Remembering the real Raba’a

 
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By Khaled Diab

Competing myths have emerged around the Raba’a protest camp. But it was neither a terrorist den nor a gathering of freedom and democracy lovers.

 Tuesday 24 September 2013

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“Smile, you’re in Raba’a,” a passing protester, perhaps reading the discomfort on my face, called out before I could register his face.

This comment has echoed in my head repeatedly in recent weeks, particularly when I hear pro-Morsi supporters described as terrorists, the sit-in in Raba’a al-Adawiya described as a terror camp, and the bloody dispersal of the protest encampments and the subsequent crackdown on the Muslim Brotherhood justified as a “war against terrorism”. Meanwhile, in the opposing trench of the propaganda war, the crackdown is being depicted as a “war against democracy” to Western audiences and a “war against Islam” to the Brotherhood’s conservative support base.

And it is this distortion, this “war against the truth”, which has prompted me to recount my visit to the Raba’a encampment. It was a blisteringly hot Friday, and I set off just after midday prayers on a self-imposed personal mission to see for myself what the pro-Morsi protesters were all about.The taxi driver who took me there was a tall, distinguished-looking Nubian man who was still dressed in the galabiya he had obviously just worn to the mosque for Friday prayers. He looked at me with what seemed to be curiosity and suspicion, perhaps trying to read me.

This was possibly because, with my European-style clothes, I didn’t look like the typical pro-Morsi demonstrator. Or it could have been because he thought I was a Brother, but from a different ‘hood.

He asked me what I was going there to do. I told him that I wanted to see for myself and didn’t just want to rely on what others were saying, and that this was important to me both as a journalist and a person.

Looking visibly relieved that I wasn’t a protester, he seemed to relax. “I had nothing against Mohamed Morsi and thought, because he was a pious man, his heart would be on Egypt’s interests, but the Brothers messed up,” he said. “I don’t normally protest but I was out on the streets on 30 June. Everyone in my neighbourhood was.”

I asked him why that was. He said it was partly because thugs connected to the Muslim Brotherhood were out in force trying to intimidate locals into not joining in the 30 June protests, but this backfired and only served to decide the undecided. And there had been a lot of trouble-making and violence from pro-Morsi gangs in his district since the president’s ouster.

In the time I had been back in Egypt, people I encountered expressed everything from outright hostility to sorrowful disappointment, with remarkably few expressing any kind of support for the removed president. Although I suspected that Morsi would still be enjoying pretty strong backing in the countryside, particularly in Upper Egypt, Raba’a was the first place I would actually encounter any significant number of supporters for the ousted president.

Belonging as he did to the sorrowfully disappointed camp, the driver told me of how Morsi and his Brothers were “just as corrupt as the Mubarak regime but more incompetent”, citing a litany of examples of widespread corruption and cronyism.

As we drove past a couple of hundred Morsi protesters amassing at the bottom of one of the ramps leading up to the 6th October flyover, he pointed to the crowd and said sadly: “Look at how they just want to block off the main streets. In Raba’a, they’ve made life hell for the locals,” he said.

I reflected that anti-revolutionaries and counter-revolutionaries once also complained about how Tahrir protesters were disrupting traffic, the normal flow of life and the economy.

Journalist friends had warned me to be careful which direction I approached Raba’a from. At one end, there was a military barricade and the soldiers there sometimes didn’t let people through. At the other end, there was an impromptu security checkpoint manned by Morsi sympathisers.

I was told that I would need to walk a fair while to reach it, but the taxi driver, who seemed to know the layout of the camp well, managed to get me right up to the checkpoint, where he wished me luck and safety.

This was the only point where I would personally see “weapons”. A number of men with traditional wooden clubs (“shoom”) were standing by a pile of sandbags, obviously ready, if woefully under-prepared, to push back any attempts to storm the camp by authorities (the decision had just been taken that the encampment would be cleared). Volunteers were also wondering around armed with an arsenal of spray bottles which dispensed refreshing ice-cold water to keep the crowds cool and damp – in a bizarre Islamist version of a wet T-shirt contest.

