Putting Palestine on the culinary map

 
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By Raya Al Jadir

The most delicious way to a society’s soul is through its stomach, believes the creator of Palestine on a Plate.

Freekeh soup. Photo: ©Joudie Kalla

Freekeh soup. Photo: ©Joudie Kalla

Monday 29 June 2015

JoudieConflict Kitchen is an eatery in Pittsburgh with a political message: uniting people through food. It serves food primarily from countries which are in conflict with the United States, hence its name.

One recent guest chef at Conflict Kitchen was Joudie Kalla, who was born to Palestinian parents but has spent most of her life in London.

The acclaimed Palestinian chef also has her own personal project which aims to reclaim Palestinian identity by spreading its cuisine. Palestine on a Plate is a cookery application that has been making gradual but noticeable progress over the past few months, already clocking up 12,000 likes on Facebook. The app offers food lovers the chance to taste the beauty of Palestine through its best-known dishes.

Kalla says her love for food was ignited when, at the tender age of four, she would sit in the kitchen with her three sisters and watch her mother cook several dishes at a time. “I loved baking cakes with her and bread stuffed with different fillings. I knew then that I wanted to be a chef,” she says.

Like many little girls, Kalla’s obsession was with Barbie dolls but food came a close second. When she started school, she chose to study home economics which is “sadly not offered to children these days,” she says. She used to rush home from class to see what was for dinner and to see if she could help in any way to prepare the food. Kalla admits it made her a little anti-social, as she loved to be behind the stove more than with other people. “All I wanted to know is if someone liked my food. I felt comfortable in the kitchen and really blossomed there,” she confesses.

Although Kalla has a degree in art, architecture and design and holds a master’s degree in French culture and civilisation, she changed her direction at the age of 21. Her father did not fully approve of her decision to become a professional chef because he was “exceptionally difficult to please… but he was tough on me for a reason. He wanted me to be the best I could be and true to myself.”

In contrast, her mother was very supportive and encouraged her. “She really felt and feels that I am living on through her with my food, which is actually true,” explains Kalla. Cooking for Kalla is a combination of a hobby, a profession and a lifestyle: “It makes me happy. Happy to cook and happy to feed.”

Zaatar chicken: ©Joudie Kalla

Zaatar chicken: ©Joudie Kalla

Kalla goes on to describe how food evokes the taste and aroma of nostalgia, reminding you of “home”. Food is sometimes a practical way of connecting you to your past and to your identity. “My recipes were a way to become closer to [my mother], as I felt very far away when I moved out of London and went to France. I had never left home and being away made me miss all of my comforts,” Kalla recalls.  Intrigued by the creativity of the kitchen, Kalla explains that cooking “allows me to paint on a plate, so to speak. My mind goes into a totally different world as it closes off to everything else and frees me to just focus on what I wanted. I love creating things and finding a way to put my feelings on a plate.”

As a Palestinian woman striving to be a chef, Kalla had her work cut out. She often found herself to be the only woman in the kitchen, making it harder to be taken seriously by her male peers. The only time she felt like she was offered any real guidance was at her last job: “My chef guided me in the right direction to find my way and begin my own catering company and then later to open my own place. You really need support in this field to keep motivated when times are tough.”

Kalla went to Leiths School of Food and Wine, a prestigious cookery school in London. She has worked in Pengelly’s, a Gordon Ramsay restaurant, Daphne’s and Papillon, with Michelin-starred chef David Duverger.

After closing her deli at the end of 2014, Kalla took some time off but many of her old customers called and e-mailed her asking for recipes for dishes such as makloubeh, fattet djaj and sayyadiyeh. This inspired Kalla to document the recipes and Palestine on a Plate was conceived.

The application began its life with the help of Kalla’s friend Steph Ansari, also of Palestinian heritage, who helped build it. Kalla describes the venture as “a labour of love and it still is as it needs constant nurturing”.

Sumac tomatoes. Photo: ©Joudie Kalla.

Sumac tomatoes. Photo: ©Joudie Kalla.

She says she feels a special bond to the application not just because it is her own venture but she believes it has “benefited me because it made me learn more about my background and investigate my history. It has made my mother and I even closer and made me more proud to be, not only an Arab, but specifically a Palestinian.”

Palestine On a Plate has received generally positive reactions. Many have expressed their appreciation of the photos and ideas for the recipes, as well as Kalla’s own personal twists to classic dishes. It is not just the ordinary public who have given it the thumbs up but Kalla has received encouraging comments from culinary experts such as Loyd Grossman, Tony Kitous  and Ian Pengelley, who described her as “the foremost expert in Palestinian food and is by far the biggest contributor to making Palestinian cooking the popular cuisine that it is today”.

Politically, Kalla has been slandered by some Israelis and she has been asked whether she stuffs the food with explosives, yet this has not deterred her from continuing the path she started. “If it angers people, then maybe I am doing something right… I would have thought that food is something that would unite people, but sometimes it can divide too.”

The kitchen has become one battleground in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. “If someone wants to try and claim our food, I can’t stop them but I can try to set the facts straight,” says Kalla. “Our food is sensational, who would not want to claim it as their own?”

But Kalla has also received very positive reactions in Israel, such as a flattering feature about her career and app which recently appeared in Haaretz.

Palestine on a Plate covers recipes from all over historic Palestine and is not focused on one area in particular. Kalla is concerned that Palestinians are losing their identity. “People don’t see our food as Palestinian food anymore, they see it as Israeli or Jewish food,” she says. “We need to own this again and empower our culture with our history and background. Not lose it [to] propaganda and the media.”

M'tabak. Photo: ©Joudie Kalla.

M’tabak. Photo: ©Joudie Kalla.

This is the challenge that Kalla has set for herself: to educated people about Palestinian cuisine. “We have enough Italian, French and Chinese restaurants out there, but not many Palestinian restaurants,” she says.

Kalla’s passion for food and Palestine are the main force behind her determination. “I believe in this 100%. I love it and people love it too,” she says, pointing to the +12,000 followers Palestine on a Plate has on Instagram. “It makes it all worth it. I was worried that not all markets would understand the title, because let’s face it, not many people acknowledge Palestine, but I am not going to hide the most important part of me.”

The most popular dish featured on the application, Kalla says, is m’tabak which her mother only recently taught her to make. It is a flaky pastry filled with halloumi and ricotta baked at a high heat and then drizzled with lemon-sugar syrup, topped off with dried roses and pistachios. ““It is sensational… Incredible and simple,” enthuses Kalla. “My own personal favourite Palestinian dish is makloubeh. The combination of lamb, cinnamon scented rice and fried aubergines with yoghurt is a marriage made in heaven. Always a crowd pleaser.”

Kalla’s ambition for the future is to see Palestine on a Plate turn into a cook book, a small deli, and supper clubs throughout the year teaching people how to cook Palestinian food.

“We have so much to offer as a people and as a country,” believes Kalla. “I hope to shed light on that and many other wonders of our homeland.”

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Hagia Sophia: A symbolic bridge or wedge?

 
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By Khaled Diab

The Hagia Sophia must not become a mosque. If its status must change, it should become a space of tolerance, where both Christian and Muslim worship.

