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. http://www.christies.com/lotfinder/lot/a-young-couple-in-a-garden-by-4580055-details.aspx?pos=5&intObjectID=4580055&sid=&page=7&lid=1

Romantic painting by Khoda-Dad Khan Zand, Qajar Iran, 1856-7. http://www.christies.com/lotfinder/lot/a-young-couple-in-a-garden-by-4580055-details.aspx?pos=5&intObjectID=4580055&sid=&page=7&lid=1

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. http://www.islamicpersia.org/2012/09/qajar-erotic-watercolor-art.html

Erotic painting from Qajar Iran, 1850-1885. http://www.islamicpersia.org/2012/09/qajar-erotic-watercolor-art.html

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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The social media’s Islamic state of terror

 
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By Christian Nielsen

ISIS has skillfully manipulated social media as a powerful propaganda tool.  Should the online community self-censor to deprive it of free publicity?

Prompted by social media, outraged Arabs and Muslims burned the ISIS flag.

Prompted by social media, outraged Arabs and Muslims burned the ISIS flag.

Tuesday 30 September 2014/Update Tuesday 18 November 2014

Quality media outlets – with their hierarchy of editors and codes of conduct – have the ability to hold or indeed withhold stories, in what they may consider the public good. Whether for ethical, legal or other reasons, though reasonably rare, there are historical precedents of newspapers and television stations, for example, choosing not to provide much-coveted coverage of terrorism events like a hijacked plane.

But the internet has proven a disruptive force – both in the positive and negative sense. Disruptive in that it gave a voice and opportunity to mostly young people in the Middle East to finally speak out against corrupt, incompetent or incorrigible rulers during the Arab Spring. But today it is also giving a loud voice – and gory platform – to a fanatical few who are intent on shocking and cajoling the right-minded world into a war which it sees no immediately viable way of avoiding. They say you should not shoot the messenger, but if social media is not part of the cause it should be part of the way out of this morass.

Is self-censorship an option?

This is a naive question, perhaps even an abhorrent one, for journalists to be asking, but it’s out there now, so let’s look at it more closely.

Of course, it is technically possible to censor social media from the top down, as amply shown by authoritarian states. This is an altogether different and unwelcome scenario. Here, I am speaking more of social media developing its own set of ethics or code of conduct beyond the people’s court of opinion after the offensive material has already been put out there.

Internet’s not insignificant influence

Already by 2008, just decades after it entered our lives, the internet had taken over traditional newspapers as a prime source of news, Pew Research reported, and for young people, it rivalled television as the main source of national and international news.

Back then a lot of the content still came from traditional sources, “usually those working in struggling newspaper companies and media outlets”, according to Global Issues in a debate broadly covering the changing media influence on society and democracy. But the online world is moving fast, with the growth of citizen journalism and blogs generating original content, and the ascent of video news and sharing sites.

Today, it is social media that seems to provide the Islamic State (IS or ISIS) and its ilk with an ideal forum for broadcasting their vitriol through cruel acts of violence, including horrific executions in the heart of war-torn Syria and Iraq, as well as further afield, such as the beheading of a French mountaineer in Algeria by IS-linked fanatics. It is a frightening frenzy of copycat behaviour fanned by a medium that has no genuine filter befitting the gravity of the acts.

The ability to easily film and almost instantaneously upload footage of these crimes brings into question the role of today’s one-to-very-many media as a possible conduit for a whole new level of terrorism. The more intense the reaction, it seems, the greater the appeal of the medium and the greater the likelihood of repeat offenses by all manner of offshoots, affiliates and IS acolytes.

How much can we blame the media for this new wave of glorified “me-too” terrorism? Can and should video-streaming sites refuse to allow – or be more stringent in their rejection of – violent content of this nature? How much should the holders and managers of these platforms be held responsible for this shocking content in much the same way as Julian Assange’s Wikileaks is being scrutinised for providing a forum for state “secrets” to be disseminated?

Some tough questions, but ones that most definitely need posing. Where is the debate on the role of new media as a seed for the decline in responsible reporting. As a supporter of the liberal press and freedom of speech, this is a hard thing to even write about, let alone contemplate. But maybe the new media have a responsibility like the old media once displayed, refusing to show the graphic, the abhorrent; reducing terrorists’ ability to promulgate their propaganda with impunity, and stopping the marketing machine that is IS from recruiting disenfranchised youth from East and West to its distorted call for a Caliphate.

I once described terror (in my now rather quaint book Tourism and the Media) in terms of its communication goals; and overlaid the way it works on people – remember terror is by definition to instil fear not necessarily to wreak carnage – and their perceptions in terms of basic communication (‘Terrorism represented as basic communication’ p157).

In the book, I touched on the early writing of PA Karber who in his unpublished paper ‘Terrorism as social protest’, introduced the communication dimension in how we conceptualise terrorism, “as a symbolic act”. In other words, the message (terrorist act filmed) being sent by the communicator/sender and received by the audience (the terrorist’s true target) whose feedback (recipient’s reaction) is communicated back to the sender.

The reactions in the case of IS are expressed in different ways, including, it now seems, the greater resolve of governments, both in the region and beyond, to stop them, in the knowledge that public support for aggressive measures is broadly accepted. The general public also “reacts” in concrete ways which “express” the fear now successfully instilled by, for example, changing their travel plans. Authorities in the West also react in terms of altering their perception of a region or people of Muslim faith or “men of Middle-eastern appearance doing nefarious things”. This kind of profiling has dangerous and far-reaching consequences on tolerance in multi-ethnic cultures like Canada, the USA, Australia and many parts of Europe. Examples of racial profiling are already coming out in Australia where the Guardian has reported a storm brewing over sensationalist journalism, press freedom and media hysteria about terrorism.

