Mohamed Morsi’s ghost will haunt Egypt for a long time

 
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By Khaled Diab

The death in court of Mohamed Morsi completed the incarcerated former Egyptian president’s unlikely metamorphosis from mediocre mundanity to mythical martyr whose political ghost will inspire generations of radical Islamists.

Wednesday 26 June 2019

Mohamed Morsi, the largely unknown and uncharismatic engineer and one-time professor at Cal State University who was jokingly referred to as the “spare tyre” when his party rolled him out of the closet to run for president in 2012, has gone from a backroom Muslim Brotherhood apparatchik to a widely sung symbol of the Islamist cause following his death in court.

And the creators of this tragic icon – who will almost certainly inspire generations of disgruntled Islamists – are none other than Egypt’s men in khaki. By ousting, arresting, putting on show trial and criminally neglecting until his death the man whose presidency lasted just 12 months, the Egyptian military, led by current president Abdel-Fattah al-Sisi, made a hero out of a villain, transforming a hugely unpopular leader into the stuff of legend.

Morsi died on Monday 17 June, but his anointment as an immortal martyr of the cause has already begun, with his wife and other prominent Muslim Brotherhood members describing his death as martyrdom. Social media was awash with posts from pro-Morsi supporters eulogising the deposed president, including an image of the dead leader with angel wings ascending to the heavens. An Arabic hashtag describing Morsi as the martyr of the Islamic nation was popular on Twitter.

With Muslim Brotherhood sympathisers prohibited from organising a public funeral in Egypt, exiled members living in Turkey took to the streets to express their grief, chanting “Murderer Sisi, martyr Morsi,” with some holding up banners vowing that “putschists will be defeated”.

Islamists and conservatives from across the Muslim world have been paying tribute to his courage and defiance, describing him in terms normally reserved for saints. “History will never forget those tyrants who led to his death by putting him in jail and threatening him with execution,” said Turkish president Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, a man who knows a thing or two about being a tyrant, putting opponents behind bars, including thousands in solitary confinement, and pushing to reinstate the death penalty. “May God rest… our martyr’s soul in peace.”

Morsi’s perceived martyrdom was wholly unnecessary and entirely avoidable. The Muslim Brother was, indeed, the first president in Egypt’s history to be elected in a multicandidate electoral race, but his ineptitude and divisive politics quickly made him incredibly unpopular, even among former supporters.

At the time, many Egyptians I encountered who had voted for him were disappointed that Morsi’s piety had not translated into compassion for his compatriots, let alone competence – that he was an incompetent version of Mubarak but with a beard. Like his predecessor, he also intimidated and locked up critics, and employed violence against protesters.

Morsi’s authoritarian tendencies and ambitions were on full display in November 2012 when he granted himself dictatorial powers, prompting angry protests which forced him to backpedal. Rather than being a conciliatory transitional leader, Morsi was deeply partisan and his top priority was to Islamise to the max the draft constitution and to place Brotherhood loyalists in positions of influence and power.

But it was not just about Morsi’s malice. For a party that had been preparing to govern for decades, the Muslim Brotherhood’s breathtaking incompetence in power confounded most Egyptians. One ironic example of this legendary ineptitude was when a confidential, leak-proof meeting to discuss options for dealing with Ethiopia’s plans to build a dam on the Nile was being broadcast live on television.

The popular discontent with Morsi and his Brotherhood prompted waves of popular protest, culminating in a mass uprising on June 30, 2013.

Had the military stayed out and left matters to run their course, the mass mobilisation on the streets may have eventually forced Morsi to call early elections or led to his government’s downfall. But General Abdel-Fattah al-Sisi, who is currently Egypt’s president, had other plans… and ambitions.

Even after the undemocratic coup he engineered, Sisi could have navigated a more pragmatic and conciliatory path — after all, the Muslim Brotherhood was a spent force that had squandered in a few short months most of the popular goodwill it had carefully nurtured through decades of charity work and grassroots activities.

Instead, al-Sisi demanded a “mandate” to eradicate what he described as “terrorism,” perpetrating the bloodiest and cruellest massacre of civilians in Egypt’s modern history, in which over 1,000 civilians were butchered by security forces. This pivotal moment convinced many in the Muslim Brotherhood that politics was not for them and reawakened the movement’s paranoia and persecution complex.

The relentless repression since 2013 has radicalised some former members, propelling them towards more violent movements, and has helped the Brotherhood to regain some of the popular sympathy it has lost.

Rather than stamping out the terrorism the regime claims disingenuously to be fighting, Egypt is now faced with a full-blown insurgency in the Sinai and terrorist attacks on the mainland have become quite common place.

