The caliphate illusion: “Restoring” what never was

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By Khaled Diab

The tyranny of Arab secular dictators and destructive Western hegemony combined to enable ISIS to “restore” a brutal caliphate which never existed.

Ibrahim Awwad Ibrahim Ali al-Badri has reinvented himself as "Caliph" Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi. But the caliphate he has "restored" is a dystopian fantasy and illusion.

Ibrahim Awwad Ibrahim Ali al-Badri has reinvented himself as “Caliph” Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi. But the caliphate he has “restored” is a dystopian fantasy and illusion.

Monday 7 July 2014

The Islamic State in Iraq and Greater Syria (ISIS) – or simply, the Islamic State, as it now prefers to be called – is well on the road to achieving its end goal: the restoration of the caliphate in the territory it controls, under the authority of Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, an Islamist militant leader since the early days of the American occupation of Iraq.

The concept, which refers to an Islamic state presided over by a leader with both political and religious authority, dates from the various Muslim empires that followed the time of Muhammad. From the seventh century onward, the caliph was, literally, the prophet’s “successor.”

The trouble is that the caliphate they seek to establish is ahistorical, to say the least.

Painting by Yahyâ ibn Mahmûd al-Wâsitî Image source: Yorck Project

Painting by Yahyâ ibn Mahmûd al-Wâsitî
Image source: Yorck Project

For instance, the Abbasid caliphate centred in Baghdad (750-1258), just down the road but centuries away (and ahead) of its backward-looking ISIS counterpart, was an impressively dynamic and diverse empire. In sharp contrast to ISIS’s violent puritanism, Abbasid society during its heyday thrived on multiculturalism, science, innovation, learning and culture, including odes to wine and racy homoerotic poetry.

The irreverent court poet of the legendary Caliph Harun al-Rashid (circa 763-809), Abu Nuwas, not only penned odes to wine, but also wrote erotic gay verse that would make a modern imam blush.

With the Bayt al-Hekma at the heart of its scientific establishment, the Abbasid caliphate gave us many sciences with which the modern world would not function, including the bane of every school boy, algebra, devised by Muhammad ibn Musa al-Khwarizmi. Even the modern scientific method itself was invented in Baghdad by the “first scientist” Ibn al-Haytham, who also made major advances in optics.

With the proliferation of sceptical scholars, even religion did not escape unscathed. For example Abu al-Ala’a Al-Ma’arri was an atheist on a par with anything the modern world can muster. “Do not suppose the statements of the prophets to be true,” he thundered. “The sacred books are only such a set of idle tales as any age could have and indeed did actually produce.”

And he uncharitably divided the world into two: “Those with brains, but no religion, and those with religion, but no brains.”

And it is this tolerance of free thought, not to mention the “decadence” of the caliph’s court, which causes puritanical Islamists of the modern-day to harken back to an even earlier era, that of Muhammad and his first “successors” (caliphs).

But the early Rashidun (“rightly guided”) Caliphs bear almost no resemblance to Jihadist mythology. Even Muhammad, the most “rightly guided” Islamic figure, did not establish an Islamic state, at least not in the modern sense of the word. For example, the Constitution of Medina drafted by the prophet stipulates that Muslims, Jews, Christians and even pagans all have equal political and cultural rights. This is a far cry from ISIS’s attitudes towards even fellow Sunni Muslims who do not practise its brand of Islam, let alone Shi’a, Christians or other minorities.

More crucially, the caliphates in the early centuries of Islam were forward-looking and future-oriented, whereas today’s wannabe caliphates are stuck in a past that never was.

How did this ideological fallacy of the Islamist caliphate come about?

To understand the how and why, we must rewind to the 19th century. Back then, Arab intellectuals and nationalist wishing to shake off the yoke of Ottoman dominance were great admirers of Western societies and saw in them, in the words of Egyptian moderniser and reformer Muhammad Abdu, “Islam without Muslims”, hinting at the more secular reality of the Islamic “golden age”. Another Egyptian moderniser, Rifa’a al-Tahtawi, urged his fellow citizens to “understand what the modern world is”.

Interestingly, many of these reformers were educated as Islamic scholars but were enamored of modern European secularism and enlightenment principles. Taha Hussein, a 20th-century literary and intellectual trailblazer, started life at Al Azhar, the top institute of Islamic learning, but soon abandoned his faith.

Many Arab nationalists not only admired Europe and America but believed Western pledges to back their independence from the Ottoman empire, the “sick man of Europe”.

The first reality check came following the Ottoman defeat in World War I when, instead of granting Arabs independence, Britain and France carved up the Middle East between them, as if the region’s people were the spoils of war.

Disappointed by the old powers, Arabs still held out hope that America, which had not yet entered Middle Eastern politics in earnest, would live up to its self-image as the “good guy” and deliver on its commitment to “self-determination”, as first articulated by Woodrow Wilson.

But following World War II, America filled the void left by France and Britain by emulating its imperial predecessors, though it steered clear of direct rule. Instead, it propped up unpopular dictators and monarchs as long as they were “our son of a bitch”, in the phrase reportedly coined by Franklin D Roosevelt. This principle was eloquently illustrated in the same person, Saddam Hussein, who was an ally against Iran when he was committing his worst atrocities, such as the al-Anfal genocidal campaign and the Halabja chemical attack of the 1980s.

This resulted in a deep distrust of Western democratic rhetoric, and even tainted by association the very notion of democracy in the minds of some.

Then there was the domestic factor.  Like in so many post-colonial contexts, the nation’s liberators became its oppressors. Rather than dismantling the Ottoman and European instruments of imperial oppression, many of the region’s leaders happily embraced and added to this repressive machinery.

The failure of  revolutionary pan-Arabism to deliver its utopian vision of renaissance, unity, prosperity, freedom and dignity led to a disillusionment with that model of secularism. While the corruption and subservience to the West of the conservative, oil-rich monarchs turned many against the traditional deferential model of Islam.

ISIS have reportedly issued a passport. The holder cannot use it to travel anywhere in the real world, but it can transport him/her back to an era which never existed.

ISIS have reportedly issued a passport. The holder cannot use it to travel anywhere in the real world, but it can transport him/her back to an era which never existed.

This multilayered failure, as well as the brutal suppression of the secular opposition and moderate Islamists, led to the emergence of a radical, nihilistic fundamentalism which posited that contemporary Arab society had returned to the pre-Islamic “Jahiliyyah” (“Age of Ignorance”).

The only way to “correct” this was to declare jihad not only against foreign “unbelievers” but against Arab society itself in order to create a pure Islamic state that has only ever existed in the imaginations of modern Islamic extremists. These Islamists misdiagnose the weakness and underdevelopment of contemporary Arab society as stemming from its deviation from “pure” Islamic morality, as if the proper length of a beard and praying five times a day were a substitute for science and education, or could counterbalance global inequalities.

The wholesale destruction of Iraq’s political, social and economic infrastructure triggered by the US invasion created a power vacuum for these “takfiri” groups – first al-Qaeda and then the more radical ISIS – to make major advances.

In an interesting historical parallel, the man considered “Sheikh al-Islam” by many radical Salafists today, Ibn Taymiyyah, also emerged during a period of mass destruction and traumatic upheaval, the Mongol invasions. He declared jihad against the invaders and led the resistance in Damascus.

Despite ISIS’s successes on the battlefield, there is little appetite or support among the local populations for their harsh strictures,  a dact reflected by the 500,000 terrified citizens who fled Mosul. Even in the more moderate model espoused by the Muslim Brotherhood, the Islamist dream of transnational theocratic rule appeals to a dwindling number of Arabs. Only last week, Moroccan women showed their contempt for the conservative prime minister, Abdelilah Benkirane, by converging on Parliament armed with frying pans after he’d argued that women should stay in the home.