The Hagia Sophia when it was a mosque.

The Hagia Sophia when it was a mosque.

Tuesday 16 June 2015

In breath-taking Istanbul, it is perhaps one of the most stunning spots of all: standing sandwiched between the sublime Hagia Sophia and the magnificent Sultanahmet (Blue) mosque which face each other like the intimidatingly gorgeous finalists at a beauty pageant.

Reputed to have been built by Sultan Ahmet I in part to show that the Ottomans could match, and even surpass, the grandeur of the Byzantine splendour of Hagia Sophia, the two majestic edifices show how these two closely related rival religions can sometimes push each other to loftier levels of excellence.

But this rivalry can also plunge to levels of supreme pettiness. Take the hundreds of protesters who recently took part in a rally to demand that the Hagia Sophia museum be converted into a mosque – the latest step in a sustained campaign which has pitted Turkey’s Islamists against its secularists.

The Mufti of Ankara, Mefail Hızlı, believes that Pope Francis’s decision to recognise the mass killing of Armenians during World War I as “the first genocide of the 20th century” would “accelerate the process for Hagia Sophia to be re-opened for [Muslim] worship”.

Though the Pope’s statement reflects the general consensus of non-Turkish historians, the Mufti’s remarks betray a profound confusion about Christian history and ideology, such as the famous East-West schism. After all, Francis, born Jorge Mario Bergoglio, is the pope of the Catholic church, while the Hagia Sophia served for nearly a millennium as the spiritual heart of Greek Orthodoxy.

This is yet another telling example of how Eastern Christians have been caught uncomfortably in the middle of the centuries-old rivalry between Western Christianity and Islam. This was most spectacularly illustrated when the Fourth Crusade rampaged through Constantinople (now Istanbul), in what has been described as “one of the most profitable and disgraceful sacks of a city in history”.

And the confusion does not stop with Christianity. Those calling for the one-time Orthodox basilica to be re-converted into a mosque seem to misunderstand Islamic theology too. The Quran clearly demands the protection of churches, synagogues and other places of monotheistic worship.

In a similar spirit, the prophet Muhammad sealed numerous covenants with Christian and Jewish communities, including the monks of Mount Sinai, which protected their freedoms and their holy places.

This concept was eloquently expressed at another magnificent church in another sacred city. The second caliph, Umar Ibn al-Khattab, showed considerable foresight when accepting the surrender of Jerusalem after a bloodless siege. When invited by Patriarch Sophronius to pray with him in the Holy Sepulchre, Umar reportedly refused out of fear that “Muslims of a future age would have infringed the treaty under colour of imitating my example.”

Umar’s attempt to avoid this outcome by praying in an open space nearby did not completely avoid this fate. And true to his expectation, a few centuries later, the Ayyubids built a mosque where Umar had prayed, a short distance away from Christianity’s holiest church.

Despite these clear injunctions and precedents, there is, unfortunately, a long history of important churches being converted into mosques. These include the Umayyad mosque in Damascus – which had previously served as an Aramaean and Roman temple, before it became a Christian cathedral – and the Hagia Sophia itself, which Sultan Mehmet II insisted should become a mosque upon his bloody conquest of Constantinople.

And it is to the five centuries during which the Ayasofya served as a mosque until Ataturk converted it into a museum that Islamist nostalgists wish to return . But in addition to conflicting with the spirit of the faith they claim to follow, this has dangerous symbolic consequences for the future.

If modern Turkey which has a reputation for secular tolerance and a tradition of moderate Islam converts this enormously significant monument into a mosque, what signal is this sending out to jihadists and other radicals?

At a time when Christians in the Middle East need the support and solidarity of their mainstream Muslim compatriots, this would constitute a slap in the face and may further embattle their increasingly precarious and vulnerable position.

At a time when Islamophobia is on the rise in Europe, a highly symbolic move like this can be exploited by anti-Muslims to further stigmatise and marginalise European Muslims, including three million people of Turkish origin in Germany alone.

In these troubled times, it would be best for Turkey to take a leaf out of the annals of Islamic tolerance rather than its chapters of intolerance, and fulfil its longstanding potential as a bridge between “East” and “West”, between “Islam” and “Christendom”.

Personally, I prefer the idea that the Hagia Sophia should remain in its current form, a museum where all of humanity – be they people of faith or not – can come together and admire the beauty of human creativity and dedication.

However, if it must again become a place of worship, then this magnificent space should reflect its long history as both a church and a mosque. If Muslims and Christians both worship in this single space, it would send out a powerful message of coexistence at a time when the forces of intolerance are mounting a major assault on our common humanity.

____

Follow Khaled Diab on Twitter.

This article first appeared on Al Jazeera on 7 June 2015.

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Enslaved by history

 
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By Khaled Diab

Failing to acknowledge the legacy of slavery on all our modern societies makes the present an unnecessary slave to history.

A scene from Twelve Years a Slave.

A scene from Twelve Years a Slave.

Wednesday 13 May 2015

Like Ferguson before it, the upheavals in Baltimore have been linked by numerous historians to the legacy of slavery. Describing the United States as originally a “slave holder’s republic”,  historian Gerald Horne explained, which led to a view of Africans as “the enemies of the republic”, resonating right down to the present. “The origins of [the] urban police department lies precisely in the era of slavery. That is to say, slave patrols,” he added.

While the impact of slavery and then segregation are clear to see in the poverty, marginalisation, mass incarceration and prejudice with which African-Americans have to live, it is by no means a uniquely American experience – the whole world is struggling to deal with the legacy of one human claiming ownership of another.

Owing to its superpower status and the harsh cruelty of its particular brand of enslavement, the American experience has become the global benchmark. But the reality of slavery is far more diverse. Although Africa is the continent most bled by slavery, slaves have been of all races, nations and groups. The very word “slave” refers to the “Slavs”, who were a major source of slavery in medieval Europe.

Even in the Americas, there were some white slaves, who predated their black counterparts at a time when Africans were too expensive to be economically viable. For the British, the earliest source of slaves for their American colonies were drawn from their prototype colony, Ireland.

A white woman sold as a slave wife to an English settler in Jamestown, Virginia. Image: http://immigrationmuseum.wikispaces.com/2.+Indentured+Servants+and+Slaves

A white woman sold as a slave wife to an English settler in Jamestown, Virginia.
Image: http://immigrationmuseum.wikispaces.com/2.+Indentured+Servants+and+Slaves

England’s blood-soaked re-conquest of Ireland in the 17th century – led by theocratic dictator and Protestant Puritan Oliver Cromwell –  involved clearing vast swathes of the country of its Irish Catholic inhabitants. Many thousands of the displaced were sent to the Caribbean as slaves.

Some historians who remember this forgotten episode prefer to use the term “indentured servant” but, to my mind, this is just a euphemism for slave, since these so-called servants were “personal property, and they or their descendants could be sold or inherited”. In fact, an English adventurer of the time described these hapless Irish as “derided by the negroes, and branded with the Epithet of ‘white slaves’”.

By one of those quirks of history, this brings us to another Baltimore, this time in Ireland. In 1631, this village in Cork was sacked by Barbary pirates, whose inhabitants – mainly English settlers whose compatriots would a few years later enslave the Irish – were carried off into slavery.

