The road less travelled, part III: The cycle of life in Groningen

 
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By Christian Nielsen

Christian Nielsen’s road trip along the scenic route this summer takes him to Groningen where life cycles mellowly by in its car-free zones.

Photo: ©Christian Nielsen

Wednesday 25 July 2018

Summer smiles on Wednesday worshippers …

Cosy cottages share space with snug shops on Church Lane

Students sing the tunes of youth

Po-going to the beat on Market Square

Ice-creams melt, bells break the waves

Dogs dive into cooling canals

Bobbing barges, picnics, party cruisers

Bikes abound, bikes just everywhere …

I jotted down these impressions at the Lutje Kerklaan B&B. Groningen is Europe’s “two-wheeled capital“, according to Monocle. Today, nearly two-thirds of all journeys in the city are made by bicycle, partly thanks to an €85-million cycling strategy.

____

Read part I: Navigating without algorithms

Read part II: Overwhelmed at Overloon

Read part IV: The rich texture of the original Hamburger

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The road less travelled – part II: Overwhelmed at Overloon

 
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By Christian Nielsen

As Christian Nielsen takes the road less travelled this summer, he uncovers the volatile, violent past hidden under the tranquil, peaceful present of the Dutch village of Overloon.

Photo: ©Christian Nielsen

Read part I: Navigating without algorithms

Monday 23 July 2018

Set in the verdant woods of Overloon, in the Dutch province of North Brabant, is one of the first and finest museums to recount and remember World War II’s European chapter.

Started in 1946, just one year after hostilities ended, the cavernous Oorlogsmuseum Overloon takes visitors on a journey from the ominous failure to reset the world order after WWI ended in 1918, to the seeds of national socialism and resulting polarisation leading to a sense of German exceptionalism and eventual invasions of Poland, the Netherlands, Belgium and so on.

The sombre exhibits capture the utter despair of life in occupied Netherlands, the deprivation, humiliation, torture, fear … what it was like as a child, parent, student, worker, etc. It dutifully recounts the systematic rounding up by the Germans of the Jewish population during the war years until liberation by the Allied forces in 1945.

In one segment, visitors meet a 10-year-old Jewish girl and her family as they struggle to survive. The loneliness and heartache she faces as her mother dies of a brain tumour, her brothers are taken to a labour camp, followed by her father, cousins, aunts … They all disappear from her life in the space of five years.

She goes into hiding with her grandparents, moving from one place to the other, and eventually to a secluded farm. After liberation, she is reunited with her grandparents, and they soon learn the fate of her parents and brothers – all lost in the camps.

Multimedia displays including clips from the period projected on to walls, floors and windows surround the visitor. The overwhelming collection of original mementos, artefacts and machinery would be hard to beat anywhere.

The military hardware in the adjoining hall is thoughtfully displayed to capture what it might have been like in the dying days of the war as the Allies pushed through to the German border in late 1944.

Operation Market Garden was an Allied push through Belgium and Holland to cross the Rhine at Arnhem and get round the German’s heavily fortified Siegfried Line in preparation for a final drive to Berlin.

It was a make-or-break moment and the Germans knew it. They pushed back and met the Allies across a looping front that also took in Belgium (best known for the Battle of the Bulge) and German territory (fierce fighting in Hurtgen Forrest). These clashes were an all-in effort by a German army that literally had everything to lose. And it was in Overloon that Market Garden reached a crescendo between 30 September and 18 October 1944.

The story of the Overloon Battle is told with great care and detail in a panorama room with a replica shelter below, which tells the trials and tribulations of thousands of frightened civilians who waited out the nearly three-week-long ordeal.

A number of sculptures line the pathway to the entrance of the museum, symbolising the twin evils of war: shattered lives and destroyed livelihoods. One installation (see photo) sits incongruously beside a WWII-era tank with its turret poised in the air.

The €15 price to enter the museum seems steep at first but as the sheer magnitude of the place begins to open up, and the attention to detail (the personal stories juxtaposed against the carefully arranged machinery of war) is appreciated, the money feels well spent. Curators are everywhere, dusting Howitzers and arranging life-like mannequins into new scenes like the battlefield mess tent and mobile tool shop. Combined with several military memorials and cemeteries in and around Overloon, as well as a new playground and nature activities, this is a day well spent … and not only for history buffs.

Read part I: Navigating without algorithms

Read part III: The cycle of life in Groningen

Read part IV: The rich texture of the original Hamburger

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The ghettoisation of Danish politics

 
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By Khaled Diab

The Danish government plans to force minorities out of what it classes as “ghettos”, but its Denmark’s mainstream that needs to escape its ghetto mentality.

Friday 13 July 2018

While America separates migrant children from their parents at the border, including toddlers who have to appear in court alone, Denmark has passed legislation that will require children from the age of one living in areas defined as “ghettos” by the state to be separated from their families for at least 25 hours a week, not including nap times.

This new policy carries echoes of, and is a small but significant step towards, the discredited and inhumane practices of tearing indigenous children away from their families, such as occurred with Australia’s “lost generations” of Aboriginals or Canada’s so-called Scoop generations.

Although the children involved are not indigenous, Denmark’s new “ghetto” policies follow similar assimilationist logic. The toddlers and children attending obligatory daycare will receive mandatory instruction in “Danish values,” which reportedly includes not only democracy but also the traditions of Christmas and Easter, and the Danish language – though how on Earth they plan to combine that with pot training, or how they expect Danish minority toddlers to grasp the democratic norms which have eluded many American adults, has not yet been made clear.

This is part of a package of measures passed by Danish legislators at the end of May, which itself is part of a broader strategy to eradicate “parallel societies” by 2030. “We must introduce a new target to end ghettos completely. In some places, by breaking up concrete and pulling down buildings,” centre-right prime minister Lars Løkke Rasmussen said in his New Year’s speech unveiling the government’s intentions.

Although Rasmussen insisted that his government’s aim was to “recreate mixed neighbourhoods” and to “break the chain in which generation after generation lives in a parallel society”, many of Denmark’s minorities, especially Muslims, see this as a manifestation of the longstanding racism and discrimination that has plagued Danish society, which some had allowed themselves to hope that society was in the process of gradually shedding.

This impression is bolstered by how quite a few politicians insist the ghetto laws are not racist or racially motivated, while employing dog-whistles so piercingly high-pitched that they have deafened Denmark’s canine population. This massive internalising of bigotry may explain why nobody in the government appears to have even blinked at officially calling poor, minority-heavy neighbourhoods “ghettoes”, as though ignorant of or indifferent to the painful history of centuries of Jewish exclusion and persecution, which culminated in the Holocaust.

“I grew up in Denmark as a refugee facing racism on almost a daily basis… Danes [would] go out of their way to make sure you feel like you don’t belong,” recalls Maryam AlKhawaja, the prominent Bahraini-Danish dissident and activist, who spent her childhood and early teens in Denmark and returned again as a young adult, following a crackdown in Bahrain which saw her father imprisoned for life. “Things got better after I moved back in 2012, but it seems now that all that underlying xenophobia, racism and hate is surfacing because it’s suddenly become okay to voice such opinions.”

For AlKhawaja, the greatest disappointment has been how the Social Democrats “have become more and more right-wing on migration and refugee issues, and in some cases one can no longer tell the difference between them and the right-wing Islamophobes”. Whether out of expediency or conviction, the Social Democrats, despite being in opposition, voted for the “ghetto package”.

It is possible that the Social Democrats are not (just) being electorally cynical but actually believe, in the tradition of Nordic “social engineering”, that tackling the ghettoes offers poor migrants and minorities an exit permit out of exclusion.

If so, this is misguided. Marginalised minority neighbourhoods are not the problem. They are a manifestation of myriad other problems. The reasons migrants concentrate in certain areas is not generally because they want to live in these neighbourhoods, but because they have little to no other choice, and cannot afford to live elsewhere.

Even if minorities voluntarily lived in proximity with one another. That, in principle, should not be a problem. In fact, Europeans and Westerners have just such a tendency to live in “ghettos” when abroad, so as to be able to support one another and lead a lifestyle according to their own values, not that of the local society.

In Denmark and other parts of Europe, many immigrants do not need an invitation, let alone an ultimatum from the state to move out of the “ghettoes”. Those who become more prosperous and successful tend to move out of their own volition. But this has the downside of leaving behind society’s rejects and providing youth in these neighbourhoods with few recognisable role models for success.

Same goes for crime, which is generally very low in Denmark. In fact, crime has reached record lows in recent years, which you might not realise with all the populist scaremongering going on. If I were to employ the logic of bigots, I would attribute this fall in crime to immigration, as many migrants who move to Denmark come from low-crime societies, and growing diversity, which breeds a culture of acceptance and tolerance. But I would never dream of making such a spurious, agenda-driven, fact-free assertion. Crime is a complex and attributable to numerous factors.

