ISIS’s war on women in Mosul

 
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By Thurayya Ibrahim*

Before ISIS began targeting Iraq’s minorities and cultural heritage, it set to work veiling women in a new dark age, reversing decades of hard-won gains.

Despite ISIS' attitudes to women, the group has reportedly attracted some female foreign jihadists.

Despite ISIS’ attitudes to women, the group has reportedly attracted some female foreign jihadists.

Tuesday 24 February 2015

When I was growing up, the women of Mosul had the freedom to pursue whatever path they chose to follow. They had the right to work, study and dress as they desire. Women were empowered participants in the community. Growing up during the early 1980s in Mosul, I witnessed the freedom women had. Perhaps it was less than in the 1960s and 1970s, but certainly more than the current sorry situation. I was surrounded by female relatives who all worked after completing their university degrees. They drove cars, went out and travelled abroad alone and refused to get married, preferring the single independent lifestyle. Even at home, when I opened my eyes to the world, I saw my mother going to work everyday as a teacher. The stay-at-home woman was an alien concept to me as a child, and I assumed everyone had to go to work.

Mosul, unlike other Iraqi cities, was a blend of conservatism, tradition and modernity, a balance between the fairly modern and free Baghdad and Basra, and the strict and conservative Najaf and Karbala. Nevertheless, in all the years I spent in Mosul, I came across only one woman who wore a headscarf, one of my primary school teachers. I’m not sure whether the absence of the veil was down to Iraq’s secular rule or whether it reflected a more confident society not yet torn apart by economic sanctions, wars, occupation and sectarianism – all of which are contributing factors to the social change that began to take place in Mosul even before the ISIS invasion.

During the 1960s and 1970s, women were free to wear trousers, mini-skirts and sleeveless dresses. By the 1980s, this was beginning to change, and Mouslawi society started to be critical of such styles. Not everyone complied with the new conservative mores and some carried on wearing what they wanted but most decided not to become the talk of the town.

Just as the Islamic State (ISIS) has striven to destroy Mosul’s heritage and cultural diversity, the group has been working to devastate the position of women. Before the jihadist group began demolishing places of worship and archaeological landmarks, and before they started their campaign of ethnic cleansing, it issued new rules for women to follow, including a repressive dress code. ISIS recently imposed further restrictions on what women are allowed to wear – the new “Law” demands that women wear an almost tent-like cape which covers them from their eyes to their feet. There have even been reports of women falling and fracturing their legs as they struggle to walk in such attire.

Such codified restrictions were alien to a society where the long struggle for female emancipation scored many notable victories.  Iraq has always been at the forefront of female emancipation in the Arab world, with a wealth of famous women who have left a mark not only on Iraq’s history but on the world stage too. Figures like the writer and traveller Maria Theresa Asmar, who wrote a book in the early 19th century describing her travels through Turkey, Syria, Lebanon, and Palestine. Armenian-Iraqi Beatrice Ohanessian was Iraq’s first concert pianist and one of the few women to become a director of the Piano Department at the Institute of Fine Arts in Baghdad. Other prominent Iraqi women include Nazik Al-Malaika, considered by many to be one of the most influential contemporary Iraqi poets who was the first poet to use free verse in Arabic, Zaha Hadid, the renowned international architect, who is in fact originally from Mosul, and many more.

It seems ironic today that Iraq in the 1950s had the first female cabinet minister in the Arab region.  This remarkable woman, Naziha al-Dulaimi, was probably one of the most respected and recognised Iraqi women. An early pioneer of the Iraqi feminist movement and co-founder and first president of the Iraqi Women’s League, she studied medicine at the Royal College of Medicine in Baghdad and, at the age of 19, she was one of few female students at the Medical College. During her government career, al-Dulaimi was instrumental in turning the vast slums of eastern Baghdad into a massive social housing project and helped author the secular 1959 Civil Affairs Law, which was way ahead of its time in liberalising marriage and inheritance laws to the advantage of Iraqi women. She was also a prominent member of the international feminist movement and an active participant in the Iraqi and world peace movements.

It is hard to imagine how a country that has made such progress can be expected to to return the dark ages where women who do not meet ISIS’s requirements are often sold into slavery or forced to marry one of its fighters. The rest of the women who are not targeted for sexual/slave trade are segregated from men in all aspects of daily life.

Anyone who contravenes ISIS’s draconian rules faces heavy repercussions, but some locals are defiant, despite the risks. One friend witnessed a so-called “hisbah” patrol stop a woman who was with her husband because she was not wearing the “right” clothes. Within minutes, an ISIS member raised his baton to strike the woman when, in a fit of rage, the husband shouted: “In ten years of marriage, I have never lifted a finger against my wife. Do you think I will allow a fanatical foreigner to degrade and hit her?” The man my friend witnessed wrestled the baton out of the patrolman’s hand and started beating him with it.

To avoid such situations, many women have opted to stay at home and not venture outside or go to work. But not everyone can afford this luxury, especially with the soaring cost of living. Even girls as young as 11 cannot escape these draconian rules. Fearing for their daughters’ safety, many families have kept girls home from their schools and universities. One mother had no choice but to stop her 14-year-old daughter from attending school after an ISIS patrol stopped the chauffer-driven car that was taking the girl and her younger brother to their school demanding to know why the girl’s eyes were not covered. Apparently, the fact that her entire face was veiled was not enough. When the ISIS militant started to question the girl as to why she was out with “strange men”, the driver explained that the young boy was her brother, which provoked the patrol to ask who the chauffer was. By this point, the girl was so scared that she lied and said he was her uncle. The girl was so frightened that she told her mother she never wanted to leave the house again, even though she had been defying her parents to pursue her education despite the ISIS presence.

ISIS members have also prohibited female students from attending classes because their attire was considered “un-Islamic”. The only accepted attire for female students is the one-piece black burqa. And it is not just girls who are dropping out in large numbers. Boys reportedly are too.

It should be pointed out that there is significant local divergence within Mosul, in terms of rules, and how strictly or leniently they are applied, which often depends on the ISIS militants in the area. “I witnessed several women in the market areas without niqabs,” one local said. “[This] appears to be a change in strategy following a number of attacks perpetrated by disguised men in niqab.”