European slaves in 19th-century Algiers.

European slaves in 19th-century Algiers.

Between 1530 and 1780, these Muslim pirates captured up to 1.25 million Christian Europeans, according to one estimate, causing the inhabitants of many coastal areas of Europe to flee in fear.

From our contemporary vantage point after centuries of Western global dominance, it is hard to fathom that Europeans were ever slaves. But Middle Eastern slave markets were well-stocked with them. These included, at various periods, Caucasians (i.e. from the Caucasus), Slavs, Albanians, Greeks and even Norsepeople.

However, owing to the Islamic restrictions on enslaving “people of the book”, by the 14th century, Africa was the primary source of slaves in the Middle East. Perhaps as many as 14 million Africans were carried off into slavery by Arabs/Muslims, comparable to the Transatlantic slave trade, albeit over a longer period.

Slavery in the Arab and Muslim world differed significantly from that practised in the Americas. Though, like in America, many slaves were engaged in back-breaking work in abysmal conditions, perhaps the majority were employed as servants, concubines and soldiers. In addition, freeing slaves was considered a noble act in Islam and, hence, many were liberated.

Shagaret el-Dur.

Shagaret el-Dur.

Moreover, not all were of a lowly status. A fortunate minority of slaves enjoyed a higher social status than free men and women. For instance, one of the most creative eras of my native Egypt’s history occurred under the Mamluks, slave warriors raised to rule, and the only woman to govern Egypt in the Islamic era was Shagaret el-Dur, a former slave girl. But I’m doubtful that such prestige or power compensated its holder for the early trauma of being kidnapped from their family and regarded as someone else’s property.

Though viewed more negatively, African slaves, too, could rise to high positions of influence. One example of this was the position of Kizlar Agha, the Ottoman chief eunuch and the third most influential position in the Sultan’s court.

For various complex reasons, slavery took longer to die out in the Arab world than in the West, with the countries of the Gulf not abolishing it until the mid-20th century. Despite this, the social, economic, political and cultural legacies of slavery are given very little attention in the Arab world.

The Kizlar Agha.

The Kizlar Agha.

For example, though the long and diverse history of slavery in the Arab world means that just about anyone of us could have a slave as an ancestor, the insult “abeed” (“slaves”) – which has even made it across the Atlantic – is only used to deride those of African extraction. Alongside classicism, the legacy of slavery also colours the attitudes of some Arabs towards domestic servants and migrant workers.

Few Arabs I’ve encountered ask themselves how does the history of slavery affect our relationship with the places where slaves originated and how they perceive us. Within our own societies, this legacy can lead to discrimination and can help facilitate the exploitation of bonded labourers.

Failing to acknowledge and challenge the impact of slavery on our modern societies makes the present an unnecessary slave to history.

____

Follow Khaled Diab on Twitter.

This article first appeared on Al Jazeera on 8 May 2015.

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Making halal sexy

 
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By Khaled Diab

Though halal sex may sound as logical as kosher bacon, it does make its own sense. Some Muslims are utilising the concept to break the taboo around sex.

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

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

Tuesday 12 May 2015

Though Muslims attitudes to sex are as diverse as those found in any other global religious community, the image of contemporary Islam is certainly not sexy. This may explain why a news story about plans to open a halal sex shop in Mecca, Islam’s holiest city in one of its most conservative countries, went viral, among Muslims and non-Muslims alike.

While many assumed the misleading story actually meant that this was a concrete plan, or even that this shop had actually opened its doors, it remains only a wish – some critics claim wishful thinking – expressed by Abdelaziz Aouragh, the Moroccan-Dutch entrepreneur behind  El Asira, an erotic e-shop which describes itself as “halal”.

And El Asira is not the only erotic enterprise which carries such an Islamic label, quite a number have popped up in recent years. Over a year ago, Palestinian entrepreneur Ashraf Alkiswani launched Karaz, an e-store and online forum. “It’s not about just sex. It’s about love and the joy of expressing that love,” Alkiswani was quoted as saying at the time. “It’s about trying to build bridges across gaps that separate the husband from the wife by improving sexual harmony.”

Aouragh also described his motivations in similar terms, noting that “if couples don’t take the time to show the love for their partner nor themselves, they won’t be able to reach a deeper sensual, sexual or spiritual connection.”

Unlike Western erotic shops, neither El Asira nor Karaz sell sex toys but market various oils and creams which supposedly enhance foreplay and intensify pleasure during intercourse.

The notion that a sex shop can be “halal” – an Islamic concept similar to “kosher” – had many Muslims and non-Muslims bewildered.

At a certain level, describing erotica as “halal” is simply a branding exercise designed to tap the potentially lucrative and under-exploited erotic market in Muslim countries. “Considering we’re targeting a market of around 1.8 billion people, the potential is huge,” enthused Aouragh in a recent interview about El Asira’s new partnership with German erotica giant Beate Uhse.

But the “halal” label is not just about marketing, it is also about breaking the social taboo surrounding sexual pleasure prevalent in many conservative Muslim communities by demonstrating that sexuality is encouraged, not frowned up, in Islam. “I think Islam is more open [than Muslims are] to sex and issues surrounding sexuality,” Mohammed Abbasi, the co-director of the Association of British Muslims, the UK’s oldest Islamic organization, told me. “Islam is more about what people do in private is their business… whereas Muslims want to get involved in a person’s private life.”

To ensure that their products and sites are “halal”, both Aouragh and Alkiswani sought and gained the approval of numerous Islamic clerics and scholars. To the uninitiated and given the puritanism which pervades some current trends within Islam, this may sound weird and counterintuitive. “Religion or lack of it have nothing to do with sexuality,” Marwa Rakha, a prominent Egyptian relationship and dating expert, told me, noting that the main difference between many self-proclaimed “secular” and “religious” people is their attitude to pre-marital sex.

Historically, Islam possessed a relatively open attitude to sex. In medieval times, many Islamic scholars doubled as sex gurus. They penned countless manuals and guides, including one poetically titled The Perfumed Garden. Perhaps surprisingly, many highlighted the “importance of female fulfillment,” according to Kecia Ali, a professor of religion at Boston University, in her book Sexual Ethics and Islam.

Abu Hamid al-Ghazali, the 11th-century philosopher and mystic whose opus is regarded by many as the “proof of Islam”, wrote widely about the importance of the female orgasm. “The husband should not be preoccupied with his own satisfaction,” the sage advised. “Simultaneity in the moment of orgasm is more delightful to her.” Likewise, the prophet Muhammad himself was reportedly a huge advocate of foreplay, urging his male followers to send “messengers” to their wives in the form of “kisses and caresses”.

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

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

This traditional Islamic focus on the carnal partly explains, in the words of Kecia Ali, why “medieval Christian polemics against Islam viewed its sensualism as barbaric in comparison with the purity of Christianity”.

This view of Muslim society continued into the European colonial era. Many Orientalists from the straitlaced, uptight and prudish 19th century were of the view that “everything about the Orient… exuded dangerous sex, threatened hygiene and domestic seemliness with an ‘excessive freedom of intercourse’,” in the words of the late Edward Said, the Palestinian-American scholar who authored the groundbreaking Orientalism.

