The dangers of a political crusade against Western jihadists

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By Khaled Diab

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

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

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

Monday 15 September 2014

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Follow Khaled Diab on Twitter.

This article first appeared in Haaretz on 4 September 2014.

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Hongarije, de Viktator en ik

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Swaan van Iterson

Waarom ik mij zorgen maak over Hongarije: de gevaren van een tweederde meerderheid voor de “Viktator” en rechts-extremisme verpakt in een hip jasje.

Photo: ©András Bruck

Photo: ©András Bruck

Donderdag 17 april 2014

Een zondagavond stapte ik op het vliegtuig om er een paar dagen tussenuit te gaan. Precies op de avond dat de uitslag van de Hongaarse parlementsverkiezingen bekend zou worden gemaakt, bevond ik mij hoog in de lucht, ver weg van de wereld van de politiek.

Ik had mij regelmatig opgewonden over de ontwikkelingen in Hongarije: artikelen geschreven, een documentaire gemaakt, discussies bijgewoond. Op de opwinding volgde vaak een gevoel van machteloosheid, want de politieke situatie in mijn tweede thuisland ging in rap tempo bergafwaarts en dat ene artikel zou het verschil niet maken. Ik wilde voorkomen dat de machteloosheid om zou slaan in slachtofferschap, een sentiment dat Hongaren maar al te goed kennen. Ik besloot de verkiezingen deze keer zo veel mogelijk aan me voorbij te laten gaan.

Het eerste kwartier van de vlucht lukte dat goed. Ik ervoer een gevoel van opluchting, maar helaas: de pret mocht niet lang duren. Ik boog naar voren om een boek uit mijn tas te pakken en daar lag hij: De Groene Amsterdammer. Ik probeerde hem te negeren maar die verdomde letters op de voorpagina bleven me aanstaren:“Orbán’s Hongarije. De voormalige sovjetstaat is opnieuw een dictatuur”. Voor ik het wist had ik het tijdschrift geopend, bladerde ik naar het artikel, grepen de woorden van de Hongaarse schrijver-journalist András Bruck me bij de keel en dwaalden mijn gedachten toch weer af naar Hongarije.

Zodra ik landde zette ik mijn telefoon aan. Het onvermijdelijke was gebeurd. Voor de tweede keer had Viktor Orbán met zijn Fidesz partij een grote overwinning behaald. Fidesz had zo’n 44.5 % van de stemmen verkregen en zou daarmee naar alle waarschijnlijkheid haar tweederde meerderheid behouden. In de afgelopen vier jaar heeft Orbán zijn macht op allerlei terreinen in rap tempo uitgebreid. De onafhankelijkheid van de wetgeving en de rechtspraak is in het geding gebracht, alsmede de persvrijheid. De nieuwe grondwet die onder Fidesz is doorgevoerd staat bol van het nationalistische discours dat Orbán zo lief is. Onder de Viktator wordt  de geschiedenis herschreven waar je bijstaat: antisemitische schrijvers worden toegevoegd aan de leeslijsten van middelbare scholieren,straatnamen worden vervangen en door het hele land herrijzen beelden van Horthy, de regent die tijdens de Tweede Wereldoorlog een bondgenootschap aanging met Hitler. De kers op de taart: afgelopen winter richtte de regering het onderzoeksinstituut ‘Veritas’ op, een instituut dat de ‘nationale identiteit’ dient te versterken middels het ‘onderzoeken en beschrijven’ van de geschiedenis van de afgelopen 150 jaar.

Het was de linkse oppositiepartijen zondag niet gelukt om tegenwicht te bieden. Ze waren kwaad, want volgens hen was de uitslag van de verkiezingen mogelijk gemaakt door de aanpassingen aan het kiesstelsel die de Fidesz partij had doorgevoerd. De nieuwssite meldde dat Fidesz zondag ca. 800.000 stemmen minder behaalde dan in 2010. Toch zal de tweederde meerderheid van Fidesz waarschijnlijk in tact blijven. De weg is vrijgemaakt om de omstreden, nationalistische koers van Fidesz in sneltreinvaart uit te breiden.

Fidesz staat er niet alleen voor als het gaat om het verspreiden van nationalistisch sentiment. De extreem-rechtse Jobbik partij behaalde zondag ruim 20 procent van de stemmen. Jobbik pleit voor een extreem nationalistisch, antisemitisch beleid. De partij heeft banden met de ‘Nieuwe Hongaarse Garde’, een burgerwacht die Hongarije wil ontdoen van de ‘toenemende zigeunercriminaliteit’. Racistische uitspraken zijn binnen de partij eerder regel dan uitzondering. De partij heeft veel aanhang onder jonge (dikwijls ook hoogopgeleide) Hongaren. Bij Jobbik weten ze dondersgoed hoe ze campagne moeten voeren: de straat op, een sterk geluid laten horen op internet en de sociale media, en tegelijkertijd het imago van de partij onder controle houden. Het resultaat: traditioneel rechts-extremisme verpakt in een hip jasje.

Terwijl ik mij nog zo had voorgenomen om ditmaal afstand te bewaren tot de politieke ontwikkelingen, zit ik toch weer achter mijn laptop. Misschien is het onvermijdelijk, kan ik mij er beter aan overgeven. Er is mij vaak gevraagd waarom ik me zo druk maak om de ontwikkelingen in Hongarije. Regelmatig heb ik geprobeerd een respons te vermijden. Ik zou de ruimte van een heel boek nodig hebben om de complexiteit van het antwoord weer te geven. Maar ik zal vandaag een poging wagen: omdat ik de uitslagen van afgelopen zondag niet links kan laten liggen, en omdat het boek nog wel even op zich zal laten wachten.

Ik maak mij zorgen om de ontwikkelingen in Hongarije, omdat zich midden in het hart van Europa een dictatuur ontvouwt onder de noemer van de ‘democratie’ en het lijkt alsof we machteloos zijn.

Ik maak mij zorgen om de ontwikkelingen in Hongarije, omdat angst de Hongaarse samenleving domineert en in vele gevallen tot zwijgen of onverschilligheid aanzet.

Ik maak mij zorgen, omdat er ontzettend veel morele afbraak plaatsvindt in Hongarije. Een morele afbraak die misschien niet altijd in juridische termen te vangen is, maar juist daarom zeer gevaarlijke vormen aanneemt.

Ja, ik maak mij zorgen om de ontwikkelingen in Hongarije omdat ik Hongaars bloed heb. Samen met nog zo veel anderen zie ik mijn vaderland voor mijn ogen afbrokkelen.

Ik maak mij zorgen omdat mijn moeder het land tijdens het communisme is ontvlucht en naar Nederland is gekomen, op zoek naar een plek waar zij adem kon halen. Ze zou zich woedend omdraaien in haar graf als ze zou kunnen zien wat er gaande is. Als ze terug had kunnen keren, zou ze zijn gestikt.