Iraqis, particularly women, are resilient and adaptable. Iraqi womenhad to endure years of wars without a man in the house, as often they were on the battlefield and many never came back. Women also had to improvise throughout the long years of sanctions to ensure their children and loved ones got fed. With the arrival of the US invasion, women faced a new challenge of protecting their family from foreign invaders. Similarly, despite all the atrocities and savage acts ISIS commits, people try to get on with life in Mosul. Women still go out – provided they are covered from head to toe – they drive to work (though at work they are segregated from men) visit each other and go to the shops. Beauty parlours and hair salons have been banned, and various cosmetic and hair products are no longer sold in shops, driving women to find alternatives when caring for their appearance. Despite the restrictions, three weddings took place last month, two of which were hosted by my old neighbours in Mosul. And that is the contradictory nature of the city, while some women are fleeing, others are being defiantly normal.

There have been reports of public executions of women, notably ones who were politically active. For example, two former candidates for the Iraqi parliament – Ibtisam Ali Jarjis on the Watanya list and Miran Ghazi, who was a candidate for Arab List – were sentenced to death by ISIS’s Sharia court.

According to officials from Mosul, the two candidates had repented in one of the ISIS mosques in Mosul to spare their lives, but the Islamic judge overruled their repentance and the two women were re-arrested. Isis militants also publicly executed Samira Salih al-Nuaimi, a leading lawyer and human rights activist, after she was seized from her home for allegedly “abandoning Islam”, whereas in actual fact her kidnapping took place after she had posted messages on Facebook that were critical of the militants’ destruction of religious sites in Mosul. The militants then tortured al-Nuaimi for five days before killing her. Al-Nuaimi left behind a husband and three children. There are many more tales of women being publicly executed, such as the three female doctors who refused to treat ISIS militants. ISIS militants recently paraded two sisters and a man who were accused of adultery before stoning them to death.

Life under ISIS for the women of Mosul is unprecedented in Iraq’s modern history. But tough, patient and resilient as they are, these women will continue to resist.

 

Part I: The ISIS disease in Mosul

Part II: Mosul’s lost diversity

Part III: The destruction of Mosul’s past, present and future

____

* The author’s name is a pseudonym.

 

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Arabic: The language of confusion?

 
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By Khaled Diab

If an Arab says he’ll kill you, don’t  worry – he wants to buy you dinner. Whether Arabic dialects are a single language is politcal, not linguistic.

Photo: Aieman Khimji / Wikimedia Commons

Photo: Aieman Khimji / Wikimedia Commons

Tuesday 30 December 2014

Earlier this month, the United Nations celebrated Arabic Language Day which got me musing about whether that should be in the singular or take the plural form, Arabic Languages Day.

It is something of a recurring joke among Egyptians who do not speak foreign languages to quip that they speak two languages: Egyptian and Fusha (Modern Standard Arabic).

For language purists and traditionalists, the various forms of colloquial Arabic (amiya or darija) are simply bastardisations of classical Arabic and do not merit much attention.

In fact, it took decades of struggle before Arabic vernaculars became accepted as more than spoken languages. The late colloquial poet Ahmed Fouad Negm – who managed to piss off three Egyptian presidents enough to jail him – did not just shock the establishment with his irreverence, dissent and obscenity but also his insistence on employing Egyptian working class Arabic, rather than the refined poetic language of classical Arabic, in his verse.

But Negm, and other trailblazers before and since, have given amiya authenticity, respectability and, most of all, street cred. And today colloquial Arabic is used regularly on TV, social media and even in literature.

This is just as well. As any frustrated foreign learner of Arabic can tell you, speaking the classical language can make you sound like you’ve stepped out of a TV period drama about, say, Saladin, or give people the impression that you’re a newscaster – in other words, it’s just not natural.

Not only does standard Arabic not feel natural to most Arabs, the differences between it and some vernaculars is so great that schoolchildren sometimes feel they are learning a second language, though not quite a foreign language.

But when it comes to the dozens of Arabic dialects, some would surely qualify as a foreign language. If the definition of a language is that its speakers can understand each other, then Arabic often fails this test, since some of its dialects are mutually unintelligible.

The decision to classify all these dialects as being the same language is both political and historical. Arabic is at the core of modern Arab identity and so promoting the idea of common nationhood has required the glossing over of these linguistic differences. Such apparent linguistic unity also encouraged the illusion that Arab unity was natural and inevitable, which meant that pan-Arabism rested more on sloganeering than on concrete efforts to bridge the huge cultural, economic, social and political differences in the region.

In addition, Arabic remains the only generally accepted liturgical language for Islam – which used to confound me as a child when I came across Pakistani and Indian friends in London who knew the Quran by heart but didn’t comprehend a word they recited.

Speakers of dialects from the Arab Mashriq (East) cannot generally understand people from the Arab Maghreb (West). Try as I may, I have never managed to decipher Algerian, and Moroccan is a serious challenge, even after encountering many Moroccans in Belgium. While travelling around Morocco, I was amused by the fact that it was sometimes easier to communicate with locals in French than in Arabic, since many were not well-versed in standard Arabic.

There is a certain level of mutual unintelligibility even between dialects in close geographical proximity. Even among mutually intelligible and relatively similar dialects, like Egyptian and Palestinian, there is plenty of room for confusion.

When I first moved here, to Jerusalem, I was surprised to discover just how different the words in Egyptian and Palestinian were for many basic items. These include bread (eish/khobez), shoes (gazma/kondara) and slippers (shebsheb/babouj). Many basic phrases also differ significantly: How are you? (ezayak/kefak?), good (kewayis/meneeh), What’s this? (Eh dah/Shoo hada?).

Many common verbs vary too: look (bos/itala’), run (igree/orkod), lift (sheel/irfa’a), hug (uhdon/a’ebot), etc. This is why I sometimes feel sorry for my son. At five, he is grappling with four languages (Arabic, Dutch, English and French), but the Arabic component must feel like more than one language to him.

Sometimes, and this is where the real fun begins, the same word exists but it can have quite a different meaning, leading to much mirth or confusion or even insult.

