A successful caliphate in six simple steps

 
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By Khaled Diab

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

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

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

Tuesday 17 June 2014

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

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

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

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

  1. Caliphornian wine and Caliphornication

In spring if a houri-like sweetheart

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

Though to the vulgar this would be blasphemy,

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

Omar al-Khayyam (translated by Karim Emami)

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

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

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

Instead drink to the rose from a rosy red wine.

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

Leaves its redness in both the eye and the cheek.

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

Come right in, boys. I’m

a mine of luxury – dig me.

Well-aged brilliant wines made by

monks in a monastery! shish-kebabs!

Roast chickens! Eat! Drink! Get happy!

and afterwards you can take turns

shampooing my tool.

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

  1. Strength in diversity

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

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

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

  1. Tolerance is a duty

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

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

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

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

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

  1. Ijtihad and the greater jihad

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

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

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

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

  1. A woman’s place is in… public

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

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

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

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

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

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

  1. Secularism is the solution

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

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

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

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

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

____

This piece was republished on BuzzFeed on 20 June 2014.

Follow Khaled Diab on Twitter.

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The Christian Allah

 
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By Khaled Diab

Muslim and Christian bigots who don’t speak Arabic believe that “Allah” is only for Muslims. They are wrong: Allah is God and God is Allah.

"Allah" pre-dates Islam. The word was used by the Arabs to refer to the chief god of Mecca who was venerated around the black stone of the Ka’aba.

“Allah” pre-dates Islam. The word was used by the Arabs to refer to the chief god of Mecca who was venerated around the black stone of the Ka’aba.

Monday 7 October 2013

Malaysia is quite literally embroiled in a holy war of words – and the word in question is “Allah”. The government there wants to ban Christians from using what it regards as a word which should be used only by Muslims.

In 2008, the government threatened to revoke the publishing licence of the Catholic Herald, if the newspaper did not stop referring to God as Allah. This would be problematic, as it would force the newspaper to misquote the centuries-old Malay version of the Bible, and the local alternative, Tuhan, is used to refer specifically to “the Lord”.

Fortunately, Malaysia’s high court displayed more sense and ruled in the newspaper’s favour. Unfortunately, the authorities insisted on throwing sensibility to the wind and launched an appeal, which the appeal court began hearing in September, and is due to deliver a verdict on in October.

As is so often the case, the dispute is the symptom of deeper troubles. Despite the fact that Malaysians, in their kaleidoscope of religious and racial diversity, tend to “talk conflict, but they walk cohesion,” as one academic put it, the country has been experiencing rising tensions between its various groups.

In addition, though it is perhaps the world’s longest-ruling party, Barisan Nasional (the National Front) has seen its support base dwindle in recent years. In May, Barisan, whose three race-based parties play on sectarian grounds outside of elections, gained less than half of the popular vote.

Despite statistical evidence to the contrary, Prime Minister Najib Razak blamed the erosion on a “Chinese tsunami”. In addition, the Malaysian government has been under growing pressure from Islamic parties, and this has led the government, as has occurred elsewhere, to play the piety card and engage in identity politics.

But is there any validity to the case for limiting Allah to Muslims? Absolutely not.

The controversy is partly fuelled by confusion. Most Malaysians do not speak Arabic and so some of the Muslims among them may be under the false impression that “Allah” is exclusively Islamic.

But they are mistaken. “Allah’ is simply the Arabic word for “God”, or even “god”.

The word itself – which is probably a contraction of the Arabic al-illah (the God) – pre-dates Islam. It was used by the Arabs to refer to the chief god of Mecca, whom they believed to be the creator of the world and the giver of rain and was venerated around the black stone of the Ka’aba.

With the advent of Islam, Allah topped the list of the 99 names of God. But even under Islam, the word “Allah” has not lost its general sense. For example, the beginning of the shehada, or Islamic creed, tells us that: “La illaha ila Allah”, or “There is no god but God”. The word is also used in the plural form, ‘alleha‘, to refer to the Egyptian and Greek pantheons, for example.

It should then come as no surprise that Arabic-speaking Christians and Jews have, for centuries, referred to God as Allah. In Egypt, for instance, Copts say “Allah mahaba” or “God is love” and I have met Christians whose name is Abdullah (Servant of God).

The fact that Arab and Maltese Christians worship “Allah” while Malaysian Christians have gone to court to defend their right to do so is likely to confuse many conservatives and anti-Muslims in the West.

This is reflected in the controversy in January when a Colorado school allowed pupils to recite the pledge of allegiance in Arabic, sparking anger that the kids were expressing their loyalty to “one nation under Allah”.

But this is just plain ridiculous: Allah is God and God is Allah.

That is why it sometimes irritates me when English translations of the Qur’an talk of Allah, not God. After all, English translations of the Bible do not tend to use the Aramaic or Hebrew words for God but employ a Germanic one, which derives from guthan, meaning “That which is invoked”.

But some conservative Christians will invoke in their defence that Muslims pray to a different deity to them and so this must be distinguished. But this is nonsense of the highest order. Though they may disagree on certain ideological and doctrinal issues, and even a little on the nature of God, Judaism, Christianity and Islam all worship the same monotheistic deity.

In fact, it is not a stretch to say that the three religions are essentially branches of the same faith, as has been suggested by numerous scholars and writers. That is why Muslims refer to the “People of the Book”, and all three religions trace their roots back to Abraham, whom they believe to be their common patriarch.

___

Follow Khaled Diab on Twitter.

This article first appeared in The National on 3 October 2013.

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Egypt’s popular peace front

 
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By Khaled Diab

With the prospect of reconciliation a long way off and to prevent civil war, Egyptians need to form a united front against  all political violence.

Thursday 22 August 2013

Even from a distance, the unfolding tragedy in Egypt has a nightmare quality. Once upon a time, the only danger I associated with Egypt was the risk of getting run over crossing a busy thoroughfare. In fact, after moving to Egypt from the UK as a teenager, I used to wonder how Egyptians managed to avert violence so effectively.

Today mundane Cairo landmarks I’ve long been familiar with have been transformed into urban battlegrounds, with gunfire shattering people’s hopes and aspirations. And for what? So that some men who believe they should rule Egypt because they have God on their side can struggle for control of the state with other men who run Egypt because they have guns by their side.

As part of this supposedly existential battle, in the khaki corner, the country’s self-described guardians, defenders and uber-patriots have decided to fight terror with greater terror, tried to shoot down ideas with bullets, and massacred hundreds of unarmed citizens exercising their democratic right to protest, ostensibly to protect democracy.

People whom I had admired for their belief in freedom, their tenacity in keeping the revolution going and their one-time opposition to both the army and the Islamists terrify me with their newfound admiration for Egypt’s tormentors for the past 60 years and their glorification of all the blood-letting.

In the green corner, men who claim they are not afraid to do the Lord’s work and have decided vengeance is theirs and not His, have been marauding through the streets, firing their guns, burning churches and generally terrorising the population to the extent that, for the first time in 2.5 years, Egyptians have actually heeded a curfew and stayed indoors. With Brothers like that, who needs enemies?!

Caught in the crossfire are millions of ordinary Egyptians who have been compelled to choose sides and buy into the existential narrative. Otherwise sensible and rational people have been defending the indefensible with a troubling passion.

The word “terrorists” is rolling far too easily off too many lips. Although I saw many people I disagreed with in the Raba’a encampment while I was in Egypt recently, I didn’t see one who would make even a passable impersonation of a “terrorist”, even though I had been concerned by reports that thugs there were detaining and beating up Egyptian journalists.

That is not to say there weren’t arms there. It is possible there were, but they were very well-hidden out of sight and none of the protesters I saw carried weapons. So this much is clear to me, the vast majority of the demonstrators were peaceful. Which begs the question: why was their encampment forcibly uprooted and so many murdered so brutally?

