The ghettoisation of Danish politics

VN:F [1.9.22_1171]
Rating: 0 (from 0 votes)
VN:F [1.9.22_1171]
Rating: 0.0/10 (0 votes cast)

By Khaled Diab

The Danish government plans to force minorities out of what it classes as “ghettos”, but its Denmark’s mainstream that needs to escape its ghetto mentality.

Friday 13 July 2018

While America separates migrant children from their parents at the border, including toddlers who have to appear in court alone, Denmark has passed legislation that will require children from the age of one living in areas defined as “ghettos” by the state to be separated from their families for at least 25 hours a week, not including nap times.

This new policy carries echoes of, and is a small but significant step towards, the discredited and inhumane practices of tearing indigenous children away from their families, such as occurred with Australia’s “lost generations” of Aboriginals or Canada’s so-called Scoop generations.

Although the children involved are not indigenous, Denmark’s new “ghetto” policies follow similar assimilationist logic. The toddlers and children attending obligatory daycare will receive mandatory instruction in “Danish values,” which reportedly includes not only democracy but also the traditions of Christmas and Easter, and the Danish language – though how on Earth they plan to combine that with pot training, or how they expect Danish minority toddlers to grasp the democratic norms which have eluded many American adults, has not yet been made clear.

This is part of a package of measures passed by Danish legislators at the end of May, which itself is part of a broader strategy to eradicate “parallel societies” by 2030. “We must introduce a new target to end ghettos completely. In some places, by breaking up concrete and pulling down buildings,” centre-right prime minister Lars Løkke Rasmussen said in his New Year’s speech unveiling the government’s intentions.

Although Rasmussen insisted that his government’s aim was to “recreate mixed neighbourhoods” and to “break the chain in which generation after generation lives in a parallel society”, many of Denmark’s minorities, especially Muslims, see this as a manifestation of the longstanding racism and discrimination that has plagued Danish society, which some had allowed themselves to hope that society was in the process of gradually shedding.

This impression is bolstered by how quite a few politicians insist the ghetto laws are not racist or racially motivated, while employing dog-whistles so piercingly high-pitched that they have deafened Denmark’s canine population. This massive internalising of bigotry may explain why nobody in the government appears to have even blinked at officially calling poor, minority-heavy neighbourhoods “ghettoes”, as though ignorant of or indifferent to the painful history of centuries of Jewish exclusion and persecution, which culminated in the Holocaust.

“I grew up in Denmark as a refugee facing racism on almost a daily basis… Danes [would] go out of their way to make sure you feel like you don’t belong,” recalls Maryam AlKhawaja, the prominent Bahraini-Danish dissident and activist, who spent her childhood and early teens in Denmark and returned again as a young adult, following a crackdown in Bahrain which saw her father imprisoned for life. “Things got better after I moved back in 2012, but it seems now that all that underlying xenophobia, racism and hate is surfacing because it’s suddenly become okay to voice such opinions.”

For AlKhawaja, the greatest disappointment has been how the Social Democrats “have become more and more right-wing on migration and refugee issues, and in some cases one can no longer tell the difference between them and the right-wing Islamophobes”. Whether out of expediency or conviction, the Social Democrats, despite being in opposition, voted for the “ghetto package”.

It is possible that the Social Democrats are not (just) being electorally cynical but actually believe, in the tradition of Nordic “social engineering”, that tackling the ghettoes offers poor migrants and minorities an exit permit out of exclusion.

If so, this is misguided. Marginalised minority neighbourhoods are not the problem. They are a manifestation of myriad other problems. The reasons migrants concentrate in certain areas is not generally because they want to live in these neighbourhoods, but because they have little to no other choice, and cannot afford to live elsewhere.

Even if minorities voluntarily lived in proximity with one another. That, in principle, should not be a problem. In fact, Europeans and Westerners have just such a tendency to live in “ghettos” when abroad, so as to be able to support one another and lead a lifestyle according to their own values, not that of the local society.

In Denmark and other parts of Europe, many immigrants do not need an invitation, let alone an ultimatum from the state to move out of the “ghettoes”. Those who become more prosperous and successful tend to move out of their own volition. But this has the downside of leaving behind society’s rejects and providing youth in these neighbourhoods with few recognisable role models for success.

