The ghettoisation of Danish politics

 
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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.

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The drinker’s guide to Ramadan

 
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By Khaled Diab

Ramadan is the time of year when hundreds of millions of Muslims around the world abstain from food or drink. But one group of fasters suffers a special variety of thirst this time of year: Muslims who drink alcohol.

Photo: ©Khaled Diab

Thursday 21 June 2018

Although alcohol is considered haram (prohibited or sinful) by the majority of Muslims, a significant minority of Muslims do drink, and those who do often outdrink their Western counterparts. When per-capita alcohol consumption is calculated, Chad and a number of other Muslim-majority countries top the global league. Fewer Muslim women drink than men but when they do, they can drink their western sisters under the table.

During Ramadan, though, many Muslim drinkers do abstain from consuming wine, beer or spirits of their own free will for the duration of the month. It’s the same as how some lapsed Christians will give up a vice for Lent but never set foot in a church except for christenings, weddings and funerals, or some secular Jews who eat bacon still give up bread for Passover [adding since I thought the analogy was apt!].

When I still fasted, I would get together with friends to have one for the road before we embarked on the long, arduous trek through the Ramadan dry lands, until Eid al-Fitr, the festival following Ramadan, made it safe to leap off the wagon once again.

Although I gave up Ramadan, and abandoned every last vestige of faith at the dawn of this millennium, I certainly still drink alcohol. Most Muslim drinkers I have met in my life do view drinking as a minor sin (even though they indulge in it) and thus, if they fast during Ramadan, they abstain for the month. This can lead to some peculiar situations. Last year, at a barbecue organised by European friends in Tunis, I debated, wine glass in hand, with a secular Tunisian, sipping on his fruit juice because had given up alcohol for the holy month, whether or not it was hypocritical and an infringement on personal freedom to ban the sale of alcohol during Ramadan.

Weirdest of all perhaps is the tiny minority of Muslims who fast and then drink at night after they have broken their fast, including a neighbour of mine. This may seem peculiar both to Muslims and non-Muslims alike, but it is not as odd as it appears. From Islam’s very inception, there was a debate about what exactly the vague passages on drinking in the Quran prohibited. Although the majority opinion holds that intoxicants – alcohol itself – are banned, a minority view is that it is intoxication – getting drunk that is forbidden.

Far more common are Muslim drinkers who do not fast and, hence, wish to continue drinking during Ramadan. Some are lapsed or vague believers who do not practise their faith, while others, like me, are out-and-out atheists or agnostics. For Ramadan drinkers, I know from experience, finding booze can get complicated. Sure, in the United States, Europe or the Muslim countries that allow alcohol sales during Ramadan, the only obstacle is your own conscience. But in many countries, including my native Egypt or in Tunisia, where I live now, which normally have booze in abundance, getting a drink during the fast requires foresight, planning and resourcefulness.

In Tunisia, as in Egypt, alcohol supplies dry up during the holy month, because stores are barred from selling booze and many bars close their doors. That confounded me when I first moved here last year, because drinking is a popular pastime, and Tunisia has a surprisingly wide range of quality local wines.

But humans are nothing if not adaptable. Rather than a forced abstention, as conservatives undoubtedly hoped to instill, drinkers simply build up a strategic stockpile before Ramadan begins. This usually results in a huge pre-Ramadan upsurge in business for alcohol suppliers, visible in the rapidly emptying alcohol aisles at my local supermarket in Tunis.

This stockpiling can make for awkward situations. Just before this Ramadan, we organised a pre-Ramadan party for friends, and when I went to the supermarket to stock up for the party and the next month, I bought what apparently struck non-drinkers as an unsettling amount of alcohol.

The young woman in a hijab at the checkout counter must never have experienced the pre-Ramadan rush on booze: Her face registered a look of mild panic. At one point, she got so confused trying to decipher the different types of wine that she smiled at me and said non-judgementally: “Forgive me, I can’t tell one type of wine from another.”

When it comes to drinking during Ramadan, though, I’m lucky to be a Belgian citizen, not a Tunisian: foreigners here are allowed to order alcoholic beverages at the few licensed restaurants and bars that do stay open during the holy month, but Tunisians generally can’t, though if you look Muslim or your name sounds Muslim, some places may object.

