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.

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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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Palestinian history ✝ – Christians are Arab too

 
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By Khaled Diab

Despite what some in the Knesset think, Christians in Israel are Arabs too and have been prominent in Palestinian politics, society and culture.

Photo: ©Khaled Diab

Photo: ©Khaled Diab

Thursday 6 March 2014

“This is a historic and important move that could help balance the state of Israel, and connect us and the Christians,” said Yariv Levin, the Likud Knesset member behind the controversial new law to distinguish between Israel’s indigenous Christian and Muslim minorities.

While being a minority within a minority does make Palestinian Christians more vulnerable than their Muslim compatriots, the issues facing the two are generally the same. Besides, the law seems to be about anything but the enfranchisement and empowerment of a shrinking minority – otherwise its sponsor would’ve made some effort to understand the group he was targeting.

In fact, for someone who calls a law “historic”, Levin shows precious little understanding of history.

“I’m being careful about not calling [Christians] Arabs because they aren’t Arabs,” Levin asserted confidently, throwing prudence, intelligence and knowledge to the winds of his bigotry.

My incredulity was driven by the fact that not only are Christians in this part of the world as much Arabs as Muslims, there were actually, it would shock Levin to learn, Arab Christians, as there were Arab Jews, long before there were ever any Muslims.

In the modern era, it might perplex Levin to discover, that Christians actually invented and defined “Arab” in its modern meaning… at least in part. Whereas once “Arab” referred solely to the inhabitants of Arabia and those descended from the Arab tribes, in the modern era, the word took a far, far broader and more inclusive meaning.

The Ottoman millet system divided people according to their religious faith, giving each community autonomy over its own affairs. But as the Ottomans turned into the original “sick man of Europe”, the subject peoples of the empire, influenced by ideas imported from 19th-century European nationalism, struggled for independence. These included the Arabic-speaking peoples of the region.

The Arab struggle against the Ottomans took place at three levels: Islamic, local nationalist and pan-Arabist. Unsurprisingly given their traditional dhimmi (non-Muslim citizens of an Islamic state ) status, Christian intellectuals were among the leading proponents and inventors of the idea of secular Arab nationalism, in which all Arabic speakers, regardless of religion, would be equal citizens in a utopian Arab nation which would stretch from the Atlantic to the Arabian Sea.

Some of the most prominent leaders of the grassroots Arab uprising against the Ottomans were Christians. One of the earliest Arab nationalists, the Syrian Christian Ibrahim el-Yazigi, who eventually became a member of a secret anti-Ottoman society, penned a rousing patriotic poem which was incredibly popular in the mid-19th century, Arise, ye Arabs and Awake.

Today, the pan-Arabist movement of the 20th century is generally associated with Egypt’s Gamal Abdel-Nasser. But Nasser actually started off essentially as an Egyptian nationalist. The roots of pan-Arab nationalism actually lie in the Levant.

Jurji Zaydan – a Lebanese Christian intellectual and one of the Arab world’s first media moguls who was interestingly a prolific writer of novels themed around Islamic history – is often credited as its founding father.

In Palestine, though a relative cultural backwater at the time, Khalil al-Sakakini – who would eventually be excommunicated from the Greek Orthodox Church – pioneered a progressive schooling system based on collaboration, rather than competition, and Arab nationalism.

As a coherent secular political ideology, pan-Arabism was first formulated by three Syrian thinkers – Constantin ZureiqMichel Aflaq and Zaki al-Arsuzi – all of whom belonged not to the Sunni Muslim majority, but to the Christian and Alawite minorities.

In the Palestinian context, many of the leading champions of the Palestinian cause, especially on the left, were Christian, as were many of its most prominent figures in all walks of life. For instance, the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine, the second-largest faction in the PLO, was founded by George Habash, who, like Che Guevara, was a doctor turned Marxist revolutionary. Without a single Islamic or Islamist bone in his body, Habash advocated, following the crushing 1967 defeat, the idea of armed, revolutionary struggle, including spectacular acts of terrorism, as the only way to liberate his homeland.

One of the first intifada’s most eloquent young leaders, who marked the shift to a new generation of more savvy, media-genic Palestinian politicians, Hanan Ashrawi, is also a Christian. Ashrawi is also a prominent Palestinian academic, who was the protégé of Edward Said who, though he became an agnostic, was raised as a Protestant.

In addition to being a pioneer in the critical study of Orientalism and one of the founding figures of Post-Colonialism, Said was the face of the Palestinian cause in the United States for much of his life.