Same goes for crime, which is generally very low in Denmark. In fact, crime has reached record lows in recent years, which you might not realise with all the populist scaremongering going on. If I were to employ the logic of bigots, I would attribute this fall in crime to immigration, as many migrants who move to Denmark come from low-crime societies, and growing diversity, which breeds a culture of acceptance and tolerance. But I would never dream of making such a spurious, agenda-driven, fact-free assertion. Crime is a complex and attributable to numerous factors.

In reality, the reasons why there there are higher levels of certain types of crime in minority neighbourhoods – such as petty theft – have little to do with the concentration of migrants or Muslims and almost everything to do with the concentration of poverty, the intensity of socio-economic exclusion, and the paucity of prospects, and how what constitutes “crime” is defined. This is visible in, for instance, how the traditionally poverty-stricken East End of London has been associated with crime for centuries, regardless of whether it was inhabited by Anglicans, Catholics, black Africans, Chinese, Eastern Europeans, or Bengalis. In fact, the kind of moralising and condescension expressed about the allegedly unwashed, lazy and criminal poor in the 19th century has been repurposed for poor migrants.

Forcing minorities out of deprived neighbourhoods will not, in and of itself, lead to less crime, if their deprivation and exclusion moves with them, and if mainstream Danes do not overcome their own self-imposed ghetto mentality of building cultural walls between them and the supposed strangers in their midsts.

The Danish government’s plan tacitly recognises this economic dimension with the bonuses it offers municipalities which offer employment to non-Western minorities. But this is far, far too little to make a realistic dent.

Far easier is to play the identity card, to suggest that it is because immigrants have failed to embrace “Danish values” that is the problem, not because society has undervalued them and they are excess to requirements in the contemporary model of predatory capitalism which causes the prosperity worked for by the many to trickle up to the very, very few.

And what exactly are Danish values, or European values, or Western values? If we assume them to mean a commitment to and belief in democracy, freedom of belief and expression, gender and other forms of equality, as well as respect for human rights, including sexual orientation, what do we do about the native Danes who are of an authoritarian or fascistic persuasion, or who are misogynistic and/or homophobic? Should they also be sent to re-education classes? Of course not, that is not what a free society is about. A free society is about giving citizens full freedom to decide for themselves, as long as their decisions do not directly hurt other citizens.

Besides, the suppression of liberal and progressive values occurred in Denmark and Europe long before the advent of mass non-European migration. For instance, many locals fear Muslim attitudes towards alcohol, yet conveniently forget that, long before the spectre of illusionary “creeping Sharia” arrived on Denmark’s shores, the autonomous Faroe Islands had an alcohol prohibition for most of the 20th century, and nearby Iceland banned beer.

Then, there is the problem with the slippery slope. What may seem a small or lesser evil today often spirals out of control to become a consuming evil. If you think this is just progressive or liberal alarmism, consider the fact that a proposal is in the pipeline to double the punishment for certain crimes (chillingly, to be left to the discretion of the police) in “ghetto” areas, effectively eliminating one of the founding and fundamental principles of the modern justice system, equality before the law. “I always argued that, despite all the things that I disliked about Denmark, at least the system is, to a large extent, just. I fear that is no longer the case,” confesses Maryam AlKhawaja.

And if Denmark sets a precedent of de facto legal segregation in Europe, who is to say where it will stop. If equality before the law is undermined through unequal punishment, what’s to stop legislation being passed formalising unequal rewards, legislating that minorities should be paid less for equal work?

Moreover, the slippery slope can often consume those who were cheerleading the descend to fascism because a system built on fear and identity politics cannot survive without creating new enemies of the state and of the people, because the beast of exclusion possesses a voracious appetite.


This article was first published by The New Arab on 4 July 2018.

VN:F [1.9.22_1171]
Rating: 0.0/10 (0 votes cast)
VN:F [1.9.22_1171]
Rating: 0 (from 0 votes)

Related posts

The sound of religious discord

VN:F [1.9.22_1171]
Rating: 0 (from 0 votes)
VN:F [1.9.22_1171]
Rating: 0.0/10 (0 votes cast)

By Khaled Diab

We need to reach a future in which the religious freedom of Muslims who wish to hear the call to prayer does not infringe upon the peace of mind of non-Muslims and non-practising Muslims.

