A successful caliphate in six simple steps

 
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By Khaled Diab

ISIS really doesn’t get what restoring the caliphate means. Here’s how in six simple steps, from Caliphornian wine to cultural melting pots.

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

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

Tuesday 17 June 2014

To the Islamic State in Iraq and Greater Syria (ISIS),

I understand you wish to restore the caliphate in Iraq and Syria. But are you sure this is really what you want? As a secular, liberal Arab living in the 21st century, I’m not keen on turning back the clock in this way, but I think I’m better prepared for it than you.

Judging by your brutal and bloodthirsty behaviour and the twisted rulebook you’ve released, I have this sneaking suspicion that you have no idea what bringing back the caliphate actually means or involves. Let me give you a clue, it would entail thriving in diversity, penning odes to wine, investing in science, patronizing the arts… not to mention appointing a gay court poet.

For your benefit and other jihadist novices, here is my guide to how to build a successful caliphate – or “bring back glory of the Islamic Caliphate”, to quote you – in half a dozen simple steps:

  1. Caliphornian wine and Caliphornication

In spring if a houri-like sweetheart

Gives me a cup of wine on the edge of a green cornfield,

Though to the vulgar this would be blasphemy,

If I mentioned any other Paradise, I’d be worse than a dog.

Omar al-Khayyam (translated by Karim Emami)

ISIS has banned alcohol, as well as drugs and cigarettes, in the domain under its control. But what these fanatics seem to misunderstand is that alcohol may be prohibited religiously (haram) in Islam, but there was plenty of full-bodied Caliphornian wine around,  as the above verse by Omar al-Khayyam illustrates, which follows in the tradition of khamariyat, or wine poetry.

“Commanders of the faithful” they may have been but Caliphs were known to indulge in the unholy grape. These included the Umayyads and the Abbasids. Even Harun al-Rashid, who is regarded as the most “rightly guided” of the later caliphs, is reputed to have drunk. And even if al-Rashid himself did not partake, his court did, as mythologised in many stories of the 1,001 Arabian Nights, especially his gay court poet Abu Nuwas, who definitely preferred wine to girls.

Don’t cry for Leila and don’t rejoice over Hind

Instead drink to the rose from a rosy red wine.

A glass which, when tipped down the drinker’s throat,

Leaves its redness in both the eye and the cheek.

Camp, outrageous, irreverent and witty, Abu Nuwas was considered the greatest poet of his time and is still up there among the greats, despite the more puritanical age we live in, where his odes to male love would make a modern Muslim blush.

Come right in, boys. I’m

a mine of luxury – dig me.

Well-aged brilliant wines made by

monks in a monastery! shish-kebabs!

Roast chickens! Eat! Drink! Get happy!

and afterwards you can take turns

shampooing my tool.

During to the apparent jealousy of his mentor in Harun al-Rashid’s court, Ziryab, the Sultan of Style, fled to the rival Umayyad court in Cordoba, where, among other things, he taught Europeans how to become fashion slaves.

  1. Strength in diversity

Diversity and multiculturalism were the hallmark of Islam’s most successful caliphates and caliphs. In fact, the lightning speed with which the Arabs were able to conquer a vast empire was partly faciliated by the greater freedom and lower taxes they offered local populations compared to the bickering former imperial masters. This was coupled with an early form of welfare state established by the second caliph, the austere Umar Ibn al-Khattab who lived in a simple mud hut to be close to the poor and believed in social and economic equality.

Under the Umayyads, whether centred in Damascus or Cordoba, and the early Abbasids, Islam’s “golden age” was characterised, rather like today’s America, by a complex synthesis and symbiosis between the cultures which fell under Islamic control as well as neighbouring civilisations. It incorporated Christian, Jewish, ancient Greek, Byzantine, Persian and even Chinese ideas and added to them to create a new, dynamic whole. The Ottomans were also at their most successful when they tolerated and promoted diversity.

This is a far cry from the uniform puritanism ISIS seeks to impose on its self-described caliphate.

  1. Tolerance is a duty

The ISIS advance has resulted in the mass flight of Christians from northern Iraq. And the Chaldean Catholic Archbishop of Mosul fears they will never return, while the ancient Assyrian community of Bartella wait in terror.

This fear is hardly surprising given the treatment ISIS has meted out on fellow Muslims, such as the mass executions of Shi’a soldiers, not to mention the oppressive rules ISIS has outlined for Muslims in its conquered territory.

This is very different from the ideals of religious tolerance which Islam’s various caliphates often aspired to, with probably the Umayyads and Ottomans in their heydays winning top prize in this category, and qualifying as the most enlightened of their age.

Even the traditional notion that non-Muslims are dhimmis (protected minorities) who are free to practise their faith but are inferior to Muslims contradicts the principles of equality embedded in Islam. This is amply illustrated in the Constitution of Medina drafted by Muhammad himself which stipulates that Muslims, Jews, Christians and pagans all have the same political and cultural rights. So it would seem that Islam, as practised by its prophet, gave Muslims an advantage in the hereafter, not the here and now.