Palestinians have repeatedly described a person to me as “naseh”. To my Egyptian ears, this means smart, clever or even a wiseass. But here it means chubby. Some Palestinians have on occasion told me that I look “da’afan” which to my ears sounds like “weak” or “under the weather,” but to them it means “you’ve lost weight.”

Speaking of health, many Palestinians bid each other farewell by saying: “Ye’tek el-afiya” which literally means “May you be given rigour.” In Egypt, we only say that to sick people and so, in my early days here, I wondered why some people thought I was unwell.

Sometimes these dialectical differences can cause bewilderment. While “mabsout” in Egypt and some other countries means happy or in a good mood, in Iraq, it means to be “beaten up.” A friend relates an anecdote in which an ICRC worker visiting Iraqi prisoners asked them whether they were “mabsouteen” and they were utterly confused by the question.

Speaking of violence. A German friend of mine who went out to dinner with a Tunisian was told in no uncertain terms that her date would “khalas aleki.” In the Egyptian dialect she knew, it meant “finish her off.” Confused, she asked him why he wanted to kill her, to which he explained that, in Tunisia, it means that he was going to pick up the tab.

Sometimes, Arabs visiting other Arab countries can unintentionally cause insult. While in many dialects “marra” is just the normal way of referring to a woman, in Egypt, it is derogatory and verges on calling her a “slut.”

Even respectful terms like teacher (me’allem, for a man, or me’allema, for a woman) mean something different in Egypt. For Egyptians, a me’allem is the boss of a gang or a group of manual workers or craftsmen, while a me’allema is a head belly-dancer.

With all these mind-boggling variations, whether or not Arabic qualifies as a single language or many languages is really in the eyes, and ears, of the beholder.

If the idea of Arab unity is to have any kind of future, these linguistic differences, not to mention socio-economic and political ones, need to be recognised and accommodated. Arabs need not speak with a single voice, but need to find harmony among their chorus of divergent voices.

____

Follow Khaled Diab on Twitter.

This is an extended version of an article which first appeared in Haaretz on 18 December 2014.

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Sexual harassment and the medina

 
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By Mette Høyer Eriksen

In Egypt, sexual harassment is a largely urban phenomenon fuelled by a sense of male powerlessness, insecurity and unrealistic gender ideals.

Original image: https://www.flickr.com/photos/elhamalawy/293034937/in/photolist-rTT5v-rTXPY-rTTH3-rTUnw-rTWZS-rTU1w-rTVaV-rTSMB-rTVTc-rTWfw-9h3ZJT-dSKi5p-rU2xx-rU2fd-rU6Tw-rU6aF-rU5Qt-rU4w1-rU2TK-rU1WY-rU3dB-rU4bB-rU1AD-rU4Ph-rU6xB-rU5wT-rU3y5-rU3TJ-dSKeVz-soCuu-soCJV-soCoA-soCXt-soCjX-soCM9-soCzM-soCTF-soCwr-soCy6-soCVY-soCmM-soD1R-soCYL-soCPn-soD7W-soCDp-rUaj8-rU7Aw-nHR3jp-c9nYt7

Photo: Hossam el-Hamalawy

Wednesday 5 November 2014

In Cairo, the problem of sexual harassment is so widespread that anti-harassment NGOs are now classifying the situation as an out-and-out epidemic. So serious is the issue that in June the Egyptian government stepped in and introduced a law criminalising sexual harassment – a law that to date has only had limited effect. Critics claim the new legislation does little more than treat the symptoms of a social problem – a problem which is unlikely to be solved through condemnation or by criminalisation alone.

“There’s an acute need for state intervention that tackles the challenges head on and that addresses the cultural and social dimensions of the issue. If the Egyptian state is serious about combatting harassment, it needs to acknowledge the full scale of the problem. Legislation by itself is not enough,” wrote Yasmin El-Rifae from the organisation Operation Anti-Sexual Harassment on the Middle East Institute portal.

An urban phenomenon

Whereas research has shown that women who are exposed to harassment feel less secure about walking about on their own and, to some extent actually choose to avoid public spaces, there have been few studies into the factors that motivate men to harass women.

“We know very little about the perpetrators. After all, no-one is going to put his hand up and admit that he’s done such things, let alone tell us why he did it,” explains Marwa Shalaby, a the director of the Women and Human Rights in the Middle East programme at Rice University’s Baker  Institute for Public Policy.

She adds that when it comes to determining why men commit acts of harassment neither age nor religion nor profession seem to be factors. However, evidence does show that harassment is more prevalent in the towns and cites than in rural areas.

But just what is it that drives men to accost and harass women? One person who has been trying to find an answer to this question is Shereen El Feki, who researched and wrote the book Sex and the Citadel – a factual novel about sex in the Arab world today.

An expression of impotence

Photo: Hossam el-Hamalawy

Photo: Hossam el-Hamalawy

When the so-called Arab Spring reached Egypt at the beginning of 2011, the fact that women and men could stand side by side demonstrating for the same rights was one thing that was highlighted as exceptional. During the protests, many women became the victims of violent assaults. However, during the first days of the uprising, Egypt witnessed a rare and unique coming together of the women and men who jointly took over Tahrir Square. Together, they were fighting for the same thing. In her book, El Feki argues that this sense of struggling for something meant that the men taking part in the protests felt less need to elevate themselves above the women. On the basis of her own experiences, she writes: “These events have clearly shown that when men have a sense of motivation and purpose they change the way they behave towards women.”

Shereen El Feki’s argument is backed up by Samira Aghacy, equality researcher at the Lebanese American University in Beirut. One of her areas of study has been masculinity, and she argues that the patriarchical social order prevalent in many places across the region also serves to oppress men – and this oppression is then reflected in the men’s behaviour towards women.

“Many men feel impotent, marginalised and incapable of doing something positive or contributing to the reconstruction of their country or the way it’s being run. It leaves them feeling very frustrated, and they often take their frustrations out on women,” explains Aghacy.