Similar regulations exist in my native Egypt. This always struck me as unfair to Egyptian drinkers, especially for Christians who have no religious restrictions on the consumption of alcohol – and I used to make noise about it, but bar staff would shrug apologetically and say they would love nothing more than to serve me, as Egyptians were their main customers.

I recall the first Ramadan I was in Egypt after I gained my Belgian nationality. I made a point of visiting one of my old watering holes with a mixed group of friends. When I ordered my beer, the waiter asked me discreetly whether I had a foreign passport, I flashed it to him, and his smile said that would do nicely. The staff turned a blind eye to the fact that the orange juices for the Egyptians without foreign passports in our midst had hardly been touched and that the ‘foreigners’ had ordered more drinks than normal.

This attitude of tolerating alcohol 11 months of the year but banning it during Ramadan is conflicted and contradictory, but it’s not unique to Muslim societies. For all the prevalent anti-Muslim sentiment today and fears that “Sharia law” might destroy the American way of life, the United States had a full-blown, Saudi-style total prohibition from 1920 to 1933. Today, alcohol is still banned in hundreds of local counties, representing an area that constitutes an estimated 10 percent of the land mass of the United States.

If it were up to me, I’d do away with all such restrictions. The state shouldn’t get to dictate to citizens how to be good Muslims – or not. This is an individual decision for each believer and non-believer to make. And the temporary ban doesn’t distinguish between Muslims and non-Muslims, which enlists people of other faiths who have no religious obligation to take part in Ramadan in a Muslim ritual.

But still, I’m relieved that I live in Tunisia and not some place where alcohol is banned, such as Saudi Arabia or Iran. Now that Ramadan is over Tunisia has reverted to its normal, laid-back self, just in time for the summer. And drinkers are able, once again, to toast each other in the open.

—-

This article appeared in The Washington Post on 31 May 2018.

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Islam for Donald Trump and the politically incorrect

 
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Mr Trump, if you really want to know “what the hell is going on” with Islam, I invite you and all the other bigots out there to join me on a mind-expanding journey through Islam(s), passing through the main thoroughfares and back alleys of history, society, culture, politics, theology and, above all, people.

Image: ©Gilgamesh

Friday 15 December 2017

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Dear Donald Trump,

Dear bigots of the world,

You are a world authority on Christianity. I know because you said so yourself… and, what with the deluge of fake news and biased media, we must trust only you and your flood of tweets. I wonder what Pope Francis made of your claim that “nobody reads the Bible more than me” when you met him at the Vatican? The pontiff has not pontificated on the subject, so we are likely never to know.

At the time, those haters at Catholic Online mocked you. Calling you a “presidential hopeless”, they pilloried your religious claims, including your slip of the tongue referencing Two Corinthians, rather than Second Corinthians. Second, two, they are all the same number, right? Catholic Online predicted: “Americans will wake up and understand that Donald Trump is not the man he claims to be and cannot be trusted to follow through with any of his promises.”

Not all Christians are so sceptical. Some even believe you to be the “Trump of God” foretold in 1 Thessalonians 4:16 and the “last trump” prophesied in 1 Corinthians 15:52 (that is First Corinthians, not One, but who’s counting), both of which are sure signs of the second coming. Some spoil sport experts on the Apocalypse claim that this only works in English, and the King James Bible to be specific, and that the original Greek refers to “trumpet”. Trump, trumpet – what’s the difference, right?

As a sign of your humility – a trait you have always done your utmost to hide – you have admitted that your pontifical knowledge of Christianity does not extend to Islam. “Donald J Trump is calling for a total and complete shutdown of Muslims entering the United States,” you said during your presidential campaign, referring to yourself humbly in the third person, “until our country’s representatives can figure out what the hell is going on.”

The reason for this ignorance is simple and so obvious that Donald Trump has identified it without any prior knowledge of Islam or Muslims and has said it so many times that it barely merits repeating. The great enemy of the American people is political correctness. “We must stop being politically correct and get down to the business of security for our people,” you said after a terrorist attack carried out by Muslim extremists. “If we don’t get smart it will only get worse.”