In the spirit of democracy and freedom, should they not have been left there to express their views freely? In fact, simply leaving them there was actually in the regime’s advantage, since it revealed just how limited the support for the Muslim Brotherhood actually was, and it was dissipating by the day.

In addition, letting the Brothers participate in the political game not only made good principles, it also made good sense. In opposition, they had the lifeline of untested mystique. In mainstream politics, they got the rope to hang themselves in a noose fashioned from their incompetence fanaticism and factionalism.

Even if the protests needed to be disbanded, what happened to the smarter ideas of only allowing people out and not in, or of cutting off supplies? Surely, going in with literally all guns blazing was the dumbest of all the available options. As is the current talk of banning the Brotherhood, which is both unprincipled and unsound, because driving the movement underground would make it far more dangerous than leaving it out in the open.

On the other side of the fence, even moderate supporters of Morsi and the Brotherhood also defend the indefensible. The Muslim Brotherhood’s stubborn refusal to compromise, despite having been the ones who originally compromised the revolution by agreeing to be the army’s fig leaf in order to get their bums on the seats of power, is everyone’s fault but theirs. Morsi and his Brothers’ anti-democratic, authoritarian behaviour – as well as the movements’ democratic discourse abroad and its autocratic Shari’a discourse at home – are really just democracy in disguise, or under a veil, these supporters posit.

Months of threats and incitements against the anti-Morsi population, not to mention the sudden appearance of a substantial arsenal of weapons, including machine guns, and the willingness to use them, have been excused and downplayed. But if they truly do care about their fellow Muslims and believe we’re all brothers, why are they doing their damnedest to push the country towards civil war?

Some have even gone so far as to blame the torching of churches up and down the country on the victims themselves, the Copts, a largely vulnerable and powerless minority that has been, in recent years, held hostage by an increasingly muscular and exclusionary Islamist discourse.

And how exactly was it their fault? Because of their involvement in the 30 June protests and their alleged role in toppling Morsi. Never mind that the vast majority of the millions who came out against the deposed president were Muslims, many even former Brotherhood supporters and voters.

Even amid this ugliness, there have been moments of utter, tear-jerking beauty, such as the Muslims who have come out in force, again, to protect local churches with human shields of decency, respect and love, just as Christians protected Muslim worshippers during the 2011 revolution. Or the drawing by a Christian girl of a worried mosque comforting a weeping church.

Nevertheless, in such an atmosphere of distrust, hatred and recrimination, there is a lot of pressure to take sides – and that appears to be exactly what the military and the Brotherhood want. And in this clash of the Titans, it is ordinary people who get crushed underfoot and die so that two competing elites can live. In fact, judging by the carnage, both the military top brass and the Brotherhood’s leadership have a wanton disregard for the lives of Egyptians.

What are Egyptians with a conscience supposed to do in such an atmosphere? Which side should those of us who believe in humanity take when both sides behave so inhumanely? How can we save Egypt from these dark forces?

Even though I usually sit on the sidelines and reflect, if I were in Egypt right now, I would be possessed with an urge to go out on the streets, even if on my own, chanting, “Not in my name”, neither the military nor the Brothers. “Human wrongs can never be human rights.” “No more killing in the name of nationalism or God.” It is hight time for sensible Egyptians – the silenced and intimidated majority who toppled three authoritarian leaders in their quest for bread, dignity and social justice – to take a side: the side of justice and humanity.

However, I realise that many Egyptians don’t want to “sit on the fence”, as they see it, which is the easy option. Personally, I see it as the more difficult one, and is akin to standing in the no-man’s-land separating two armies and shouting, “Don’t shoot!” But partisan or not, one thing all Egyptians should agree on is that violence must be rejected, and the only way out of this impasse is through peaceful means… Or a hell like Syria’s potentially awaits us, and none of us wants Egypt to become a magnet for foreign jihadists or a state-run slaughterhouse.

To avert this, we need to form a united front against violence, whether committed by Islamists or the state. This could include a Friday of Peace, a silent march to mourn all the dead and fallen, no matter who they were, and to reject all forms of violence, no matter the justification, as well as regular protests against atrocities committed by all sides.

Egyptians of all backgrounds should take to the streets to make clear that, though they may disagree fundamentally with one another, they will only defend their beliefs peacefully. People must make clear that they believe in the preciousness of every human life, and in the pragmatic, life-saving, once thoroughly Egyptian notion of live and let live.

The era of artificial national unity is over. But we don’t need to be a unified nation to prosper, and aspirations to becoming a single hand have tended to lead to a crushing, stifling, conformist hegemony. Divided we can also stand tall and strong, if we agree to disagree and accept that the way forward is compromise and consensus, not winner takes all.

___

Follow Khaled Diab on Twitter.

This is the updated and extended version of an article which first appeared in The Daily News Egypt on 19 August 2013.

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How iSlam made the West cool

 
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Those who fear Muslim influence should raise a glass to the Sultan of Style when they freshen up, don the latest fashions or enjoy dining out.

Friday 31 May 2013

Medieval Muslim ‘jamming’. Image: Yorck Project

In the wake of the Woolwich machete attack against an off-duty British army drummer, the stabbing in Paris of a French soldier and the Boston marathon attack, anti-Muslim sentiments have, as might be expected, increased in Europe and the United States.

In the UK, for example, the far-right British National Party (BNP)  which had such a disastrous showing at recent local elections that it has urged it members to “do our bit for Britain and our race” by breeding more  and English Defence League has been mobilising overtime to capitalise on the fallout.

The BNP leader Nick Griffin called ominously on supporters to “join the British resistance“, while another senior party official suggested that the men behind the London murder should be executed. Meanwhile, anti-Muslim hate crimes are running at 10 times their usual rate, according to a British government hotline.

The United States has also experienced a backlash in what Salon dubbed as the “return of the anti-Muslim bigots“. There have been hate crimes as well as suggestions for blanket spying on Muslims.

On both sides of the Atlantic, there has been growing fear of the “Islamisation” of society, while the notion that Muslims stand opposed to Western values is gaining traction. This is reflected in a new cross-border survey, which shows that majorities in a number of Western societies regard Islam as a threat.

As I’ve argued before, and despite my concerns over Islamic radicalism and extremism, Islam is not alien to Western civilisation but an integral part of it. In fact, Islam and the Muslim influence are deeply woven into the West’s social and civilisational fabric.

Readers may well have come across historical explanations of the contributions Muslims made to modern sciences, philosophy, medicine, agriculture, sociology and other areas of learning. Here, I’d like to explore how Muslims helped make the West “cool,” shaped our modern tastes and sensibilities and gave us many things we regard as quintessentially Western, such as the café.

In fact, I’d like to introduce just one man, Ziryab (Blackbird), the Sultan of Style, who, given his contribution to European chic, should have statues erected to him in Milan, Paris, London and New York. Although you may never have heard of this dandy ninth century Muslim, his genius touches the most private and intimate moments of all our lives  modern etiquette would be positively vulgar without his tasteful influence.

Born Abul Hassan Ali Ibn Nafie in modern-day Iraq in 789 AD, he joined the court of the legendary Haroun al-Rashid (also of 1,001 Arabian Nights’ fame) where he was the student of a gifted musician. But after stepping too hard on the toes of his mentor, he hot-heeled it to the rising star of Baghdad’s cultural and scientific rival, Cordoba in Andalusia.

There, he joined the court of the Umayyad Prince of Cordoba Abdel-Rahman II. Islamic Cordoba was a beautiful and manicured metropolis of imposing public buildings, although it still lacked its most famous landmark, the 10th century Great Mosque (the Mezquita, as it is known today).