Patriarchy, performance and power

One of Samira Aghacy’s major studies in this area examined how Arabic literature has been portraying men since 1967. Here, she points out, it is clear that masculinity and manliness are associated with having power. Yet only a few Arab men have actually held power over the past decades, so men have also been victims of the patriarchical society. Men are oppressed in a similar way to women, but they have a different conflict because they have been brought up to be in control. They feel castrated and inadequate because they are unable to perform in the way they feel men are expected to perform.

“It all comes down to the way that we’re brought up. That’s the way power relations play out across large parts of the region. Men are brought up to hold the power, so if they don’t have any power, don’t earn enough, and don’t feel that they have anything to say, then they have to demonstrate power in another way,” explains Aghacy.

In other words, there is incongruence between what is expected of men and what men actually can live up to. According to Egyptian journalist and blogger Khaled Diab, the problem of sexual harassment is also linked to the polarisation that has been taking place in many Arab societies over the past years – particularly in Egypt.

“The Egyptian revolution has meant that the underlying polarisation between progressives and conservatives has transformed from cold war to active conflict. On top of this, huge differences in income, wealth and education have also played a role,” Diab observes. “When anger and resentment begin to flourish within a society, it’s often the most vulnerable who end up paying the highest price –whether they be women, children or minorities.”

Torn between tradition and modernity

When a woman student at Cairo University’s Faculty of Law was sexually harassed by a group of men in March, the university’s rector suggested afterwards that it was her own fault because she was dressed in such ‘unusual’ clothing: tight jeans and a pink hooded top. Khaled Diab reacted by posting a photo on Twitter taken around the 1950s or 1960s at Cairo’s Al-Azhar University. In the picture, a group of young women who are not wearing headscarves are being taught by an Islamic scholar. “Women used to study at Al-Azhar without covering their heads, and now Cairo University is blaming this woman’s clothing for her attack,” wrote Diab on Twitter.

“Since the end of the 1970s, conservative forces have been steadily gaining ground. But over the past year, women and progressive men have begun refusing to be intimidated, and they’ve become more self-aware and more radical. This has provoked a violent backlash from alarmed and displeased elements within the conservative camp,” explains Diab.

“Right now, Egypt finds itself in a state of limbo, torn between tradition and modernity. This means that women have lost the protection of their bodies that a patriarchical honour system affords, but they have yet to win the protection that modern equality offers,” he adds.

For Mette Toft Nielsen, MA in culture, communication and globalisation, the reason men act the way that they do is the million-dollar question. In connection with a research project for Aalborg University, Denmark, she is currently spending two years living in Cairo studying the conditions of women in Egypt. As part of her studies, she has also been looking into the issue of sexual harassment.

“I’ve come to the conclusion that providing a clear answer as to what caused sexual harassment it’s simply too ambitious. There are thousands of hypotheses and assumptions out there, but most of them are just too difficult to prove or disprove,” she explains.

Conservative gender roles

According to Mette Toft Nielsen, sexual harassment should not be seen as an expression of how men regard women. “It’s interesting because that’s how we typically look at it – that the way men regard women is grotesque. That men are misogynistic pigs and women have a real tough time of things. But I personally don’t believe that that’s actually what’s going on,” she explains.

She continues that while it is clearly women who suffer most from male dominance, the responsibility for changing things does not necessarily lie with men alone. According to Nielsen, men’s attitudes towards women stem from the fact that the men are products of a culture that is governed by very strong gender-role expectations. There are traditions and expectations – and the women are also complicit in upholding these.

“In the West, we often have a subject/object approach to things: the subject – the person who acts and takes action – is the man; the object – the person who is affected by the action and who is seen – is the woman. In this way of thinking, the man can also be seen as the one who can change the situation he finds himself in. And this is something I disagree with strongly. I believe that there are a lot of men out there who really do want to change these things,” notes Nielsen.

One widely touted explanation for sexual harassment is that the heckling and accosting are a result of the men’s sexual frustrations from living in a culture where sex is only permitted within marriage, and is therefore something many young people cannot indulge in.  But Mette Toft Nielsen does not buy this theory.

“Fist of all, many of the men in Cairo who sexually harass women certainly don’t lack sexual experience. Secondly, I’m not at all convinced that sexual harassment has anything to do with sex in the first place,” she asserts.

“I see this harassment first and foremost as an issue of power. Not power as in control – but power as in preserving something that there once was,” she explains, and points out that this is purely based on her own experience and observations and not something based on scientifically proven facts.

“Perhaps this explains why sexual harassment is much more prevalent in the towns and cities than in rural areas. In urban areas, people are witnessing change – particularly economic change. Men are witnessing many women entering the labour market, taking on well-paid jobs and being professionally accomplished,” Nielsen describes. “Many students at the universities are women, and from a career perspective they pose a real threat to the men. So I could imagine that it’s a question of changing positions and changing power relations. After all, if the man loses his role of looking after the woman what is there left for him to do?”

____

This article first appeared in WomenDialogue on 21 October 2014. Republished here with the author and publisher’s consent.

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An ode to Google doodles

 
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By Christian Nielsen

Google doodles must be the most fleeting yet highly visited exhibition on the planet honouring both the famous and the quirky.

British-Museum-Google-Doodle

Tuesday 24 June 2014

This year is the 255th anniversary of the British Museum. It’s not exactly a milestone year in the grand scheme of things, but clearly grand enough to be honoured with a Google doodle in January.

Any excuse for a great doodle is a good one in my book. And if I hadn’t tried the ‘I’m Feeling Lucky’ search option on Google I would never have learned about it.

Ever since Google first entered our computer screens – quickly followed by our lexicon and now our consciousness – I’ve been tempted but never acted out on the urge to press the ‘I’m Feeling Lucky’ button.

Until today, I’d never given this reticence much thought. But as I warm up to a day of work and I open my explorer with the default Google screen whirring to life, only to see yet another fascinating interpretation of the World Cup 2014, I begin to wonder what creative machinery must be behind this constant output by the search giant.

Do they sit down once a year or once a month and map out a calendar of milestones and lesser, sometimes quirky, events to honour with possibly the most fleeting but highly visited exhibition on the planet? I’d like to think, yes. One day and XX millions of online denizens are treated to a lesson in history or culture or the banal. And it’s all fine by me. The more obscure the better.