Photo: ©Khaled Diab

Photo: ©Khaled Diab

Naturally, absence of evidence is not evidence of absence. There were plenty of reports, some from reliable sources, that there was a cache of arms at the Raba’a sit-in, and certainly at the more radical Nahda protest camp. That is not to mention all the clear incitement to violence a number of leading Brotherhood figures engaged in. One example is Safwat Hegazi, a preacher banned from entering the UK, who threatened in Raba’a “whoever sprays Morsi with water will be sprayed with blood”.

That said, if there were really were so many weapons concealed in Raba’a and the camp really posed such a threat to national security, as claimed by Doria Sharaf el-Din (Egypt’s first female minister of misinformation), why didn’t they use this arsenal to defend themselves against the police onslaught? If the protesters were violent “terrorists” – as they’ve been depicted by the state media and the anti-Brotherhood movement, including Tamarod, which should’ve known better – why didn’t they go down with all barrels blazing? Where was the smoking gun?

The point I’m trying to make is that Raba’a was not a black-or-white place. The vast majority of the protesters were peaceful, ordinary-looking, conservative folk that would hardly merit a second look on any normal Egyptian street – though I did also run into some incredibly eccentric characters, such as this man in shades and a graffitied galabiya who claimed to be a millionaire from Alexandria.

That said, the protest camp was not some kind of spiritual peace fest inspired by the ‘God is love‘ Sufi saint for whom the Raba’a mosque and square is named. There was a lot of anger, fanaticism, and rampant antidemocratic sentiment, as I was about to discover.

With a sense of trepidation, I approached one of the gatekeepers who stopped me to check who I was and what I was doing there, his eyes full of weary suspicion. On the advice of fellow hacks, I did not mentioned any of the Egyptian or Arab papers I worked with due to reports of Egyptian journalists being attacked and beaten up because pro-Morsi supporters and the Muslim Brotherhood regarded the Egyptian media as being unsympathetic and hostile.

In contrast, they were very welcoming of the Anglo-American media. This is incredibly ironic in light of the Brotherhood’s traditional discourse, which is suspicious and hostile towards the West and the movement’s constant condemnation of the “corrupting” influence of Western culture and its mocking of secular Egyptians as westernised sell-outs of the Islamic cause.

For me, this translated into an Open Sesame moment. When the guard caught sight of my European ID card and heard the list of Western publications I wrote for, his manner shifted perceptibly, and he welcomed me warmly and ushered me in promptly. And he would not be the only one.

At first, I just toured the encampment – which was still not very full because the post-prayer, pre-iftar crowds had still not arrived – to get a feel for the lay of the land. I strolled along quietly taking in the food and drink vendors who were not yet dispensing anything as everyone was fasting, and the tired, hungry and thirsty protesters, many lying prostrate in the shade of tents and awnings. Others queued in front of an open-top lorry dispensing large blocks of ice, which seemed to be the air-conditioner of choice.

It must have been psychological, triggered by the knowledge that I would not be able to drink for a while, despite the sweltering heat. Only a few minutes into my visit, I was already feeling the first thirst pangs, which got me wondering how the child and teen me ever managed to fast in the summer, and thankful that the adult me had abandoned the practice.

Perhaps part of the trouble was also the party I had gone to the night before, which had provided a much-needed dose of fast living during the fasting season, but had left me dehydrated and a little hungover.

SONY DSCNow, this had the added effect of making me feel somewhat self-conscious among the conspicuous displays of piety all around me. Thankfully, fatigue induced by fasting (and perhaps also feasting) made those around me look and act more hungover than me, so I had plenty of camouflage.

Nevertheless, I did wonder what the pious protesters would make of it if they learnt my “dirty little secret”. Partying and drinking, and in Ramadan? What has society come to? Yes, it would probably confirm to them the justness of their cause – that the Brothers need to salvage society and save it from itself before it provokes God’s wrath further.

And the Muslim Brotherhood’s media-savvy democratic discourse notwithstanding, most of the protesters I heard and encountered did not want “shareya” (legitimacy) but “Shari’a”… or they believed that the two were one and the same, that legitimacy could be gained only by implementing “God’s law”, not through democracy.

