Bernard Lewis and the non-existent clash of civilisations

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By Khaled Diab

Bernard Lewis was the orientalist scholar of choice for American neo-conservatives. His dangerous ‘clash of civilisations’ theory was not only wrong but caused enormous damage in the Middle East.

Tuesday 29 May 2018

Bernard Lewis, the British-American historian and probably the most influential orientalist thinker of his generation, was born as the Ottoman empire was tottering on its last legs. He died, just shy of his 102nd birthday, as the post-Ottoman Middle Eastern order is nearing complete collapse.

Although some of Lewis’s early academic work was groundbreaking, such as his research into medieval Islamic guilds and the insights he gleaned from the Ottoman archives, his work rapidly descended into politicised polemics, which proved extremely destructive to the Middle East.

“For the past several years Lewis has been engaged in preaching scholarship and practising politics,” Edward Said, the author of the groundbreaking study Orientalism, wrote in one of his regular heated exchanges with Lewis, back in 1982. “It is of course quite natural for scholars to have political views and even to impart those views to their students and colleagues in an honest manner. Lewis is guilty of no such balance or discipline.”

Lewis was the orientalist of choice for America’s neo-conservative establishment and “his wisdom is sought daily by policymakers, diplomats, fellow academics, and the news media,” in the words of former US Vice President Dick Cheney, and Lewis is credited, in parallel with Samuel Huntington, with providing the intellectual framework for the 2003 invasion of Iraq.

One of Lewis’s most damaging theories was that of the “clash of civilisations”. Although the term is most commonly associated with Huntington, Bernard Lewis used it earlier, and somewhat differently. While Huntington focused on perceived conflicts along the fault lines between half a dozen or so civilisations, Bernard Lewis’s theory focused on the alleged centuries-old clash between Islam and the West (formerly known as Christendom).

“It should by now be clear that we are facing a mood and a movement far transcending the level of issues and policies and the governments that pursue them,” Lewis wrote in 1990, in what has proved to be one of the most influential essays of recent decades. “This is no less than a clash of civilisations – the perhaps irrational but surely historic reaction of an ancient rival against our Judaeo-Christian heritage, our secular present, and the worldwide expansion of both.”

Considering that two influential public intellectuals alleged that we are in the throes of a clash of civilisations, is there any evidence to back up their theory?

Yes, there is… but only if you are ideologically inclined – like neo-cons, Christian and Islamic fundamentalists, and modern-day jihadis – to believe in such a clash, and pick and choose the evidence to support your thesis, while ignoring inconvenient facts and realities.

In fact and in reality, though the term is relatively new, the notion that Christendom and Islam are age-old and irreconcilable foes has an ancient pedigree. Examples include the historical notions of jihads and crusades, not to mention the idea of ‘civilisation versus barbarism’ espoused by dominant powers and influential voices on both sides throughout the centuries.

But as I examine in a chapter dedicated to this crucial question in my new bookIslam for the Politically Incorrect, this clash exists mainly in the fevered imagination of the fanatic or the skilled political leader, but does not stand up to sustained political or historical scrutiny.

At this point, I should point out that conflicts are extremely complex issues, which are usually poorly understood even by those involved in them, that cannot be reduced to any single root cause. That said, religious identity and culture, in my analysis, have played a remarkably minor role in the interactions between Islam (the Middle East) and Christendom (the West), both today and historically.

This is underlined, in my view, by what I call the clash within civilisations (not to mention the clashes within individual societies), the conflicts which have plagued both sides and often posed a greater existential threat than the external enemy. This is exemplified by the two world wars and the current wildfire tearing through the Middle East.

It is also exemplified by the oft surreal cross-civilisational alliances that emerge. If civilisations truly clash over values, then the largely decades-old cosy relationship between the regressive Gulf monarchies and Britain then the United States should not exist, yet what I call the oiligarchy shows no sign of losing its potency, even under the stewardship of the Islamophobic Donald Trump.

And these alliances are scarcely new. Protestant England had a long-lasting alliance with the Ottomans against Catholic Spain. Caliph Harun al-Rashid and the Holy Roman Emperor Charlemagne were involved in a robust, multi-generational coalition against their mutual foes, the Byzantines and Umayyads. Going even further back, the conquest of Iberia by Muslim forces would not have occurred without the encouragement and aid of the very Christian Julian of Septem (Ceuta).

Over and beyond all this, there is what I call the mash of civilisations, through which Islam and Christendom have so influenced one another, and been influenced by the same precursors, including ancient Greek, Egyptian and Mesopotamian influences, that it is impossible to separate them into two distinct civilisations.

The conflicts we are witnessing today are not so much a clash between civilisations, as a crash of civilisation. By this, I do not mean the collapse of civilisation and the end of technologically advanced human society, but rather the more mundane and periodic crumbling of the dominant political, economic and social orders, as they become unsustainable, imploding and exploding under the weight of their contradictions.

It is far easier to blame monolithic metaphysical forces for our problems than to examine the actual socio-economic and geopolitical faultlines at play, because that would require changes few are willing or courageous enough to make. But continuing to ignore the painful realities in favour of comforting illusions and delusions will lead to serious misdiagnosis of the situation, and the prescribed medication, rather than offering a cure will threaten the very survival of the patient.

This article first appeared in the New Arab on 23 May 2018. 

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Omar Sharif: Actor without borders

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By Khaled Diab

The late Omar Sharif was living, breathing, walking proof that there is nothing inherently irreconcilable between the Middle East and the West.


Friday 24 July 2015

In a world where the most famous Arabs in the West tend to be infamous, Omar Sharif was like a breath of fresh air. For a young Egyptian growing up in London, he was a welcome and flamboyant distraction from the popular stereotypes of the Arab: oil sheikh, fanatic or terrorist.

Although he was more famous for playing bridge than for acting when I was growing up, the aura of his legendary silver screen persona from the 1960s still mesmerised people. Buoyed by his off-screen playboy lifestyle, easy charm, dashing good looks and disarming honesty, Sharif remained a household name, no matter how many mediocre films he made for a quick buck to pay off his gambling debts.

Sharif-LawrenceSharif’s big international break was in the universally acclaimed epic Lawrence of Arabia. Casting him as a traditional Arab tribal leader was a bizarre choice. Omar Sharif grew up among the upper crust of cosmopolitan Alexandria and Cairo, where his modern upbringing was probably more “western” than that of many Westerners.

He attended Victoria College, a British school, where he rose to become the head boy and a prefect. The late Palestinian-American scholar and activist Edward Said also went to the same school, where he lived in terror of the older boy’s “entrenched authoritarianism” and in admiration of his acting talent on the school stage.

Meanwhile, Sharif Ali, the character Omar Sharif portrayed, was a fictional and generic amalgamation of the Arab sheikhs TE Lawrence aided during the Arab revolt, who made what is widely regarded as the most spectacular cinematic entrance in history.

Despite the romantic and exotic orientalism of Lawrence of Arabia, Omar Sharif’s great strength was that he did not allow himself to get typecast as a celluloid Arab – whether the “noble” desert Bedouin or the more common Hollywood staple, the “reel bad” Arab villain.

In his 1960s heyday, Sharif played a Spanish priest, a Yugoslav patriot fighting the Nazis and even Genghis Khan, which was panned by one critic as being “no closer to history than Omar Sharif is to being a Mongolian”. Sharif has even played a German. “Can you believe an Egyptian playing a German? Hitler turns in his grave at this,” Sharif once joked in an interview.

But the most famous non-Arab he portrayed has to be the dreamy and exceedingly romantic Russian Doctor Zhivago.

A polyglot who spoke five languages but didn’t have a mother tongue, Omar Sharif was not just a cinematic icon. With his ability to glide between cultures, he was also a symbol of an easy-going multiculturalism. He was living, breathing, walking proof that there is nothing inherently irreconcilable between the Middle East and the West, that the cultural divergence within them is greater than that between them.

Sharif, the first Egyptian and Arab to conquer Hollywood, not only challenged western clichés, he also undermined stereotypes in Egypt and the Arab world, and stood as a symbol of a vanishing cosmopolitan era of greater mobility and tolerance.

Born Michel Chalhoub, he was not just the son of Egypt but also of the Levant. His Lebanon-born father was a well-to-do Greek Catholic merchant who settled in Alexandria, while his mother was of Syrian-Lebanese extraction.

Sharif-HamamaUpon embarking on his film career, Chalhoub changed his name to Omar Sharif, partly because his father was ashamed of his career choice and partly to give himself an easier name for Egyptian audiences to recall. He soon ostensibly adopted the religion to match his new name when he fell in love with Egyptian silver screen legend Faten Hamama on the set of his first film, the classic Sira’ Fil Wadi (Struggle in the Valley), and converted to marry her.

And like Lawrence of Arabia, Sharif’s first film in Egypt – the Arab Hollywood – was a mega-hit, though his casting in it also diverged from his real-life circumstances. In Struggle in the Valley, Sharif plays the son of a farmer caught in a passionate love affair symbolising the class struggle. In reality, Sharif grew up in a bourgeois household frequented by King Farouq, who played cards with his mother.