It boasted about 1,000 mosques, 600 public baths, several hundred public schools and a university, not to mention the grand aqueducts in the surrounding countryside that fed the complex irrigation system introduced to the area by the Arabs.

Although he lived a few centuries before the Renaissance, Ziryab was a true ‘Renaissance man’. In addition to being a polymath with knowledge in astronomy, geography, meteorology and botany, he was also a visionary trendsetter.

As an accomplished singer and musician  he was reputed to have memorized a repertoire of more than 10,000 songs   Ziryab added a fifth string to the Arab oud, creating the lute (which is also etymologically derived from the Arabic al-oud) that would, through the Spanish, spread across Europe.

Ziryab also rearranged musical theory, setting free the metrical and rhythmical parameters, creating new ways of expression (known as mwashah, zajal and nawbah). This musical genius established the world’s first known conservatory where aspiring young musicians learnt harmony and composition and were encouraged to develop musical theory further.

But one thing above all else constitutes Ziryab’s gravest or greatest legacy, depending on your standpoint, to posterity. “Fashion is a form of ugliness so intolerable that we have to alter it every six months,” Oscar Wilde, that Ziryab-like Englishman, once retorted. But who, Mr. Wilde, was it that first came up with the revolutionary idea of seasonally shedding our clothes?

Ziryab’s earth-shattering innovation was to submit fashion to the cycle of the seasons. This trendsetter came up with the then outlandish idea that people should wear different styles  and not just more layers or an overcoat  in summer and in winter. He even invented in-between seasons.

This hip Muslim brought a similar orderly flare to food. When people think of haute cuisine, their minds tend to go all Français. French may be the lingua franca of food  with its entrées, appetizers, aperitifs, desserts, etc.  and the French have given us much to savour. However, the modern dining experience was forged in Arabic.

Before Ziryab came along, dining was a freestyle event, even at court. People ate savoury with sweet, fruit with meat, all in one big heap. Abundance, and not order, was the key to successful banquets. But our man revolutionized all that.

Perhaps his highly refined sensibilities were offended by what he saw as a feeding frenzy, or maybe he thought that different tastes should be relished individually. Whatever the reason, our gastronome extraordinaire set about to tame his peers’ eating habits by inventing the multi-course meal. To make the fine dining experience that much more exquisite, Ziryab also invented the drinking glass (fashioned out of glass and crystal).

And, to round off the complete fashion experience, this all-round man also found time to develop a new type of deodorant and invented an early form of toothpaste which became all the rage in Iberia, as well as a type of shampoo. In addition to introducing new hairstyles to the longhaired Cordobans, he also popularised shaving  perhaps foreseeing the bad press beards would get in the 21st century.

Next time you brush your teeth, don the latest fashions, enjoy a delicious three-course meal or raise a glass, don’t forget to toast, or at least spare a thought for, old Ziryab, that uncrowned Sultan of Style  and remember that Muslims have had a cool, and not just a chilling, influence on Western society.

___

Follow Khaled Diab on Twitter.

This article first appeared in The Huffington Post on 28 May 2013.

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America and Europe’s real “homegrown terrorism” threat

 
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By Khaled Diab

The Boston marathon bombings have refocused attention on the threat of “homegrown terrorism”. But there is a much more dangerous domestic threat.

Tuesday 30 April 2013

The tragic and bloody conclusion of this year’s Boston marathon, and the subsequent dramatic manhunt to capture the suspected perpetrators, has  had America and much of the world transfixed.

In the immediate aftermath of the attack, which left three dead and over 180 injured, I was relieved that the American media, with the exception of serial offenders like The New York Post, were reluctant to point fingers and took a largely wait-and-see approach.

They had apparently drawn some valuable lessons from the shameful Anders Breivik debacle, when early media reporting and idle “expert” speculation identified, without a shred of evidence, the worst massacre in Norwegian history as the work of Islamic extremists.

Once it was revealed that the Tsarnaev brothers, two ethnic Chechen-Dagestanis who have lived in the United States for the past decade, were the alleged suspects behind the attack, the keeps holding back the tidal wave of speculation broke.

The coverage has so far focused on connecting Dzhokhar and Tamerlan Tsarnev to radical Islamists, particularly Chechen groups, but no solid connections have yet been uncovered and plenty of contradictory evidence has been unearthed.

The semantics of the media lexicon has been interesting to observe. Even the sombre and authoritative voice of The New Yorker, whose coverage of the Boston tragedy has largely been nuanced and sophisticated, described the bombing as “the most serious terror attack in America since September 11th [2001]”.

If that were the case, then the Boston attack should be a cause for relief rather than panic, since, though every death is a tragedy, the death toll is a thousandth of that of the 9/11 atrocities.

But the United States has actually been the target of numerous “terrorist” attacks since 11 September 2001 that would make the carnage at the Boston marathon pale in comparison. One of the worst recent examples was the shooting at the Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newton which left 28 people dead, of which 20 were children.

When I tweeted this to The New Yorker, dozens re-tweeted my observation in agreement. However, there were also plenty of dissenters. “Terror is an act of violence to achieve a political end,” one typical tweet countered.

We will never know what motivated Adam Lanza, the young gunman behind the Sandy Hook massacre, as he killed himself before police could interrogate him. But even, as seems likely, he had no explicit political agenda, his acts, at least according to US law, would count as “terrorism”.

In the mid-1970s, the Law Enforcement Assistant Administration’s National Advisory Committee on Criminal Justice Standards and Goals classified six types of terrorism, including “non-political terrorism”. Both US federal regulation and the FBI define terrorism as “the unlawful use of force or violence… in furtherance of political or social objectives”.

This raises a couple of intriguing questions. Why did US officialdom and the media fail to describe Sandy Hook as terrorism and why have American commentators and reporters rushed to assume a political motive for the Boston attacks, even though older brother and presumed mastermind, Tamerlan, seems to have had plenty of personal issues and private grievances?

It would seem that even if terrorism does not have to be political, the use of this loaded term is often politically motivated. Mass shootings probably don’t make it on US society’s radar as “terrorism” partly due to the polarised firearms debate. Can you imagine what kind of a stink the gun lobby and people who believe that bearing arms is their constitutional right would whip up if the media or authorities started classing Newton as a terrorist atrocity?

In addition, there is simple human nature. It is much easier to vilify and blame those regarded as outsiders than those you view as your own. This can be seen, for example, in how conservative Arabs view Muslims in the West as “oppressed” but refuse to use the same label for the Middle East’s Christian minorities.

Likewise, while Americans and Europeans, especially conservatives, do not hesitate to call a spade a spade when it comes to Islamic terrorism, even when it isn’t, the situation can be very different when it comes to their own.

Take Breivik. When the identity of the perpetrator became known, “terrorism” and its derivatives suddenly vanished to be replaced by the more neutral “attacker” or “gunman”, and the media drew comfort from describing Breivik as a “lone wolf” or “madman”.

Why all the fuss, some might grumble, it is just semantics?

Well, the selective use of such emotive words as terrorism can have very serious real-world consequences. Ask Salah Barhoun, falsely identified as a suspect on social networking sites, who, fearing for his life, turned himself in to the police to clear his name.

In addition, this selectivity can magnify certain threats while downplaying others. Almost a year to the day before Anders Breivik went on the rampage, I wrote a column for The Guardian in which I argued that neo-Nazism and other far-right ideologies constitute a greater menace to Europe than Islamic extremism.

Numerous commenters dismissed my hypothesis as “scaremongering” and “agenda-pushing”. In fact, a common refrain among conservatives and Islamophobes is that “Not all Muslims are terrorists but the majority of terrorists are Muslims.”