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

As this enthusiastic, passionate and intelligent young man who studied Quranic interpretation at al-Azhar spoke, I wondered to myself, what about my “freedom and dignity”, Mohamed? I will defend with all my power your right to worship whomever and however you want but would you extend me the same right not to worship or believe?

The reckless rebel inside me was whispering in my ear, rather like the Satan I don’t believe in, goading me to ask him and the rest of the crowd that had formed around me to air their grievances: what about my rights as an “infidel” and those of other Egyptian atheists and non-believers? Do you recognise our rights or do we, and Muslims with other interpretations of their faith, have the right to believe only what you want us to believe?

I managed to resist the mischievous demons inside my head and withstood the powerful temptation to play devil’s advocate – which was sensible and wise, given the size of the crowd that had formed around me, not to mention professional, since I had come to listen, as a journalist, not to air my own views.

Beside, though I cannot help begrudging the fact that they would probably not grant me the same tolerance with which I accept them, I also realise that they are victims of their surroundings and circumstances. They live in a society where religion tends to be a red line for most, though non-ideological Egyptians generally have a live and let live attitude. In addition, Islamist indoctrination has led them to the illusion that imposing Islam on society is the only path to true freedom and that God, the all-powerful, all-seeing, somehow needs and demands their protection.

Photo: ©Khaled Diab.

Photo: ©Khaled Diab.

The crowd that had formed around me and I must have cut an interesting spectacle. They were all eager to tell their stories, some of which were of ugly brutality and murder at the hands of the authorities, especially when they learnt that I worked for the foreign press. What I presumed to be minders eyed my increasingly conspicuous presence with suspicion, but I overheard people in the crowd explain that I was all right, that I was there to highlight their plight.

As I’d forgotten my dictaphone, I had to rely on my low-tech paper notebook, some of the pages of which were becoming rather damp, as we were constantly being sprayed with ice-cold water to keep the heat a little at bay. In fact, my shirt was soaked through, while one volunteer wiped some of the sweat from my brow to ensure I could see well enough to keep on taking notes, while another sneaked up on me from behind and stuck a freezing block of ice against the nape of my neck, which sent a surprised jolt through my spine, presumably to prevent my brain from overheating.

Salvation was a common refrain among many of the demonstrators I spoke to, as were far-fetched conspiracy theories involving the United States and Israel. “I was born when Morsi came to office. I died when he was removed from office,” Yosri Ahmed said to nods of approval.

Not everyone there claimed to be a Brotherhood supporter. “I’m not an Ikhwani. I am here to oppose repression,” insisted Taher Aziz from Mansoura. “I want legitimacy. I want my voice to be heard. For the first time in Egyptian history, I have a constitution that respects my rights.” Perhaps the constitution respected his rights, but it violated the rights of millions of others.

One man, Ayman al-Werdani, who is the head of the court of appeals in Tanta, was introduced to me as an impartial judge who was there to defend legitimacy. “Following the 25th January revolution, popular mobilisation cannot be the foundation of democracy,” he insisted. “Change can only come through the ballot box… It’s not about Morsi or Islamism but about a dirty coup against democracy and a return to square zero.”

Although I believe that democracy is a multifaceted creature which includes popular mobilisation, the judge made a valid and well-argued case. However, I did not appreciate the attempts to pass him off as an impartial and non-partisan member of the judiciary, when a little research will quickly uncover substantial evidence of his close ties to the Muslim Brotherhood, including speaking at Freedom and Justice Party rallies.

With my notebook full of quotes, I delicately extracted myself from the crowd with the excuse that I needed to tour the camp further. I walked around to the stage and podium, which was currently devoid of speakers, and the abandoned TV camera on a crane. A crowd had formed in front of the stage, with a young man sitting on another man’s shoulders chanting slogans through a megaphone. I reflected how the religious were less colourful and witty in their political songs compared to their secular counterparts.

SONY DSCAs I headed for the exit, buying some Morsi posters on my way, I came across a stream of small groups marching into the camp. “Islamic, Islamic, Egypt rejects secularism,” a group of women sang in rhyming Arabic prose, their tone that of a wedding party. This echoed the “pop” Islamic song that had been playing on loudspeakers all over Raba’a: “Egypt is Islamic. Tell the world Egypt is Islamic. It isn’t secular.