Rather than a caliphate presided over by arbitrarily appointed caliphs, subjected to a rigid interpretation of Shariah law, millions of Arabs strive simply for peace, stability, dignity, prosperity and democracy. Three turbulent years after the Arab revolutions, people still entertain the modest dream of one day having their fair share of “bread, freedom, social justice,” as the Tahrir Square slogan put it.


Follow Khaled Diab on Twitter.

This is the extended version of an article which first appeared in the New York Times on 2 July 2014.

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The clash within civilisations

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

Thursday 28 March 2013

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Follow Khaled Diab on Twitter.

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

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The mash of civilisations

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By Khaled Diab

There is no conflict between Islam and the West – only clashes of interests between and within them. But there is a very real mash of civilisations.

Tuesday 25 September 2012

Is there really a clash of civilisations? Do “they” really hate us for our beliefs?

Karl Marx once said that history repeats itself, first as tragedy, then as farce. The riots and Iranian fatwa calling for the death of Salman Rushdie which forced the British-Kashmiri author into hiding for 13 years, can only be described as tragic – for him and for the cause of freedom and tolerance.

In the years since the 1989 fatwa, the rage expressed at perceived Western “insults” to Islam and its prophet, Muhammad, have transcended tragedy to become farcical, with often tragic consequences. Rushdie’s Satanic Verses – which, as those who have actually read it are aware, betrays a profound admiration and respect for the person of Muhammad, despite its criticism of religion and human nature – at least had the merit of artistic and literary quality.

In contrast, most subsequent targets of this brand of outrage have been crude and amateurish, such as the Danish cartoons mocking Muhammad, and consciously out to provoke a reaction, like the poorly scripted and badly acted Innocence of Muslims, which those “pre-incited”, “pre-programmed”, as the film’s spokesperson Steve Klein described them, Muslim protesters obligingly did.

At a certain level, I can understand, though I am personally not a believer, why Muslims would find offensive the infantile suggestions contained in the film that their prophet got the inspiration to establish his faith by performing cunnilingus on his first wife, Khadijah, or that the Qu’ran was authored for him by a Coptic monk.

To my mind, the best reaction to this so-called ‘film’ – which looks like it cost about $10 to make over a weekend, but was rumoured to have cost $5 million – would have been not to dignify it with a response, then its makers would have been left to wallow in the bitter realisation that their endeavour did not capture an audience beyond the 10 people who turned up to watch its one and only screening.

The Muslims who expressed their outrage peacefully had every right to, since freedom of expression guarantees not only the right to cause offence but also the right to take offence. However, the minority who chose violence not only went against liberal, secular values, but also the teachings of their own prophet and an ancient tradition of mockery of religion in their own societies.

Moreover, the protesters triggered widespread disapproval and disbelief across the Arab world. “The only thing that seems to mobilise the Arab street is a movie, a cartoon or an insult, but not the pool of blood in Syria,” tweeted one dismayed Syrian activist.

So why did a production that is so out there it wouldn’t even qualify as the lunatic fringe provoke such outrage and violence?

Part of the reason is a simple case of ignorance. Many Muslim conservatives fail or refuse to understand that the United States and many other Western countries hold freedom of speech, at least in principle, in higher regard than religious sensibilities. That would help explain why so many protesters called on the United States to apologise for the film and ban it, despite the first amendment of the US constitution which guarantees freedom of speech.

But before Westerners take too much of a holier-than-thou attitude towards their commitment to free speech, they would do well to remember that up until very recently Christian conservatives had a powerful influence on constraining freedom of expression. This shows that it is religion in general (or rigid secular ideological orthodoxy) that is a significant barrier to free thought and inquiry, not just Islam.

In fact, a number of majority Christian European countries, as well as Israel, still have laws against blasphemy or insulting religion on their books, and though most no longer apply them, some still do, such as Poland and Greece. Meanwhile, nearby Albania is a majority Muslim country which has a long history of atheism and no laws against blasphemy or insulting religion, and has never prosecuted anyone for such a crime.

In Russia, the punk-rock band Pussy Riot was recently convicted for “hooliganism motivated by religious hatred”, though how their “punk prayer” was offensive to Christianity is unclear, though it was highly insulting to Russia’s earthly deity, President Vladimir Putin.

Further West, cinematic classics, such as Martin Scorsese’s The Last Temptation of Christ, elicited angry protests across the Christian world, including the firebombing of a Paris movie theatre, and was banned outright in Mexico, Chile and Argentina.

Likewise, The Life of Brian, also elicited widespread protest – despite Monty Python’s respectful portrayal of Jesus and their insistence that the film is not blasphemous but only lampoons modern organised religion and the sheep-like mentality it inspires in followers – was banned in parts of the UK, in Norway and in Ireland, and British television declined to show it.

But the current protests are paradoxically both about Muhammad but also have absolutely nothing to do with him. The insult to Muhammad was just an issue of convenience and, had it been absent, another cause would have emerged for popular frustration and fury.

This is not because, as some Westerners seem to believe, that rage and fury are fulltime occupations for Muslims, but because they are fed up with American hegemony (and local corruption) and dominance over their lives, from the bloody wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, to the decades spent supporting and propping up corrupt and brutal dictators, while paying lip service to the haughty ideals of freedom and democracy.

This fact has been conveniently overlooked by Pax Americana’s cheerleaders who, despite having been thrown off kilter by the revolutionary wave which has swept the Middle East, are now returning to business as usual with their suggestions that the fury unleashed by the anti-Muhammad film is incontrovertible proof of the irreconcilability of Western and Islamic values.

Describing herself as a “combatant in the clash of civilisations”, Ayaan Hirsi Ali, the Somali-Dutch feminist, atheist and advocate of neo-con policies uses the latest flare up to call for more, not less, US intervention in the region to bring down political Islam “in the same way we helped bring about the demise of the former Soviet Union”.

Although I admire Hirsi Ali’s courage in standing by her convictions despite death threats, I cannot abide her politics, her wilful myopia to the destructiveness of much of America’s interventions, and her insistence that there is a “clash of civilsations”.

In my view, there are clashes of many things in this world – trivilisations, idiocies, fundamentalisms – but no clash of civilisations. Although culture and ideology can on rare occasions lead to conflict, for the most part, societies enter into conflicts due to clashes of interests.

That would explain, for instance, why the United States decided to invade Saddam Hussein’s secular Iraq, even though it was a sworn enemy of al-Qaeda and Jihadist Islam, yet is bosom buddies with Saudi Arabia, the hotbed of reactionary Wahhabism and the home of most of the alleged hijackers who took part in the 11 September 2001 attacks. It also sheds light on why Israel once short-sightedly backed Islamist Hamas as a counterweight against the secular PLO.

Despite the mutually exclusive historical narratives of Dar al-Islam and Christendom, of Crusades and Jihads promoted by extremists, any deep reading of history will soon reveal that conflicts within self-identified cultural or civilisational groups are greater than those between them. Christians and Muslims have gone to war and killed more of their coreligionists than each other. Take, for example, World War II, whose Christian-on-Christian carnage far surpassed anything the Muslims had ever inflicted. Moreover, the mutual hatred of Catholics and Protestants and Sunnis and Shia’a has often surpassed the rivalry between Islam and Christianity.

Add to that the fact that alliances regularly cut across presumed civilisational lines, such as the Arabs allying themselves with the British and the French against the Turks, or the Ottomans fighting alongside the Germans against the British, French and Russians. In fact, throughout its centuries as a major power, the Ottoman Empire’s alliances shifted between various Christian European states, including France, Poland, as well as the Protestant Reformation against the Catholic House of Habsburg.

More fundamentally, despite popular references to a “Judeo-Christian” civilisation, Islam actually also belongs to the same civilisational group, with common roots in the Abrahamic tradition, not to mention the Greek and Hellenistic, Mesopotamian and Egyptian influences. In fact, Europe and the Middle East, especially the Mediterranean countries, have more in common with each other than they do with their co-religionists in Africa and further east in Asia.