While this is true in Arab and Muslim-majority countries, where the threat posed by radical Islam must not be underestimated, it is certainly not the case in the West.

Yet even our gatekeepers underestimated this menace. In its 2011 report on terrorism in Europe the previous year, Europol judged that the “threat from right-wing extremism appears to be on the wane”.

Post-Breivik, the agency’s tone has changed. “Not one religiously-inspired terrorist attack on EU territory was reported by member states,” Europol noted of the previous year in its 2012 report, when “the majority of attacks were committed by separatist groups.”

“The threat of violent right-wing extremism has reached new levels in Europe and should not be underestimated,” the report stressed.

You would never have guessed this was the situation from public discourse and mainstream media coverage. On both sides of the Atlantic, “homegrown terrorism”, in most people’s minds, refers to the exotic, invasive Islamic variety, not the local common-or-garden breed.

Echoing these worries, albeit moderately, US President Barack Obama asked after the conclusion of the Boston marathon manhunt: “Why did young men who grew up and studied here as part of our communities and our country resort to such violence?”

The same question could have been asked about Lanza.

Across the Atlantic, a number of European countries have also been seized with a similar apprehension, as reports of young Muslims going off to fight in Syria surface. For example, here in Belgium, police recently raided dozens of homes of suspected recruiters and politicians are talking about taking drastic measures, such as confiscating the identity papers of young men at risk of taking flight or even passing specific legislation.

Although I understand why the state would be concerned about the security risk posed by traumatised and possibly radicalised fighters when they return, the fact that fewer than a hundred Belgian Muslims are thought to be fighting in Syria suggests that the public panic far outweighs the actual riskss.

It is high time for Europe and the United States to do some soul-searching and be honest with themselves about where the threats to their domestic security truly lie. This will not only aid them in underwriting the safety of their citizens, it will also help remove the distrust surrounding a stigmatised minority.

Follow Khaled Diab on Twitter.

This article first appeared in The National on 27 April 2013.

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A brief history of Western ‘jihadists’

 
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By Khaled Diab

From Guy Fawkes and Lord Byron to Ernest Hemingway and George Orwell, Westerners have an ancient tradition of doing ‘jihad’ in foreign lands.

Wednesday 24 April 2013

Does this dandy Englishman qualify as a European "jihadist"?

Does this dandy Englishman qualify as a European “jihadist”?

After weeks of public debate about the small number of Belgian Muslims who have been lured to Syria to join jihadist groups fighting the oppressive Assad regime, Belgian police recently raided 46 homes in the country’s second-largest urban area, the port city of Antwerp.

Authorities across Europe are also on a similar high level of alert.

The sting was said to be targeted at groups suspected of recruiting volunteers to fight in Syria. The arrests included at least Fouad Belkacem, the leader of the notorious fringe salafist group, Sharia4Belgium, the Islamic equivalent of white supremacists. It remains unclear whether Belkacem will be formally charged.

The police said that they had been planning the operation for months and were not spurred into action by all the media reports of young Belgian jihadists in Syria.

No one knows exactly how many Belgian Muslims – including converts – have landed themselves in Syria, but estimates tend to be on the very low side. Among the latest, two teenagers, described as “model youth” by their school, managed to make their way to Syria, the Belgian media reports.

This could suggest that, far from their demonised image as mindless fanatics and nutters, at least some of the young Belgians fighting in Syria are idealists there to fight against a gross injustice which their government condemns but the world has done nothing to arrest.

While I do not advocate that people should take up arms in this way, even as a pacifist, secular, flower-power type of liberal watching the civil war in Syria with growing frustration, I understand what their motivation could well be.

As someone who recalls the disruption caused by returning jihadists from Afghanistan and the former Yugoslavia in my native Egypt, I also understand why the Belgian state, like other European countries, would be concerned about the security risk posed by traumatised and possibly radicalised fighters when they return.

The Muslim community is also concerned about the risk posed to their sons, as reflected by the preacher who risked his life to go to Syria to convince young Belgian fighters to return to their anxious families, only to be abducted by a radical group for “betraying Islam”.

Worrying as this trend may seem, it is important to place it in its proper perspective, and not allow bigots, racists, Islamophobes, or those with vested interests, including radical Muslims themselves, to blow the situation out of all proportion.

Belgium’s Muslim Executive puts the number of fighters in Syria at somewhere between 70 and 100, while Britain estimates a similar number of its nationals are taking part in the civil war.

In contrast, large waves of indigenous European “jihadists” – for, ultimately, jihad, regardless of its Islamic connotation, is a struggle for justice, not to mention an inner spiritual struggle – have been wandering off to foreign lands for centuries, lured by a heady mix of idealism, romance and rebellion.

For example, the Spanish Civil War in the 1930s was a major draw for foreign fighters. In fact, it is estimated that some 18,000 foreign volunteers, mostly anti-fascists from Europe and the Americas, joined the International Brigades against Spain’s as yet uncrowned rightwing dictator Francisco Franco. Their ranks even included highly regarded writers and intellectuals, such as George Orwell, WH Auden and Ernest Hemingway.

Moreover, while the trickle of European fighters to Syria is unlikely to pose a major security threat for Europe, the thousands of volunteers who fought on the side of the Republicans and the backing Franco’s Nationalists received from Nazi Germany and Fascist Italy could easily have become the trigger for World War II, rather than Poland.

Going further back, Lord Byron was not just Britain’s most famous romantic poet and dandy who scandalised conservative England with the tales of his sexual misadventures, including his quest to find homosexual love in the fabled “East”. Byron’s career as wealthy agent provocateur and freedom fighter has some rich-boy-turned-revolutionary parallels with Osama bin Laden’s early mujahideen days in Afghanistan.

Byron was perhaps the most prominent of the Philhellenes, volunteers from the European and American aristocracy who – besotted by visions of classical Greece and feeling solidarity with their fellow Christians – took up arms against the Ottoman Empire in the Greek War of Independence.

In 1823, Byron spent an enormous £4,000 (around $15 million in today’s money) of his own fortune to refit the overstretched Greek fleet and increase its fighting capacity. But as he sailed to do battle, his life was cut short by a fever. Even if he personally didn’t see combat, Byron’s intervention, which was regarded as unhelpful trouble-making at the time, drew Britain reluctantly into the conflict after the Ottomans failed to assert their dominance.

Just as there is nothing new about Europeans going to do battle overseas, stigmatising minorities as fifth columns and potential traitors also has an ancient pedigree. In Europe, before the Muslims, the Jews were there, as were the Catholics in Protestant lands and vice-versa.

Speaking of the Catholics, security services were able to foil a conspiracy to blow up Parliament and destroy the government by a fanatical sleeper cell of religious zealots led by a foreign-trained British convert.

But unlike today’s headlines, the foreign-trained convert in question was not a Muslim but a Catholic who went by the name of Guy Fawkes. Born a Protestant, Fawkes converted to Catholicism at the age of 16 and went off, in the 1590s, to fight for the Spanish in the Spanish-occupied Netherlands.

When he returned to Britain, equipped with the explosives training he had received in Europe, he became involved in the Gun Powder Plot of 1605 to blow up the Houses of Parliament. The plot was a reaction to both the harsh anti-Catholicism instated by Queen Elizabeth I and the so-called Hampton Court Conference.

The plot served the interests of the Puritans very well and set back the cause of Catholic emancipation for at least another two centuries.

The risk we run today is in the other direction. Muslims in the West have entered societies in which they are, in principle, equals. However, stigmatisation, ignorance, prejudice, fear and vested interests are conspiring to keep many Muslims on the margins of society, and on the constant verge of suspicion, unable to take full advantage of their legal emancipation.

More troublingly still, since the tragic 11 September 2001 atrocities, the pretext of security has been used to reduce the civil liberties of some Muslims and to keep the community under close surveillance.