And to ensure that it does not get worse, Donald Trump has been getting smart. Despite your early blanket condemnation of Islam and all Muslims, you have decided that some Muslims are actually fine, like the Saudis. “This is not a battle between different faiths, different sects, or different civilisations,” you said, sounding remarkably like Obama, during your visit to Saudi Arabia, the first foreign country you visited as president. “This is a battle between barbaric criminals who seek to obliterate human life, and decent people of all religions who seek to protect it.” During your entire speech, you did not mention “radical Islamic terrorism” once, even though you chided Hillary Clinton for allegedly refusing to use the term, an accurate alternative fact which those pesky fact checkers contest.

Why didn’t you use it? Because you have discovered the truth. Crooked Clinton was lying, again. When she said that radical Islamic terrorism were not “magic words”, she was obfuscating and dissimulating. Those words are possessed of a black magic so potent that he or she who utters them can unleash forces so potent that they would make America quake again. Not being patriots, Obama and Clinton did not want you to know this secret. Luckily, you found out in the nick of time and averted an apocalypse.

But allow me to break the truth to you and shatter the post-truth, Mr President. You are being led astray, or are wandering off, as is your wont, in the wrong direction. Neither your former position regarding Islam nor your current position regarding Arab despots and dictators are right.

I know you will likely dismiss me as part of the politically correct, tree-hugging, climate change-believing, moral-relativist brigade. But rest assured, I abhor political correctness. I say what I mean and mean what I say. I describe what I see and see what I describe, without airbrushing out inconvenient truths or pasting in half-truths. I am not a partisan and owe no allegiance to anyone or anything, except my conscience. I find bigots who claim they are “politically incorrect” are more incorrect than anything else.

I am politically incorrect in the purest sense of the word. I don’t mince my words to curry favour with any political current or in-group, or to scapegoat anyone, and I call out bullshit where and when I encounter it. I find the worldviews of bigots of all stripes, whether non-Muslim or Muslim, objectionable, dubious and dangerous.

So, Mr Trump, if you really want to know “what the hell is going on,” I invite you and all the other bigots out there to join me on a mind-expanding journey through Islam(s), an odyssey through time and space, passing through the main thoroughfares and back alleys of history, society, culture, politics, theology and, above all, people. Islam is not just scripture. It is far more than Muhammad and the Quran. It is the lived and diverse experiences of hundreds of millions of people, past, present and future. Allow me to introduce you to this human kaleidoscope.

‘Islam for the Politically Incorrect is divided into easy-to-navigate thematic chapters. This means that the book can be read from cover to cover, or you can jump straight to the theme that interests you, bouncing around from chapter to chapter. Here is a quick rundown of the content.

Chapter 1 – A world of Islams

When people ask, ‘What is Islam?’, the only honest answer is: “It’s complicated.” There is no one thing you can point to and say clearly, “This is Islam.” Islam varies dramatically from place to place, country to country, group to group, person to person, and even from one era to another. This chapter introduces this complexity, but does so without being complicated.

Chapter 2 – Muslim women: Femininity, feminism and fantasy

One thing Muslim and western conservatives have in common is their expressed desire to ‘liberate’ women. In reality, each in their own way, they objectify Muslim women, use them as political footballs or weaponise them for their culture wars. For all the attention Muslim women receive, there is precious little mainstream understanding of their situation. This chapter presents Muslim women in their dizzying diversity on their own terms.

Chapter 3 – Muslim men: Emancipating the average Mo

Muslim men are ‘reel bad’. In Western pop culture, they are predominantly portrayed as two-dimensional villains. In conservative Muslim circles, open-minded, modern men are either ignored or pilloried. The upshot of this is that liberal and progressive Muslim men are systematically airbrushed out of the picture. This not only ignores an important component of reality, it also robs other Muslim men seeking to break out of traditional gender roles of role models and support. This chapter sheds light on an underappreciated side of Muslim men and, in so doing, seeks to empower the average Mo to embrace gender equality.