Should the adhan go back to its unplugged roots? Photo: ©Khaled Diab

Should the adhan go back to its unplugged roots?
Photo: ©Khaled Diab

Tuesday 29 November 2016

Politics makes for strange bedfellows. A bill before the Israeli Knesset intended to deprive Muslim muezzins of their loudspeakers initially met with stiff resistance from Ultra-Orthodox Jews, both Haredim and Hassidim, who became temporary allies with Palestinian-Israeli and Jewish leftist politicians.

United Torah Judaism’s Yaakov Litzman, who serves as health minister in the current cabinet, threatened to torpedo the proposal, not out of love of the Islamic call to prayer, or adhan, or for his Muslim neighbours but because he, like the Shas party, feared it could also be used to curb the rights of Jews to make holy noise. “Since the technology developed, loudspeakers have been used to announce the onset of Shabbat,” Litzman noted last week. Indeed, a siren is sounded across Jerusalem and can be clearly heard in many Arab neighbourhoods.

Now Litzman has reportedly withdrawn his appeal after he was apparently reassured that an exception for the Shabbat siren would be included in the proposed legislation, paving the way to a preliminary reading at the Knesset.

Unsurprisingly, Palestinians and their allies – within Israel, in Arab and Muslim countries and in the wider world – are outraged by this discriminatory initiative. They see it as yet another example of ultra-nationalist Israelis attempting to silence Palestinians and erase another poignant symbol of their culture.

This explains why there have been numerous protests against the bill, with Hamas’ leader in exile, Khaled Mashal, warning Israel that it was “playing with fire”. Turkey, with which Israel has recently mended diplomatic fences, also expressed outrage, as did Jordanian football fans. In addition to the expected condemnation by Islamists, secular and Christian Palestinians have also been vocal in their opposition to the draft legislation.

“If mosques are silenced, we will make sure that the muezzin will be heard in churches, in Nazareth, in Haifa, in Jaffa and in Jerusalem,”  Basel Ghattas, a Knesset member who belongs to the Joint List, said defiantly. “This bill poses a danger not only to mosques or to Muslim Arab citizens, but also endangers churches and Christian Arabs and the Palestinian identity.”

And churches have already been tolling their solidarity. The adhan was even heard in the Knesset when a couple of Arab parliamentarians recited the call to prayer, in a sort of holy filibuster, while some of their Jewish counterparts heckled them.

Some defenders of the bill will protest that the draft legislation is not targeted at mosques but at all houses of worship that make excessive noise. But that would be disingenuous.

The original wording of the bill, which was introduced by Moti Yogev of the far-right HaBayit HaYehudi party, did not mince words about its intended target, mosques, and the wording was changed to encompass all houses of worship only after the justice system objected to it as discriminatory.

If the bill were truly about controlling overly zealous holy noise, then existing noise pollution regulations would suffice, as head of the Joint List Ayman Odeh has pointed out, and numerous grassroots compromises have been hammered out in mixed Arab-Jewish communities.

In fact, this is how most Western countries tackle the issue – noise regulations that apply to everyone, religious and secular alike. However, MK Yogev’s clear intention – to single out Muslims’ public presence – isn’t satisfied by laws that are inclusive such as these. There is more than an echo of the rise of Trump and other far-right demagogues, who find the idea of legislation targeting only Muslims appealing.

Moreover, a non-discriminatory law would not exempt the Jewish siren or the blaring speakers used during Jewish holy days, including in predominantly Arab areas, such as Sheikh Jarrah, which is the location of the Shimon Hatzadik tomb, where a noisy annual festival pumps up the decibels and blocks roads.

If it were a question of preserving tranquillity, then the mayor of mixed Lod would not have decided to protest the noise made by mosques by creating a competing ding by blaring out a traditional Jewish prayer from city hall at the same time as the adhan.

What this reveals is that holy sound has become an under-appreciated and under-reported battleground in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. For example, it sometimes strikes me that during periods of high tension or in areas near settlers, mosques appear to get louder. In East Jerusalem, where I live, I have noticed that mosques are at their loudest during periods when there are protests or clashes with Israeli forces.