In reality, the reasons why there there are higher levels of certain types of crime in minority neighbourhoods – such as petty theft – have little to do with the concentration of migrants or Muslims and almost everything to do with the concentration of poverty, the intensity of socio-economic exclusion, and the paucity of prospects, and how what constitutes “crime” is defined. This is visible in, for instance, how the traditionally poverty-stricken East End of London has been associated with crime for centuries, regardless of whether it was inhabited by Anglicans, Catholics, black Africans, Chinese, Eastern Europeans, or Bengalis. In fact, the kind of moralising and condescension expressed about the allegedly unwashed, lazy and criminal poor in the 19th century has been repurposed for poor migrants.

Forcing minorities out of deprived neighbourhoods will not, in and of itself, lead to less crime, if their deprivation and exclusion moves with them, and if mainstream Danes do not overcome their own self-imposed ghetto mentality of building cultural walls between them and the supposed strangers in their midsts.

The Danish government’s plan tacitly recognises this economic dimension with the bonuses it offers municipalities which offer employment to non-Western minorities. But this is far, far too little to make a realistic dent.

Far easier is to play the identity card, to suggest that it is because immigrants have failed to embrace “Danish values” that is the problem, not because society has undervalued them and they are excess to requirements in the contemporary model of predatory capitalism which causes the prosperity worked for by the many to trickle up to the very, very few.

And what exactly are Danish values, or European values, or Western values? If we assume them to mean a commitment to and belief in democracy, freedom of belief and expression, gender and other forms of equality, as well as respect for human rights, including sexual orientation, what do we do about the native Danes who are of an authoritarian or fascistic persuasion, or who are misogynistic and/or homophobic? Should they also be sent to re-education classes? Of course not, that is not what a free society is about. A free society is about giving citizens full freedom to decide for themselves, as long as their decisions do not directly hurt other citizens.

Besides, the suppression of liberal and progressive values occurred in Denmark and Europe long before the advent of mass non-European migration. For instance, many locals fear Muslim attitudes towards alcohol, yet conveniently forget that, long before the spectre of illusionary “creeping Sharia” arrived on Denmark’s shores, the autonomous Faroe Islands had an alcohol prohibition for most of the 20th century, and nearby Iceland banned beer.

Then, there is the problem with the slippery slope. What may seem a small or lesser evil today often spirals out of control to become a consuming evil. If you think this is just progressive or liberal alarmism, consider the fact that a proposal is in the pipeline to double the punishment for certain crimes (chillingly, to be left to the discretion of the police) in “ghetto” areas, effectively eliminating one of the founding and fundamental principles of the modern justice system, equality before the law. “I always argued that, despite all the things that I disliked about Denmark, at least the system is, to a large extent, just. I fear that is no longer the case,” confesses Maryam AlKhawaja.

And if Denmark sets a precedent of de facto legal segregation in Europe, who is to say where it will stop. If equality before the law is undermined through unequal punishment, what’s to stop legislation being passed formalising unequal rewards, legislating that minorities should be paid less for equal work?

Moreover, the slippery slope can often consume those who were cheerleading the descend to fascism because a system built on fear and identity politics cannot survive without creating new enemies of the state and of the people, because the beast of exclusion possesses a voracious appetite.

____

This article was first published by The New Arab on 4 July 2018.

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Prisoners of our guilty consciences

 
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By Khaled Diab

The intensifying crackdown on the media and civil society in Egypt leaves Egyptians who are out of the country feeling powerless to help and guilty about the freedoms they enjoy.

Photo: ©Khaled Diab

Wednesday 11 July 2018

Egypt’s war on dissent, opposition and the media shows no sign of abating. Worse still, it appears to have intensified in recent months, ever since the run-up to the presidential “election.” Even the recent Ramadan pardons issued by President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi will barely make a dent, because what the regime giveth, in its caprice, it taketh away.

By way of example, several prominent activists and bloggers have recently been arrested. These have included included Wael Abbas, the prominent journalist and blogger who has been shedding light on police brutality and other abuses since the Mubarak years; Walid al-Shobaky, a PhD student who works at the Association for Freedom of Thought and Expression; labour lawyer and veteran activist Haytham Mohamadeen; former actor Amal Fathy, who was arrested on terrorism charges for posting a profane video condemning the dire socioeconomic state of the country and sexual harassment; satirist Shady Abu Zeid, who is despised by the security services for mocking the police, and Shady al-Ghazaly Harb, a surgeon and activist who allegedly posted tweets that “insulted” the president.

In addition, controversial and daring atheist Sherif Gaber was prevented from leaving the country, detained for several days and then disappeared into the ether, his whereabouts unknown. That is not to mention all those who have been arrested or disappeared that we do not know about, or who are not prominent enough to be reported on by media, or the banal and everyday intimidations, threats and harassment from a security apparatus that has reached the threatening levels of excess that only the threatened can muster up.

It is difficult to watch what is going on in Egypt and not feel saddened for the millions of people who, set free by a dream, rebelled against their jailers, only to be imprisoned in a nightmare. Rarely have so many sacrificed so much for no visible gain and such an abundance of extra pain. Yes, the situation in Egypt is not (yet) as bad as in Syria, Libya or Yemen, but you know a country is in serious trouble when it builds new prisons at a frantic pace, while shutting down libraries, where jails have become repositories of squandered human talent and potential, and where prisons are home to more freethinkers than the country’s academies.

The situation appears all the more depressing when you consider that it need not have been so, that the Egyptian regime and military could have bowed to the inevitable, instead of attempting to reverse the irreversible. I am made painfully aware of this reality from my temporary base in Tunisia, which now stands where Egypt should and could have been, especially since the pre-revolutionary freedoms Egyptians were able to snatch from the jaws of the Mubarak regime outstripped anything Zine al-Abidine Ben Ali and his cohorts were willing to concede.

The situation here is far from perfect or ideal, and Tunisia faces enormous challenges, but people are largely free to speak their minds without fear of losing their freedom. Even unauthorized protests are left in peace, governments come and governments go peacefully, political parties try to cobble together compromises and build consensus, and no leader is above reproach or being unceremoniously dumped by the electorate.

Tunisia’s newfound freedom has made it a magnet for activists, dissidents and journalists from across the region. This includes a burgeoning Egyptian community of civil society activists and NGO workers, some of whom gather together to watch Egypt play in the FIFA World Cup, their downsized hopes of a modicum of national success disappointed. One Egyptian who cannot return to Egypt has adopted the FIFA World Cup as a kind of substitute for home, every fleeting hope causing his spirits to soar; every let down knocking him down. “I wish we could take pride in something,” one Tunis-based Egyptian remarked following Egypt’s mediocre performance against Russia. This is, of course, only football, as I am well aware, not being a great lover of the game. But for a traumatised nation with its revolutionary pride shredded and mangled, and its dignity crushed under the boot of junta rule and growing poverty, it is also a lot more than just football.

“Tunisia is an Arab country that was on pretty much the same path as Egypt after the revolution, and so comparing the two was inevitable,” observes Ahmed ElGohary, who works at the Cairo Institute for Human Rights Studies, which moved its headquarters from Cairo following a campaign of harassment from the state. “Our presence in Tunis is easier for some of us than Europe … but it also accentuates the sense of failure. Any small news item on the radio or the internet about Tunisian politics or human rights reminds you that we could have also had the same space to work and engage in Egypt.”

When confronted with the levels of injustice plaguing Egypt, I feel compelled to use the freedom I enjoy to write about it and to do my bit to confront it. Beyond questions of duty, I have a strong interest in and desire to write about developments in Egypt, even if my years outside the country outnumber my years living in it, but I do try to keep up with regular visits. And I believe I have every right to do so. In fact, I am convinced that everyone has the right to write and speak on any topic they choose, and that they should be judged on their knowledge and abilities, not on their background or situation, and that is why I write about many contexts in many countries. In reality, the only times I have ever heard complaints that my absence disqualifies me from commentary is from some supporters of the regime, for my criticism of it, and some Islamists, for my criticism of their project and my outspoken support of secularism.

That said, writing about Egypt from afar presents certain practical challenges. An important one for someone like me, who likes to write about the human angle, not just the aggregate geopolitical, economic and social picture, is keeping abreast of what is happening on the ground and what people are thinking as individuals. Getting a sense of the mood on the streets is challenging when you rely on occasional visits and secondary sources, yet acquiring the perspectives of individuals is much easier from afar than it once was. This is not ideal, but writers in the country also face challenges, albeit different ones, such as the distortions created by Egypt’s highly polarized political and social scenes, with the heightened levels of propaganda they contain.

“Whenever I write from abroad about Egypt, I’m always afraid that this distance might have made me lose touch with the pulse of the street,” observes Maher Hamoud, the former editor at Daily News Egypt who is currently based in Brussels. “I always cared in my writing (both in Egypt and Europe) about ordinary people and their real-life experiences.”