Given the contempt in which many Israelis and pro-Israel activists hold Edward Said and George Habash, it is puzzling that Yariv Levin should claim that: “We and the Christians have a lot in common. They’re our natural allies.”

But perhaps the situation is different within Israel? While Christians in Israel have made significant cultural and economic contributions to the state, this can often be critical. Take Elia Suleiman’s bleakly beautiful Divine Intervention, which highlighted how love can conquer all, with the exception of checkpoints and occupations.

Nevertheless, Christians in Israel are “a counterweight to the Muslims who want to destroy the country from within”, insists Levin.

And Levin has been at the vanguard of efforts to protect Israel against these efforts “to destroy the country from within”. He was the co-author of the “Bishara Law”, which stripped an Arab MK of his pension following allegations of “aiding the enemy”.

The enemy in question was Hizbullah and the Knesset member who was allegedly using “state resources to destroy it”, in Levin’s words, was none other than Azmi Bishara.

The trouble for Levin is that Bishara was no Jihadist Muslim but happens to be a Christian from Nazareth who identifies very much as an Arab and a Palestinian, being the founder of the Balad party, as he is.

If Levin truly believes that Christians are “our natural allies”, why did he not stand up for Bishara, whom many believe was the victim of a political witch-hunt which lead him to flee the country, instead of leading the charge against him?

The cavernous contradictions in Levin’s discourse and positions suggests that he is either engaging in classic divide-and-rule politics or is ignorant. Most dangerous of all, I suspect that he is both.

Follow Khaled Diab on Twitter.

This article first appeared in Haaretz on 2 March 2014.

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The square root of the Egyptian revolution

 
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By Khaled Diab

The Egyptian revolution is fatally wounded but it is far too soon to sound the death knells. The dreams it unleashed are impossiblee to contain.

25 January 2014

The word “revolution” perfectly encapsulates the events of the past three years. It is almost as if Egypt was strapped into history’s rollercoaster and taken on the most exciting, thrilling, terrifying, inspiring, demoralising, deadly ride in generations.

Meanwhile, the country has gone through a spin cycle so intense and severe that its political, social and economic fabric is in tatters and it is unclear whether this will be rewoven into silk or polyester. For the time being, we’re left with a blood-soaked rag, as the Egyptian regime undertakes one of its bloodiest political purges in recent history and faces an increasingly deadly Islamist insurgency.

The Egyptian people’s success in defeating three dictators (Mohamed Hosni Mubarak, Mohamed Hussein Tantawi and Mohamed Morsi) in as many years caused short-lived elation which was quickly eclipsed by the dictatorial tendencies of Egypt’s leadership.

On the third anniversary of  the Egyptian revolution, it seems increasingly likely that Egypt’s latest despot, albeit one with a “popular mandate”, Abdel-Fattah al-Sisi, will run for president, consolidating and deepening his grip on power, especially if the presidential vote precedes parliamentary elections.

While a significant proportion of the Egyptian population – weary after three years of instability and unrest – seem to welcome this eventuality, a growing number of people are beginning to see through the current regime’s hollow democratic rhetoric and are becoming fearful of its brutally autocratic methods. For their part, the pro-Morsi camp continues to scream democratic legitimacy while dreaming of divine dictatorship.

The polarisation between two autocratic visions has left those who aspire for and believe in the values of the revolution with a bad taste in their mouths and a sense of despair. “We view ourselves back at square one, because what is happening now could be more dangerous, more complicated than what was there before January 25, 2011,” Ahmed Maher, co-founder of the 6th April Youth Movement which helped spearhead the revolution, said back in August, shortly after the blood-soaked dispersal of the Raba’a el-Adawiya protest camp.

And “more dangerous” it has proven to be. Not only have unknown numbers of Morsi supporters been killed and thousands more imprisoned, with the Muslim Brotherhood branded a “terrorist organisation”, the regime is now turning its attention back to the secular activists it had temporarily neglected while it dealt with its former Brothers.

“Nothing symbolised the end of it all like the protest law and Maher and others getting arrested,” confessed one activist. “We are now in a situation that is even worse than what we had under Mubarak.”

It is a sad indictment of the direction matters have taken in Egypt and of the power of the counterrevolution’s counteroffensive that three of the most prominent youth leaders who were behind the anti-Mubarak uprising – Maher, Alaa Abdel-Fattah and Ahmed Douma – all received politically motivated three-year sentences last month… for protesting, of all things.

So, does all this mean that the revolution is dead and done for?

Well, all things considered, our short-term prognosis must be that the revolution is fatally wounded but it is far too soon to sound the death knells. To borrow a military analogy that our de facto leaders would understand, the battle may be lost but the war is far from over.