Chapter 4 – Sexy Islam

Sex, it is said, sells. But when it comes to the contemporary image of Islam, sex repels. To say that Islam lacks sex appeal would be an understatement of massive proportions. In this chapter, we take a peak behind the shroud of taboo and piety to explore the sexual reality and identity of Muslims in all its rich variety. Along the way, we expose remarkable similarities and a long, if submerged, history of sexual openness and eroticism.

Chapter 5 – Alcohol and Islam: Fermenting rebellion?

Both Muslims and non-Muslims alike view Islam as a teetotalling religion. In the popular mind, Muslims who drink either do not exist, are not ‘real’ Muslims or are intoxicated by western lifestyles or ‘vices’. However, despite Islam’s apparent theological prohibition, a significant minority of Muslims have always drunk and Islam possesses a number of distinct drinking cultures. In fact, alcohol has a long history in Islamic societies, literature, art and even science. This chapter toasts this ancient tradition.

Chapter 6 – Jesus v Muhammad: Of prophets and messiahs

Given the rivalry between Islam and Christianity, controversy and debate surround their two founders. This chapter explores not just the differences but also the surprising similarities between Muhammad and Jesus. It also examines how Muslims view Jesus and how Christians view Muhammad, the difference between being a messiah and a prophet, and what makes a ‘false’ or ‘true’ prophet.

Chapter 7 – Clash, mash or crash of civilisations?

In these troubled times, too many people believe that we are in the throes of a monumental clash of civilisations. But is this actually the case? Philosophy, science, culture, realpolitik and even fashion and coffee reveal that there is a massively underappreciated mash of civilisations, not to mention an under-reported clash within civilisations.

Chapter 8 – Rationalising Islam: Muslim sceptics, heretics, apostates and atheists

With the fatwa issued against Salman Rushdie and Saudi Arabia’s classification of atheists as ‘terrorists’, contemporary Islam projects an image of piety and unbelief. The reality is a significant minority of ‘Muslims’ (at least) are sceptics, agnostics or outright atheists. In the most conservative Muslim societies, this can put their freedom, livelihoods or lives at risk. In others, rejection of Islam is quietly tolerated, while in some, it is accepted as a valid right. This chapter explores sceptics and atheists in the Islamic context, from the dawn of Islam to the present day.

Chapter 9 – Memo to a jihadist

This open letter is addressed to those drawn by the jihadist calling. It highlights the myths, untruths and half-truths upon which jihadists build their appeal, and the ugly truth of modern so-called jihadism.

Chapter 10 – Memo to the alt-right

This open letter tackles the dangerous myths and conspiracy theories popular in alt-right circles, and presents a more realistic and nuanced picture.

Chapter 11 – Reforming Islam or reforming Muslims?

There is currently a lot of debate about the need for an Islamic Reformation. This chapter analyses whether Islam needs reform, what kind of reform it requires, whether it has already been reformed, what would happen if it does reform, and whether theological or socioeconomic reform should come first?

The ABC of Islam

This handy glossary explains some confusing or controversial terms related to Islam. Among other things, it explains why ‘Allah’ is the wrong word to use, how ‘Allahu Akbar’ means a lot more than many people know, and how the caliphate ain’t what you think it is.

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Gay pride (and prejudice) through the ages

 
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By Khaled Diab

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

Thursday 28 February 2013

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

___

Follow Khaled Diab on Twitter.

This article first appeared in Haaretz on 26 February 2013.

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Ramadan for drinkers

 
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By Khaled Diab

With booze in short supply, the month of fasting can be a thirsty wait for some Muslims.

September 2008

In Europe, Ramadan creeps up on you with none of the fanfare associated with the fasting season in the Muslim world, where it is a unique time of year. It is a month of fasting and feasting, frugalness and greed, night turning into day, spirituality and commercialism. When it started this year, we’d arranged, by chance, to go out for drinks with some friends, where we, blasphemously, drank an impromptu seasonal toast.

While the majority of people go without food or drink from dawn to dusk, some Muslims suffer a special kind of thirst. For those who drink alcohol, the holy month can be a very dry spell.