But Omar Sharif never became involved in overtly political art nor activism. Perhaps as a function of his complex and varied background, upbringing and career, he never sought to be a symbol for or representative of anyone.

He was a lover of the good life who was prone to overindulgence, especially when it came to his many affairs and to gambling. The side effect of this was that he lost many of the dearest things in his life, including his marriage to Hamama, and  led a rootless existence for long years living out of hotel rooms around the world. “I’ve been forced to live like a Bedouin,” he once said.

Sharif was also unapologetic about his multiple cultural influences and lifestyle choices, and never tried to fit into a particular cultural template. He didn’t seek assimilation in the West nor did he strive for a return to Arab authenticity when he came back to Egypt. “I am very western in culture and very eastern in temperament,” he once described.

This uncompromising individualism sometimes landed him in hot water, such as when he became romantically involved with Jewish-American superstar Barbra Streisand, known for her staunch support of Israel. Sharif’s response to allegations of treachery levelled against him in the Arab press was disarmingly simple and straightforward: “Neither in my professional nor in my private life do I ask a girl her nationality or her religion before I kiss her.”

Cinematically, Sharif’s silver years were better than the dry middle decades of his career, though, in his self-effacing honesty, he did not believe that age brought with it wisdom. He produced a number of Western and Arab films of worth, including The 13th Warrior, Monsieur Ibrahim et les fleurs du Coran, al-Aragouz (The Puppet Show), and al-Muwatin Masri (The Citizen is Egyptian).

It is a shame that he will no longer produce films of such calibre. But given his hit-and-miss career and his uneven acting abilities, it will not be Omar Sharif the artist that the world will miss the most.

It will be Omar Sharif, the person. In these times of growing polarisation, hardening cultural identities, the mindless quest for “authenticity” and fake civilisational clashes, we desperately need an Omar Sharif to glide effortlessly and elegantly through the allegedly impassable cultural barriers which supposedly separate us.


Follow Khaled Diab on Twitter.

This article first appeared on Al Jazeera on 11 July 2015.

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Making halal sexy

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By Khaled Diab

Though halal sex may sound as logical as kosher bacon, it does make its own sense. Some Muslims are utilising the concept to break the taboo around sex.

Painting by Khoda-Dad Khan Zand, QAJAR IRAN, 1856-7.

Romantic painting by Khoda-Dad Khan Zand, Qajar Iran, 1856-7.

Tuesday 12 May 2015

Though Muslims attitudes to sex are as diverse as those found in any other global religious community, the image of contemporary Islam is certainly not sexy. This may explain why a news story about plans to open a halal sex shop in Mecca, Islam’s holiest city in one of its most conservative countries, went viral, among Muslims and non-Muslims alike.

While many assumed the misleading story actually meant that this was a concrete plan, or even that this shop had actually opened its doors, it remains only a wish – some critics claim wishful thinking – expressed by Abdelaziz Aouragh, the Moroccan-Dutch entrepreneur behind  El Asira, an erotic e-shop which describes itself as “halal”.

And El Asira is not the only erotic enterprise which carries such an Islamic label, quite a number have popped up in recent years. Over a year ago, Palestinian entrepreneur Ashraf Alkiswani launched Karaz, an e-store and online forum. “It’s not about just sex. It’s about love and the joy of expressing that love,” Alkiswani was quoted as saying at the time. “It’s about trying to build bridges across gaps that separate the husband from the wife by improving sexual harmony.”

Aouragh also described his motivations in similar terms, noting that “if couples don’t take the time to show the love for their partner nor themselves, they won’t be able to reach a deeper sensual, sexual or spiritual connection.”

Unlike Western erotic shops, neither El Asira nor Karaz sell sex toys but market various oils and creams which supposedly enhance foreplay and intensify pleasure during intercourse.

The notion that a sex shop can be “halal” – an Islamic concept similar to “kosher” – had many Muslims and non-Muslims bewildered.

At a certain level, describing erotica as “halal” is simply a branding exercise designed to tap the potentially lucrative and under-exploited erotic market in Muslim countries. “Considering we’re targeting a market of around 1.8 billion people, the potential is huge,” enthused Aouragh in a recent interview about El Asira’s new partnership with German erotica giant Beate Uhse.

But the “halal” label is not just about marketing, it is also about breaking the social taboo surrounding sexual pleasure prevalent in many conservative Muslim communities by demonstrating that sexuality is encouraged, not frowned up, in Islam. “I think Islam is more open [than Muslims are] to sex and issues surrounding sexuality,” Mohammed Abbasi, the co-director of the Association of British Muslims, the UK’s oldest Islamic organization, told me. “Islam is more about what people do in private is their business… whereas Muslims want to get involved in a person’s private life.”

To ensure that their products and sites are “halal”, both Aouragh and Alkiswani sought and gained the approval of numerous Islamic clerics and scholars. To the uninitiated and given the puritanism which pervades some current trends within Islam, this may sound weird and counterintuitive. “Religion or lack of it have nothing to do with sexuality,” Marwa Rakha, a prominent Egyptian relationship and dating expert, told me, noting that the main difference between many self-proclaimed “secular” and “religious” people is their attitude to pre-marital sex.

Historically, Islam possessed a relatively open attitude to sex. In medieval times, many Islamic scholars doubled as sex gurus. They penned countless manuals and guides, including one poetically titled The Perfumed Garden. Perhaps surprisingly, many highlighted the “importance of female fulfillment,” according to Kecia Ali, a professor of religion at Boston University, in her book Sexual Ethics and Islam.

Abu Hamid al-Ghazali, the 11th-century philosopher and mystic whose opus is regarded by many as the “proof of Islam”, wrote widely about the importance of the female orgasm. “The husband should not be preoccupied with his own satisfaction,” the sage advised. “Simultaneity in the moment of orgasm is more delightful to her.” Likewise, the prophet Muhammad himself was reportedly a huge advocate of foreplay, urging his male followers to send “messengers” to their wives in the form of “kisses and caresses”.

Painting from Qajar Iran, 1850-1885.

Erotic painting from Qajar Iran, 1850-1885.

This traditional Islamic focus on the carnal partly explains, in the words of Kecia Ali, why “medieval Christian polemics against Islam viewed its sensualism as barbaric in comparison with the purity of Christianity”.

This view of Muslim society continued into the European colonial era. Many Orientalists from the straitlaced, uptight and prudish 19th century were of the view that “everything about the Orient… exuded dangerous sex, threatened hygiene and domestic seemliness with an ‘excessive freedom of intercourse’,” in the words of the late Edward Said, the Palestinian-American scholar who authored the groundbreaking Orientalism.

Paradoxically, this is how some Muslims, especially in the more conservative sections of society, see today’s West, while today’s Westerners, especially those who are unaware of the existence of liberal Muslims, often see Muslim societies as sexually repressed. While this is partly due to actual changes, such as the rise of political Islam and the setbacks endured by secularism, it is also a factor of the centuries-old tendency of Islam and Christendom (the West) to see each other as diametrically opposed, despite their enormous similarities.

Around the world, many Muslims are pushing back against the conservative and sexually repressive interpretation of their faith. “I think more Muslims are becoming more mature and open in their attitudes to sexuality, but at the same time there is a backlash from the more conservative sections of Muslims,” says Abbasi.

For instance, in Egypt, while many young people became more open and assertive about issues relating to sex, Salafists set up vigilante “morality” patrols in some parts of the country, which locals often defied robustly.

Islamic history, scripture and legal texts have become a major battleground between liberals and conservatives for the body, heart and soul of Islam. However, while helpful at certain levels, attempts to find an “authentic” version of Islam which is progressive enough to fit with modern norms is, like with other religious traditions, also problematic.

“The discourse of Islamic authenticity has had a stifling effect on intra-Muslim debates about sex and sexuality,” writes Kecia Ali, especially when it comes to sex outside of marriage, gender equality and homosexuality.

One side-effect of the reluctance to bring sex out of the closet is that many Muslims are left to their own devices, and must engage in a process of oft-discreet self-education. In addition to familial disinclination, there is also the poor quality of sex education in numerous Arab and Muslim countries.

“Education and awareness are weak in general in Egypt and many other Arab/Muslim societies,” explains Rakha. “Those in charge of the education process do not want generations of knowledgeable and curious children, teens, and adults… How can you control a population that understands its rights and freedoms?”

Rakha believes that, like charity, sexual awareness and maturity must begin at home. “The revolution has to come from the core of every family – otherwise it is not happening,” she maintains.

However, despite the existence of a rising number of open-minded families, many parents are unlikely to want to cede control of their offsprings’ love lives, either because this is what tradition demands or because governing access to sex is a powerful weapon of control. “Most families want their children virgins until they get married,” observes Rakha. “To fulfill this beautiful dream, they will minimize sexual education and awareness, lest the sex dragons awaken and ruin the plan.”

Some young Egyptians are rejecting these restrictions, but many do so behind their families’ backs. “They revolt in secrecy, adding a new number each second to the hypocritical population,” says Rakha.