Moreover, the Quranic injunction on “no compulsion in religion” also means that ISIS has no right to force Muslims to pray, whether in the mosque or otherwise.

  1. Ijtihad and the greater jihad

ISIS and other violent jihadists not only conduct “holy war” incorrectly, inhumanely and for the wrong reasons, they also ignore the “greater jihad”, the struggle to build a better self and society.

In addition, their fixation on implementing “sharia” is baffling. This is partly because their interpretation of it is at odds with traditional scholarship. Moreover, sharia has differed significantly over time and place.

More fundamentally, the bulk of what is regarded as Islamic law today was reached through the reasoning of early Islamic scholars. Since we live in radically different times, it is high time to reopen the gates of ijtihad – which were sealed by the Abbasids in a bid to cement their authority – and to rethink and reinvent the Islamic legal system.

In its heyday, the Abbasid Caliphate’s capital Baghdad – which ISIS are perilously close to conquering – was a centre of science, culture, philosophy and invention. This was epitomised by the Bayt al-Hekma, which was a world-leading institute of learning until the Mongols sacked Baghdad in 1258, devastating Abbasid society to a similar degree as the US invasion of Iraq in 2003.

  1. A woman’s place is in… public

ISIS has informed women that their place is in the home and that outdoors they must wear “full, wide Islamic dress”.

Well, they should start with themselves and wear the hijab too, since, if it is an obligation at all, it is one that applies to men too.

Although Islam is a typical patriarchal society, women’s place has never been solely in the home, except in a minority of cultures. It might shock ISIS to learn that the idea of cloistering women out of the public eye may not have been an Islamic idea at all but one borrowed from the Byzantines.

Women played a key role in the spread of Islam by the word, such as Khadija and Aisha, and by the sword, such as Hind bint Utbah and Asma’a bint Abi Bakr - sort of Kill Bill characters of the medieval world – who were instrumental in the defeat of the Byzantine forces in one of the most decisive battles in history.

In addition, women made important contributions to science, philosophy and society throughout Islamic history – a role that has been under-researched but is eliciting more interest today. They even ran empires, albeit discretely.

Most importantly, Islam’s attitudes to women have varied according to local culture. Iraqi and especially Syrian women have been on a long road towards emancipation, and even the faithful among them see no contradiction between their religion and gender equality.

  1. Secularism is the solution

Muhammad never nominated a successor (caliph) nor spelt out a method for identifying one, hence Islam does not prescribe, nor does it need a caliphate. In addition, the caliphate often led to instability due to the absence of clear rules for the transfer of power, and contributed to the absolutists attitudes the region’s leaders traditionally have to power.

In addition, the prophet never established an “Islamic state”. In fact, his rule of Medina was incredibly secular. Moreover, Islam’s greatest successes were achieved by rulers who were largely secular, especially when compared to their times.

In fact, it could be argued that the only truly Islamic state, is a spiritual state, a state of mind.

Contrary to what Islamists tell us, secularism is the solution – but I don’t mind if you call it a “caliphate”.

In fact, if you build a caliphate like this, I can guarantee you, judging by the interest on Twitter, that you’ll be drawing immigrants from all over the Muslim world.

____

This piece was republished on BuzzFeed on 20 June 2014.

Follow Khaled Diab on Twitter.

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Gay marriage but no polygamy?

 
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By Khaled Diab

If we can have gay and interfaith marriages in the West, then why not polygamous ones?

Monday 13 May 2013

Marriage is such an ancient tradition that most people take it for granted. Yet, as the impassioned and polarised debate over gay marriage in the United States and elsewhere clearly reflects, when it comes to matrimony, not all humans are created equal.

In some countries, the restrictions go far further, and limit the rights of heterosexuals too. An Israeli NGO which promotes religious equality has created a global league map of countries based on the liberalness of their marriage laws.

As you’d expect Europe, the United States and much of the Americas top the chart, but so do many Asian countries. Propping up the bottom are conservative Muslim countries, as well as North Korea which, in a communist sort of caste system, prohibits marriage between people of differing class backgrounds.

According to Hiddush, the organisation behind the ranking, Israel, despite its proud self-image as bastion of secularism and freedom, is in the company of the likes of Saudi Arabia, Pakistan and Afghanistan in terms of the restrictiveness of its marriage laws. Not only does Israel forbid interfaith marriages, the tight control the Orthodox rabbinate enjoys over personal status issues means that many Jews or nominal Jews cannot even marry fellow Jews – at least not in Israel.

Rather than reform the system and provoke the wrath of the religious establishment, Israel has opted for the path of least resistance and recognises any civil marriages brokered abroad, including gay ones. Although this provides people with a way out of the religious straitjacket and makes the system more inclusive than it appears at first sight, it comes at significant extra expense and hassle – and, by definition, is not an option open to people of limited means, placing a class divide in the access to marriage.

The Middle East as a whole fares pretty badly, as it does in so many other areas related to freedom, such as the media. Across the region, people are generally not allowed to marry out of their sect or religious community.

