American Christian conservatives, the social context in which they operate is quite different. Egyptians on the whole may not necessarily be more religious than Americans, who seem far less inclined to abandon their faith than Europeans, but Egyptians interpret their faith far more traditionally.

Additionally, secularisation has progressed far more in America than in Egypt, where it has been partially discredited through its association both with Western neo-imperialism and the corruption and failure of Egypt’s secular dictatorships. In addition, American Christian fundamentalism is a strong movement founded on freedom and imperial swagger, whereas Egyptian Islamism is a reaction to weakness and decline, where people who have, for decades, been stripped of power in society focus on those few areas on which they can exercise control, i.e. “morality”.

Photo by Gigi Ibrahim

This means that, whereas religion is a fairly flexible and personal affair in America, in Egypt, by contrast, religion, or tradition, is more often than not about conformity and rigidity. And those who challenge this hegemonic view often suffer greatly for their “indiscretion”, as witnessed by the massive overreaction by Egyptian society pretty much in its entirety to the decision by a bold art student, Aliaa Elmahdy, to post naked images of herself on her blog to protest the growing Islamisation of society and demand her freedom of expression.

This traditionalist mindset could also partly explain the paradox that, although millions of Egyptian women have entered academia and the workforce, often outdoing and outperforming men, they have not become sexually freer but have had to compromise by stressing their “virtue” through such coping mechanisms as the hijab. As men lose control of women in the public sphere, they try harder to control them in the family, suggests Abou Zeid.

In fact, it would seem that, in Egypt, secularists, although they view women more as their equals, share the Islamists fear of female sexuality and their objectification of the female form. “The secularists and the conservatives are two faces of the same coin when it comes to women,” concludes Rakha. “Most of the politicians in both currents objectify women – one side wants to cover us and lock us up, while the other wants to strip us naked and show us off.”

Be that as it may, it would be a mistake to view the attitudes and agendas of secularists, many of whom believe in relative gender equality, and Islamists towards women as being identical. Moreover, even the Islamist camp is split between the right-of-centre and heterogenous Muslim Brotherhood’s Freedom and Justice Party (FJP) and the “Tea Party” Salafis. For example, Abou Zeid points to the fact that the Brotherhood is not against women working, albeit within limits, but the Salafis want them to “return” to the home.

The Salafis, she also adds, want to force women to cover their faces, as demonstrated by their vigilante “morality police” which has been roaming rural areas of Egypt, though, fortunately, Egyptian women have been fighting back.

A version of this article appeared in Salon on 23 January 2012.

Some are even more equivocal. “The Salafis are mad. They represent the very, very dark ages. The Muslim Brotherhood are not all bad,” says Abedeen. “I think the fact that the Salafis exist should push the Muslim Brotherhood towards a less conservative approach.”

In addition to the likelihood that the FJP will align itself to liberal, albeit economically conservative, parties, the wind is not yet out of the sails of the secular revolutionaries who have so far spearheaded change in Egypt, as illustrated by the defiant “Revolution Continues” movement.

One consequence of the revolution is that it has empowered the previously marginalised, namely the young and women, and made them believe that they can be agents of their own destiny. “Attitudes towards women are better among the young generation, particularly the middle class, to which most of the politically active women belong,” notes Abou Zeid.

This is bound to widen the gap between the young generation and secularists, on the one hand, and older generations and traditionalists, on the other, leading to a more polarised social landscape. “I think that women’s attitudes towards themselves have changed,” observes Abedeen. “The new generation of women is much stronger than older generations and is much less willing to compromise.”

Abedeen also believes that, once Egyptians see what the Islamists are like in power, they will soon fall out of love with them. “I am trying to stay positive and tell myself that it is natural that people should gravitate towards a more conservative option, hoping that these people will not be corrupt,” she says. “I am hoping, down the road, that people will realise that is not the way forward for Egypt, but we will have to see.”

But when all is said and done, it will be largely up to Egyptian women to carve out their rightful place in society. “Looking at Egypt now, I see a lot of courageous defiant women, but I also see millions who realise how oppressed they are yet do nothing about it,” surveys Rakha. “It is up to each woman on her own, in her house, at her desk, in her car, on her way to and from places. This is an individual fight whose collective gains and losses will reflect on the status of Egyptian women.”


A version of this article was published by Salon on 23 January 2012. This article is part of a special Chronikler series to mark the first anniversary of the Egyptian revolution.


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Enemies like us

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By Khaled Diab

Had the threat from far-right extremists been taken more seriously, could the Norway tragedy have been averted?

