The self-fulfilling prophecy of the Sunni v Shia myth

 
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By Khaled Diab

Like in Syria and Iraq, the conflict in Yemen is not sectarian. But political profiteers and jihadists  are turning it into a self-fulfilling prophecy.

In the 1960s, Sunni Saudi Arabia backed royalist forces seeking to restore the Zaidi Imam Muhammad Badr to the throne.

In the 1960s, Sunni Saudi Arabia backed royalist forces seeking to restore the Zaidi Imam Muhammad Badr to the throne.

Tuesday 31 March 2015

A Saudi-led coalition of 10 countries – including Gulf states, Egypt, Morocco and Jordan – has invaded Yemen ostensibly to push back Houthi rebels besieging Aden in the south of the country.

This latest troubling development has inevitably led to speculation about a monumental clash between Sunni and Shia Islam. “The bitter rivalry between the more fanatical adherents of Sunni and Shia Islam has now emerged as the region’s defining conflict,” asserted Con Coughlin, defence editor at UK daily The Telegraph.

It is true that the regimes mounting the offensive in Yemen are Sunni and the Houthis are Shia, as are their suspected backer, Iran. However, describing the brewing war in Yemen – or the conflicts in Syria or Iraq – as being primarily sectarian in nature is, at best, totally misleading, at worst, dangerous.

This is not least because the Zaidiyyah branch of Islam in Yemen – to which the Houthis belong – is neither Shia nor Sunni, but straddle the theological space between them. In Yemen, Zaidis are often referred to as “the Sunnis of the Shia, and the Shia of the Sunnis”, and Sunnis and Zaidis often pray together in the same mosques.

To see how simplistic, and often untrue, this characterisation is, we need only consider the constantly shifting sands of allegiance in Yemen. If we rewind back to the 1960s, we will find the apparent paradox, at least from a sectarian perspective, of Saudi Arabia backing a Shia dynasty.

During the North Yemen civil war (1962-1970), Saudi allied itself to the royalist forces fighting to reinstate the newly crowned Mutawakkilite Imam Muhammad al-Badr, a Zaidi, while Egypt backed the republican revolutionaries who had mounted a  military coup known as the 26 September Revolution.

Though this may seem to be counterintuitive when viewed through the sectarian prism, considering the geopolitics of the time, it made its own sense.

At the time, North Yemen was ruled by a traditional monarchy, like neighbouring Saudi Arabia. When officers in the military, inspired by the Egyptian experiment, mounted a republican coup against the monarchy, they appointed as their president Abdullah Sallal, who was, interestingly, also a Zaidi.

Driven by self-interest and spurred by the fear that the secular, republican contagion would spread from neighbouring Yemen, Saudi weighed in behind the Mutawakkilite Yemenis. Egypt, for its part, got involved out of a motivation to arrest the spread of “reactionary” forces and to champion the “progressive” pan-Arab cause.

In Riyadh, the demon most feared was Gamal Abdel-Nasser in Cairo, whose revolutionary message worried the royal house, and fed on longstanding bitterness and animosity towards Egypt which, in the 19th-century had brutally and bloodily crushed and repulsed the dramatic advances into Hijaz and Islam’s holiest sites by the ISIS of the time, the al-Saud clan. A time-traveller from the 1960s would find the current Saudi-Egypt alliance in Yemen quite unfathomable.

Though much is made today of the supposed Sunni-Shia cold war between Saudi Arabia and Iran, in the days of Shah Mohammad Reza Pahlavi, the two were uncomfortable allies. They decided to co-operate together to use religion (presumably the divine right to rule) as a foil against the appeal of secular nationalism.

Likewise, the 1955 Baghdad pact saw the then Sunni monarchy in Iraq join forces with the Shia Shah in neighbouring Iran, also as a safeguard against the rising tide of post-colonial nationalism ­– which failed in the case of Iraq.

While socialism, communism and pan-Arabism were regarded as the mob at the palace gates by the established order and its Western backers in the 1950s and 1960s, the popular uprisings for democracy, socio-economic justice and dignity which swept the region in 2011 were seen as the new, ungrateful and unruly plebs.

When crowds took to the streets in Yemen, which had one of the earliest and most protracted of these revolts, panic alarms were set off in Saudi. Like in the 1960s and the 1990s, Riyadh was terrified that the revolutionary virus in Yemen, which Saudi had long regarded as being its “backyard”, would spread across the border.

The deal brokered by the Gulf Co-operation Council to transfer power from long-time incumbent Ali Abdullah Saleh to his deputy Abed Rabbu Hadi (ironically, on opposing sides of the current conflict), was largely an exercise in damage control, aimed at presenting the illusion of change while maintaining the status quo.

In fact, defending the status quo has been the overriding concern of all the established regimes in the Middle East, in order to maintain their domestic grip on power against both democratic movements and radical Islamist forces, and of the United States and its Western allies, who are struggling to maintain their traditional hegemony over their region. That is a  major factor behind the unreal alliances we have seen emerge in recent times.

But with upheaval and mayhem also comes opportunity. The chaos in Iraq, Syria, Yemen and Libya has been seized upon by a dizzying array of regional and global players jockeying for influence in the emerging Middle East, as the century-old post-Ottoman order crumbles around us.

In this light, the proxy war between Tehran and Riyadh, like the Cold War between Washington and Moscow, is one measure ideology but nine measures geopolitics and self-interest. And like with the US and the Soviet Union, Saudi and Iran are hiding the ugly face of their expansionism behind a thin ideological façade.

That is not to say that rivalry between Sunnis and Shia do not exist at certain levels, but these usually manifest themselves in domestic discrimination by the dominant group in certain countries, rather than a grand, age-old ideological struggle.

Likewise, in Iraq, painting the situation there as the latest episode in an ancient sectarian battle, can help the Anglo-American architects behind the disastrous destruction of the country and the power vacuum which led to the civil war, sleep more easily at night.

“Easily the most likely scenario is that Iraq would have been engulfed by precisely the same convulsion,” Tony Blair, who believed God wanted him to invade Iraq, wrote in his own defence, suggesting that Sunnis and Shia would have been at each other’s throats anyway. “We have to liberate ourselves from the notion that ‘we’ have caused this. We haven’t.”

In Syria, though memories have grown murky, the conflict there began as a democratisation movement for social and economic equality. The idea that it was sectarian was promoted by Bashar al-Assad (whose regime is largely Sunni outside the military), mainly for reasons of pure survival, and private Gulf backers who wished it to become so.

And herein lies the rub. Because it is convenient for certain vested interests – from political profiteers to millennialist jihadists – to describe the upheavals in the Middle East as sectarian clashes, it is now becoming a self-fulfilling prophecy.

___

Follow Khaled Diab on Twitter.

This article first appeared in Haaretz on 26 March 2015.

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Voting for Palestinian liberation

 
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By Khaled Diab

Active and effective Arab political participation in the next Knesset can be a game changer, shifting the Palestinian struggle towards civil rights.

Voting for change. Joint List's Ayman Odeh casts his ballot.

Voting for change. Joint List’s Ayman Odeh casts his ballot.

Wednesday 25 March 2015

In the run-up to the Israeli elections, media speculation focused on whether or not the voute would help or hinder the quest for peace and a resolution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

Personally, I didn’t expect the ballot to have any profound effects on the status quo of the headline conflict. However, missing from this equation, as so often is the case, was what the elections mean for Israel’s Arab minority, which constitutes a full fifth of the country’s population.

At first sight, their situation appears to be the very definition of a no-win situation. “I have yet to make a decision regarding which would be the best of two evils – a Zionist Camp government or a Netanyahu government,” Mimas Abdelhai, a young university student from al-Tirah, which lies in what is known as the “Arab triangle”, told me before the election. “The more racist the Israeli government gets, the more the international arena understands Palestinian suffering.”

This reflects the widely held conviction among Palestinian-Israelis that, when it comes to Israel’s Arab citizens, the main difference between the Israeli centre(-left) and the right is one of honesty. This broad-based anti-Arabism manifested itself, among other things, in the recent witch hunt against Balad Knesset member Haneen Zoabi.

Many Palestinian citizens of Israel with whom I spoke felt torn about the issue of casting a ballot. “I haven’t decided if I’m going to vote or not, but previously my idea was that we all should boycott the elections, and stop giving Israel the image of being a ‘democracy’ it markets to the world,” said Sahar Issawi, who is from the north but works for an NGO in Jerusalem.

Drawing on traditional Arab anti-normalisation rhetoric, there are those who urged Palestinians not to vote. Describing casting a ballot as “an effective stamp of approval for Israel’s discriminatory regime,” Haifa-based activist Waad Ghantous called for an Arab boycott of the election and the construction of “shadow institutions to relieve the suffering on the ground and provide the basis for a unified struggle against our oppression”.

With incendiary, rightwing anti-Arab racism at fever pitch – such as foreign minister Avigdor Lieberman’s recent suggestion that “disloyal” Arab citizens “deserve to have their heads chopped off with an axe” – it is understandable that Palestinians in Israel should feel the urge to reject rejection.