I’ve also never really explored why I haven’t tried my luck on this odd little feature, which I dare say is a legacy of the first designs of Google, where the developers were not sure if people would know what they were looking for on this big bad web, let alone how to enter the search words in the simple little field they provided. So a bright spark says, “Let’s give them a sample or a demo but we can make it like a roll of the dice … to get them hooked on our tool!”

Well, if that were true, they needn’t have worried. We’re hooked. Not by the idea of ‘feeling lucky’ but by the sheer unchanging simplicity and, indeed, beauty and form of this tool. Sure, Google is much more than a simple search screen now. We’re waiting for driverless Google taxis and enjoy a whole host of other ‘Drive’ related tools through the cloud.

But it is the search – the deep calling for knowledge now literally at our fingertips – that keeps us coming back. And in that there is a degree of excitement still. It’s not so much down to luck any more as we’ve learned how to trick the big machine into delivering pretty much what we want in the first few listed results. We do all sorts of Boolean mind tricks (I looked that up on Google!) on it and it probably reluctantly coughs up what we’re looking for with a couple of paid-for gems on top.

And yet that little ‘I’m Feeling Lucky’ button stays in-situ as some kind of ode – to what I’m not really certain. Maybe it’s an ode to simpler times, or an ode to the randomness of life, or to the copywriter who first thought of this funny little phrase. Maybe it’s an ode to philosophy or to modern mantras that challenge our grasp of reality. Maybe it’s a tacit ode to Nassim Nicholas Taleb’s book Fooled by Randomness: The hidden role of chance in life and in the markets. Or maybe it’s just a case of dumb luck, a whim that stuck.

Just doodling

I don’t know – I’m not on Google’s board or anyone else’s – but I do know that today I decided to try my hand. Maybe I was bored, maybe I was overcome with wonder at the fresh doodle every day for the World Cup, or maybe because it’s a Tuesday and that’s a lucky day, if there ever was one. So, I hovered for a second and then pressed I’m Feeling Lucky. It felt good.

And you know what I got? The back-catalogue of doodles in one beautiful long list with the dates and event being immortalised by this Google feature.

I’m not sure what role luck played in this result, but I’m pretty happy with it. I scrolled down a few screens, learned about Mary Anning, a struggling English palaeontologist. I discovered the Columbian painter/sculptor Alejandro Obregón and the obscure Japanese ‘Go’ (a board game I think) champion Honinbo Shusaku. I caught up on recent national days and the European elections. And I realised my family missed Father’s Day!

But the doodle that took my eye, if not my fancy, was the anniversary of the British Museum. Every time I visit the great city of London, I try to take an hour or so to stroll through a couple of the rooms in this national treasure trove. I love that it’s still free, when very little else is these days. It reminds me of my back-packing days where anything free that involved warmth and comfort was worth seeking out.

Two decades ago I wrote a cheesy little story (I was young) in a scrappy notebook while propped in front of a figurine of Anubis in the Egyptian chamber. I’ll share it with if you ask nicely. I know the museum has some detractors and some explaining to do about how it obtained – and, well, chooses to keep – some of the treasures, but as a casual seeker of knowledge, a visitor who likes to try his luck every now and then, the British Museum is truly a worthy find. Thanks Google. You’ve made my day.

 

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Fiction: Football

 
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By Christian Nielsen

I ask if he is making friends… She tells me he has black skin, lifting her arm to show me in case I don’t comprehend the significance. 

Thursday 19 June 2014

“How have you been?” I ask as she takes off her headscarf and hangs it up to dry.

“Oh, you know … fine,” she answers, not looking at me.

“And how is your boy doing?”

“Yes … fine,” she says while changing shoes.

I ask if I can get her a cup of tea and she doesn’t refuse.

While the kettle boils, she sits at the kitchen table and lets out a small marsupial-sounding noise, a sigh that ends with a wet click inside the cheek.

“He wants to play football, you know … and I tell him he must finish his classes and get good grades.”

“Is he any good?” I ask, as only a man can focus on the specifics of his footballing talent.

“I don’t know. I heard of it just now. He wants to play for the student team, but I say he must not waste time or he will have to go back …” she whispers “… if it is football he wants why did I bring him here to me; he can stay in Zimbabwe?”

I ask how much time the football would take up. She says training in the week and matches on Saturday … she thinks he already plays because he is never around when she comes back from French classes.

I ask how old he is and tell her how difficult it is to hold him back; he’s an adult after all.

She tells me it is for his own good, that if he gets bad grades or fails he can’t stay in the country.

I ask if he is making friends, spending much time with people outside class. She tells me he has black skin, lifting her arm to show me in case I don’t comprehend the significance, and says it is hard.

“If you hold him back, you have no guarantees his grades will continue to be good,” I offer, “and if you let him play you don’t know for sure his studies will suffer.”

She nods silently and takes a sip of her tea.

“You have to show you trust him but set conditions … tell him he can play but it would be a trial,” I continue.

“Yes, you think so?” she reflects.

“I do. It’s going to be hard enough for him to get a job once he finishes studying, so he will need the social contacts … people from the football club can help him. An employer looks for well-balanced young people and he’ll need to show he’s a team player … not just good at school.”

She brightens up and takes another sip of her tea. The doorbell rings. I don’t feel the urge to answer it.

“Perhaps tell him you agree to the football providing his grades stay good and that it is a positive thing for his CV.”

“Football yes, I can show I trust him … Do you have sugar, Mr Melisma?”

____

This story is taken from Mr Melisma, please, Christian Nielsen’s debut collection of short fiction.  Also read The Box. You can order your copy from Amazon

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The power of Palestinian literature to write wrongs

 
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The power of Palestinian literature lies in its ability to make a word of difference, gradually shifting perceptions and, through them, reality.

Palfest

Wednesday 11 June 2014

The annual Palestine Festival of Literature (PalFest), which took place last week, was held in five different cities: Ramallah, Jerusalem, Bethlehem, Nablus and Haifa. Into its seventh edition, this year’s PalFest, despite being run on a shoestring, attracted prominent Palestinian, Arab, European, American, Asian and African names.