But like the Catholics and Jews before them, and with time and effort on the part of inspired grassroots activists, the West’s Muslim minorities can become accepted and valued threads in society’s colorful, multicultural tapestry.

___

Follow Khaled Diab on Twitter.

This article first appeared in The Huffington Post on 16 April 2013.

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The advantages of fast living

 
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By Khaled Diab

Many Muslims believe that fasting is good for their health, but is science on their side?

Wednesday 22 August 2012

For people who do not fast, the idea that starving yourself can improve your health sounds bonkers. Yet this is exactly what many Muslims who are have just finished fasting Ramadan believe. Over the years, I have met many people who swear by the benefits of fasting and the Arab TV menu during this holy month, in addition to the dangerous proliferation of corny soap operas, is not complete without some doctor or sheikh extolling the health virtues of fast living.

Muhammad is even believed to have said: “Fast so as to be healthy.” While for many believers the prophet’s pronouncement is all the evidence they need, others look for scientific confirmation.

“Fasting has several health benefits,” enthused one Saudi columnist. “It alleviates [the] pain caused by many illnesses. The ancient Greek physician Hippocrates asked people to fast because it purifies the body and helps it get rid of toxins.”

But not all modern Muslim doctors agree. One Dutch-Moroccan doctor says that, because the Ramadan fast is poorly researched, there is scant medical evidence that it is physiologically beneficial. “Doctors are not religious scholars or preachers, they should always be aware of the limits of their profession,” he warns overenthusiastic physicians.

Though I gave up fasting years ago out of a lack of spiritual conviction, I’m curious to know what science has to say on the subject. Despite the lack of research on Ramadan specifically, there have been numerous studies on fasting in general. And, surprisingly, many of them seem to confirm the benefits of going without food.

Studies have found benefits in fasting for the heart, female fertility, recovery from spinal injury, and more. Perhaps most surprising of all is that a considerable body of research is being amassed which suggests that fasting helps people live in good health for longer.

One BBC journalist, Michael Mosley, even put this to the test recently, using his own body as a human laboratory. To start with, he was doubtful. “I’d always thought of fasting as something unpleasant, with no obvious long term benefits,” he admitted.

But he was surprised at the outcome. One method that worked for him involved fasting for a painful three days, though he was allowed to drink during that time. After this period of relative starvation, Mosley’s metabolism registered marked improvements, lowering his risk of contracting a number of age-related diseases, including diabetes and cancer.

However, there is a snag. For this approach to work requires fasting the three days every few weeks. A gentler method Mosley tried which delivered similar outcomes is known as intermittent fasting. There are two ways to go about this. The first is to fast on alternate days, restricting your intake to 500-600 calories on the fasting day. The other is known as 5:2 model, which involves five days of normal eating and two days of fasting (i.e. hugely restricted eating) per week. However, these models of fasting do come with a health warning: they should only be attempted by healthy people and only after they have sought medical advice.

But there is an apparent paradox here: though we need to eat to live, regularly not eating can help us live longer.

The scientific explanation relates to the growth hormone IGF-1 which drives our cells to reproduce themselves. However, as we get older, errors creep in during the reproduction process – and so long as this hormone is being produced, many of these errors go uncorrected. By reducing the production of IGF-1, fasting enables the body to enter into “repair mode” and fix these copying errors.

To my mind, the power of fasting could also have an evolutionary explanation. For most of our existence, food (especially high-protein meat matter) has been a scarce resource and a rare delight. So “fasting” was quite a common state in our evolutionary past, as was “feasting” when a store of (quickly perishable) food was found, such as the kill from a hunt. This not only helps explain the benefits of fasting, though, but also why, in our plentiful societies, many people finding it hard to switch off their hunger pangs and stop eating.

So does this prove that fasting Ramadan is good for you?

The scientific answer is no, not really – or, at best, we don’t know. The approaches to fasting above are different to the Ramadan model, in which people fast every day for one month per year, and not year round as is required for fasting to deliver its apparent benefits.

Moreover, fasting aids good health by restricting calories to suppress growth hormones. But contemporary Ramadan fasting for many actually involves people consuming more calories than they usually do because, after a long day of going without, they feel they have deserved a treat, and veritable banquets are a common sight in many Muslim homes once the sun goes down.

This is, as any devout Muslim will tell you, at odds with the frugal spirit of Ramadan, whose spiritual purpose is to enable people not only to get closer to God but also to learn self-discipline and empathise with less-privileged members of society by learning what it is like to live without.

And herein lies the rub. It does not really matter for the pious whether fasting Ramadan is good for you or not. Ramadan, like any other religious rite, is an act which is performed for spiritual and ritualistic reasons.

However, in an age of increased rationality in which science is eclipsing religion, many religious people try to rationalise their faith with pseudo-scientific theories. An example of this, which one Jewish friend cited, is how many religious Jews will extol the health benefits of the kosher practice of separating dairy and milk products.

In fact, for “true believers”, even if science proved an important religious rite was harmful (or at the very least painful or non-beneficial), that would not stop them from following the diktats of their faith.

Religion is about obedience to a greater power, and is founded on the notion that even if something that religion prescribes or proscribes appears harmful, it must be ultimately good, and God, in his infinite wisdom, must have a good reason for it.

A believer’s role is ultimately not to reason why – or only to reason up to the point where it does not conflict with religion. So if there is a contradiction between the two, then faith must trump rationality. And being of an independent mind and spirit, I cannot abide autocracy, even if it is supposedly heaven sent.

Follow Khaled Diab on Twitter.

This article first appeared in The Jerusalem Post on 15 August 2012.

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Secular Egypt: dream or delusion?

 
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By Khaled Diab

Is Egypt on the road to theocracy or will it manage to build a secular, pluralist democracy?

Thursday 15 December 2011

The roller-coaster sensation of elation followed by deflation which I and millions of others felt in the early weeks of the revolution has been back recently. Dozens of protesters killed and hundreds injured – anger and depression. Activists defiantly risk life and limb to launch part two of the revolution and demand the army returns to the barracks – admiration mixed with pride.

Generals ignore their demands and go ahead with faulty parliamentary elections – bitter disappointment. Millions turn out and queue for hours (miraculously for Egypt, in orderly lines) to make their vote count – delight. Islamists make the biggest gains in the first round – concern mixed with a little fright.

For those of a progressive and secular disposition, the preliminary results of the first phase of Egypt’s first post-revolution parliamentary elections make for sobering reading. The Muslim Brotherhood-dominated Freedom and Justice party (FJP) list is unsurprisingly in pole position, with some 36% of the vote.

Al-Nour (The Light), the coalition of Salafist parties, emerged, almost out of the blue, to eclipse partially the dawn of Egyptian democracy by garnering an impressive quarter of the first phase vote, almost double what the secular leftist Egyptian Bloc – a major force in the revolution which was expected to come second – managed to salvage from their electoral train wreck.

Despite its bright name, if al-Nour ever has its way completely, Egypt would be run according to its ultra-conservative interpretation of shari’a, albeit in a “gradual way that suits the nature of society”, because, in their fundamentalist view, Islam cannot be separated from the state and secularism is tantamount to atheism (a common misconception among Egyptians).

The unexpectedly strong performance of the Salafists and poor showing of the secularists has been the subject of frenzied and worried debate in liberal and progressive Egyptian circles, including among my friends and acquaintances. Overseas, the early fears that Egypt would become the next Iran have been reawakened, and some Western friends who have been terrified by the prospect of an Islamist takeover of Egypt have been wagging an “I told you so” finger at my alleged naivety.

But is there cause for panic?