But not everyone is revolting in secret, with some young people, intellectuals and activists openly calling for a sexual revolution. In Egypt, for instance, a vanguard of women intent on seizing their rights is playing a prominent role in this awakening, whether they are combating sexual harassment, insisting on dressing as they please in public, rejecting the hijab, fighting the stigma of being single, and even choosing to live on their own.


Follow Khaled Diab on Twitter.

This article first appeared in Haaretz on 4 May 2015.

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Intimate enemies, future friends

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By Khaled Diab

As I cycle amid the growing cycle of violence, I believe peaceful coexistence between Israelis and Palestinians is plausible and possible. 

Friday 21 November 2014

I prefer to do the school run by bicycle. While this is unremarkable in any bike-friendly European city, here in Jerusalem it is a different matter, and not just because of the manic traffic and steep inclines.

As the situation in the Holy City speeds along the fast lane downhill, taking the slippery slope towards the abyss, when my son is with me, I too am slowly beginning to succumb to the mass fear gripping both Arabs and Jews. What will happen if Israeli extremists overhear us speaking Arabic to each other? What if Palestinian extremists mistake us, a darkish man with a blond son, for Jews?

This week’s deadly and reprehensible attack against defenceless worshippers at a Jerusalem synagogue, alongside the ongoing attacks against Palestinians by settlers and ultra-nationalists has further reduced the sense of safety and any residual mutual trust in this bitterly divided city. Incitements by extremist elements in the Israeli government and Hamas are stoking the fire further.

Since the summer of hate erupted, many Palestinian Jerusalemites I know no longer venture into West Jerusalem and some who worked for Israeli companies have quit their jobs or are considering it. Similarly, even many of the Israeli Jerusalemites who used to go to the Arab neighbouhoods of East Jerusalem have stopped doing so.

As the situation continues on its collision course, it is hard to imagine that people in this fractured city once lived differently – at a time when there were no walls and fewer psychological barriers.

But older people recall a time – before Oslo and the first intifada – when Jews and Arabs visited each other’s neighbourhoods unselfconsciously and even the West Bank and Gaza were open, with two-way traffic. Difficult as it is to conceive today, both Palestinians and Israelis used to head to Gaza to enjoy its cuisine, beaches and cheap shopping.

Go even further back, and the very oldest Jerusalemites recall a time when Arabs and Jews lived side by side, when the different religious communities shared in one another’s festivities, and all enjoyed the magic of the Egyptian silver screen during its reputed golden age at the local cinema, as my 92-year-old Palestinian neighbour is fond of reminiscing.

And that is not all. Despite their bitter political differences, Israelis and Palestinians are, I have found after living among them for some three years, more alike than they like to admit or are aware.

Two Jerusalemites embody this symmetry in a symbolic, even poetic fashion. The late Palestinian-American academic, musician and activist Edward Said and Israeli novelist and activist Amos Oz shared, unbeknownst to each other, the peculiar fantasy of metamorphosing into a book “whose fate I took to be happily free of unwelcome changes”, imagined Said, and who “would have a better chance of survival”, in Oz’s words.

But the similarities and parallels aren’t confined to the imaginary sphere, they also occupy the real world.

Palestinians and Israelis share a similar Mediterranean outlook, characterised, among other things, by the central importance of family, child-friendliness and the casual attitude to regulations, from smoking to driving. In culinary terms, this is reflected in the Israeli love of hummus and the Palestinian infatuation with schnitzels.

Intimate Enemies: Living with Israelis and Palestinians in the Holy Land.  Order here

Intimate Enemies: Living with Israelis and Palestinians in the Holy Land.
Order here 

Collectively, both societies are highly traumatised. Israelis live with the memory of the Holocaust and the almost wholesale disappearance of Jewish communities in much of Europe and the Middle East, while Palestinians live under the shadow of the Nakba, the loss of Palestine and the ongoing occupation.

Politically too, the two societies have seen an almost symmetrical swing from leftist, secular nationalism towards right-wing, religiously flavoured populism.

All these commonalities, and the fact that the differences within each society is greater than the divergence between them, is why I call Israelis and Palestinians “intimate enemies” in my new book of the same title.

The book digs beyond the politics to unearth the people, the human reality obscured by the fog of war. In it, I also explore creative ways out of the quagmire, namely a civil rights struggle, what I call the non-state solution and the launching of a people’s peace process.

Impossible as it seems today, peace and coexistence are possible but getting there requires a radical rethinking of each side’s priorities, aspirations and narratives.


This article first appeared in Italian in Corriere della Sera on 20 November 2014. 


Intimate Enemies: Living with Israelis and Palestinians in the Holy Land

By Khaled Diab

Published by Guardian Shorts, October 2014,

More info on Intimate Enemies: news, views and reviews

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Lost in confrontation in the Holy Land

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By Khaled Diab

As tensions mount, it’s hard to believe that Israelis and Palestinians share a lot in common – even the dreams of their great writers.

Intimate Enemies: Living with Israelis and Palestinians in the Holy Land.  Order here

Intimate Enemies: Living with Israelis and Palestinians in the Holy Land.
Order here 

Monday 10 November 2014

You could tell by the chaos and confusion in the aisles that it was a flight heading back to the Middle East. Passengers milled about noisily in search of space for their excess hand baggage or chatted animatedly by their seats, causing a significant delay as the perplexed cabin crew tried to gain order.

During take-off, an argument broke out between two passengers because one of them was using his mobile phone. Pretty soon, in classic Middle Eastern fashion, others were drawn into the altercation, each contributing their penny’s worth on whether or not phones should be switched off.

Despite the familiarity of the scene, this flight was not heading to my hometown of Cairo or any other Arab capital but was destined for Tel Aviv.

What this incident highlights is that the differences between Israelis and Arabs are more about politically coloured perceptions than they are about social or cultural realities, especially when it comes to Israel’s Palestinian and Levantine neighbours.

With so little contact between Arabs and Israelis, this will undoubtedly come as a surprise to people on both sides of the political and ideological chasm separating the two sides. But having lived in the Holy Land on and off since 2011, I would hazard to say that, in many crucial respects, Palestinians and Israelis have more in common with each other than they do with their kin further afield, say Gulf Arabs or Diaspora Jews.

That is one reason why I describe the protagonists in this decades-old conflict as “intimate enemies” in my new book: partly because of their close geographical and physical proximity but also because of their surprising social and cultural symmetry.

Confronted with a reality on the ground which conflicts with the simplistic prevalent political narratives, I wrote the book as a modest corrective to all the distrust, misapprehension and miscomprehensions in the air. I am also of the conviction that seeing the human faces behind the conflict is a vital prerequisite to the long process of organic, grassroots peace-building.

The manuscript was well-received by reviewers. One of my favourite responses I received was from the prominent Israeli historian and dissident Ilan Pappè. “I was deeply moved and impressed by the chapters,” he told me. “You are doing justice to their experience, complexities… and impossible reality.”

Palestinians and Israelis share a similar Mediterranean outlook, characterised, among other things, by the central importance of family, child-friendliness and the casual attitude to regulations, from smoking to driving, as if they are recommendations and not actual legislation, not to mention their almost innate distrust of authority. In culinary terms, this is reflected in the Israeli love of hummus and the Palestinian infatuation with schnitzels.

Even Palestinian and Israeli intellectuals share some surprising traits, such as when it comes to their daydreams. One intriguing example is the fantasy entertained by both the late Palestinian-American academic, musician and activist Edward Said and Israeli novelist and activist Amos Oz. “One of my recurrent fantasies… was to be a book, whose fate I took to be happily free of unwelcome changes,” Said wrote in his memoir, Out of Place.

Echoing this sentiment, Oz confessed to me in his study that, as a child, he wanted to “grow up and become a book… because, as a book, I would have a better chance of survival”.

This conflicts with the common Arab perception of Israel as being a slice of Europe transplanted into the region, not to mention the Israeli self-image of being a supposed stronghold of Western enlightenment in the Middle East.

When viewed dispassionately, these similarities, symmetries and parallels are hardly surprising. After all, Palestinians and Israelis have lived side by side for decades and so, even if they regard each other as enemies, they are bound to influence one another.

Add to this the fact that around half of Israel’s Jewish population is Mizrahi (Eastern), then Israel’s Middle Eastern flavour becomes more comprehensible.

Mizrahi, or “Arab Jews” as many were once known, like the Palestinians, also fell victim to the conflict between Zionist and Arab nationalism – so much so that few Arabs alive today realise that they once shared their societies with a dynamic and integrated Jewish minority.

“When you walked down Baghdad’s main street, Al Rashid, half the names on the shops and offices were Jewish,” Sasson Somekh, the accomplished Iraqi-Israeli poet and academic, who helped put the late Egyptian Nobel laureate Naguib Mahfouz on the map of world literature, told me.

“We felt even more Arab than Arabs … We did not feel we belonged to a place but that the place belonged to us,” believes Baghdad-born Israeli author Sami Michael.