Ik maak mij zorgen om de ontwikkelingen in Hongarije omdat ik van het land houd, en omdat ik het land haat. Zoals András Bruck schreef:

“Dat een democratisch land in vredestijd, geïntegreerd in een netwerk van welwillende naties, en gesteund met grote hoeveelheden geld, midden in de radicale, wereldomspannende veranderingen en de bliksemsnelle technologische revolutie, plotseling alles de rug toekeert, en dat het overgrote deel van de samenleving daar niets tegenin brengt, is eenvoudigweg onbegrijpelijk.”

“Wat is er toch met Hongarije aan de hand?”


This article first appeared in BKB on 10 April 2014. Republished with the author’s consent.

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Democracy is (still) the solution

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By Khaled Diab

In Egypt, neither Islamism nor jingoism is the solution. We need is a visionary founding document, and the stillborn 1954 constitution fits the bill.

Saturday 3 August 2013

It is a sign of just how awry the situation has become this past week that al-Gama’a al-Islamiya actually sounds like one of the more sensible players on the political stage. The group said the very preservation of the state depended on genuine reconciliation based on respect of the constitution and legitimacy.

Despite al-Gama’a’s continued belief in Shari’a as a “complete and perfect” system, this moderate, conciliatory message is a far cry from the 1990s when the organisation was engaged in a violent insurgency aimed at destroying the state. This included the assassination of leading secular intellectual Farag Foda and the 1997 Luxor massacre.

Meanwhile, the state which al-Gama’a failed to destroy seems strangely fixated on self-destruction, or at the very least implosion, while the Muslim Brotherhood, from which al-Gama’a split away because the former abandoned violence, is ratcheting up its inflammatory rhetoric and refuses any dialogue or compromise. Likewise, the army has been doing its own inciting and engaging in evermore violent crackdowns against supporters of ousted president Mohamed Morsi.

Last week, General Abdel Fatah al-Sisi, dressed in the ultimate dictator chic of sunglasses and full military regalia, urged people to take to the streets on Friday to give the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF), chillingly, a “mandate” to “face possible violence and terrorism.”

Though shocking, it is not so surprising that a military man should think that a political problem can be resolved by force of arms. But if history and common sense teach us anything it is that words cannot be fought with swords; you can only combat ideas with ideas.

Sure, if some extremists resort to violence, then they should be handled with reasonable force to protect other civilians and society. However, if the ideology that led them to take up arms is not engaged  with and challenged effectively, and the root causes tackled, then the idea will live on and mutate, even if some of its advocates are imprisoned or killed.

That is why it is so worrying and terrifying that many otherwise sensible and intelligent people responded to Al-Sisi’s call. It is also disappointing that some movements that stood up to Morsi’s bullying and tyranny have decided, at least for now, to throw in their lot with the freedom-loathing military.

Take Tamarod. After employing admirably peaceful and democratic means in its grassroots campaign against the ousted president, which saw the rebel movement collect 22 million signatures on a petition calling for Morsi’s departure, it urged people to show their support for al-Sisi. “We call on the people to take to the streets on Friday to support their armed forces… in confronting the violence and terrorism practised by the Muslim Brotherhood,” Tamarod leader Mahmoud Badr was quoted as saying.

There is certainly a lot wrong with the Brotherhood and other Morsi supporters, but accusing them of “terrorism” is disingenuous, to say the least. Yes, a minority has committed acts of violence, but for the most part, the protests have been peaceful. Besides, playing the terrorism card , which comes straight out of the neo-conservative and Mubarak handbook, only fuels demonisation and leads to escalation.

Regardless of what wrongs the Brotherhood as an organisation may or may not have committed, the truth of the matter is the killing of unarmed civilians, as occurred during the massacre on Saturday, will not only do nothing to combat terrorism, in many definitions of the term, it counts as an act of state-sanctioned terror.

Luckily, a growing number of voices are rising up against the din of jingoistic nationalism to say neither the military nor the Brotherhood, neither Morsi nor al-Sisi. There are early signs that some in the anti-Brotherhood camp are already regretting and questioning their support of the military they had opposed so hard, and to such cost, during the first transition.

Even Tamarod is taking small steps in that direction. On Sunday, the movement voiced alarm at Saturday’s massacre. “Our campaign supports the state’s plans in fighting terrorism; however, we have earlier stressed that this support doesn’t include the taking of extraordinary measures, or the contradiction of freedoms and human rights,” Badr said.

It won’t be long, I hope, before it dawns on Tamarod that a so-called “war on terror” cannot be waged, as George W Bush demonstrated so decisively, without undermining freedoms and human rights. This can be seen in how the Ministry of the Interior, probably with SCAF’s blessing, has reinstated state security departments ostensibly tasked with combating extremism and monitoring political activity.

This Orwellian apparatus was shut down thanks to the 2011 revolution and, unsurprisingly, Tamarod has rejected this “return of Mubarak’s state security.” And herein lies the rub: Mubarak, Field Marshal Tantawi, Morsi and now Sisi are all cut out of the same authoritarian cloth.

Morsi, the Brotherhood and the Islamists proved conclusively that Islamism is not the solution. Pretty soon, people will wake up to the realisation (yet again) that al-Sisi and the SCAF are definitely not the answer.

What we need is a third way in which religion is for the individual, the army is for defence against foreign aggression and the nation is for everyone: secularists and Islamists, young and old, women and men, rich and poor.

One effective, potent and highly symbolic way to achieve this is to revive the stillborn 1954 draft constitution, which lay forgotten and collecting dust for decades in the basement of the Arab League.

Showing remarkable foresight of the dangers ahead, it set out to craft Egypt as a parliamentary democracy, which would’ve prevented the presidency from accumulating the arbitrary powers it now enjoys. It is also full of progressive ideals, including “absolute freedom of belief”, freedom of expression, labour rights, women’s rights, social justice and solidarity, including with foreigners who do not enjoy the same rights in their home countries.

Had this constitution become the republic’s founding document, Egypt today would have been a very different, and much better place. Adopting it, albeit belatedly, can help Egypt become that better place by laying the foundations for true equality.


Follow Khaled Diab on Twitter.

This article first appeared in The Daily News Egypt on 30 July 2013.

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America and Europe’s real “homegrown terrorism” threat

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By Khaled Diab

The Boston marathon bombings have refocused attention on the threat of “homegrown terrorism”. But there is a much more dangerous domestic threat.

Tuesday 30 April 2013

The tragic and bloody conclusion of this year’s Boston marathon, and the subsequent dramatic manhunt to capture the suspected perpetrators, has  had America and much of the world transfixed.

In the immediate aftermath of the attack, which left three dead and over 180 injured, I was relieved that the American media, with the exception of serial offenders like The New York Post, were reluctant to point fingers and took a largely wait-and-see approach.

They had apparently drawn some valuable lessons from the shameful Anders Breivik debacle, when early media reporting and idle “expert” speculation identified, without a shred of evidence, the worst massacre in Norwegian history as the work of Islamic extremists.

Once it was revealed that the Tsarnaev brothers, two ethnic Chechen-Dagestanis who have lived in the United States for the past decade, were the alleged suspects behind the attack, the keeps holding back the tidal wave of speculation broke.