Monday 1 August 2011

The gruesome and horrifying attacks on 22 July 2011 in downtown Oslo and on the island of Utøya, which claimed at least 76 lives, including numerous children and minors, has caused Norway to lose its innocence, according to Norwegian novelist Jo Nesbø. 

“I came from a country where fear of others had not found a foothold. A country you could leave for three months… and come home to read the newspapers and discover that the only thing new was the crossword puzzle,” he wrote in The Guardian.

“The Norwegian self-image before 22 July 2011 was that of a virgin – nature untouched by human hands, a nation unsullied by the ills of society,” Utøya added. “And yet there is no road back to the way it was before.”

An attack like this is tragic for any country, but in the peaceful and peaceable backwater of Norway, a small country with grand ambitions of spreading peace around the world – such as by hosting the secret talks which led to the Israeli-Palestinian Oslo Accords or by launching the process which led to the Convention on Cluster Munitions – it is perhaps doubly sad.

On 22 July 2011, months shy of a decade after the 11 September attacks in the United States, another virginity of sorts was lost: the increasingly popular and mainstream idea that the greatest threats facing the West are posed by Islamist jihadists and Muslim minorities in Europe and the United States.

In fact, in the early hours following the attacks, speculation by ‘talking head’ experts focused on the presumption that the atrocities had been committed by Islamist extremists, despite the absence of any evidence to support this.

And, even worse, once the identity of the perpetrator was known – Anders Behring Breivik, a far-right extremist and Christian fundamentalist – the semantic shift in the coverage was palpable. Generally gone were the words ‘terror’ or ‘terrorist’ and, instead, we read and heard ‘gunman’, ‘extremist, or ‘attacker’ – even in the normally even-handed Guardian – despite the fact that he is being charged with “destabilising or destroying basic functions of society” and “creating serious fear in the population”, i.e. acts of terrorism.

At a certain level, such speculation is part of human nature because people need to know why, and it is far easier to apportion blame on the ‘other’ than to think the unthinkable or at least the unsavoury, that one of our own did this to us.

But even if it is human nature, such knee-jerkism is not humane, especially because it could have dire consequences for an already-vilified and distrusted minority, i.e. Muslims. This is doubly so when considering that even non-specialists could see gaping holes in the early theories of the security experts.

The main question that dogged my wife and I was “Why Norway?” The only reason we could think of as to why Islamist extremists would target Oslo is that it is a ‘soft target’. This could perhaps explain the bombs which went off in the government quarter, but why attack a Labour Party youth camp? And with bombings being the choice method used by Islamists when attacking Western targets, why did a gunman go around picking off individuals one after the other?

Well, even we had internalised the security narrative sufficiently to doubt our doubts, and decide it may have been Jihadists after all, despite our suspicions. Then, reports began to spread that witnesses were saying that the attacker was blond. As the details emerged, the initial outrage turned to shock and surprise – since when did white Europeans engage in terrorism and kill their own, many were asking?

This can’t be terrorism, these must be the actions of a mad “lone wolf”, some were insisting. But Breivik himself claims that he is not alone and is part of a Europe-wide anti-Islam network with two cells in Norway.

Although the attacks in Norway have taken the world by surprise, the signs that something like this might happen have been there for many years for those who were willing to take off their Islamist blinkers and look objectively at the wider picture.

Last year, on the fifth anniversary of the 7 July terror attacks in London, when debate again focused on “homegrown extremism”, but of the Islamist ilk, not the European far-right, I wrote, in an opinion piece for The Guardian in the UK, that neo-Nazism and other far-right ideologies in Europe probably constitute a greater threat than Islamic extremism.

I argued that, while the threat posed by a small number of violent Islamist extremists is very real and the danger of Islamic fundamentalism should not be downplayed or understated, the risk posed by the European far-right was greater because it is an indigenous ideology that can cruise under the radar while society is distracted with the spectre of external threats.

“Neo-Nazis have yet to pull off any attack as spectacular as those in Madrid or London. But that doesn’t mean they don’t want to or don’t plan to,” I cautioned. Moreover, they “are responsible for a regular and growing stream of violence against Muslims, Jews, blacks and other minorities across Europe”.

A lot of readers, inspired by the assurances of ‘security experts’, at the time dismissed my thesis, with some even accusing me of “agenda-pushing” and “fear-mongering”, with claims that “the far right are simply not a menace”.  Likewise, my theory, which I expounded three years earlier, that the United States and some parts of Europe were in the throes of a nascent “Christian jihad” was also met with a fair amount of ridicule.