It will be telling proof to see the impact on travel to Muslim-majority countries by Westerners from the nations who have been loudest and most actively opposed to IS. The terrorist act succeeds if just one person changes their plans to visit Algiers, Petra, Casablanca or largely peaceful nations in the wider region, if people start making decisions based on fear. And with potentially millions seeing these horrible acts, or even reading about them in follow-up coverage, the probability that many more people will give in to the fear grows.

Perhaps the solution is to take out the middle men, remove the ability of these vile characters to get their message out so easily and effectively. It’s a thought. But is it a step too far? Does it take us back decades, or centuries… back to treating the press as a war propaganda machine? It amounts to censorship, one way or the other.

It would also mean articles like this are doing nothing more than adding to the “noise” of material keeping these fanatics’ dreams alive. On the flipside, if no-one reported the events, the support for action against this threat would be so much harder to muster.

Former US President George W Bush’s head-long and ham-fisted “War on Terror” in mostly Iraq and Afghanistan has brought only more trouble to a troubled region. And the loose application of the truth about weapons of mass destruction used as justification to enter this “war” doesn’t help the case for going back into the fray. Which is why the graphic nature of the crimes today (for that is what we are really talking about… Vile crimes committed by a cast of Sunni zealots, killers and misfits, to borrow from a recent story in The Economist) has worked as a wake-up call to the United States and its band of unlikely allies to go back and fix what was broken during the decade-long folly that was the War on Terror.

Now we’re terrified

Now that we really do have terror and the perpetrators are using the most powerful weapon they have at their disposal – mass, cheap, easy communications – to make us afraid. I think for the sake of clarity, it is worth recounting what terrorism is. It has no doubt existed in one form or another for millennia, but in its modern form, we need to go back more than a century.

Anarchist terrorism captured headlines and media attention back in the late 19th and early 20th century. But for modern scholars, it reached the zeitgeist in the 1960s and 70s, and first peaked (in news terms at least) in the 1980s thanks to events such as the downing of a Pan Am flight over Lockerbie, Scotland, and tensions in Israel, Northern Ireland, northern Spain, Central America and more.

Since the War on Terror commenced in the early 2000s it’s impossible to say what an act of terror really constitutes, and whether a death is a consequence of that when all parties would claim to be acting out of righteousness. But to continue on that train of thought would take us into a deep, dark recess of rhetoric and semantics on the distinction between terrorist and freedom fighter; one in which the Northern Irish have for years been digging their way out of. But with the statesman-like send-off that Ian Paisley recently received on the news of his death, it appears history is rewriting certain chapters for all of those engaged in the war/terrorism in and around Northern Ireland.

So back to our (mis)understanding of terrorism. The US government once defined it as “… premeditated, politically motivated violence perpetrated against non-combatant targets by subnational groups or clandestine agents… intended to influence an audience.” While perhaps ignoring state terrorism in this equation it is a compact and functional definition.

And IS and its acolyte’s violent acts on civilians, journalists and aid workers would appear to fit this description, and its use of the media to “influence an audience” works here as well. RAND, a research think tank that keeps records of terrorism trends, has expressed that terrorism should be identified by the nature of the act and not by the identity of its perpetrators or the nature of their causes. But as I mention in my book, RAND’s description could be taken too literally by the world’s mass media which keep coming back to the horrors of the act, the visible carnage, and the loss of life which unfortunately seems to boost ratings. The focus here is more on the act than the nature or reasons behind the act.

Hostage-taking, beheadings, bombing, hijackings, assassinations… Audiences risk becoming addicted to the outrage, at the expense of better analysis and understanding of the causes; a trend which is likely only to aggravate the situation. What audiences must understand is that a terrorist act is intended to cause mayhem, confusion, outrage and terror, to rock the status quo.

The mass media, especially social media, needs to take a good look in the mirror and ask how much exposure they want to give these people. How much graphic detail is needed to maintain support for a just ‘War for Humanity’, if such a thing could ever exist, not another improvised ‘War on Terror’? Is the information really in the readers/viewers’ best interest, or the media channel’s?

Let’s stick to the tenets of good journalism, avoid sensationalising or fuelling the terrorists by over-publicising their horrible acts. Let’s try to sensibly limit the “feedback” they are craving.

UPDATE:

New figures published this week indicate that terrorism fatalities have increased almost fivefold since 9/11, and this is despite the US-led ‘war on terror’. The Global Terrorism Index reported some 18,000 deaths last year, a hike of nearly 60% over the previous year. According to the report, four groups were responsible for the majority of deaths; namely Islamic State (Isis) in Iraq and Syria; Boko Haram in Nigeria; the Taliban in Afghanistan; and al-Qaida in various parts of the world.

“The terrorism index raises questions about the effectiveness of a western counter-terrorism strategy since 9/11 that has seen US-led invasions of Iraq and Afghanistan, drone strikes in Pakistan and Yemen and the use of proxy forces around the world,” writes The Guardian. The report’s release coincides with the latest Isis video showing the beheading of the American Peter Kassig, an aid worker who was posted in Syria.

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The antidote to Egypt’s sexual harassment epidemic

 
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By Khaled Diab

The cure for Egypt’s sexual harassment crisis is to liberate society from outdated and toxic gender ideals and to rethink notions of “honour”.

Monday 24 March 2014

An incident of sexual harassment has provoked widespread outrage and sparked a broad public debate. Sadly, this is not because sexual harassment is a rare event. In fact, it has reached epidemic proportions in recent years. Despite the undoubted fear and distress it caused the victim, this was also not Egypt’s ugliest assault in recent times.

What made this incident noteworthy and shocking was its location: the campus of Cairo University, Egypt’s oldest and largest civil institute of higher education. Moreover, it occurred in the Faculty of Law, which was once Egypt’s most prestigious college before medicine and engineering took over the top spot.