The coverage has so far focused on connecting Dzhokhar and Tamerlan Tsarnev to radical Islamists, particularly Chechen groups, but no solid connections have yet been uncovered and plenty of contradictory evidence has been unearthed.

The semantics of the media lexicon has been interesting to observe. Even the sombre and authoritative voice of The New Yorker, whose coverage of the Boston tragedy has largely been nuanced and sophisticated, described the bombing as “the most serious terror attack in America since September 11th [2001]”.

If that were the case, then the Boston attack should be a cause for relief rather than panic, since, though every death is a tragedy, the death toll is a thousandth of that of the 9/11 atrocities.

But the United States has actually been the target of numerous “terrorist” attacks since 11 September 2001 that would make the carnage at the Boston marathon pale in comparison. One of the worst recent examples was the shooting at the Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newton which left 28 people dead, of which 20 were children.

When I tweeted this to The New Yorker, dozens re-tweeted my observation in agreement. However, there were also plenty of dissenters. “Terror is an act of violence to achieve a political end,” one typical tweet countered.

We will never know what motivated Adam Lanza, the young gunman behind the Sandy Hook massacre, as he killed himself before police could interrogate him. But even, as seems likely, he had no explicit political agenda, his acts, at least according to US law, would count as “terrorism”.

In the mid-1970s, the Law Enforcement Assistant Administration’s National Advisory Committee on Criminal Justice Standards and Goals classified six types of terrorism, including “non-political terrorism”. Both US federal regulation and the FBI define terrorism as “the unlawful use of force or violence… in furtherance of political or social objectives”.

This raises a couple of intriguing questions. Why did US officialdom and the media fail to describe Sandy Hook as terrorism and why have American commentators and reporters rushed to assume a political motive for the Boston attacks, even though older brother and presumed mastermind, Tamerlan, seems to have had plenty of personal issues and private grievances?

It would seem that even if terrorism does not have to be political, the use of this loaded term is often politically motivated. Mass shootings probably don’t make it on US society’s radar as “terrorism” partly due to the polarised firearms debate. Can you imagine what kind of a stink the gun lobby and people who believe that bearing arms is their constitutional right would whip up if the media or authorities started classing Newton as a terrorist atrocity?

In addition, there is simple human nature. It is much easier to vilify and blame those regarded as outsiders than those you view as your own. This can be seen, for example, in how conservative Arabs view Muslims in the West as “oppressed” but refuse to use the same label for the Middle East’s Christian minorities.

Likewise, while Americans and Europeans, especially conservatives, do not hesitate to call a spade a spade when it comes to Islamic terrorism, even when it isn’t, the situation can be very different when it comes to their own.

Take Breivik. When the identity of the perpetrator became known, “terrorism” and its derivatives suddenly vanished to be replaced by the more neutral “attacker” or “gunman”, and the media drew comfort from describing Breivik as a “lone wolf” or “madman”.

Why all the fuss, some might grumble, it is just semantics?

Well, the selective use of such emotive words as terrorism can have very serious real-world consequences. Ask Salah Barhoun, falsely identified as a suspect on social networking sites, who, fearing for his life, turned himself in to the police to clear his name.

In addition, this selectivity can magnify certain threats while downplaying others. Almost a year to the day before Anders Breivik went on the rampage, I wrote a column for The Guardian in which I argued that neo-Nazism and other far-right ideologies constitute a greater menace to Europe than Islamic extremism.

Numerous commenters dismissed my hypothesis as “scaremongering” and “agenda-pushing”. In fact, a common refrain among conservatives and Islamophobes is that “Not all Muslims are terrorists but the majority of terrorists are Muslims.”

While this is true in Arab and Muslim-majority countries, where the threat posed by radical Islam must not be underestimated, it is certainly not the case in the West.

Yet even our gatekeepers underestimated this menace. In its 2011 report on terrorism in Europe the previous year, Europol judged that the “threat from right-wing extremism appears to be on the wane”.

Post-Breivik, the agency’s tone has changed. “Not one religiously-inspired terrorist attack on EU territory was reported by member states,” Europol noted of the previous year in its 2012 report, when “the majority of attacks were committed by separatist groups.”

“The threat of violent right-wing extremism has reached new levels in Europe and should not be underestimated,” the report stressed.

You would never have guessed this was the situation from public discourse and mainstream media coverage. On both sides of the Atlantic, “homegrown terrorism”, in most people’s minds, refers to the exotic, invasive Islamic variety, not the local common-or-garden breed.

Echoing these worries, albeit moderately, US President Barack Obama asked after the conclusion of the Boston marathon manhunt: “Why did young men who grew up and studied here as part of our communities and our country resort to such violence?”

The same question could have been asked about Lanza.

Across the Atlantic, a number of European countries have also been seized with a similar apprehension, as reports of young Muslims going off to fight in Syria surface. For example, here in Belgium, police recently raided dozens of homes of suspected recruiters and politicians are talking about taking drastic measures, such as confiscating the identity papers of young men at risk of taking flight or even passing specific legislation.

Although I understand why the state would be concerned about the security risk posed by traumatised and possibly radicalised fighters when they return, the fact that fewer than a hundred Belgian Muslims are thought to be fighting in Syria suggests that the public panic far outweighs the actual riskss.

It is high time for Europe and the United States to do some soul-searching and be honest with themselves about where the threats to their domestic security truly lie. This will not only aid them in underwriting the safety of their citizens, it will also help remove the distrust surrounding a stigmatised minority.

Follow Khaled Diab on Twitter.

This article first appeared in The National on 27 April 2013.

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Muhammad: separating the man from the myth

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By Khaled Diab

As a clash of idiocies erupts over the depiction of Muhammad in an obscure Islamophobic film, it’s time for a sober look at the man behind the prophet.

Friday 14 September 2012

A cask by losing centre-piece or cant
Was never shattered so, as I saw one
Rent from the chin to where one breaketh wind.

Between his legs were hanging down his entrails;
His heart was visible, and the dismal sack
That maketh excrement of what is eaten.

Who is this poor man who has just been chopped in half and is literally wearing his guts for garters? And what precisely has he done to deserve such a gruesome fate?

Well, this is not a scene out of the latest slasher film but describes the eternal punishment dreamt up for Muhammad by Dante in his Divine Comedy. The Muslim prophet was condemned by this Italian poet to the ninth bolgia (ditch) of the eighth circle of hell, reserved for “disseminators of scandal and of schism”.

Compare Dante’s words with those of the Sufi scholar Shah Abdul Lateef Bhitai:

Oh Moon, never mind if
I tell you the truth
Sometimes you are dim
Sometimes you are bright
Still, your brightness is not equal
To an atom of the dust
From the foot of Muhammad

Traditionally, Muhammad has represented two polar extremes. Even today, for bigoted Christians,  the Islamic prophet is a symbol of unadulterated evil, as reflected in the crass, vulgar and lurid way in which Muhammad was depicted in a low-budget, low-brow film The Innocence of Muslims. Meanwhile, for too many Muslims, despite Islam’s prohibition of deification, he is the embodiment of unimpeachable good for devout Muslims, which partly explains the rage sparked across the Arab and Muslim world – though it’s also about distrust of the West and its aggressive hegemony, poor education and poverty, the rise of bullying religious extremism and fundamentalism, the need to deflect domestic discontent towards an external targets, and other complex factors.