So, the conventional wisdom remained the guiding principle, and Western security services continued their quest to protect us from the Islamist threat, with Europol reporting a 50% increase in the arrests of suspected Islamic extremists in 2010. Meanwhile, Anders Behring Breivik, was working for several years to blow this conventional wisdom out of the water: apparently undetected, he plotted this attack, tried to purchase weapons, engaged in hate-filled online debate and wrote a 1,500-page far-right manifesto entitled ‘2083 – a European Declaration of Independence’.

In its 2010 report, Europol did not take very seriously the risk posed by right-wing extremism, judging that the “threat from right-wing extremism appears to be on the wane and the numbers of right-wing extremist criminal offences are relatively low”. However, it noted that “the professionalism in their propaganda and organisation shows that right-wing extremist groups have the will to enlarge and spread their ideology”.

So was Breivik’s apparent ability to cruise below the radar an understandable oversight or a monumental security failure?

On the one hand, the presumption of innocence until proven guilty is an important pillar of the legal system and, according to Janne Kristiansen, chief of the Norwegian Police Security Service, Breivik was careful in the run-up to the attack and “deliberately desisted from violent exhortations on the net [and] has more or less been a moderate”.

On the other hand, Islamists who believe in creating a global Islamic caliphate, for instance, are routinely monitored by European security services, and numerous arrests of conservative Muslims have been made over the years on the slightest suspicion of possible violent intent. In Breivik’s case, he managed to research and write a lengthy manifesto containing many worrying passages, including his belief that his actions will help to spark a civil war in Europe that will ultimately lead to the expulsion of “cultural Marxists” and Muslims.

Moreover, even if his initial preparations were careful, Breivik’s megalomania seems to have got the better of him in the final countdown to the attack, which could have afforded security services the chance to apprehend him before he caused real destruction.

Six hours before the fateful and bloody killings, Breivik posted a YouTube video in which he urged fellow ultra-conservatives to “embrace martyrdom”. A text accompanying the video detailed his plans for the attack, while his blood-chilling manifesto was released an hour and a half beforehand – yet no action seems to have been taken to apprehend him. 

Why? Perhaps in a country that has never been rocked by a major terrorist attack, Norway’s security services were wholly unprepared for such an eventuality, at least, one originating with a native Norwegian – after all, what possible reason could a Norwegian have to commit violetn terrorism in such a prosperous and egalitarian society.

 At another level, perhaps Norwegian and European security services, like society at large, have so internalised the false yet popular notion that, although the majority of Muslims are not terrorists, the majority of terrorists are Muslims. I wonder if, in future, we will learn that Breivik’s name was flagged by some low-ranking analyst but his or her superiors failed to take the warning seriously.

Breivik provides an object lesson to Europeans and Americans alike that they ignore the extremists within their own ranks at their peril. There are also important lessons to be drawn from the West’s security-obsessed handling of Islamic extremism when it comes to the far-right. Far-right extremism cannot solely be viewed through the prism of security, but we need to strike at the ideological and socioeconomic factors that fuel it.

To do so, we need to build greater awareness and better understanding of the socioeconomic and cultural factors feeding this phenomenon. Just like their Islamist counterparts, many people who are drawn to far-right ideologies feel disempowered and marginalised, and believe that the way to overcome this is to turn back the clock to an idyllic ‘pure’ past.

And, as unemployment figures rise and government spending falls on the back of the recession, this sense of exclusion and frustration will grow – and minorities will continue to fill the role of convenient scapegoat for the economic ills visited upon us by the banking crisis and neo-liberal economics.

“The economic recession has led to political and social tensions and, in a number of member states, has fuelled the conditions for terrorism and extremism,” concludes Europol.

Mainstream society is, in certain ways, complicit in the emergence of this troubling current. The increasingly mainstream vilification and demonisation of the West’s Muslim minority and Islam in general – based on fear, insecurity, ignorance and political expediency, as well as the worry that extremist groups will succeed in their bid to ‘Islamise’ Europe – since the 11 September terror attacks a decade ago has created fertile ground for the far-right to lay down deeper roots.

We should not deal with far-right extremism and its violent manifestations with the same level of sensationalism and mass hysteria we reserve for extremist Islam – we need to be vigilant, not vigilante about it.

This article is part of a special Chronikler series on far-right extremism.

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Beyoncé: saint or sinner?

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By Khaled Diab

As the singer prepares to visit Egypt, Christian and Muslim fundamentalists agree: Beyoncé is the root of all evil.

4 November 2009

Is the 'Booty-shaking believer' a saint or a sinner?

Is the 'Booty-shaking believer' a saint or a sinner?