In my own native Egypt, Muslim men are permitted to marry non-Muslim women, but Muslim women may only marry from within their own faith community. Despite plenty of evidence to suggest that Islamic jurisprudence does not actually prohibit this, the only way for non-Muslim men to marry Muslim women is through conversion.

That said, some Muslim-majority countries, such as Bosnia and Herzegovina, Tunisia, Turkey and Albania, allow full freedom of marriage.

So why is the Middle East so averse to interfaith unions? Part of the reason is wanting to keep religion in the family, so to speak. Another factor is that much of the region fell under the control of the Ottoman Turks who established a system known as millet, which Turkey itself abandoned under the reforms introduced by Ataturk.

Although the millet system gave a high degree of autonomy for recognised religious communities and was once an admirable expression of pluralist tolerance in action, its survival grates against 21st century reality and aspirations. This needs urgent reform, though with other pressing issues facing a region in revolutionary flux and the current ascendancy of Islamist forces, this seems unlikely for some time to come. However, change is slowly gaining traction.

Lebanon, like neighbouring Israel, only permitted the registration of civil marriages performed abroad, now Lebanese are free to carry out such nuptials on Lebanese soil, with the first ceremony taking place recently.

This opens the door for unions between the countries various sects. It also raises the interesting prospect that, while the parliament remains divided along sectarian lines, Lebanese families are likely to become increasingly mixed in the future. And this is no bad thing – perhaps mixing up the population through civil marriages can help prevent Lebanon from erupting into another civil war.

The West has a reputation for having complete freedom of marriage, especially those countries that allow same-sex couples to wed too. But are Western countries as free as they seem?

Well, yes and no. Of course, people of different faiths and none can marry each other freely, and gay marriage is becoming an increasingly accepted norm, both of which are great signs of tolerance and freedom. However, polygamy remains a crime – and I can see no rational reason for this prohibition.

While the Christian concept of wedlock as a lifelong, unbreakable bond has given way to divorce becoming an accepted component of the modern landscape, the Christian aversion to multiple spouses remains firmly in place.

Polygamy in most Westerners’ minds is a symbol of an outdated patriarchal order and a clear sign of gender inequality and is mostly associated with a benighted model of Islam, even though polygamous relationships are not exclusively Muslim, and many in Muslim societies reject or frown upon polygyny. Moreover, some lone voices have started demanding that women be allowed to enter into polyandrous marriages.

Traditional models of polygyny (and polyandry, in a minority of matriarchal societies) do, indeed, tend to reflect social inequalities, between genders, generations and classes. The alpha male sits on top of the social pyramid. And assuming a 50:50 gender divide, polygamy not only means that women in polygamous relationships receive a small fraction of a man, but also some unfortunate men lower down the pecking order will get no woman at all.

But modern, secular society is about personal liberty – even the freedom to live less freely – not moral judgment. People’s rights should not be limited because they offend mainstream society’s sensibilities, as long as their actions do not harm others. So if, for instance, a Muslim woman in the West wishes to become the second, third or fourth wife of another man, who are others to stop her, even if they disagree with her actions?

Besides, a show featuring an aged patriarch with one foot in the grave and his harem was a massive reality TV hit in the United States. Girls of the Playboy Mansion (The Girls Next Door), featuring the Sultan of Porn, Hugh Hefner, and his trophy girlfriends.

While many are likely to find off-putting the sight of an octogenarian living with women young enough to be his grandchildren, including teenagers, there is no law to stop them for cohabiting and broadcasting it on television. But if Hefner were to decide he wanted to marry his girlfriends, he’d probably have the police knocking at his door. Yet what exactly is the essential difference between the two situations, aside from a contract?

Moving away from the world’s various high-powered patriarchs, more equitable modern models of polygyny and polyandry are emerging in which men and women who are largely social equals enter into complex relationships that go beyond the nuclear family.

As the controversy over same-sex marriages clearly reveals, religion and tradition still cast a long shadow over human relationships in these secular times. But in this age of expressed equality and liberty, marriage, like friendship and love, should be open to all.

___

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Gay pride (and prejudice) through the ages

 
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By Khaled Diab

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

Thursday 28 February 2013

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

___

Follow Khaled Diab on Twitter.

This article first appeared in Haaretz on 26 February 2013.

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Sarah Palin v Queer Theory

 
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By Osama Diab

Which is more empowering or threatening for the gay community: the idea that sexuality is a lifestyle choice (unnatural) or an innate trait (natural)?

Wednesday 1 February 2012

Sarah Palin believes that homosexuality is a "lifestyle choice". Photo: Sarah Palin on Facebook

Homosexuality has featured high on the Republican primaries’ campaign trail, with candidates generally opposing gay marriage and homosexuals openly serving in the military, with candidates like Rick Santorum claiming that gay sex was not “equal” to straight sex and was not “healthy” for society.  Central to the entire debate is the question of nature versus nurture, i.e. whether a person’s sexuality is a “lifestyle choice”, as many conservatives believe, or whether it is biologically predetermined.