However, it is my conviction that the only thing worse than voting is not voting. While voting in elections for a Knesset which they feel actively isolates them may seem like folly, not voting is reckless because it would effectively involve Arab voters exiling themselves into self-imposed isolation, leaving the arena wide open for the far right to continue its campaign of creeping disenfranchisement.

Instead, Israel’s Palestinian minority should use its demographic strength to force Israel to sit up and take notice. “I intend to vote,” insists Amir Ounallah, a Haifa-based IT entrepreneur. “I want Israelis to realise… that they do not live in Europe, that, like it or not, they live in the Arab Middle East.”

And the higher Arab voter turnout (63.5% v 56% in 2013), combined with the joining of forces between Arab parties under the umbrella of the Joint List, has certainly caused the Israeli mainstream to take note, both positively and negatively, as reflected in Netanyahu’s scaremongering tactic to draw rightwing voters by claiming: ” “Arab voters are going in droves to the polls. Left-wing NGOs are bringing them on buses.”

The Joint List, an improbable alliance between Palestinian nationalists, Arab-Jewish leftists and Islamists, was formed out of a recognition of the growing common threat facing Palestinians in Israel. Active participation in the political process may help block the raft of discriminatory legislation which the Knesset has been passing recently, the latest of which is the draft “Jewish state” basic law.

“All we have to do is become determined to get involved in the political game and the right wing will be in big trouble,” the eloquent head of the Joint List, Ayman Odeh of the communist-leaning Jewish-Arab Hadash party, said in an interview prior to the vote.

In Israel’s notoriously fractured political landscape, the relatively high Arab voter turnout has ensured that the Joint List is now in the unprecendented position of being Israel’s third largest party, which was forecasted by most pre-election polls.

But electoral success is unlikely to have any effect on the fundamentals of the situation, many fear. “Since the United List will have no impact, to my mind, whatsoever on Israeli politics, it will enhance and accelerate the search for an alternative strategy for the Palestinians,” Ilan Pappé, the ground-breaking Israeli historian and activist, told me.

Personally, I believe that high-profile Arab engagement in the next Knesset carries the potential of being a game-changer. Effective Arab representation will not only act as a buffer against further discrimination, it could also help reduce the socio-economic marginalisation Arabs, who are one of the poorest segments of society, endure in Israel.

In addition, with the Oslo blueprint for a two-state solution looking more and more like an illusion or even a delusion, I believe that the struggle for equality being waged by Israel’s Arab minority could point the way to the future.

Like Pappé, I think the most effective, and perhaps only, path forward to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is a civil rights struggle. In my book, I call this the “non-state” solution, in which talk of states and statehood are abandoned for the time being in favour of a joint Arab-Jewish struggle for human rights and human dignity.

This would involve Jerusalemite Palestinians, West Bankers and Gazans following the lead of their brethren in Israel, and joining forces with them, to demand full rights and equality under the Israeli system.

Once this is achieved, then a popular peace process involving everyone can be launched with the aim of forging a peace of the people, by the people, for the people.

____

Follow Khaled Diab on Twitter.

This is an updated version of an article which first appeared on Al Jazeera on 16 March 2015.

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The concealed links between Israel’s “invisible” citizens

 
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By Khaled Diab

An electoral campaign video targeted at Israel’s “invisible” poor unwittingly highlights the long-neglected links between Mizrahi Jews and Arabs.

The Israeli Black Panthers focused on class issues, not nationalism, and believed that Israel's marginalised Mizrahim and Palestinian citizens were natural allies.

The Israeli Black Panthers focused on class issues, not nationalism, and believed that Israel’s marginalised Mizrahim and Palestinian citizens were natural allies.

Friday 6 February 2015

It is a very powerful electoral message. The ad features middle-class Israelis complaining about how tough they have it, while phantom figures around them beg for money, scan their shopping at the supermarket checkout, fill their petrol tanks and clean their homes.
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This savvy appeal to the almost 1.7 million “invisible” Israelis who live below the poverty line was not produced by Meretz, Hadash, Labour or any other party on the left of the political spectrum. Surprisingly, the video is the work of Shas, the ultra-Orthodox religious party on the right, most closely associated with Israel’s Sephardi and Mizrahi populations.

Analysts suggest that this video is part of a bid to break free of Shas’ traditional image of being a religious and ethnic party, and to appeal to a group not explicitly targeted by most of the other parties: Israel’s economically marginalised.

“The target audience is obviously broader than anything any ultra-Orthodox party tried before,” Israeli journalist, blogger and analyst Dimi Reider observed. “The ad’s inclusivity is particularly startling when one looks at the other parties hoping to swoop in on the social-economic protest vote,” he adds, pointing to how Labour, for example, has fielded only one Mizrahi candidate, who occupies the unelectable 23rd position on the party’s list.

Shas’s rehabilitated leader Aryeh Deri, who was imprisoned on bribery charges, is credited with this apparent shift to the left, though much of the party does not seem to share his politics, while his leadership is in doubt.

Despite Shas talking the talk of the poor, it is still solidly, like religious parties across the Middle East, walking the walk of the neo-liberal business elites, as reflected in its backing for Likud-led privatisation programmes and austerity measures. “Their campaign is a great one but it is really far away from their politics in the real political world,” notes Mati Shemoelof, a progressive Iraqi-Israeli poet, writer, journalist and activist. “They are part of the problem and not the solution.”

While Shas’s campaign video features poor Jews, there is an elephant in the room. Missing from the picture are Palestinian-Israelis, the invisible among the invisible, who make up the bulk of Israel’s poor.

The Palestinian citizens of Israel account for 44.5% of Israel’s poor, according to a report by Adalah, an NGO that advocates for the rights of Israel’s Palestinian minority. Over half of Arab families in Israel are classified as poor, compared to a national average of 20 percent, according to the report. This is a reflection of the fact that Arabs on average earn 32% less than Jews, while the net income of Arab household is less than two-thirds of what their Jewish counterparts take home, the report observes.

Although the Mizrahim are generally somewhat better off than the Arabs of Israel and their relative situation has improved, they still lag considerably behind the Ashkenazim. This is reflected in the fact that Ashkenazi Israelis earn 30 percent more on average than Mizrahim.

Despite being in a similar socio-economic boat, it is highly improbable that the Mizrahi and Palestinian citizens of Israel will find common cause – at least not in the forthcoming elections. The bulk of Israel’s Sephardim and Mizrahim sit firmly in the anti-Arab, nationalist right. After decades of jettisoning their Arab and Middle Eastern heritage to assimilate into Israel’s Ashkenazi-dominated “melting pot”, and expressing bitterness at how their native societies rejected them, few have the appetite to admit that they share much in common with their Palestinian compatriots.

Previous attempts to make this link essentially failed. Take the Israeli Black Panthers, a radical political group that emerged to agitate for Mizrahi rights. Many Panthers believed that the Mizrahi class struggle was intimately connected to that of the Palestinian-Israelis and that social peace in Israel was not possible without peace with the Palestinians. “There will be no equality and no chance for the Mizrahim as long as there’s an occupation and a national struggle,” believed former Black Panther Kokhavi Shemeskh. “The national struggle will not be over as long as the Mizrahim are at the bottom of the ladder, and are practically an anti-Arab lever.”

However, this view was not common or popular among the Mizrahim, and the movement faded into obscurity, though it is notable that Mizrahi intellectuals helped pave the way to the peace process.

Were they to set aside their nationalist narratives and embrace their common struggle for socio-economic and cultural equality, the Mizrahim and Palestinian-Israelis could form a formidable voting bloc that would carry significant weight, since together they make up an estimated 60% of Israel’s citizenry (about 40 percent Mizrahi and 20 percent Arab).

Beyond their shared socio-economic woes, Mizrahi and Palestinian Israelis have in common that they believe that their history is insufficiently taught in Israeli schools, and that their Middle Eastern culture is still, despite improvements, regarded as inferior. But the younger generation are taking greater pride in their heritage, which could pave the way to joint action to end discrimination against them, dilute the “us” and “them” formula of the conflict, and drive home the realisation that Israel, rather than being a Western “villa in the jungle” of the Middle East, actually possesses a very Middle Eastern socio-cultural complexion.

Moreover, in the bitter identity politics that have resulted from decades of conflict, both the Mizrahim (sometimes referred to as “Arab Jews”) and Palestinians in Israel, contradict the simplistic narrative that Arabs and Jews are completely different animals. In fact, as anyone who has lived in the Holy Land can attest, Israelis and Palestinians share much in common culturally and socially, and the differences within each society are greater than the differences between them.

As I outline in my book, Intimate Enemies, in which I also explore these “conflicting identities, if the civil rights path to liberation is pursued, rather than being stuck in the nationalistic abyss dividing Arabs and Jews, the Mizrahi and Palestinian Israelis may well become the future bridge to peace and justice the two sides desperately need.

____

Follow Khaled Diab on Twitter.

This is an extended version of an article which first appeared in Haaretz on 3 February 2015.

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Romania’s myths, legends, warts and charms

 
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By Christian Nielsen

Romania defies many of the unflattering stereotypes associated with the country. To me, it shone because it doesn’t profess to be a shining light.

Monday 17 November 2014

Photo: ©Khaled Diab

Photo: ©Christian Nielsen

When I told people that I was going to Brașov and Bucharest, reactions varied from “be careful” and “nice girls” to “isn’t it just full of Gypsies?” and “where is that?” So I just said I’m visiting Dracula in Transylvania, and they just laughed. What did poor little Romania do to earn such scorn?