This distance has led Hamoud towards an increased focus on analysis. “I find myself compensating for this insecurity in writing about Egypt by being more theoretical and analytical (also historical) in my work,” he points out. I have also noticed this trend in my own journalism, though this is also partly a function of becoming more experienced, with editors seeking out my perspective, and being more interested in the connections between various parts of the world and various periods of history.

There is also the drive to contextualise, to highlight that what is occurring in Egypt is tragic, but it is not unprecedented or a uniquely Arab malaise. “I make sure to relate to the ‘developed’ countries and their problems while talking about Egypt,” notes Jehad (Jeje) Mohamed, an Egyptian freelance journalist who is currently based in Washington, DC. “It helps eliminate the ‘othering’ of Egypt and eliminate the white saviour complex that we are less and need saving, and so on.”

Covering Egypt from afar also presents certain moral and ethical challenges. One is the haunting sense of powerlessness and futility. As a journalist and writer, one can attempt to speak truth to power, but what if power does not care to listen? One can attempt to tell the world, but what if the world is preoccupied with other things, or some of it is applauding what is going on? Writing articles and posting tweets appears barely to make a shred of difference against the tide of brutality sweeping the country, the region and other parts of the globe. Does this apparent futility mean you should give up, or continue with greater gusto? Is it enough just to write and speak, or is there more one should be doing? The Sisi regime, like many in the region, may fear the pen more than the sword, and so it prefers to silence or discredit its holder, rather than heed its words.

Then there is the question of guilt. In Egypt, we say those with their hands in the water are unlike those with their hands in the fire. “I get the feeling I am talking from a privileged position, even though I was kind of forced to leave the country and was harassed, investigated and threatened all the time. People sometimes call it survivor’s guilt or something like that,” explains Jeje Mohamed.

“I feel guilty because I was luckier than others and was able to leave Egypt at a suitable moment and to continue my work with the same organization. Most of the others were not so fortunate,” says AlGohary. “And this feeling is renewed and grows every time an activist or human rights defender is arrested or banned from traveling.” Carrying around a guilty conscience for simply having got away is a common emotion I have noticed among Egyptian activists and journalists who have left the country or been forced out.

Even though I am not an activist, I also often experience an involuntary surge of guilt when I learn of the latest miscarriage of justice, or carriage of injustice, in Egypt, and think of the courage exhibited by the dwindling rank of colleagues who still manage, against increasingly draconian odds, to report independently and honestly from within Egypt. While journalists and activists are being intimidated, stripped of their freedom and robbed of their dignity, I lead a comfortable and remarkably unthreatening life in a picturesque seaside suburb of Tunis, for the most part. My days are generally spent writing and reading in peace, interspersed with looking after and caring for our son, without having to fear a midnight knock on my door. This affords me the luxury (and it is a huge luxury) to think and express myself, without the stifling shadow of fear and repression to cloud my mind, and perhaps also to see certain things that are not as visible from close up, or which may be distorted by the constant barrage of propaganda.

With everything that is going on in Egypt and the wider region, about which I also write (among many other things), as well as the violent intolerance of dissent exhibited by numerous state and non-state actors across the Middle East, the dissonance caused makes me sometimes feels like I am floating in the tranquil eye of a storm, close enough to observe but not be consumed by the surrounding cyclone.

This distance protects me from the tempest, and my foreign passport offers me a measure of protection from the vengeful whims of the regime when I visit Egypt, albeit much less than in the past. This causes me occasional mild anxiety, as I am aware that the unruly winds could shift and the storm could sweep me up in its destructive, increasingly indiscriminate path. And if someone were to decide to bring me down, they have a wealth of material to twist against me. When I hear some of the far-fetched and ludicrous cases made against dissidents and critics, I occasionally wonder what kind of alleged allegiance(s) they may one day concoct for me, a writer who has always prided myself on my independence.

This anxiety is at it most pronounced whenever I am entering or leaving Egypt. Part of the apprehension is irrational, perhaps founded on the number of times my family was banned from leaving the country when I was a young child. More rationally, I have been detained or delayed a number of times upon arrival or departure, including one marathon interrogation session of several hours, which, along with the random exercising of arbitrary power, makes me wonder whether next time will be “the time,” and whether my fate might be a short stretch of indignity in an overcrowded cell or the long-term deprivation of freedom.

My low-level anxiety is nothing compared to the undoubted fear and pain endured by those on the frontlines, despite all the risks, who were stripped of their freedom, often in degrading and violent ways, for their pains. How must it feel for someone like photojournalist Mahmoud Abu Zeid (Shawkan) to have survived the hell on earth of reporting on the lethal dispersal of the Rabea al-Adaweya encampment (which I had visited a couple of weeks beforehand to see what it was like for myself) and, instead of receiving treatment for the trauma all this death and destruction caused, to wait in purgatory for a potential death sentence?

I admire all those who stood up for their principles, even if it meant years in the slammer. The iconic representation of this is Alaa Abd El Fattah, who has been imprisoned by every leader since Mubarak, and is currently serving a five-year sentence. I sometimes wonder what it is like to live the monotony of incarceration, to be deprived not just of your freedom but also of your freedom of choice, to miss out on the milestones your family and friends reach in your absence, and the undoubted heartache you cause them, and the gap you leave in your child’s or children’s lives.

“The day that they broke into my house and arrested me, Khaled was sick and unable to sleep. I took him in my arms for an hour until he slept,” Abd El Fattah wrote in a letter during one of his shorter incarcerations, in 2014, in which he expressed profound longing for Khaled, his son, and Manal, his wife. “We may be handed down sentences, in which case time stops for me and continues to go on for you for years, which means that Khaled grows up without me. This means that he will undergo many colds and will sleep away from my hugs for long.”

The letter betrays Abd El Fattah’s sense of disillusionment at the direction Egypt had taken, and reveals how he was motivated mostly by guilt. “The previous imprisonments had meaning because I felt that I was in jail by choice and it was for positive gain,” he confessed. “Right now, I feel that I can’t bear people or this country and there is no meaning for my imprisonment other than freeing me from the guilt I would feel being unable to combat the immense oppression and injustice that is ongoing.”

Abd El Fattah is not just a prisoner of conscience but a prisoner of his own conscience. “It is true that I am still powerless, but at least I have become oppressed among the many oppressed and I no longer owe a duty or feel guilt,” he wrote.

Guilt is a surprisingly common reaction among survivors of torture and political imprisonment, especially once they return to their “normal” lives, their trauma untreated and often undiagnosed, even though it makes little rational sense. Despite the genuine and profound suffering they have experienced, they often feel bad for the continuing suffering of others and cope by externalizing and contextualizing their own situations in comparison with those who are perhaps worse off than they are. This causes many to suppress their own emotions, with potentially catastrophic consequences, both for the individual and for society, as the collective, cumulative trauma builds up, unresolved and unprocessed.

“I never thought of saying or sharing my feelings because there were bigger stories and deeper feelings, which I thought are more important or bigger than my own. Other people had more than that happening to them,” one former prisoner of conscience was quoted as saying in a rare study of trauma among political activists in post-revolutionary Egypt, carried out by Vivienne Matthies-Boon of the University of Amsterdam. Other effects of the trauma caused by the state’s brutal handling of dissent include polarisation, dehumanisation, demonisation and the normalisation of violence in the community.

Perhaps this desperate effort to contextualise is a last-ditch attempt to cling on to one’s sense of common humanity, which imprisonment and torture seek to destroy, by expressing empathy with others, by resisting the ‘selfish’ allure of personal pain for the solidarity of shared suffering. The alternative is the abyss of desensitisation, despondency and anchorless apathy. “Now my problem is that I don’t feel at all, I don’t fear death, I am not afraid. Right now I am not afraid to lose anybody,” confessed one of the traumatised activists interviewed in the study mentioned above.

Those pushed beyond their breaking points often become desensitised not only to their own suffering but also to the suffering of others. “When I see someone dying or I lose a friend, I am supposed to be really sad,” reflected another activist. “For me now, I am very okay with it … which is dangerous, because I think humans need to be sad about it.”

This provides some insight into how the state’s extreme crackdown on dissent and the mindless violence it has unleashed is not as mindless as it first appears. In a variation of the classic divide and rule mentality, it seems to be aimed at killing solidarity and obliterating hope. The regime also erodes an individual’s sense of certainty and security, and the trust of others in them, through more prosaic but highly punitive measures such as travel bans, the freezing of assets or open-ended legal action that drags on for years and years. By corroding people’s trust in and sympathy for one another and their sense of solidarity, the regime hopes to avert a repeat of the millions who took to the streets in 2011 to 2013.

When I was younger, my mother often criticised fellow Egyptians for their apparent apathy, arguing that those in power do not just give rights on a silver platter, that people must demand and seize their rights. The idea is that, eventually, the cost of opposing the popular will becomes higher than the benefits of oppressing and exploiting the people.