Of course, Egypt’s state-run universities have become low-budget, mass-production lines that churn out students by the thousand. Still, many Egyptians expect the halls of academia to be relatively free of the ugliness that has overtaken the streets, especially at a university where women have been studying since 1928.

This raises the question of what exactly caused this mob of young men to behave so badly and madly?

[YouTube:https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=b2Np00phxBA]

With predictable inevitability, there was an undignified rush to blame the victim. Talk-show host and TV presenter Tamer Amin exemplified this attitude. “A girl at the Faculty of Law went dressed in clothes that are not appropriate for a student or a girl or anyone,” he complained.

“These are the clothes of a belly dancer, to put it politely,” Amin elaborated, overcoming his feigned decorum to say she was “dressed like a prostitute”.

The outfit which so offended the offensive broadcaster was a tight pink jumper, figure-hugging black jeans and what looks like a blonde wig.

[YouTube:https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=yPnpIbpqHXc]

To make matters worse, the dean of Cairo University, Gaber Nassar, also hinted that the harassed student had brought it upon herself through her “out-of-the-ordinary attire”. Interestingly, the female anchor who interviewed Nassar partially agreed with him, even though she herself was wearing bright red, skin-tight leggings.

These offensive “she was asking for it” justifications have caused widespread outrage, with activists naming and shaming, as well as demanding the rolling of heads. Mariam Kirollos, revolutionary drummer and anti-harassment activist, has publicly called for the sacking of Nassar. Others have called for Tamer Amin to be harassed for the provocative way he dresses.

Unfortunately, Amin and Nassar are not in a vacuum, and too many Egyptians – both men and women – subscribe to this preposterous myth.

But if the way a woman dresses really does provoke violent male lust in this way, how do advocates of this theory explain the sexual harassment munaqabat (women who wear the full face veil) endure?

In addition, Egyptian women went around for decades (from the 1940s to the 1970s) largely unharassed, even though they dressed “provocatively” in the latest fashion, including mini-skirts and sleeveless dresses.

This fascinating photo shows a sheikh at Al-Azhar giving a lecture to female students, all of whom are not wearing the hijab. The sheikh didn’t walk out in outrage because his students were not covered up, nor did the lecture hall full of bare-haired young ladies transform him into an uncontrollable ball of violent desire.

To my mind, this clearly illustrates that there is no correlation between the way a woman dresses and the way in which men behave. Moreover, the notion that women somehow provoke men is not only hurtful and painful to women, it is also highly insulting to men because it robs them of agency. It suggests that we men are little more than volatile balls of hormones that go into violent nuclear meltdown at the mere sight of a sexy woman.

So if a woman’s dress or sex appeal plays no role in harassment, what is behind the epidemic in Egypt?

The complement of the femme fatale theory is the notion that men who harass are driven by sexual frustration. While this may carry a grain of truth, sexual frustration plays, at most, only a marginal part, since there are plenty of men who are not sexually deprived who harass women, and vice-versa.

Others attribute the growing phenomenon to a breakdown in decency and respect, as well as the collapse of law and order.

To my mind, at the heart of the harassment epidemic lie false and unrealistic gender ideals and expectations.

In Egyptian society, female sexuality is viewed with distrust. Although this is a common feature of patriarchal societies, the most progressive have, to varying degrees of success, overcome the worst aspects of this prejudice.

However, in Egypt, too many people still believe that a woman is a walking sex bomb who will explode in a mushroom cloud of uncontainable lust upon first contact with freedom. This has led to an unspoken social contract in which women have persuaded their families and societies to allow them to leave the home to study and work, as long as they protect their “virtue”. And one of the biggest symbols of this safeguarding is the hijab.

This is also intimately linked to the traditional prizing of virginity and the still prevalent belief that a family and community’s honour hangs by the thin thread of the hymen of the unmarried woman or between the legs of the married. Regardless of her social and professional status or the good she does society, a woman’s genitalia are what define her “honour” and morality.

But this pact has come under increasing strain in recent years. The more prominent and visible women have become in society, the harsher the conservative backlash has been. This was evident in the behaviour of the Islamists who threw acid in the faces of female university students in the 1990s, and the assaults on female protesters and the “virginity tests” carried out on them during the revolution.

To hear conservatives speak, you’d think that women are not only the vessels of society’s honour, but also the weapons of mass debauchery that have shredded Egypt’s social fabric and brought the “Mother of the World” to her knees. It is far easier to hold women, marginalised and vulnerable as they are, responsible than it is to dig deep for real answers.

For their part, many women have rejected this pact, and the hypocrisy it involves, and many are rebelling openly. Regardless of their own personal sexual ethics, a growing number of women are becoming vocal about the blatant inequality and duplicity in society’s attitudes towards male and female sexuality.

While a man is usually admired for his sexual prowess, a woman is vilified and often ostracised. Again, while this is common across the world, mainstream Egypt lies on the more conservative end of the global spectrum.

There is also growing displeasure at many men’s desire to have their cake and eat it. They want women to be sexually liberal with them before marriage, but then want to settle down and marry a “virtuous” woman. Many men don’t mind their wives sharing the crippling financial burden of modern life, but still fancy themselves lords and masters of the domestic domain.

That said, aside from the “alpha males”, men, to varying degrees, are also victims of the patriarchy – and this reality is often overlooked. The media and society peddles an ideal of the “real” man that has little to no basis in reality, and mocks and derides those who dare to live by alternative models as being weak and under the thumb of their women, not as genuine believers in and advocates of equality.

Sexual harassment will continue until we liberate ourselves from the sex and gender myths that dominate our society, and to stop investing our honour in and blaming our problems on women. Egypt urgently needs a sexual liberation movement that will allow every man and woman to make the sexual choices that suit them without judgement.

More articles on sexual harassment are available in this Chronikler special report.

___

Follow Khaled Diab on Twitter.

This article first appeared in The Daily News Egypt on 22 March 2014.

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Can the boycott against Israel succeed… and how?