Of course, the Salafist vision for Egypt is not only terrifying to “godless” secularists, socialists and liberals but many aspects of it trouble pious Egyptians, even many of those who voted for the parties.

And sadly Salafism has regressed a long way from its original proponents. In the 19th century, “Salafis” were at the forefront of Egypt’s modernising drive and revival, which has come to be known as the “Egyptian Renaissance”. Muhammad Abdu, a reformist Azharite cleric, for example, once famously summed up his thought by saying: “I went to the West and saw Islam, but no Muslims. I returned to the East and saw Muslims, but no Islam.”

In his and other early reformers’ worldview, the West had successfully captured the ingredients of early Islamic greatness, and the only way for Islam to catch up and match this was to return to the spirit of the “Salaf”, the early generations of Muslims who innovatively and creatively interpreted their faith to suit the spirit of the times.

Inspired by the reactionary Ahmad ibn Hanbal, who believed that the graves of even pious “innovators” within religion was a “barren pit”, and spearheaded by such figures as Sayyid Qutb, the spiritual father of modern, radical Islamism, the contemporary brand of Salafism became not only hostile to the West but also to its values. In order to counteract Western hegemony, Salafists believe, Muslims must reject the West and live as the early Muslims did. This idealised view of the past has led many Islamists to interpret their religion rigidly and literally, at least the parts of it that suit them, and to get caught up in the minutiae of how the prophet walked, talked and even urinated.

An example of this is their fossilised attitude towards tourism. Although al-Nour’s economic platform has focused on reforming the banking sector along Islamic lines by outlawing interest (something that is bound to be popular among borrowers), it has steered cleverly away from delving too deeply into its position on tourism as being “un-Islamic”.

Salafists are well-known for their opposition to tourism for its “immorality” and “decadence” and many leading Salafi preachers call for it to be banned, while the violent extremists of the 1990s specifically targeted tourists, not only to undermine the government but also as a reflection of their rejection of the industry. One wacky manifestation of this opposition is the bizarre call by al-Da’awa al-Salafiyya (which founded al-Nour) to cover all Egypt’s ancient statues in wax veils.

But this kind of idol gesture is unlikely to go down well, since millions of Egyptians depend on tourism for their economic well-being and millions more are proud that their country – “the mother of the world”, as they call it – is the subject of such international fascination and reverence, and they love to say “Welcome” to foreigners.

But do the gains made by Salafists and the more moderate Muslim Brotherhood indicate that Egypt is on the slippery slope to theocracy or can it still build a democracy, albeit one with a pronounced Islamic flavour?

Although this result would suggest Egypt is far from the secular, progressive society I and like-minded Egyptians dream of seeing emerge, it is far from being the unmitigated disaster that doomsayers have been warning about.

For a start, the fear that the Islamists will form some kind of unified bloc in parliament is possible but appears unlikely at this juncture. After all, the Brotherhood and the Salafists, though their worldviews may overlap on numerous issues, are bitter rivals and the al-Nour party was formed by a breakaway faction from the FJP alliance that was unhappy with the moderate, pluralist line the FJP was towing.

Moreover, the FJP did not actually collect 36% of the vote – it was the entire Democratic Alliance of 11 parties, mostly secular ones. As the dominant member, the FJP is estimated to account for some 60-70%, which means that it captured between 22% and 25% of the vote.

On the bright side, this means that, combined, the Islamist vote accounts for half the total and the secularist for the other half. On the downside, it means that the relatively moderate Muslim Brotherhood and the extremist Salafists are neck and neck.

In addition, there is a good chance that the FJP will do more than pay lip service to its expressed commitment to secularism and pluralism in order to avoid spooking SCAF and the West and to avoid a replay of what occurred in Algeria. And after 90 years of oppression and inhabiting the political wilderness, the Muslim Brotherhood finally wants a shot at some form of direct power.

And perhaps after all these decades, it’s time they actually got an official stake in running the country, partly because this is only fair, and partly because allowing the movement to join the mainstream in earnest would finally rob them of the luxury of criticising loudly from the sidelines without actually having any of their ideas and contradictions put to the test. In parliament, the electorate can judge them on their actual performance and not just their sloganeering and grandstanding. Then voters can truly learn whether Islam, at least the version of it they preach, is the solution or part of the problem.

Perhaps one reason behind al-Nour’s unexpected success actually has little to do with religion, but is related to the far more mundane and worldly reality of economic inequality. With the revolutionaries focusing all their efforts on what might seem to the average Egyptian like abstract issues of political reform and the liberal parties, particularly the neo-liberal FJP, refusing to countenance the idea of radical income redistribution, al-Nour’s calls for a “fair and equal distribution” of not only income but wealth is bound to appeal to Egypt’s oppressed and downtrodden masses, many of whom are forced to live on less than $2 a day.  And so the unexpected success of the Salafists may actually be more of a protest vote against the other parties than a vote of confidence in al-Nour.

Some months ago, I cautioned that the revolution and the interim regime ignored or downplayed the economic aspect of the uprising, what I called the revolution’s bottom line, at their peril. “You can have all the democracy and personal freedoms in the world, but without addressing the bread and butter issues of poverty and economic injustice, reform will be incomplete and hollow,” I wrote.

Given Egypt’s pressing practical socio-economic issues, we may actually find that the first parliament is not preoccupied with identity politics but rather with more urgent bread-and-butter issues (at least, any sensible parliament should be). This may, paradoxically, lead to some weird alliances of convenience forming not around cultural or identity issues but around economic outlook. So, just as the Muslim Brotherhood has allied itself to al-Ghad partly based of the similarity in their economic outlook, so too might al-Nour, if it is sincere about its economic programme, find itself in an uncomfortable partnership with secular leftists, at least on issues of economic justice.

But there is another bottom line that we have not yet explored. Will the new parliament have real legislative teeth, will it manage to challenge the “pharonic” powers of the eventual president, or will it be yet another rubberstamp assembly? There is a widespread fear among activists and revolutionaries that SCAF has no intention of ceding (at least ultimate) power to the people. Even if the army does ostensibly return to the barracks, there is the real and present danger that they will form a shadow government there that will exercise an ultimate veto over the civilian government.

And SCAF’s behaviour has done little to allay these concerns. Not only has it said that it will have final say over the country’s new constitution, it has also indicated that the new parliament will have no oversight over the military’s budget.

It also seems that the generals are unimaginatively following the well-trodden path of Egyptian leaders over the past three decades and playing with Islamists fire. It is true that the Islamists undoubtedly hold appeal to certain segments of the population and the nascent revolutionary groups’ failure to score significant electoral success so far is partly due to their disorganisation and disarray.

Nevertheless, all indications reveal that the dice were loaded in favour of the Islamists, as part of what appears to be a counterrevolution. Not only did the country’s provisional constitution make it difficult to form parties, which handicapped the secular activist who launched the revolution, the rule that bans the formation of religious parties does not seem to have been applied to the salafists for some mysterious reason.

In addition, the SCAF’s policy of obfuscation and delay since the revolution erupted harmed the electoral chances of the revolutionaries because it enabled the regime and the Muslim Brotherhood to convince quite a number of Egyptians that the resulting instability was the fault of the activists and not the old guard. Had the army handed over power immediately to an interim “Council of the Wise” and had genuine elections been held during the early period of euphoria following Mubarak’s downfall, then the courageous and visionary revolutionary youth could well have led the political pack in Egypt’s parliament, rather than being left with almost nothing.

But why would the SCAF form an unholy alliance with the Islamists? For a number of reasons. Pragmatically, the generals realised that the Brotherhood, particularly its old and conservative leadership, was the lesser of two evils. The revolutionaries want complete regime change. In contrast, the Brotherhood – whose current leadership has been saying for years that good Muslims are obliged to obey their leaders even if they are tyrants – is willing to compromise and live with a power-sharing arrangement.