PalFest has managed to skirt around the movement restrictions imposed by the Israeli military to field a diverse programme including readings, theatrical performances, music, panel discussions and workshops.

The festival’s slogan is “the power of culture over the culture of power”. This echoes the ancient adage “The pen is mightier than the sword,” which has been recycled in various forms since at least the Assyrian sage Ahiqar in the 7th century BC.

But in a world where the sword – or more accurately the gun, the missile and the jet fighter – so often silences the word, it is easy to view literature’s power to write wrongs with scepticism and, hence, regard it as a preoccupation people living under occupation can ill afford.

Even the late Mahmoud Darwish, widely regarded as Palestine’s national poet and one of the main architects of modern Palestinian consciousness, was not immune to such doubts. “I thought poetry could change everything, could change history and could humanise,” he said in a 2002 interview. “But now I think that poetry changes only the poet.”

Despite these misgivings, the culture of power does sometimes feel insecure in the face of the power of culture.

Although Israel, alongside Lebanon, probably has the freest literary scene in the Middle East, this freedom often does not extend to the Palestinians. This was on ample display during the second edition of PalFest in 2009, when Israeli police tried to stop the Jerusalem leg of the festival from taking place, prompting the French Cultural Centre and British Council to step in to save the day.

This demonstrates that the pen can sometimes intimidate the sword.

In my view, the power of literature lies in its ability to make a word, rather than a world, of difference. It doesn’t cause dramatic, immediate change in the real world, but it can gradually shift perceptions and consciousness and, through them, reality.

Literature can and does play a number of vital roles in the context of the Palestinian struggle. For instance, whether in the form of fiction or non-fiction, it is a peaceful means of resisting Israel’s military machine, both by boosting morale and highlighting the plight of Palestinians.

Traditionally, Palestinian literature has served the function of chronicling the dispossession of the Palestinian people and of keeping their memory and identity alive. This is epitomised not only in the poetry of Darwish but also in the defining short stories and novels of Ghassan Kanafani, who was assassinated in 1972 in Beirut by, many suspect, the Mossad.

Literature is also, as Darwish pointed out, a vehicle for humanising the Palestinians. This is not only in the eyes of those who regard them as two-dimensional villains but also those who see them simplistically as superhuman heroes or poor victims.

A new generation of writers and other artists has taken it as their mission to highlight this ordinary human experience, albeit in extraordinary circumstances. Such run-of-the-mill Palestinians “need to be fictionalised,” in the view of Selma Dabbagh, a British-Palestinian lawyer-turned-novelist and playwright, because “the media, if it saw them at all, would be more likely to see them as victims, which is a flattening vision.”

Literature can also be a conduit for self-reflection and criticism of the shortcomings of Palestinian society itself. An example of this was presented at PalFest by Palestinian-American poet Susan Abulhawa when she recited a poem from her collection My Voice Sought the Wind, in which she reflects on the equal sacrifices women must make for the cause but the unequal returns they receive:

The first time your husband hit you

It nearly knocked the country off your back

Literature is also a means of displaying solidarity. “Your very presence here signifies your support in these times of isolation,” Michael Sansour, the executive vice-president of Bethlehem University, one of the venues of the festival, told the assembled writers and journalists.

Caught between the walls imposed by the Israeli occupation and Arab reluctance to scale them, Palestinians have been incredibly isolated not only from the wider world, but even their own neighbourhood. PalFest, which is the brainchild of the acclaimed Egyptian-British author Ahdaf Soueif, was created partly to remedy this.

But literature is not just about resistance but can also pave the way to coexistence by bridging the chasm of perception and misconception between the two sides.

“[Elias] Khoury’s Bab al-Shams influenced my thinking lots, as did Raja Shehadeh’s Palestinian Walks,” observes Shuli, an Israeli acquaintance. “They further fleshed out things that I sensed but couldn’t prove with statistics and history, filled gaps.”

This bridge-building potential is well embodied in the unlikely friendship and intellectual companionship between the late Egyptian novelist Naguib Mahfouz and Sasson Somekh, the Iraqi-Israeli poet and academic whose research brought Mahfouz into the international limelight.

But, above all, the writer can imagine a better tomorrow. “I dream of the day when,” Mahfouz once confided in Somekh, “thanks to the co-operation between us, this region will become a home overflowing with the light of science, blessed by the highest principles of heaven.”

Follow Khaled Diab on Twitter.

This article first appeared in The National on 4 June 2014.

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The box

 
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By Christian Nielsen

Andrew knew the first time he opened the box that it would lead to no good. But he did it anyway. He couldn’t help it.

Tuesday 20 May 2014

Just a crack, he thought. But that was enough. It came straight at him like a sneeze. Wet and vapour-like in his mouth, up his nose. Like a brain-freeze but hot. No cold. No, it was hot. Nebulous. Bilious.

Was it searching? Andrew felt it, but it was someone else hopping on one foot. Pandora had come. Pandora would soon leave.

Eyes closed. A motif. Filigree. Blackened. Engraved from memory. He ran his finger along the pattern … sensed the relief.

He thought it would all be a dream. It wasn’t. Life’s never that easy. He knew that but hoped each day would prove different. He’d remember what his grandfather told him about polishing shoes.

He’d remember the brushes, one for each colour. He’d search for the shoebox in his mind. In the garage? No. Under the sink? No. Where the money was kept? No? With the unpacked books? No. Under the BBQ? Of course it was under the BBQ.

He’d remember grandfather’s house; weatherboards, metalwork on the veranda, creeping vines, chirping cicadas … He’d remember silky hair … a feint smell of tonic and 4711. He’d remember bran flakes and apple. He’d remember kind words, the look of pride … some disappointment.

Buses come and go but never his. That’s the way it is … and maybe was. His fingernails need cleaning. That much he knew. No-one notices anymore, he thought. Shoes, people notice.

Mothers turn their children to face the other way. But they always turn back and stare. Pull a face and they laugh. That’s nice.

Work disappears when you close your eyes. So Andrew thought.