Paradoxically, this is how some Muslims, especially in the more conservative sections of society, see today’s West, while today’s Westerners, especially those who are unaware of the existence of liberal Muslims, often see Muslim societies as sexually repressed. While this is partly due to actual changes, such as the rise of political Islam and the setbacks endured by secularism, it is also a factor of the centuries-old tendency of Islam and Christendom (the West) to see each other as diametrically opposed, despite their enormous similarities.

Around the world, many Muslims are pushing back against the conservative and sexually repressive interpretation of their faith. “I think more Muslims are becoming more mature and open in their attitudes to sexuality, but at the same time there is a backlash from the more conservative sections of Muslims,” says Abbasi.

For instance, in Egypt, while many young people became more open and assertive about issues relating to sex, Salafists set up vigilante “morality” patrols in some parts of the country, which locals often defied robustly.

Islamic history, scripture and legal texts have become a major battleground between liberals and conservatives for the body, heart and soul of Islam. However, while helpful at certain levels, attempts to find an “authentic” version of Islam which is progressive enough to fit with modern norms is, like with other religious traditions, also problematic.

“The discourse of Islamic authenticity has had a stifling effect on intra-Muslim debates about sex and sexuality,” writes Kecia Ali, especially when it comes to sex outside of marriage, gender equality and homosexuality.

One side-effect of the reluctance to bring sex out of the closet is that many Muslims are left to their own devices, and must engage in a process of oft-discreet self-education. In addition to familial disinclination, there is also the poor quality of sex education in numerous Arab and Muslim countries.

“Education and awareness are weak in general in Egypt and many other Arab/Muslim societies,” explains Rakha. “Those in charge of the education process do not want generations of knowledgeable and curious children, teens, and adults… How can you control a population that understands its rights and freedoms?”

Rakha believes that, like charity, sexual awareness and maturity must begin at home. “The revolution has to come from the core of every family – otherwise it is not happening,” she maintains.

However, despite the existence of a rising number of open-minded families, many parents are unlikely to want to cede control of their offsprings’ love lives, either because this is what tradition demands or because governing access to sex is a powerful weapon of control. “Most families want their children virgins until they get married,” observes Rakha. “To fulfill this beautiful dream, they will minimize sexual education and awareness, lest the sex dragons awaken and ruin the plan.”

Some young Egyptians are rejecting these restrictions, but many do so behind their families’ backs. “They revolt in secrecy, adding a new number each second to the hypocritical population,” says Rakha.

But not everyone is revolting in secret, with some young people, intellectuals and activists openly calling for a sexual revolution. In Egypt, for instance, a vanguard of women intent on seizing their rights is playing a prominent role in this awakening, whether they are combating sexual harassment, insisting on dressing as they please in public, rejecting the hijab, fighting the stigma of being single, and even choosing to live on their own.

____

Follow Khaled Diab on Twitter.

This article first appeared in Haaretz on 4 May 2015.

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War and peace in the Middle East and Europe

 
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Europe’s history of total war and mass displacement can help create more sympathy for today’s refugees and keep hope alive in the Middle East.

Like today's refugees, Belgians fleeing World War I often took to the sea in overcrowded boats.

Like today’s refugees, Belgians fleeing World War I often took to the sea in overcrowded boats.

Tuesday 28 April 2015

Some 800 refugees lost their lives in the Mediterranean sea last week. While this has prompted calls for the European Union to do more to deal with the refugee crisis created by the current turmoil in the Middle East and North Africa, voices on the far-right have demanded that Europe do less.

Among them was Katie Hopkins, a popular columnist with UK tabloid The Sun, who has over half-a-million followers on Twitter. Shortly before the latest tragedy, she wrote a column in which she described these migrants as “cockroaches” and “feral humans,” suggesting outrageously: “What we need are gunships sending these boats back to their own country.”

On social media, the reactions were even more shocking and disgraceful. Supporters of the Dutch Partij voor de Vrijheid (Party for Freedom), or PVV, founded by the anti-immigrant firebrand Geert Wilders, expressed stomach-churning euphoria and ecstasy at the tragedy.

“600 fewer benefits,” one rejoiced.

“Good so. The more who drown, the fewer the problems,” another volunteered.

“Now the seabed is even more polluted,” joked yet another.

Judging by this small sample of comments, what has actually hit rock bottom are the moral compasses of many Dutch people and Europeans

Despite the clear racism of these comments, the European anti-immigrant right wing in general also taps into deep-seated public anxiety towards the violent upheavals and conflicts taking place in the Middle East, which many fear refugees might bring with them.

For some on the far-right, “refugees” and “asylum seekers” have become dirty words, terms of abuse and subjects of hate. While right-wing nationalists may claim to be defending their heritage and tradition, in their attitudes to refugees they are actually betraying it.

Europeans weren’t always so hostile towards those fleeing war and conflict. During World War I, the Netherlands welcomed so many refugees that the Germans saw it necessary to construct a 200-kilometre-long fence along the Belgian-Dutch border in an effort to curb the influx of Belgians pouring from the German occupation into neutral Holland.

The Wire of Death's deadly innovation claimed hundreds of Belgian victims. Source: http://www.dodendraad.org/index.php/wire-of-death

The Wire of Death’s deadly innovation claimed hundreds of Belgian victims.
Source: http://www.dodendraad.org/index.php/wire-of-death

Known as the Wire of Death, it was the world’s first-ever high-voltage electric barrier. Built at a time when Europeans were largely unaware of electricity and its attendant dangers, the fence claimed hundreds of victims who were unaware of how deadly it was or were desperate enough to risk death to cross the border.

In order to shorten the barrier’s distance, German engineers took shortcuts that left large swathes of Belgian territory stuck in the no-man’s land behind the fence. Like in the contemporary West Bank, this meant that a large number of farmers could not reach their land and many families and friends were forced to live in enforced separation. Using a system that would be familiar to modern-day Palestinians, the Germans only allowed those with hard-to-obtain passes, which excluded men aged 16 to 45, to cross the barrier.

This is a far cry from the current situation, where the Benelux countries (Belgium, Netherland and Luxembourg) are tightly integrated and even acted as a precursor and “experimental garden” for the EU. The Middle East, especially the former Ottoman Empire, has gone in the other direction. While the Levant was once largely a borderless economic and cultural area, with many mixed marriages and friendships, today many of its borders are tightly sealed, especially Israel’s borders with Syria and Lebanon.

Many generations on, the vast majority of Belgians, including my wife and myself, are unaware that such a deadly barrier ever existed and almost no physical signs remain. In fact, I still remember clearly the first time I “crossed” between Belgium and Holland and my wife (girlfriend, at the time) challenged me to identify the border. As the two countries flow so seamlessly into each other, I failed.

It was not just the Dutch who gave refuge to their unfortunate Belgian neighbours. Even though Britain is famed for its oft-isolationist island mentality, it was, during World War I, home to a quarter of a million Belgian refugees, many of whom were housed in purpose-built villages.

Unlike today’s image of asylum seekers as being spongers and cheats, these refugees were regarded as heroic and people wanted to help the “plucky Belgians.” It would be welcome if, instead of shirking its responsibilities, Europe rediscovered this spirit and took in more refugees today.