 
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By Khaled Diab

The furore surrounding Scarlett Johansson’s SodaStream endorsement raises the question to what extent BDS can help end the occupation… and how.

ScarJo

Tuesday 4 February 2014

Lost in Translation brought Scarlett Johansson global fame. Will the actress’s latest role – lost in the occupation – earn her widespread infamy?

Since the announcement that the Hollywood star was the new face of the controversial Israeli firm SodaStream, a war of words between pro-Palestinians and pro-Israelis has gripped the (social) media. While pro-Palestine activists condemn Johansson for whitewashing the Israeli occupation, pro-Israel activists see the American’s insistence on sticking with the endorsement deal as a vote of confidence in Israel’s economy and democracy.

Meanwhile, sensing a contradiction in Johansson’s dual roles as an Oxfam and SodaStream “ambassador”, the international NGO castigated the American celebrity, eventually parting ways with her. This came after, according to the BDS movement, a reported “internal revolt” within Oxfam, or in ScarJo’s own words, “a fundamental difference of opinion” with the charity over BDS.

In her own defence, Johansson contends that: “SodaStream is a company that is not only committed to the environment but to building a bridge to peace between Israel and Palestine.”

In this, she echoes the Israeli company’s own publicity. “At SodaStream, we build bridges, not walls. It’s a fantastic sanctuary of coexistence and an example of peace in a region that is so troubled and so needs hope,” the firm’s CEO, Daniel Birnbaum said in a promotional video.

It is true that SodaStream employs hundreds of Palestinians under terms they probably wouldn’t get at a similar Palestinian firm and Birnbaum, to his credit, was willing even to embarrass the Israeli president in defence of his Palestinian workers.

However, it is hard to miss the elephant in the room: if Birnbaum is such a prophet of peace, why is he profiting from the occupation by operating a factory in an illegal Israeli settlement which makes the creation of a contiguous Palestinian state impossible? Surely, if SodaStream really wished to act as a “bridge”, it should relocate its main factory to the Israeli side of the Green Line or, better still, set up shop in PA jurisdiction.

The high-profile campaign against Johansson, as well as other recent successes has been interpreted by many pro-Palestinians as another success for the BDS movement. In contrast, a lot of pro-Israelis have seen in the actress’s refusal to back down a clear signal of what they call #BDSfail.

Setting aside the ethical debate surrounding BDS, this raises the question of whether efforts to pressurise Israel by isolating the country can really achieve their stated goals of “Ending its occupation and colonisation of all Arab lands occupied in June 1967 and dismantling the Wall”.

One way of determining this is to examine similar efforts in the past. By putting pressure on a firm’s reputation and profits, corporate boycotts have a relatively decent success rate, as reflected in a number of recent examples, though some companies are more vulnerable than others to this kind of pressure.

Despite the growth of neo-liberalism and the associated privatising of government, countries do not tend to operate like corporations, with the financial bottomline only one factor in many affecting their behaviour.

Hence, the record of boycotts and sanctions against states is far more patchy. In reality, when faced with a determined adversary, punishments of this kind can often fail to deliver the desired results, even in their most extreme manifestations: full sanctions.

More than half a century of American sanctions against Cuba did not lead to the demise of the Castro regime, but impoverished Cuba, leaving it suspended in a decaying time bubble. Other Cold War sanctions hardly fared much better.

A decade of international sanctions against Iraq only succeeded in turning what was once the most-developed Arab country into a graveyard for children and a public health catastrophe. Similarly, the Gaza blockade grinds on, with Egypt too tightening the screws, yet Hamas is still very much in control while the people suffer terrible destitution and isolation.

In fact, in the three examples above, sanctions actually had the unintended effect of strengthening the regimes in question. In each case, sanctions were portrayed as an unfair and unjust form of foreign meddling and the regime as a heroic force of resistance, enabling it to intimidate opponents and shutdown dissent.

There have, of course, been some successes. Many advocates of BDS point to the struggle against apartheid in South Africa as a clear precedent. “Sanctions were the final blow to the apartheid regime in South Africa,” the BDS movement says on its website.

“Such action made an enormous difference in apartheid South Africa. It can make an enormous difference in creating a future of justice and equality for Palestinians and Jews in the Holy Land,” believes none other than Nobel prize winner Bishop Desmond Tutu.

But what kind of a role did the campaign of disinvestment and sanctions play in toppling apartheid in South Africa?

Although South Africa was under African sanctions since the 1960s, these had only a marginal effect, and it was not until the West joined the movement in earnest in the mid-1980s that it began to have a perceptible impact.

Among the boycott’s clearest effects was the flight of capital and credit, the rise in economic hardship, and a slow-down in the flow of much-needed foreign technology, which had a knock-on effect on economic growth and the cost of doing business.

On the other hand, even at the height of anti-apartheid sanctions, South Africa managed to find “sanctions-busting” alternatives, and began a process of recalibrating its economy and finding alternative trading partners. There is also evidence that the boycott was losing steam. For instance, even though the United States had passed a Comprehensive Anti-Apartheid Act only in 1986, US imports from South Africa, by 1988, rose by 14% and exports by 40%.

In addition, sanctions had some unintended consequences. For instance, it forced the country to innovate more, such as developing alternative energy technologies, and had economic consequences for poor blacks and post-Apartheid governments. This explains why opposition to sanctions was not only the preserve of neo-cons, with some South African black and white anti-apartheid activists expressing serious misgivings.

If economic sanctions had only a marginal effect, the academic boycott was even more questionable in its efficacy. “That most of the scholars in our study judged the boycott to be an irritant or inconvenience, rather than a significant barrier to scholarly progress, suggests that it proved more a symbolic gesture than an effective agent of change,” concluded one extensive survey of South African academics conducted at the end of the apartheid era.