Like George W Bush’s disastrous and self-serving War on Terror, this failure was all too easy to foresee. That Morsi’s death after years of imprisonment and wanton neglect would prompt Muslim Brotherhood sympathisers to view Sisi as a murderer and “enemy of Islam” is also something that has been clear for some years now.

Beyond bleeding-heart humanists like myself, this terrifying possibility could have and should have been abundantly clear to the Egyptian regime. After all, it has been here before: In the 1950s and1960s, then-President Gamal Abdel-Nasser undertook a similar crackdown against the Muslim Brotherhood. In 1966, the Nasser regime took the fateful decision to execute a radical Muslim Brother by the name of Sayyid Qutb. Qutb was transformed overnight into a martyr who has inspired violent Islamists ever since, including Osama bin Laden, who was at first embraced by the United States because it shortsightedly wanted to use his zeal against the Soviets in Afghanistan, creating even greater blowback.

This raises the pertinent question of whether there is method in the madness, or only madness in the methods employed by the Sisi regime. Is the Egyptian leader a cunning Machiavellian political operator who, needing a threat sufficiently scary, first needed to create the monster he will spend years attempting to slay, even if it runs the risk of pushing his country over the abyss?

Far more likely is that he simply lacks the capacity to react in any other way. Unlike Mubarak, who despite being a military man spent years in politics before becoming president, Sisi has only ever known the army, with its inflexibility, hierarchy and obedience, and this has made him view the political arena as a literal, rather than a figurative, battlefield.

Source: US Department of State

The silence from Washington will further inflame the false Islamist narrative which alleges that the coup against Morsi was a US-Zionist conspiracy against Islam. Of course, this flies against the evidence, as Morsi actually enjoyed good relations with Washington and continued Mubarak’s policies toward the United States.

Judging by America’s track record in the Middle East, its overriding concern is what Washington defines as its “vital interests”, and ideology plays a surprisingly marginal role. That explains why America has a decades-old special relationship with Saudi Arabia, the self-defined home of Islam, and the other conservative Arab Gulf states.

Nevertheless, Morsi’s perceived martyrdom will lead radical Islamists to bend and twist reality to serve their ideological and political purposes. The conspiracy theories about the evil forces which emerged following Morsi’s downfall will take on new life and ever more elaborate formats after his death, which will be juxtaposed against the angelic image of saintly virtue that has been constructed around the martyred leader, in whose memory and cause some of his followers will also wish to martyr themselves. And this is bad news for Egypt, the Middle East, America and the West.

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Muslims with altitude and the fine art of terrorism

 
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By Khaled Diab

If you  are or look like a Muslim or Arab, whatever you do, do not read, sweat or speak Arabic when flying.

Even nonsense Arabic or an Arabic shopping list can terrify your fellow passengers. Photo: Rock, Paper, Scissors

Even nonsense Arabic or an Arabic shopping list can terrify your fellow passengers.
Photo: Rock, Paper, Scissors

Tuesday 30 August 2016

Choosing what to read on a flight is always a dilemma. Too short and you’re left kicking your heels. Too complicated and you may not be able to focus.

However, if you happen to be a Muslim or an Arab, or to look like one, you also need to factor in the potential alarm or panic your fellow passengers or crew might experience upon catching sight of your choice of reading material.

This is what Brit Faizah Shaheen discovered to her chagrin. Upon returning to the UK from her honeymoon, she was detained by police who interrogated her about the book she had been reading on her outbound flight, which a crew member had reported as “suspicious”.

And what was the terrifying book in which Shaheen was immersed? Was it perhaps The Management of Savagery, which guides ISIS’s butchery and barbarity? Maybe it was Sayyid Qutb’s takfiri classics in which he reinvents the concept of Islamic holy war to make it offensive rather than defensive, a sort of Jihad Unbound?

Nope, it was a book, in English, about Syrian art. What exactly the flight attendant found suspicious about this title is unclear. Perhaps (s)he suspected that Shaheen had turned terrorism into a fine art. It is possible that (s)he believed this was the latest cunning Islamist plot to destroy the West: by artistically deconstructing it.

Unsurprisingly, Shaheen has decided to throw the book – legally – at the airline and the police (I may have been tempted to throw it physically).  “The whole experience left me feeling disappointed and angry,” she wrote in an opinion piece for The Guardian.

Ironically, Shaheen, who appears to be secular and as far away from a radical jihadist as it is possible to be, is a psychotherapist with the NHS. Her job is to help prevent the radicalisation of British Muslims with mental health issues, something that is likely to put a price on her head in terrorist circles.

If someone like Shaheen can be detained for nothing more than the religion she wears lightly, imagine what life must be like for conservative Muslim travellers who are guilty of nothing beyond being pious.