Newt Gingrich has opined that it is both. But other prominent Republicans disagree. In an interview with ABC News prior to her 2008 run on John McCain’s ticket, Sarah Palin controversially implied that homosexuality is a choice that her friend had mad, while she herself had reused to.

Her comments stirred controversy and caused an uproar among gay rights supporters in the United States, where multiple scientific studies have supported the idea that homosexuality is not a choice, but as natural as the colour of your eyes and skin tone. What is more, Sarah Palin’s church, the Wasilla Bible Church, promised to transform those “impacted by homosexuality” into heterosexuals.

An article published in The Independent in 1992 declared that “science may, it seems, be about to furnish proof that homosexuality has a biological basis – that it is part of the spectrum of normal human behaviour, as common or garden as being extrovert or left-handed”.. This proof brought hope that new laws would be passed outlawing discrimination against homosexuals.

It seems fair enough that gay rights activists should try to bring to the forefront any study which “proves” that sexual orientation is not something we can control or “choose”. A study carried out by the Pew Research Center reveals a link between an unfavourable opinion of homosexuals and those who think sexual orientation can be changed.
The study found that better-educated people are more likely to see homosexuality as innate and unchangeable rather than a lifestyle choice. And politically, twice as many liberals as conservatives say people are born homosexual.

In terms of religion, the gap is even bigger, more than half of highly committed white Evangelicals and 60% of black Protestants say that homosexuality is just a way that some people prefer to live, and just 14% say it is something that people are born with. Similarly, 73% of committed white Evangelicals think homosexuals can change their sexual orientation, and 61% of black Protestants agree.

The same study also suggests that “belief that homosexuality is immutable is strongly associated with positive opinions about gays and lesbians even more strongly than education, personal acquaintance with a homosexual, or general ideological beliefs”. This is the reason why the immutability of homosexuality has been central to gay rights narrative and campaigning. Studies like Pew’s are the reason why Palin’s comment were regarded as counter-productive.

The point of trying to prove that homosexuality is inborn, and make an analogy between sexual orientation and race is an attempt to reduce hostility and social stigma towards those who have sexual desires outside the widely-accepted definition of what is appropriate, and treat non-heterosexual individuals like people from different racial groups. It should be dealt with the same way it is widely-accepted among all sensible people that no one should be discriminated against based on their skin colour.

However, the notion that homosexuality, and more broadly sexuality, is a choice is not only an idea embraced by conservatives or those who oppose homosexuality. It’s a view also shared by some of our most radical contemporary postmodern thinkers.

Judith Butler, in her book Gender Trouble: feminism and the subversion of identity, which is considered a foundation stone for the critical field later known as Queer Theory, argues that identities are free and floating and describes gender as a social constructed performance rather than a biological trait. Queer theory suggests that nothing in your identity is fixed because it’s shaped by a pile of experiences reinforced through repetition and, therefore, people can change. Butler goes as far as calling for the challenging of traditional views of sexuality by causing “gender trouble”.

Queer Theory is widely considered in academic and intellectual circles as a highly progressive view on sexuality and gender. Judith Butler, seen as one of the developers of this field, is considered a prominent radical thinker. If anything, she is the antithesis of Sarah Palin on every single level. However, if we look close enough, they both share the same view that sexuality is a social construct and can possibly be changed.

Of course, the underlying message and the intent from Palin and Butler’s arguments are very different and belong to the opposite ends of the political and social spectra. When Palin says homosexuality is a choice, she means that if you’re homosexual you can return to heterosexuality (in her opinion a normative). Whereas Butler’s stance on fluid and changeable identity calls for a demolition of standards of behaviour and a gender shuffle where there is no longer clear boundaries between sexes, genders, and sexual orientations. Palin uses the “choice” argument to try and influence people’s sexuality, whereas Butler is trying to encourage people to freely chose their sexual identity in disregard of what has been predetermined for us by society using more or less the same argument: that things can change and that we can do things differently.

Change is often more possible than not, and is often very related to the notion of what is a choice and what isn’t. Sexual orientation is usually compared to race by black Republicans who normally vote against gay rights. Some might wonder how some African-Americans, who were once subject to institutionalised discrimination, could promote that sort of discrimination against another marginalised group. Their response is very central to the biological (nature) versus cultural (nurture) debate. One black man was quoted in the Los Angeles Times as saying, “I was born black. I can’t change that. They weren’t born gay; they chose it.”

But nowadays people can change or at least alter their skin colour to make it lighter or darker, using creams, make-up, natural or artificial tanning and sometimes surgery. Some people are mixed race, so it can be argued that racial divisions are not clear cut , which is what Butler hopes to see happen with gender roles.

Gay rights activism has been fighting to prove that homosexuality is an inborn trait rather than a “disease” that could be “cured” or changed, and when science came close to providing evidence that people’s sexual orientations are decided before they are born, Butler intervenes to say that nothing is fixed and people can change everything including the most ingrained of traits.