Don’t get me wrong, Bucharest and its environs have no shortage of forlorn grey buildings and decrepit streets that you would expect of the former Eastern bloc. But whereas East Berlin, Prague, Budapest, Riga, etc. have airbrushed out most remnants of that period with a post-EU makeover, Bucharest is still very much wrestling with its past.

A bit poorer than other former communist countries and with so much more ‘socialist development’ to undo – namely the widespread ‘systemisation’ of villages and towns across the country – much of Bucharest still evokes its communist past.

But that could be a blessing in disguise, if you think hard about it. Foreign investment and the rampant changes that big money brings to urban landscapes has been slower to arrive in Romania, and the complex legal wrangling over ownership of confiscated properties in what is left of the city’s old quarter has slowed the cancerous spread of cranes over Bucharest’s skyline.

Romania is also still not in the eurozone, and seems unlikely to be allowed to join for some time, despite promises to the contrary made in Brussels when the country joined the European Union in 2007.

For tourists this means two main things: Bucharest remains a relatively cheap European city trip, especially with low-cost airlines like Whizz and Ryanair now plying the route with some frequency; and it is a refreshingly authentic and richly diverse destination.

Why does authenticity matter? Well, if you travel often enough, you will know the answer to this question. European cities are all starting to look or feel a bit samey: the same chain coffee shops, strip malls lined with familiar clothes stores, the feeling that the medieval or Art Nouveau houses were finished by urban colourists.

So much slower to paint over its communist past, Bucharest is left with an opportunity to embrace the story, and what it means to modern Romania. It is a sensitive subject, no doubt, but hiding or glossing over the past is rarely a good recipe for thriving.

City planners could or perhaps should think about drawing a circle around that part of its recent history to mark the spot, as it were, where many memorable things happened. Yes, many bad things – deprivation, a systematic crushing of cultural identity and murderous actions – during the rule of Nicolae Ceaușescu. But also ‘monumental’ things; legacies such as the building of the so-called ‘Popular House’ (more on that later) which dominates a massive swathe of the city centre, and the Parisian-styled boulevards the former dictator created may, after some decades of healing, become tourist beacons in the league of the Eiffel Tower, White House or Taj Mahal.

There are signs it may already be happening. I took an official tour of the Palace of Parliament – as it is now called after the Romanian government agonised as to what to do with this White Elephant following Ceaușescu’s downfall in a dramatic and bloody revolution in 1989 – and learned first-hand that embracing the past (it’s good and bad aspects) doesn’t come easy to some.

“It was cheaper to make it into the Parliament and use the building that so many Romanian craftsmen and women worked hard to build than pull it down,” the tour guide offered dryly in answer to the question of how Romanians now feel about this towering hulk of a building, knowing how it came into existence.

Touted as the second-biggest free-standing building in the world after the Pentagon, ‘Madman’s House’, as it is also referred to behind closed doors in Romania, covers a whole city block. Churches, hospitals and thousands of houses were demolished in the 1980s to make way for Ceaușescu’s monolithic ode to socialism, which to most who witnessed or ‘volunteered’ to build it spoke more to his and, perhaps more so, his wife’s megalomania.

In the nearly one-hour tour of the bowels of this 1,100-room monster, which only took in three of the reported 12 floors and just a small sample of the various halls, chambers and endless corridors, not once did the tour guide mention Ceaușescu’s name. Nor did she explain the backstory to the December 1989 uprising. This was an ‘official’ tour, and the guide was either careful not to discuss politics, as it were, in what is now the Houses of Parliament or she was just not very good at her job.

Intrigued by the probable side-stepping of the questions by our guide, it didn’t take much searching to learn that praising the crimes of “so-called totalitarian regimes or denigrating their victims” is forbidden by law in Romania. So that would then apply to the Ceaușescu regime, I presume. Indeed, TV journalist Dinel Staicu reportedly received a hefty fine for praising Ceaușescu and airing pictures of the former leader.

Two sides

Not so careful was the guide on a private bus tour to Brașov in Romania’s central area, which is more famously known as Transylvania. The much younger, rather chirpy, guide (certainly for 7:45 am) breezily described the chain of events leading up to Ceaușescu’s ill-fated last speech on the Piata Victoriei, the ensuing riots, civilian deaths and eventual capture, two-hour trial and summary execution of Ceaușescu and his wife Elena on Christmas Day 1989.

“That was Romania’s Christmas present that year,” said the guide. “Not many mourned the death of the second dictator, who made the first communist dictator Gheorghe Gheorghiu-Dej who died in 1965 seem like a nice guy!”

But Ceaușescu, who led Romania from 1967 to 1989, didn’t start out that bad, she went on to explain. He became increasingly erratic and distant from the people during his decades-long rule. Something many Romanians blamed on Elena and their lack of education.

The fact that they both came from very humble beginnings gave them a common touch to begin with but that changed as Ceaușescu’s personality cult grew. He gave himself such titles as ‘Conducător’ (Leader) and ‘Geniul din Carpați’ (The genius of the Carpathians), and by the time they returned from a visit to North Korea, witnessing the grandiose avenues of Pyongyang and the socialist-inspired urban landscapes, there was no stopping them … well, almost.

Photo: ©Khaled Diab

Photo: ©Christian Nielsen

The other figure in Romanian history with an equally complicated back-story is that of Vlad Țepeș (1431-1477), alias Vlad the Impaler and inspiration for the fictional Count Dracula. A story so convoluted by folktales, legend, stories of witchcraft, eerie castles, fictional characters and a grain of truth, Vlad Țepeș is a larger-than-life character in Romanian history. But with the benefit of romantic hindsight, and a growing understanding of the bankability of such stories, Romanians clearly more easily embrace some parts of history better than others.

Vlad III, Prince of Wallachia, is being celebrated this year as Romania’s great protector and unifier following his bloody campaign (neatly rounded to) 555 years  ago to rid Wallachia and surrounding territories of the Ottoman Turks. Vlad was born in Sighișoara, a city on the Târnava Mare River, and raised in Târgoviște in south-central Romania, together with his brother and father, Vlad II Dracul(ea), who was Voivode of Wallachia – now a province of Romania, with Bucharest at its centre.

Time to settle once and for all the confusion between Vlad the Impaler and Dracula: The castle that hordes of tourists see in Bran, just south of Brașov, is not Vlad’s castle. It may not have even been the castle Bram Stoker had in mind when he wrote Dracula in the 19th century, as the Irish author apparently never visited the area, but rather concocted his story from a heady blend of geographical facts, patronymic borrowings (his father was a member of the Order of Dragons, or ‘drac’ and ‘ulea’, meaning ‘son of’) and regional mythology.

“In Romania today, schoolbooks and historians extol [Vlad Țepeș] as a patriot and a champion of order in lawless times, while the outside world knows him as the vampire count of a thousand cinematic fantasies … a spoof figure or a ghoul,” write Rough Guide Romania’s authors. “Horrible though his deeds were, Vlad was not accused of vampirism during his lifetime. However, vampires were an integral part of folklore in Eastern and South-eastern Europe, known as vámpír in Hungarian and strigoi in Romanian.”

Some attribute the ‘vampire’ phenomenon to regional folklore concerning a ‘flying one’ or Zburator who enters people’s homes and tortures young women coming of age with bites, pinches, tickling and worse. There are also tales of vampire-like behaviour in battle, with a victor ‘tasting’ a victim’s blood to take in his power. “Even to this day, some villagers in Romania are known to encircle their houses in salt and put up garlic against evil spirits,” our guide offers with a wry smile.

Bram Stoker’s 1897 work, which taking bits and pieces of fact and fiction, managed to stoke (sorry about that!) the imagination of a growing reading population (this is before film and TV) who were gripped with excitement and fear over such real stories as Jack the Ripper in London. Anyway, it makes for a good story and even better source of business for a nascent tourism industry.

Gypsies and sleaze

I have yet to address the other two stereotypes thrown up at the mention of Romania. On the bus to Brașov, the guide asked the dozen or so travellers what their impressions of Romania were before coming to the country.

The Israelis sitting nearest the door said “attractive girls and casinos” without blushing in the slightest. Some Americans – no sorry, they said “we’re from San Francisco” like it was a country – said they had heard of Vlad and Transylvania with a hint of embarrassment. The Italians and Spanish said they connected Romania mostly with Gypsies. I said rather pompously, as a resident of Brussels, most of my impressions were about Romania’s entry into the European Union and the “Roma question”, thinking the politically correct term would be appreciated. Nope.

The tour guide nodded thoughtfully and quick as a whip said, “So, more Gypsy stereotypes!” She went on to explain where the Romani came from and touched on the complicated relationship Romania has with a community that numbers between 650,000 and 850,000 people, depending on who you consult. Faced with discrimination both at home and abroad, many Romani do not declare their ethnicity in the official census and often don’t carry or own identity cards or birth certificates.