And Shaheen’s story is not an isolated one. Caught between Donald Trump and other far-right demagogues on both sides of the Atlantic, on the one hand, and jihadist terrorists, on the other, not to mention the increasingly shrill and hysterical public discourse, the past couple of years have seen a huge spike in ludicrous and distressful incidents – a phenomenon that has been dubbed ‘flying while Muslim’.

Flying for Arabs and Muslims is certainly no amusement park – literally for the British Muslim family which lost $13,340 in missed flights when they were detained on their way to DisneyLand.

Perceived offences for detention, interrogation and ejection from flights include speaking or texting in Arabic, using the word “Allah” while sweating, being nervous, complaining about being thirsty, or somehow vaguely making someone else feel unsafe. That is my personal favourite. Being a tall brown guy with a stubble/beard, I run the risk when I fly of  being kicked off my flight because I make some bigot’s heart race a little faster.

Beards too can be a hair-raising – or razing – experience. Even non-Muslim hipsters with beards have fallen victim to this kind of hair-ism, as have non-Muslim economists practising the terrifying ancient Muslim art of Algebra. After a fellow passenger allegedly deemed he looked “Arabic [sic] and scary”, Mark French was ordered to shave his stubble or not be allowed to board the flight.

Similarly, a Pole of Armenian origin, i.e. a Christian, was barred twice from boarding a flight after a woman complained that he “looked like a terrorist” – whatever that means.

We must bear in mind that such ludicurous incidents are still relatively rare, and that is why they capture headlines. However, they appear to be increasing in frequency, as are the less sexy but more common security and background checks, fuelled by mounting public apprehension and sweeping anti-terror legislation introduced in the wake of the 11 September 2001 attacks. Although greater vigilance was required, some governments exploited public fear to push overly draconian regulations.

And this kind of ethnic profiling and the farcical behaviour it engenders occurred regularly in the aftermath of the mass killing in America. I recall how, in 2003, I was interrogated at the US embassy in Brussels about whether I’d been a toddler soldier in Gadaffi’s army, because of the accident of having been born in Tripoli while my parents were working there.

On arrival in Washington DC, I was taken to a dingy backroom where I spent hours waiting and divulging personal details I had long since forgotten and which I found to be an enormous intrusion on my privacy.

At Israel’s Ben Gurion airport, traditionally the world capital of racial profiling, I have received some of the best “VIP” treatment I have ever known, including welcoming parties outside the plane, interrogations, long waits, special massages and the searching of the vehicles I come in at the airport perimeter – though the system has improved somewhat and become less intrusive recently.

However, times are a-changing and race- and religion-based paranoia is going global, with a number of Western countries following Israel’s lead. A Palestinian-American friend of mine who is an international aid worker must now wait every time he enters the States until they’ve carried out a full background check, after having endured the highest security level, a six, in Tel Aviv, which involves the minute inspection of every item of baggage.

Naturally, it is in everyone’s interest, including that of Muslims, who are disproportionately the victims of Islamist terrorism, to exercise vigilance. But there is a huge difference between being vigilant and being vigilante – and we are drifting perilously close to the latter.

Such discriminatory practices and social stigmatisation could also help push the emotionally vulnerable, who are preyed on by preachers of hate, into the hands of jihadist recruiters. “In my field of work, I recognise that some individuals have been made vulnerable due to factors such as a sense of injustice, peer pressure, negative media and a lack of a sense of belonging,” Shaheen pointed out in her Guardian piece. “Being victimised due to a mistake can have such a negative impact that it could lead to higher potential risk of radicalisation.”

And the prevention of radicalisation is far more effective than trying to cure it. That is why we need to tackle the Islamophobic narratives which tarnish and distort the image of peaceful Muslims, who make up the majority of the hundreds of millions who belong to this global faith, leading to public hysteria.

We also need to curb the excessive powers of security services and police, not grant them even more arbitrary leeway, because this hurts not only Muslims but is an invasion of everyone’s privacy and right to dignity.

These are dark, frightening times we live in. However, paranoia and stigmatisation will not bring us to the light, but will only prolong the night.

____

Follow Khaled Diab on Twitter.

This article which first appeared in Haaretz on 16 August 2016.

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Islamism is the illusion

 
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By Khaled Diab

Islamism is not the solution but is built on an illusion. Islam’s past strength was actually a secular one based on free thought.

Saturday 17 August 2013

SONY DSC“The people want to apply God’s law,” one group of male protesters chanted.

“Islamic, Islamic, Egypt rejects secularism,” a group of women sang in rhyming Arabic prose, their tone that of a wedding party.

As if that wasn’t enough, all over the Raba’a al-Adawiya encampment, what seems to be a current hit on the Islamist charts was urging everyone within earshot of a loudspeaker to “Tell the world that Egypt is Islamic.”