So despite Butler’s radically progressive views, her call to shuffle gender roles in the cause of stirring up “gender trouble” could actually backfire and cause the kind of trouble she did not intend for homosexuals.

As studies have shown, those who think homosexuality is innate tend to be more supportive of gay rights and marriage equality. So what seems to be Butler’s contribution to the field of gender studies, other than causing utter confusion with her idiosyncratic writing style, is proposing an unrealistic campaign to demolish the longstanding binary divisions, at least in the Western mind, between men and women, gay and straight, which obviously is a very slow process of social change that cannot happen overnight, while giving conservatives an excuse to carry on with their “project” to try and transform gays into “normal” people.

Whether nature or nurture forms our identities and to what extent will always be the subject of scientific and philosophical debate. It will also always be highly politicised, with every group and camp selecting bits and pieces of scientific evidence and social theory to back up their political position. But what is for sure is that Butler’s work on gender and sexuality offered very little to help the gay rights movement in the United States and elsewhere on a political level.

However, the lack of political impact and the failure to influence policy making does not at all mean Butler’s theories are a failure. After all, even if academic work does sometimes influence public policy, this should not be a measure of its success or failure. Academics are different from political activists even though in many cases they do overlap, but they still remain separate roles with different goals.

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Hungary for a better future?

 
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By Swaan van Iterson

Faced with soaring unemployment and the lack of prospects, many educated young Hungarians are being drawn to the radical right. But will it give them the better future they seek?

Friday 5 August 2011

The Turul bird is the national symbol of Hungary. Jobbik voters often wear it on T-shirts, necklaces, bracelets and other accessories. Photo: Swaan van Iterson

Until last year, the international media paid little attention to Hungary. This changed when the nationalist and conservative Fidesz party, under the leadership of Viktor Orbán, won a two-thirds majority in the elections of April 2010, thereby gaining the power to push through radical changes. 

Orbán moved quickly to nationalise private pension funds. In addition, he pushed through a controversial media law, which stipulates that a government-appointed media authority should monitor whether journalists provide “moral” and “objective” reporting.

More recently, in July of this year, his government passed a new church law, which officially recognises only 14 religions, and hence strips the others of the right to receive state subsidies. The Institute on Religion and Public Policy (IRPP) called the legislation the “worst religion law in Europe”.

And Orbán and his party are not finished yet. His latest idea is to allow secondary school children to study “basic military science” starting from the coming academic year.

But it is not just the Fidesz party that is making news in Hungary. Further to the right on the political spectrum the radical Jobbik party, which won 16.7% of the vote in the 2010 elections to become the third largest party in Hungary, is drawing attention.  The Movement for a Better Hungary’s (A Jobbik Magyarországért Mozgalom) manifesto is mainly based on, among other things, nationalism and the combating of so-called “gypsy criminality” (cigánybűnözés). Many believe that the party was closely linked to the Magyar Gárda (the Hungarian Guard that is now dissolved, but still active under different names), which was established to protect the population against this “gypsy crime”.

Jobbik’s main support base is not only found in the ranks of the poor and poorly educated workers in the northeast of the country, but increasingly amongst the urban young. In early 2010, some 15% of under-25s said they would vote for Jobbik – the party was particularly popular among university students specialising in the humanities or history.

This raises the question of why Jobbik is attractive to more highly educated students in Budapest. Most narratives paint a picture of a faceless crowd of “societal losers” who vote for the radical right. Can the same terminology be used to describe these students? I travelled to Budapest to find out. During a month of extensively interviewing students and hearing their story, while trying not to judge and to remain objective, I learned that radical right voters can be far from being the indistinguishable mass of victims they are often taken to be.

 Of multinationals and gypsies

A Jobbik student attends class with pen and bracelet in the colours of the Hungarian flag. Photo: Swaan van Iterson.

Farkas Gergely (25), a recent graduate in economics and sociology, is a Jobbik member and one of the youngest members of parliament. According to Gergely, the lack of prospects many students face leads them to vote for his party: “Many students in Hungary cannot find work once they graduate… For 20 years, no party stood up for young people and so they looked for something new. We have filled that gap.”

A lot of the students I have spoken to indicate that having a university degree in Hungary is no guarantee for a secure future. According to Marcell, a 25-year-old public administration student, the bad socio-economic situation is a result of, amongst other things, foreign interference: “Multinationals, transnational companies and foreign banks have come to the country in droves since 1989. They were able to operate here without paying any taxes while local firms had to pick up the tab – they got no special perks,” he says. “The result is that the multinationals have devoured our economy. They became the rulers of our homeland. Every Hungarian government over the past 20 years has been their unquestioning servant.”

Szuszanna (21), a medical student in Budapest, believes that it is mainly Jewish enterprises that have received this beneficial treatment: “We’re not happy with the Israeli companies which buy up everything here – they ruin everything. They take a lot of money out of the country and invest very little,” she argues.