Upon joining the EU, many hoped that the plight of this minority in Romania and elsewhere in the expanding EU would improve. Despite vast programmes, and funding for worthy projects aimed at education, skills and ‘inclusion’ – through the likes of the European Social Fund – evidence of continued high levels of discrimination remain. Progress in Romania itself seems to take the back-burner to wider efforts to spruce up the economy (and the streets of the capital, it has been suggested!).

The tour guide didn’t hide the fact that she regretted her country’s reputation is hurt by its association with the Romani, and the challenges they present to what is effectively a developing country in Europe’s midst.

Wisely, she made no mention of mass deportations, periods of slavery and other privations throughout the centuries that the Romani have lived in the land now called Romania. Alas, it was a trip to visit pretty towns and Dracula’s castle not a debate on the ‘Roma question’, but I was pleased to have gotten as much information as I did from such a trip.

Taxi drivers were more forthcoming about politics and sleaze – and for many a formative impression on the tourists by ripping them off during the trip from the airport to Bucharest. My driver when leaving the country – a friendly and open fellow, as almost all contacts in Romania had been – said he had been driving taxis for 16 years and despite clear improvements in everything from the roads to the ‘luxuries’ in the shops, he felt his chances of getting ahead were slim.

“It’s the rule of the first seven years,” he offered philosophically. “It gives all the chances later.” So, that’s the foundation for success in Romania, I paraphrased. “Yes, the foundations, as you say; the rich ones have the sports cars and think it is their right to be like they want to workers; they have power.”

Photo: ©Christian Nielsen

Photo: ©Christian Nielsen

I asked him, then, if he will be voting for the socialist candidate in the election the following week (15-16 November). “No, he will destroy us … like the first socialist we got after Ceaușescu!”

That was frank, I thought to myself. So it seems the economically liberal PNL party headed by an up-and-coming city mayor Klaus Iohannis of the Christian Liberal Alliance would be his preferred presidential candidate over current Prime Minister Victor Ponta, who is leader of the Social Democratic Party.

“So, Iohannis is the better choice,” I offered. The driver looked in the rear-view mirror, raised his eyebrow and said, “Yes, better, not best … but I will vote for him.”

Go-go gone?

Photo: ©Christian Nielsen.

Photo: ©Christian Nielsen.

And as to the suggestion of cheap liaisons in smoky pubs and go-go clubs. Well, I admit I had imagined something like Prague or Budapest, but the historic quarter, which is the main tourist hub (the bit that was spared Ceaușescu’s socialist revisionism) had only a smattering of such joints. I was approached once on my second night by the stereotypical black-leather jacketed guy offering girls and more, but that was it. Brussels, Amsterdam, Hamburg … these are more sordid cities than Bucharest.

I never felt intimidated by anyone. The metro, though bleak, was by no means scary. The trains ran on time and the information boards were clear. Romanians respected your space but were happy to help when approached. They didn’t tout for business or force conversations on you. They were getting on with life, as it should be.

Altogether, Romania defied many if not all of the obvious stereotypes. To me, it shone because it doesn’t profess to be a shining light. It is definitely a tourist destination on the up, and it deserves a ‘better’ rap, if the not the ‘best’ rap.

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The dangers of a political crusade against Western jihadists

 
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By Khaled Diab

Inflammatory rhetoric and a solely punitive approach to Western jihadists is only likely to make matters worst, and could threaten multiculturalism.

British aid worker Peter Haine is the latest Westerner to be executed by ISIS.

British aid worker Peter Haine is the latest Westerner to be executed by ISIS.

Monday 15 September 2014

David Cameron, the UK prime minister, has unveiled a controversial raft of measures which he claims will help counter the threat posed by British jihadists fighting in Syria and northern Iraq. These include barring these citizens from re-entering the UK, seizing the passports of suspects before they depart and internally exiling radicals. Other European countries are also considering similar measures. Norway, for example, has announced that it is studying mechanisms for revoking the citizenship of Norwegians who take part in terror operations abroad or join foreign militaries, which would potentially also include Jews volunteering for the Israeli army.

“Adhering to British values is not an option or a choice,” Cameron told the House of Commons. “It is a duty for all those who live in these islands so we will stand up for our values.”

A “duty”, it would seem, if you are a member of a minority, but not if you are a posh Tory. Then, you can ride roughshod over these values and the principles underlying the British legal system, and grant the government even more arbitrary powers to encroach on civil liberties. Fair trials and the presumption of innocence are surely sacred British values, or is Cameron proposing a return to the medieval Germanic practice of  “guilty until proven innocent”? His home secretary certainly is, having stripped at least 37 dual nationality Britons of their citizenship with the stroke of a pen, without any kind of due process.

Fortunately, the British establishment has balked at Cameron’s demagoguery, forcing him to backpedal somewhat from the strident statement of intent he gave on Friday 29 August.

Moreover, “it absolutely sticks in the craw”, to borrow one of the prime minister’s own expressions, and beggars belief that Cameron himself posed a far greater threat to British values and the safety of British citizens than a handful of jihadistst. After all, Cameron supported the illegal and bloody invasion of Iraq, against the will of millions of Britons. And this disastrous enterprise,  which triggered serious blowback, created the vacuum from which ISIS emerged and helped radicalise some Muslims towards Britain, could not have gone ahead without his party’s support.

Should Cameron voluntarily hand over his passport for so recklessly having undermined British values and the security of his fellow citizens? Should he refuse the jet-setting Tony Blair re-entry into the UK and exile him to the Hague?

The rank hypocrisy of politicians and bigots aside, I understand and sympathise with European anxieties, especially following the murder of a third Western hostage held by ISIS, British aid worker David Haines. I witnessed, in the 1990s, the disruptive influence of returning Egyptian jihadists – then from Western-sanctioned Afghanistan. As an agnostic-atheist who believes in secularism and multiculturalism, I observe with alarm the rise, in Syria and Iraq, of violent Islamists who make al-Qaeda look like boy scouts. Their murderous brutality, historical ignorance and cluelessness about religion is worthy of the highest contempt and mockery. But they are a catastrophe for the Middle East, not the West.

That said, Europeans fighting in Syria and Iraq do pose a potential threat to their home countries. However, the British legal system is already equipped with all the legislation necessary and the security services possess the power – too much power – to protect citizens against this threat and to punish perpetrators of atrocities, but this must only occur as a result of free and fair trials.

Moreover, a solely punitive approach is far from useful. In fact, radicalisation experts say it is counterproductive and dangerous. “Treating all foreign fighters as terrorists… risks becoming a self-fulfilling prophecy,” wrote Shiraz Maher and Peter Neumann of the International Centre for the Study of Radicalisation (ICSR) at King’s College London. “It may sound tough, but it isn’t likely to be effective.”

Why? Because “their motivations for travelling to Syria are diverse, and it is wrong to think of them as a homogenous group,” explain Maher and Neumann.

In the fog of war, it is not only unclear just how many foreign fighters there are in Syria but also who they are fighting alongside and to what end. An ICSR report from the end of last year emphasised that the group affiliations for foreign fighters were known in only a fifth of cases. Of the remaining four-fifths, it is impossible to know how many are of the headline-grabbing ISIS variety of grizzly mass murderers, and how many are young idealists drawn to fight against a murderous dictator with moderate rebel groups, like generations of Europeans before them.

Even among those who go to wage jihad, many experience a change of heart once their abstract dreams are replaced by the gruesome reality. “We’re forced to stay and fight, what choice do we have? It’s sad,” one disillusioned jihadist who was afraid to return home admitted to ICSR.

This is the situation many disenchanted Arab jihadists found themselves in when their home countries stripped them of their nationality following the war in Afghanistan, forcing them further down the road to extremism and providing the nascent Al Qaeda with a core of fighters it would otherwise have been deprived of.

Egypt and some other Arab countries have since drawn lessons from this. Rather than banishing jihadists, they have put in place de-radicalisation programmes. Effective de-radicalisation initiatives can reap a threefold benefit in Europe: regaining productive citizens, mitigating a terrorist threat and providing the best advertisement against the lure of jihad for would-be hotheads.

Moreover, radicalisation is not something that only afflicts minorities. Segments of the European majorities are also being radicalised by economic and social insecurity, demagoguery and false narratives, just like Muslims, as reflected by the extremely troubling rise of the far-right and neo-Nazism.

In addition, radicalisation is partly generational. After an implicit post-war social pact in which youth expected to lead better lives than their parents, we have reached an impasse where young people are both worse off than baby-boomers and have dwindling prospects, with rampant unemployment, especially in the 18-25 age group, unaffordable housing, few pension prospects, etc.

And rather than sympathy, the plight of youth has brought them contempt. Contrary to popular belief, it is not older Europeans who are the worst victims of ageism but those under the age of 25 –  a problem that’s particularly acute in the UK and Scandinavia. This has led to huge disillusionment among youngsters, some of whom turn to various forms of radicalism. Minority youth have the additional burden of racial and cultural discrimination.

This reflects how vital it is that the problem of foreign jihadists, troubling as it is, is not blown out of all proportions by vested interest groups and bigots. No more than 500 Brits, by Cameron’s own estimate, have taken up arms in Syria (and mostly for unknown reasons). Yet the prime minister claimed outlandishly that this disparate group, which would barely make up a battalion in a regular army, was the single greatest threat facing the UK, bizarrely overlooking Ukraine and other major crises affecting Europe.