Additionally, there is an element of intergenerational conflict: the young revolutionaries, including the younger members of the Brotherhood itself, appeared to be a common enemy both to the ageing generals and the ageing Islamists at the top of the movement. And with the Brotherhood’s commitment to free market economics and its reassurances that it would not rock the boat with Egypt’s allies, the FJP must seem like the best guarantor of the elusive “stability” Washington so covets.

And like Mubarak before them, Field Marshall Tantawi and his inner circle may be trying to put the fear of God, so to speak, into the hearts of Egyptian secularists and the Western powers alike – perhaps as a prelude to freezing, rolling back or delaying further reforms.

When all is said done, this is still only the first phase of the elections, and the staggered nature of the vote may actually work in favour of the secularists, whose poor showing so far may prod them to redouble their efforts to win over voters in the rest of the country. It may also focus the minds of voters and prompt them to deny the Islamists, particularly the salafists, further significant gains. At the very least, it might encourage more Egyptians to vote for the FJP as the only realistic bulwark against al-Nour.

That said, what effect would an Islamist-dominated parliament have on vulnerable groups, including women, Christians and other minorities, such as Baha’is, atheists and simply those with alternative interpretations of their faith?

Well, at a certain level, the Islamisation of Egypt culturally and socially has been taking place for decades. When the 1952 revolution failed to deliver on its promise of granting Egyptians their full political and social freedom, and Gamal Abdel-Nasser mercilessly stamped out both secular and Islamist opposition to his rule, the discrediting of secularism began in earnest. The crushing defeat of 1967, and the accompanying destruction of the pan-Arabist dream, dealt a decisive blow to secularism and empowered the Islamists.

Then, in the 1970s, Anwar al-Sadat openly and cynically (though, of course, he had once been a member of the Muslim Brotherhood in his youth) began embracing the conservative Islamic current to counterbalance the fierce secular opposition he was facing, which he crushed ruthlessly, and when the inevitable blowback came, it was too late for him to turn back the tide.

His successor, Hosni Mubarak, tried to play both sides off against each other in a classic example of divide and rule. Under Mubarak’s leadership, the regime tried both to portray itself as the guarantor of secular freedoms and the defender of Islamic decency. Meanwhile, the sectarian tensions this awoke were ignored and swept under the carpet because it went against the prevalent discourse of national unity, until the ugly monster of sectarianism had grown to unmanageable proportions.

So, even without Islamist domination of the next parliament, it will take years of effort, dialogue, education and trust building to slay the dragon of sectarianism and rebuild the confidence of Christians that they are full and equal citizens of the country. Of course, an Islamist victory could well delay or set back such a process.

Likewise, the Islamists have succeeded in setting in motion a counter-feminist revolution which has reversed or frozen many of the gains made by women in their struggle for equality. And, paradoxically, as more and more women go out into the workplace and public sphere, they must do so heavily cloaked in piety and “decency” and, hence, not as equals to men. So, as misogyny is not limited to Islamists in Egypt and the sex divide has reached an unsustainable level, it is unclear whether matters will actually get worse for women.

Liberal, pluralist secularism also became contaminated through its association with the exercise of Western hegemony in the region, which was often conducted cynically under the banner of spreading “freedom” and “democracy”.

The upshot of all this is that, without being in power, Islamists have exercised a powerful and stifling influence on Egyptian society for years, as reflected in the growing pre-eminence of the conservative religious dress and the hounding and persecution of those who criticise religion. Whereas in the 1950s-1970s, many intellectuals in Egypt and other secular republics, despite the (more tolerant) piety of the general population, held proudly sceptical and even hostile views of religion and were openly atheistic. Today, even mild criticism of religion can land you in hot water.

This has resulted in the growing marginalisation and ostracisation of Egyptians who do not fit the mainstream Islamic mould, whether they be secularists, Christians, Baha’is or non-believers, a minority that might outnumber Christians if Egypt did not turn an official blind eye to atheists and agnosts and if people were allowed to be fully open about their beliefs, some suggest.

However, that is not the entire story. The Egyptian revolution has revealed a trend that has been going on under the radar for years. Millions of Egyptians who hold a wide spectrum of socially and politically liberal and progressive views have come out into the open, while Egypt’s tattered and bedraggled secular forces are regrouping, discovering a new sense of confidence and assertiveness which they will not cede easily to the righteous bullying of the Islamists and other religious conservatives. In addition, mainstream Islamists have been undergoing a process which I call “secularism in a veil“.

This means that, rather than a theocratic Egypt, what we might well see emerge is a battle between two increasingly polarised trends: the reactionary religious and pluralistically secular. Moreover, as Islamism is truly put to the test, we may look back in the future on this period as the “high point” of the Islamist political movement, as the electorate quickly grows disillusioned when its vision too fails to deliver improvements and results.

Egypt’s first democratic parliamentary elections since the 1952 revolution – faulty as they were – began on 28 November, our son’s second birthday. This led me to wonder whether the process this will unleash will be one that will create a new Egypt that will make him proud or ashamed of his Egyptian half. A truly democratic, free, tolerant and pluralistic Egypt – even if it is achieved politically – will probably take generations to implement socially, and will depend on decent education and economic prospects for all.

Here’s to hoping that our children and grandchildren will inherit an Egypt that they can live in and have a stake in.

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Ramadan for all

 
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By Khaled Diab

Ramadan is when Muslims fast and feast, but the holy month has something to offer those of other faiths, or none.

Wednesday 10 August 2011 

Ramadan has something of a tendency to bend space and time. For those participating in the fast, especially now that it is summer, the daytime hours crawl by like a snail on tranquilisers, while engaging in daily routines is like running a marathon through a desert of thirst. In contrast, nights are transformed into veritable days, with cafes and restaurants bursting at the seams with patrons late into the night, especially in my hometown Cairo, the world’s top ‘city that never sleeps’, according to a recent survey.

In the Holy Land, the holy month has even resulted in Israelis and Palestinians temporarily living in different time zones, as the Palestinian territories switch to winter time in a bid to make the fast a little easier. Some cynics on both sides might quip that, Ramadan or not, Israelis and Palestinians already figuratively live in different time zones, not to mention on different planets.

But Ramadan, despite being primarily an occasion for Muslims, provides a golden
opportunity for soul searching, reflection and bridge-building in this troubled land. Towards that end, Jews and Christians were invited to attend an interfaith iftar (the meal breaking the fast at sunset) in Haifa where, in addition to feasting, participants provided one another with food for thought as they chewed over questions of tolerance and mutual respect against the backdrop of conflict.

Even Israel’s hard-line prime minister, Binyamin Netanyahu, who has been a harsh critic of Islam over the years and who warned of an Islamist takeover in Egypt during the early days of the revolution, also tried to get into the spirit of the season with a video in which he wished Palestinian Muslims and Muslims around the world a ‘Ramadan Karim’.

Not to be outdone, the IDF announced the easing of restrictions in the West Bank and Gaza which, though far from adequate, at least allow Palestinians some extra mobility to visit their families during Ramadan. However, the restrictions on men under the age of 45 praying at the al-Aqsa mosque, Islam’s third holiest site, are still in place, much to the frustration of Palestinians. As I walked through the old city on Friday morning to take my son to his crèche, it felt eerie to be more or less the only young man on the streets.

Ramadan also illustrates that, despite current political differences, Israelis and Palestinians share a lot of common religious ground. Fasting is common, despite variations, to the three Abrahamic faiths, as well as to other religions around the world.

Although observant Jews only fast a maximum of six days a year, the central fast, on Yom Kippur (the Day of Atonement), the holiest day in Judaism, is a gruelling 25-hour affair. Although even at its toughest, the Ramadan fast last for about 20 hours, it is nonetheless like a whole month of mini Yom Kippurs.