Many do this voluntarily, much like Christians give up certain ‘bad habits’ for Lent. One Bosnian woman describes people who practice this temporary abstention as being “Muslims on batteries”. In Bosnia, the majority of Muslims still drink alcohol, despite the growing religiosity of society there since the traumas of the Balkans conflict in the 1990s.

When I used to fast, I would have ‘one for the road’ just before the holy month began, try to keep on the Ramadan wagon for the fasting season, and join friends for a new season of drinking after the Eid festival.

Curiously, Ramadan was the only facet of Islam I stuck to religiously. Long after I’d stopped entering mosques except to admire their architecture, I still continued to fast. This may have had something to do with the periodic and festive nature of the season, rather like becoming a football fan for the duration of the World Cup. The discipline, humility and endurance required may have played a role because it made it a ‘cleansing’ personal challenge, as opposed to an empty a religious ritual.

While it’s okay for Muslims to stop drinking during Ramadan out of choice, society often takes a paternalistic attitude towards drinkers. Egypt, for instance, has a booming alcohol industry, which comes to a virtual grinding halt during the holy month.

During Ramadan, Egyptians are barred from purchasing alcohol and all alcoholic outlets besides ones catering to foreigners close down. The first time I became aware of this peculiar legislation was when I was out with some foreign friends and we ordered drinks at the bar, only to be told by the waiter that I wasn’t allowed to.

Feeling humiliated, I complained to the manager who made sympathetic noises and admitted that he would love to serve Egyptians, who made up the bulk of his clientele, but he would face an enormous fine if an inspector walked in. In fact, Ramadan is a month of major losses for bars and restaurants that serve alcohol.

This law is patently unfair because it forces Egyptian Christians to live by an Islamic rule, and it casts the state in the role of moral guardian. If alcohol is legal, what right does the government then have to force its citizens to behave temporarily like ‘good Muslims’?

It also leads to some absurd situations. Egyptians who do not wish to stop drinking clean out the off-licences just before they shut. Sometimes in mixed groups of expats and Egyptians, the foreigners will order binge quantities of booze, while the Egyptians will order a token soft drink and, with one eye on the door, they will all make merry.

The first Ramadan I was in Egypt after I acquired Belgian citizenship, I seized the opportunity to order a stiffer drink that previously permitted, and surreptitiously poured beer into an Egyptian friend’s coke as we moaned about the injustice of it all.

Well, I shouldn’t complain too much, at least drinking in Egypt is not a punishable offence like it is in the Islamic theocracies of Saudi Arabia or Afghanistan, and the law is more honest than in, say, Morocco, where Muslims are officially not allowed to consume alcohol, but everyone turns a blind eye – except during Ramadan.

In some countries, a veritable ‘alcohol war’ is brewing between alcohol-free puritans and the booze brigade. Despite having licences to operate during Ramadan, several restaurants and bars in the Jordanian capital, Amman, have been shut down by over-zealous health inspectors on questionable pretexts.

The owner of Books@Cafe, a popular Amman hangout, summed up the situation by saying: “This is about where we stand in hypocrisy and bigotry…and where we will be if we remain quiet.” His article drew more than 200 outraged responses, with one poster describing the closures as “the pinnacle in state-sponsored stupidity”.

In Turkey, which normally has a relaxed attitude to drinking, a shop owner was attacked for selling alcohol during Ramadan in an upmarket Ankara neighbourhood.

Turkish revellers have been organising a campaign of boozy civil disobedience – which has continued into Ramadan – to defend their right to drink at a popular Istanbul quay. Meanwhile, life goes on as normal in Istanbul’s Kadıköy district, where some restaurants serve traditional iftar for the pious and others offer alcohol for the secular punters.

Hundreds of millions of Muslims will be looking forward to the post-fasting festivities of Eid el-Fitr, which will be around 1 October, where I will get to observe the Indian version in Delhi. For Muslim drinkers, they will be eager to fall off the Ramadan wagon and head for their nearest watering hole.

 

This column appeared in The Guardian Unlimited’s Comment is Free section on 27 September 2008. Read the related discussion.

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

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