This kind of rhetoric, which panders to the far right and Islamophobic elements in European society, is reckless and potentially perilous. Stigmatising and vilifying minorities or certain ethnic groups can lead to ugly repression and persecution, as Europe’s own history shows and many parts of the contemporary Middle East are currently illustrating. In fact, what history seems to tell us is that when there’s a “problem” with a minority, one should look to the majority first because that’s where the real problem usually lies.

Although some critics are well-meaning and well-intentioned, many of the loudest voices declaring the failure of multiculturalism and demanding that minorities assimilate are those who never bought into diversity in the first place and harken back to an idealised, mythological past in which society was purer and nobler.

But multiculturalism hasn’t failed. Despite its many enemies and its learn-as-you-go approach, it has been generally a roaring success. Only two or three generations ago, western European countries were largely homogenous. Today, they are a cultural kaleidoscope of diversity in which disparate groups manage to live together in peace and relative harmony.

As the once-diverse Middle East increasingly sheds its cultural variety and persecution on the basis of ethnicity and religion grows, Britain and western Europe should cherish and safeguard the beauty of their newfound multicultural reality.

____

Follow Khaled Diab on Twitter.

This article first appeared in Haaretz on 4 September 2014.

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Spain, return and the other 1492

 
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By Khaled Diab

Spain’s recognition of the Jews it expelled ignores another historical crime: the Muslims forced out of Andalusia.

Granada was the last Muslim stronghold to fall to the Reconquista. Image: Bernjan

Granada was the last Muslim stronghold to fall to the Reconquista. Image: Bernjan

Thursday 20 February 2014

Spain has further opened its doors to the descendants of Jews expelled from its land half a millennium ago – though the actual application process remains as mysterious as alchemy.

It is welcome that Spain is striving to right a historical wrong. However, what is overlooked in Spain’s public atonement is that it was not only Jews who were expelled during the Reconquista and the subsequent Inquisition, but also an untold number of Muslims.

A decade or so after the fall of Granada and the expulsion of the Jews who refused to embrace Christianity, Muslims were given the option either to convert or leave. But even the converts, known as Moriscos, were forced out a century later.

This omission has caused some anger among North African Muslims. Jamal Bin Ammar al-Ahmar, an Algerian professor at the Ferhat Abbas University in Sétif, was outraged by “the injustice inflicted on the Muslim population of Andalusia who are still suffering in the diaspora in exile since 1492.”

There have actually been some low-level attempts in Spain to address this. For example, in 2006, the Andalusian parliament considered the issue of granting the Moriscos’ descendants Spanish citizenship.

But even if Spain were to extend an equivalent right of return to the descendants of Moriscos as it is offering Sephardi Jews, it would involve enormous practical difficulties. It is already a major challenge determining, some 20 generations later, who exactly qualifies as a descendant of an Andalusian Jew. In fact, many Jews, including those not belonging to Sephardi Judaism, and even non-Jews, could have Sephardi ancestry.

Four centuries after the expulsion of the last Moriscos, ascertaining who their descendants are is even tougher, given that they blended into the general population far more than the traditionally more isolationist Jews did.

Intriguingly, however, all these centuries down the line, there are still pockets that proudly identify as Morisco and trace their families back to Andalusia. For instance, there are even Morisco towns in Tunisia, such as Sidi Bou Said, Testour and Sloughia which maintain their unique Andalusian identity.

“It was very rare for Andalusians to marry ‘outsiders’, that is, Arabs not of the same origin,” explained Professor Abdeljelil Temimi, one of the foremost experts on Morisco influence and heritage in the Arab world, in an interview in the early 1990s. “This is one of the biggest reasons so much of their heritage still exists today.”

And many still feel nostalgia towards the old country. “Being Morisco to me is belonging to a historic time that comes from Valencia, a civilisation, culture, art, agriculture,” Moez Chtiba who is from Zaghouan but traces his family back to Andalusia was quoted as saying.

And I can understand the source of the nostalgia. In its heyday, multicultural Andalusia was the most advanced and cultured place in the Europe of the time, where science, philosophy and art flourished. As I discovered when visiting Spain, this can still be detected in the region’s architectural gems, from the Mesquita in Cordoba to the breath-taking Alhambra in Granada.

Andalusia also had a profound cultural impact on Europe, even defining the concept of Western “cool” and teaching Europeans how to “love” in a poetic, courtly and tormented fashion.

Yet Spain has failed to recognise Moriscos, while embracing Sephardi Jews. One Moroccan journalist called the oversight “flagrant segregation and unquestionable discrimination, as both communities suffered equally in Spain at that time.”

And this is partly true, given the centuries of bad blood between Muslims and Christians and the rampant Islamophobia on the European right, as reflected in a UK opinion piece arguing Spain has no reason to apologise for expelling its Muslim population and freeing itself from “Islamic Jihadist rule.”

But another reason is simple and straightforward demographics. While there is potentially a couple of million Jews who could theoretically qualify for Spanish citizenship, probably only a few thousand at most will actually bother to apply.

In contrast, there are unknown millions of Arabs and Muslims who may be able to trace themselves back to Andalusia, from Morocco in the Maghreb to as far afield as Turkey, where the Ottomans gave refuge to Andalusian refugees.

If only a fraction of these were to apply, it could significantly and rapidly alter Spain’s demographic make-up. And in a country that was devoid of Muslims for half a millennium but lies on the fault line separating the two “civilisations,” this could well spark civil strife or even conflict.

Then, there are those who would argue that the circumstances of Jews and Muslims were different: while Jews were an oppressed minority, Muslims represented the conqueror. In many ways, this would be like asking the Levant to grant the descendants of the Crusaders the right to return and live in their midst.

Though true, this misses a number of important nuances.

One is the fact that during its seven centuries of presence in the Iberian peninsula, Islam became an indigenous faith, not just an elite one. There is plenty of historical evidence that Islam permeated all strata of society, and that Arabic was spoken widely, as reflected in its extensive fossilised remains in modern Spanish.

Moreover, the Moriscos, like other Conversos, were so attached to their homes that they preferred to, at least ostensibly, abandon their faith rather than be banished from their homes.

Regardless of whether or not the descendants of Moriscos will ever be granted the right to move to Spain and become Spanish citizens, Spain at the very least owes them an apology.

Much closer in terms of space and time, as a first step towards reconciliation, Israel owes the Palestinian an unreserved apology. Likewise, the Arab countries that were once home to significant Jewish minorities need to apologise unreservedly to their former citizens and would-be citizens.

One day perhaps we will even see Arab countries and Israel extending some kind of right of return, which would be a boon to a region that has seriously lost its diversity, would spell the end to exclusionary nationalisms and would prove that Arabs and Jews are “brothers” and “sisters,” not feuding “cousins”.

Follow Khaled Diab on Twitter.

This article first appeared in Haaretz on 18 February 2014.

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إعترافات ملحد مصري

 
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بقلم خالد دياب

رغم عدم الإعتراف بهم، الملحدين ايضاً اولاد بلد ويجب على الدولة والمجتمع ان يعطوهم حقوقهم. 

الأحد 20 اكتوبر 2013

English version

صدق أو لا تصدق، أنا أحد أعضاء أكثر أقلية غير معترف بها فى مصر. لا، لست قبطيا و لا بهائيا. أنا آجنوستى-ملحد أو ملحد-أجنوستى. باختصار، أنا لا أدرى أذا كان الله موجود لكن الدين، من وجهة نظرى المتواضعة، من صنع الإنسان و ليس مرسلاً من السماء.

أذا كان هناك أله، فقد أحدث “الأنفجار العظيم” ثم أختبأ ليشاهد نتيجة عمل القوانين المبهرة التى صنعها لتحكم الكون. هو لا يتدخل في ادارة تفاصيل حياتنا التافهة على رقعة الأرض الحقيرة هذه. نحن لسنا فى مركز مخططه.

هذه أول مرة أعلن فيها عن عدم إيمانى فى جريدة مصرية و سيغضب ذلك بعض القراء وسيجرح مشاعر البعض الأخر. وذلك ليس فى نيتى. مع أنى لا أريد أن أسئ لمعتقدات اى أحد، أعتقد أنه من حقى أيضا أن أعبر عن أعمق قناعاتى التى وصلت أليها بعد سنين من الشك و التساؤل والتردد والتفكير.

عندما يجد الناس الإيمان، نسمع عن تلقي وحي أو عن لحظات تصحو فيها وترى نورا. لا أعلم أن كان هذا صحيحا حيث أنى لم أختبر أى صحوة دينية أبدا. ولكن عندما تفقد دينك، هو شئ أقرب لنزيف بطئ أو الوصول لحالة مزمنة من الوهن قد يتخللها بعض الفترات من التحسن ولكن النهاية قريبة، بما فيها البحث في النفس و تدمير للنفس.

لعلنى شعرت بأقوى حالات الإيمان (والأكثر طفولة) فى بلد غير مسلم ثم فقدته في بلد مسلم، مع أنى لم أهجره تماما ألا بعد رحيلى عن مصر للمرة الثانية. كانت البداية عبارة عن شكوك طفولية حول سبب عدم دخول أصدقائى الإنجليز للجنة عندما يموتون، ثم تطور الأمر لأسئلة حول وضع المرأة والجنس بالإضافة للتناقضات والأخطاء العلمية فى القرآن.