Nearly a millennium and a half after Muhammad’s death, so many Muslims find it hard to step back and take a clearer-eyed and more critical view of him. After all, even if you do believe in the divinity of Islam, one of its main messages was that Muhammad was a messenger and it was the message, not the man, that counted. He was fond of saying: “I am a man like you. I eat food like you and I also sit down when I am tired like you.”

So, between this demonisation and exaltation, where exactly does the historical Muhammad lie? Who precisely was he? What made him tick and how exactly did he rise to global and timeless prominence?

Muhammad, whose name means “Praiseworthy”, was born in Mecca, the financial and spiritual centre of Arabia, in 570 AD. Although times were booming for Mecca and other Arabian city-states, Muhammad was born in volatile circumstances. In addition to incessant warfare between the Arab tribes, Arabia was surrounded by three mighty empires – Persia, Byzantium and Abyssinia – who, unable to dominate the vast expanses of Arabia directly, tended to prop up local client rulers. In Mecca, the mighty Quraysh tribe, of whom Muhammad was a member, brought peace and stability to the city but at the price of stark socio-economic inequalities.

Despite the wealth of the Quraysh, Muhammad grew up in relative want and loneliness after being orphaned at a very young age. He was to suffer further heartbreak when his beautiful cousin, Fakhita, with whom he was passionately in love, married another man before the shy and sensitive prophet-to-be could pluck up the courage to ask for her hand.

Realising how important wealth was in Mecca, his broken heart prompted him to begin a career as a merchant and he became a caravan agent. His business dealings earned him the epithets al-Sadiq (honest) and al-Amin (trustworthy). Travel is said to broaden the mind and what Muhammad saw on his trade missions heightened his awareness of both the breadth and commonality of humanity.

His growing reputation brought him to the attention of Khadijah, “Ameerit Quraysh” (the Princess of Quraysh), Mecca’s wealthiest and most powerful woman, who hired him as her agent on trade caravans. Muhammad turned her a handsome profit and repaid Khadijah’s trust by doubling her earnings, but she gradually grew more interested in the handsome future prophet himself.

There was more to Muhammad than his money-spinning acumen and Khadijah was so impressed by his honesty, humility and modesty that she bucked convention and her own determination not to remarry a third time and proposed marriage to the 25-year-old who was 14 years her junior.

Bucking convention himself, Muhammad agreed to the match. His undying love for Khadija, his refusal to marry any other woman until her death despite the conventions of the age, his willingness all his life to carry out domestic chores (conveniently ignored by generations of scholars!) and her pivotal role in the early development of Islam (she was the world’s first Muslim) are used by Muslim feminists to argue that Islam is woman-friendly and that, if Muhammad were here today, he would be an advocate of women’s rights.

However, detractors compare the status of women and slaves in Islam with modern standards, forgetting that Islam seriously improved their situation, and made men and women equal in many respects. Also, such comparisons are unfair, since it would also, for example, compel us to condemn America’s founding fathers, despite their visions of equality. A millennium after Muhammad, Thomas Jefferson was opposed to slavery but was a slave owner and declared that “all men are created equal”, effectively brushing over half of humanity.

Life is said to begin at 40, and it certainly did for Muhammad. But rather than invest in a Porsche or even a 16-cylinder camel, Muhammad set about to found a new world religion. Disaffected by the socio-economic injustices and conflict around him and the hollowness of Mecca’s materialistic cults, Muhammad began to meditate but was so distressed by his first “revelation” that it required the rock of Khadija, who believed implicitly in her man and became the world’s first Muslim, for him to build up the confidence to begin preaching the new faith.

In retrospect, there were early signs in his behaviour of what was to come. For instance, in his 20s, Muhammad was instrumental in forming a short-lived chivalric association called the “Lovers of Justice” which was established to help a foreign merchant cheated out of his money by a dishonest member of the Quraysh. This pan-clan brotherhood demonstrated to the young Muhammad the benefits of moving beyond tribal loyalties and focusing on common humanity.

I personally don’t believe Muhammad’s revelations were divine, nor those of any other prophet or religion for that matter. But that’s not to say he didn’t believe it himself, seized as he was by mysterious fits. There is a case to be made for the idea that successful prophets could only make it through the unwavering conviction that their unconscious is actually a channel to God. To my mind, this lack of divine intervention makes his achievements all the more remarkable, but also makes him open to the same critical approach applied to any other historical figure.

Modern western historians largely agree that Muhammad “was absolutely sincere and acted in complete good faith“. Would someone who did not truly believe in his message expose himself to the total ridicule and mortal danger which his mission attracted in its early years?

With the odds stacked against his nascent community of believers, Muhammad was dealt a near-mortal blow by the loss of his beloved Khadija in what became known as the Year of Sorrow. Some historians have suggested this may have partly motivated his decision to flee Mecca and set up base in Yathrib (later Medina), where his fortunes as a prophet took a major turn for the better.

And I wonder whether the status of Muslim women might not have been very different if Khadija had outlived her husband? Perhaps if he’d lived to a ripe old monogamous age, he would have exerted more effort to end male-only polygyny rather than limiting it or, at the very least, future generations might have followed his example as they do on other issues.

After a quarter century of faithful monogamy, he embraced polygamy with passion, mainly as a political tool but perhaps also in a futile quest to find another Khadija or to find solace for his lonely heart. Interestingly, the Quran conveniently gave him licence to take as many wives and concubines as he liked.

Some of Muhammad’s post-Khadija relationships have elicited the greatest controversy among non-Muslims, such as his marriage to underage Aisha, and been the most difficult to rationalise by Muslims who prefer to ignore those aspects of his behaviour which conflict with their modern standards. This is one of the biggest issues facing Muslims today, since so much of Islamic jurisprudence is based on Muhammad’s sayings and actions. The question is which of those actions should be interpreted as guidance for all time, and which relate specifically to circumstances in Arabia during his lifetime.

Muhammad’s time in Medina started well and he was selected as an impartial arbiter between the oasis’s warring factions. In a demonstration of his preference for diplomacy over war, he drafted the Constitution of Medina to resolve the century-old tribal conflict and, in its place, he established an alliance among Yathrib’s eight tribes.

However, it is also in this post-Khadija, post-Mecca era that much of the controversy surrounding his life is focused. It is in Medina that the philosopher, poet, rebel and social reformer also became a warrior and a statesman. Under attack from the mighty Quraysh of Medina and their allies and with his followers suffering from poverty, he became less tolerant of dissent and came down heavily on the city’s Jewish tribes for their opposition to him.

Accused of outright treachery by Muhammad, the Banu Qurayza were to suffer the most of all the Jewish tribes. One of the prophet’s biographers states that Muhammad approved the beheading of up to 900 members of the tribe, while the women and children were sold into slavery. In the contemporary West, this has elicited some accusations of anti-Semitism.