In many cases, rather than causing guilt and galvanising opposition to the system, “many scholars felt left out, isolated, unjustly discriminated against”.

If boycotts and sanctions played such a vague and marginal role in toppling apartheid, what actually brought down the system?

It is my conviction that the lion’s share of the credit must go to internal dynamics. Apartheid was not only an unjust system but an unrealistic one. It is impossible to oppress and disenfranchise the majority of a population indefinitely. Mounting, sustained and highly organised black (and, to a lesser extent, white) resistance was the pivotal factor. Of similar import was the enlightened leadership of Nelson Mandela and FW de Klerk, who managed to neutralise stiff conservative opposition to dismantling apartheid.

With hindsight, there is a tendency to afford boycott and sanctions against South Africa a more central role in defeating apartheid than they actually played, thereby depriving the real agents of change, who risked all for their convictions, of some of the glory they deserve.

That is not say that boycotts and solidarity campaigns are useless. If anything else, they at least provide a morality boost through solidarity to the oppressed and enable outsiders to distance themselves from policies and actions of which they do not approve. However, these are tools that need to be handled with caution and care to ensure they do not misfire.

In the Israeli and Palestinian context, the most effective approach is to continue to demand the grassroots boycotting of corporations that profit from the occupation, thereby promoting a more virtuous and constructive cycle of investments. For instance, a campaign could be launched to force SodaStream to relocate its facilities to areas of the West Bank under the control of the Palestinian Authority.

In addition, like with South Africa, the United States should end its military aid to Israel until it ends the occupation, which might possibly be the single most effective economic action any party can take.

I also believe that the academic and cultural boycott needs a major rethink and revamp, especially its Arab variant (which sees many Arabs unwilling or afraid to engage with even sympathetic Israelis), to penalise Israeli peace-breakers and to embrace and empower peacemakers. Such engagement, especially between Palestinians and Israelis, will also help lay the ground for the post-occupation era.

Ultimately, like in South Africa, the occupation, segregation and injustice of the situation will be defeated by Palestinian resistance and Israeli opposition, which would be a far truer “bridge to peace” than the words of a self-interested beverage company or glamorous actress.

Follow Khaled Diab on Twitter.

This article first appeared in Haaretz on 30 January 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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Gay pride (and prejudice) through the ages

 
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By Khaled Diab

Historical examples of homosexuality being tolerated by Judaism, Christianity and Islam can help overcome homophobia and reinvent these faiths.

Thursday 28 February 2013

Were the Christian martyrs Saint Sergius and Saint Bacchus involved in a medieval "same-sex union"?

Were the Christian martyrs Saint Sergius and Saint Bacchus involved in a medieval “same-sex union”?

It is almost spring, and love, of the gay variety, seems truly to be in the air. The last few weeks have brought a constant stream of good news for LGBT communities in Europe, not to mention encouraging developments in the United States and even within the Catholic Church.

British and French MPs spread the love in the run up to Valentine’s Day by giving non-heterosexual marriage a resounding vote of confidence, while Germany’s Constitutional Court ruled in favour of so-called “successive adoption” by same-sex couples.

Across the Atlantic, where same-sex marriage has faced stiff opposition from religious and social conservatives, a pro-gay marriage ad campaign featuring prominent Democrats and Republicans, including Dick Cheney and Colin Powell, has just been released, while there is talk that Barack Obama is planning to utilise the Supreme Court to push for same-sex matrimony.

Homosexuals, not to mention feminists, have toasted the resignation of Pope Benedict XVI, who “made homophobia one of his battle cries”, according to one activist. This has left many in the LGBT community hopeful that the next and future popes will be more relaxed towards questions of sexuality, while activists have been urging the Vatican to wake up to reality.

“There are absolutely no grounds for considering homosexual unions to be in any way similar or even remotely analogous to God’s plan for marriage and family,”  wrote Cardinal Ratzinger, the Holy Father’s previous incarnation, in an opinion he wrote for his predecessor Pope John Paul II in 2003 on the issue of same-sex marriage.

Why? Apparently, because “marriage is holy, while homosexual acts go against the natural moral law”.

Although the argument that homosexuality is unnatural is contrary to the available scientific evidence and undoubtedly angers gay communities and their supporters, this idea is common not only in the Catholic Church, but in other branches of Christianity, Judaism and Islam.

However, despite Ratzinger’s protestations, deep, deep inside Christianity’s historic closet, there was greater tolerance of homosexuality than appears at first sight. Although the medieval and pre-modern church, especially during the various inquisitions, was well-known for persecuting and killing homosexuals, it may, at least at times, have been rather gay-friendly.

For example, though the modern clergy, with the exception of some reformist churches, tends to reject the idea of gay marriage, it appears that two men – but not women – could sometimes be joined in holy union in the Middle Ages.

In a practice known as Adelphopoiesis, two men would be joined in what American history professor John Boswell has controversially described as “same-sex unions”, although his contention has been challenged by the clergy and other scholars who insist that, though the practice walked and talked rather like a church wedding, the union in question was actually a spiritual and celibate one and closer to the concept of “blood brotherhood”.

Although the practice of Adelphopoiesis may strike the modern reader as surprising, once it is placed in the context of Greco-Roman culture, which had a profound impact on early Christian and Muslim ideals, it is not. In the male-centric classical view, men’s affection for each other was the most sublime form of love, while women didn’t really count for much, as attested to by the absence or belittling of lesbianism in classical, Judaic, Christian and Islamic traditions.

This idea of the superiority of male love, and the tolerance thereof, can be seen in the odes to homoerotic passion of the camp and irreverent Abu Nuwas, the Abbasid court laureate who was believed to be the greatest poet in Islam, and whose work was not censored, strangely enough, until the early 20th century.