If we can take the past as a compass for the future, revolutions are often betrayed or defeated – either by the old guard or the revolutionaries themselves – but the dreams and ideals they unleash are impossible to repress.

Take the French Revolution. In its immediate wake, France went through Robespierre’s “reign of terror”, which makes the current crackdown in Egypt look like junior league, a bloody civil war and wars with neighbouring states. It also resulted in Napoleon Bonaparte’s coup d’etat and, after that, the restoration of the monarchy, among other setbacks.

One can only imagine the despair and disillusionment felt by those French citizens who believed in the revolution’s original objectives. Yet the French revolution’s vision – summed up pithily in those three eternal words “liberté, égalité, fraternité” – survived to fight another day… and another… and another… inspiring  struggles for freedom across Europe and the world. And, in France, it was eventually and largely realised, albeit after five non-consecutive republics.

Likewise in Egypt, whether it gets a new military dictator or not, the genie is out of the bottle and there is no turning back, bleak as the outlook may seem now. Although the revolution’s goals are unlikely to be achieved any time soon, its rallying call of “bread, freedom, social justice, human dignity” will resonate for generations to come.

In addition, what can be called the spirit of Tahrir Square, though it is really the spirit of revolutionary Egypt as a whole, may be suppressed and even repressed for a time, but it cannot be eliminated. Although Egypt’s political class does not seem to have  read the memo that the times have changed, Egyptians have already overcome and overthrown the most oppressive dictatorship of all: the despot inside their minds, the tyranny of fear.

Even if Egyptians now allow themselves to be intimidated into acquiescence or worn down into submitting to the status quo, this will only be temporary. They are bound to rise again, much to the admiration and respect of outside observers like myself, to demand more than a few crumbs of bread, a foot of freedom or a drop of dignity.

There is a latent, implicit recognition of this reality amongst the political elite. Although both the Muslim Brotherhood and the military are autocratic in nature, they both talk the language of democracy, freedom and equality. This is visible in al-Sisi’s constant reference to popular “mandates” and obeying the “will of the people”. It is also apparent in the Brotherhood’s constant references to “legitimacy” and their claims that Morsi’s overthrow was a betrayal of the revolution.

Moreover, even if there is no clear sign of light at the end of the tunnel politically, Egypt is in the early throes of a profound social and cultural revolution which is rising from the grassroots up. This can be seen in the clear antiauthoritarianism of many Egyptians, the growing independence of young people, the increasing social and political assertiveness of women, not to mention previously unnoticed minorities, such as non-believers.

In 2011, I argued that Egypt’s uprising would only succeed if it set off a true social (r)evolution – and, unexpectedly, this seems to be one of its few true successes to date. And with time, as society changes from the bottom, up, so will its political landscape.

“I still have confidence that one day we will see a new Egypt,” Ahmed Maher said. “My generation might not see these changes. We might be paving the way for the new generation to see these changes.”

And sadly, though I wish that the millions of Egyptians who have sacrificed, and will continue to sacrifice, in pursuit of the revolution’s ideals would be rewarded for their pains, they are likely to be the lost generation. The true gains from their efforts will only be reaped by the next generation… or even the one after that.

Follow Khaled Diab on Twitter.

This article first appeared in Daily News Egypt on 16 January 2014.

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A peace of the people, by the people, for the people

 
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By Khaled Diab

Palestinians and Israelis don’t need more US diplomacy but a people’s peace process… and this requires mutual understanding and humanisation.

Wednesday 11 December 2013

Photo: US Department of State

Photo: US Department of State

John Kerry recently returned, yet again, to the Middle East on an impossible mission to revive stalled Israeli-Palestinian peace talks. In an effort to allay Israeli fears, the US Secretary of State was expected to present Israel’s Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu, on Thursday, with a plan for security arrangements in the West Bank following the establishment of an independent Palestinian state.

Even though this is the Promised Land, the facts on the ground do  not look so promising. Just ahead of Kerry’s visit, Israel defiantly bulldozed Palestinian land earmarked for settler homes, according to media reports.

It was exactly this issue of settlement building and how it makes the establishment of an integrated and contiguous Palestinian state impossible that prompted Palestinian negotiators to quit last month, even though Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas has not yet accepted their resignation.

For his part, Abbas has reportedly said he will appeal to the United Nations if peace talks fail.

On the Israeli side, Netanyahu focused on the Iran nuclear issue during his encounter with Kerry, despite the fact that, in my view, the unresolved Palestinian question is the greatest threat to Israel’s future security.