But what happens when a regime, like in Syria or Libya, behaves totally irrationally and finds no price is too high to pay, or makes others pay for its survival, even if it ends up governing a smouldering ruin? Or what happens when the dear leader, or king of kings, or surgeon of surgeons, or philosopher of philosophers, believes that he and the nation are one and the same thing, or, more frighteningly, that the nation is a part of him or subservient to him, and cannot or should not survive without him?

In Egypt, the regime seems bent on turning this logic of protest, dissent and revolution on its head. If there is method to its madness, it is that the cost of opposition should be set so excruciatingly and painfully high that people will desist and no longer resist, believing that resistance is not only futile but will make their situation much worse. Some ex-revolutionaries got that message loud and clear, with quite a few becoming depoliticised. “I just want to be alone … You feel this meaningless feeling,” confessed one participant in the study cited earlier. “You just want to stay at home or to hug someone you love, that is it.”

I do not wish to succumb to apathy and indifference. Although I accept that my writings could land me in trouble and have made reasonable sacrifices for my principles, I have little interest in becoming a martyr without a cause. I do not want to become a prisoner, not in a jail cell nor of my fears. I most certainly do not wish to be broken. And I suspect I can be broken. I do not know whether I possess the physical, mental and emotional strength to withstand torture or the humiliation of political imprisonment, and I am cowardly or courageous enough to admit that I do not wish to find out how strong my mettle is — I prefer that this question remains academic and unanswered.

As much as I dream of and desire freedom for everyone, I am not ready to sacrifice my own freedom to the machinations of the Egyptian regime — at least that is how I feel now, at this moment, when the individual price in Egypt is so high and the collective rewards so negligible.

Better, or at least more effective for me, in my humble, unheroic view, is to be free and to advocate and agitate for the freedom of others, to live to fight, or at least to struggle, another day. In fact, that is one of the motivating factors that led me to move away. I left Mubarak’s Egypt not out of any material need; I had a good career as a journalist, and before that as a teacher. I left to expand my margin of freedom as a journalist and writer and to enlarge my horizons as a human being, as well as to think and write outside the box about back home. This has not just expanded my horizons but also my mission as a journalist, which now includes challenging the false assumptions, misconceptions and biases toward Egypt and the wider region, to show it in a human and humane light, to flesh out its ambiguities, because it is in the ambiguities that the human resides.

Those of us on the outside can use our liberty not only to campaign for the freedom of those who have been deprived of theirs, but to play our modest role in keeping hope alive in the wastelands of hopelessness through which so many are wandering and wondering, to help people dream of a tomorrow that is beyond the nightmares of today.

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Egypt: When the opium of football sharpens the pain of existence

 
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By Khaled Diab

Instead of acting as a pain killer for a traumatised country of heroes treated like zeroes, the World Cup has provided a painful reminder to Egyptians seeking escapism of just how desperate their situation is.

While in Chechnya, Mohamed Salah was exploited for photo ops by Chechen dictator Ramzan Kadyrov, something which reputedly outraged the Egyptian striker.

Thursday 5 July 2018

When the final whistle blew on Egypt’s encounter with Russia at the World Cup, the sense of national deflation was palpable, even as far away as here, in Tunis, where I had gathered with a group of Egyptian friends and Egypt lovers to watch the match.

At kick off, the mood was fairly optimistic. The team’s performance in the previous match, against Uruguay, had been dignified, only losing at the last minute. Egypt had managed to dominate play for large chunks of the game, but was unable to convert possession into goals.

With Egypt’s not-so-secret weapon, Mohamed Salah, the world-class striker who has won himself a local, regional and global following, deployed in the second game, it was hoped that his talent for scoring would lift the curse of the pharaohs that has so long plagued the national side at the World Cup – which despite being the first African, Arab and Asian side to qualify in history has never won a match at the tournament – and give us the edge over Russia.

These hopes were to be sorely disappointed. The Egyptian team was disorganised and in disarray, with none of the focus of the Uruguay game, and Mo Salah was unable to deliver what was so desperately desired by his compatriots, who hero-worship him as the man who made dignity, principles and kindness great again, with his “sudden assertion of human values within a dehumanising system,” as Egyptian sociologist Amro Ali explains in this essay.

Perhaps the weight of the expectations of nearly 100 million Egyptians proved too much for his injured shoulder to carry, and his nerves buckled under the pressure in the biggest game of his career to date. Or Salah may simply have not been ready to return to the pitch following the banned judo move Sergio Ramos used to bring the Egyptian forward down during Liverpool’s encounter with Real Madrid in the Champion’s League final.

When it became clear that defeat was to be Egypt’s lot, yet again, the previously festive atmosphere turned heavy. “I wish there was something we could take pride in as a nation,” one of the Egyptian friends remarked, somewhat crestfallen, after the match had ended.

Her point was echoed, or should I say amplified and magnified and bellowed, by an Egyptian social media sensation known as Ali Saed. In a Facebook monologue (diatribe, actually) which was viewed over 1.8 million times at the time of writing, Saed asks: “As Egyptians, why can’t we have a joyful moment?”

يارب خدنا من الكوكب ده بقا

Posted by Ali Saed on Tuesday, June 19, 2018

“Look at the street around you,” he asks viewers, as he drives through traffic. “Everyone is troubled and pissed off.” He then launches into a tirade during which he lashes out at the Egyptian celebrities flown out at state expense to Russia, the players and the coach.

“You’ve boiled the blood of 100 million Egyptians; a hundred million Egyptians want some joy. There is nothing to make us happy in this country,” he yells out. “I hope a car hits me while I’m driving and puts me out of my misery.”

It is difficult to see whether this is an entirely genuine meltdown or an expression of very dark humour, but the biting sarcasm is very real. For anyone, like me, not terribly interested in soccer, it is hard to comprehend how someone can be so upset about a match that he expresses suicidal tendencies, even if it is in jest.

But a traumatised, disappointed, disillusioned nation desperately needed the escapism football can provide. Instread, they got the sight of a humiliated squad returning home after losing even to Saudi Arabia, with rumours that Mo Salah’s planned to quit the national team because he did not appreciate being used as a political pawn by the regime and was angered at the mismanagement of the national team’s campaign.

Saed basically admits that he regards football as the opium of the masses and one that he is more than willing to consume to “help us forget” and “make us happy for a while”. It is a sad testament to how desperate a situation is when even escapism does not offer the opportunity of escape.

“I don’t get it. What’s happening to Egypt? Everything in Egypt is black,” Saed laments.

And for all but the hardiest and most diehard of President Abdel-Fattah al-Sisi’s supporters, the situation in Egypt appears bleak and desperate indeed. Not only has Egypt witnessed the most concerted, systematic and brutal crackdown on opposition and dissent in living memory during Sisi’s reign of terror, the economy is in tatters, the value of the pound has plummeted, inflation is way up and, as if that was not enough, severe and extreme austerity measures have acted like pain-enhancers administered to Egypt’s weakest and most vulnerable.

This intolerable cruelty is being piled on a population which had enjoyed a euphoric period of heightened pride and dignity and a fleeting sense of hope for the future, when Egyptians rose up en masse, in 2011, and deposed a tyrant, the long-time dictator Hosni Mubarak. Back then Egyptians did not need a superhuman hero on the football pitch, because they were collectively the very human heroes of their own heroic story, in which they would shape their destinies.

Although the military and its various civilian facade have been been trying to bottle up the genie of revolution ever since, this campaign reached an unprecedented intensity under Sisi, as if not only to punish Egyptians for having the audacity to dream but also to eradicate the very idea of and hope for self-determination and popular decision-making from their minds.

The trauma of revolution and the even greater trauma of counterrevolution has resulted not only in titanic levels of despondency, disillusionment and despair but also in a mental health crisis that is looming menacingly, all the more so because it is largely unrecognised and undiagnosed.

But despite the regime’s best efforts to do its worst, it is unable to silence dissent and assassinate hope entirely, as is visible by the tens of thousands of prisoners of conscience languishing behind bars.

Recently, “Sisi Leave” was trending in Arabic on social media, due to public anger over austerity measures. With the relentless brutality of the regime, its divide-and-rule strategy and the PTSD suffered by the population, it seems highly unlikely that people will take to the streets to demand the toppling of the regime… at least not in the foreseeable future.

Instead, frustration and pent-up anger will continue to erode the psyche of Egyptians, individually and collectively. In such a depressing climate, it is scarcely surprising that Egyptians seek distraction, escape and pain relief in soccer, or that a talented, principled and a-political footballer should be elevated to the status of near-saviour.

The feel-good buzz the regime had hoped the World Cup would deliver to placate the masses has instead been replaced by an even greater level of seething frustration and anger. But at least shallow, superficial Sissi, Egypt’s self-appointed savior, will no longer need to feel threatened by and jealous of Salah’s popularity.

_____

This article first appeared in The Washington Post on 25 June 2018.

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Podcast: Baladi – from bread to dance

 
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Baladi is one of those elusive Arabic words that can mean different things to different people at different times.