Some will undoubtedly protest that, even if this is true, the Enlightenment and its values, such as freedom of expression, have largely passed the Arab and Muslim world by. But the reality is far more complex and nuanced. Although Arabs and Muslims generally lag behind scientifically, this is not just down to local cultural factors. There are plenty of geopolitical and economic factors which are beyond their control holding them back.

More importantly, the values of the Enlightenment have been an integral part of the secularising and modernising reform project in the Middle East that began in Turkey and Egypt in the 19th century. More recently, it was the desire for freedom and democracy – as well as economic justice – which lured millions of protesters onto the streets, and even if mainstream Islamists have made the biggest gains for now, they have had to adapt their discourse to suit this public mood.

What all this demonstrates is that the clash of civilisations exists mostly in the fevered imaginations of extremists on both sides, but we are in danger of it becoming a self-fulfilling prophecy if we allow ourselves to fall for the divisive, though alluring in its simplicity, logic of the prophets of doom. To remedy and challenge this, moderates on all sides must join forces to highlight the reality and benefits of the mash of civilisations in which we really live.

Follow Khaled Diab on Twitter.

This article first appeared in Haaretz on 23 September 2012.

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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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Nearly sisters: the common cause of Israeli and Palestinian women

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By Khaled Diab

The fog of war obscures the similar challenges facing women in Israel and Palestine and how the conflict hinders them from finding common cause.

Monday 13 August 2012

A photo of a presumed Israeli soldier exercising her right to bare arms – and legs and midriff – with a machine gun slung casually over her shoulder has gone viral.

While supporters of Israel have seized on this image to talk up the virtues of the IDF, pro-Palestinians are bound to view this as an attempt to sex up the ugly reality of the harsh occupation – after all, regardless of how “sexy” an assault rifle-bikini combo on a Tel Aviv beach seems to distant voyeurs, relocate it to a West Bank checkpoint, and it rapidly loses its questionable charm.

As the proud ‘Only in Israel’ caption accompanying the snapshot clearly demonstrates, this modern-day Jewish Amazon confirms Israel’s image amongst its cheerleaders as the land of tough, independent and sexy women who are every bit their men’s equal, unlike those oppressed, repressed and depressed Arab women.

Of course, like with all myths, there is a kernel of truth to this. Secular Israeli women are, judging by what I’ve seen, probably the most independent and empowered women in the Middle East, but their Palestinian “sisters” are hardly pushovers, as I’ve found out for myself through encounters with eccentrically philosophical doctors and capable professionals, frontline activists, articulate artists, and more.

Besides, there is, quite literally, another Israel. Only 60-odd km away from “decadent” and “hedonistic” Tel Aviv, lies “holy” Jerusalem, a theocratic stone’s throw away from Tehran. In the city’s ultra-Orthodox Jewish neighbourhoods, where vigilante modesty patrols intimidate the streets, women must dress modestly, are segregated from men during religious festivals, often occupy the back of the bus, and their ‘offensive’ form is effaced from posters.

The main difference between Jewish and Muslim (and Christian too) patriarchy in the Holy Land is less one of substance and more about fashion – hijabs vs wigs and scarves. For moderately religious Jews, shorter skirts are ‘in’ and trousers are ‘sin’, while the fashion-conscious ‘muhajaba’ will don skin-tight jeans but not bare any part of her legs.

But fashion tastes amongst the ultra-conservative are converging, as reflected by the tiny but growing minority of Jewish women choosing to dress in Islamic-style black niqabs and loose gowns to protect their “chastity”. The Rabbinate has become so alarmed by this development that it has condemned this practice as a form of veiled sexual deviancy, though the leader of the “Jewish burqa” movement insists that it is an ancient Jewish tradition.

Of course, the public role some women play in fundamentalist Jewish and Islamic movements could be viewed as an emancipation of sorts, even if they do preach what secularists like myself view as the subjugation of women, but which they see as respect and honour.

Besides, even among secularists, chauvinism is not always far beneath the surface. Take the supposedly emancipating image of the bikini-clad soldier. While male fighters tend to be celebrated for their courage and bravery, the fawning, fondling hand of misogyny ensures that this “hot chick” is praised for her “Guns’n’Buns” and for putting the “ass in assassin”.

Similarly, while hard-talking male journalists the world over are often widely admired, even by their detractors, it can be a different story for women. Lisa Goldman, an award-winning journalist and co-founder of the independent leftwing +972 magazine, complained of the naked misogyny and the very personal nature of the attacks she has to endure from opponents. “The criticism directed at me is harsher than that directed at my male colleagues who often write more radical stuff than I do,” she told me.

Now back to the machine gun. The spectacle of women bearing arms in the Middle East is hardly unique to Israel (where women, with the exception of one infantry battalion, are actually not allowed to serve in combat), though in the Arab context, such as in Algeria, it has tended to be as paramilitaries.

The “poster girl” of Palestinian armed resistance has to be Leila Khaled, the first woman ever to hijack an aircraft, in 1969, heading from Rome to Athens – though it should be pointed out that she has claimed publicly that she never intended to harm, nor ever did in reality, the passengers. Although Israelis regard Khaled as terrorism personified, photos of her – smiling enigmatically or staring dreamily, while holding an AK-47 and wearing a ring made of a bullet and a grenade pin – have become iconic in many Palestinian circles.

Khaled was a member of the Marxist-Leninist Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine (PFLP), which like much of the Palestinian secular left, and in a similar vein to early secular Zionism, saw the empowerment of women as a crucial prerequisite for national salvation and justice.

The unfolding reality of the conflict has both empowered and weakened women on both sides. An example of this is how Palestinian women have been empowered enough to take to the streets to protest the occupation but are, along with their families and male comrades who “let” them go out, mocked mercilessly by conservatives for emasculating the struggle and trying to usurp what should be men’s work, activists have told me.

And things are not improving or are getting worse, especially in Gaza.

“Palestinian women are highly educated but the positions they occupy are not commensurate to their abilities,” says Nancy Sadiq, who runs a pro-democracy and peace NGO, Panorama, in Ramallah. “At meetings or conferences, I am invariably one of the only women there.”

“In general, a woman tends be to a second-class citizen, whether here or in Israel, though Israeli women have better legal, social and economic rights. The difference is one of degree,” she adds.

In fact, machismo has been prevalent in Zionism which, after all, has sought to craft the tough and muscular new Jew who would never again go like a “lamb to the slaughter”. Even the ostensibly egalitarian kibbutzim were not able to dispel fully the spectre of traditional gender roles. This was something which shocked my compatriot, the maverick adventurer Sana Hasan, the first Egyptian civilian to visit Israel, in the mid-1970s, at a time when the two countries were still in a state of war. “It took me a while to realise that the glamorous image of women pioneers ploughing fields and carting manure… was largely mythical,” she wrote.

The conflict has threatened the gains Israeli and Palestinian women have registered, partly due to the rise in importance of “traditional values” and the religious fundamentalism which it has engendered. Though fundamentalism is partially a reaction to the insecurity bred by modernity, in the Israeli-Palestinian context, it is also a response to victory and defeat.

Fundamentalists and religious conservatives often connect Arab weakness to “immorality” and displeasing God. And returning to the “straight path”, in this worldview, involves restoring women’s “honour”. In addition, living under the autocracy of occupation, much like living under dictatorship, robs people of their freewill and men of their perceived “manhood”, leading many to exercise control over all that’s left to them: women and children.

But Israel’s victories and might have not enabled women to cast off the suffocating straitjacket of religious patriarchy. On the contrary, the idea that the whimsical Abrahamic God is apparently smiling on Israel has led to an upsurge in religious fundamentalism, much of it messianic in nature. As the demographic balance between “secular” and “religious” gradually shifts in the latter’s favour, the importance of women living by the laws of the Torah and Halakha is growing. Although Orthodox women now have the opportunity to study Rabbinic texts and train in particular areas of Jewish law, the basic outlines of the traditional patriarchy still remain intact in religious circles.