To understand the fundamental shift in attitudes over the ensuing decades, one needs to delve into the nature of contemporary (Western) Europe. It’s not just a matter of selfishness and ill-will but also a question of profound misunderstanding.

It is said that the past is a foreign country, and the Europe of war and near-annihilation has become just that – a distant memory which only the oldest of Europeans has partly experienced first-hand. When viewed from the peaceful, still-largely prosperous and borderless European Union, the madness and mayhem in the Middle East and Africa seems inexplicable and barbaric, and this makes it far easier to blame the victims for the situation they find themselves in.

But the Europe of the First and Second World Wars resembled the contemporary Middle East to a frightening degree – except Europe was deadlier still.

While an estimated 3 million Syrians have fled the war that’s ravaging their country, the situation is not unprecedented. A century ago, there were over 10 million refugees in Europe, while World War II resulted in tens of millions of displaced people.

A century ago, Belgium, like Syria today, was a devastated nation of refugees and internally displaced people. Some 1.5 million Belgians fled to neighboring countries, and possibly as many again sought refuge from the fighting in other parts of the country. And this was in a country of just over 7.5 million inhabitants.

To Europeans, another inexplicable aspect of the contemporary Middle East is the horrendous levels of mindless killing and blood-letting, which leaves the impression that our region has a unique bloodlust.

Though comparative carnage is a rather macabre undertaking, it is nonetheless a useful exercise to highlight, both to Europeans and Middle Easterners, that the current situation is not unique and, hence, can eventually be overcome.

The first day of the Battle of the Somme, one of the deadliest clashes in human history.

The first day of the Battle of the Somme, one of the deadliest clashes in human history.

While the carnage and destruction in Syria and the wider region today is horrendous and troubling, it pales in comparison with the butchery that took place on the Western Front, where the average trench soldier held onto life for just six weeks. The Battle of the Somme alone claimed over a million dead and wounded.

Despite the tens of millions of Europeans who perished in the two world wars, Europe was able to turn over a new leaf in its history and herald in an extraordinary era of peace and coexistence.

It is inevitable that the fire engulfing our region will eventually die down. I only hope that it happens sooner than it did in Europe, and that, out of the rubble of conflict, we draw similar lessons to those of the architects of the European Union, and construct a frontierless Middle Eastern Union.

____

Follow Khaled Diab on Twitter.

This is the extended version of an article which first appeared in Haaretz on 23 April 2015.

 

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Europe’s invisible “Islamisation”

 
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By Khaled Diab

The murderous Paris attacks have reignited fears of “Islamisation”. But Islamic civilisation is encoded in Europe’s cultural and intellectual DNA. 

Ziryab is the most unsung cultural, style and musical icon in European history.

Ziryab is the most unsung cultural, style and musical icon in European history.

Monday 12 January 2015

The brutal and tragic murders of 10 people at the offices of Charlie Hebdo in Paris, two police officers and four customers at a kosher supermarket by masked gunmen has triggered an outpouring of shock and grief, not only in France but around the world.

Large, spontaneous vigils filled the streets of many French cities, while social media was awash with solidarity and condemnation, including the hashtags #JeSuisCharlie and #NotInMyName, which was used by Muslims condemning the attacks.

On Sunday 11 January, this culminated in rallies across France which drew nearly 4 million people from all walks of life who walked shoulder to shoulder in solidarity against extremism.

Eyewitness accounts reveal that the attackers shouted “Allahu Akbar”, and the designer who was forced to let the assailants in says they told her they were with al-Qaeda. According to AFP, the police claim that one of the killers remarked: “We have avenged the prophet.”

Why Muhammad would need anyone to “avenge” him is beyond me. The prophet endured far more mockery, humiliation, insult and rejection during his lifetime without needing or ordering hitmen to defend his honour than that meted out by a group of equal-opportunities French cartoonists who despise and satirise all forms of organised religion.

Despite the massive show of solidarity, the collateral damage to French and European Muslims has already been done, even though one of the fallen police officers was a Muslim and the “hero” who saved a number of customers at the kosher supermarket was also of Muslim background.

Le Pen is mightier than the sword... of Islam.

Le Pen is mightier than the sword… of Islam.

The far-right Front National has already cynically and undignifiedly taken advantage of the tragedy. Declaring that Islamists have “declared war on France”, FN leader Marine Le Pen called for the reintroduction of the death penalty. Claiming that the atrocities were predictable, FN founder Jean-Marie Le Pen, no friend of Charlie himself, engaged in classic fear-mongering: “This attack is probably the beginning of the beginning. It’s an episode in the war that is being waged against us by Islamism.”

Exhibiting shameless self-promotion, Jean-Marie has already launched his daughter’s presidential campaign by tweeting a poster in which he suggests that Le Pen is mightier than the sword… of Islam. The poster features a photo of Marine with the English caption: “Keep calm and vote Le Pen.” Ironically, this slogan is lifted from a anti-fascist British poster published at the outset of World War II.

The ethno-regionalist and xenophobic Bloc Identitaire which advocates “remigration” believes that “no-one can claim to fight against jihadism [and] not question the mass immigration and Islamisation of our country.”

But like Muslims who fantasise about an a-historical caliphate, conservative Europeans who dream of a bygone utopia of a Europe uncontaminated by Islam or immigration, miss the reality that the “Islamisation of the West” occurred centuries ago.

Islamic civilisation is so hardwired into Europe’s cultural, social and intellectual DNA that it would be impossible to expunge its influence. The same applies in the other direction, in light of Christendom’s and the West’s powerful influence on Arab and Islamic society.

In addition to the philosophy, science, literature and art of the Muslim world which profoundly shape the European Renaissance, Islamic culture had some far more unexpected and surprising influences on Western civilisation.

One man in particular, for whom no statues or memorials stand anywhere in Europe and very few Westerners have heard of, is possibly the most unsung cultural, style and musical icon in European history.

In the ninth century, Ziryab, Cordoba’s most sought-after hipster, brought into vogue the idea of seasonal fashions, steering history’s catwalk towards the fashion slavery of the 21st century.

This Sultan of Style also added a fifth pair of strings to the Arab oud, paving the way to the European lute, which would become the modern guitar. He also introduced Europe to the idea of dining etiquette, from table cloths and crystal decanters to the three-course meal.

Fashion, fine food and rhythm are not what Europeans tend to associate with Muslims or Islam today. Instead, they are haunted by images of fundamentalists, not fun-loving eccentrics, and fanatics, not fans of refined culture.

As someone who is well aware of the destructive influence of violent Islamism in the Middle East, I can, at a certain level, sympathise with fears in the West over radicalisation. But Islamic extremism is mostly a threat to Muslim societies, not to Europe, as a minority has never, in history, imposed its will on a majority, except in the form of a military conqueror.

This exaggerated sense of threat can be seen in the enormous hysteria in segments of the media and among some politicians regarding the small trickle of European jihadists who have gone to fight in Syria. Although one gets the impression that Europe has sent forth a veritable Islamic army to the Levant, the real number is around 3,000 from across the continent, including the dead and returned, according to an estimate by Gilles de Kerchove, the EU’s anti-terrorism chief.