 كما راودتني أسئلة ميتافيزيقية  وفلسفية مثل: لماذا يخلق إله عادل ومحب كائن معيب ثم يضعه تحت اختبار يعرف هذا الإله الغير محدود  نتيجته مقدما؟ بالطبع لا أدعى أن الإسلام ينفرد بذلك، بل تنطبق نفس الأسئلة وأسئلة مشابهة على باقي الأديان.

 أعتقد أن الكثير من المؤمنين سينتابهم الفزع والقلق عند قراءة المقال هذا. ربما سيحزنوا على ضلالي ويتعجبوا من نفسي الجوفاء والفراغ العميق بها. لكن على العكس أنا لا أشعر أن الحادى ترك ثقباً بحجم الله فى قلبى. ولا أنى لاجئ روحاني هائم في مخيمات الأرواح المنفية.

هناك الكثير من الأشياء حولنا التي تملأ مشاعري بالدهشة والغموض. من العلوم والتكنولوجيا التي تقوم “بمعجزات” حديثة ولا نهائية الى النظريات الفيزيائية التي تتسم بجمال في ميتافيزيقيتها. ومن “جزيئات الله” للاعتقاد المجنون بوجود شلال من الأكوان حولنا.

البعض الأخر يعتقد أن الملحد يفقد بوصلته الأخلاقية عندما يتجرد من الدين وأنه يعانى من وجوده في متاهة من العدمية نتيجة استئصال أخلاقه. فى الواقع هذه الفكرة مهينة للإنسانية لأنها مبنية على افتراض أننا أطفال أشقياء لابد من إجبارنا على عمل الصواب والبعد عن الخطأ. الفارق الاساسى بين القواعد الأخلاقية للمؤمن والملحد أن الملحد لديه حرية أكثر لاستخدام العقل فى اختياره للأخلاقيات التي يقرر التمسك بها أو تركها.

اعتقاداتي بأكملها هى ملكي وحدي ولا أنتظر من أحد أن يعتنقها، لأن إيماني ليس دعويا. أنا أعتقد أن كل شخص يجب أن يجد طريقه ويقرر بنفسه ما يريد أن يؤمن به. كل ما أطلبه أن يكف الآخرين عن الدفع بمعتقداتهم فى حلقى أو أن يحاولوا إلغاء معتقداتي، كما فعل العديد من الإسلاميين طوال السنوات الماضية.

 بينما أحترم المعتقدات الدينية للآخرين وأعجب بهؤلاء الذين يملكون التدين والخلق المحب، هناك الكثيرين ممن لا يفعلون مثلى ولا يعطوني نفس الحقوق. ومع أن القانون المصري لا يجرم الإلحاد بوضوح، هناك آليات لملاحقة الملحدين. منمها القانونان المبهمان والمبتكران والمرعبان في نفس الوقت الخاصين بازدراء الأديان والحسبة، ويستخدمهما المحامين الإسلاميين والدولة لملاحقة الملحدين بل أيضا لملاحقة المسلمين المختلفين معهم فى الرأي.

ما لم أتمكن من استيعابه هو كيفية “شعور” دين عمره قرون بالازدراء ولماذا يحتاج الإسلام ناس يوكلوا انفسهم مدافعين عنه في حين أن القرآن نقسه يطالب غير المسلمين بالشك والتساؤل وحتى بالسخرية. في الواقع أي دين يعتقد أن حقائقه دالة وقاطعة الثبوت في حد ذاتها لا يحتاج أيا من أتباعه أن يجبروا الآخرين على اعتناقه.

هناك من سينبذ كلامي على أنه إدعاءات شخص أبتعد كثيرا عن أصوله وعاش بالخارج لمدة طويلة. ومع أني لا أشك أن المراحل التى قضيتها في أوروبا عرضتني لأساليب تفكير مختلفة، لكن أبتعادى عن الدين حدث معظمه أثناء وجودي بمصر على الرغم من جمال المظاهر الدينية العديدة التي أعجبت بها هنا، من الأجواء الإحتفالية المفرطة فى رمضان لنسك الرهبنة في الصحراء.

 من حسن حظي أنه كان بإمكاني قطع صلاتي بالدين فى وسط أقل حدة وورع. حيث أن البعض لم تتوفر له تلك الرفاهية وأنا أعرف العديد من الملحدين والأجنوستيين الذين يخفون حقيقة معتقداتهم عن عائلاتهم خشية من فقدانهم لأحبابهم.

قد يكون من المغرى للبعض أن يرونى شاذا أوحتى مكروها، لكنى أؤكد لهم أنى لست الوحيد. مع أنى كنت صوتا نادرا حينما خرجت من القمقم لأول مرة، لكن الثورة شجعت العديد من الملحدين أن يعبروا عن أفكارهم، حتى وأن كان ذلك محفوفاً بمخاطر فادحة مثل النفي أو النبذ والملاحقة القضائية – مخاطر أصبحت محصنا منها حيث أنى فقط أزور مصر ولا اقيم هناك.

 أما الذين ستغريهم فكرة أن الثورة جائت بأفكار منحلة، أؤكد لهم أن الملحدين كانوا دائما متواجدين بمصر – وفى العلن – و لعبوا أيضا دورا مهما فى تكوين هوية مصر. في الواقع، حتى سبعينات القرن الماضى لعبوا الملحدين ومن أبحروا في تيارات عدم الإيمان دوراً بارزاً في الفكر والثقافة في مصر.

على سبيل المثال، كان رائد الاشتراكية فى مصر سلامة موسى يؤمن أن الناس يجب أن تعتمد فقط على عقولها وأن كل منا يجب أن يأخذ مصيره بيديه. ومن المعروف أن مصطفى محمود، مقدم البرامج التليفزيونية الشهير الذي مزج بين الدين والعلم، كان أيضا ملحدا ثم وجد طريقه للإيمان مرة أخرى، مع انه صرح بأن أعماله الأولى التي أنتقد فبها الدين كانت هي طريقته لاختبار إيمانه.

أحد أعظم فلاسفة مصر الوجوديين في القرن العشرين، عبد الرحمن بدوى، كتب في الأربعينات من القرن الماضي موسوعة عن الملحدين على مر التاريخ الإسلامى. وكان هناك الكثير منهم مثل “داوكنز” الدولة العباسية ابن الراوندى.

يشير البعض إلى أن عدد الملحدين في مصر يفوق عدد المسيحيين. أن صح ذلك يصبح الإلحاد ثاني أكبر معتقد في المجتمع. لن نعرف في المستقبل القريب عددهم، حيث لا يعترف بالملحدين أو يحصيهم أحد. والتمييز الذي يتعرضون له دفع الكثير منهم أن يخفوا وجودهم. لكن من المؤكد أن بجانب الإيمان كان دائما الإلحاد جزء أساسي من نسيج مصر الإجتماعى وإنكار ذلك لا يولد سوى النفاق.

 حان الوقت لنعترف بكامل حقوق الملحدين بما في ذلك حقهم في حرية الإعتقاد بما يشاؤا وحقهم فى ألا يصنفوا على أنهم أتباع أيا من الأديان السماوية الثلاثة وكافة حقوقهم المدنية مثل باقى المصريين.

 فوق كل شئ، نريد أن ينظر لنا بمساواة كمواطنين وليس كأهداف للملاحقة القضائية والأسوأ من ذلك… للاضطهاد.

___

Follow Khaled Diab on Twitter.

نشر هذا المقال في The Daily News Egypt في 15 اغسطس 2013. الترجمة العربية من خلال باسم رؤوف

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Confessions of an Egyptian infidel

 
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By Khaled Diab

Though never officially recognised, atheists and agnostics have always been part of Egypt. Society now needs to grant us our right not to believe.

Monday 19 August 2013

إقراء بالعربي

Believe it or not, I am a member of Egypt’s least-recognised minority. No, I’m not a Copt or a convert or a Bahá’í even. I am an agnostic atheist, or an atheistic agnostic. Basically, I don’t know whether or not God exists, but religion, in my humble view, is clearly manmade and not heaven-sent.

If there is a god, he set off the Big Bang and then took cover to view the handiwork of the magnificent laws he set in motion to govern the universe. He is not an interventionist micro-manager who, for some unfathomable reason, decided to place us, insignificant flecks on the back of an insignificant speck that we are, at the centre of his entire scheme.

This is the first time I’ve made such a declaration of faith, or faithlessness, in an Egyptian newspaper, and it is bound to outrage some readers and cause offence to others. That is not my intention. Although I do not wish to insult people’s most intimate beliefs, I believe I also have a right to express my heartfelt convictions, and ones which I arrived at after years of doubt, questioning, hesitation and thought.

When it comes to finding religion, we hear of epiphanies, moments when someone suddenly wakes up and sees the light. I don’t know if this is true, since I’ve never experienced a religious awakening. When it comes to losing your religion, as REM might put it, it’s more like a slow bleed or a debilitating terminal condition in which there can be periods of recovery but the end is not far off; it involves soul-searching and soul-destruction.