Tahiya Carioca

Thursday 27 June 2018

‘Baladi’ is one of those Arabic words that is hard to translate. In Egypt, it can mean native, local, authentic, folk, rustic, and even unrefined, uncouth, and low class.

Derived from ‘balad’, the Arabic for country, town or village, baladi can be used to describe traditional culture, music and cuisine, a little like the English adjective ‘country’. It is often used to refer to the native, in other words, the “local”, even if the baladi was once not local at all, as opposed to the foreign, mostly western.

‘Eish baladi’ describes the native round bread that Egyptians traditionally eat. And ‘Raqs baladi’ refers to what English speakers call belly-dancing. Before entering the cabaret and the fantasies of orientalists, it was the traditional form of dancing that Egyptian girls and many boys learnt and performed at family events, such as weddings and feasts, minus the glitzy, revealing outfits that have become the stuff of cliché.

There was a time, not long ago, when the world’s best and most innovative baladi dancers were Egyptians, and no Egyptian film was complete without an elaborate dance routine. Possibly the most legendary of the silver screen dancing queens was Tahiya Carioca, who began her illustrious career in the 1940s.

Today, fewer and fewer Egyptian women are dancing professionally. Paradoxically, this is both a sign of growing religious conservatism, which sees belly-dancing as sinful, and of rising gender equality, where ever more women feel that belly-dancing objectifies them.

Meanwhile, belly-dancing has become a popular fad amongst some European and American women, with schools popping up in some of the most unexpected of places, from Russia to the USA. Today, many belly-dancers in Egyptian and Arab nightclubs are from Eastern Europe, though Egyptian aficionados believe they lack the mischief and spontaneity of their Egyptian counterparts.

Egyptians feel both shame and pride, towards things that are baladi. While the so-called ‘foreigner complex’ means Egyptians often see western things as superior and local as inferior, nationalistic pride pulls them the other way. This leads to the bizarre situation where baladi forms of music can, at once, be the object of disdain for some, especially from better-off classes, but also the subject of celebration, especially among the young or the revolutionary, who are reclaiming and reinventing this heritage, often in hybrid form.

Amid all the upheavals since the revolution in 2011, baladi again carries street cred. This can be seen in the popularity of T-shirts with Arabic slogans and calligraphy, where English once ruled. You also see it in how traditional teahouses and eateries are now trendy amongst the middle and upper classes.

But as has long been in the case, Egyptians are finding new and creative ways to merge and fuse the baladi with the foreign to create new varieties and flavours of the local.

___

This recording first appeared on the BBC World Service’s The Cultural Frontline on 4 June 2018.

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What does being a Muslim actually mean?

 
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By Khaled Diab

In much of the world, ‘Muslim’ is often used as a marker of ethnic origin rather than of religion. This must change.

Most ‘Muslims’ are labelled as such long before they can make any kind of informed decision about their faith.
Photo: ©Khaled Diab

Tuesday 26 June 2018

Islam is clearly a religion. People may disagree passionately about the nature of this faith, the validity of the various schools and sects, what is or is not ‘Islamic’, but there is a consensus that it is a belief system.

But does the same apply to Muslim? Is being a Muslim about faith? Is it social or political? Is it about culture? This is a question I have pondered on numerous occasions over the years.

Recently, I ran an unscientific poll on Twitter to get a taste of what people regarded as the central pillar of Muslim identity. I also canvassed Facebook friends for their opinions. I asked whether being ‘Muslim’ was founded on belief or whether it was a form of ethnic identity, or both.

Unsurprisingly, a clear majority (63%) were convinced that being Muslim is exclusively or primarily a question of faith. And, indeed, this is what Islam was originally about. Muhammad’s earliest followers were all presumed to be passionate believers and conversion was presumably the main source growth in the Muslim population for generations.

Of course, there are converts today but they constitute a negligible minority of the global population we classify as “Muslim”. Only an estimated 500,000 people converted to Islam between 2010 and 2015 (0.3% of the growth in the global Muslim population), according to the Pew Research Centre – which sheds a more telling light on why Islam is the fastest-growing major religion.

Although the Quran criticises the idea of passing down the faith, the notion that religion is a hereditary identity was a pre-Islamic practice across the region that was continued into the Islamic era, according to Ahmed Fekry Ibrahim, assistant professor of Islamic law at McGill University. “Most religions, especially since the Axial Age, in the context of universalist religions, have created ethnic and cultural layers of identification,” observes Ibrahim.

Today, we live in a situation where the overwhelming majority of Muslims around the world were born into the faith, and are labelled as “Muslim” by society, long before they can make any kind of informed decision for themselves. Moreover, we have little to no information on what the world’s 1.8 billion notional Muslims actually believe and how many of them practise their faith.

If being Muslim is truly a question of faith, then it should be a top priority to find out exactly what each one believes, free of coercion, before taking a headcount (same goes for other religions).

In the absence of this, labelling all these hundreds of millions of people as Muslim is presumptuous, to say the least, even if the majority do turn out to be zealous believers. It also means that actual belief is secondary, or even irrelevant, to membership of this global “tribe” – as is the case with Christianity.

This means that “Muslim” functions, in my view, like a de facto “ethnicity”, or a super-ethnicity. At this stage, I should point out that I do not believe that Islam should form the basis for any kind of ethnic identity nor do I find this desirable. I am merely describing a reality which prevails across the world.

My assertion sparked a heated online debate. “Stop trying to Judaise Islam with this ethno-religious nonsense,” one critic asserted, in no uncertain terms.

But I fail to see any fundamental or radical difference between how Islam and Judaism are passed on from one generation to the next, except that one is believed to be largely patrilineal and the other matrilineal. The only real difference between Islam and Judaism are the issues of conversion and proselytisation – both of which are considerably less common in modern Judaism than in Islam, though far from unheard of.

Where Muslims are in the minority, the perception that their identity, like that of Jews, is primarily “ethnic” is at its strongest, such as is the case with Sri Lanka’s so-called ‘Moors’. Likewise, the secular wing of India’s pre-partition Muslim League was in little doubt that Muslim was more an ethnic than religious marker, and that South Asian Muslims shared more with each other than they did with non-Muslims from their own state, region, language or ethnic group.

“[Islam and Hinduism] are not religions in the strict sense of the word, but are, in fact, different and distinct social orders; and it is a dream that the Hindus and Muslims can ever evolve a common nationality,” claimed Muhammad Ali Jinnah, the founding father of Pakistan. “Mussalmans are not a minority as it is commonly known and understood… Mussalmans are a nation according to any definition of a nation, and they must have their homelands, their territory, and their state.”

Among Europe’s more-established Muslim populations, they sometimes self-identified and were formally recognised as an ethnicity, such as in the former Yugoslovia, and there has been a long-standing dispute in China as to whether its Muslim minorities were an ethnicity or religious community. Unfortunately, this ethnicisation of Islam is occurring in Western Europe and America, where Muslim is often used nowadays as a marker of origin, rather than of a religion.

But when it comes to the sum of Muslim populations around the world, the “ethnic” label becomes more ambiguous and complicated to use. “There are hundreds of ethnicities in Islam,” one friend observed, echoing others who objected to ascribing the ‘ethnic’ label to Muslims.

Some suggested that the fact that Islam is made up of many local ethnicities, referring to Muslim as a kind of ethnicity would cause considerable confusion – and argued that an alternative term was required. Mega-ethnicity, perhaps?

A couple suggested, instead, “cultural Muslim”. Cultural Muslim is a great term for those who self-identify with Islamic culture but do not practise or do not believe in the faith, as well as those who belong to a minority religion in Muslim-majority societies but feel a strong affinity to the mainstream culture. “Arab Christians are all more or less Muslims by culture rather than by faith,” observes Liliane Daoud, a prominent Lebanese TV personality who was born to Christian and Muslim parents.

In addition, the term “cultural Muslim” fails to capture the fact that the status “Muslim” is not just a cultural label. In many Islamic contexts, it is also a social, political, legal and jurisprudential category.

Moreover, a similar situation of multi-layered ethnicity afflicts other accepted ethnic markers. For example, ‘Arab’ is accepted as an ethnicity, even though under this language-based umbrella stands a multitude of ethnic, national, racial, religious and tribal communities.

In addition, the multi-ethnic argument also applies to Judaism, which is also an umbrella label for numerous ethnic groups, including Mizrahim, Sephardim, Ashkenazim, all of which have numerous sub-ethnicities, not to mention Ethiopian, Indian, Chinese, and more. The only difference between ‘Jew’ and ‘Muslim’ here is one of magnitude and numbers, given the much wider spread of Islam.

Describing Muslim as an ethnicity is “likely to have negative unintended discursive consequences by reifying made-up ‘race’/’ethnic’ concepts,” in the words of Farrah, a friend and academic.

Of course, I am well aware of the dangers of conflating religion with ethnicity or race. One of the most destructive and infamous examples of this was the Nuremberg Race Laws, which defined Jewishness, not as a changeable religious allegiance, but as a fixed biological identity which could not be changed or erased, not even through conversion or total and complete assimilation.