In addition, prior to the Secretary of State’s arrival, Israeli officials voiced loud criticism of Washington. For instance, Economy and Trade Minister Naftali Bennett expressing his view that Israel must reduce its dependence on the US, which was holding it “hostage”. This echoes the findings of a poll in which half of Israeli Jews believed that Israel should seek new allies other than the United States.

But judging by his previous statements, John Kerry seems undeterred by the obstacles ahead. He has warned Israel that it faces the prospect of a “third intifada” if it fails to forge a durable peace with the Palestinians, and Washington may push through its own deal in January if an agreement is not reached before then.

Despite this uncharacteristically active US diplomacy, I am unconvinced John Kerry will succeed in his mission. This is partly because the two-state formula has lost the race against space, Washington is not an honest and impartial broker, not to mention poor political leadership on both sides, a reality which favours the status quo and the downward inertia this imposes.

The Oslo process has also been undermined by its quest for a “comprehensive peace”.  This raised unrealistic expectations. In a conflict this deeply entrenched and with the massive disparity in power, there can be no ultimate, one-time, all-or-nothing resolution.

But possibly the most fatal flaw of Oslo has been its largely top-down, outside-in nature which sidelines and ignores the most vital ingredient in any truly lasting peace: the people. That is why I have repeatedly advocated a people’s peace process.

For such a grassroots effort to work and to stand a chance of success requires a high degree of mutual understanding and a good dose of empathy. This conviction is what spurred me, as an Egyptian, to climb down from the ivory tower of the outside spectator and to engage directly with Palestinians and Israelis, despite the mainstream hostility towards such encounters in the Arab world and Israel alike.

Like only a handful of Egyptian journalists and writers before me, I have embarked on a personal journey of discovery in the unholy mess of the Helly Land. I have visited Israel and Palestine, lived there for nearly two years and now have returned to live among the people again.

In my time here, I have encountered the good, the bad and the ugly, not to mention the outright eccentric, from Palestinian women race drivers to Israel Jewish Sufis who fast Ramadan. Along the way, I have had many adventures and misadventures.

To construct a proper understanding and a realistic picture, I have striven to challenge and push myself, not only questioning every aspect of the conflict, but also forcing myself to meet people from all walks of life, including those who are hostile to who I am and what I stand for, such as ideological settlers.

On the whole, Palestinians are thrilled to have an Egyptian here, given the Hollywood-like appeal of Egypt in these parts, and Israelis, who are more hospitable than their hard exterior suggests, are flattered to find an Arab willing to learn more about them.

This has enabled me to see the human face veiled by the conflict, and to witness how people on both sides are, for the most part, ordinary folk caught in an extraordinary situation – a conflict inherited from their great-grandparents which most expect to hand down, as an unenviable legacy, to their great-grandchildren.

My journey has radically altered my view of the situation and has unearthed some surprising realities, such as just how much in common Israelis and Palestinians have, their massive political differences notwithstanding, and how confoundingly diverse each society is, despite being so small that, combined, they would only make up half the population of my hometown, Cairo.

In fact, it would not be a stretch to say that, if it weren’t for the artificial political and physical constructs keeping them largely apart, many Palestinians and Israelis would find greater common cause among members of their enemy camp than among their own side.

In a bid to promote understanding, or at the very least a modicum of human sympathy, I have tried hard to capture this complexity and ambiguity in my journalism. I am also writing an ambitious book about those most intimate of enemies, those forgotten people, the Palestinians and Israelis.

Even though Israel-Palestine has become overshadowed by the recent uprisings and upheavals in the region, it is probably the most written-about conflict in the modern Middle East. But I believe my book of the people is different. Most of the literature out there deals with the geopolitics and history, focuses on the land, as if a nation is a piece of dirt and not the sum total of its people, and/or is partisan in nature.

Based on extensive interviews and thorough research, I profile both peoples in all their rich variety, relate my personal experiences living among them, explore the two societies, examine the culture, plot the differences, investigate the commonalities, and much more.

Although my book is not primarily about the politics or history, I do explore both through the prism of the people. I dig into the annals to uncover the shocking and shameful history of missed opportunities for peace over the past century, and I propose what I call the ‘non-state solution’ to the conflict.

But at the end of the day, it is up to the Israeli and Palestinian people to find the path to peace and coexistence that best suits them. And, to paraphrase Abraham Lincoln, to forge a peace of the people, by the people, for the people.

 

If you would like to keep abreast of the latest developments relating to Khaled’s book, please drop him a line at info@chronikler.com

____

Follow Khaled Diab on Twitter.

This article first appeared in The Huffington Post  on 5 December 2013.