I felt perhaps my strongest (and youngest) faith in a non-Muslim country and lost it in a Muslim country, though I did not fully abandon it until I left Egypt again. It began with childhood doubts over why all my English friends would be going to hell when they eventually died, which matured into questions over the status of women and sexuality, as well as the contradictions and scientific errors in the Quran.

That’s not to mention the more metaphysical and philosophical questions, such as why a just and loving God would intentionally create a flawed being whom he places in a test which the omnipresent, omniscient deity already knows the outcome? Of course, I’m not singling out Islam – the same and similar questions apply to other religions.

Many believers, I imagine, will read the above with a mix of horror and even concern. They will perhaps grieve for my lost soul and wonder what emptiness and hollowness lie inside. But, on the contrary, I don’t feel that my loss of faith has left me with a God-sized hole in my heart. Nor am I like a spiritual refugee slumming it out in some frontier camp for exiled souls.

There is so much around us to instil a sense of wonder and mystique, from the science and technology that can perform endless modern-day “miracles” to the physics theories that are metaphysical in their beauty, from the God particle to the zany notion that a cascade of multiverses exists.

Others assume that deprived of religion, the non-believer loses his or her moral compass, suffers a lobotomy of his morals and exists in an ethics-free nihilistic haze. But this notion is frankly insulting to humanity as it is built on the assumption that we are errant children who have to be coerced into doing right and avoiding wrong. The main difference between the morality of the faithful and faithless is that the non-believer is much freer to exercise reason to decide which ethics to uphold and which to jettison.

My convictions are entirely my own and I don’t expect others to adopt them. Mine is not a proselytising “faith”. I believe that everyone should find their own path and decide for themselves what they wish to believe in. All I ask is that others refrain from shoving their beliefs down my throat or try nullifying mine, as numerous Islamists have done over the years.

While I respect people’s religious beliefs and admire those of a forgiving and loving spiritual disposition, there are many who do not, or would not accord me the same right. Although Egyptian law does not explicitly outlaw atheism, there are other mechanisms for targeting non-believers. These include the vague, innovative and frightening legal concepts of “insulting” and “ridiculing” religion, as well as hisbah, which have been used by crusading Islamist lawyers and the state to target non-believers but far more often believers with a different interpretation of their faith.

What I’ve never been able to get my head around is how any centuries-old religion could feel insult, and why Islam would need self-appointed defenders when the Quran itself challenges non-Muslims to doubt, question and even mock. In fact, any faith which believes its truths are self-evident does not need any of its followers to coerce and intimidate others into obedience.

There are those who will dismiss what I say as the ranting of someone who has moved too far away from his roots and lived abroad for too long. Although I do not doubt that the phases I have spent in Europe have exposed me to alternative way of thinking, most of my drift away from religion occurred in Egypt, despite the numerous beautiful aspects I admire about faith here, from the festive excesses of Ramadan to the monastic frugalities of the desert.

Fortunately for me, I was able to sever my ties with religion in a less intense, demanding and pious environment. Others have not had that luxury, and I know quite a few atheists and agnostics who hide their true beliefs from their families or are discreet about them out of fear of losing their loved ones.

It might be tempting for some to view me as an aberration, even an abomination, but I can assure them I am by far not alone.  Although I was a rare voice when I first came out of the closet, the revolution has emboldened many more non-believers to speak their  mind, even when it comes at the great personal risk of ostracism and prosecution, risks I am relatively immune to now that I only visit Egypt.

For those who may be tempted to think that the revolution has brought with it decadent ideas, let me stress that non-believers have always been around in Egypt – often openly – and have played important roles in shaping the country’s identity. In fact, up until the 1970s, atheists and those who sailed close to the wind of non-belief were prominent in the country’s intelligentsia.

For example, the pioneer of socialism in Egypt, Salama Moussa, believed that people must depend only on their minds and that each of us must “take his destiny into his own hands.” It is widely reputed that Mustafa Mahmoud, the popular TV presenter who blended religion with science, was an atheist who found God, though he himself claimed that his earlier works criticising religion were his way of testing his faith.

One of Egypt’s greatest philosophers of the 20th century, the existentialist Abdel Rahman Badawi, wrote, in the 1940s, an encyclopaedia of atheists throughout Islamic history. And there have been plenty of those, such as the Dawkins of the Abbasid era Ibn Al-Rawandi.

There are even atheists who speculate that the number of non-believers in Egypt could potentially exceed the number of Christians. If true, that would make non-belief the second largest faith community.

For the foreseeable future, we will not know as nobody has bothered to recognise or count them, and the discrimination they face has led many to lead an underground existence. But what is certain is that, alongside belief, non-belief has always been an integral part of Egypt’s social fabric, and denying they exist only breeds hypocrisy.

It is time that atheists and agnostics have their rights recognised in full, including their right to freely believe what they want, their right not to be described as a member of one of the three heavenly faiths, and their right, along with other Egyptians, to access civil courts.

Above all, we need to be regarded as equal citizens and not as targets for prosecution… or worse, persecution.

 

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Follow Khaled Diab on Twitter.

This article first appeared in The Daily News Egypt on 15 August 2013.

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Egypt and the West: the liberal-Islamist paradox

 
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Why do some Western liberals committed to democracy, gender equality and minority support a president and movement that respects none of these?

Thursday 15 August 2013

Photo: ©Khaled Diab.

Photo: ©Khaled Diab.

One of the gatekeepers at the protest encampment in support of ousted Egyptian president Mohamed Morsi outside the Raba’a al-Adawiya mosque in Cairo stopped me to check who I was and what I was doing there, his eyes full of weary suspicion.

But then when he caught sight of my European ID card and heard the list of Western publications I wrote for – on the advice of fellow hacks, I had not mentioned any of the Egyptian or Arab papers I worked with due to reports of journalists being attacked andbeaten up – his manner shifted perceptibly, welcoming me warmly and ushering me in promptly.

And he was not alone. Once I began to interview one young man, a crowd formed around me, all eager to tell their stories, some of which were of ugly brutality and murder at the hands of the authorities, and express their support for the deposed president. “I was born when Morsi came to office. I died when he was removed from office,” Yosri Ahmed said to nods of approval.

Quite a number were convinced that Morsi’s unseating was a Western conspiracy, yet they were keen for me to communicate their message to the West.

What was behind this? Part of the reason is simple pragmatism and real politick. Despite US pro-democracy rhetoric, it is generally accepted round these parts, and often true, that few leaders last long – or can be reinstated – without Washington’s approval. That explains why the Muslim Brotherhood has sought to reassure and even court the US and its Western allies.

Another factor is the relatively sympathetic hearing the Muslim Brotherhood has received in the European and American media, especially the more progressive and liberal segments. This is a far cry from the anti-Morsi hostility, even demonisation, pervading Egyptian society, though there are some segments of the independent media trying to give Morsi and the Brotherhood the fair hearing the Islamist media denied secularists.

Some might see a contradiction in how people who believe in freedom and equality, especially for women and minorities, are now throwing their weight behind a man and movement who have spared few efforts to promote inequality, especially for women and minorities.

What is behind this paradoxical Western liberal-Egyptian Islamist union? After much reflection, analysis and debate, I have come up with a number of explanations. In some segments of the mainstream media, especially those closely aligned to government, there is also a question of pragmatism, and “protecting US interests” involved returning Morsi to power, since Washington tends to prefer “stability” over principle.

In the liberal/progressive reaches where principle matters most, there has been confusion over which principles take priority, mixed in with a profound misunderstanding (sometimes wilful) of Egypt’s political reality.

This is clearly illustrated in the fixation on democratic process over undemocratic reality, that the ballot box should be respected even when its outcome is undemocratic. Yes, it is true that Morsi was elected democratically, but the sheer scale of protests against him acted effectively as a popular impeachment.

Moreover, Morsi was no democrat and he did not preside over a democracy. This is reflected in the undue influence the military exercised over Egyptian politics. In fact, those who are convinced that the army re-entered politics with Morsi’s ouster should be made aware that the generals never actually left.

Over and above this, the office of president remained far too powerful, which enabled Morsi to temporarily grant himself superhuman powers to push through a troublingly undemocratic constitution. Then there was the clamping down on protests, the intimidating of opponents, not to mention the attempts to push through legislation to limit protest and to pass NGO laws that were “more draconian” than Hosni Mubarak’s.

Such behaviour would have probably led to the prosecution of the president in a country with more robust and independent checks and balances.

Beyond this is the fact that Morsi’s behaviour did not fit into the liberal discourse on moderate Islamism. Partly in reaction to the ugly discrimination and bigotry unleashed by George W Bush’s “War on Terror” and the prevalent rightwing idea that Islam and democracy don’t mix, I was among those who said that the Muslim Brotherhood and other moderate Islamists could survive in a democracy, despite the inherent tensions in reconciling “God’s law” with man’s.

Sadly, Morsi and his entourage behaved as though they were a poorly acted parody of anti-Muslim stereotypes. Faced with Morsi’s project to become Egypt’s first democratically elected dictator and to establish a theocracy, millions took to the streets in protests at least as large as those which ousted Mubarak.