Beyond the sensitive Israeli-Palestinian context, the excessive sound pollution caused by mosques has not gone without objection, albeit of an often-muted nature as the loud protests of the pious can silence dissent. In a number of Muslim societies, a sign of the growing sway of Islamists and the intimidation they exercise, not to mention overcrowding, is the growing number and volume of calls to prayer, with tiny corner mosques run by Salafists often sporting the loudest amplifiers.

An early example of efforts to bring this phenomenon under control was Tunisia’s first president and independence leader Habib Bourguiba whom, a Tunisian friend informed me, banned loudspeakers during the dawn prayer (al-fajr) out of consideration for the sick, students and workers who needed to sleep.

Several Muslim countries, including Jordan, the UAE and Turkey have a unified adhan to minimise the cacophony caused by numerous mosques calling the faithful to pray at slightly different times, causing a sort of sound cascade. Egypt, whose loud and rebellious population defeats any attempts at noise control, also tried but failed to introduce such a system.

From a functional perspective, the adhan has effectively become obsolete in the 21st century. With the proliferation of alarm clocks, including Mecca-themed ones, apps, SMS alerts and other technologies, the adhan broadcast by the mosque no longer serves a practical purpose.

Of course, the adhan is inextricably linked to the cultural identity of Muslim societies around the world, in the minds of Muslims and non-Muslims alike. Despite my annoyance at being flung out of bed, especially when the speaker is so loud that it sounds like you are sleeping atop a minaret, I have been moved by the sublime beauty of the adhan when performed by capable muezzins, such as when I have heard it from rooftops near al-Azhar and al-Hussein mosques in Cairo.

However, we need to reach a future in which the religious freedom of Muslims who wish to hear the call to prayer does not infringe upon the peace of mind of non-Muslims and non-practising Muslims, as well as children, the elderly and the sick.

One way to do this is by preserving both the beauty and tradition of the adhan. Since the call to prayer only serves an aesthetic purpose in our high-tech world, muezzins should return to their roots, climb the minaret and give us only acoustic renditions of the adhan.

But this unplugged adhan is not something the Israeli Knesset can or should impose.


Follow Khaled Diab on Twitter.

This article which first appeared in Haaretz on 23 November 2016.

VN:F [1.9.22_1171]
Rating: 0.0/10 (0 votes cast)
VN:F [1.9.22_1171]
Rating: 0 (from 0 votes)

Related posts

The Arab media paradox: Free expression amid repression

VN:F [1.9.22_1171]
Rating: 0 (from 0 votes)
VN:F [1.9.22_1171]
Rating: 0.0/10 (0 votes cast)

By Khaled Diab

Frustratingly for Arab dictators and despots, no matter how much they try to silence, intimidate or co-opt the media, new loud and critical voices emerge.

The frontpage of the normally pro-regime al-Musawer protests the storming of the journalists syndicate and the media crackdown in Egypt.

The frontpage of the normally pro-regime al-Musawer protests the storming of the journalists syndicate and the media crackdown in Egypt.

Wednesday 11 May 2016

It is not just the news that is depressing. The state of the media around the world is increasingly becoming a cause for alarm. Tuesday 3 May was World Press Freedom Day and almost everywhere you turn your gaze, media freedom is under threat from governments, terrorist organisations, crime syndicates and corporate interests.

Freedom House’s latest report found that global media freedom was at its lowest level in a dozen years.

According to the Washington-based watchdog, only 13% of humanity enjoys access to a free press. Even in countries where freedom of the press is legally protected and supposedly sacrosanct, the media is experiencing mounting pressure, as governments exploit the threat of terrorism to enact restrictive legislation and populist right-wingers find ways to co-opt or muzzle the media.

A similar message is echoed by France-based Reporters Without Borders whose latest Press Freedom Index (PFI) has registered a growth in violations of nearly 14% since 2013. This reveals “a deep and disturbing decline in respect for media freedom at both the global and regional levels” which “is indicative of a climate of fear and tension combined with increasing control over newsrooms by governments and private-sector interests”.

These violations can verge on the insultingly absurd. An example that would ring familiar with many Arabs was the case late last year of a Thai man who was arrested for “lèse majesté” late last year for allegedly “insulting” not the ailing King Bhumibol himself but his beloved dog in a series of Facebook posts. As is often the case, the real target of the junta’s ire are the allegations the same man published about widespread corruption in high places.