Following the massacre on 14 August, I wondered whether any of the people I had met were among the dead. Although some had been shot at before and a couple had expressed boilerplate opinions that they were not afraid and were ready to die as martyrs, I sensed inside they were not. They too wanted to live but were ready to risk it all for what they believed in.

I hope none of the protesters I encountered and who shared their passion and views with me were killed, but I imagine quite a few of them perished in the hell that was unleashed. Despite their demonisation in the media and society, a process which helped people to accept the murderous rampage, I did not encounter demons, but humans, ones with flawed ideas, I grant, but they were not evil incarnate.

Although I disagree fundamentally with their fundamentalist politics and worldview, and even if some of them were “sheeple”, what cannot be denied is their dedication to their cause. Even if I believe they are misguided in their politics, the protesters at Raba’a did not deserve to die and become the sacrificial lambs in a war between the manipulative, self-serving leadership of the army and the Brotherhood.

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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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Egypt’s women of mass destruction

 
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By Khaled Diab

Does a gaff about rural women’s breasts belie the belief among Egypt’s new Islamist leadership that women are the source of all society’s ills?

Wednesday 13 February 2013

[youtube:http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=UfvI0-i_6Zo&feature=youtu.be]

When it comes to confessionals, Egypt’s unpopular prime minister Hisham Qandil has redefined the term “making a clean breast of things”. With the country in the grips of a new wave of protests and street clashes and the economy in tatters, the premier decided to get a vital matter off his chest during an open meeting with the media: rural women’s breast.

“There are villages in Egypt in the 21st century where children get diarrhoea [because] the mother nurses them and out of ignorance does not undertake personal hygiene of her breasts,” he said, to the visible discomfort of his audience, especially the women in it.

Qandil’s remarks have been met with widespread derision and mockery in Egypt’s famously sarcastic social and independent media, with many requesting advice from the PM on other health and domestic issues. “A question to his eminence the prime minister,” one twitter user wrote, “can I wash my boy’s clothes with his father’s white galabiya or will the colours bleed?”

“Mum says she wants the recipe for Balah el-Sham in your next press conference,” another requested.

“Soon, they’ll be broadcasting Qandil’s press conferences on Fatafeat (a cookery channel),” one wit predicted.

There are other unexpected causes of the runs, one commenter revealed: “I’m the one who got diarrhoea when I realised you were Egypt’s prime minister.” And this observer is not alone: millions of Egyptians view this former irrigation minister as Egypt’s new secretary of state for irritation.

Although stage fright – or performance anxiety – caused by speaking before the tame cameras of Egypt’s state television may have caused Qandil to confuse women’s nipples with the teats of baby bottles, there is the possibility, however faint, that the prime minister is privy to some groundbreaking research which the rest of us humble mortals are unaware of.

After all, unlike the “ignorant peasants” he lambasts, Qandil has a master’s degree and a PhD in agricultural engineering from two different US universities, though one is located in Utah, where his views of science may have been coloured by the local culture. If “creationist” pseudoscience can posit that the universe was created less than 10,000 years ago and advocate what I call the “Fred Flintstone” theory of the Jurassic age, why can’t Qandil find a causal link between dirty boobs and the runs?

However, a cursory perusal of the scientific literature on breastfeeding uncovers no connection between the cleanliness of a mother’s breasts and diarrhoea in her infant. In fact, mother’s milk is described by doctors as “liquid gold” and is a good preventer of and antidote against diarrhoea.

Qandil’s remarks confirm previous theories that denial truly is a river running through the minds of Egyptian officials.

But wouldn’t life be so much easier for the new PM if his theory were correct? Then, instead of being forced to grapple with the problems his government has inherited from the former regime – poverty, pollution, unhygienic water supplies, poor nutrition, high illiteracy – he could solve the daunting challenge of high infant mortality in the countryside by simply going online and ordering millions of packets of antibacterial wipes or, more ambitiously yet, install a power shower in each rural mud-brick home.

The cynic in me suspects that this could be what is behind Qandil’s gaff: the desire to divert attention from his government’s failure to do anything constructive about, and find simplistic, quick fixes for the country’s nagging socio-economic problems.