You can imagine my surprise when I learned that Beyoncé was not just another nauseating platinum-plated R&B diva, but has been lured to perform in Egypt, for the first time ever, as part of the Mubarak regime’s cunning plan to corrupt society.

“The government is trying to make people indulge in sin and licentiousness to cover up the other crimes it is committing against them,” fumed a member of the Muslim Brotherhood.

Despite being a “booty-shaking believer” and her expressed disappointment that she can’t go to church any more because of her fame, Beyoncé is no stranger to religious controversy. In fact, it would seem that Muslim and Christian conservatives, in spite of their conviction that they are worlds apart, actually share a lot of common ground when it comes to female pop stars.

“Beyoncé is NO Christian. She is satanic, serving the Devil!” the website jesus-is-savior.com self-righteously and surreally proclaims.

More moderately, the Yuinon, a movement that seeks, in its own words, “to reach, rescue and redeem youth and young adults”, complains that the R&B star is a bad role model for impressionable youth: “Young girls that look up to Beyoncé will think it’s acceptable to be in church worshipping teary-eyed on Sunday then frolicking, bootyliciously for a video shoot in some Daisy Dukes the next day.”

Personally, I am not too excited about Beyoncé performing in Egypt, but that’s entirely on artistic merit – I simply do not like her style of music. If I have any deeper objections, they centre more on how her overpriced, exclusive concert will throw into stark relief the gaping chasm between the have-loads and have-nots in Egypt. In a country where the official minimum wage is still stuck in 1984 – at a paltry 35 Egyptian pounds a month (about £3.90) – and many Egyptians are forced to survive on tip-based and street jobs, I wonder how people will react to the news that tickets to the concert are reportedly fetching as much as $400 a pop.

One thing that stumps me with the Muslim Brotherhood’s allegations is that, with Beyoncé’s concert taking place at an exclusive Red Sea resort hundreds of miles away from any major Egyptian population centre, I can’t help thinking that even if the government was out to “corrupt” the morals of the people, there are easier and cheaper ways to do so.

For example, Egypt is the cradle of one of the world’s oldest and most suggestive dances, the belly dance, which has been traced by historians back to Pharaonic times, was transformed into a high art by the Ottomans, was reinvented as an erotic image of the Orient by the west and was reclaimed by Egyptians and Arabs and fused with other modern dances. Its practitioners are reviled and admired, even idolised in a way that reflects the contradictions of society’s attitudes to women at ease with their sexuality. The persona of the ‘alma, with her strong personality, rebelliousness and native decency, good sense and wisdom, is semi-legendary.

Despite the Brotherhood’s better efforts, Egypt remains the capital of the Arab pop music industry and is a base for the region’s sexiest and most airbrushed pop stars, such as Ruby – although admittedly, most of them come from Lebanon.

One of these, Haifa Wehbe, managed both to win a best song of 2006 award and to cause outrage among those conservatives who have active imaginations with her video Boos el-Wawa (“Kiss the Boo-boo“), a silly dance number featuring her entertaining a child. To add insult to wawa, her latest film has angered some Egyptian Sufis because it apparently features a scene in which her bare legs distract a group of mystics from their prayers.

Many may rightly wonder why, with all the major challenges facing Egypt – poverty, corruption, authoritarianism, overpopulation and environmental degradation – religious conservatives, and even secular Arab activists, are so obsessed with sexy women.

This tendency has an ancient pedigree. “From the fall of al-Andalus to the debacle of the 1967 Arab-Israeli war, dancers are depicted in Arab lore as the critical distraction of Arab leaders that caused the demise of Arab glory,” writes Andrew Hammond in Popular Culture in the Arab World.

But this is mistaking the symptom for the malady. Arab leaders may have traditionally been able to surround themselves with female entertainers and concubines, but it is not the dancers who weakened the leader and, by extension the system, it is the authoritarian system in which the ruling elite lives, in many ways, above the law and cannot easily be held to account by the people.

There is also the fear, in a male-dominated society, of the suppressed potential power of women. An example of this is Tawfiq el-Hakim. Crowned as the father of modern Arabic drama, he was also known as aduw al-mar’a (the enemy of women) for his opposition to female emancipation. For instance, in what could have been a great allegorical play about vanity, individualism, collectivism and the pursuit of power, his Fate of a Cockroach descends into a barely veiled attack on the modern, professional woman who dons the proverbial trousers and oppresses her husband.

But El-Hakim is wrong: strong, independent, empowered women do not make cockroaches of men, rather they make humans of us all.

This column appeared in The Guardian Unlimited’s Comment is Free section on 29 October 2009. Read the related discussion.

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