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Israel-Palestine: a book of the people

 
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By Khaled Diab

In Israel-Palestine, a peace without the people has left two peoples without peace. That is why I am writing a book about these most intimate of enemies.

People: the forgotten link. Photo: ©Khaled Diab

People: the forgotten link. Photo: ©Khaled Diab

Thursday 21 November 2013

Although the Israeli-Palestinian conflict has become overshadowed by the tumultuous upheavals gripping the Middle East, the US Secretary of State has created something of a stir with his stated determination to revive the defunct and dysfunctional peace process.

John Kerry even warned Israel that it faces the prospect of a third intifada, if it failed to forge a durable peace with the Palestinians. Presumably to avoid such an outcome, Washington reportedly plans to push through its own peace deal in January if an agreement is not reached before then.

Even if the uncharacteristically stern tone Kerry adopted with Israel’s intransigent government is sincere, I cannot help but think that the Secretary of State is flogging a dead horse.

As I’ve argued on numerous occasions before, the Oslo framework has been a spectacular failure. This is for a host of reasons, including the fact that Washington is not an honest and impartial broker, as well as poor political leadership on both sides, a reality which favours the status quo and the downward inertia this imposes.

The Oslo process has also been undermined by its quest for a “comprehensive peace” and to put in place a “permanent status”.  This raised unrealistic expectations. In a conflict this deeply entrenched and with the massive disparity in power, there can be no ultimate, one-time, all-or-nothing resolution. The best we can hope for is little pieces of peace, shards of shalom or slices of salam, as the two sides gradually navigate the minefield towards conciliation.

But possibly the most fatal flaw of Oslo has been its largely top-down, inside-out nature which sidelines and ignores the most vital ingredient in any truly lasting peace: the people. That is why I have repeatedly advocated a people’s peace process.

For such a grassroots effort to work and to stand a chance of success requires a high degree of mutual understanding and a good dose of empathy. This conviction is what spurred me, as an Egyptian, to climb down from the ivory tower of the outside spectator and to engage directly with Palestinians and Israelis, despite the mainstream hostility towards such encounters in the Arab world and Israel alike.

Like only a handful of Egyptian journalists and writers before me (at least since the conflict began), I have embarked on a personal journey of discovery in the unholy mess of the Helly Land. I have visited Israel and Palestine, lived there for nearly two years and now have returned to live among the people again.

In my time here, I have encountered the good, the bad and the ugly. I have had many adventures and misadventures. Although as an Arab my instinctive sympathies are with the Palestinians, as a humanist, I have also nurtured empathy and sympathy for Israelis. To construct a proper understanding and a realistic picture, I have striven to challenge and push myself, not only questioning every aspect of the conflict, but also forcing myself to meet people from all walks of life, including those who are hostile to who I am and what I stand for, such as ideological settlers.

Along the way, I have made many good friends on both sides, and probably some enemies, though on the whole Palestinians are thrilled to have an Egyptian here, given the Hollywood-like appeal of Egypt in these parts, and Israelis, who are more hospitable than there hard exterior suggests, are flattered to find an Arab willing to learn more about them.

Photo: ©Khaled Diab

Photo: ©Khaled Diab

This has enabled me to see the human face veiled by the conflict, and to witness how people on both sides are, for the most part, ordinary folk caught in an extraordinary situation – a conflict inherited from their great-grandparents which most expect to hand down, as an unenviable legacy, to their great-grandchildren.

My journey has radically altered my view of the situation and has unearthed some surprising realities, such as just how much in common Israelis and Palestinians have, their massive political differences notwithstanding, and how confoundingly diverse each society is, despite being so small that, combined, they would only make up half the population of my hometown, Cairo.

In fact, it would not be a stretch to say that, if it weren’t for the artificial political and physical constructs keeping them largely apart, many Palestinians and Israelis would find greater common cause among members of their enemy camp than among their own side.

In a bid to promote understanding, or at the very least a modicum of human sympathy, I have tried hard to capture this complexity and ambiguity in my journalism. I am also writing an ambitious book about those most intimate of enemies, those forgotten people, the Palestinians and Israelis.

Another book, the weary reader might ask? It is true that, even though Israel-Palestine has become overshadowed by the recent uprisings and upheavals in the region, it is probably the most written-about conflict in the modern Middle East – some might say, the entire world.

But I believe my book of the people is different. Most of the literature out there deals with the geopolitics and history, focuses on the land, as if a nation is a piece of dirt and not the sum total of its people, and/or is partisan in nature.