In both rankings, the turbulent and conflict-ridden Middle East props up the bottom half of the global league and, according to Reporters Without Borders, is “one of the world’s most difficult and dangerous regions for journalists”. Freedom House concurs, noting that “governments and militias increasingly pressured journalists and media outlets to take sides, creating a ‘with us or against us’ climate and demonising those who refused to be cowed”.

Journalists here are at risk from repressive regimes and their security apparatuses, armed militias and terrorist groups, religious radicals, not to mention the threats posed by regressive laws, those above the law or general lawlessness, depending on the location. With all the dangers to life and livelihood which independent media professionals in the region experience, it is almost a miracle that anyone would make journalism their career choice.

The main good news about the region’s media emanates from Tunisia, the only Middle Eastern country to rise in the PFI rankings. But even in the Arab uprisings’ greatest success story so far, journalists still face regular harassment and often exercise self-censorship.

The largescale war against media freedom in the Arab world actually distorts a key and perhaps paradoxical truth: never have Arabs enjoyed freer access to information and never have the region’s journalists and citizens mounted such a constant, consistent and comprehensive assault on the state’s media dominance. This is especially the case in the frontline states of the Arab revolutions.

The most incredible and laudable examples of this must be the journalists and citizen journalists working to record and broadcast the truth in the region’s war zones – Syria, Iraq, Yemen and Libya.

Despite being the deadliest country for journalists in the world, many Syrians continue to put their lives on the line to  report on the crimes and violations of the Assad regime, ISIL and other armed groups. One of the most dramatic examples of this is the award-winningRaqqa is Being Slaughtered Silently’, a citizen-journalist group reporting independently out of ISIL-controlled territory.

Although government crackdowns have narrowed the space for free expression, frightening and cowing many in the process, the region’s courageous independent journalists have been forcing open the cracks left behind.

In this regard, the digital and social media have been a lifeline. Two prominent examples of this are the audacious and daring investigative journalism sites Inkyfada in Tunisia and Mada Masr in Egypt.

For their part, regimes have been fighting back. Not only have Arab governments invested heavily in surveillance and monitoring technologies, they have also sought to beat activists and revolutionaries at their own game by building up a dynamic propaganda presence online.

But frustratingly for Arab dictators and despots, no matter how much they clampdown on free expression and try to silence, intimidate or co-opt the media, new loud and critical voices, whether underground or in broad daylight, invariably emerge.

This was amply been demonstrated by the remarkable media and protest campaign spearheaded by the Egyptian Journalists Syndicate to defend press freedom, call for the resignation of the interior minister and demand an end to repression.

Although the days are long gone when Arab regimes enjoyed a near monopoly on the flow of news and information within their borders, they still act as though they can control the minds and consciousness of their citizens.

Once upon a time, Arab leaders could figuratively parade without clothes in front of their pliant media and hypocritical “Yes men” and nobody would dare tell the emperors they were nude. Though our leaders would love nothing more than our turning a blind eye to their naked lust for power, millions of Arabs are no longer willing to applaud our emperors’ new clothes. The Arab public has become unwilling to accept illusion and delusion as substitutes for actual change.

It is high time for Arab governments and other repressive actors to learn that the wise way to deal with criticism is not to shut down critical media but to respond to and engage with opponents and critics, and to enact meaningful and deep reforms.


Follow Khaled Diab on Twitter.

This is the updated version of an article which first appeared on Al Jazeera on 3 May 2016.

VN:F [1.9.22_1171]
Rating: 0.0/10 (0 votes cast)
VN:F [1.9.22_1171]
Rating: 0 (from 0 votes)

Related posts

The road to hell is paved with pious intentions

VN:F [1.9.22_1171]
Rating: 0 (from 0 votes)
VN:F [1.9.22_1171]
Rating: 0.0/10 (0 votes cast)

By Khaled Diab

The ban on eating and drinking in public in some Muslim countries is wrong. Piety cannot and must not be imposed by law.

Tuesday 28 July 2015

Ramadan is a unique month. It is time of stark contrasts. Fasting and austerity during the day. Feasting and revelry once the sun goes down. It is paradoxically characterised both by enhanced spirituality, as many faithful withdraw from the world to worship and spiritually cleanse themselves, and greater materialism, as the average family’s consumption sky-rockets.