And bad omens in this regard are appearing in the form of virulent anti-Semitism and a brand of Islamophobia that seems to regard Muslims as monolithically menacing, the kind of collective demonisation and essentialisation that informed Donald Trump’s expressed desire to impose a freeze on immigration from Muslim lands.

However, whether or not we describe Muslim as an ethnicity does not remove the fact that it too often operates like one, and this has already caused considerable harm.

Numerous Muslim-majority countries, especially those whose personal and family laws retain a modern form of the classical ‘millet’ system, have hereditary Islam codified into their laws. This means that a faith is imposed on children before they have the chance to decide for themselves, and this shapes many of the most intimate aspects of their lives.

To add injury to presumption, and to place citizens in a catch-22, quite a few countries make it difficult and often impossible for people to remove or change the religion on their identity papers – and some states even punish as “apostates” those who reject their pre-determined Muslim identity or wish to convert to another religion. Some countries also limit citizenship to “Muslims”. This is the case in most of the Gulf states, which effectively disenfranchises millions of non-Muslim residents, some of whom may have been born there, while recent Muslim immigrants stand a greater chance of being naturalised.

If being Muslim is to become truly a question of faith and conviction, not a de facto ethnic identity, then the pious cannot have their cake and eat it. They must stop counting everyone born to presumed Muslim parents as an automatic Muslim. The ‘umma’ of believers should only be as large as those who voluntarily associate themselves with it.

In addition, the ridiculous and harmful discriminatory practices common in some Muslim countries should end. Countries which do so must stop assigning a religious identity to their citizens, must not attach extra social, economic or cultural benefits to being a Muslim, must not punish Muslims who leave the faith, and must not discriminate against non-Muslims.

Ultimately, religion is a personal choice but society is for everyone.

—-

This article first appeared in The New Arab on 11 June 2018.

 

 

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The drinker’s guide to Ramadan

 
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By Khaled Diab

Ramadan is the time of year when hundreds of millions of Muslims around the world abstain from food or drink. But one group of fasters suffers a special variety of thirst this time of year: Muslims who drink alcohol.

Photo: ©Khaled Diab

Thursday 21 June 2018

Although alcohol is considered haram (prohibited or sinful) by the majority of Muslims, a significant minority of Muslims do drink, and those who do often outdrink their Western counterparts. When per-capita alcohol consumption is calculated, Chad and a number of other Muslim-majority countries top the global league. Fewer Muslim women drink than men but when they do, they can drink their western sisters under the table.

During Ramadan, though, many Muslim drinkers do abstain from consuming wine, beer or spirits of their own free will for the duration of the month. It’s the same as how some lapsed Christians will give up a vice for Lent but never set foot in a church except for christenings, weddings and funerals, or some secular Jews who eat bacon still give up bread for Passover [adding since I thought the analogy was apt!].

When I still fasted, I would get together with friends to have one for the road before we embarked on the long, arduous trek through the Ramadan dry lands, until Eid al-Fitr, the festival following Ramadan, made it safe to leap off the wagon once again.

Although I gave up Ramadan, and abandoned every last vestige of faith at the dawn of this millennium, I certainly still drink alcohol. Most Muslim drinkers I have met in my life do view drinking as a minor sin (even though they indulge in it) and thus, if they fast during Ramadan, they abstain for the month. This can lead to some peculiar situations. Last year, at a barbecue organised by European friends in Tunis, I debated, wine glass in hand, with a secular Tunisian, sipping on his fruit juice because had given up alcohol for the holy month, whether or not it was hypocritical and an infringement on personal freedom to ban the sale of alcohol during Ramadan.

Weirdest of all perhaps is the tiny minority of Muslims who fast and then drink at night after they have broken their fast, including a neighbour of mine. This may seem peculiar both to Muslims and non-Muslims alike, but it is not as odd as it appears. From Islam’s very inception, there was a debate about what exactly the vague passages on drinking in the Quran prohibited. Although the majority opinion holds that intoxicants – alcohol itself – are banned, a minority view is that it is intoxication – getting drunk that is forbidden.

Far more common are Muslim drinkers who do not fast and, hence, wish to continue drinking during Ramadan. Some are lapsed or vague believers who do not practise their faith, while others, like me, are out-and-out atheists or agnostics. For Ramadan drinkers, I know from experience, finding booze can get complicated. Sure, in the United States, Europe or the Muslim countries that allow alcohol sales during Ramadan, the only obstacle is your own conscience. But in many countries, including my native Egypt or in Tunisia, where I live now, which normally have booze in abundance, getting a drink during the fast requires foresight, planning and resourcefulness.

In Tunisia, as in Egypt, alcohol supplies dry up during the holy month, because stores are barred from selling booze and many bars close their doors. That confounded me when I first moved here last year, because drinking is a popular pastime, and Tunisia has a surprisingly wide range of quality local wines.

But humans are nothing if not adaptable. Rather than a forced abstention, as conservatives undoubtedly hoped to instill, drinkers simply build up a strategic stockpile before Ramadan begins. This usually results in a huge pre-Ramadan upsurge in business for alcohol suppliers, visible in the rapidly emptying alcohol aisles at my local supermarket in Tunis.

This stockpiling can make for awkward situations. Just before this Ramadan, we organised a pre-Ramadan party for friends, and when I went to the supermarket to stock up for the party and the next month, I bought what apparently struck non-drinkers as an unsettling amount of alcohol.

The young woman in a hijab at the checkout counter must never have experienced the pre-Ramadan rush on booze: Her face registered a look of mild panic. At one point, she got so confused trying to decipher the different types of wine that she smiled at me and said non-judgementally: “Forgive me, I can’t tell one type of wine from another.”

When it comes to drinking during Ramadan, though, I’m lucky to be a Belgian citizen, not a Tunisian: foreigners here are allowed to order alcoholic beverages at the few licensed restaurants and bars that do stay open during the holy month, but Tunisians generally can’t, though if you look Muslim or your name sounds Muslim, some places may object.

Similar regulations exist in my native Egypt. This always struck me as unfair to Egyptian drinkers, especially for Christians who have no religious restrictions on the consumption of alcohol – and I used to make noise about it, but bar staff would shrug apologetically and say they would love nothing more than to serve me, as Egyptians were their main customers.

I recall the first Ramadan I was in Egypt after I gained my Belgian nationality. I made a point of visiting one of my old watering holes with a mixed group of friends. When I ordered my beer, the waiter asked me discreetly whether I had a foreign passport, I flashed it to him, and his smile said that would do nicely. The staff turned a blind eye to the fact that the orange juices for the Egyptians without foreign passports in our midst had hardly been touched and that the ‘foreigners’ had ordered more drinks than normal.

This attitude of tolerating alcohol 11 months of the year but banning it during Ramadan is conflicted and contradictory, but it’s not unique to Muslim societies. For all the prevalent anti-Muslim sentiment today and fears that “Sharia law” might destroy the American way of life, the United States had a full-blown, Saudi-style total prohibition from 1920 to 1933. Today, alcohol is still banned in hundreds of local counties, representing an area that constitutes an estimated 10 percent of the land mass of the United States.

If it were up to me, I’d do away with all such restrictions. The state shouldn’t get to dictate to citizens how to be good Muslims – or not. This is an individual decision for each believer and non-believer to make. And the temporary ban doesn’t distinguish between Muslims and non-Muslims, which enlists people of other faiths who have no religious obligation to take part in Ramadan in a Muslim ritual.

But still, I’m relieved that I live in Tunisia and not some place where alcohol is banned, such as Saudi Arabia or Iran. Now that Ramadan is over Tunisia has reverted to its normal, laid-back self, just in time for the summer. And drinkers are able, once again, to toast each other in the open.

—-

This article appeared in The Washington Post on 31 May 2018.

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When Mariette met Mary

 
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By Christian Nielsen

The Virgin Mary appeared eight times to a child in Belgium and the rest is ‘alternative history’

Image: ©Christian Nielsen

Thursday 10 May 2018

On the eve of a quiet Sunday in January 1933, the young Mariette Beco saw the faint glow of a woman outside her kitchen window. Smiling, the woman beckoned the child to come out, but Beco’s mother held her back. Beco noted what the woman was wearing a white veil, long white robes with a blue sash, a golden rose on her right foot, and a rosary with a golden chain and cross hanging on her right arm. Three days later, the woman in white reappeared and told Beco that she was ‘Our Lady of the Poor’. Altogether, the woman appeared eight times to the girl. Word quickly spread of the visions and an episcopal commission from Rome was called in to investigate the claims. It was not until May 1942 that the Roman Catholic Diocese of Liege acknowledged the veneration of Mary under the title of Our Lady of the Poor. Approval by the Holy See had to wait until after the war, coming in 1947 with a final declaration in 1949.