The fog of conflict obscures the fact that the gender wars in Israel and Palestine are remarkably similar, and that Arab and Jewish women share much in common in their struggle against the patriarchal order. In a less polarised context, women on both sides of the divide might have found common cause in their struggle against the wave of increasingly rigid religiosity, and its accompanying gender restrictions, engulfing both societies.

This is the extended version of an article which appeared in Haaretz on 9 August 2012.

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From the Chronikles: My plan for a democratic Egypt

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By Khaled Diab

With the right president, Egypt could rid itself of nepotism and inequality to become a prosperous and egalitarian society.

Wednesday 23 May 2012 (first published Sunday 17 January 2010)

This article was written a year before the revolution erupted in Egypt and envisioned the then fantastical notion that Mubarak would be convinced to step aside in 2011 and allow free and fair elections to choose his successor. With that in mind, I dreamed of what I would do as president to fix Egypt, and much of my imaginary programme is still relevant: limiting the powers of the presidency, rooting out nepotism and corruption, addressing the issue of sectarian strife, promoting greater economic justice, slashing military spending, abolishing conscription and spending more on education and research. So, I am republishing this now as my modest advice to Egypt’s next president.

While in most countries, even the most democratic, becoming president or prime minister is a far-fetched dream for almost everyone, in Egypt, the prospect exists mostly in the realm of fantasy. In the six or so decades since the 1952 revolution, Egypt has had just four leaders, none of whom were elected – at least not in free and fair elections.

The current president, Hosni Mubarak, has held the top seat for the past three decades or so. This means that the majority of Egyptians, given the country’s “youth bulge”, have known no other leader.

Next year, Mubarak’s current term will end and, given his age and health, most Egyptians don’t expect him to seek a sixth term. Egyptians dream of massive positive change in 2011, fear terrible instability and disruption, and some might even settle for “business as usual” in the form of Mubarak’s son, Gamal – at least for a few years.

Reform-minded Egyptians hope that Mubarak will step aside honourably and take the unprecedented step of calling free and fair elections to find a replacement. The most popular potential candidate at the moment is former IAEA chief and Nobel peace laureate Mohamed el-Baradei, despite the fact that he has lived and worked outside Egypt for decades.

el-Baradei’s popularity is not only a sign of his international standing but also indicates the Egyptian regime’s unofficial policy of engineering the political landscape so that Mubarak appears to be the only show in town. Personally, I fear that, rather than undergo a democratic rebirth, Egypt will either get a second Mubarak or a period of instability until another dictator takes the helm, though I doubt that Islamists are ready in the wings to take over. Nevertheless, I cannot help but hold out hope that 2011 will mark the birth of true Egyptian democracy.

Upon taking office, and to avoid the temptations of power that have led so many initially well-meaning Egyptian leaders astray, I would probably begin with strengthening and shoring up Egypt’s institutions, from the parliament to the judiciary, to ensure an effective separation and balance of powers. But top-down reforms can, at best, only play the role of a catalyst, and not bring about lasting change in themselves. In order to harness Egypt’s massive grassroots potential, I would end the culture of fear and intimidation – at least, the state-sponsored side of this – that keeps Egyptians down.

I would strive to remove all the unconstitutional and undemocratic laws, such as those hindering freedom of expression and conscience, and dismantle Egypt’s enormous police and state security apparatus.

In order to counteract and reverse growing religious fundamentalism and communal strife I would dig up the roots, rather than chop violently away at the outgrowth. A fish rots from the head down, so it is important to launch a serious campaign to root out corruption, first from the highest echelons of society.

More generally, it is essential to challenge the widespread practice of wasta – which permeates all levels of society and causes widespread cynicism and disenchantment – by strictly enforcing the rule of law, without making exceptions for the well-connected. This will be no mean feat, given how deeply ingrained the notion is, but if Egypt is to become a true meritocracy it is a crucial battle that must be won.

Then there’s the economy, which is often erroneously viewed as somehow separate from society. Seeking political and social justice is meaningless if their economic counterpart continues to be denied – in fact, rather than more growth, Egypt needs more economic justice. Egypt’s economy needs not only to continue to develop, but to do so sustainably and equitably.

In a country where economic inequality has grown to chronic proportions, the chasm between the have-alls and the have-nots needs desperately to be bridged. This should be done through a fair, effective and enforced progressive taxation system, as well as the reinstatement and further development of the country’s dismantled social safety net and concerted government investment directed at stimulating Egypt’s impoverished rural hinterland and neglected south.

This requires not just internal reform but also a revamping of the global economic system to make it fairer for developing countries. In addition, the strong arm with which the US-led west imposes its hegemony could foil such efforts if my “pinko” reforms are deemed somehow to be antagonist to US interests in the region.

In parallel with promoting economic justice, competitiveness also needs to be stimulated in order to generate the necessary wealth to boost everyone’s well-being. This requires robust and enforceable regulations that level out the economic playing field and weed out the de facto monopolies and cartels that plague the Egyptian economy, as well as reforming the country’s bloated and inefficient bureaucracy.

One reason why superstition reigns and people hark back to a mythical and glorious past is because they feel they lack a future. To give the coming generations a sense of purpose and to allow current generations to build a better future, I would slash military spending and abolish conscription, then use the released resources to invest heavily in education and scientific research.

Of course, I realise that my vision is but a dream untainted by political realities. Even a well-meaning, democratically elected president would have his or her work cut out simply steering Egypt away from the rocks towards which it is currently heading. The kind of transformation I dream of cannot be implemented by any one leader but will take generations of patient and careful change. But with the right political and civil leadership, Egypt can reinvent itself as a prosperous, modern and egalitarian society.


This article first appeared in The Guardian‘s Comment is Free section on 17 January 2010.

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The ghost of Christmas past

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By Khaled Diab

The Holy Land is where Christmas began. But with the relative decline of Christianity there, does the yuletide still retain its spirit?

Wednesday 28 December 2011

Santa on the Via Dolorosa. ©Khaled Diab

In one of the bizarre contrasts I’ve grown to associate with Jerusalem, one of the first signs of the approach of Christmas was actually an unintentionally symbolic juxtaposition of birth and death: a kitsch inflatable version of the legendary gift bearer Father Christmas (Santa Claus) watching over pilgrims – and shoppers – as they progress along the sombre Via Dolorosa (Way of Grief), the route Jesus is believed to have followed on the way to his crucifixion.

In the land that quite literally put the Christ into Christmas, the run-up to the holiday season in the public sphere is pretty low key, given that the majority of the population is either Jewish or Muslim. “You see some decoration around, but Christmas here is a normal time of year,” says Dimitri Karkar, a Palestinian Christian businessman. Karkar lives in Ramallah, which has grown, with the influx of refugees from other parts of historic Palestine and Israel’s continued annexation of East Jerusalem, from being a small Christian village to become the de facto administrative capital of Palestine, where about a quarter of its population today is Christian.

This demographic reality inevitably affects the spirit of the season. “On Christmas Day, the majority of people are working, so most Christians work too,” notes Karkar, although he does point out that Orthodox Christmas, which is on 7 January, has been made a public holiday for Christians and Muslims alike in the West Bank. “My wife and kids are travelling but I have to keep my restaurant open.”

Although there is not much sign of Christmas in the public sphere in either Israel or Palestine, in private, the spirit of the season is alive and well. “I most enjoy the family gatherings,” Ameer Sader, a young Christian from Haifa, one of the major Arab population centres in Israel which is notable for its relatively good track record of coexistence. “The colours make me cheerful and full of holiday spirit.”

The way Christmas sheepishly sneaks up on you in Israel and Palestine sits in sharp contrast with the all-pervasive festive cheer in Europe and the United States. “Christmas here feels spiritless and meaningless in comparison to the West,” reflects Sader, who teaches English and works as a young guide at the National Museum of Science and Technology. “I’ve had the opportunity to celebrate Christmas in Paris. I felt the religious meaning of Christmas for two weeks long, as the midnight mass was an integral part of Christmas and the highlight of the celebrations,” he adds, while stressing that he is not a religious person.