But in the unforgiving reality of the conflict having the words Arab and Jew in such overlapping and interwoven proximity was too close for comfort for enemies who sought to take the Arab out of the Jew and the Jew out of the Arab.

But it is not just Mizrahi Jews who find themselves trapped unenviably in the no-man’s-land of the conflict, the Palestinian citizens of Israel are also caught in the middle, with one foot on either side of the widening Israeli-Palestinian abyss.

Probably the most famous Palestinian with Israeli citizenship was the late Mahmoud Darwish, whose powerful verse earned him the title of Palestine’s national poet. One under-appreciated aspect is the enormous impact growing up in Israel had on Darwish’s identity, both negatively and positively.

This was reflected in his love of the Hebrew language, not to mention the passionate love affair he once had with an Israeli woman. And it is this ambiguity in a situation that does not generally tolerate it that makes Palestinians in Israel not just “fifth columnists” in the eyes of their Jewish compatriots but also distrusted among some of their Palestinian brethren.

Only last week, the Mufti of Nablus, Ahmed Shobashi, stirred up anger and calls for his resignation when he demanded that Palestinians in Israel be barred from entering the West Bank because of their “negative moral impact”.

This incident illustrates how the differences within Palestinian and Israeli societies are often greater than the disparities between them. This is reflected in the sharp and polarised secular-religious and right-left divides. In fact, with attention focused on the headline conflict, most overlook the brewing civil strife in both societies which manifests itself, for instance, in the increasing “price tag” attacks by settlers against peace activists and leftists or the bitter Hamas-Fatah schism. That is not to mention the conflicts between the haves and have-nots and those in favour of justice and equality, and those opposed to them.

Despite the significant amount of common social and cultural ground, politically Israelis and Palestinians have perhaps never seemed further apart. This summer turned into a heated season of hate and open warfare.

Even now with hostilities over in Gaza, the situation in the besieged enclave has not changed – except for the massive amounts of wanton destruction there. Meanwhile East Jerusalem and the West Bank witness daily protests and clashes, with al-Aqsa acting as a symbolic centre for the rising tensions.

With the worsening reality on the ground, people may be excused for believing that this conflict will just grind on forever. Although the situation is likely to get a lot worse before it gets better, I believe the status quo is untenable.

The most promising way out of the quagmire, in my view, is what I call the “non-state solution” in which talks of states and statehood are abandoned for the time being in favour of a civil rights struggle for full equality, emancipation and enfranchisement. Once this has been achieved, ordinary Palestinians and Israelis, long sidelined and ignored in efforts to resolve the conflict, can begin a people’s peace process in which everyone is involved in the quest for coexistence.

Although it may take generations, I am convinced that a new dawn of peace and justice will come, but this dawn will arrive in gradual glimmers and not in a blaze of blinding sunshine, as many hope or dream.


Intimate Enemies: Living with Israelis and Palestinians in the Holy Land

By Khaled Diab

Published by Guardian Shorts, October 2014,

On Amazon:


Follow Khaled Diab on Twitter.

This article first appeared in The National on 8 November 2014.

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Palestinian history ✝ – Christians are Arab too

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By Khaled Diab

Despite what some in the Knesset think, Christians in Israel are Arabs too and have been prominent in Palestinian politics, society and culture.

Photo: ©Khaled Diab

Photo: ©Khaled Diab

Thursday 6 March 2014

“This is a historic and important move that could help balance the state of Israel, and connect us and the Christians,” said Yariv Levin, the Likud Knesset member behind the controversial new law to distinguish between Israel’s indigenous Christian and Muslim minorities.

While being a minority within a minority does make Palestinian Christians more vulnerable than their Muslim compatriots, the issues facing the two are generally the same. Besides, the law seems to be about anything but the enfranchisement and empowerment of a shrinking minority – otherwise its sponsor would’ve made some effort to understand the group he was targeting.

In fact, for someone who calls a law “historic”, Levin shows precious little understanding of history.

“I’m being careful about not calling [Christians] Arabs because they aren’t Arabs,” Levin asserted confidently, throwing prudence, intelligence and knowledge to the winds of his bigotry.

My incredulity was driven by the fact that not only are Christians in this part of the world as much Arabs as Muslims, there were actually, it would shock Levin to learn, Arab Christians, as there were Arab Jews, long before there were ever any Muslims.

In the modern era, it might perplex Levin to discover, that Christians actually invented and defined “Arab” in its modern meaning… at least in part. Whereas once “Arab” referred solely to the inhabitants of Arabia and those descended from the Arab tribes, in the modern era, the word took a far, far broader and more inclusive meaning.

The Ottoman millet system divided people according to their religious faith, giving each community autonomy over its own affairs. But as the Ottomans turned into the original “sick man of Europe”, the subject peoples of the empire, influenced by ideas imported from 19th-century European nationalism, struggled for independence. These included the Arabic-speaking peoples of the region.

The Arab struggle against the Ottomans took place at three levels: Islamic, local nationalist and pan-Arabist. Unsurprisingly given their traditional dhimmi (non-Muslim citizens of an Islamic state ) status, Christian intellectuals were among the leading proponents and inventors of the idea of secular Arab nationalism, in which all Arabic speakers, regardless of religion, would be equal citizens in a utopian Arab nation which would stretch from the Atlantic to the Arabian Sea.

Some of the most prominent leaders of the grassroots Arab uprising against the Ottomans were Christians. One of the earliest Arab nationalists, the Syrian Christian Ibrahim el-Yazigi, who eventually became a member of a secret anti-Ottoman society, penned a rousing patriotic poem which was incredibly popular in the mid-19th century, Arise, ye Arabs and Awake.

Today, the pan-Arabist movement of the 20th century is generally associated with Egypt’s Gamal Abdel-Nasser. But Nasser actually started off essentially as an Egyptian nationalist. The roots of pan-Arab nationalism actually lie in the Levant.

Jurji Zaydan – a Lebanese Christian intellectual and one of the Arab world’s first media moguls who was interestingly a prolific writer of novels themed around Islamic history – is often credited as its founding father.

In Palestine, though a relative cultural backwater at the time, Khalil al-Sakakini – who would eventually be excommunicated from the Greek Orthodox Church – pioneered a progressive schooling system based on collaboration, rather than competition, and Arab nationalism.

As a coherent secular political ideology, pan-Arabism was first formulated by three Syrian thinkers – Constantin ZureiqMichel Aflaq and Zaki al-Arsuzi – all of whom belonged not to the Sunni Muslim majority, but to the Christian and Alawite minorities.

In the Palestinian context, many of the leading champions of the Palestinian cause, especially on the left, were Christian, as were many of its most prominent figures in all walks of life. For instance, the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine, the second-largest faction in the PLO, was founded by George Habash, who, like Che Guevara, was a doctor turned Marxist revolutionary. Without a single Islamic or Islamist bone in his body, Habash advocated, following the crushing 1967 defeat, the idea of armed, revolutionary struggle, including spectacular acts of terrorism, as the only way to liberate his homeland.

One of the first intifada’s most eloquent young leaders, who marked the shift to a new generation of more savvy, media-genic Palestinian politicians, Hanan Ashrawi, is also a Christian. Ashrawi is also a prominent Palestinian academic, who was the protégé of Edward Said who, though he became an agnostic, was raised as a Protestant.

In addition to being a pioneer in the critical study of Orientalism and one of the founding figures of Post-Colonialism, Said was the face of the Palestinian cause in the United States for much of his life.

Given the contempt in which many Israelis and pro-Israel activists hold Edward Said and George Habash, it is puzzling that Yariv Levin should claim that: “We and the Christians have a lot in common. They’re our natural allies.”

But perhaps the situation is different within Israel? While Christians in Israel have made significant cultural and economic contributions to the state, this can often be critical. Take Elia Suleiman’s bleakly beautiful Divine Intervention, which highlighted how love can conquer all, with the exception of checkpoints and occupations.

Nevertheless, Christians in Israel are “a counterweight to the Muslims who want to destroy the country from within”, insists Levin.

And Levin has been at the vanguard of efforts to protect Israel against these efforts “to destroy the country from within”. He was the co-author of the “Bishara Law”, which stripped an Arab MK of his pension following allegations of “aiding the enemy”.

The enemy in question was Hizbullah and the Knesset member who was allegedly using “state resources to destroy it”, in Levin’s words, was none other than Azmi Bishara.

The trouble for Levin is that Bishara was no Jihadist Muslim but happens to be a Christian from Nazareth who identifies very much as an Arab and a Palestinian, being the founder of the Balad party, as he is.

If Levin truly believes that Christians are “our natural allies”, why did he not stand up for Bishara, whom many believe was the victim of a political witch-hunt which lead him to flee the country, instead of leading the charge against him?

The cavernous contradictions in Levin’s discourse and positions suggests that he is either engaging in classic divide-and-rule politics or is ignorant. Most dangerous of all, I suspect that he is both.

Follow Khaled Diab on Twitter.

This article first appeared in Haaretz on 2 March 2014.