Yet numerous liberal and leftist observers chose to gloss over this. And the Muslim Brotherhood has been trying to exploit this reticence to the fullest. While their representatives speak at length about “democratic legitimacy” to the outside world, protesters at pro-Morsi rallies chant for Shari’a and the downfall of secularism. “Egypt is Islamic. Tell the world Egypt is Islamic. It isn’t secular,” a song playing all over the Raba’a encampment said in no uncertain terms.

But why would people committed to democracy, human rights and equality take such counter-intuitive stances? Part of the problem is that the world is a complex, morally ambiguous place which throws tricky conundrums at us.

Many Western progressives are used to seeing Muslims as the underdogs, either as vulnerable minorities in the West or as the victims of Western aggression. It is true that in Europe and the United States the issue is about providing members of a religious minority with the space and respect to exercise their faith freely. But in Egypt, where Muslims are free to practice every tenet of their religion, the Muslim Brotherhood project is about imposing their conservative religious vision on society as a whole.

But this does not, as some liberals wary of criticising the Brotherhood might feel, in any way imply that Islam or Muslims are incompatible with democracy, only the current Brotherhood project is. The majority of Egyptians are pious Muslims and yet they have risked their lives and livelihoods for nearly three years, toppling three dictators along the way (Mubarak, Field Marshal Tantawi and Morsi), for the sake of democracy, freedom and socioeconomic justice.

In Tunisia, where they have Islamists with more common sense and tolerance, the Ennahda party has, despite opposition and controversy, steered a fairly pluralistic route. Unlike their Egyptian counterparts, they wasted no time on the question of Shari’a, even though the Tunisian constitution makes no mention of it. “The values of justice, liberty and equality are Islamic values, and they are in the constitution,” explains Rached Ghannouchi, the party’s chief.

And contrary to the popular legend, the clash in Egypt is not between a secular elite and the conservative masses. Morsi’s opponents include pious and liberal, rich and poor, young and old, men and especially women. It brings together those who wish to keep religion out of politics with those who felt Morsi was serving just the Brotherhood and had ruined the country further, rather than rebuilt it.

Of course, some outsiders express support for Morsi as the lesser of two evils, with the Brotherhood cast as being better than the army. Though I share a similar aversion to the junta, for millions of Egyptians who caught a glimpse of the Islamist abyss ahead, they decided that taking their chances with the military was safer.

That is not to say that Egyptians generally prefer dictatorship over democracy, as some have asserted. Egyptians still want democracy more than ever, but they trust the military to deliver it more than they do the Brotherhood and other Islamists. This trust is very likely to prove unfounded, as it did during the first transition.

But many Egyptians feel that gaining their freedom from men with guns will be easier than trying to wrest it from men who claim to have God on their side.

___

Follow Khaled Diab on Twitter.

This article first appeared in The Huffington Post on 9 August 2013.

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Beauty in the eye of the political storm

 
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Can the skin-deep world of the Miss Israel beauty pageant help combat the ugly face of discrimination and prejudice against Palestinians in Israel?

Tuesday 23 July 2013

Mimas Abdelhai (first from right): "I believe I can shed light on matters that are very important for me."

Mimas Abdelhai (first from right): “I believe I can shed light on matters that are very important for me.”

Yityish Aynaw, or Titi as she is known to her friends, became the first woman of Ethiopian origin to win the Miss Israel contest. Like winners of the beauty lottery everywhere, Aynaw’s crowning has thrust her from obscurity into the limelight.

But her victory has a political dimension that is often missing from the skin-deep world of beauty contests: Aynaw comes from one of Israel’s most marginalised ethnic groups. Some have interpreted the Ethiopian beauty queen’s victory as a sign of Israeli tolerance, and of how Ethiopians are becoming increasingly integrated and mainstream.

However, in the absence of substantive change, Aynaw’s success could prove little more than a Botox injection – and the ugly face of discrimination will again sag. Nevertheless, many in the community celebrated that one of their number has become queen for a year. “For people from my country of origin it is a source of great pride,” asserted Aynaw.

And Aynaw has not just inspired members of her own ethnic group. Mimas Abdelhai, a Palestinian-Israeli, has been mulling the idea of taking part in Miss Israel since last year. “I have been so scared to make this decision and to even talk to the people closest to me about it,” admits Abdelhai, who is a student of government at a top private Israeli college. “But this year’s winner gave me strength and encouraged me to make this decision.”

Unlike Aynaw, who entered the Miss Israel pageant to pursue her modelling aspirations, Abdelhai’s motives are largely political and cultural. “Miss Israel is different to beauty contests in other countries. The title comes with a social and political dimension, especially if a contestant comes from a minority background,” she explains.

And for Israel’s 1.6-million-strong Palestinian minority, usually referred to locally as ‘Arab Israelis’, this “political dimension” is a massive one, perched precariously as the community is on the main fault line of a decades-old conflict, as Rana Raslan, who won the title in 1999, discovered.

Although Palestinian-Israelis often welcomed Raslan’s unprecedented victory, especially in her hometown of Haifa, many Palestinians in the occupied territories as well as Arabs in the wider region reacted angrily, and tended to view the spectacle with distaste and distrust.

Distaste because the idea that an Arab would openly wear the label “Israeli”, carry the Israeli flag and represent Israel on the world stage is anathema, especially with Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza still living under the crushing boot of occupation. Distrust because people fear the propaganda mileage the Israeli establishment would try to extract from such a high-profile success, though one that is ultimately non-threatening.

And true enough, Bibi Netanyahu wasted no time. “This is a clear manifestation of equality and co-operation between Jews and Arabs in Israel,”   he said at the time. One of the Miss Israel judges, Pnina Rosenblum, went even further, extrapolating that this showed Israelis “want a true peace”.

Though many Israelis applauded Raslan’s victory, in rightwing nationalist and religious circles little in the way of “equality and co-operation”, or aspirations for “true peace”, were on display, as reflected in the fan(atical) mail the beauty queen received urging her to renounce her crown in favour of a Jew.

This raises the poignant question of why Mimas Abdelhai would want to step into this political minefield. “[Participation] automatically gains political attention. With that attention and connections, I believe I can shed light on matters that are very important for me,” she says, belying her political aspirations encompassed in the name of the party with which she became involved during the recent elections, Hope for Change.

And those matters? Raising the profile of her community and drawing attention to the discrimination it faces, representing her generation and her gender, as well as highlighting the plight of Palestinians in the occupied territories and acting as an ambassador for peace and a bridge for coexistence.

And handling the inevitable public fallout? “Of course, there will be those to object on both sides and I understand why,” Abdelhai acknowledges. “My parents are scared about the controversy the possibility of me competing might cause [but] I am strong enough to face this controversy,” she adds, noting that she would only take part if she can win her parents over.

Although I have serious misgivings about the political spin the Israeli establishment would put on anther Israeli beauty queen who happens to be Arab, what the rejectionists on both sides overlook is that Palestinian-Israelis, whether people like it or not, are not just Israelis by citizenship, but are increasingly “Israeli” culturally.

Political discourse is, in fact, lagging drastically behind reality. While the Israeli-Palestinian conflict becomes more polarised than ever, and identity politics grow, a new generation of Palestinian-Israelis has grown up quietly in the background with a very mixed cultural heritage, as I discovered.

Some acknowledge that they are both Palestinian and Israeli, while even those who reject or are uncomfortable with the “Israeli” label often recognize the influence of Israeli society on them. And this influence has been two-way, if you consider how much Palestinian culture Israeli Jews have assimilated over the decades, from food to language, and more.

In the case of Abdehai, she speaks natural Hebrew, her formal Arabic is underdeveloped and she has spent more of her educational career among Israeli Jews than Arabs. But with her state at war with her nation, as one prominent Palestinian-Israeli memorably put it, juggling these two cultures causes an identity crisis.

“In my university right now, I’m the only Palestinian,” Abdelhai told me in an interview for my book. Being a minority of one “is sometimes very scary. It feels very uncomfortable. I’m not sure I can represent where I come from in the right way. I feel like I have a lot of responsibility.”

The flip side is that being educated in the Israeli and international systems, despite the opportunities they have offered, have also somewhat alienated her from the mainstream of her community. “I find it hard to befriend people in my hometown,” Abdelhai admits. “The things I do and the things I like doing are very different.”

Although I am sceptical that a beauty contest can make any meaningful political difference, the rise of a new, assertive generation like Abdelhai’s can and will challenge lazy prejudices and artificial dichotomies, while the blurring of rigid identities could point a way forward towards peaceful coexistence between Israelis and Palestinians.

And like Mohammad Assaf demonstrated in Gaza with his Arab Idol victory, the feel-good factor and pride cultural success can elicit for an embattled community can be at least as important as its possible political utility.

Moreover, even if it does little immediately for the integration of Palestinians in Israeli society and even if there are influential forces in Israeli society trying to arrest or reverse what gains there have been, this kind of assertive gesture is a reminder to the mainstream that “we are here too and we will not be ignored.”

“This country should embrace its diversity because I believe that’s what makes its special,” Abdelhai urges.

This hints at the two-tired but complementary nature of the Palestinian struggle: for greater integration and empowerment within Israeli society, and for enfranchisement and national self-determination in the West Bank and Gaza.

Follow Khaled Diab on Twitter.

This article first appeared in Haaretz on 9 July 2013.

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