While it is important to be vigilant and to find effective ways to deal with the threat posed by returning fighters, society must steer clear of stigmatising Europe’s already marginalised and distrusted Muslim communities.

This is because it is unfair to blame an entire group for the behaviour of a tiny minority and it is also counterproductive, as marginalisation is a significant, but not the only, factor in radicalisation.

In addition, the demonisation of minorities is what nurtures the truly threatening radicals in Europe’s midst: the far-right and neo-Nazis. Since the end of World War II, Western Europe has worked consciously to build and celebrate diversity. Despite its weaknesses and failings, Europe needs to cherish, build and strengthen its multicultural experiment.

____

Follow Khaled Diab on Twitter.

This is an updated version of an article which first appeared on Al Jazeera on 8 January 2015.

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The language of Arab (dis)unity

 
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By Khaled Diab

The romantic myth that Arabs share “one heart and one spirit” led pan-Arabism to talk unity while walking the path of disunity.

Charismatic and a natural orator, Nasser appealed to millions of Arabs, including this crowd in Syria. Photo: al-Ahram.

Charismatic and a natural orator, Nasser appealed to millions of Arabs, including this crowd in Syria. Photo: al-Ahram.

Sunday 4 January 2015

Given how widely it is spoken and understood, Arabic is one of the UN’s six official languages, alongside English, French, Chinese, Russian and Spanish. Spoken by some 300 million people as a native language, Arabic is also used liturgically to varying degrees by the world’s 1.6 billion Muslims.

The Arabic language gave us not only timeless contributions to philosophy, the sciences, literature and art, but also to the formation of modern Arab identity and nationalism. “Every Arabic-speaking people is an Arab people. Every individual belonging to one of these Arabic-speaking peoples is an Arab,” claimed Sati al-Husri (1882-1968), an early Arab nationalist of Syrian extraction who, ironically, grew up in a well-to-do family which was closely linked to the Ottoman Empire.

Al-Husri believed that this common linguistic heritage gave Arabs “one heart and one spirit” which, in turn, qualified them both as a single nation and a single state. This romantic notion was central to efforts to create secular Arab nationalism, from Baathism to later Nasserism. Michel Aflaq, one of the founding fathers of pan-Arabist Baathism, believed that both language and history were unifying forces for Arabs.

But surveying the current state of destructive disunity plaguing the Arab world, one might be excused for wondering if Arabs truly are of “one spirit”, why it is they have failed so dismally to  beat together as “one heart”.

Not only did the dream of a single Arab nation collapse many years ago, even the individual nation states so despised by pan-Arabists are crumbling before our eyes, with the two strongholds of Baathist ideology, Syria and Iraq, lying in smouldering ruins.

How did we arrive at this sorry state?

Diehard pan-Arabists place the blame squarely with (neo-)imperialism, with the conservative Arab regimes and with the failure of the revolutionary regimes to implement pan-Arabism properly.

Some old-school Arab nationalists with whom I’ve spoken portray Syria as having been the last bastion of pan-Arabism and the last hope for the Arab nation, and that is why the West conspired to bring it down. Even the Islamic State (ISIS) is seen by some as being part of an elaborate Western plot.

The trouble with this theory is that Syria had long stopped even trying to pay lip service to pan-Arab ideals. In addition, the rot and corruption within had so weakened the state that when Bashar al-Assad decided ruthlessly to cling to power at any cost, it sent Syria into a reeling tailspin and meltdown, leaving it wide open to become a multinational battleground.

Moreover, placing the bulk of the blame at the outside world’s feet facilitates a dangerous level of self-deception. It also curtails an honest analysis of why pan-Arabism failed.

While it is true that, in its heyday, pan-Arabism, such as the Nasserist model, had many foes, both regionally and in the West, it also contained many of the seeds of its own downfall.

One major failing was the utopian idea that just because millions of people spoke the same language, they somehow constituted a single nation whose nature was unity and, so, any discord was seen as going against the natural order. This is in spite of the fact that, like in Europe until recently, the Arab world has never been unified except at the point of a sword – and often simultaneously under the control of competing empires or dynasties.

But even linguistically, Arabs are not unified. While some dialects of Arabic are mutually intelligible, others are so far removed that, in other contexts, they would be classified as separate languages. For example, even after years of exposure to Moroccans in Europe, I, as an Egyptian, still do not understand their darija.

The reason these dialects – which can be about as mutually intelligible as the Romance languages are to each other – are classed as “Arabic” is more political than linguistic.

This is why Arabs from different countries often resort to fusha (Modern Standard Arabic) to make themselves mutually intelligible, in a phenomenon known as diglossia. However, not all Arabs can speak fusha and those who do communicate with it use it as a second language.

And just like linguistic diversity is concealed under the umbrella of “Arabic”, social, cultural, economic and political diversity has traditionally been glossed over in pan-Arabist discourse, as if it were an inconvenience rather than a reality.

Despite some common features between clusters of Arab societies in terms of culture and history, there is a mind-boggling array of differences not only between Arab states but also within them. This clash between ideology and reality is one factor behind pan-Arabism’s efforts to suppress diversity rather than to accommodate and celebrate it.

To complicate matters further, Arab countries have and had radically different forms of government, levels of wealth and degrees of development. Even for the best-thought-out integration projects, this is a major challenge that requires years of serious planning and preparation.

But the idea that speaking the same tongue makes us “one” has reduced the concept of Arab unity either to hollow slogans or to disastrous marriages that were rushed into hastily and impatiently, such as the damaging United Arab Republic (Syria and Egypt), the United Arab States (the UAR and North Yemen) the Federation of Arab Republics (Libya, Egypt and Syria) or the still-born Arab Islamic Republic (Libya and Tunisia).

That does not mean that the principle of pan-Arabism is necessarily a bad idea or an unattainable ideal. In certain respects, it was an unsurprising product of its times. The increasingly feverish and intolerant Turkish nationalism which accompanied the decline of the Ottoman Empire led Arab intellectuals, activists and reformers to grope around for an alternative.

Pan-Arab nationalism was an attempt to square the circle of gaining independence from Turkish repression while maintaining the advantages of  a frontierless region bestowed by the Ottomans. That partly explains why Egypt was not an early convert to this ideology, because it had already removed itself from the Sultan’s sphere of influence.

El-Qawmiya el-Arabiya also recognised that, alone, each Arab state would be weak.

Today, as much as a century ago, the region desperately needs to find a way to rise out of the ashes of conflict and weakness and towards a future of co-operation and strength. This time, the utopian dreams and hollow slogans of yesteryear are gone.

In their place, an organic, bottom-up process of common identity building is taking place, spearheaded largely by young people. From pan-Arab TV hits like Arab Idol to the previously unthinkable level of interaction facilitated by social media, Arabs are discovering their rich diversity as well as the shared features of their identities and common causes.

This loose sense of a common plight and a common destiny was reflected, exactly four years ago, in how the spark of hope lit in Tunisia spread like wildfire across the region. In the early days of the Egyptian revolution protesters borrowed Tunisian slogans and chanted “We are all Tunisia”, while activists exchanged tips for dealing with police and teargas.