John Esposito, professor of Islamic studies at Gerogetown University, argues that Muhammad’s motivation was political – the Jewish tribes were rich, influential and well-armed – rather than racial, since they were all Arabic-speaking Semites, or theological. In addition, Norman Stillman, chair of Judaic History at Oklahoma University, argues that the slaughter of adult males and the enslavement of women and children cannot be judged, in this context, by modern standards, since it was common practice throughout the ancient world.

Moreover, in his treatment of the Jews of Medina, Muhammad broke his own principles and brought himself into conflict with the Quran’s exaltation of the “People of the Book”. And thanks to this high regard, the treatment of Jews and Christians in the Muslim world was generally better than Europe’s treatment of Jews (not to mention Iberian Muslims) until recent times.

Upon his triumphant return to Mecca, Muhammad went back to being a diplomat and philosopher, and pardoned all his enemies. He even pardoned Abdullah Ibn Saad, who had been so trusted by the prophet that he was assigned the important task of copying down some of the verses of the Quran. This man abandoned the Muslims in Medina and returned to Mecca to denounce Muhammad’s entire revelation as a hoax.

Muhammad died after unifying Arabia and his lifelong declared love of learning protected and added to classical knowledge and carried on the tradition of Persian scholarship during the dark ages of Christendom.

For centuries, Muhammad inspired the Muslim world to thrive economically, scientifically, culturally and artistically. However, nearly 1,400 years on, the presumed divine providence of his philosophy, among myriad other socio-economic and political factors, is acting as an anchor slowing the development of many Muslim countries.


Follow Khaled Diab on Twitter.

A version of this article first appeared in The Guardian’s Comment is Free on 13 March 2008.

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Hungary’s forgotten generation

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By Swaan van Iterson

With the surge in polarised power politics, young Hungarians, excluded and frustrated, are falling prey to extremism and its twin menace, apathy.

Wednesday 5 September 2012

Our dinner on a summer night started with a shot of Palinka, a traditional Hungarian fruit brandy.  The occasion that had brought all these family and friends together was the name day (névnap) of one of the guests, a tradition in many countries celebrating the day of the saint after whom one is named. Although name days are not celebrated in my country (the Netherlands), it was a nice opportunity to get together, eat, drink and talk.

The dinner started very cordially. We talked about Hungarian wines, the weather, the ins and outs of the divorce of close friends, and made fun of the dissatisfaction of one of the guests with the amount of meat in the food.

The calm didn’t last long. Soon enough, the topic switched to Hungarian politics. One of our guests started to talk furiously about what he regarded as the biased international news coverage of Hungarian affairs: “The international media very often paints a picture of Hungary as the new antisemitic, racist hub of Europe which is growing into a dictatorship,” he complained.

In his view, what is happening in Hungary is sensationalised and ignores the efforts made in the country to improve the situation and forge a sense of collectivity in society. Maybe it was because of the wine and the Palinka, but our guest’s face started to turn an alarming shade of red.

While until two years ago Hungary was only occasionally mentioned in the international media, recent developments in the country have become hot news.  The New York Times, The Guardian and The Economist regularly publish updates on Hungarian politics, and more and more blogs devoted to following the latest developments are appearing online. Since Viktor Orbán and his right-wing conservative Fidesz party gained a two-thirds majority in the parliamentary elections of 2010, various controversial laws and a new constitution are being implemented in the country. The European Commission is closely monitoring the new media law, in which a media authority is appointed to vet whether journalists report in a “moral” and “objective” way.  In addition, the IMF and Orbán are playing cat and mouse around the sensitive issues of the independence of the Hungarian central bank and possible financial help.

On 31 August, Ramil Safarov, an Azeri soldier serving his sentence in Hungary for killing an Armenian soldier in Budapest in 2004, was sent home to Azerbaijan. The release of Safarov, and the rumoured money involved, made this peculiar international gesture by the Hungarian government headline news abroad.

However, while the big fish are being watched, little attention is paid to what must be the small fry in the view of the international media: the Hungarian people themselves.  To get an idea of what young Hungarians think, I asked the son of our furious guest to share his views on the ongoing debate. He looked at me, smiled, took a big sip of his wine and said: “You know, there are two sides in Hungary that do not talk to each other, both of them say something different, none of them tells the truth, and it doesn’t make a fucking difference what you think. That is the system I live in. Besides, nagyon nem szeretek politizálni, I really do not like to talk politics.”

Being half-Hungarian myself, that last sentence did not sound unfamiliar to me at all. I once talked about the broader meaning of the word politizálni with my friend Thomas Escritt, a journalist who writes regularly about Hungary. “Besides the fact that the word politizálni does not exist in English, it is difficult to translate because the semantics are all different,” he noted. “In Northern Europe, talking about politics is regarded as boring. In Holland, it means I’m not square, I prefer to talk about women. In Hungary, talking about politics is dangerous. ‘Nem szeretek politizálni’ means I’m innocent, leave me alone.”

Well, let’s go against this traditional Hungarian aversion and talk politics, and those two sides our young guest was describing. The ruling Fidesz party forms a powerful rightwing conservative bloc with its solid majority in the parliament. According to the most recent polls, Orbán’s party is still the most popular, with 30.4% of Hungarians supporting it. On the far right, Jobbik (the third largest party, with 14.5% in the most recent polls) gives voice to the extreme manifestation of nationalist sentiments currently bubbling up in Hungary, with one of their main goals being to wipe out gypsy or Roma “criminality” and to halt the supposed dominance of Jews in Hungarian politics and finances.

On the left side of the political spectrum, the second biggest party in Hungarian politics (20.5%) is the Hungarian Socialist Party (MSZP), whose credibility shrank dramatically after the notorious “Balatonőszöd speech” in 2006. In this speech, the former prime minister, Ferenc Gyurcsány, admitted to his fellow party members that “we have been lying for the last one and a half to two years” about the economic situation in Hungary. The confidential speech was taped and broadcasted by Magyar Rádió (Hungarian Radio), which led to mass protests and riots in Hungary.

In 2011, Gyurcsány officially distanced himself from MSZP when he formed the newest, smallest party in Hungary, the Democratic Coalition, or DK, (2.4%). Together with Jobbik, the green party, which is known as Politics Can Be Different, or LMP (6.8%), attracts a high percentage of young voters. But the biggest political winner in Hungary seems to be apathy or disillusionment, with 48.6% of Hungarian saying they are undecided.

The political discourse is not particularly friendly. The ‘Socialists’ and ‘Liberals’ accuse the rightwing conservatives of being nationalistic, close-minded and sometimes even fascistic. These “Nazis”, in their turn, argue that the “ex-Commies” are sellout hippies who let Israel and Western European countries eat up the Hungarian economy, and that they will NOT allow Hungary to be dominated by the European Union after years of Soviet occupation. “Hungary for the Hungarians,” insist the conservatives, whether they live inside or outside of the modern borders of the country.