“I was no more than a postman who delivers the mail,” remarked Mariette Beco dryly after decades of silence about the apparition of the Virgin Mary which she saw more than 70 years earlier. “Once this has been done, the postman is of no importance any more.”

The child’s sightings put the small village of Banneux (Sprimont, Belgium) on the religious map. But it came at a price for the newly dubbed Our Lady of Banneux, who suffered taunts and derision, even reportedly from members of her own family.

Today, Banneux is a recognised pilgrimage site for Catholics in Belgium, joining the village of Beauraing, where apparitions of the Blessed Virgin were recorded the year before Beco’s own. These sites are sometimes overshadowed by better-known Marian holy sites elsewhere in Europe including Our Lady of Lourdes and La Salette in France, Our Lady of Fátima and Sameiro in Portugal, and many sites in Spain like Our Lady of Sorrows in La Codosero and Umbe, Our Lady of Graces in La Puebla del Río, and many more dotted around the continent.

With international tourist arrivals on the rise, the World Tourism Organisation — a UN body — estimates that 35% of European travellers are interested in religious tourism. Out of every four short breaks, religion and spirituality are the main reasons for at least one trip.

Pilgrims to Banneux day trip in from Belgium and nearby France, Germany and the Netherlands, or stay for longer in one of the hotels which sit alongside facilities that sprang up to cater for visitors to the holy site, which has grown to include a seminary, hospital, mission, information centre, and several indoor and outdoor chapels.

In one of the eight reported apparitions, Mary guided Beco to a nearby spring now on the site and urged her to plunge her hands into the healing waters which were “reserved for all nations … to relieve the sick”.

Fresh memories of the war

For those inclined to analyse past events for meaning or ‘alternative’ historical explanations, the timing and location of the sightings is not without interest. First is the location of Banneux just across the border from what was becoming an increasingly impoverished and restless Germany, while memories of World War I were probably still fresh. Then the timing; the girl’s sightings in 1933 were the same year the Nazi government came to power.

“While it cannot be claimed that eleven-year-old Mariette was aware of the ramifications of the political situation, she grew up in a culture where there would have been intense concern about the international situation,” notes Chris Maunder in his book Our Lady of the Nations: Apparitions of Mary in 20th-Century Catholic Europe.

“The Virgin Mary was believed by devotees to have created a shrine ‘for all nations’ that would outlast the war and mark her healing properties for decades to come,” he explains.

Today, the site is dotted with mini-shrines or chapels erected by Christian communities from all over the world. One shrine immortalises ‘Our Lady of the Poor’ or ‘Queen of Nations’, as Mary came to be known in Banneux, complete with a life-like statue of her bent over in prayer or contemplation before a cross and the simple words, “I thirst”.

The connection to the healing waters of Banneux is not lost. The small spring yields about 7-8,000 litres of water a day with many reports of miraculous healings throughout its existence. Religious souvenir shops lining the out-sized car and coach park sell the water by the gallon. Day-trippers head straight to the line of taps, some content with a sip and a dip, others to fill drums of it for later use.

“Believe in me and I will believe in you”
But for the young Beco, the strain of her apparitions took something of a toll. Reportedly not a regular church-goer, the events of 1933 changed her life and that of her family. As Maunder explains, “There is a long-held Catholic belief that Mary appears to people who have no particular predisposition to visions nor merit them.”

Beco maintained that Mary called her to believe but this faith must have been put to the test throughout the woman’s adult life. She suffered the loss of two children and divorce, according to Maunder: “Beco’s traumatic adult life is popularly regarded as another good example of the way in which quite ordinary people appear to be chosen by the Virgin Mary.”

To the plain-speaking Beco — who died at the age of 90 after having spent most of her life in the Banneux area, and even ran a pilgrim hotel for many years — all these theories would probably struggle to conjure up much interest in a time of rising religious scepticism.

 

 

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Alt-jihad – Part II: Delusions of grandeur and persecution

 
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By Khaled Diab

In the second in a series of articles exploring the disturbing parallels between radical Islamic and White/Christian extremism, Khaled Diab examines the far-right’s dual sense of superiority and inferiority, as well as its persecution complex.

Source: https://lorddreadnought.livejournal.com/69990.html

 

Tuesday 17 April 2018

In the previous piece in this series on the disturbing parallels between radical Islamic and White/Christian extremism, I examined the emerging phenomenon of far-right suicide attackers and far-right political violence in general. In this, the second article in the series, I explore a number of other parallels, namely the bizarre blend of supremacist convictions combined with a sense of inferiority, an overpowering mentality of victimhood, a persecution complex centred around a rogues’ parade of imagined enemies, as well as a related belief in outlandish conspiracy theories.

Inferiority-superiority complex

Extremist Islamist and jihadist discourse is dominated simultaneously by a dual inferiority-supremacy narrative. On the one hand, they view Islam as innately superior to other religions and political philosophies, lament Islam’s loss of global dominance and dream of the restoration of its hegemony. On the other hand, they are convinced that Muslims everywhere are oppressed and victims. Even in situations where conservative Muslims are the dominant political force and wield enormous political clout, Islamists often believe they are oppressed, their beliefs are under attack and their way of life is threatened with extinction.

A similar narrative has emerged in white and Christian nationalist circles, though, given the continuing might of the West, superiority outweighs inferiority when compared with Islamist discourse. This sense of entitlement was best summed up by Richard Spencer, the spiritual leader of the alt-right movement in America. “To be white is to be a striver, a crusader, an explorer and a conqueror. We build; we produce; we go upward,” Spencer told the audience at an alt-right conference in Washington, DC. “America was until this past generation a white country designed for ourselves and our posterity. It is our creation, it is our inheritance, and it belongs to us.”

Nevertheless, unlike the cocky white supremacy of the 19th century, when the West directly ruled most of the planet and required an ideology to justify its global dominance, instead of the white man’s burden of yore, many whites, especially men, now feel they are regarded as the burden. In fact, these far-right movements, as well as some segments of more mainstream conservatism, to a lesser degree, have appropriated the language of oppression and subjugation more common among the formerly enslaved and segregated African-Americans, or subject populations who lived under colonial rule.

At one level, this shift in rhetoric is opportunistic and cynical, with the aim of turning the tables on the truly marginalised minorities living in the West and on those who have suffered under the boot of western hegemony by suggesting that the real victims of racism and imperialism are whites, and especially the Christian right, who supposedly suffer under the multiple tyrannies of political correctness, liberalism, immigration (which is regarded as a sort of invasion by stealth) and Islam.

However, it would be a mistake to view these attitudes as merely rhetorical devices. Many on the far-right absolutely believe, their sense of supremacy and privilege notwithstanding, that they belong to an oppressed, repressed and persecuted group. At times, this can be a reflection of their sense of personal isolation. “I didn’t have many friends at school, I wanted to be a member of a group of people that had an aim,” admitted Kevin Wilshaw, who was a well-known organiser for the UK’s National Front in the 1980s and later joined the British National Party, before renouncing his former life and coming out as gay and of Jewish heritage. “Even though you end up being a group of people that through their own extreme views are cut off from society, you do have a sense of comradeship in that you’re a member of a group that’s being attacked by other people.” This sense of camaraderie, as well as a desire to stand out and be noticed, appears to have been a spur for Andrew Anglin’s transformation from a vegan anti-racist into the American extreme right’s most outspoken and outrageous troll, through his creation of the rabidly racist website The Daily Stormer.

This sense of alienation and the desperate desire to bond this produces is also something that afflicts many who fall into the embrace of radical and jihadist Islamism. “For most jihadis, the first steps on their journeys to Syria were rarely taken for political or religious reasons,” observes Kenan Malik, the Indian-Britisher writer and intellectual. “The journeys were, rather, a search for something a lot less definable: for identity, for meaning, for belongingness, for respect.”

Paranoid confusions

This sense of living in a world which deprives them of their perceived God-given right to dominate society and to rule the world translates into an increasingly outspoken and irrational victimhood mentality. “No one mourns the great crimes committed against us. For us, it is conquer or die,” Spencer lamented in the speech mentioned above, echoing the jihadist extremists the Christian right so despises. “We are not meant to live in shame and weakness and disgrace.”

This sense of being embattled has led to the paranoid conviction that the modern-day white conservative is surrounded by foes, both near enemies and far ones, to borrow from the jihadist lexicon. The far horizon of Enemistan is dominated by Muslims, who are closing in so rapidly and decisively that the very survival of Western civilisation and Christendom is at stake. At home, the alt-right fears migrants and other minorities, including a resurgence of classic Judeophobia, leftists, liberals, journalists and media professionals, experts, academics, feminists and the LGBT community.

This paranoid sense of being surrounded and besieged by enemies on every front has led to the proliferation of outlandish conspiracy theories. In societies whose superior technologies have for centuries visited mass slaughter upon weaker populations across the planet, there is now talk of a “white genocide” – a paranoid theory that there is a conspiracy to wipe out the white race. What is most infuriating about the white genocide myth is that many who subscribe to it deny the historical reality of actual genocides, such as the Holocaust or extermination campaigns against native populations.