Despite the ongoing collapse of the current Arab order, this grassroots route to greater co-operation offers some hope for the future.

____

Follow Khaled Diab on Twitter.

This article first appeared in The National on 20 December 2014.

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Egypt’s centuries-old leadership vacuum

 
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By Khaled Diab

Decades of authoritarianism and centuries of non-indigenous rule have led to a shortage of effective native leaders in Egypt, derailing the revolution.

Field Marshal Tantawi: Mubarak 2.0. Photo: ©Khaled Diab

Photo: ©Khaled Diab

Thursday 25 December 2014

Hosni Mubarak, the face which launched thousands of street protests, was cleared of ordering the killing of hundreds of protesters and numerous corruption charges related to his three decades on Egypt’s republican throne were also dropped.

The news of the ex-dictator’s acquittal has hit activists and pro-revolution Egyptians like a rude kick in the groin, leading to angry protests on campuses across the country. The man who symbolized everything that was wrong with Egypt in 2011 walked scot free under the auspices of the man who presides over everything that’s wrong with Egypt in 2014: Abdel-Fattah al-Sisi.

By walking free, Mubarak – who inadvertently gave birth to the Egyptian revolution when he stepped down – may harken the revolution’s death knell, at least for the time being.

Some believe the situation is even worse. Writing in the Washington Post, Eric Trager argued that “the ‘revolution’ didn’t die… a true revolution never happened in the first place.” Trager contends that the uprising in Egypt not only failed to bring about revolutionary change, a substantial percentage of the population did not desire it, wishing only for elusive “stability”.

What his assertion overlooks is that many revolutions fail to bring about the radical change they seek, such as the 1848 Spring of Nations revolutionary wave in Europe.

Moreover, if significant opposition is a yardstick, then many of the world’s most iconic revolutions would not qualify as such, including in America and France. Besides, if history is any indication it’s far too early to call the final outcome of the Egyptian revolution, since its French predecessor took generations before it achieved its goals of “liberté, egalité, fraternité”.

Despite Trager’s assertions, it is not apathy or the longing for stability that have foiled Egypt’s revolutionary aspirations.

In my view, it is a question of leadership and its accompanying political culture. On the one hand, there is the deep state which has robustly done everything within its power not to cede power. On the other, it is the leaderless nature of the revolution, which was a strength at first because it made it impossible for the state to control, but became a liability later when strong leadership was urgently required to give the popular uprising direction.

The immediate reason for this was Hosni Mubarak’s 30-odd years of autocratic rule, which deepened the state’s grip on power while eliminating viable alternative leaderships. This followed the preceding three decades of similar dictatorial rule, in the shape of Anwar al-Sadat and Gamal Abdel-Nasser before him.

Some interpret this as a manifestation of some kind of ancient Pharaoh complex on the part of Egyptian leaders. But this reductionist interpretation fails to explain why most of the region’s leadership is likewise deluded, even though their countries were not part of the Ancient Egyptian tradition of the absolute god-king.

Personally, I think Egypt and the Arab world’s leadership crisis can best be attributed to centuries of foreign rule and domination. This had the dual effect of destroying or downgrading the indigenous cadre of leaders and putting in place a damaging leadership culture.

In Egypt’s case, before Mohamed Naguib’s rise to power in 1952, one must go back nearly two and a half millennia to find Egypt’s last native leader: Nectanebo II, who was overthrown in 342BC by a combined Greek and Persian force.

Though Alexander the Great was regarded as a liberator from Persian rule in Egypt – and even the illegitimate son of Egypt’s last pharaoh – and the Ptolemaic dynasty regarded themselves as pharaohs, the Egyptian political and social order was stacked in favor of ethnic Greeks and a Greek-speaking Egyptian elite, leading to numerous rebellions, including the “great revolt” of 205-186 BC.

In the two millennia since the death of the last Ptolemaic pharaoh, the legendary Cleopatra VII, Egypt’s fortunes have waxed and waned. Roman rule retained the relative privilege of Egyptian Greeks while adding another layer of exploitation, transforming this fertile, rich country into Rome’s grain silo.

Even when Egypt went from being a province to being an independent imperial power, these Nile-based empires were invariably foreign ones in which the locals were marginalized and largely excluded from the corridors of power. This was the case with the mighty and largely religiously tolerant Fatimid caliphate, which established glittering Cairo near ancient Memphis in the tenth century.

The Mamluk era (1250–1517) saw the novel situation of Egypt being ruled by a caste of warrior slaves. Though Egypt thrived economically and culturally, the centuries of Mamluk rule witnessed chaotic and bloody transitions of power between competing pretenders. Despite the infighting, the Mamluks agreed on one thing: though ostensibly slaves, they were the “true lords” while the supposedly freeborn native Egyptians were their serfs.

When the Ottomans conquered Egypt, they retained the Mamluks as their vassals which, like the Roman era, doubled the tax burden on the Egyptian masses, with a share going towards subsiding the ruling elite’s lavish lifestyles and a share going to Constantinople.

In the early 19th century, Egypt was purged of its Mamluks by a commander in the Ottoman Empire who wanted the country all to himself: Muhammad Ali, who had officially come to reclaim Egypt for the Sultan after Napoleon’s short-lived and disastrous occupation.

Despite being Albanian, Ali is widely regarded as being the father of modern Egypt. Wishing to create a modern state along European lines, he realised the importance of harnessing, educating and empowering (somewhat) the native Egyptian population.

Ali not only developed an advanced industrial base for the country, he also built a modern army, bureaucracy and education system where Egyptian citizens could find opportunities for mobility beyond the farming and industry to which they were previously confined.

But Ali retained the Mamluks fixation on militarism and he was obsessed with building a European-style army to carve out an empire for his dynasty. This placed a huge burden on Egypt’s peasantry in the form of high taxation and conscription.

Given the centuries of militarism of the ruling foreign elites and how the army had become one of the few means of social mobility for the native population, it is no surprise that Egypt’s first modern nationalist leader with any real authority was an army officer, Ahmed Urabi.

Urabi’s rebellion against the vassal Khedive Tawfiq, which threatened Anglo-French interests, led the British to formally occupy Egypt, though they kept the Muhammad Ali dynasty in power as clients. Following the heavy burden placed on Egypt during World War I, opposition to British rule grew massively, leading to the 1919 revolution.

The revolution succeeded in gaining only partial independence for Egypt and resulted in a liberal, democratic parliament, though one that was largely toothless due to the combined influence of the palace and the British.

The seething dissatisfaction with this arrangement led to widespread protests following World War II, but it was only the army that proved to have the clout to dislodge the king and the waning British.

But rather than hand over power to an elected parliament as the Free Officers had promised after an initial transition, the lure of power proved too irresistible. Although Egypt’s new rulers were native Egyptians, rather than dismantle the centuries of imperial legacy hobbling their fellow citizens, they kept in place many of the timeworn instruments of repression and marginalisation, despite some reforms.

Like Egypt’s various foreign rulers, the new officer elite viewed with suspicion any contenders or opponents, crushing and suppressing rivals. Hosni Mubarak went so far as not even to appoint a vice-president.