In the course of my research on Hungarian youth and their relationship with ultra-nationalist, rightwing politics, I have found plenty of examples that fit the discourse of both the right and left. During the filming for my documentary All for Hungary, which explores why a significant proportion of students in higher education identify with the Jobbik party, I talked to numerous young people, such as during the rallies organised to mark the 1956 Hungarian uprising against Soviet rule.


The first guy in the video above explained that voting for Jobbik was a logical decision. In his view, the left is corrupt, the right has turned bad too, the greens live in a utopian tomorrow, and so the extreme right is the only way to build Hungary’s future – this, to him, made perfect sense. This young man looks quite friendly, and keen on kick-starting that political career, so why not start in front of the camera.

The second group in the video – with their camouflage trousers and heavy boots – has a much darker aura surrounding them. These young men are all university students, but they don’t look very inviting to start a political discussion with. They seem to fit the “close-minded” and “fascist” stereotypes.

Let’s skip a few months and move on to another event which took place earlier this year. While Orbán assured tens of thousands at a pro-government rally that “over his dead body” would he allow the European Union to reduce Hungary to the status of a “colony”, Milla (One Million for the Freedom of the Press in Hungary) organised a counter-demonstration. What started as a Facebook group against restrictive media laws grew into a broader civil organisation opposed to the current societal developments in Hungary and the restrictive politics of the Fidesz party.

Several friends and I went out on the streets to canvass young people at this gathering on what kind of Hungary they wanted to live in.  The young man in the video below – who wants to live in a society where it is not seen as strange or unusual for people to help the poor and refuse “to live in shit” – would probably fit perfectly into the rightwing stereotype of the blabbering “hippy” leftist who believes that all you need is love.


It is very easy to identify examples that fit the stereotypes. And everyone uses stereotypes to a certain degree. They are, after all, a way of making the world seem less complicated and easier to grasps. But they do not help us to understand society and the root causes behind societal developments and the choices people make. While politics may be the area of life where stereotypes are used the most, it is also where they can be most dangerous.

We need to look further and explore what motivations are behind political affiliations and listen to what different parties have to say. This is one of the core problems in Hungarian politics: people do not actually listen to each other and are satisfied to dehumanise and demonise their opponents.  The consequence? Society becomes polarised and fractured, instead of unified, on every single level.

As the partisans of the right spin further apart from the left in Hungary, much of the population is left, as the earlier poll suggested, stuck in the middle, unhappy with both sides. Many Hungarians agree with what our young guest asserted: “It doesn’t make a fucking difference what you think. That is the system I live in.”

This disillusionment, along with high unemployment, might explain why a recent survey, carried out by Hungary’s TÁRKI social research institute, showed that nearly half of Hungarians aged 19 to 29 wants to emigrate.


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Egypt’s needs are human, social and educational, not religious, says Islamist MP

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By Josephine Littlejohn

 Member of Parliament for Luxor AbdulMawgoud Dardery believes religion is a “personal issue”, and government’s job is to focus on collective challenges.

Friday 31 August 2012

Dr Dardery in “Western” clothes.

I arranged a series of interviews with Dr AbdulMawgoud Dardery, not to learn about the politics of Freedom and Justice Party (FJP), which is affiliated to the Muslim Brotherhood, but to listen to an individual voice from within the party. I wanted to hear his own opinions, his dreams, fears and wishes for the future of Egypt. Dardery is a member of the People’s Assembly (the suspended lower house of parliament) for Luxor, a pivotal city far away from Cairo, a place where the rural farming sector and the tourism industry meet.

The first meeting got off to rather a bizarre start. It was the night before the holy month of Ramadan was due to start and the streets outside the hotel were buzzing with preparation. I was waiting in the hotel lobby and watched with interest as the security guards tried to stop a tired looking man dressed in a traditional galabeya from entering. It took a moment for me to realise this was Dardery and it took a bit longer for the security guards to realise this was their member of parliament, not a Kalesh driver touting for work.

He apologised for being dusty and tired, and explained that he had thought about going home and changing into “Western” clothing, but decided it was better that I saw him as he was when he was out working with his constituents. I appreciated his honesty. It certainly raised some eyebrows in the hotel lounge, something that was to repeat many times over the coming week.

What became clear immediately from the discussions was the struggle that Egypt faced squaring its progressive aspirations with the largely conservative values of much of the country. It would take a very special balancing act to develop international trade with an economic policy that did not suck its working class dry; to evolve laws that allowed elbow room and a political voice for the country’s minorities, its thinkers, artists, writers and dissidents, but that also worked in a way that did not tear apart its conservative underbelly. How did he feel about that challenge?

“We want to modernism but not Westernise. We want to take the materialistic obsession out of the culture. It is not the only way: you do not have to be very rich to be happy, and you do not have to be poor either. There is a middle way, a socially conscious democracy,” the parliamentarian for Luxor asserted.  “The revolution did not happen in a vacuum: there was a background of corruption, of destructive ideas, of greed and a wish for extreme wealth. We are trying to resist this, this culture of extreme materialism, something that creates inequality within the culture itself, and not to repeat the mistakes others have made.”

What struck me most was that Dardery had given a lot of thought to what he saw as a section of society wanting to emulate Western culture, laws and social structure without thinking about the real ramifications of transplanting a foreign system, unchanged, on a population that is culturally, religiously and socially unprepared for it. It was also obvious he had given a lot of thought to the damage that could be done to a society if it was too restricted or too religiously dogmatic. He had neither rejected or accepted aspects of ‘Western’ society, but had observed, weighed up the pros and cons, seen what works and what would not, and was trying to come to his own conclusions.

He made a very poignant point that would be pivotal to community harmony: “Being Christian or Muslim is a personal issue not a social issue. What do Christians and what do Muslims want in Egypt?”

“They want the same things,” Dardery answers in reply to his own question. “The rubbish problem is not a Muslim problem or a Christian problem, it’s an Egyptian problem and we solve it as Egyptians. Religion has nothing to do with it. Just like there are no Muslim health services or Christian services, there are just health services. Just like education… our health service and our education services are struggling badly. The problems in these services are critical and they need overhaul, investment.”

His expressed standpoint was one of tolerance, education, understanding, communal responsibility and diversity. He was also acutely aware of the ethical and moral structure of Islam, the traditional society, and how those elements would play out through the political arena in a predominately Muslim country. All of these critical qualities are necessary for a man who is going to be potentially voting for or against policies that will directly affect the nation.

He outlined for me the problems of years under military rule: the regime infantilised people, leading them to lose their own sense of self sovereignty, and their sense of responsibility for themselves and their community. He made an interesting comment, in the context of bribery and corruption which is rampant in Egypt, but it has a wider wisdom behind it: “There needs to be critical thinking about our actions and the actions of those around us… Islam teaches us to be responsible for our individual actions, and we need to live up to that, with understanding, through education rather than dogma. Excuses such as ‘it is my culture’, ‘or the way of my family’ do not hold water: it is important not to accept the status quo as ‘God given’, which is a crime in Islam… one has to always to strive to challenge the situation you are in.”