In Szuszanna’s view, the trouble is that if you want to do something about the situation, you’re immediately labelled as an anti-Semite. According to her, the same problem arises around the “gypsy question”. The Jobbik introduced the term “gypsy criminality” into Hungary’s political discourse, which finally made it, in Szuszanna’s view, possible to talk about the situation - something that is very urgent, she believes: “During communist times, everybody was obliged to work, but that changed with the advent of capitalism,” Szuszanna tells. “Now that you can get benefits, a lot of gypsies don’t work anymore. They spend their benefits on alcohol and cigarettes and when this runs out, they often steal.”

Radical change

Student supporters of Jobbik greet one another by saying “Szebb Jövőt”, meaning “A better future”. They would like to see change not only in the socio-economic conditions but also in the political situation. János (26), who studies IT, believes that students vote for Jobbik because they want radical change. According to him, Hungary never underwent a change of the regime (rendszerváltás). He thinks that many communists continue to be in power under the guise of socialism and that communism actually never went away in Hungary. Moreover, like János, a lot of students view the socialists as being corrupt.

For a lot of the students, 2006 was the time they decided to join the Jobbik party. That year, an audio recording surfaced from a closed-door meeting, featuring the then socialist president Ferenc Gyurcsány. On the recording, Gyurcsány admitted that “we have been lying for the last one and a half to two years” about the economic situation in Hungary. The leak led to public outrage and mass demonstrations, including the occupation of the state television building by football hooligans and radical-right students.

Many of the Jobbik supporters believe that socialist “indoctrination” does not only occur in the political sphere, but also in the education system. Jószef, a PhD student in political science who is researching euroscepticism, would like to build an academic career but, in his view, it is very difficult to earn money as an independent political scientist in Hungary: “You need to have a political colour, otherwise you’ll get nowhere in this field,” he says. “Personally I have had no problems but I have heard others say that it is difficult to get a good position if you’re not a socialist.”

And it’s not just academia. In Katalin’s opinion the media is also dominated by “liberal leftists” (referring to the socialists). The “simplistic and oversexualised” American programming on television annoys her: “The Hungarian media is extremely prejudiced and, above all, extremely liberal,” she complains. “People watch MTV, use drugs, find it normal to be gay and encourage others to become so too. That’s just ridiculous.”

The “bias” of the Hungarian media does not stop Jobbik from reaching the public, János stresses. He says that the party bypasses the mainstream media by being very active on social networking sites like Facebook and Twitter. Moreover, this helps the party to connect better with young people.

Eszter, a master’s student in public administration, thinks that Jobbik is a party for the young generation in a country where there is an intergenerational divide in politics: “Older people lived through communism and miss the security and stability of those times. In those days, there was still work for everyone. This means that older people vote more frequently for the socialists. Young people don’t have the same experiences and sympathies.”

Hungary’s Young Turks?

Badges worn by a Jobbik supporter. Photo: Swaan van Iterson.

Péter is a university lecturer at both ELTE and Corvinus University. He says that students who vote for Jobbik regularly voice their political views in their essays and assignments. According to him, history students in particular are drawn to the party – a phenomenon that does not surprise him in the least: “Hungarians have a history of lost wars and lost independence. This gives you a reason to become nationalistic. Young people are convinced that, given all they’ve lost, Hungarians can only count on themselves.”

Many of the students I spoke to integrate their political views not only into their studies but also their plans for the future. Ákos (21) describes knowledge as his “weapon” with which he can build his future and change the world. Towards that end, he is studying history and Turkish. He believes that Hungarians must have more control over their country, and the only way to achieve this is to become more independent from the West.

Surprisingly for all those right-wing Europeans who oppose Turkish membership of the EU because of the supposed civilisational differences, Ákos wishes to strengthen ties between Hungary and Turkey, as he believes the two countries share a common history: “Most people believe that the Hungarians are descendants of the Finno-Ugric tribes, but this is untrue. The Turks and Hungarians are brothers and there is a lot of research which shows that Hungarians are related to tribes in Kazakhstan.”

For other students, Jobbik is more a part of their daily reality than their future dreams. Barnabás (20), also a history student, wears black jeans and a leather jacket bearing Hungarian nationalist iconography, as well as an armband in the colours of the Hungarian flag. His interest in the Hungarista subculture began when he turned 16 and started listening to nationalist rock bands like Kárpátia and Romantikus Erőszak, whose songs include 100% Magyar (100% Hungarian) and Lesz még Erdély (Transylvania will be ours).

“It is very, very important for me to be part of the Jobbik movement. It is an integral part of my Hungarian identity,” Barnabás admits. “You really get the feeling that you belong to a group. Jobbik helps people who feel out of place but have a strong bond with Hungary to find a community. Before I joined Jobbik, I often felt alone, like I didn’t belong anywhere.”

According to Ákos, this sense of loneliness is common among young Hungarians who have few extracurricular activities to engage in or groups to join. For him, Jobbik is almost more like a family than a party: “At Jobbik, you feel that you’re at home. You are surrounded by people who think just like you and who want to reach the same goals.” He ended our conversation with the following words: “We’re there for each other. We fight for each other. Also for you, a better future!”