Moreover, medieval Islamic scholars tended to hold that male homosexual acts did not merit worldly punishment, rather like how ancient Jewish legal practices upheld such strict rules of evidence in cases of “sodomy” that it was near impossible to prove and secure a death sentence. This is a far cry from the contemporary puritanical attitude towards homosexuality in much of the Muslim world, where gay people often potentially face the death penalty

The sublimation of mutual male affection has been (re-)interpreted by modern scholars, commentators and even clergy as a sign of homosexuality in the most unexpected quarters. Not only have many interpreted Jalal al-Din Rumi’s love poetry, or ghazal, dedicated to his older spiritual master Shams-e-Tabrizi, as a sign that the legendary Sufi poet had homosexual tendencies, there have even been suggestions that none other than Jesus Christ was gay.

That a man in his 30s apparently had no wife or girlfriend, even though Jewish law would have allowed him to marry, but was friends with a prostitute, hung out with a dozen other blokes, including one “Beloved Disciple”, in the words of the Gospel of John, could be interpreted as repressed homosexuality by the modern secular ear. Needless to say, the very suggestion is rejected as outrageous and insulting by the church and the majority of Christians.

Although early Christianity and medieval Islam seemed to have adopted some elements of the classical tolerance of certain aspects of homosexuality, at least the male variety of it, all the Abrahamic faiths have inherited the Old Testament tradition which condemns as sinful homosexual acts (the idea of homosexuality or sexual orientation did not really exist until modern times, or was at the very least more fluid).

For instance, both Christianity and Judaism draw on the Book of Leviticus (18:22) which commands the believer: “Thou shalt not lie with mankind, as with womankind: it is abomination.”

One reason why homosexuality elicits such a disproportionate reaction in all three religions is because of its powerful potential to subvert the traditional patriarchal order. Traditional models of marriage, after all, are more about procreation than recreation, and about prescribing and cementing a strict gender hierarchy, in which man sits on the throne and woman washes his royal feet. “Same-sex marriage fundamentally challenges the basic sexual premises of marriage as a contract,” writes Kecia Ali, a professor of religion, in her taboo-shaking book Sexual Ethics and Islam.

The most common justification for the prohibition on homosexual behaviour in the Judeo-Christian-Islamic tradition is, of course, the allegorical tale of Sodom and Gomorrah, two Biblical cities which were destroyed by fire and brimstone for their sinfulness. Although none of the scriptures spell out homosexuality as the nature of the sins committed by the Sodomites, who wanted to rape God’s angels, sodomy, or liwat (i.e. pertaining to Lot’s people) to Muslims, has for centuries been assumed to relate to anal sex, or more broadly, homosexual male intercourse.

This is not a valid connection to make, many contemporary activists claim. “Reading the story of Sodom as being about homosexuality is like reading the story of an axe murderer as being about an axe,” writes Jay Michaelson, the American-Jewish academic and activist.

But is such revisionism honest? I believe that, in the balance of things, the Abrahamic tradition is homophobic, as was the Greco-Roman tradition, though to a lesser degree. Nevertheless, though such revisionism may not be honest, it is useful and perhaps even necessary, to bring religion into the 21st century.

While I personally reject religion because of its intrinsic contradictions and inherent unfairness, I accept that faith can give a structure to the world for believers, and a perceived higher purpose to their lives.

That is why religion has been invented and reinvented endlessly over the centuries. What we call Judaism, Christianity and Islam today, for instance, bears little resemblance to their original counterparts. And just as no modern believer seriously accepts their religions’ ancient attitudes towards, for example, slavery and warfare, people will one day hopefully look back on the current debate over homosexuality and faith as archaic.

___

Follow Khaled Diab on Twitter.

This article first appeared in Haaretz on 26 February 2013.

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Robert Mugabe and ethical tourism

 
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By Christian Nielsen

Was Robert Mugabe’s appointment as UN ‘tourism ambassador’ an unforgivable travesty or can ‘guilt-edged tourism’ trigger reform in dictatorships?

Thursday 7 June 2012

Despite no formal title being bestowed upon the controversial ‘dear leader’ of Zimbabwe, Canadian Foreign Minister John Baird said the association with Robert Mugabe in the UN’s World Tourism Organisation (UNWTO) was “outrageous” and symbolised “what is wrong with the UN”.

So, how did this farce come about? The story goes that UNWTO’s Secretary-General Taleb Rifai recently met the ageing Mugabe, along with Zambia’s President Michael Sata, at Victoria Falls on the country’s shared border.

According to a story in the UK daily,  The Telegraph, the three signed an agreement that UNWTO’s 20th General Assembly would be hosted there in 2013. Both presidents were then invited to “join hands with other world leaders and add [their] voice to our effort to position travel and tourism higher on the global agenda”. Rifai reportedly praised Zimbabwe for its hospitality. “By coming here, it is recognition, an endorsement on the country that it is a safe destination,” he said.

But criticism has poured in from around the world about the UN’s poor judgement, not only in this case, but in several other high-profile decisions in recent months. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, the US House Foreign Affairs chair, went as far as to accuse the UN of “propping up dictators“, but that it had hit a “new low” naming Mugabe as a tourism envoy.

“[As] if North Korea chairing the Conference of Disarmament and Cuba serving as vice-president of the Human Rights Council had not been enough,” she is quoted as saying. “The continued rewards the UN bestows upon the world’s dictators has reached the point of absurdity. An organisation devoted to world peace and stability is propping up and aiding the very regimes that oppose such ideals.”

In its defence…

The World Tourism Organisation is a relative newcomer to the United Nations table and is perhaps showing its inexperience. And it is not even the only international tourism organisation on the block, with the World Travel and Tourism Council also exerting significant influence in the sector – which may grow if  UNWTO continues to bungle international relations on this level.