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The clash within civilisations

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This year marks the 20th anniversary of the clash of civilizations theory, but Samuel P Huntington was wrong.

Thursday 28 March 2013

A decade has passed since the blood-drenched invasion of Iraq began, unleashing a wave of destruction not seen in that part of the world since at least the Mongol sacking of Baghdad in the mid-13th century.

Unsurprisingly, the 10th anniversary has prompted immense media attention, in the United States and Europe, as well as in Iraq itself and the broader Middle East. In light of the carnage that has ensued following that fateful decision to invade, a lot of the public debate has focused on whether the war was justified and worthwhile.

The cheerleaders of the war argue that the invasion was just, the subsequent carnage was an unfortunate but collateral consequence of a benign act of goodwill, and that errors were made in the execution of the campaign but the principle was essentially sound.

Critics, like myself, see the wholesale destruction of Iraq and the chaos besetting it – which was chillingly illustrated by the deadly car bombings which rocked Baghdad on the 10th anniversary – as clear proof that the US-led intervention was not only unjustified but flawed.

In order to understand why, we need to rewind another 10 years, back to another important anniversary which has largely fallen under the media’s radar. Through some fluke of history, the theory which largely justified the Iraq war and provided it with its ideological underpinning was formulated exactly a decade earlier.

In an incredibly influential essay published 20 years ago in Foreign Affairs, the late Samuel P Huntington first outlined his clash of civilisations theory, which he later elaborated on and fleshed out in a book published in 1996.

Huntington argued that “the fundamental source of conflict” in the post-Cold War era would be not ideological or economic but “cultural”. “The clash of civilisations will dominate global politics. The fault lines between civilisations will be the battle lines of the future,” the Harvard professor argued.

Huntington divided the world into some half a dozen major civilisational groups which, he posited, would clash at two levels: local “fault line conflicts” where civilisations overlap and “core state conflicts” between the major states of different civilisations.

On the 20th anniversary of this controversial theory and given how influential it has been and remains, it is useful to analyse whether or not Huntington was right. Has a clash of civilisations emerged, as Huntington predicted, over the past two decades?

Supporters of Huntington’s hypothesis answer with an unequivocal “yes”. They point to the inhumane atrocities committed in the United States by Islamic extremists on 11 September 2001, the subsequent clash with al-Qaeda, the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, as well as the rise of Islamist parties during the “Arab Spring” as confirmation that a clash is underway.

Critics, like the scholar Noam Chomsky, have maintained that the clash of civilisations is simply the symptom of an empire, i.e. Pax Americana, in search of another justification for its imperial aspirations after the Cold War paradigm fell apart with the collapse of the Soviet bloc.

The late Edward Said, the renowned author of Orientalism, saw in Huntington’s theory an extension of the pseudo-scientific Orientalist scholarship which had been used for at least a couple of centuries to justify European and Western hegemony. In an essay entitled The Clash of Ignorances¸ published shortly after 9/11, Said argued that Huntington ignored “the internal dynamics and plurality of every civilisation” and “the fact that the major contest in most modern cultures concerns the definition or interpretation of each culture”.

Personally, I find that, though the idea, in one form or another, of a clash of civilisations is as old as the hills – examples include the historical notions of jihads and crusades, not to mention the idea of “civilisation” versus “barbarity” espoused by most dominant powers throughout the centuries – this does not make it any more valid or true.

Far more often than not, what has been dressed up as a clash of values is really just a clash of interests parading as something less selfish than it actually is. Although culture and ideology can, on rare occasions, lead to conflict, for the most part, societies enter into conflicts due to clashes of interests.

And in such a context, proximity is traditionally a far greater cause of friction than culture. That is why conflicts within self-identified cultural or civilisational groups are often greater than those between them. Over the centuries, Christians and Muslims have gone to war and killed more of their coreligionists than each other, as the carnage of two world wars in Europe shows all too clearly.

That would explain, for instance, why the United States decided to invade Saddam Hussein’s secular Iraq, even though it was a sworn enemy of al-Qaeda and jihadist Islam, yet is bosom buddies with Saudi Arabia, the hotbed of reactionary Wahhabism, which it exports around the region and the world, and the home of most of the hijackers who took part in the 11 September attacks.

And alliances which cut across supposed civilisational lines have an ancient pedigree. Examples include the Arabs allying themselves with the British and the French against the Turks, or the Ottomans fighting alongside the Germans in World War I against the British, French and Russians. In fact, throughout its centuries as a major power, the Ottoman Empire’s alliances shifted between various Christian European states, including France, Poland, as well as the Protestant Reformation against the Catholic House of Habsburg.

Moreover, Huntington’s hypothesis is further undermined by what I like to call the “mash of civilisations”. Each so-called civilisation is actually a volatile, constantly changing hybrid of ideas and cultural influences.

In fact, if we must group civilisations together, then I would place the West and Islam in the same group because they both share common roots in the Abrahamic tradition, not to mention the Greek and Hellenistic, Mesopotamian and Egyptian influences, as well as the modern importance of the Enlightenment, not just for Western reform movements but also for secularising and modernising movements in the Middle East. I would go so far as to say that Europe and the Middle East, especially the Mediterranean countries, have more in common with each other than they do with their co-religionists in Africa and further east in Asia.

So, if there has not been a clash of civilisations, what has emerged since the end of the Cold War?

At one level, there are the brewing clashes of interests between the great powers, as America tries to hold on to its waning global reach, Russia tries to claw back the influence it lost following the implosion of the Soviet Union and China, after years of quiet growth in the background, begins to flex its muscles on the foreign stage, both to advance its emerging “strategic interests” and for prestige.

On another level, cultures have clashed, but not between civilisations, as Huntington believed they would, but within them. This clash within civilisations is currently playing itself out most visibly in the Middle East.

In addition to the sectarian monster unleashed by the anarchy in Iraq, the revolutionary wave that has swept through the region has brought to the fore, and into sharp relief, the major fault lines and clashes within each society and, to a lesser extent, between them. There are the conflicts between the secular and religious, between majorities and minorities, between women and men, between the young and old, between modernists and traditionalists, between the haves and have-nots, and so on.

Although less pronounced, at least for the time being, these same internal tensions are being witnessed in the West, as reflected in the rising influence of Christian fundamentalism in the United States and the extreme right in Europe, as well as the large-scale social protests, from years of street battles in Greece to the Occupy Wall Street movement of the “99%”.

In Europe, particularly, class conflict is intensifying on the back of the economic crisis triggered by neo-liberal excess, as the poor and middle-classes are forced, through bailouts and austerity, to finance what has effectively become a welfare state for the rich. This is putting in jeopardy not only the much-vaunted European social model but also the EU enterprise itself.

If the European Union is not reinvented along more equitable lines and emerges out of this crisis, instead, much weakened, then it will likely leave a petty-nationalistic sized hole in the European arena which could eventually cause the conflicts currently taking place within individual countries to spill across borders.

In the second decade of the 21st century, a major challenge facing us all is not the clash of civilisations but the clash within civilisations. This internal cultural struggle is largely caused by the growing socio-economic inequalities that have emerged in just about every country in the world.

If these inequities are not addressed effectively, at both the local and global levels, then intolerance will grow and conflicts will continue to consume individual societies, with the danger that they will spill over into other countries, potentially spiraling out of control.


Follow Khaled Diab on Twitter.

This article first appeared in The Huffington Post on 21 March 2013.

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Israel’s Wizard of Oz on the anarchy of Jewish civilisation

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By Khaled Diab

Israeli novelist Amos Oz believes that Jewish civilisation is founded on dissent and non-conformity, but how true is this?

Thursday 27 September 2012

Although there wasn’t a yellow-brick road in sight, the voice of Judy Garland singing “We’re off to see the wizard” danced involuntarily into my imagination. As I surveyed my two companions in the car, I couldn’t figure out which of us was meant to be the Scarecrow, the Lion or the Tin Woodman – and where on earth our Dorothy had got to was anyone’s guess.

The wizard we were on our way to see did not live in Oz, rather his name is Oz, and he is not actually a wizard, though he can do some magical stuff with words. In fact, this verbal sorcerer’s entire civilisation is “made of words”, he believes, and not “pyramids or cathedrals or bridges or palaces”.

Amos Oz is one of Israel’s foremost novelists and public intellectuals. A few years older than the state he has dedicated his soul to, his fertile imagination has held a creative mirror up to this young society and played a significant role in shaping modern Israel’s self-image.

Oz is a confounding, intriguing mix of complexities, even contradictions. He stands at the very epicentre of Israel’s intellectual cosmos, yet lives in a tiny desert town, Arad, in the Negev. Oz is also at once a romanticiser of the Zionist dream and Israel’s accomplishments since achieving statehood, and a steely eyed and harsh critic of its less savoury consequences and manifestations, acknowledging the “essential injustice” endured by the Palestinian people.

This contrast between romanticism and realism, optimism and pessimism, public and private, fact and fiction, light and dark is symbolically embodied in the title of one of his bestselling and most translated works, A Tale of Love and Darkness, an autobiographical novel published in 2002.