The students I talked to are trying to change their future through the Jobbik party. The way they actively engage their political ideas in their daily activities, studies and career plans, and use modern utilities like social media, makes it impossible to label them as ‘losers of the modern world’ or the modernisation process. But despite the solidarity and belonging that Jobbik inspires in its young members, the question is whether the radical right path they are treading is the way to achieve their dreams of independence, pride and well-being.

This article is part of a special Chronikler series on far-right extremism. It is published here with the author’s consent. ©Swaan van Iterson.

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Queer times in Belgian politics

 
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By Khaled Diab

The product of an odd political marriage between left wing Belgian unionists and radical Flemish nationalists could be the world’s first openly gay male premier.

23 June 2010

Sometimes living in Belgium can be a surreal and somewhat comic-book experience. With the economy haemorrhaging jobs, inequalities widening and an empty treasury looted by the banks, how has the government been occupying itself for the past three years?

In contrast to their mostly moderate voters, Belgium’s Flemish and Walloon parties have been engaged in a bitter and Byzantine war of words over language and an obscure electoral turf war – over whether or not to split the Brussels-Halle-Vilvoorde electoral district – which matters to few outside the political class.

Since the 2007 elections, one fragile coalition after another has risen and fallen over these petty issues, with the final nail in the coffin coming in April this year.

Of course, I am well aware that these are partly proxy disputes for deeper historical grievances between the country’s two main communities, bolstered by the regional economic divide, which largely parallels the language fault lines and has prompted many in now-wealthy Flanders to seek to stem the flow of resources to now-poorer Wallonia.

Nevertheless, there is a touch of fiddling while Rome burns about this fixation on secondary issues, and I can’t help but suspect these seemingly manufactured crises are being used to distract from government inaction on issues that really matter, such as creating jobs and steering a course out of the current economic crisis.

So, it was with a sense of foreboding that we headed to the polls last weekend. And, with Flanders’s growing shift to the right and the disarray among Flemish progressives and the air of corruption and nepotism surrounding Walloon socialists, voting almost felt like a futile exercise.

The elections triggered what has been described as a tsunami in Belgian politics, with the young radical Flemish nationalist Bart De Wever (N-VA) and the dandy, bow tie-wearing veteran Walloon socialist Elio di Rupo (PS) emerging as their two regions’ undisputed winners. It was satisfying to see the far-right Vlaams Belang suffer the greatest electoral loss in its history.

If nothing else, the aftermath of this shift in the political landscape should provide us with some interesting political theatre: De Wever, the anti-monarchist republican and separatist, has met with his arch-nemesis, the king, and has been chosen to explore coalition options.

More interestingly, De Wever and Di Rupo are set to forge a marriage of opposites between their two parties and, ironically, though they may be like chalk and cheese, the convincing mandate they each possess and their unquestioned capability as political movers, could actually break the impasse that has plagued Belgian politics since the previous election.

Both have been making conciliatory noises to the other side, with De Wever even breaking some of the taboos of Flemish politics by indicating his readiness to accept Di Rupo as Belgium’s next prime minister – and the idea has caught on widely. This would make the veteran socialist the first Walloon premier since 1973.

And in a twist of the plot, it would also make him, as far as I’m aware, the world’s first openly gay man (Iceland has a lesbian prime minister) to become head of government.

And the great thing is, his sexuality is largely a non-issue in the mainstream, and few Belgians appear fussed by the notion that a gay man is the most likely contender to become the leader of their country. Despite the country’s rather staid and conservative image abroad, Belgium is sexually more tolerant than most of the rest of the world and became the second country to legalise gay marriages.

Sadly, there are disgruntled mumblings in far-right circles. After all, Di Rupo embodies everything they despise: not only is he gay, he is also Francophone and, to top it all off, from immigrant stock.

The Vlaams Belang party, whose core supporters are often homophobic, has not openly criticised his sexuality, despite its clearly stated belief that homosexuality has no place in the public sphere – perhaps out of fear of a public backlash or falling foul of discrimination laws.

Nevertheless, the VB’s strong man, Filip Dewinter, tweeted in the runup to the elections that, if Di Rupo became prime minister he would go into self-imposed exile in Namibia. Given that he’s a politician who claims to keep his promises, a Facebook group with around 40,000 members is calling on him to stay true to his word.

Although I wouldn’t want to wish the anti-immigrant politician on the people of Namibia, Belgium would be a better place without him. I’m also looking forward to seeing how he handles himself as a migrant in Namibia – or perhaps even a political asylum seeker – and whether he follows his own advice to immigrants and assimilates fully into the local culture, learns Oshiwambo and leaves his Flemish identity behind him in Flanders.

This column appeared in The Guardian Unlimited’s Comment is Free section on 19 June 2010. Read the related discussion.

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Faith and desire in Albert Square

 
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By Khaled Diab 

EastEnders is breaking new ground on gay issues by exploring what happens when Muslim boy meets boy – but marries girl.