The UN describes its association with the WTO, a “specialised agency”, as a global forum for tourism policy issues and a practical source of tourism know-how. “UNWTO plays a central and decisive role in promoting the development of responsible, sustainable and universally accessible tourism, paying particular attention to the interests of developing countries … [It] encourages the implementation of the Global Code of Ethics for Tourism, with a view to ensuring that member countries, tourist destinations and businesses maximise the positive economic, social and cultural effects of tourism and fully reap its benefits, while minimising its negative social and environmental impacts.”

Even a cursory glance at this manifesto reveals a few major missteps in cozying up with Mugabe, despite his country clearly qualifying for much-needed economic development. Under Mugabe’s three decades of rule, Zimbabwe’s economy has deteriorated from a mini-powerhouse of southern Africa to a spluttering basket-case. Crony politics has all but destroyed the country’s once robust and well developed agricultural sector. Combined with a decade of hyperinflation, low growth, massive debt, decrepit public services and knowledge flight, as the skilled and educated seek opportunities elsewhere, and you have a potent compote for a failed state.

According to the African Economic Development Institute (AEDI), President Mugabe’s Land Acquisition Act of 2000, which led to a massive redistribution of arable lands from thousands of experienced white farmers to less experienced black farmers, set the scene for economic failure. The plan was reportedly supported by Kofi Annan, then the UN Secretary-General, who said at the time, “The equitable distribution of productive capital, such as land, is not only economically important, but also essential to ensure peace and stability.”

The AEDI explained in a 2009 report on ‘The failing economy of Zimbabwe’ that Zimbabwe’s Land Acquisition Act had amplified a serious food shortage crisis. “If Zimbabwe cannot provide itself the basic elements of survival, such as clean water and food, there is very little prospect of any economic development,” it concluded.

So, Zimbabwe was in terrible shape in 2009, but what about 2012? There are some positive signs, at least when it comes to the economy. According to Africa News, Zimbabwe‘s economic outlook is bright. “The establishment of a government of national Unity (GNU) in February 2009 and the adoption of a multi-currency regime brought about economic recovery and price stability, and strong recovery will continue this year.”

Agricultural output, it reported, rose 15% in 2009 and 34% in 2010, largely from increased tobacco production. However, growth in manufacturing output slowed down to less than 3% in 2010 compared with 10% in 2009. This year, farm output is expected to increase as more land was put under tillage last year.

Guilt-edged tourism

The pariah state of Myanmar springs to mind as a similar international relations debate to that facing Zimbabwe now: do you prop open the door of a dictator by maintaining dialogue, or in the case of tourism encourage visitors to go there, or do you nail it closed, thus blocking any chance of light or change getting in?

This ‘guilt-edged tourism’ debate (read about it in my book Tourism and the media), has swirled mostly over the skies of Cuba and Myanmar, with the jury perhaps still out on both. But there are signs that greater openness and exposure to tourists and (it should be said) their dollars, euros, yens and yuans, at least opens the door to these notoriously tricky leaderships.

Could the same be said of Zimbabwe? Has the UNWTO acted in the spirit of its doctrine of “promoting the development of responsible, sustainable and universally accessible tourism” or has it overstepped its mark, or just plain lost its way in a misguided attempt to sew up the world’s tourism patchwork?

In my humble opinion, the door needs to be open just enough to nourish any grassroots democratic and economic seeds worth reviving. Zimbabwe is clearly showing some signs of improvement since the GNU entered power in 2009, with opposition figure Morgan Tsangeri as prime minister. But there is too much bad blood – both internal and with the international community – with Mugabe still on the political scene.

The ageing leader will clearly jump on any warming in international relations at this stage of his career. At 88, he will be looking at legacies. Forgotten is his earlier role as the statesman who steered the country out of colonial rule. Remembered will be his role in the country’s economic decline and political repression, and perhaps even his newly bestowed title of tourism “ambassador” with a small ‘a’. Another dictator addicted to power goes from hero to zero.

 

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Gastronomy without the gas

 
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Veggie delights. Copyright Khaled Diab

Veggie delights. Copyright Khaled Diab

By Khaled Diab

The Belgian city of Ghent has declared Thursdays ‘meat free’. Should cities around the world also join the vegolution?

June 2009

People usually associate politicians, particularly in these troubled times, with hot air. But rather than spew out noxious gases, politicians and public officials in Ghent – the progressive Belgian city – have come up with a unique scheme to reduce the city’s greenhouse gas emissions.

You’ve probably heard of fish Fridays. Well, the Flemish university town of some 200,000 people has now introduced a weekly “Veggie Thursday” (Donderdag – Veggie Dag).

So, what does Ghent – a picturesque town where cycling is a pleasure and not a death-defying gamble – hope to achieve?

By encouraging public officials, school children and ordinary citizens to go voluntarily veggie one day a week, the city hopes to improve public health, reduce our impact on the environment and enhance animal welfare. In fact, according to the UN’s Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO): “The livestock sector emerges as one of the top two or three most significant contributors to the most serious environmental problems, at every scale from local to global.”

And if the idea catches on, the impact could be enormous. “If everyone in Flanders (population: six million) does not eat meat one day a week, we will save as much CO2 in a year as taking half a million cars off the road,” said the Ethical Vegetarian Association spokesperson. Imagine if every city in the world followed suit!

This is the kind of pioneering and creative initiative I have come to expect from the city that has been my home for the past four years. After all this is the place that declared its independence for a day last year in protest against the slow crumbling of the Belgian state. Under its tranquil surface lies a friendly but radical core of progressives, leftists, tree-huggers and eco-warriors.

So even though I ate out in Brussels yesterday, I plumped for a veggie option: a delicious Lebanese mezze. Don’t get me wrong, I’m by no means vegetarian. In fact, I love indulging in carnivorous delights – I have even overcome my beef with pigs – and sometimes stand weak before the temptations of the flesh.

But for the past couple of years, my wife and I have radically changed our diet and try to eat meat or fish only a couple of times a week. After an initial period of adjustment, we both feel healthier – I’ve even shed the Buddha belly that I had begun to grow – and better about putting less of a strain on the food chain and reducing our carbon footprint.