The purported white genocide is not just confined to Europe and America, it is also allegedly taking place in Africa. The alt-right blogger Laura Southern has even produced a ‘documentary’ entitled Farmland which claims to highlight the plight of supposedly persecuted whites in South Africa. Needless to say, no such extermination programme is occurring in the country where the legacy of Apartheid still lives on in stark racial inequalities, unless by ‘genocide’ she means the relative erosion of white privilege.

The army of Islam

In Europe, the end goal of mass immigration, according to far-right conspiracy theorists, is not only ‘white genocide’ but also a stealthy conquest of the West, its complete Islamisation and subjugation and its conversion into ‘Eurabia’, the mythical European Umma. And Eurabia is apparently making major inroads in America too. The far-right myth that there are “no-go zones” in Europe where the police do not dare enter and Islamic law prevails has made it across the Atlantic, and has been spread by both Fox News and the NRA, amongst others. A similar narrative of a crusade/war against Islam is a common refrain amongst Islamists. However, this notion amongst both conservative Muslims and Christians that we are in the throes of a monumental clash of civilisations does not hold up to scrutiny, as I reveal in my book Islam for the Politically Incorrect.

How far this dastardly Muslim conquest has advanced is a matter of some disagreement, however. The most pessimistic on the far-right believe the war is already over and the West has lost, others believe we are witnessing the beginning of the end, while some, like the founder of France’s Front National (FN), are convinced that it is the “the beginning of the beginning” of the Islamic subjugation of Europe. “It’s an episode in the war that is being waged against us by Islamism,” he claimed. “The blindness and deafness of our leaders, for years, is in part responsible for these kinds of attacks.”

The most recent variation on this is the conspiracy theory that the refugees who have been entering Europe are not desperate civilians fleeing war, but part of an invading army bent on the destruction of western civilisation. This supposed phenomenon has been called “jihad by emigration” – a term coined by the creator of the far-right website Jihad Watch, Robert Spencer, not to be confused with the Richard Spencer mentioned earlier.

In its self-righteous panic, the right has become more panicky and shrill, triggering the kind of terror usually expressed by the defenceless towards an army of ruthless conquerors. Bedraggled, desperate and unarmed, the stream of refugees flowing into Europe can only be referred to as an army in the loosest, most figurative sense of the word, yet, this army without soldiers or arms is somehow mounting an invasion.

They’re not refugees. This is an invasion,” said Laszlo Kiss-Rigo, a bishop in southern Hungary, a country which has become a far-right hotbed in recent years and found itself on a major transit route, until it built a wall to keep the refugees out. “It’s an invasion that threatens our prosperity, our security, our culture and identity,” echoed Dutch far-right firebrand Geert Wilders, who once infamously called for the banning of the Quran. A related myth is the notion that Muslim asylum seekers are obsessed with an uncontrollable urge to violate and rape western women – they are not refugees but “rapefugees”.

Away from the high-security fortress of far-right perception and in the real world of hard facts, the influx of refugees into the European Union from 2012 to the peak of 2015/16 represented under half a percent of the EU’s population. Since then, thanks to government reactions to knee-jerk xenophobia or to the xenophobia of politicians, the numbers have tailed off significantly, according to Eurostat, the EU’s statistical agency. Moreover, and contrary to the ‘sponger’ image of refugees, an analysis by the Brookings Institute revealed that the inflow of refugees actually has a net positive effect on host economies – and the OECD agrees – which raises the perplexing question, if migrants are out to destroy the West, why are they making it richer?

More confoundingly still, if the aim of Muslims in Europe and America is to destroy Christendom and wipe out the infidel, either with actual bombs or with demographic time-bombs, it appears inconceivable that any Muslim fanatic worth his salt would head the other way. Yet this is exactly what they are believed to be doing, with overstated and exaggerated hordes of European Muslims heading to Syria and Iraq to heed the call of jihad, so sensationally covered that you would be forgiven if you had the impression that Europe was being depopulated of its Muslim population.

Master puppeteers

Despite the fixation on Islam, it would be a mistake to think that Muslims have replaced the Jews in extreme right discourse – their presence appears to be a complementary one. A special place remains reserved for Jews in far-right narratives and conspiracy theories. For decades following the Holocaust, these narratives had become marginalised or had gone underground (such as the transnational Malm Movement), often only mentioned in hints and suggestions. But with the rise of the far-right, they have enjoyed a comeback in recent years in a number of countries, from Hungary to the United States.

Many Judeophobic conspiracy theories are recycled or adapted traditional anti-Semitic canards revolving around how Jews represent some kind of homogeneous cabal which runs the world clandestinely by controlling the financial sector and the media. This includes the renewed vogue the discredited hoax known as The Protocols of the Elders of Zion and the fantasy that the Rothschild family controls the world’s central banks and causes war by financing both sides of every conflict enjoy in the growing far-right movement. More recent variations on this theme include the troubling mainstreaming in conservative circles of the narrative, which is especially popular in Hungary, that the tycoon and philanthropist George Soros is behind all kinds of sinister conspiracies to destroy Europe in order to be able better to rule it. Another is the conspiracy theory that a shadowy Zionist Occupation Government (‘Zionist’ here refers to Jew, not political Zionism) controls governments in the United States and Europe.

Some have even attempted to forge unified conspiracy theories of everything, in which various disparate and contradictory conspiracist ideas are forcibly mixed into a potently toxic cocktail. An example of this is how the mythical Zionist Occupation Government is responsible for mass migration in order to dilute or exterminate the white race so as to facilitate its satanic quest for global dominance. This blends anti-Semitic, Islamophobic, white genocidal and anti-leftist/liberal conspiracy theories into one incoherent whole.

Toxic far-right anti-Semitic conspiracy theories have drifted not only to segments of the far-left but have found their way into Arab, Islamic and Islamist narratives, which historically discriminated much less than Christianity against the Jews, with Muslim bigots traditionally regarding Jews with condescension rather than suspicion and fear. This changed dramatically with the advent of modern Zionism, the influence of fascism and the creation of Israel, and is often fuelled by a desperate need to scapegoat weakness and failure by depicting the ‘enemy’ as super-humanely powerful and evil.

The hatred, contempt and fear of Jews shared by Christian and Muslim extremists has occasionally resulted in some unlikely and troubling alliances between neo-Nazi groups and Islamists, such as has occurred in some parts of Germany, both of which “ascribe extraordinary political power to Israel and the Jews, and their goal is to fight this power,” in the words of Heinz Fromm, the then president of the German domestic intelligence agency.

Turkey’s Islamist president Recep Tayyip Erdoğan has even suggested that the Kurdish referendum on independence was a devilish Jewish conspiracy, one unconvincingly masterminded by Bernard-Henri Lévy, once memorably described as the “Donald Trump of French philosophy”. Of course, this is not the first time that Erdoğan has ascribed superpowers to BHL, as he often referred to in France: he once hinted that the French ‘philosopher’ was behind the ouster of Egypt’s Mohammed Morsi. Islamists often portray Arab regimes with whom they disagree as being American and Jewish stooges. Some members of the outlawed and oppressed Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt subscribe to a conspiracy theory that dictator Abdel-Fattah al-Sisi has a Jewish mother. Some conservative Muslims and Islamists are convinced that ISIS is a creation of western and Zionist imperialism, as are some secular Arabs. Interestingly, numerous white supremacists are also convinced of a similar conspiracy theory, even alleging that ISIS’s caliph, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, is actually a Mossad agent.

Mainstreaming falsehood

These far-right conspiracy theories do not exist in a vacuum. They are fed by more mainstream conservative falsehoods, which then feedback to the mainstream, pulling it ever further into the la-la zone. This is apparent in everything from the decades of eurosceptic myths that led the UK to leap off the Brexit cliff to the anti-immigrant, pseudo-fascistic rhetoric of large segments of Silvio Berlusconi’s media empire in Italy. Some mainstream conservatives find the twilight zone so alluring that they take the express train to the extreme because the mainstream’s gradual drift to the former fringe was not moving nearly fast enough. An example of this is Gavin McInnes who abandoned his creation, Vice, to embrace his inner white supremacist, misogynist and racist.

Even though the negative stereotyping of Muslims and Arabs has a very long pedigree, and has for generations been a staple of Hollywood myth-making, toxic mainstream conservative demonisation took off in earnest in the wake of the horrors of the 11 September 2001 terrorist attacks. Since then, America and Europe’s Muslim minorities have been inextricably linked in conservative perceptions with terrorism and treason.

The same applies to other minorities and marginalised groups, from Jews to Eastern European migrants to asylum seekers. The rightwing tabloid media in a number of countries has been vilifying them for years while claiming that it the imagined bogeyman of political correctness that was enjoying the upper hand, rather than the reality, that rightwing bigotry has been the dominant voice for generations.

Read part I

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