With church attendance at an all-time low in Western Europe and the near-comprehensive secularisation of the festival in recent decades, Sader’s idealised description of Christmas in Paris would come as something of a revelation to many Europeans, who spend much of the advent period making offerings for their loved ones at the altar of consumerism, while the “spirit” of the season tends to be a merry genie inside a bottle shared with family and friends.

For their part, foreign Christians and pilgrims tend to romanticise the “purity” of Christmas in the Holy Land. “Christmas here is fantastic because there’s absolutely no sign of the trappings of materialism,” believes Richard Meryon, who is the director of Jerusalem’s Garden Tomb, which is in a kind of spiritual territorial dispute with the Church of the nearby Holy Sepulchre due to its claim to be a strong candidate for the location of the crucifixion, burial and resurrection of Jesus.

“People in England hardly know the difference between Santa Claus and Jesus,” jokes Meryon, who has something of the quintessential English vicar about him, while a group of Singaporean pilgrims sing melodic hymns in the background. “Commercialism has taken Jesus out of Christmas.”

Pilgrims sing Jesus' praise. ©Khaled Diab

And the guitar-strumming young Singaporean who had led his evangelist group of pilgrims in song seemed to share Meryon’s sentiments. “Being here is incredible. I can see Jesus all around me,” he said, I imagine, figuratively. Lacking any semblance of religious faith and not being of a spiritual disposition, in all my time in Jerusalem, I have never seen Christ figuratively. I have, however, repeatedly spotted a pilgrim fitting his description making his lonely way through the old city.

The reality of Christmas here seems to me to lie somewhere in the middle between what Sader and Meryon describe. In a land where people are generally more religious than in the West – whether they be Christians, Muslims or Jews – church attendance is high.

For obvious reasons, Bethlehem, whose population today is still about half Christian, is a popular pull for local Christians and pilgrims alike, with the highlight for the faithful being the midnight mass at the Church of the Nativity on Christmas Eve. And like for Joseph and Mary, those who leave it too long to book find that there’s no more room at the inn. “I just enjoy the whole atmosphere of worshipping in the place where Jesus was born, but it doesn’t look like a smelly cave with a manger and cows and cow poo,” says Meryon.

Despite the greater spirituality and religiosity, consumerism has been making rapid gains in Palestinian society, as reflected, for instance, by the ostentatious nature of weddings, which can last days and consume vast quantities of fireworks. In his grandparents’ day things were different, says Sader. “People back then couldn’t afford the extravagance which we are witnessing nowadays,” he explains, recalling his grandmother’s stories of how she and her sisters would spend days making new clothes for the children and baking Christmas cakes.

Back then, the Holy Land was far more Christian that it is now. During the British mandate, Christians comprised nearly 10% of the population of Palestine in 1922 and around 8% in 1946. Today, Christians make up about 4% of the West Bank’s population, although there are still a few Christian-majority villages about, such as Taybeh, whose skyline is dominated by church spires and produces the only Palestinian beer. Meanwhile, in Israel, though Christians make up 10% of its Palestinian population, they only constitute 2.5% of the total population. In Gaza, the Christian minority is even smaller, representing just 1% of the population.

A variety of push and pull factors are behind this relative decline. One major push factor is the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. The Arab-Israeli war of 1948 caused hundreds of thousands of Palestinians to flee or be driven out of their homes, most never to return – and each subsequent war has led to more Palestinians leaving. Today, though Palestinians are often materially better off than other Arabs, restrictions on movement, lack of economic opportunity, unemployment and the constant indignity of living under occupation prompt many to seek out new homes.

And being relatively better educated and sharing a common religion with the West, Palestinian Christians have generally been better placed to make the move. “Many Christians prioritise their religion over their nationality, thus feeling at home in western Christian countries as immigrants,” says Sader. “Also, the fertility rate among Christians is the lowest within Israel and Palestine, playing a role, however small it is, in their decline.”

But it would be a mistake to see this as a predominantly Christian phenomenon. “What is often ignored is the huge number of young Muslims who are leaving. And don’t forget there are more Palestinian Muslims living abroad than Christians,” points out Karkar.

Paradoxically, Christian charities and missionaries, who often do valuable work here, have played an unwitting role in this dynamic. “I think that an awful lot of well-meaning Christians in the West, whether they are in America, Britain or other places, have poured a lot of money into the West Bank, and specifically into the churches and ministries here,” observes Meryon. This, he notes, “is causing a haemorrhaging of Palestinian believers”, although, as a counterbalance, the numbers of foreign believers and Messianic Jews who believe in Jesus are rising, he points out.

Of course, not all Christian activity has been “well-meaning” towards Palestinian Christians. For example, so-called Zionist Christians are passionately, even virulently, pro-Israeli, and many come to the Holy Land, including mounted on Harley Davidsons, to express their support.

This undermining role was rhetorically summed up by Republican presidential contender Newt Gingrich, who in an apparent bid to court the Christian Zionist and pro-Israel right, made the outrageous claim that “We have invented the Palestinian people”, as if the Palestinians I encounter every day here are a figments of my imagination created in a Hollywood basement somewhere.

Nevertheless, Palestinian Christians in Palestine and Israel I have met insist that, although they may face a certain amount of discrimination from the country’s two major faith groups, especially with the rising tide of Islamic and Jewish fundamentalism, they are by no means “persecuted”. “Being a minority inside a minority is not a healthy and helpful situation,” contends Sader. “Christians feel rejected by their Muslim brothers (and vice versa) and of course by non-Arabs in the country.”

“There is no Islamic persecution here,” insists Karkar, who points out that it was a Muslim, the late Yasser Arafat, who not only symbolised national unity by marrying a Christian but also restored the status of Christmas in Bethlehem after years of Israeli-imposed isolation had made it impossible for Palestinian Christians from other parts to visit the birthplace of Christ. Karkar also contends that even the Islamist movement, Hamas, is not “anti-Christian”.

And in light of the pride Palestinian Christians hold in having produced some of Palestine’s most notable political and intellectual luminaries, Karkar’s assertionis understandable, especially given the traditionally secular nature of the Palestinian struggle for statehood. However, the recent rise of Islamism, although it may not have yet led to outright persecution, has certainly made Christians grow more uncomfortable as they are viewed with greater suspicion.

This discourse of “national unity” notwithstanding, not all is well in communal relations between Muslims and Christians. This is manifested in the growing significance of religious identity politics, as reflected, for example, in the increasingly overt displays of religious dress and the regularity with which I get asked whether I’m a Copt or a Muslim.

The future health of Christians and Christianity in the Holy Land will depend largely on politics and whether Israelis and Palestinians will be able to find a just resolution to their conflict. If peace and justice reign, many diaspora Palestinian Christians may be encouraged to return and help build a brighter and more inclusive future for all.


This is the extended version of an article that appeared in Salon on 23 December 2011.

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A drinker’s guide to Islam

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By Khaled Diab

Although alcohol is ‘haraam’, Muslim societies have rarely managed to stay on the wagon, and vital parts of their culture have developed under the influence.

Tuesday 12 October 2011

Photo: © Khaled Diab

If I said that we went to an Oktoberfest last weekend, readers may wonder why I am writing about it. If I added that the beer festival in question was in the West Bank and there we encountered a couple of self-deprecating young Germans dressed in lederhosen, some may start asking themselves what I’ve been drinking, or perhaps smoking. 

To add to the bizarreness of the situation, this Oktoberfest, the seventh of its kind, took place not in hip Ramallah but in the remote village of Taybeh, perched picturesquely at 850m above sea level and with a population of just 1,500. Moreover, as my wife pointed out, fellow Belgians – who possess not only the world’s best beers but also perhaps the greatest per-capita distribution of breweries – and other Europeans may wonder why thousands upon thousands of revellers had trekked all this way to attend a beer festival with only one beer on tap. 