Based on extensive interviews and thorough research, I profile both peoples in all their rich variety, relate my personal experiences living among them, explore the two societies, examine the culture, plot the differences, investigate the commonalities, and much more.

Although my book is not primarily about the politics or history, I do explore both through the prism of the people. I dig into the annals to uncover the shocking and shameful history of missed opportunities for peace over the past century, and I propose what I call the ‘non-state solution’ to the conflict.

The unusual nature of my enterprise has made publication a tough challenge, given the polarised nature of the Israel-Palestine publishing industry. Although I have written some 65,000 words and am two-thirds of the way through my manuscript, I have yet to find a publisher who will actually publish it.

A number of publishers have expressed initial interest and praised the manuscript, but have shied away from actually committing to publishing it. This is partly due to the (unintentionally) controversial nature of my work and partly due to the crisis afflicting the industry which has made editors reluctant to try the untested. Perhaps the path to follow, and one that will guarantee my editorial and political independence, is to self-publish, despite its reputation as a vanity outlet.

Whether I find a publisher or not, I am determined, with the help of family, friends and supporters, to finish what I have begun and to make whatever modest contribution I can to the quest for peace, by the people and for the people.

If you would like to keep abreast of the latest developments relating to Khaled’s book, please drop us a line at info@chronikler.com

Follow Khaled Diab on Twitter. This article first appeared in The Daily Beast on 13 November 2013.

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Is atheism Egypt’s fastest-growing ‘religion’?

 
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By Khaled Diab

Despite the risks, more and more atheists are coming out of the closet in Egypt, emboldened by the revolution’s ethos of freedom and dignity.

Tuesday 29 October 2013

Is Egypt going through a crisis of faith?

During my recent visit to Egypt, I met so many non-believers that it was almost tempting to think that atheism has become the country’s fastest-growing ‘religion’. In addition, atheists are becoming more confident, assertive and outspoken.

This, for example, is reflected in the daring decision by a group of atheists to submit publicly their demands for the complete secularisation of the state – something Islamists, especially ultra-conservative Salafists, passionately oppose – to the committee drafting Egypt’s new constitution.

On a personal level, though I have written about my loss of faith in Western publications for years, I recently “came out” as an atheist/agnostic in an Egyptian newspaper, and the reaction of readers and social media was surprisingly warm and positive.

This conflicts with the mainstream Western view of Arab/Islamic religiosity and fanaticism in which such a confession of faithlessness should have led to a fatwa against me and even my death.

But, as I pointed out in my piece, non-believers have always been an integral component of Egyptian society and, after being driven more underground in recent years, atheists have recently been making their presence felt.

How exactly did this occur?

“I reckon the reason behind the rise in the number of atheists in Egypt are the Muslim Brotherhood and other faith merchants, because people uncovered their lies,” Bassem, an old friend of mine, opined in a Cairo club where we had just watched, on TV, the World Cup’s ‘curse of the Pharaohs’ afflict Egypt on the soccer pitch yet again.

As I mulled over his point, I was struck that, by pure coincidence, the friends who had gathered round the table were almost all non-believers of one stripe or another.

“I’ve heard many people talking about the rise in the number of atheists and I also heard some Egyptian thinkers say it on talk shows, so I assumed that the lies of the Salafis and the Brotherhood’s leaders were behind this,” Bassem elaborated.

For non-believers like myself, there is a certain appeal to the notion that toppled President Mohamed Morsi’s disastrous 12 months in office have made Egypt lose its religion, and for some, this may possibly have been the case.

However, attempts to link the two are probably more wishful than actual. For some, they may even be political. The Muslim Brotherhood always made a big song and dance about how much more pious they were than the rest of society, so the suggestion that they drove people to abandon their faith helps undermine their holier-than-thou airs. Moreover, in the high stakes and dirty battle for the soul of Egypt between the military and the Brothers, the top brass are quite happy to promote the idea that the Islamists aren’t “real Muslims”.

When after eight decades of waiting in the wings, the Muslim Brotherhood were finally put to the test, millions of Egyptians lost what faith they had once had in Islamism, and its passing off of illusions as solutions, but not in Islam itself.

Ayman Abdel-Fattah, a wealthy businessman and staunch atheist in his late 40s, believes that what Morsi and the Brotherhood unintentionally succeeded in doing was to “force people to think about and evaluate the position of religion, in which sphere it belongs”.

“I think they showed people, even a lot of their former sympathisers, that it doesn’t matter what you think about religion, that religion belongs in a separate sphere,” he elaborates.

While most Egyptians, whether Muslim or Christian, remain strong believers, a significant and seemingly growing minority has given up on God and religion altogether. But since no official statistics exist on this “forgotten minority”, it is unclear whether the community has grown or whether the revolution, which began in January 2011, has made them more open about their beliefs and more willing to swim against the current.