Although traditional Belgian cuisine is quite rich and fatty, Ghent has a surprisingly large array of delicious veggie eateries and veggie options on menus, but Brussels easily beats it for its mind-boggling range of cuisines.

“There has been a massive increase in demand for vegetarian dishes at my restaurant over the past few years,” Wim Vandamme, a Ghent restauranteur told me. “The selection of vegetarian dishes we offer has also grown considerably.” Vandamme says that his clients are eating veggie mainly for their own wellbeing, then comes animal welfare, and finally, the environment.

The idea has triggered interest among other cities in Belgium and the Netherlands, as well as Canada. It has also been picked up by media around the world and captured the imagination of ordinary people. “One meatless day a week is a great idea, and no loss for those who want a tasty diet,” said languedocienne on the Guardian’s environment blog.

It even looks as though the idea may attract more tourism to Ghent. “Right, that’s the holiday booked! Ghent here I come!” Ciderguard enthused, as did other commenters.

Of course, there’s much more that can be done. But Juanveron’s scepticism is perhaps uncalled for: “Imagine the reactions of a starving African or Asian family when they hear that, somewhere in Europe, people will abstain from eating meat for one day (what a sacrifice!).”

The fact that millions suffering from malnutrition and famine is disgraceful and must be addressed, but reducing the meat consumption of the wealthy will help increase global food supplies and push down prices, as well as helping protect the environment for future generations. I think it’s time to take this idea global.

Let the vegolution begin!

This column appeared in The Guardian Unlimited’s Comment is Free section on 17 May 2009. Read the related discussion.

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Guilt trips

 
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Khaled Diab

Travelling to poor countries may be incredibly rewarding, but it poses some uncomfortable ethical dilemmas.

June 2009

A conference I recently attended in Accra, Ghana, was held in a plush resort. With spacious rooms, sea views and a swimming pool, the swanky surroundings were certainly comfortable – but I felt ill at ease.

An Accra street. Image Copyright Khaled Diab

An Accra street. Image Copyright Khaled Diab

The venue was probably chosen partly to enable the specialised junkies to withdraw from society and get high together on liberal and concentrated doses of the topic in question – African development. Nevertheless, this Ibiza of the intellect – laced with stimulating, mind-altering debate – troubled me. You could say I felt a little like Alice in Ponderland: abstractly debating a topic while people just down the road lived its harsh reality.

Not far from the hotel, families were living in run-down houses that looked about the size of my room and women were swaying along with heavy jerry-cans of water balanced almost magically on their heads. Then again, a little further still, in this most developed country in West Africa, there are Ghanaians living in middle-class comfort and upper-class splendour in housing developments sold in euros.

After the conference was over, I moved to a more modest hotel in Accra town centre. Although the furniture was tacky and the fittings rickety, it was clean and more comfortable for my conscience, not to mention my wallet. From my new base, I got a better opportunity to acquaint myself with a society which was both a major hub in the transatlantic slave trade and, thanks to its first president Kwameh Nkrumah, a central player in the pan-African movement. Incidentally, Ghana’s first-ever first lady was an Egyptian.

I love travelling in order to savour the breadth and wealth of human culture and civilisation. But travelling to poor countries, in particular, poses certain ethical challenges. In my native Egypt, where people who can afford to travel abroad usually seek to flee poverty, people are often baffled by some of my travel choices. In Europe, many people travel to poorer countries, and those who don’t are often motivated by a fear of the unknown. Some criticise such journeys as a kind of voyeurism. But surely all travel has an element of voyeurism. After all, tourists and travellers are, for the most part, spectators, although the more intrepid may seek occasionally to become part of the action.

Besides, it can be countered that those who refuse to spend time in poor countries are isolating themselves from the reality of the world and denying themselves much of humanity’s cultural treasures. They are also robbing themselves of the incredibly warm hospitality of many poorer countries and the opportunity for cultural exchange, as well as depriving locals of their money, the pride that outsiders are interested in their country, and the chance to embark on the poor person’s equivalent of overseas travel – meeting foreigners.

Indeed, some countries may be materially poor but possess some of the richest, most sophisticated cultures in the world. Perhaps the most extreme example is Ethiopia, which has been relegated from the premier league of civilisations and now has the unenviable distinction of being among the top 10 least-developed countries. Lalibela is a sad embodiment of this contrast: the ageless, immutable beauty of its rock-hewn churches, and the contemporary reality of the surrounding hungryside.

Despite this, the rich culture lives on and Ethiopians are proud – even arrogant in their aloofness towards other Africans – sophisticated people. Of course, most people are unaware of this and their idea of Ethiopia is informed by the Grand Wizard of charity pop Bob Geldof’s description of it as a place “where nothing ever grows”.

To maximise the benefits for yourself and the country you are visiting, it is crucial to travel responsibly. My wife and I are sensitive to the local culture, respectful of the people and try, but don’t always succeed, to deal with all the attention we receive with patience and good humour. We strive to maximise the impact of every penny by trying to make sure that as much of it goes directly to ordinary people as possible. We never book accommodation through tour operators or travel agents and try to stay in and eat at small, family-run establishments. We try to pay a fair price for whatever we buy – both for the locals and for us.

It’s a tricky balancing act. In many countries, tourism has had a corrupting influence, and when sellers see tourists, they also see big dollar signs. We tend to walk away from merchants and taxi drivers who try to rip us off outrageously, and reward those who are fair. We are proficient hagglers but often choose to pay above the local rate as a friendly gesture. After all, some euros extra here or there mean nothing to us but could make a big difference for a local family. As someone who could not afford to travel until relatively late in life, I feel very privileged to have the freedom to roam. But I am also keenly aware that one should not assume that tourism is an unqualified benefit to people in the country being visited.

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