Secular Palestinians, expats and even leftist Israelis equipped with glasses of Taybeh beer wandered around food and handicraft stands, watched traditional Dabke dancers  – which our toddler son strutted his stuff to – modern music, comedy and theatrical performances. 

Despite its remoteness and tiny proportions, Taybeh has earned its place on the cultural and social map as being the location of the only Palestinian beer brewery. It has battled the restrictions imposed by the Israeli occupation and the rise of Islamic fundamentalism to become a rare Palestinian business and cultural success story. 

This may explain why Taybeh once adopted “Taste the revolution” as its advertising slogan. And, judging by its micro-brewery quality, the revolution tastes pretty good. 

The very existence of Taybeh overturns the stereotype associated with Palestinians – and Arabs in general – as teetotal, fanatical Muslims. This caricature has been reinforced since Hamas’s takeover of Gaza, where the Islamist party has imposed a de facto ban on alcohol, though bootlegging has become a popular, if risky, pastime

Taybeh by night. Photo: ©Khaled Diab

There are those who will protest that Taybeh is the exception that proves the rule. After all, it is the only Palestinian brewery, and it is owned and run by Christians. But the absence of local competitors has more to do with the difficulty of setting up a viable business in the Palestinian territories, which requires a certain foolhardiness and courage – and, anyway, most of the people who drink Taybeh are Muslims. 

In the wider Arab and Muslim context, booze is widely available. Although alcohol is generally considered to be haraam (forbidden) in Islam, only the most conservative countries actually impose a legal ban on it. Egypt, for instance, has a booming local alcohol industry that has been growing for years. 

This is not just a recent Western import or “innovation“, as conservative Muslims might believe. In fact, the history of the region where beer and wine were probably invented shows that most societies there have a long track record of falling off the wagon. The prominent 19th-century orientalist Edward William Lane – famous for his incredibly observant if somewhat condescending book, Manners and Customs of the Modern Egyptians – provides, in one of his lesser-known works, some fascinating details about the drinking habits of Egyptians. 

“From the conversations and writings of Arabs,” he notes, “drinking wine in private and by select parties is far from being uncommon among modern Muslims.” Lane also alludes to the fact that boozing was even more common in earlier centuries, before the introduction of tobacco and coffee as substitutes. Interestingly, the Arabic word for coffee, from which the English word derives, originally meant “wine”. That’s something to mull over while sipping on your morning caffeine shot. 

There is plenty of historical evidence to back Lane’s assertion. Numerous prominent Muslims throughout the ages drank alcohol. Even caliphs, such as the Abbasid ruler Haroun al-Rashid of One Thousand and One Nights fame, were reputed to indulge, despite their title of “commanders of the faithful”. 

Alcohol has played so prominent a role in Islamic history that many aspects of its various cultures and societies were formed under the influence, so to speak. This is evident not only in the starring (or should that be staggering?) role that booze has played over the decades on the silver screen, but also in traditional poetry and song.

Pre-Islamic Arabic poetry is famous for its odes to wine, known as khamariyat, and this tradition continued into the Islamic era. Take Abu Nuwas, Haroun al-Rashid’s camp court poet. In addition to his homoerotic ghazal, he penned endless verse in praise of wine. 

Although he was considered to be the greatest Arab poet ever during his lifetime, Nuwas has fallen out of favour with the modern Muslim reader. But he is not alone in talking up the virtues of drink. The celebrated poet and polymath Omar Khayyám wrote extensively about wine and love, as did the legendary Sufi mystic Rumi.

Modern-day puritans will argue that Khayyám and Rumi used wine and drunkenness as a metaphor for spiritual intoxication. But there’s no reason why their poetry should not be read both literally and figuratively, as mystics have long used alcohol (after all, we do use the term “spirit” to describe some drinks) and other drugs to alter their consciousness in pursuit of the divine.

The relatively relaxed attitude to alcohol in the earlier centuries of Islam may have been due to doubts, in the days before the religion had hardened into rigid orthodoxy, as to whether the Qur’an actually prohibits the consumption of alcohol or merely recommends moderation and/or abstinence. Some hadith (traditions of the prophet) even suggest that Muhammad may have actually drunk mildly alcoholic beverages.

Regardless of whether this is the case or not, devout Muslims have every right to consider alcohol haraam and not part of Islam the religion. But they must also accept that alcohol has always been an integral and largely tolerated aspect of Islamic culture.

This article first appeared in The Guardian’s Comment is Free section on 8 October 2011. The related discussion can be viewed here.

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Scandinavia: is the far right far off?

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By Christian Nielsen

Home-grown terrorism in Norway, a resumption of border controls in Denmark and an increasingly immigration-weary Sweden. Is right-wing politics taking hold in the once-tolerant Nordic countries?

Thursday 4 August 2011

Following the calculated and murderous attack by Anders Behring Breivik last month, Norway now joins the ranks of England, Turkey, Israel, Ireland and the USA – places where home-grown terrorists have taken the lives of innocents.  On 22 July, Breivik detonated a powerful bomb in downtown Oslo and, dressed as a policeman, then went on a shooting spree on nearby Utøya island, killing some 70 mostly young people attending a political camp organised by the AUF, a youth organisation of the ruling Norwegian Labour Party (AP).             

Breivik appears to match the identikit photo of a new generation of home-grown terrorists: no criminal record, keeps a low profile, educated background … basically an ordinary-seeming guy, at least on the outside. But inside, we get a very different story. Inside, is a seething activist whose first and likely last act was aimed squarely at what he views as his government’s soft stance on immigration. Inside, he sees newcomers, with their poor or non-existent Norwegian and special (cultural) needs, as out of place, as interlopers in the ‘Christian Europe’ of yore.

Of course, Norway will wish to paint Breivik as a ‘lone wolf’, a mad ‘crusader’, declaring that his actions will only serve to strengthen democracy, openness and awareness. But the scariest thing about the 32-year-old is that he seems far from the crazed loon everyone perhaps wishes he were – so their comfortable lives could return to normal.

Psychologists and a bevy of experts will spend the coming months combing over his life and analysing his manifesto (all 1,518 pages of it) entitled ‘2083 – A European declaration of independence’ which  he published online shortly before his deadly acts. They will be looking for evidence of collaborators in the forums and fantasy-gamer sites he is reported to have frequented, such as ‘World of Warcraft’, and they will try to piece together his moves in the months to years he spent planning the attack.

The media will do its own investigations, helped by snippets of information leaked which paint a picture of an estranged, hurt figure – a sociopath of the highest order. They will dig into his past political associations, including a stint in the early 2000s with the Progress Party (FrP) and its youth wing, which he reportedly left as his views grew more extreme.  And they will scrutinise his writings and postings on such far-right sites as  But what will this all achieve?

In the end, the extended analysis and media coverage may just give Breivik the ultimate forum he was clearly seeking, or else he would have turned the gun on himself (the final act of many who go on such killing sprees) as police finally cornered him.  He has committed the act and the media has done its part to get the message out, in vivid and graphic images, so instilling the real ‘terror’, the fear that it can happen again … anywhere.

And the impact is far wider than Norway. It leaves an indelible imprint on its neighbours who held a one-minute silence in sympathy after the attacks. Indeed, Scandinavians share a common language base and similar cultural, social and legal moorings. So, they are left thinking, ‘Are we next? Is that guy with the turned-up polo shirt and colourful knit acting strangely?’ Of course the fear is exaggerated, even nonsense, but this is how terror works.   

Far right or far wrong?

There is also going to be a lot of soul-searching and reflection (much like this dossier on Chronikler, it has to be said) on the far right and whether Breivik’s message may embolden marginalised political wings in countries spanning Europe, from the Lowlands, Britain and Germany to the likes of France, Italy, Greece and indeed the Nordic countries. 

Already, Danish politics leans to the right – in the Nordic sense of the right – on a number of issues, including immigration. The government’s decision in July to reintroduce border controls is seen by many as cowing to Danish populism.