Unlike in many parts of Western Europe, where religion is dying out and so can be discarded by individuals without too much conscious effort, for many atheists in Egypt, where religion is conspicuous and public, the road to non-belief is paved with soul-searching doubts and soul-destroying questions.

For example, for Abdel-Fattah, his path actually began as a quest to reinforce his faith with knowledge. “When I started university in the 1980s, I realised that I was very knowledgeable about lots of things, except my own religion. So I decided that I was going to delve deep into it and be as expert as possible,” he told me in a noisy watering hole in upscale Zamalek where philosophy seemed to be the last thing on the punters’ minds.

Instead of confirming and reaffirming his faith, this exercise, Abdel-Fattah admits, gave him “the shock of my life”. At school, he’d been given to believe that the prophet Muhammad was some kind of angel, and his companions were like saints.

But the picture Abdel-Fattah assembled over years of study proved to be very different: the founding fathers and mothers of Islam were very human, for the most part cynically political, motivated by self-interest and riven by infighting, jealousy and overriding ambition, he concluded.

Abdel-Fattah’s investigation of Christianity and Judaism, the New Testament and Old (Torah), proved to be no more satisfactory, nor did his study of polytheism. This led him to abandon not only his religion, but faith in any religion or god.

Like Sufi mysticism in reverse, the road to the profane can have many starting points. For Abdel-Fattah, it was his birth religion, Islam, for Mena Bassily, it was his inherited faith, Christianity. “I was a very religious person when I was a teenager,” recalls Bassily, a young computer scientist who now lives in New Zealand. “I used to teach kids in church and remote villages about Christianity and Jesus.”

Then, uncertainty began to set in, and the questions began to multiply in his mind. When the clergy answered his misgivings by telling him that God “knows what is best” and that He has “a plan we cannot question”, Bassily was incensed. “I don’t hate anything in the world as much as someone asking me not to think.”

The young doubter then embarked on a journey of spiritual self-discovery. “I started studying the Bible and Christianity myself, along with a lot of prayer and fasting for enlightenment to come from above,” Bassily explains.

Unexpectedly, he saw a different kind of light than the one he’d set out to find. Whereas Abdel-Fattah had set off to complement his scientific knowledge with spiritual insight, Bassily “got really curious about science, history, and philosophy”.

Further study and investigation led him to the conclusion that religion was manmade and God did not exist. But it took Bassily a while to get comfortable in his own skin and come out of the closet. “It was only a year ago that I began to freely identify myself to people in Egypt as an atheist,” he noted.

For some other atheists, doubt starts early in life, but is met with denial, often so as not to disappoint the community or family, especially if their household happens to be very religious.

“I always felt that religion wasn’t something natural to me,” confesses Amira Mohsen, a British-Egyptian journalist and political analyst. “Even as a child, I remember thinking it was pointless but I was convinced that these thoughts were just Satan whispering in my ear.”

In light of the fact that Mohsen’s Egyptian father was a member of the Muslim Brotherhood and her British mother, with the passion of the convert, was once even more conservative than her husband, it is unsurprising, even though Mohsen spent many of her formative years in comfortably secular England, that her young mind saw the devil in her doubts – a struggle that lasted for much of her youth.

“I had something of a religious revival during my early 20s, then I moved back to Egypt and that’s when I truly abandoned religion,” Mohsen recalls. “I was so disgusted by the things I saw around me.”

“I am responsible for my actions and don’t need some artificial construct to tell me how to live my life,” she adds. “I guess religion may work for some people but not for me.”

The fact that Mohsen ultimately abandoned her faith in Egypt is bound to surprise many Egyptians. Nevertheless, some will draw comfort from the notion that it was the influence of the secular West, where Mohsen has spent much of her life, that caused her to deviate from the “straight path”.

There are others who believe that atheism is a phenomenon which is limited to the “Westernised” urban elite. “Quite the contrary. The past three years changed my mind,” observes Ayman Abdel-Fattah. “I have discovered that there is a large strata of young people who are not wealthy, who are not even lower middle-class, who converted to atheism.”

I personally know people who received a completely conventional Egyptian upbringing and were raised in some of the most traditional corners of the country but still wound up abandoning their ancestral faith.

One old friend of mine was born and grew up in Minya, famed as the bridge to deeply conservative Upper Egypt. Despite having a father who was an Azharite scholar and religion teacher, but one who had raised his children to believe in free inquiry, my friend eventually became an atheist, though he never told his mother for fear of breaking her heart.