After greeting my companions and I with unexpected levels of warmth and friendliness (I had half-expected him to be something of a gloomy hermit), Amos Oz led us into his almost subterranean study, his intellectual den, a no-nonsense yet cosy space of well-worn furniture and carpets.

All the available walls were taken up by his considerable library – including an entire corner dedicated to his own titles and all 40-plus language versions of them – which seemed to comfort this man who dreamed, as a child, of metamorphosing into a book. “I wanted to grow up and become a book… because, as a book, I would have a better chance of survival,” he explained, betraying the existential angst felt by many Jews of his generation.

Interestingly, the same dream filled the young mind of one of the foremost Palestinian intellectuals of recent decades, the late Edward Said, who was gripped by a different kind of existential angst. “Passed from hand to hand, land to land, place to place, time to time, I could remain my own true self (as a book),” he wrote in his memoir, Out of Place.

During our long and stimulating conversation, Oz and I talked about literature, history, politics, living the kibbutz experiment and, inevitably, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. But one particular area which piqued my interest was our discussion of Israeli and Jewish identity.

For Oz, like some other leftist Israeli intellectuals I have met, being a Jew means belonging to “basically, an anarchistic civilisation; a culture of doubt and argument, where people argue and debate all the time”.

“If you read about the ancient Jewish civilisation, you will find that the Jews argued ever since the beginning, ever since Abraham bargained with God over the destiny of Sodom,” he said, referring to the story in Genesis 18 in which the ancient patriarch haggles with the supreme deity to persuade him to spare Sodom if 50, then 45, 30, 20, or even 10 righteous people could be found in the “wicked” city.

So, does that mean a Jew who is a conformist is not a Jew, I asked him playfully? He’s a bad Jew, in my judgement,” was Oz’s verdict.

This left me pondering the question of whether Jews really are so rebellious and non-conformist and, if so, whether this has really always been the case. At a certain level, Amos Oz is right. The mere fact that a group of people chooses to hold on to a minority religion and culture that is viewed with distrust by its giant cousins requires a certain amount of non-conformity, not to mention guts.

In addition, for over a century now, some of the brightest, most original and influential minds in the Western world belonged to Jews. Consider such luminaries as Albert Einstein, Sigmund Freud, Karl Marx and Franz Kafka, to name but a few. That is not to forget that around a fifth of all Nobel prizes have been awarded to Jews.

But can this disproportionate success be attributed to the peculiar restiveness and unruliness of Jewish civilisation, as Oz believes, or is there a more complex answer?

If this were the case, then you’d expect Israel, which, after all, possesses the largest concentration of Jews in the world and is the spiritual home of modern Jewish civilisation, to be a cut above the rest. While it is true that, technologically and scientifically, Israel is leaps ahead of its neighbours, this has more to do with Arab failure than Israeli success.

Moreover, it would seem that diaspora Jews generally outperform Israeli Jews academically and scientifically. This is reflected, for example, in the fact that only 10 Nobel laureates have come from Israel (and three of those were in the peace category), five of whom were born abroad.

How can we explain this apparent anomaly? While part of the answer probably relates to the relative scarcity of resources in Israel, it is my view that diaspora Jewish success is partly a function of the symbiosis that comes of being a minority, which seems to awaken creativity and originality, not to mention the oft overriding desire to prove yourself as capable or more so than the condescending mainstream.

Minorities the world over are often more successful and wealthier than the mainstream or their kin in countries where they constitute a majority. This applies to the Armenians, Indians, Lebanese, even to Arabs as a whole, particularly in the United States and Britain – Egypt’s only winner of a Nobel prize in science earned his stripes in America, while the UK and the world’s foremost heart surgeon is Egyptian.

And Jews being the oldest and one of the most vulnerable and persecuted minorities in the West possess the opportunity, motivation and insecurity for the talented and hardworking to put in the extra sweat and tears required to succeed, while in Israel, some of the complacency associated with majority rule has set in.

But even if Israelis have not been as successful as diaspora Jews, they could still be anarchistic, non-conformist and individualistic, right? Yes, and many are, as reflected by the boastful and self-deprecating adage I’ve heard here that if you put two Israelis together in a room, you’ll have three different opinions.

That said, I’ve also witnessed alarming levels of mindless conformity here too. And there are Israelis who share my view. “Israel is a deeply conformist society… You can see that in the totally secular parents who eat ham on Yom Kippur but still circumcise their children,” one confessed to me. “I admire the anarchists, but despite their radical politics, most are conformists in their lifestyles.”

So how about historically? Were Jews an especially rebellious and anarchistic people, as Amos Oz maintains? Well, there are all the famous revolts, the most destructive being against Rome. But throughout history many peoples have revolted, and regularly, against imperial power, especially when it becomes tyrannical. But they are less well-remembered because their exploits were not chronicled, and almost certainly embellished, in scriptures that have become holy to at least half the world’s population, who follow one of the Abrahamic religions.

Speaking of Abraham. Though he may have defied God over Sodom, as Oz pointed out, he was more than happy to oblige him in his unreasonable command that the patriarch execute his own son – a supreme act of mindless obedience if ever there was one.

But then, Oz points out, their surfeit of prophets and absence of a rigid religious hierarchy reflects the prized nature of individualism in Judaism, Oz insists. “It’s not for nothing that Jews never had a pope, nor could they have a pope,” he said.

Although Jews never had a pope, in ancient times, kings, like David, were “anointed”, i.e. holy, and had High Priests, who had much of what we would regard as papal authority.

Besides, Muslim reformers say the same about Islam, to show that questioning authority is part and parcel of their culture and heritage, yet much of the world regards Islamic societies as being pretty conformist. That said, Arabs and Israelis do share a deep scepticism and distrust of authority, and find creative ways of disobeying it – the exception being the family.

More importantly, possessing a pope does not make you necessarily more conformist. In fact, it can have the opposite effect, as occurred in Western Europe. After all, the Enlightenment was in great part a rebellion against the abuses of the church and rulers who claimed to govern by divine right. In the diaspora, rabbis often played the role of local popes.

In fact, the mytho-historical idea that Jews are somehow more individualistic and unruly than others probably began with another enlightenment, that of the Jews, the Haskalah. Reformist Jews sought to reinterpret their history and traditions in a more modernist light – where Israelite and Jewish “disobedience” was disapproved of by traditional religion, secularists took pride in it as a sign of rationality and questioning.

They say that history is written by the victors, but it is often revised by the reformers and visionaries who sell their ideas by convincing others that the future they want, at least partly, existed in the past.

Note: Amos Oz and his daughter, Fania Oz-Salzberger, are cooperating on a book entitled Jews and Words. It will be published by Yale University Press on 20 November 2012.

Follow Khaled Diab on Twitter.

This article first appeared in The Huffington Post on 18 September 2012.

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Mustafa Barghouti: “We are heading towards a Palestinian Spring”

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By Khaled Diab

Palestinian reformer Mustafa Barghouti on the demise of the peace process, the death of the two-state option and the dawning of the Palestinian Spring.

Friday 4 May 2012

From beginnings as a medical doctor, Mostafa Barghouti has been a prominent Palestinian reformer, human rights activist and politician for many years. Before entering politics, he founded, and still chairs, the Union of Palestinian Medical Relief Committees, which has grown to become one of the largest and most successful medical charities in the West Bank and Gaza. During the first intifada, he also set up a think tank to research health and development issues.

A member of one of the largest West Bank families, in terms of numbers, and one known for its political activism, it was almost inevitable that Mustafa Barghouti would enter politics. One of his earliest forays into politics was when he attended the Madrid Peace Conference in 1991 as a member of the Palestinian delegation, though he quickly became disillusioned with the peace process launched with the Oslo Accords. Along with other Palestinian luminaries, he established the Palestinian National Initiative (al-Mubadara al-Wataniyya al-Filistiniyya) in 2002, which has sought to reform the Palestinian political landscape by providing a third viable alternative to the PLO and Hamas. Though he has been dismissed as a ‘no hoper’ and the Mubadra did badly in the previous legislative elections, Barghouti himself became Mahmoud Abbas’s strongest rival for the presidency in 2005 and insists that his movement has matured and now enjoys a significant support base.

Having followed him for some time and seen him perform in debates, I was looking forward to meeting the man. Our encounter took place in his spacious office in Ramallah, at the medical NGO he set up. When introducing myself, I mentioned that I lived in Jerusalem, to which he responded by informing me that he and other West Bankers are not allowed to visit the city. I expressed my bewilderment and disappointment that I, as a foreigner, had more freedom of movement here than Palestinians. I asked him whether he, as a politician, had a permit to visit Jerusalem to which he said he didn’t but that he defied what he considered to be illegal restrictions by taking back routes regularly into the Holy City – and occasionally getting detained for it.

During our interview, he talked about the peace process, the future of the two-state solution, Israeli policies, Palestinian divisions, and the coming dawn of a Palestinian Spring.

Khaled Diab: I’d like to begin with a general question: are you optimistic about the future?