This interpretation would actually be a relief in comparison with the prospect that Qandil, a supposedly highly educated man, actually believes what he said. But I fear that the prime minister may well have been deadly serious.

His outburst is reflective of the new Islamist leadership’s – and the conservative constituency they represent – obsession with women and the female body, and their apparent conviction that all society’s ills can be traced back to a woman’s breasts and vagina, and a family’s and society’s honour hangs on that flimsy thread known as the hymen.

This reality about Egypt’s body politic was on full display during the recent controversy surrounding the nude Egyptian protester, Aliaa ElMahdy, whose naked body was transformed by conservatives into some kind of biological WMD – a dirty bomb – amid suggestions that she could singlehandedly obliterate Egypt’s social fabric.

Interestingly, from a psychological perspective, is how religious conservatives appear to be obsessed by what they find most reprehensible, and fantasise, like the “Desert Fathers” did of Satan tempting them away from their solitude with sexual dreams, about the female body.

An extreme, and extremely warped, example of this was the infamous and widely condemned fatwa by a cleric of al-Azhar who creatively resolved the conservative conundrum over mixed workplaces by suggesting women breastfeed their male colleagues, thereby becoming their “mothers”.

Rather than the “penis envy” Freud developed, it would appear that Egypt, and patriarchal society in general, is obsessed with breast and vagina envy. Echoing the “War on Women” across the Atlantic, Islamists, particularly ultra-conservative Salafists, have launched a far more vicious offensive against Egyptian women, which has played itself out on the streets, in the form of violence, including the rape, of female protesters and then blaming the victim for the crime she endured.

But Egyptian women and their allies have not taken this passively, and have been out in force demanding their rights – and granting them full equality will be good both for women and society as a whole, despite the anxieties of the patriarchy.

Follow Khaled Diab on Twitter.

This article first appeared in The Huffington Post on 7 February 2013.

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Nearly sisters: the common cause of Israeli and Palestinian women

 
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By Khaled Diab

The fog of war obscures the similar challenges facing women in Israel and Palestine and how the conflict hinders them from finding common cause.

Monday 13 August 2012

A photo of a presumed Israeli soldier exercising her right to bare arms – and legs and midriff – with a machine gun slung casually over her shoulder has gone viral.

While supporters of Israel have seized on this image to talk up the virtues of the IDF, pro-Palestinians are bound to view this as an attempt to sex up the ugly reality of the harsh occupation – after all, regardless of how “sexy” an assault rifle-bikini combo on a Tel Aviv beach seems to distant voyeurs, relocate it to a West Bank checkpoint, and it rapidly loses its questionable charm.

As the proud ‘Only in Israel’ caption accompanying the snapshot clearly demonstrates, this modern-day Jewish Amazon confirms Israel’s image amongst its cheerleaders as the land of tough, independent and sexy women who are every bit their men’s equal, unlike those oppressed, repressed and depressed Arab women.

Of course, like with all myths, there is a kernel of truth to this. Secular Israeli women are, judging by what I’ve seen, probably the most independent and empowered women in the Middle East, but their Palestinian “sisters” are hardly pushovers, as I’ve found out for myself through encounters with eccentrically philosophical doctors and capable professionals, frontline activists, articulate artists, and more.

Besides, there is, quite literally, another Israel. Only 60-odd km away from “decadent” and “hedonistic” Tel Aviv, lies “holy” Jerusalem, a theocratic stone’s throw away from Tehran. In the city’s ultra-Orthodox Jewish neighbourhoods, where vigilante modesty patrols intimidate the streets, women must dress modestly, are segregated from men during religious festivals, often occupy the back of the bus, and their ‘offensive’ form is effaced from posters.

The main difference between Jewish and Muslim (and Christian too) patriarchy in the Holy Land is less one of substance and more about fashion – hijabs vs wigs and scarves. For moderately religious Jews, shorter skirts are ‘in’ and trousers are ‘sin’, while the fashion-conscious ‘muhajaba’ will don skin-tight jeans but not bare any part of her legs.

But fashion tastes amongst the ultra-conservative are converging, as reflected by the tiny but growing minority of Jewish women choosing to dress in Islamic-style black niqabs and loose gowns to protect their “chastity”. The Rabbinate has become so alarmed by this development that it has condemned this practice as a form of veiled sexual deviancy, though the leader of the “Jewish burqa” movement insists that it is an ancient Jewish tradition.