 “The reintroduction of controls came as a result of an agreement between the minority conservative-liberal coalition in Copenhagen, and the far right Danish Peoples Party (DF),” noted the World Socialist Website (WSWS).  “DF has had significant influence over government policy for a decade, co-operating with the coalition to impose the strictest immigration regime within the EU. At the same time, it has used every available opportunity to whip up nationalist sentiment within Denmark.”

The Guardian newspaper weighed in on the topic: “Immigrants and their descendants make up about 10% of Denmark’s 5.5m population, and the number of residence permits granted rose by more than 50% between 2004 and 2009. Many believe the Danes have become steadily more opposed to immigration in recent years, reflected in the rise in [Danish Peoples Party] support.”

Denmark takes in comparatively fewer immigrants than its fellow Nordics, except Finland. According to 2010 statistics by the UN’s High Commission for Refugees, Sweden has taken in some 82,629 or around 8.81% of the Swedish population, which is one of the highest in the Western world. It is followed closely by Norway (40,260 or 8.24%). Denmark has taken in 17,922 or 3.23% of its population, with Finland just 8,724 (1.63%). That is from a total of around 15.4 million refugees worldwide.

Danish attitudes towards newcomers with Islamic backgrounds, in particular, haven’t been helped by the fatwa placed on the authors and publishers of a series of satirical cartoon in the Jyllands-Posten in 2005. A Somali man even tried to carry out the fatwa in 2010 and was tried on murder charges. As a side note, you could also argue that the 1989 fatwa on Salman Rushdie, the author of ‘The Satanic Verses’, marked a turning point for Euro-Islam relations leading to fundamentalism and violence. And now, 20 years on, Newton’s third law of motion – for every action, there is an equal and opposite reaction – may have regrettably taken seed. Fundamentalism begets fundamentalism. Still, the laws of physics can and should be challenged!

(Read the German daily Spiegel Online’s editorial ‘The West is Choked by Fear’ concerning the fatwa and European Islamophobia.)

Though tolerant as a state – its institutions and statutes – the Danish people have demonstrated that their tolerance only goes so far when it comes to this sort of intimidation and interference in the ‘Danish way’. That attitudes towards foreigners have steadily hardened in the wake of this cartoon catastrophe is now difficult to dispute.

Sweden’s outliers …

Sweden, after a long affinity with left-leaning socialist governments, has undergone a political transition of its own.  In last year’s general parliamentary (Riksdag) election, Swedes narrowly voted in the Alliance (a mélange of Christian democrats, moderates, centrists and liberals) ahead of the centre-left Red-Greens made of up social democrats, lefts and greens. The Social Democrats have ruled Sweden for 65 of the past 78 years, and are credited with setting up the country’s generous welfare state.

But it was the rise of an anti-immigration nationalist party that has caught the attention of Europe. With 5.7% of the vote, or 20 seats, the Sweden Democrats (SD) entered parliament for the first time as the sixth largest and only non-aligned party of the eight elected to the Riksdag. This meant the Alliance lost its absolute majority but continued to govern as a minority government, which obviously affects the political milieu. 

A BBC reporter sums up this political wind shift in the wake of the September election:  “[The] success of the far right has shocked many voters in Sweden. Winning 20 seats in parliament, the Sweden Democrats have obviously touched a nerve […] The party appears to have tapped into voter dissatisfaction over immigration […] with the result undermining the image of Sweden as a tolerant and open-minded country.”

Sweden Democrats member for Varberg Erik Hellsborn wrote in his blog shortly after events in Norway, “Massakern är ett resultat av mångkulturen” (“The massacre is a result of multiculturalism.”), and he went on to say that the attack may be the worst atrocity Scandinavia has seen since World War II, but that it was not a bolt from the blue. He added: “Detta är vad mångkulturen gör, den skapar konflikter mellan människor, leder till hat, våld och en allmän brutalisering av samhället (“This is what multiculturalism is doing, it creates conflicts between people, leading to hatred, violence and general brutalisation of society.”). The party has distanced itself from Hellsborn and his remarks.

Cities and some smaller towns have seen major socio-cultural shifts in a single generation in the wake of a decades-long policy of ‘tolerance and openness’ to immigration, particularly refugees. But the quaint newcomers have proven to be disinclined or unable to fully integrate into Swedish life. The growing tendency for many immigrants to cluster in cities, such as Malmo in the south, is making it hard for Swedes not to use the ‘G’ word to describe their struggling assimilation strategy … ghettos!

I was in an ‘outlying’ part of southern Stockholm several weeks ago and waiting in a supermarket queue when an older man, who appeared to be from the Horn of Africa, approached the counter with his trolley. He had rudimentary Swedish and knew the basic cashier etiquette; put your items on the conveyor for scanning, check the total on the readout, etc. When he tried to pay with a card, something wasn’t working.

The young cashier asked him to check a detail on the card reader but this was outside the gentleman’s ‘routine’ – he didn’t understand. Instead of trying to explain in, say, English – which I learned that the cashier knew quite well – he kept telling the now flustered older man to do a series of steps to make the card work in a ‘DO I HAVE TO SAY THIS AGAIN!’ sort of volume and tone.

This little story perhaps only hints at the next generation’s unwillingness to abide by its parents’ and grandparents’ more left-leaning ‘softly, softly’ approach to people and politics. The X, Y and Me-generations probably have no beef with foreigners, per se, but equally they have no patience for polite acceptance and the sort of civil code that has underwritten Swedish society for nearly a century.

But does this truculence mean far right parties eschewing unpleasant policies towards foreigners will gain more power, become even more mainstream than they are now? And will we see manifestations in Sweden of Anders Breivik’s “counter-jihad” ideology? (Read the Svenska dagbladet article ‘Hatet käner inga gränser’ touching on this ideology and links with Denmark, Belgium, Austria and the UK).  Hard to say, on both counts. But I can say that the honeymoon for foreigners in Sweden appears to be ending.

Sweden used to be a monoculture of like-minded, racially similar and largely acquiescent or conformist people. Today, it is grappling to accommodate multiculturalism and to hold onto the moors of its once-famed and admired social system, which many (more) now perceive as no longer in everyone’s best interest. 

The risk under the current regime is that the rhetoric could change from the longstanding ‘we understand your problem’ to ‘shape up or ship out’. That hard line perhaps has a place in countries that started as multicultural hotpots, like Australia and the USA, but for countries with strong and largely uniform baseline traditions and cultural norms, such a radical change in tune could easily be interpreted as dancing to a far right melody.

The big question now is, will the Norway attack galvanise moderates and free thinkers in the region to oppose radical right wing ideology? Indeed, debate is now raging in Sweden on the future of SD, and whether its star can really continue to rise now that the sleepy masses have been roused out of their slumber.

So, the world is watching how Norway reacts to its new reality, its new world, and a few observers are keeping an eye on any political and perhaps social repercussions in the Nordic region, and beyond.

This article is part of a special Chronikler series on far-right extremism. Published here with the author’s consent. ©Christian Nielsen. All rights reserved.

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Enemies like us

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By Khaled Diab

Had the threat from far-right extremists been taken more seriously, could the Norway tragedy have been averted?

Monday 1 August 2011

The gruesome and horrifying attacks on 22 July 2011 in downtown Oslo and on the island of Utøya, which claimed at least 76 lives, including numerous children and minors, has caused Norway to lose its innocence, according to Norwegian novelist Jo Nesbø. 

“I came from a country where fear of others had not found a foothold. A country you could leave for three months… and come home to read the newspapers and discover that the only thing new was the crossword puzzle,” he wrote in The Guardian.

“The Norwegian self-image before 22 July 2011 was that of a virgin – nature untouched by human hands, a nation unsullied by the ills of society,” Utøya added. “And yet there is no road back to the way it was before.”

An attack like this is tragic for any country, but in the peaceful and peaceable backwater of Norway, a small country with grand ambitions of spreading peace around the world – such as by hosting the secret talks which led to the Israeli-Palestinian Oslo Accords or by launching the process which led to the Convention on Cluster Munitions – it is perhaps doubly sad.