Not only is the word for ‘fasting’ more or less the same in Arabic and Hebrew, Ramadan and Yom Kippur etiquette is surprisingly similar, with non-observant Muslims and Jews generally refraining from eating in public, though Muslims do continue to drive. Moreover, though the pace of life slows considerably during Ramadan, it does not come to a grinding halt as it does during Yom Kippur.

Given the general contemporary distrust between Jews and Muslims, it may surprise many to learn that some Jews actually observe Ramadan. “I kept Ramadan for seven years but I don’t keep it anymore,” says Ya’qub Ibn Yusuf (original name Joshua) from Jerusalem. “Fasting is tough the first few days, but then your body gets the message and adjusts.”

And seeing others eat and drink around him did not bother Ya’qub in the slightest. He likens it to “watching a couple holding hands” – “It doesn’t make you horny – it just makes you happy for them.”

Ya’qub sees no contradiction between being a Sufi and a Jew. In fact, he describes himself as a ‘fairly conservative’ and observant Jew, despite the fact that he dresses in secular garb.

Although political animosity and conflict have driven a wedge between Jews and Muslims, there is nothing ‘New Age’ or novel about such spiritual cross-over or ‘fusion spiritualism’, if you like.

Sufism is a generally inclusive, esoteric form of Islam which has been influenced by a wide range of mystical philosophies, including the Christian monastic tradition, Judaism, Buddhism, Hinduism and Jainism.

It also had a profound effect on medieval Jewish thought. For example, Abraham ben Moses ben Maimon, the son of the Jewish philosopher Maimonides, believed that Sufi practices and doctrines were in the lost tradition of the Biblical prophets and so introduced into Jewish prayer the Sufi dhikr/zikr (the reciting of God’s name), prostration, the stretching out of hands, kneeling, and the ablution of the feet.

Ramadan is not just for the religious, it also has something to offer secularists and the a-religious, like myself. Fasting Ramadan was the only pillar of Islam I ever practised consistently. This might have been because the month carries a secular appeal: fasting is not just a ritual for its own sake but is also about self-discipline, exercising control over your physical urges and empathising with the predicament of the less fortunate.

But I have not fasted for many long years, yet certain aspects of the spirit of Ramadan still inspire my faithless bones. Despite the ready tempers, traffic jams, runaway consumerism and irritability of some, not to mention the Palestinian love for loud nightly fireworks displays, Ramadan is marked by a special spirit of solidarity, camaraderie, unison and communalism.

Ramadan nights have a special enchantment, a kind of festive magic. And it is this dimension of Ramadan which I miss the most when I am in Europe: the delicious delicacies at communal iftars, sentimental soaps and corny comedies on TV, socialising in smoky cafes late into the night, pre-dawn beans on a Cairo street corner. Although Jerusalem is not as lively as sleepless Cairo and most Palestinian Muslims spend Ramadan visiting family and friends, there are still Ramadan nights entertainments to be found here.

Whether you fast or not, are Muslim or not, the social and cultural aspects of Ramadan are open to all to savour.

This article first appeared in The Jerusalem Post on 7 July 2011.

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Rejected by the right, Western Muslims are only left with the left

 
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By Osama Diab

No Muslim in their right mind would support far-right Christian groups in the West, though they may well symathise with their Muslim equivalents elsewhere.

Tuesday 2 August 2011

I can still remember the excitement on the faces of many of my Egyptian friends when they learnt that, in 21st-century America, some still believe in abstinence and, despite all the freedom at their disposal, they choose to keep themselves ‘pure’ for their future spouses.

Many young Egyptian dream of an opportunity to start a life in an affluent Western society, but they are always worried about the cultural differences. Muslims are often concerned with what to expect if they tie the knot with a Westerner who might belong to a different faith or even to no organised religion at all, especially when it comes to the thorny question of raising children. Most importantly, many are concerned  about the discrimination they may face or how they may be made to feel like unwanted members of society amidst all the unfortunate events that have unfolded over the past decade, culminating with the recent attacks in the Norwegian capital, Oslo, which were carried out by a far-right fundamentalist Christian who was angry at Europe for accommodating so many Muslims who, in his view, threaten the continent’s Christian identity.

With so many questions running through the average pious Muslim’s head, it is understandable that many find the idea appealing that some in the West share the same values, especially regarding sexuality, gender roles, abortion, marriage and premarital sex.

However, what many don’t realise is that those who seemingly share the same values would probably belong to the far-right on the political spectrum. They are at best not particularly amused by the fact that they live side by side with Muslims, Arabs and immigrants in general, and some even resort to more violent means of expressing their hatred towards non-white and non-Christian minorities, such as Anders Behring Breivik, the perpetrator of the Oslo attacks.

Ironically, Breiviks’s views are in a way identical to those of conservative Muslims, the very same group he and his ilk are fighting. “Ladies should be wives and homemakers, not cops or soldiers, and men should still hold doors open for ladies. Children should not be born out of wedlock. Glorification of homosexuality should be shunned,” wrote the Norwegian terrorist in his 1,500-page manifesto, which he sent by e-mail to a mailing list of about a thousand addresses shortly before he carried out his attacks.

In contrast, those who defend multiculturalism, uphold the rights of minorities including Muslims, and express support for the Palestinian cause, are more left-leaning in their political views.

For conservative Muslims, the dilemma, again, is that these minorities, marginalised or vulnerable groups that leftists defend include – alongside Muslims – homosexuals, women, adherents of non-Abrahamic faiths and atheists. Likewise, for leftists – especially gay rights activists, feminists and atheists - the dilemma is that many of the Muslims they stand up for do not approve of their lifestyle choices or beliefs.

So should a conservative Muslim relate more to the camp that shares her/his values but cannot tolerate their presence, or with the camp that holds a fundamentally different set of morals but sees Muslim as a necessary thread in the colourful fabric of a multicultural society?

The US president, Barack Obama, a radical liberal by US standards, is a sign of shifting allegiances for at least American Muslims. US Muslims, who traditionally voted Republican, overwhelmingly voted for Obama, probably as a reaction to the acts and deeds of the George W Bush administration during their eight-year rule which involved two wide-scale wars against Muslim countries and the growing tension between “them” and “us”, as the former American president liked to put it.

In Sweden, it is believed that 80-90% of Muslims vote left-wing despite the fact that many of them do not hold leftist views. In the UK, Muslims have for long been more likely to vote Labour than Conservative and, despite the war in Iraq which was launched by a Labour government, most Muslims still see the centre-left party as the most friendly to Muslims in Britain.

Voting left is only normal since most far-right wing groups, as well as some more centrist right parties, have long been openly hostile towards Muslims. In May, the far-right group Ataka attacked Bulgarian Muslims performing their Friday prayers in the country’s capital, Sofia. British extremist right-wing white-only parties, such as the British National Party and the National Front, have been hard-line critics of non-European immigrants in general and the Muslim minority in particular, and always adopt programmes that have at their centre the “repatriation” of non-white immigrants.

This implies that most people would agree to make concessions in return for co-existence, especially when they are a vulnerable minority. Since most Muslims approve of liberal politics, despite not necessarily holding liberal views, when they are a minority, they would only be able to avoid accusations of hypocrisy if they apply their implicit approval of liberal politics in their Muslim-majority home countries. They should support the treatment of all minorities in Muslim-majority countries the same way they like to be treated as religious minorities in Western democracies.

This is not only common sense, but the Qur’an also confirms this concept. “Woe to those… who, when they have to receive by measure from men, they demand exact full measure, but when they have to give by measure or weight to men, give less than due.”

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

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