The holy month is marked by greater forgiveness and charity, but also heightened levels of impatience and anger, especially in the form of the “fasting furious” during rush hour. One unedifying aspect of Ramadan is when piety stops becoming a personal quest and becomes a question of public interest and even legislation.

This was recently illustrated in Morocco, where five people were arrested for eating and drinking in public, which is prohibited in the kingdom by law and carries a sentence of up to six months in prison.

Of course, Morocco is not alone. A number of Arab and Muslim countries have similar regulations in place, especially in the Gulf. Saudi Arabia has gone a step further and threatened to deport any non-Muslims found eating and drinking in public.

Even in countries that do not ban eating and drinking, overzealous individual officers can sometimes take the law into their own hands.

Although it was once unheard of in my native Egypt, where there is a vibrant parallel non-fasting culture, recent years have seen a number of incidents in which Egyptians were detained by police for breaking the fast in public. Controversy surrounding the alleged arrest of 25 people prompted Egypt’s interior ministry to reiterate that eating in public is legal during Ramadan.

And it is important that it stays this way. In fact, Egypt needs to go further, and lift the ridiculous ban it has on alcohol sales during Ramadan.

Some pious people will object. I’ve debated this issue with numerous conservatives. Some argue that it is about not putting temptation in the way of the faster. But, surely, a Muslim who can’t handle fasting around others who are eating doesn’t possess the spiritual stamina to fast.

Besides, the Moroccan arrests took place in a beach resort, which implies that the fasting locals could endure tourists in beachwear sipping cocktails on the beach, but thirsty locals are suddenly intolerable.

Another justification is that in a Muslim country people must respect Islamic values and rituals. “These people were arrested for not showing Ramadan the respect it deserves,” one interlocutor argued.

Well, those chanting “This is a Muslim country” should not mind at all that China is forcing Muslims to eat in public this year – after all, Ramadan conflicts with the country’s ostensibly communist ideology. Of course, this is an enormous violation of the rights of Chinese Muslims – but so is forcing people not to eat in public.

This highlights how this kind of coercive imposition of ideology is not just an Islamic ailment. In Israel, for example, it has surprised me how the country must go into forced lockdown on Yom Kippur and, every Shabbat, public transport comes to a grinding halt and traffic is banned from ultra-orthodox neighbourhoods.

Moreover, showing respect is a personal choice, not a legislative issue. Coercion results in the kind of “respect” people show to thugs and bullies. Respect is a two-way street. Just as liberals like me don’t force pious Muslims to drink alcohol, why do the pious believe it is their right to compel us to fast, or at least to pretend to do so in public?

Such pressure for citizens to exhibit public piety is counterproductive, as it promotes a spirit of hypocrisy – something which has undermined numerous Arab and Muslim societies. Do what you want in private but lie in public, is the implicit, underlying message.

More fundamentally, such coercion is a violation of the principle of religious freedom. And even if you exempt non-Muslims from this, this raises the problematic issue of dividing between citizens, which can raise tensions and fuel sectarianism. In addition, such exemptions still infringe on the rights of non-practicing Muslims not to practise their religion.

Beyond this, the road to hell is paved with pious intentions. If this logic works in Ramadan, why stop there? Shouldn’t the pious then have the right to impose their values on the rest of us all year round?

And this is happening before our eyes. Despite its reputation for tolerance, Morocco is becoming increasingly draconian. A telling example of this are the two women currently standing trial for “public indecency” for wearing miniskirts, who face the prospect of spending two years behind bars.

Luckily, tolerant Moroccans have not taken this lying down, and have come up with creative ways to protest, including a campaign to bare legs in solidarity and more than 27,000 have signed a petition telling the minister of justice that “wearing a skirt is not a crime”.

Such initiatives are not a campaign to spread “debauchery” and “immorality”, but seek to protect the freedom of everyone, even the pious. What the self-righteous pious don’t realise is that there are always those who are more pious and radical.

By showing intolerance towards those less pious than them, they open the door to the more extreme doing the same to them. Today, they fashion a self-righteous moral case against the length of a skirt. Tomorrow, others might persecute them for wearing the wrong length of beard or a “revealing” type of hijab.

The only way to guarantee that others tolerate you is to tolerate others, without exception.


Follow Khaled Diab on Twitter.

This article first appeared in Haaretz on 17 July 2015.