On 22 July 2011, months shy of a decade after the 11 September attacks in the United States, another virginity of sorts was lost: the increasingly popular and mainstream idea that the greatest threats facing the West are posed by Islamist jihadists and Muslim minorities in Europe and the United States.

In fact, in the early hours following the attacks, speculation by ‘talking head’ experts focused on the presumption that the atrocities had been committed by Islamist extremists, despite the absence of any evidence to support this.

And, even worse, once the identity of the perpetrator was known – Anders Behring Breivik, a far-right extremist and Christian fundamentalist – the semantic shift in the coverage was palpable. Generally gone were the words ‘terror’ or ‘terrorist’ and, instead, we read and heard ‘gunman’, ‘extremist, or ‘attacker’ – even in the normally even-handed Guardian – despite the fact that he is being charged with “destabilising or destroying basic functions of society” and “creating serious fear in the population”, i.e. acts of terrorism.

At a certain level, such speculation is part of human nature because people need to know why, and it is far easier to apportion blame on the ‘other’ than to think the unthinkable or at least the unsavoury, that one of our own did this to us.

But even if it is human nature, such knee-jerkism is not humane, especially because it could have dire consequences for an already-vilified and distrusted minority, i.e. Muslims. This is doubly so when considering that even non-specialists could see gaping holes in the early theories of the security experts.

The main question that dogged my wife and I was “Why Norway?” The only reason we could think of as to why Islamist extremists would target Oslo is that it is a ‘soft target’. This could perhaps explain the bombs which went off in the government quarter, but why attack a Labour Party youth camp? And with bombings being the choice method used by Islamists when attacking Western targets, why did a gunman go around picking off individuals one after the other?

Well, even we had internalised the security narrative sufficiently to doubt our doubts, and decide it may have been Jihadists after all, despite our suspicions. Then, reports began to spread that witnesses were saying that the attacker was blond. As the details emerged, the initial outrage turned to shock and surprise – since when did white Europeans engage in terrorism and kill their own, many were asking?

This can’t be terrorism, these must be the actions of a mad “lone wolf”, some were insisting. But Breivik himself claims that he is not alone and is part of a Europe-wide anti-Islam network with two cells in Norway.

Although the attacks in Norway have taken the world by surprise, the signs that something like this might happen have been there for many years for those who were willing to take off their Islamist blinkers and look objectively at the wider picture.

Last year, on the fifth anniversary of the 7 July terror attacks in London, when debate again focused on “homegrown extremism”, but of the Islamist ilk, not the European far-right, I wrote, in an opinion piece for The Guardian in the UK, that neo-Nazism and other far-right ideologies in Europe probably constitute a greater threat than Islamic extremism.

I argued that, while the threat posed by a small number of violent Islamist extremists is very real and the danger of Islamic fundamentalism should not be downplayed or understated, the risk posed by the European far-right was greater because it is an indigenous ideology that can cruise under the radar while society is distracted with the spectre of external threats.

“Neo-Nazis have yet to pull off any attack as spectacular as those in Madrid or London. But that doesn’t mean they don’t want to or don’t plan to,” I cautioned. Moreover, they “are responsible for a regular and growing stream of violence against Muslims, Jews, blacks and other minorities across Europe”.

A lot of readers, inspired by the assurances of ‘security experts’, at the time dismissed my thesis, with some even accusing me of “agenda-pushing” and “fear-mongering”, with claims that “the far right are simply not a menace”.  Likewise, my theory, which I expounded three years earlier, that the United States and some parts of Europe were in the throes of a nascent “Christian jihad” was also met with a fair amount of ridicule.

So, the conventional wisdom remained the guiding principle, and Western security services continued their quest to protect us from the Islamist threat, with Europol reporting a 50% increase in the arrests of suspected Islamic extremists in 2010. Meanwhile, Anders Behring Breivik, was working for several years to blow this conventional wisdom out of the water: apparently undetected, he plotted this attack, tried to purchase weapons, engaged in hate-filled online debate and wrote a 1,500-page far-right manifesto entitled ‘2083 – a European Declaration of Independence’.

In its 2010 report, Europol did not take very seriously the risk posed by right-wing extremism, judging that the “threat from right-wing extremism appears to be on the wane and the numbers of right-wing extremist criminal offences are relatively low”. However, it noted that “the professionalism in their propaganda and organisation shows that right-wing extremist groups have the will to enlarge and spread their ideology”.

So was Breivik’s apparent ability to cruise below the radar an understandable oversight or a monumental security failure?

On the one hand, the presumption of innocence until proven guilty is an important pillar of the legal system and, according to Janne Kristiansen, chief of the Norwegian Police Security Service, Breivik was careful in the run-up to the attack and “deliberately desisted from violent exhortations on the net [and] has more or less been a moderate”.

On the other hand, Islamists who believe in creating a global Islamic caliphate, for instance, are routinely monitored by European security services, and numerous arrests of conservative Muslims have been made over the years on the slightest suspicion of possible violent intent. In Breivik’s case, he managed to research and write a lengthy manifesto containing many worrying passages, including his belief that his actions will help to spark a civil war in Europe that will ultimately lead to the expulsion of “cultural Marxists” and Muslims.

Moreover, even if his initial preparations were careful, Breivik’s megalomania seems to have got the better of him in the final countdown to the attack, which could have afforded security services the chance to apprehend him before he caused real destruction.

Six hours before the fateful and bloody killings, Breivik posted a YouTube video in which he urged fellow ultra-conservatives to “embrace martyrdom”. A text accompanying the video detailed his plans for the attack, while his blood-chilling manifesto was released an hour and a half beforehand – yet no action seems to have been taken to apprehend him. 

Why? Perhaps in a country that has never been rocked by a major terrorist attack, Norway’s security services were wholly unprepared for such an eventuality, at least, one originating with a native Norwegian – after all, what possible reason could a Norwegian have to commit violetn terrorism in such a prosperous and egalitarian society.

 At another level, perhaps Norwegian and European security services, like society at large, have so internalised the false yet popular notion that, although the majority of Muslims are not terrorists, the majority of terrorists are Muslims. I wonder if, in future, we will learn that Breivik’s name was flagged by some low-ranking analyst but his or her superiors failed to take the warning seriously.

Breivik provides an object lesson to Europeans and Americans alike that they ignore the extremists within their own ranks at their peril. There are also important lessons to be drawn from the West’s security-obsessed handling of Islamic extremism when it comes to the far-right. Far-right extremism cannot solely be viewed through the prism of security, but we need to strike at the ideological and socioeconomic factors that fuel it.

To do so, we need to build greater awareness and better understanding of the socioeconomic and cultural factors feeding this phenomenon. Just like their Islamist counterparts, many people who are drawn to far-right ideologies feel disempowered and marginalised, and believe that the way to overcome this is to turn back the clock to an idyllic ‘pure’ past.

And, as unemployment figures rise and government spending falls on the back of the recession, this sense of exclusion and frustration will grow – and minorities will continue to fill the role of convenient scapegoat for the economic ills visited upon us by the banking crisis and neo-liberal economics.

“The economic recession has led to political and social tensions and, in a number of member states, has fuelled the conditions for terrorism and extremism,” concludes Europol.

Mainstream society is, in certain ways, complicit in the emergence of this troubling current. The increasingly mainstream vilification and demonisation of the West’s Muslim minority and Islam in general – based on fear, insecurity, ignorance and political expediency, as well as the worry that extremist groups will succeed in their bid to ‘Islamise’ Europe – since the 11 September terror attacks a decade ago has created fertile ground for the far-right to lay down deeper roots.

We should not deal with far-right extremism and its violent manifestations with the same level of sensationalism and mass hysteria we reserve for extremist Islam – we need to be vigilant, not vigilante about it.

This article is part of a special Chronikler series on far-right extremism.

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