It’s just steps. Open the drawer. Take paperclips. Spread under the desk. Close the office door. Pretend to be gathering them up. Lay down. Close your eyes. Dream about the box … see yourself opening it … feel the hot-cold … It’s just steps. Turn the latch. Crack the lid. Open just a smidgeon … No!

It’s just steps. Choose a rag. Smear the polish. Rub into the shoe. Wait to dry. Take the right coloured brush. One hand in a shoe … a brush in the other … smell the hair tonic …

Surely someone will find him under there …

____

This story is taken from Mr Melisma, please, Christian Nielsen’s debut collection of short fiction. You can order your copy from Amazon

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Reimagining Palestine: Inserting the human dimension

 
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By Khaled Diab

The outside world primarily see Palestinians as two-dimensional heroes or villains. A new generation of artists and writers is adding a vital third dimension, the human. 

East Jerusalem provides the backdrop for a comedy drama about a Palestinian family. Source: NossBalad

East Jerusalem provides the backdrop for a comedy drama about a Palestinian family. Source: NossBalad

Monday 3 March 2014

The Arab-Israeli conflict has cast such a long shadow over the Palestinians that it sometimes seems the outside world can only view this dynamic and diverse people through the prism of the conflict. This tension between the image of the Palestinian as freedom fighter, in one narrative, and as terrorist, in the other, distorts the far more important picture of the Palestinian as human being.

But recent years have witnessed the emergence of a new generation of artists and writers who are challenging this superficial hero/villain dichotomy by delving deeper into the ordinary human experience, albeit under extraordinary circumstances.

In so doing, they are making the conflict the backdrop, rather than the central focus. “I have met people, many Palestinians, whom I have found quite heroic in a quotidian, no-glory kind of way,” reflects Selma Dabbagh, a British-Palestinian lawyer-turned-novelist and playwright. “They need to be fictionalised, as the media, if it saw them at all, would be more likely to see them as victims, which is a flattening vision.”

And despite the temptation to communicate a “message,” Dabbagh has striven to avoid such two-dimensional flatness in her work. “I did start writing thinking [I have] a mission… but the more I wrote fiction, the more I realised that the message was dangerous,” she notes. “The characters have to live and breathe in a writer’s mind and rub off each other with love and conflict.”

Selma Dabbag. Photo: Jonathan Ring

Selma Dabbag. Photo: Jonathan Ring

And “love and conflict” are the themes of Dabbagh’s latest work, a BBC radio play. Although The Brick, which is set in Jerusalem, features checkpoints and permits, these provide the background scenery to a personal story of mundane routine pierced by shattering family revelations.

In Dabbagh’s well-received debut novel, Out of It, she also attempts this difficult juggling act of making the human speak louder than the sometimes deafening background drone of conflict.

Partly set in Gaza during the second intifada, the book strives to rise above the cacophony of conflict to delve into the human experience of a family of “returnees” trying to find escape, each in their own unique way – in England, in the Gulf or inside their minds.

Escapism, exile and return are, unsurprisingly, recurring themes in contemporary Palestinian literature, whether fictional or factual, as brought vividly and poetically, and sometimes humorously, to life by Mourid Barghouti’s I Saw Ramallah and I Was Born There, I Was Born Here.

But for real laughs, both tragicomic and absurdist, one should turn to architect-cum-writer Suad Amiry. Set during the second intifada in Ramallah, her debut autobiographical work blends dry, unvarnished humour with a sharp talent for storytelling.

Sharon and my Mother-in-Law hilariously juxtaposes two authoritarian figures restricting Amiry’s freedom: one a 91-year-old matriarch, the other a ruthless general-turned-politician in his 70s. “I ended up with two occupations, one inside the house, in the form of my mother in law, and another outside the house with Sharon’s army. And don’t embarrass me and ask which one was more difficult,” she joked on a long bus journey during which she reflected on life, architecture, politics and writing.

As if to answer her own question, Amiry adds, “Perhaps one day I may forgive you, the Israelis, for all the atrocities you have committed against us, but I shall never forgive you for having my mother-in-law stay with me for 40 days under curfew – which felt like 40 years.”

sharonAs the Israeli army locked down Ramallah in 2002, Amiry’s mother-in-law was largely oblivious to the war zone around her, retreating into the protective shield of her marmalade-making routine. “In spite of the fact that we were under curfew, with no electricity and no TV, she still wanted to lead a normal life: dress up as if we were going to a party, set the table nicely and eat on time as if there was no war around us,” the perplexed daughter-in-law recalled.

To escape the fighting and curfew on the streets, Amiry mined this rich comedic material in e-mails sent out to her niece and friends which eventually became an unexpected hit when turned into book form, and not just in Europe but also in Israel.

The surreal moments Amiry recounts include a spontaneous outdoor “party” during which all her neighbours took to their roofs to bang on pots and pans in peaceful, if noisy, defiance of the curfew, and an incident in which she posed as her pet dog’s chauffeur to get into Jerusalem because Nura, the canine, had a Jerusalem pass while her mistress did not.

As if to prove that this was no beginner’s luck, Amiry, who is not only an architectural conservationist by profession but is also dyslexic, has followed up this success with highly innovative, original works.

In Nothing To Lose But Your Life, Amiry disguises herself as a man and embarks, with a group of illegal Palestinian workers, on an improbable, funny, dangerous and self-deprecating adventure into Israel in the dead of night. For her third book, she casts off her male disguise to explore life for middle-aged Palestinian women of the “PLO generation”, intriguingly titled Menopausal Palestine.

Efforts to reimagine the Palestinians through humour do not end with literature. A group of enterprising young Palestinians and Europeans is working on a humorous television soap opera, a genre long dominated by Egypt and Syria. “It’s a way of putting Palestinians on the map,” explains Pietro Bellorini, the director of the series. He adds that the production, which revolves around the lives and antics of an East Jerusalem family, will go beyond the serious but superficial Arab preoccupation with the occupation and familiarise the region with the funny and absurd side of life in this troubled and incredibly complex city.