Mustafa Barghouti: I am optimistic when it comes to the future of the Palestinian people – of course. I am optimistic that the system of occupation and racial discrimination will be broken, and we will gain our freedom. But if you mean to ask whether I’m optimistic about what is called the “peace process”, then the answer is no. The peace process is dead.

You were a member of the Palestinian delegation which went to the Madrid peace conference.

And I was amongst the group which included Dr Haidar Abdel-Shafi who vigorously opposed the Oslo agreement.

So you find that the Oslo Accords do not accord with the Madrid principles?

No, the Oslo agreement contravened the Madrid principles in three areas. Firstly, it accepted the notion of a transitional solution. Secondly, it accepted a partial solution. Thirdly, it accepted the resolution of the Palestinian question in isolation from the wider Arab sphere.

The other dangerous aspect of Oslo was that an agreement was signed without the cessation of settlement building. I am with Haidar Abdel-Shafi, who is also one of the co-founders of the Mubadra [Palestinian National Initiative], along with Dr Edward Said. The three of us said that there can be no agreement without a full cessation of settlement activity.

Because the settlements have created realities on the ground?

Settlements have become a weapon for destroying everything, including Oslo itself. And that is what Yossi Beilin is now talking about. But Beilin does not admit that he is also at fault and responsible for the situation, even though he is one of those who allowed the continuation of settlement building to occur.

Do you think it would have worked if, after Madrid, instead of Oslo, an attempt to forge a comprehensive deal was pursued?

With the power of the intifada behind it, yes. There was also an international consensus. I believe that the successes of the intifada were squandered when the Oslo Accords were signed.

And do you think Israel could’ve accepted a comprehensive solution?

Israel was losing a lot at the time. The occupation was costly. And so Israel could’ve compromised. We might well have been living in an independent state by now. It’s also possible that we wouldn’t have been. I don’t know.

However, I believe it was entirely possible. I also think it was wrong for the Palestinian leadership to accept the notion of autonomy instead of full independence. Autonomy was supposed to be transitional and temporary, but the transitional has become permanent.

Why do you think that the exiled PLO leadership in Tunisia accepted this transitional agreement?

Perhaps one of the reasons is the huge international pressure that was exerted on the Palestinian leadership. Another factor was the allure of power. They began to hold on to the fantasy that the establishment of the Palestinian Authority (PA) would enable them to change the reality on the ground. But this has been proven to be a fallacy.

Do you think that the assassination of Yitzhak Rabin affected the peace process, that if Rabin had lived things could have turned out differently?

It’s possible, yes. Look, Rabin’s assassination and the electing of Netanyahu together sent out a clear signal that Israeli society would not go down the road of an independent Palestinian state. And this message should have been read and understood early on. Arafat understood this in 2000 and that is why he refused to submit to the pressures at Camp David and refused to give up the claim to Jerusalem, as was being demanded of him. And this led to the second intifada.

In my personal view, the message was already clear in 1996 and the duty at the time should have been to tell the world that the process is over. I believe that the establishment of the PA played a negative role because now the leadership is preoccupied with the trappings of power rather than the liberation movement. Israel has exploited the Oslo agreement to empty the liberation movement of its content and has transformed the PLO into little more than a cost item in the PA’s expenses.

This has had the effect of weakening Palestinian unity and has created enormous fractures in the Palestinian arena in two areas: between the supporters and opponents of Oslo, and between the internal and external dimensions, weakening the ability of exiled Palestinians to support the national struggle internally.

After the second intifada, the pro-Oslo camp – who built their election platform around the continuation of the Oslo process based on the false conclusion that it had failed due to our own errors and if we correct our ways everything will be fine – have been trying to revive the process since 2005 and to no effect. It is all an illusion planted by the international community and the United States in support of Israel.

The reality is that the Zionist movement has not accepted since its creation and until now the right of Palestinians to establish an independent state. But it is an intelligent movement. It procrastinates and delays to the fullest, accepting certain things temporarily while working towards its ultimate goals. But it has always kept a tight rein on maintaining the strategic initiative.

What do you say to those on the Israeli side who counter that the Palestinians “never miss an opportunity to miss an opportunity”?

Firstly, these are Israeli lies. For example, they say that in 1947 the partition plan failed because the Palestinians refused to accept it. There are documents that prove that Ben Gurion intended to continue his plan, even if the Palestinians had accepted partition. Even if we assume that what they say is true, why did they not stop at the borders set by the partition? These are lies. Even now, they had the chance to permit the establishment of an independent Palestinian state, who has prevented them from doing so? The Palestinians? On the contrary.

So are there no rejectionists on the Palestinian side to the establishment of two states?

No, the vast majority are with the two-state solution. Even Hamas and Islamic Jihad.

But Hamas and Islamic Jihad were opposed to it at first.

Yes, but today, they support it. Who has prevented the establishment of an independent state? Israel.

You were among the biggest supporters of the two-state solution. In light of the current situation, do you still have faith in it?

Look, I believe in the freedom of the Palestinian people, and its right to independence and self-determination, and its right to end its subservience to Israel, either in the framework of two states or a single state.

But what I witness around me is that the Israelis have destroyed the two-state solution. Right now, we are in a grey area where it is difficult to determine empirically whether the two-state solution has actually died or is about to. Have we crossed the red line or are we about to cross it? In either case, it is clear that Israel, with the density of its settlement activity and its policies and the inability of the United States to exert pressure, is preparing to kill off the two-state option.

Under these circumstances, I say that the Palestinian people are not without options. One option is a single, fully democratic state in which every citizen has full and equal rights. However, for the time being, we must not allow differences of opinion over the one- or two-state solution to divide us once again.

Our slogan must be the freedom of the Palestinian people, whether in two states or one. When we reach the moment of truth, then we can decide. We cannot allow this to become another cause of internal division in the Palestinian ranks. Secondly, when we shift from one option to another, the decision must be a collective and unified one. Thirdly, we must not allow Israel to forfeit, this time, its responsibility for destroying the two-state option.

If Palestinians, Israelis and the international community wish to salvage the two-state solution, what needs to be done?

Firstly, pressure needs to be exerted to change the Netanyahu government. Military and economic aid to Israel must be stopped. Israel must pay a price for its occupation. There must be a clear resolve on the cessation of settlement activity and the removal of settlements. And there must be a clear reference to the 1967 borders. I do not accept the idea of land swaps and see it as a trap for the Palestinians. First, there’ll be talk of swaps, then of larger swaps. The settlements are illegitimate and so they must be removed – just as they were removed from Gaza.

The remove of the settlers or the settlements too?

It’s up to them whether they take the infrastructure or leave it behind, but the colonisation must end.

What do you think of the idea that if some of the Israeli settlers wished to stay on the land…?

If they are there in a legitimate fashion…

As Palestinian citizens?

If the place where they are living is not stolen from the Palestinians, then they are welcome to acquire Palestinian citizenship. But they cannot stay with us as Israeli citizens, like ‘Joha’s nail’.

So, you’re saying they should either become Palestinians or return to Israel?

Yes. They cannot stay here as Israeli citizens.

If Palestinians choose to go down the road of the single state, what strategy should they pursue?

The peaceful popular resistance that we are currently employing, the struggle for our rights.

Your civil rights?

Not just our civil rights. All our rights. Citizenship rights. Our national rights too. This has to be recognised. If we are to have a single state, this state must recognise the Arabic language and the Palestinian people. This is fundamental.

Popular resistance is a successful formula because it works both in the case of two states or one. In my opinion, the strategic choice before us is made up of four elements: the escalation of popular resistance, the BDS campaign, revamping all domestic Palestinian economic policies to focus them on reinforcing the people’s steadfastness instead of drowning them in debts, taxes and consumerism, rejecting the distinction between Areas A, B and C, and fourthly, national unity. We must end our divisions and form a unified leadership pursuing a unified strategy.

Do you think, in practical terms, with all the cracks in the Palestinian ranks, they can agree on a unified position?

Our destiny depends on it. Perhaps the deepening level of division has reached an untenable level. This could prove to be an opportunity to change the status quo, but the continuation of the current divisions will weaken us all and weaken our national cause. It will also cause enormous losses in popularity both for Fatah and Hamas.

Until you reach this fork in the road where you must choose between the two options, what should be the demands of the popular resistance movement?

Security co-ordination with Israel must end. The PA’s security role must be terminated. The PA cannot play a security role at a time when Israel mistreats us.

Before we started recording, you told me that the number of demonstrators on Land Day was greater than expected. Is this a sign that popular resistance can truly be stepped up and become a new intifada or revolution as has occurred in other countries?

I believe that we are heading towards a Palestinian Spring and it is inevitable that there will be another intifada.

Do you think the next intifada will be like the first one, peaceful, or…

Peaceful. I’m sure of it.

Do you think it will happen in the near future or…

It’s hard to say. But what we are seeing is a gradual escalation, as we expected. This phase of popular resistance began 10 years ago.

There are those who say that the Palestinians have already tried to mount their revolution during the first intifada, and its failure led to a sort of disillusionment.