16 August 2009

Syed Masood, EastEnders' new closet gay Muslim.

Syed Masood, EastEnders' new closet gay Muslim.

When writing about TV’s desperate Muslim romantics for Cif last week, I never imagined the discussion thread would turn out as it did, with Sarka and other readers visualising a ground-breaking new detective series starring a “super-sharp, half cynical but still half-religious hijab-wearing female officer with feminist instincts” – a sort of Jane Tennison without the hard drinking, though other, more “Islamic”, forms of addiction are not out of the question.

The series could have our idiosyncratic heroine being taken out of her comfort zone to investigate the murder of a lap dancer, and how this challenges her to change her prejudices about sex workers, and the suspicious death of a Muslim girl and her Christian boyfriend both of whose bigoted families could easily have committed the double murder, either in isolation or as part of a dreadful alliance of convenience.

While Detective Chief Inspector Kamilah Hussein is still some way off, British television has recently veered off the beaten track to a place not visited since My Beautiful Laundrette by exploring what happens when Muslim boy meets boy.

Although EastEnders is not on my viewing list, our TV happened to be tuned in a couple of weeks ago when I switched it on and the unfolding scene caught my eye. It seemed that a touch of Bollywood colour had landed in Albert Square to offset its grey and grim exterior. The novelty of a British Muslim wedding would have worn off in a matter of seconds had an intriguing encounter not occurred in the kitchen between the groom (Syed, as I’ve since learned) and a big bloke called Christian.

Christian was reprimanding Syed for following his head and not his heart, and Syed was insisting that he was a Muslim and had to go through with this marriage. At first, I thought that perhaps this Syed was in love with a non-Muslim woman but had decided to marry from within the community to please his parents – but then suddenly Chris gently stroked Syed’s cheek. I scratched my head, and Syed swiped away the roving hand in anger.

BBC television’s first gay Muslim, especially his first kiss, has been causing quite a stir. Although the love affair has not created the expected level of controversy, it has upset some Muslims. “There’s a lack of understanding of Muslims already and I think EastEnders really lost an opportunity to present a normal, friendly Muslim character to the British public,” one community leader complained.

Syed may be brooding and troubled, but by all accounts he is “handsome, suave and sophisticated” and a “natural charmer” – so that’s the “friendly” bit covered. As for “normal”, well, Syed’s story is hardly uncommon among Muslim homosexuals torn between the accepted norms of their faith and their desires.

In Cairo, a gay acquaintance of mine came very close to succumbing to pressure from his family to enter into a similar sham wedding while another publicly leads the life of an ambiguous “bachelor”. This “discretion” mirrors very closely the western situation before the sexual revolution changed everything. Sadly, homophobia remains far more widespread than we’d like to admit. In fact, being both Muslim and gay turns you into just about the ultimate discrimination magnet – drawing flak from mainstream society, fellow Muslims and even the gay community.

“When an Arabic paper picked up the story of Imaan’s first conference, an extremist group issued a fatwa against us,” Farzana Fiaz told the Guardian. “After 9/11, we experienced Islamophobia, including from within the gay community.”

A gay Arab living in Germany once told me his hue didn’t really fit in the rainbow: “We run, sometimes sprint, towards a more liberal west only to find that the colour of our eyes, the shade of our skin and the tone of our names are the obvious hurdles we must overcome to survive.”

But it’s not just the outside world. The internal turmoil felt by gay Muslims can often be far harsher than that experienced by homosexuals from more supportive environments. When Fiaz realised she was a lesbian, she remembers: “I couldn’t stop crying for days, I had nightmares, I couldn’t sleep alone, I thought I was going to hell for feeling the way I did.”

This tension has caused some to abandon their religion. “I couldn’t reconcile my sexuality with their teachings, and so I lost my faith,” admits Javaid, who also spoke to the Guardian. Some choose their faith and either suppress their sexuality through marriage or celibacy. Others are reinterpreting their faith and drawing on Islam’s more permissive past and the Qur’an’s ambiguity and general silence on the subject to hold on to both their sexuality and faith.

An increasing number of Muslims are coming out of the closet, even to their families. “When my parents found out, my father did not really understand. But he tried hard to learn … He even went to a gay bookshop and bought a book about being the parent of a gay son. It really meant a lot to me,” said Javaid.

The mainstream Muslim view of homosexuality is still generally hostile or silent. Although the tragic executions in places like Iran capture the headlines, many Muslim countries, like Pakistan, have a vibrant underground gay culture, in the age-old attitude of “turn a blind eye to avoid change”.

But change is coming. For instance, despite and because of crackdowns on gay men in Egypt, more open debate on the subject and sympathetic treatment of homosexuality have found their way into mainstream culture and unapologetic gayness has reached the radical fringes, such as Maher Sabry’s Toul Omry (All My Life), produced by the enigmatically named Egyptian Underground Film Society.

This is an extended version of a column which appeared in The Guardian Unlimited’s Comment is Free section on 13 August 2009. Read the related discussion.

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