VN:F [1.9.22_1171]
Rating: 0.0/10 (0 votes cast)
VN:F [1.9.22_1171]
Rating: 0 (from 0 votes)

Related posts

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

VN:F [1.9.22_1171]
Rating: -2 (from 4 votes)
VN:F [1.9.22_1171]
Rating: 6.1/10 (8 votes cast)

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.

VN:F [1.9.22_1171]
Rating: 6.1/10 (8 votes cast)
VN:F [1.9.22_1171]
Rating: -2 (from 4 votes)

Related posts

Guardians of the unborn

VN:F [1.9.22_1171]
Rating: 0 (from 0 votes)
VN:F [1.9.22_1171]
Rating: 0.0/10 (0 votes cast)

By Khaled Diab

The Dutch parliament is considering whether protecting unborn children should supersede the rights of parents to procreate.

November 2008

Women in the Netherlands who are deemed by the state to be unfit mothers could soon be sentenced to take contraception for a prescribed period of two years, according to a draft bill before the Dutch parliament.

The proposed legislation would further punish parents who defied it by taking away their newborn infant. “It targets people who have been the subject of judicial intervention because of their bad parenting,” explained the author of the bill Marjo Van Dijken of the socialist PvDA. “If someone refuses the contraception and becomes pregnant, the child must be taken away directly after birth.”

When I see how some parents treat their children and come across adults who wish they’d never been born because of the abuse they endured as kids, I get some idea of where Van Dijken is coming from, but her proposed solution strikes me as far too draconian.

In fact, I have serious misgivings about the implications of this proposed law, and it raises a torrent of questions in my mind. Is it really the state’s role to protect the unborn and does it have the right to control people’s bodies in such a way and to deprive them of the basic right to procreate? Whatever happened to the presumption of innocence? Just because a parent was bad with one child, does it mean (s)he will repeat the offence?

Have we got the right to exercise pre-emptive “justice” – and could this be the first step towards a “minority report” approach to parental “precrime”? And, perhaps, given the Dutch penchant for social engineering, this could prove to be the prelude for the professionalisation of parenting, where in the distant future only certified and trained “fathers” and “mothers” would be allowed to raise children in special facilities.

Less fantastically, could this not be the first step down a slippery slope? This government may have all the best intentions, but what’s to guarantee that a future government won’t use the law, or an amendment of it, to target undesirable groups, such as Roma, gays, religious minorities and immigrants.

More immediately, there’s the question of how we would define the “unfit parents” who should be deprived of the right to bear children. Should the law apply only to parents who pose a clear and present danger to potential offspring or could it be more loosely interpreted to apply to those of whose parenting style the state disapproves?

Even if the law does save legions of notional children the trauma of neglectful parenting and abuse, how about all those parents it unfairly condemns? Surely, not all people who have ill-treated their children will raise their future offspring badly. Some will learn from their mistakes or be prompted by remorse to do better. Others will have mistreated their children because of temporary factors, such as depression or a nervous breakdown, the break-up of a relationship, or the loss of a job and other social deprivations.

“I find this is going way too far,” exclaimed one Dutch blogger. “That’s may be because I experienced how my own sister could not take care of her son as a consequence of postnatal depression… Was she such a bad mother that, in the future, she can’t determine for herself whether or not to have another child?”

I must admit that it shocked me that this law was the brainchild of a socialist. As a confounded psychiatrist friend who deals with troubled children put it, this bill is vaguely reminiscent of the eugenics and sterilisation programmes of the fascist era.

Rather than the altruistic goal of protecting children, one friend thinks that this legislative proposal, which is likely to be defeated, is an attempt to steal the populist thunder of the far right in a society that has veered significantly rightwards in recent years. Another hidden objective could be to reduce the cost to the state of caring for abused children.

Luckily, this ill-conceived law, according to legal experts, contravenes the Dutch constitution and the European Charter of Fundamental Rights, and will hopefully be defeated on the floor of the parliament.

This column appeared in The Guardian Unlimited’s Comment is Free section on 4 November 2008. Read the related discussion.

This is an archive piece that was migrated to this website from Diabolic Digest

VN:F [1.9.22_1171]
Rating: 0.0/10 (0 votes cast)
VN:F [1.9.22_1171]
Rating: 0 (from 0 votes)

Related posts