Personalising his philosophy, Dardery added: “I was born into a poor family; it was up to me to change that, rather than expecting God or anyone else to change it. We are individually responsible for our actions and as a Muslim working in the wider community, I have a personal as well as public responsibility to live up to that.”

However, it is clear from the political struggles taking place in Egypt that the intricate issues of freedom and democracy, and the actual practical implementation of the democratic process, is still not fully understood by many players in the current political arena. More than once we have heard a declaration or promise, only to have it overturned a few months or even weeks later.

My suspicious side wondered about propaganda and dishonesty (which has a role to play), but looking more closely I realised it was more a matter of pronouncing what appears to be a good idea at the time, followed by a swift reality check and furious back-pedalling. Then, there is simply the volatility that comes with revolution, and how one interest group can raise a prospect and another shoot it down.

Many Egyptians are fearful of another “Iran” emerging, of an Islamist theocracy, which would be a tragedy for so many reasons. “Extremism of any sort is easy. Extremism of any sort poses a threat and that is not what we want,” observes Dardery, who believes that extremism is directly linked to dis-empowerment and disenfranchisement. “People become extremist from fear and powerlessness: it is not part and parcel of this land or culture,” he explains.

“There are different forms of Islam, but that is people’s right. There are people who are different and think differently, and that is their right: but that difference is not to be forced upon others,” insists Dardery. ” Ignorance comes from lack of education and communication, which leads to prejudice which leads to hostility and violence.”

The answer? “Coming together and communicating, being friends and a community is the key to understanding, and finding joint solutions that suit all parts of the community. When people are ignorant they are fearful, then they become conservative and extremist: this is a major hurdle we have to overcome both at home and abroad,” Dardery reflects.

For now, with a military that has shown it is not competent to rule, a secular opposition that seems relatively out of touch with the wider, non-urban Egyptian electorate, and the shadow of Salafi theocracy hovering in the background, the Freedom and Justice Party are, in my view, currently the only viable option to move the nation a step forward. Dardery talked at length about his hopes for the next generation, about the need for the young people of today to think carefully about their path into the wider community.

He had this to say to the young members of the Freedom and Justice Party: “Don’t try and get deep into religion and go for the role of the religious scholar, we have enough of those. What we need are doctors, people who can go out and work for Egyptians. For example, we currently need an eye doctor who is willing to go out into the villages and check the eyes of the children to spot the problems before they do permanent damage”

“We have human needs, social needs, educational needs…not religious needs,” he elaboarted. “We need a comprehensive approach, the physical, psychological, social, political, economic and spiritual.”

Let us hope that the FJP will live up to its name and help deliver freedom and justice for all and that, over the next few years, the opposition parties will succeed in better connecting with the reality of the electorate, especially in rural areas, to act as a viable alternative to the FJP.  I came away from the meetings with a sense of hope for the future, a sense that although it is going to be a hard road to navigate, while there are people like Dardery on all sides of the political spectrum, it will be a road well worth walking.


This is part of a series of articles on Egypt’s political transformation as seen from the rural and provincial grassroots. Below is the full list of articles in the series:

1. Egypt without the hype… and away from Cairo

2. Egypt needs are human, social and educational, not religious, says Islamist MP

3. Minority voices in Upper Egypt

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Hebron settlers: “We are not extremists”

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By Khaled Diab

The Hebron settlers feel demonised by the mainstream media, and say reports of settler violence are exaggerated and some are even “black flag” ops.

Tuesday 4 January 2012

Khaled Diab: You just mentioned the media. How do you regard the mainstream Israeli view, especially the liberal view, of your community?

David Wilder: How do I view their view of me? You need a double mirror for that. Look, the media is very left wing, as a rule. There are always exceptions to the rule. You have journalists, you know, and politicians who take a different path. But as a rule the media is extremely leftwing. And, as such, they look at us as rightwing extremists who are, you know, a bone in the throat of peace. To put it very generally.

And they express that. You know, we work with them. We work with the media and try to influence however we can. Sometimes successfully, sometimes less successfully. But it’s very obvious that the media is generally, not just here, but the world media also is. In the United States, the big media, whether it be the New York Times or the Washington Post or CNN. Perhaps one of the exceptions is Fox, which is a little bit more moderate. But they’re usually, generally, very liberal, very leftwing.

So would you say you get a more sympathetic hearing within Israel or in the United States?

The difference between the United States and Israel in terms of media is that in the United States you have much larger media. First of all, in Israel, if you look at television, you’re talking about government-licensed media. There’s very little private media, and the private media that was on our side, you know, shut down. Ariel Sharon shut it down.

In the United States, you have much larger, much freer media. Anybody who is able to – I don’t know what the criteria are – can get a licence. Anyone who has the money can open a radio station, or a newspaper, or a television station, or go on cable, or whatever. And so, in terms of sympathy, as such, among the more rightwing media in the United States there’s much more sympathy. If you go down to the Bible Belt and here some of the talk shows, they’re very conservative.

Do you feel things have shifted in the past few years, with, like, Netanyahu and his government? Do you feel they’ve become more sympathetic in the media to you?

No, the media hasn’t become more sympathetic to us. There are people every once in a while who, you know, stop and do a little bit of introspection; they sort of look and try to examine where they are and where they are coming from. And every once in a while you can get somebody in the media or even a politician.

The head of the Labour party today, Shelly Yachimovich, who used to be on the radio. She wasn’t a very good friend of ours when she was on the radio. Today, she states that she opposes… she disagrees with our ideology, but she also comes out and says that people that are settlers are good Israelis just like everyone else. She doesn’t try to demonise us just because we live here. She can say I disagree with them; I want to throw them out, but they’re not bad people.

But have things change in the media as a result of Netanyahu’s government?

No, because he’s also considered to be rightwing, despite the fact that he also has Barak in his government. He’s considered to have a rightwing coalition, so the media, they don’t like him anymore than they like us. He’s not going to be a cause of them moving in our direction – to the contrary.

Newspapers like Ma’ariv and so on, you don’t find they’re sympathetic?


Ok, you say that the Israeli media often labels you as “extremists”, what do you think of that label?

It’s not just the Israeli media. Years ago, I don’t know if you remember, there was a… When I started working here, almost 18 years ago, the New York Times correspondent, the head of the New York Times, he was a guy called Serge Schmemann. I don’t know where he is today; I see his name every once in a while, but he’s not here, thank God. But he didn’t like us. He was very leftwing and he was very anti people like me in Hebron. And when he used to write in the Times about Hebron, he always prefaced the word Hebron with extremists. It was almost like one word.

He was here once with one of his editors and I asked him, in front of his editor, why he always wrote that. He didn’t like that. He said, well, you’re zealots and you’re doing this and that. I said but you never write that. You always write we’re extremists. He said, yeah, well, everybody knows what I mean.

I mean, you know, we don’t think about it. You know different words have different connotations. And in the media, when you say something enough… When you write something enough times, then people start to believe it. Because, you know, he writes it again and again and again, so it must be true.