His transformation occurred after he moved to Cairo to go to university in the 1990s. This was at a time when Islamists were in the midst of a wide-scale campaign to intimidate and cow society, including throwing acid in the face of female students, into following their beliefs.

The main difference between atheists from Egypt’s richer classes and those from poorer backgrounds is that wealth, power and  a more permissive environment enable  the former to be more open about their beliefs than the latter. “I was lucky enough, from the start, to be master of my own domain. I never had to work for anyone. I never answered to anyone,” explains Abdel-Fattah.

Amira Mohsen tells of a poor man who worked in printing whom she once met in Cairo. “He told me how he’d read many newspaper articles and books about Marxism and had become an atheist based on what he had read,” she relates. “He told me he had been an atheist for 35 years now but was still too afraid to tell his wife and family and spent his life making excuses.”

But it is not just the poor who conceal their loss of faith from loved ones. A young, well-educated, upper middle-class relative of mine has still not come out of the closet to his family, fearing the rejection of his parents, even though he is now a successful professional and parent.

And that is probably the crux of the matter for most non-believers in Egypt – the reaction of friends and the community, the ostracisation and isolation, the sense that society would view them as errant and deviant.

That is why finding likeminded comrades and friends is important. Take Amr, a young software architect from Alexandria. Although his faith had been shaken for quite some time, his “real journey into doubt and scepticism” did not begin until he met Remoun, who would soon become one of his best friend.

Today, a confident, if very private atheist, Amr was a co-founder – along with Mena Bassily – of a closed Facebook group dedicated to atheism in Egypt which they envisioned as a way to help themselves and other non-believers to connect with like-minded people to offer one another mutual support and understanding.

Although in America and many parts of Europe, the issue of  atheism in Islam boils down to the theological question of apostasy, and whether or not it is punishable by death, the vast majority of Egyptian non-believers do not lose sleep over this issue.

It is true that in the most repressive Islamic regimes, such as in Saudi Arabia and Iran, “apostasy” is punishable by death, and atheists there live in constant fear of their lives However, there are also numerous Muslim countries, like Turkey, where atheism in perfectly legal and acceptable. Majority-Muslim Albania had the distinction of being one of the few countries in history that actively strove, during its communist era, to eradicate religion from society. But luckily this repressive and bloody period, in which atheism became an intolerant state religion, ended in 1991, and today Albanians are free to believe, or not, in whatever they want.

In Egypt, there is actually no legislation outlawing atheism. Of course, that does not mean that atheists’ only fear is social rejection. They are discriminated against and occasionally persecuted.

The fact that the state does not recognise them is discriminatory and leaves them vulnerable. Crusading Islamist lawyers and a government which tries to counter Islamism by pretending it is the safeguarder and protector of the faith have led to the detention or imprisonment of numerous atheists (and even believers) on the vague charges of “insulting” religion, including Abdel-Kareem Nabil (aka Kareem Amer) and Ayman Youssef Mansour, as well as Sherif Gaber since this article was first published.

But attitudes are shifting and the revolution has forced Egyptians to confront many social realities that they had ignored before, including the presence of such previously ignored minorities as atheists. “The revolution put a spotlight on lots of things and lots of phenomena that were underground and which we didn’t know the extent of,” observes Abdel-Fattah.

And while many Egyptians are becoming more inclusive and open, society has become far more polarised and the situation is very fluid. This means that the situation could improve dramatically for atheists or non-believers could again find themselves pushed back underground.

“We are seeing more and more sectarian violence in Egypt,” points out Amira Mohsen. “If people are attacking Christians or Shiites, then imagine what they would do to an ‘infidel’.”

And even if society continues to become more tolerant of dissenting beliefs, the ongoing breakdown in law and order could lead to greater religious vigilantism. “I respect people who are courageous enough to come out of the closet completely to their families and society. They are all heroes in my book,” says Amr. “But as we all know, heroes die. I do not want to die because some delusional and emotionally disturbed guy thinks my death will get him some virgins in the after-life.”

Even in the best case scenario, the process of acceptance and the struggle for equality will take many long years. “When I look at what things are like in the United States, I realise that I have to temper my expectations,” concludes Abdel-Fattah. “I think it’s going to be an uphill struggle; a very long fight.”

“But let’s look on the bright side,” he urges. “Three or four years ago, no one would’ve imagined that people would actually go to the Committee of 50 [drafting the new constitution] and say: we are atheists and we ask for our rights to be included.”

Follow Khaled Diab on Twitter.

This article first appeared in Salon on 27 October 2013.

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