No, the first intifada was a success. It was the political leadership which failed to consolidate the gains of the intifada.

Do you think the “Palestinian Spring”, as you called it, will have a clear leadership or will it be largely leaderless like the other Arab uprisings?

Ideally, there should be a unified leadership. But life goes on even in a vacuum. If the politicians fail to forge a unified leadership, then the intifada will create its own grassroots leadership.

You were a co-founder of the Mubadra and you took part in the previous presidential elections, where you came second to Mahmoud Abbas. Do you intend to enter the forthcoming presidential race?

Firstly, there are no elections. And when elections are called, we need to know elections for what, for the presidency of a country or the presidency of a Bantustan. If it is to lead a Bantustan, then I have no interest or desire – I don’t even accept the principle. If it is for the presidency of a country, then we can debate it closer to the time.

The danger is that the Palestinian Authority is without authority. It has no real existence. That is why we insist that, if elections are to take place, they must include the West Bank, Gaza and Jerusalem without exception. It should also include the Palestinian diaspora. The elections need to be both for the PLO and the PA simultaneously. We must never accept that the PA becomes the government of a Bantustan.

You personally scored well in the presidential elections in 2005, but the Mubadra only gained three seats, if I recall correctly. Is this a true reflection of the Mubadra’s power?

No, at the time, the Mubadra was still a new movement, so when we entered the legislative elections, we had not yet built a strong and effective organisational presence. Today, the situation is different. This is reflected in the results of the university elections, where the Mubadra has collected between 13 and 20% of the votes. These are decent gains.

Life has proven that the Mubadra is a necessary movement. Many new movements have been established but the only movement that has endured and survived and proven its capabilities, and has become the third power in the Palestinian arena, is the Mubadra. This is proof that this movement possesses a manifesto that is vital and needed. It is also the most youthful movement, and has a great future ahead of it.

What distinguishes the Mubadra are four things. Firstly, the popular resistance it has called for since its inception, and now everyone has adopted this strategy. It also stands out for its stance on domestic democracy, and that is why we do not participate in any government except a national unity one. It is also distinguished by its constructive role in unifying Palestinian ranks. We were the mediators in the most important agreements, namely the national unity government and the most recent Cairo accord, with the help of our Egyptian brothers, of course. Fourthly, the Mubadra upholds the principle of social justice. In addition to its vision for the liberation of the Palestinian people, the Mubadra also possesses an equitable social vision which takes into account the interests of the poor and the needs of Palestinian society. In addition, we are against party fanaticism and factionalism. Despite the hostility we sometimes face, we insist on remaining a unifying influence.

So, in your view, the Mubadra truly represents a third way in Palestinian politics?

Yes, and its ability to play a unifying and mediating role is linked to the fact that it is fully independent of both Fatah and Hamas.

You are in favour of peaceful resistance but there are others who criticise non-violent resistance and say that it has no future.

I am in favour of resistance as a principle. And the Palestinian people have the right to resist in every form. But it must comply with international and humanitarian law. We are not against other forms of resistance but we say that, in light of the current situation, the best, most appropriate and most effective means is Palestinian popular resistance. The evidence of this is that all the Palestinian political forces have adopted this strategy without exception.

I read in the papers that elections in May or June are impractical, and it would even be tough to organise elections in 2012.

True. I now believe that elections will be impossible as long as Gaza and the West Bank are divided. How can you have credible elections in the presence of this division? How can there be credible elections in the absence of the freedom to engage in political activities?

But in the absence of elections, there is also a democratic deficit?

That is exactly what I have said. We have regressed a lot, whereas we were once at the forefront of the Arab world. In 2005 and 2006, the Palestinian people were in the lead. I was the only Arab who ran against the president of the established order and did not go to jail, unlike Ayman Nour in Egypt and others. Unfortunately, the refusal to recognise the Palestinian unity government and the results of the elections divided Palestinian ranks.

So, the international community played a major role in this?

Israel and the international community were the main culprits behind the loss of democracy. That is why we insist on national unity, not for the sake of unity in itself. We are in favour of political pluralism and the right of Palestinians to choose but we cannot regain democracy without a transitional phase of reconciliation and national unity.


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The Arab man’s burden

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By Khaled Diab

Some in the west are more likely to believe in the existence of elves in Middle Earth than in Arab men in the Middle East who are secular, modern and do not oppress women.

Saturday 6 November 2010

“Have you got another wife in Egypt?” asked N with the trademark, but innocent, lack of tact which I had grown to expect with every one of her visits. “No, why do you ask?” I queried as Iskander, my baby son, put a whole strawberry into his tiny mouth and little streams of red ran down his chin.

“Most Arab men married to European women have another wife in their country,” she said, making a daring generalisation. I did a quick mental inventory of all the Egyptians and other Arab men I knew who were married to or in relationships with European women, and I could not think of a single one who had a second wife back home or anywhere else. Occupied as I was with Iskander, who was babbling incomprehensible instructions to his courgette slices as he watched them fall over the side of his high chair, I let the matter drop. I also knew that N, who is from Ukraine, meant no malice with her remarks.

N entertains some stereotypical views of Arabs that come straight out of Hollywood central casting. Thus, she has expressed her surprise – and approval – that I can actually take care of a baby and do household chores. Her views are all the more surprising considering she’s married to a Muslim from Bulgaria, a country where the Muslim minority is less religious than the Christian majority.

And N is not alone. Although certain Arab stereotypes are positive, such as our reputed hospitality and generosity, I regularly encounter people who make automatic assumptions about me based solely on my background. One recent incident almost startled me into dropping my glass of wine when a young woman I know shrieked in loud surprise: “You drink alcohol!?” Although drinking alcohol is strictly speaking haram, you don’t have to be a non-believer like me to enjoy it – millions of believing Muslims knock back their favourite tipple every day.

Some stereotypes of Arab men with which we have to contend are less harmless. For example, one American Jew to whom I was introduced through mutual Israeli friends and with whom I corresponded for some time in a bid to build better mutual understanding, was ultimately unable to overcome his prejudices and accused me of viewing America as the “Great Satan”, of lacking the faculty of self-criticism, of having a secret agenda and of being a terrorist sympathiser wearing a mask of moderation.

In the popular imagination, the Arab man is not so much fun as fundamentalist, never a fan but always a fanatic, and whose only claim to fame is infamy. After all, the world’s most famous, and infamous, Arab is Osama bin Laden. Although his video and audio releases are keenly awaited and garner the kind of global attention most pop artists could only dream of, he is not the kind of role model the vast majority of Arab men aspire to.

Simply sharing his first name can prove problematic, as my brother has discovered a number of times. One surreal incident occurred when he went to a bank in London to open an account and the clerk phoned his superiors to say: “We have a guy called Osama here, should I open an account for him?” My brother was so infuriated that he left immediately.

The media, particularly the rightwing and conservative end of the spectrum, has a lot to answer for in this vilification of Arab men. Hollywood – where the overwhelming majority of Arab characters are reel bad villains or aliens from some Planet of the Arabs – is an extreme manifestation of this trend.

Although contemporary British and some other European television and cinema tend to be more nuanced and human in their treatment of Arabs, the situation on this side of the Atlantic also leaves a lot to be desired. My wife is often confounded by the European fixation with Islamism and conservative Islam. While watching a recent Belgian documentary that featured women who had converted to Islam and married ultra-conservative Muslim men, she wondered why such programmes never featured mixed couples like us or our friends: modern, a-religious, laid-back.

In fact, given the endless torrent of negative images of Arab men in western popular culture, ordinary people might be excused for believing that elves in Middle Earth are less mythical than men in the Middle East who are secular, modern, peaceable and do not oppress women. Arab women, whose struggle for equality I write about regularly, garner far more – often genuine – sympathy in the west than Arab men, but much of the compassion is condescending and ideologically, even politically, driven for faceless, voiceless, invisible victims.

So, what is behind this almost casual hatred and vilification? Many cite the September 11 attacks in 2001 as an important turning point. While prejudice against Arabs, and Muslims in general, certainly increased after these atrocities, the growing demonisation and the public debate it sparked also, and perhaps ironically, led to more people developing greater understanding and sympathy towards Arabs.

But history did not begin on 9/11, nor did anti-Arab prejudice. It has a long history in the west, dating back to the colonial era and even the earlier, mutual love-hate relationship between “Islam” and “Christendom”. While there were some orientalists who were Arabophiles, particularly in their admiration for the “noble and honourable” Bedouin but not for the “wily and cunning” city Arab, orientalism as a whole lent a respectable academic veneer, as Edward Said so convincingly demonstrated, to crude racism.

In this view, the Arab is indistinguishable as an individual, unchanging, backward, passive, deceitful, ruled by lust and sexuality, and “in all the centuries has bought no wisdom from experience”, as Gertrude Bell, who played a crucial role in creating modern-day Iraq and Jordan, once put it.

This column appeared in the Guardian newspaper’s Comment is Free section on 30 October 2010. Read the full discussion here.

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