When I think about extremism, I think about the Red Brigade, you know, Hizbullah, organisations that go out and kill people. You know extremism, that’s how I read extremism.

So how would you describe your community? What words would you use?

I think… What I’ve used in the past is to say that we are ideological, that is, we live an ideal, ok? You can agree with my ideal or you can disagree with my ideal. That’s legitimate. I don’t have any problems with that. People can think different things, and whatever.

It’s also like when the Israeli media talks about religion, religious people, so you have… they can talk about Orthodox religious, then they talk about Ultra-Orthodox. So what’s an Ultra-Orthodox? What makes somebody more Orthodox than somebody else? We all do the same thing: we keep kosher; we keep the Sabbath; we do this and we don’t do that. So why is that Ultra and this not? Usually, it’s the way people dress. If he’s got a hat and a long black coat, then he’s Ultra. If he just has a knitted kippa like mine, then… But there’s no real difference between them.

The same thing is true with extremism. The fact that I believe that people should live in Hebron. We have over half a million people that visit here every year, so they’re all extremists. The people that come to visit Hebron from the United States, whether they be Jewish or Christian, or whoever they are, Israelis or whatever they are, are they extremists because they come to visit or because they support us, ok, give us money? So what makes me extreme? Because I live a particular ideal that somebody else disagrees with?

How about if your ideal, the majority of people disagree with it, would that make you extreme or not, do you think?

No, why, I mean the ideal of democracy is that you can have a majority and a minority. The fact that you’re… Take the… I mean, I don’t know how it works in England, but take the American Supreme Court, and its nine justices. You have a case which is decided eight-to-one, is the justice whose one vote is against that of the majority extremist because he disagrees with them, even though there are eight against one? No.

Look, it’s semantics which is used as a tool to create an impression on others. That’s what media does.

All right, you mentioned, connecting violence to extremism. That’s, in your mind, the defining factor. How about the violence that’s perpetrated by settlers, like, the “price tag” campaign, and so on. Do you think of that as extremism?

Errr, yes. Yes, it certainly is. I think that extremism can be also measured… if you have a norm, what that norm, not just ideologically, but also… and you can have ideological extremism also. But I think that that is considered by your normative Israeli, on whatever side of the fence he is, as very extremist.

And do you think that it’s a manageable, containable problem, or do you think it’s spinning out of control?

I think the “spinning out of control” is a media spin. I think, again, what we’re seeing today is use of what a few people are doing as a tool to try to blow it up. In Israel, as in most other places, I suppose, but I see it here, you have all sorts of different types of violence. There’s leftwing anarchist violence, which has been going on for a few years, down, every Friday, in Bilin. You have all sorts of different places where you have violence against Israeli soldiers which is perpetrated by Israelis and foreigners and all sorts of people, and every once in a while it makes the news when somebody gets hit by a rock. But, as a rule, they ignore it because it’s leftwing violence against Israel.

What’s the difference between leftwing violence against Israeli soldiers and rightwing violence against Israeli soldiers? They’re both violent; they’re both against the same body. This one is taken and turned into major headlines for a few days and the other one is ignored. You know, they’re both wrong, ok. But one is used for the purpose of delegitimising us and the other one is ignored because part of the media agree with what they’re doing, so, you know, let’s just leave it alone.

You don’t regard what happens in Bilin as non-violent protest?

It is violent. What I’m saying is that the same kind of violence. You can have two different groups that are perpetrating the same kind of violence, and one of them is turned into a major media event, and the other one is ignored.

You have a small group of people today, which is very frustrated.

Are they young or old?

They’re young. People, once they get to my age, they don’t have the energy to suffer like that anymore.

And what frustrates them, would you say?

Policies which they believe, not only are they wrong but destructive, and they see people being thrown out of their homes. They saw what happened in Gush Katif. They see the results of what happened since then. They see it happening again, starting on a small scale and moving up, possibly, to a very large scale. And they see all the warnings that are used to try to prevent that from happening, I don’t know if it’s falling on deaf ears or just not being listened to. They don’t know how better to express themselves to try to get something done.

It doesn’t necessarily justify the violence, but I don’t think… I think what we’re seeing today is still… Let’s put it this way, you don’t need a large group of people… you don’t need a whole lot of people to break into a mosque and write something on the wall. You need one or two people. And there are people who are doing it. Eventually, they’ll stop. I don’t know how or when.

It’s reaching a stage, though, where it’s turning off a lot of people that might sympathise with their belief and the ideal, or the opinion behind it, but once you start to express it, as what happened yesterday in the Israeli army base, people start to say, you’re starting to cross red lines. But, again, I don’t think it’s the… you’re not reaching a stage today where it is out of hand.

Israel’s security forces, whether they be police or army or intelligence, is very large, it wouldn’t surprise me, for example, I don’t know that it is, I don’t have any factual evidence on our table here, but we have seen in the past, provocations, when Israeli intelligence has used people as provocateurs to do things like that, in order to be able to reach a particular goal.

So you think some of this violence is self-inflicted by the…

I think. I don’t know that it is, but it could be. We’ve seen it before.

How about the contrary allegations, that the security forces have been increasingly infiltrated by religious elements and they’ve risen up the ranks, and so on?

I sort of don’t really agree with the word of “infiltration”. You understand the intrinsic contradiction in that, you know, not yourself, coming from where you’re coming from, but you hear this obviously on Israeli radio from Israelis. So I understand where you’re getting it from. But the built-in contradiction is that when religious Israelis didn’t go to the army, they were put down as not caring about the state of Israel and not willing to defend the state of Israel and they’re not willing to put their lives on the line just like everybody else.

So when religious Israelis do go into the army and they are willing to work very hard, and they’re willing to go to officer school, and they are willing to do what everybody else does, it’s said that they’re infiltrating the army and rising in the ranks. If you go into the army, if you send intelligent people into the army, and they’re motivated, then, you know, they can rise in the ranks just like everybody else.

So, on the one hand, they’re saying that the religious people are taking over the army. On the other hand, if we don’t go into the army, they say, ahh, they’re not going into the army, they’re not really part of the state of Israel.

I think that people who receive proper education and they understand, ideologically, the importance of the state of Israel, and they also understand the issues that we have to deal with today, you know, the security issues that we have to deal with, I understand that we need an army and people should understand that, if there’s equal service, or something equivalent to equal service, then you go to the army. Everybody does it – you go in for a year and a half, three years, you can go for five years. And it’s very widely accepted and it’s done.

So, you know, when religious people don’t do it, they’re accused of not caring and not taking on community service the way they should, and when they do go into the army, they say, ooh, they’re infiltrating.

So you feel that your community is damned if it does and damned if it doesn’t?

Well, we’re not talking about Hebron specifically, but on that particularly issue, yeah, that’s an apt description.

Part I – The art of peace

Part II –  From secular America to religious Hebron

Part IV – “I don’t like Tel Aviv, does that mean we should tear Tel Aviv down”

Part V – Palestinian people do not exist, are “PR bluff”

Part VI – Living with Palestinian “dhimmis”

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