This centuries-long legacy helped lead to the leaderless revolution of 2011. This does not mean that Egypt is void of talent that can govern the country fairly and effectively. There is plenty of that. However, Egypt’s political culture does not encourage this talent to rise and there are no mechanisms for the peaceful and smooth transfer of power.

____

Follow Khaled Diab on Twitter.

This is an extended version of an article which first appeared in Haaretz on 10 December 2014.

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The social media’s Islamic state of terror

 
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By Christian Nielsen

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

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

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

Tuesday 30 September 2014/Update Tuesday 18 November 2014

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

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

Is self-censorship an option?

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

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

Internet’s not insignificant influence

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Now we’re terrified

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

UPDATE:

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

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

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Al-Aqsa/Temple Mount: Ground zero or common ground?

 
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By Khaled Diab

Jerusalem’s holiest site is again provoking tension and controversy. But could it also bridge the chasm between Israelis and Palestinians?

Worshippers during Ramadan congregate by the exquisite beauty of the golden Dome of the Rock. ©Khaled Diab

Worshippers during Ramadan congregate by the exquisite beauty of the golden Dome of the Rock. ©Khaled Diab

Wednesday 12 March 2014

The Dome of the Rock dominates the Jerusalem skyline with majestic splendour. To the untrained eye, this architectural gem, which floats resplendently above the old city’s cacophony, seems like a sanctuary of peace and tranquillity, a retreat for meditation and introspection.

But this Noble Sanctuary, as it is known to Muslims, or Temple Mount, as Jews refer to it, has been anything but peaceful and has been the symbolic heart of the Arab-Israeli conflict’s religious fault line for much of the past century.

Even today it remains a major flash point. In fact, the 21st century got off to an inauspicious and bloody start when a provocative visit by Ariel Sharon to the site caused simmering tensions to overflow into the costly second intifada.

And these tensions show no sign of abating. Last week, a group of Jewish extremists – led by the messianic rabbi, Yehuda Glick, who is part of the tiny fringe movement which fantasises about building the Third Templestormed the complex.

More troubling than the lunatic fringe is the Knesset debate on Israeli sovereignty over the Temple Mount, sponsored by the far-right parliamentarian Moshe Feiglin.

This has not only led to clashes in the Noble Sanctuary, but has also prompted the Jordanian parliament to vote to expel the Israeli ambassador and recall its own if the Knesset takes further action.

It could also jeopardise Israeli-Jordanian ties. “If Israel wants to violate the peace treaty in this issue, the entire treaty, its articles, details and wording will be put on the table,” Jordan’s Prime Minister Abdullah Nsur cautioned. For his part, Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas has rejected the notion of shared sovereignty as part of any eventual peace deal.

Nevertheless, it would do us well to recall that, for all Israel’s many failings, it is possibly, at least for now, the only conqueror of Jerusalem that has not converted the religious identity of the site, despite the best efforts of extremists.

Many in Israel, the Arab world and internationally fear the consequences of this “powder keg”. “Using religion as a pretext to impose sovereignty on historical places of worship threatens to plunge the entire region into great conflict and instability,” Hanan Ashrawi, the PLO’s spokeswoman, warned.

Given this widespread apprehension that this seismic shift in the Noble Sanctuary’s status could become the ground zero, or epicentre, of a region-wide conflict, many today will find it hard to conceive, or even believe, that there is historic evidence to suggest that Muslims and Jews once prayed together on the Temple Mount.

Following the surrender of Jerusalem to the Arab armies, Omar Ibn al-Khattab, Muhammad’s second successor, or caliph, allowed Jews, who had been expelled by the Byzantines, back into Jerusalem.

“There is strong evidence to suggest that the Jews were not only permitted to return to Jerusalem, but that the Muslims allowed them to worship at their side on the Temple Mount,” wrote Francis E Peters, a professor of Middle Eastern and Islamic Studies at New York University.

Some other historians agree. “We know that Omar welcomed the Jews back in Jerusalem, that he and the early caliphs allowed Jewish worship on the Temple Mount and that the Jews did not leave again as long as Islam held sway,” Simon Sebag Montefiore wrote in his comprehensive biography of Jerusalem.

Omar ordered the cleaning of the Temple Mount, which had been used as a rubbish tip by the Byzantines, and permitted Jews to worship there. One convert, Rabbi Kaab al-Ahbar, even located the foundation stone for the Muslim conquerors.

It is even possible that the caliph allowed the Jews to construct a synagogue on the mount and appointed a Jew as the first governor of Jerusalem, according to the 7th century Armenian historian Sebeos.

This permissiveness and interfaith interaction was in keeping with Omar’s attitude – as well as Muhammad’s – towards religion for the People of the Book. This was illustrated by the story of his refusal to pray in the Holy Sepulchre so that future Muslims would not use it as an excuse to convert it into a mosque – which they did on the actual spot where he prayed nearby, and in numerous other instances over the centuries.

This tradition of tolerance was continued by the Umayyads, who, despite having introduced the concept of royalty into hitherto egalitarian Islam, were arguably among the most pluralistic Muslim dynasties wherever they set up shop, including in Andalusia.

Muawiya ibn Abi Sufyan, the founder of the dynasty and a born mover and shaker, was revered by local Jews. Despite his relentless expansionism, Muawiya was also famed for his belief in dialogue and compromise. “Even if but one hair is binding me to my fellow man, I don’t let it break,” he asserted.

When the Umayyad Caliph Abdel-Malik ibn Marwan built the Dome of the Rock, Jews were filled with elation. Some even believed that this Islamic shrine was the third temple. For a century, Jews had full access to this holiest of sites, until the reign of another Umar, the dogmatic Umar Ibn Abdel-Aziz.

Is it possible today, in the supposedly more enlightened 21st century, for the Noble Sanctuary/Temple Mount to become a common ground, rather than a battleground, for Muslims and Jews?

Some religious Jews think so. “Religion is like nuclear energy: you can use it to destroy or to kill. You can also use it for peaceful purposes,” the late Rabbi Froman  told me. “The Dome of the Rock or the Temple Mount can be a reason to quarrel or a reason to make peace.”

Personally, I am sceptical that this religious edifice can work in isolation as a bridge to peace. This feeds into the illusion, or misconception, that the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is a religious one. While religious extremists do often exercise what I call the “God veto”, for both sides, excluding the fanatical fringes, the conflict is about worldly affairs.

It is in this frame that we must view the Noble Sanctuary/Temple Mount. It is the entire conflict writ spiritual. This prime piece of sacred real estate contains many of the elements bedevilling the entire quest for a peaceful resolution: control of and sovereignty over the land, national identity, the relationship between Israelis and Palestinians, not to mention the status of Jerusalem.

Until these issues are resolved, it is highly unlikely that Muslims and Jews will find the necessary will to compromise to hammer out a formula for sharing this holiest of locations. Furthermore, it would be a grave, reckless and dangerous error for Israel to think it can unilaterally take action.

But what history can teach us, and what is often overlooked in the heat of conflict, is that Jews and Muslims were, for  many centuries, friends and allies and that they once stood side by side as brothers in faith on Jerusalem’s most hallowed ground.

Follow Khaled Diab on Twitter.

This article first appeared in Haaretz on 10 March 2014.

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