But that is not exactly the message that has been reaching the international community from the pro-Morsi camp. Although only a single letter separates the two in Arabic, there is a world of difference between the democratic legitimacy (Shari’ya) the Muslim Brotherhood asks of the world and the Shari’a protesters were loudly demanding.

“I want to defend my religion and my country’s Islamic identity,” Mohamed Eissa, 20, told me, adding that he wanted Egypt to implement Shari’a. And what about democracy, I wondered? “If we apply Shari’a, we will have the best democracy in the world,” he claimed.

I doubt many non-Islamists when they think of Morsi’s “democratic legitimacy” would ever associate that with implementing Shari’a, as countries which have done so sit near the bottom of the league in terms of freedoms and rights.

Photo: ©Khaled Diab

Photo: ©Khaled Diab

As I stood there in Raba’a, a scarce secular soul, I pondered a question I have asked myself repeatedly: what exactly is the point of the Islamist project in a Muslim society?

After all, Egypt already implements Shari’a in its personal and family law, with all the gender and other inequalities that involves. In addition, there is absolutely nothing to stop a devout Muslim from practising every facet of his or her faith.

In contrast, Egypt has no civilian family courts for those who wish to run their personal affairs according to modern, secular standards. Moreover, though freedom of expression is a constitutional right, this freedom has been severely curtailed in recent years by the obscure, vague and innovative legal concept of “insulting religion”.

But does centuries-old Islam, the world’s second largest religion, really need self-appointed defenders to shield it from “insult”, when the Qur’an itself welcomes doubt, questioning and even ridicule?

And why do these self-appointed defenders of the faith contradict the example of the prophet they claim to emulate? For instance, Muhammad pardoned one of his scribes, Abdullah Ibn Saad, even after he claimed that the Qur’an was invented and Muhammad was a false prophet.

These examples highlight how Islamism, rather than providing the solution, as it claims, is actually built on an illusion.

Islamist discourse, on the whole, holds that the reason for the Muslim world’s decline is its deviation from Islamic law and values. That explains why Hassan al-Banna, despite his attempts to inject some elements of modernity into traditional Islamic thought, fixated on questions of morality and Shari’a. One of his ideological descendants, Sayyid Qutb, went so far as to invent the dangerous idea that Muslims were living a period of modern “Jahiliyyah” (pre-Islamic ignorance).

But by misdiagnosing the malaise afflicting society, Islamists have prescribed totally the wrong medicine, with severe and debilitating side effects.

Any objective, dispassionate reading of Islamic history reveals that Islam’s former glory was actually built on a largely secular foundation. In addition, the start of its decline coincided with the victory of rigid dogma and orthodoxy – represented by the likes of the “father of Salafism” Ibn Taymiyyah in the 14th century – over reason and intellect.

Muhammad himself never established anything resembling what we would call an “Islamic state” today. His secular-sounding Constitution of Medina actually defines Jews, Christians and pagans – i.e. every member of Medina’s society – as being full and equal members of the Ummah.

During what is widely regarded as Islam’s “golden age”, the political and social mechanisms governing the lives of Muslims were generally secular. Though the Umayyad and Abbasid caliphs derived their claim to legitimacy from Islam, they were essentially secular rulers, presiding over secular governments. They were autocratic, not theocratic.

In fact, their honorific title “commanders of the faithful”suggests that caliphs derived their authority from their Muslim (and other) subjects and not from Islam itself. Moreover, most enlightened caliphs were derided by conservatives and traditionalists as immoral and decadent.

Take Harun al-Rashid, the fifth Abbasid caliph and stuff of legends. Under his rule, the sciences, culture and the arts flourished, despite clergy’s disapproval of the company he and his libertine son, al-Amin kept, including the outrageous and camp court poet, Abu Nuwas, considered the greatest poet of his time.

Freethinking philosophy also flourished during this era, both under the Abbasids and the Umayyads. The Muʿtazilah, for example, held that rationality, expressed through reasoned debate known as “kalam”, are the “final arbiter” that trumps “sacred precedent”.

In such a climate, it is unsurprising that non-belief was accepted and atheistic scholars, such as Ibn al-Rawandi were published, only to have their works destroyed by later, less tolerant generations.

The reasons for Islam’s subsequent relative decline are manifold: the loss of dominance over global trade, the Mongol invasions, intellectual stagnation, infighting and factionalism, colonialism, and more.

However, deviation from some imagined “pure” moral state is not one of the factors, and belief in this illusory mirage will delay effective reform. In the 21st century, the best system that encompasses the spirit of past Muslim success is enlightened secularism. That might explain why the renowned 19th-century reformer Muhammad Abduh once said that in France he saw “Islam without Muslims”.

 

Note: This article was written before the violent dispersal of the pro-Morsi encampments occurred.

___

Follow Khaled Diab on Twitter.

This is the extended version of an article which first appeared in The National on 15 August 2013.

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