Speed Sisters watermarkedLike Monty Python revolutionised the way we look at the crucifixion by reminding us to “always look on the bright side of life”, humour can play a powerful role in changing people’s consciousness through laughter. “We use humour because it is a very powerful tool,” Bellorini stresses. “It is a tool that allows you to say things that wouldn’t be accepted in a serious conversation.”

Beyond television, the visual and audiovisual arts are also doing their part to challenge prevalent perceptions. One recent example of this was a photographic project titled Occupied Pleasures, which attracted significant international media attention.

“Pleasures” is not a word most people associate with occupation. But the series features pleasurably unexpected images that shatter clichés, from hijabi women doing yoga on a West Bank mountaintop, to a tête-à-tête between a young man and his sheep in his car, to Ramallah girls getting ready for a night on the town, to Gazan bodybuilders striking poses, to a girl surfer waiting for a liberating wave to ride.

Speed Sisters Trailer (in Production) from SocDoc Studios on Vimeo.

Challenging prevailing stereotypes about Palestinian women has become a regular theme in numerous works. One prominent example is the documentary-in-the-making about the Speed Sisters, Palestine’s first all-female motor racing team.

“The first time I sat behind a steering wheel, I felt in control,” one of the Speed Sisters confessed to me. “Now every time I push down on the accelerator, I feel like a bird: free and fast. I feel like I want to move towards the future and break free of all the oppression and repression.”

Omar-posterThis longing to “break free” is, as you might expect, a common theme in Palestinian filmmaking, as captured in Elia Suleiman’s bleak and beautiful black comedy Divine Intervention, on love in the time of checkpoints.

Recent years have seen a surge in creative, critically acclaimed and award-winning Palestinian films. Even Hollywood seems to have, at least partly, overcome its traditional bias toward “reel bad Arabs” and has nominated the same Palestinian director, Hany Abu-Assad twice for an Oscar: for Paradise Now in 2006 and this year for his thriller Omar. Both delve into the human aspect of political violence, exploring the dark and the ironic.

“If you look at any time in history when politicians have failed, it’s the artists who have come forward to try to make sense of the world,” Abu-Assad told the audience at the Tel Aviv Cinematheque.

Follow Khaled Diab on Twitter.

This article first appeared in Haaretz on 25 February 2014.

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Buying camel’s milk in Arabic

 
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By Philip Hall

Conversing about camel’s milk may not be the most useful Arabic to learn, but learning the language can open up the Arab world to Europeans.

Thursday 17 October 2013

Once, in Princess Gardens, we were in a hurry to get home. I saw a side gate and walked towards it. “It’ll be closed,” said Teresa, my wife, “Let’s try anyway.”

Outside, on either side, sat two young people who began to stare at us as we approached. When we were about ten yards away one of them blurted: “It’s closed mate.”

“Let’s go,” said Teresa.

“No, perhaps it’s open,” I insisted.

We walked the last ten yards, the teenagers staring all the time. I pushed the gate and it opened – Snap! The attention of the two watchers broke and we walked through. Every day, we face invisible barriers. Something stops us from opening a gate. We don’t ask for help when we really need it. We don’t ask someone charming for a coffee date. We don’t apply for a job we are probably well suited for.

Some invisible barriers are much bigger than that. Some are huge. For example, after you consider the facts, you might conclude that it is deeply irrational for European governments not to promote the teaching of Arabic in European schools. The numbers speak for themselves: the Arab world has over 400 million inhabitants, some 300 million people speak Arabic as their native tongue, and many millions more speak it as a second language.  Moreover, there are many native Arabic speakers in European countries. For example, Arabic is the mother tongue of nearly a million people in France, not to mention all the second and third-generation North Africans there who speak at least a little of the language.

Before coming to work in the Middle East, I had a short conversation with my recruiter. He was British and had worked in the Gulf for 35 years. There was a prosperous, flushed look to him. He was on the point of retirement. “Your Arabic must be fantastic.” I probed.

“No”, he said proudly, “I haven’t learned a word of it.”

This puzzled me. What was going on here? And why was this man so proud of his failure to learn Arabic? The accumulated prejudices of a thousand years seem to be blocking the path to language learning, and consequently blocking the path to mutual understanding between the northern and southern halves of the Mediterranean: two parts of a whole, shared culture.

But nowadays, who believes in historical determinism? I certainly do not. Do you? Who believes that what has happened in the past is the single decider of what will happen in the future? Why not choose our own future? Why not choose to overcome prejudice and do so by learning Arabic?

Government policy-makers can take the rational step towards funding and promoting the learning of Arabic in every school in Europe. As an individual, you can make this choice. Together, we can break through invisible historical social, cultural and political force fields by being practical and rational.

I am following my own advice; I am now learning Arabic. Our teacher is proficient in teaching primary school children, but we are middle-aged men. She is teaching us to ask for information, to talk about our families and describe what they do, to talk about what’s in our houses, and to say what we want when we go to restaurants. “Peteer,” she says, a little like a Palestinian Joyce Grenfell. “Did you do your homework?”

Peter says ,“No,” in a small voice, “I was too busy working”. His grizzled face looks down in embarrassment. “Oh Peter!” she exclaims, “We must do our homework.”

Secretly, however, my classmates and I are learning the poems of Adel Darwish, as sung by Marcel Khalifa. We are watching Palestinian cultural programmes, Egyptian soap operas and listening to Lebanese pop songs. I have even had my first conversation in Arabic. It was with Yemenis and it went like this:

“Do you have any camel’s milk?”

“Oh yes, I do, it is over there.”

“I love camel’s milk.”

“Yes it is very nice but the milk is much healthier fresh from the camel’s udder.”

“Really.”

“Yes, but not if the camel is ill.”

“Can I get fresh camel’s milk here?”

“No, you have to go to any small town in the desert. It’s easy to find camel’s milk there.”

“ Well, I will be sure to do so. Thank you for your advice.”

“My pleasure.”

Clearly, if I can converse about camel’s milk with a man from Yemen, the doors of the Arab world have now swung wide open for me.

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Islamism is the illusion

 
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By Khaled Diab

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

Saturday 17 August 2013

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

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

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

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

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

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

Photo: ©Khaled Diab

Photo: ©Khaled Diab

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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Follow Khaled Diab on Twitter.

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

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