Of course, the public role some women play in fundamentalist Jewish and Islamic movements could be viewed as an emancipation of sorts, even if they do preach what secularists like myself view as the subjugation of women, but which they see as respect and honour.

Besides, even among secularists, chauvinism is not always far beneath the surface. Take the supposedly emancipating image of the bikini-clad soldier. While male fighters tend to be celebrated for their courage and bravery, the fawning, fondling hand of misogyny ensures that this “hot chick” is praised for her “Guns’n’Buns” and for putting the “ass in assassin”.

Similarly, while hard-talking male journalists the world over are often widely admired, even by their detractors, it can be a different story for women. Lisa Goldman, an award-winning journalist and co-founder of the independent leftwing +972 magazine, complained of the naked misogyny and the very personal nature of the attacks she has to endure from opponents. “The criticism directed at me is harsher than that directed at my male colleagues who often write more radical stuff than I do,” she told me.

Now back to the machine gun. The spectacle of women bearing arms in the Middle East is hardly unique to Israel (where women, with the exception of one infantry battalion, are actually not allowed to serve in combat), though in the Arab context, such as in Algeria, it has tended to be as paramilitaries.

The “poster girl” of Palestinian armed resistance has to be Leila Khaled, the first woman ever to hijack an aircraft, in 1969, heading from Rome to Athens – though it should be pointed out that she has claimed publicly that she never intended to harm, nor ever did in reality, the passengers. Although Israelis regard Khaled as terrorism personified, photos of her – smiling enigmatically or staring dreamily, while holding an AK-47 and wearing a ring made of a bullet and a grenade pin – have become iconic in many Palestinian circles.

Khaled was a member of the Marxist-Leninist Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine (PFLP), which like much of the Palestinian secular left, and in a similar vein to early secular Zionism, saw the empowerment of women as a crucial prerequisite for national salvation and justice.

The unfolding reality of the conflict has both empowered and weakened women on both sides. An example of this is how Palestinian women have been empowered enough to take to the streets to protest the occupation but are, along with their families and male comrades who “let” them go out, mocked mercilessly by conservatives for emasculating the struggle and trying to usurp what should be men’s work, activists have told me.

And things are not improving or are getting worse, especially in Gaza.

“Palestinian women are highly educated but the positions they occupy are not commensurate to their abilities,” says Nancy Sadiq, who runs a pro-democracy and peace NGO, Panorama, in Ramallah. “At meetings or conferences, I am invariably one of the only women there.”

“In general, a woman tends be to a second-class citizen, whether here or in Israel, though Israeli women have better legal, social and economic rights. The difference is one of degree,” she adds.

In fact, machismo has been prevalent in Zionism which, after all, has sought to craft the tough and muscular new Jew who would never again go like a “lamb to the slaughter”. Even the ostensibly egalitarian kibbutzim were not able to dispel fully the spectre of traditional gender roles. This was something which shocked my compatriot, the maverick adventurer Sana Hasan, the first Egyptian civilian to visit Israel, in the mid-1970s, at a time when the two countries were still in a state of war. “It took me a while to realise that the glamorous image of women pioneers ploughing fields and carting manure… was largely mythical,” she wrote.

The conflict has threatened the gains Israeli and Palestinian women have registered, partly due to the rise in importance of “traditional values” and the religious fundamentalism which it has engendered. Though fundamentalism is partially a reaction to the insecurity bred by modernity, in the Israeli-Palestinian context, it is also a response to victory and defeat.

Fundamentalists and religious conservatives often connect Arab weakness to “immorality” and displeasing God. And returning to the “straight path”, in this worldview, involves restoring women’s “honour”. In addition, living under the autocracy of occupation, much like living under dictatorship, robs people of their freewill and men of their perceived “manhood”, leading many to exercise control over all that’s left to them: women and children.

But Israel’s victories and might have not enabled women to cast off the suffocating straitjacket of religious patriarchy. On the contrary, the idea that the whimsical Abrahamic God is apparently smiling on Israel has led to an upsurge in religious fundamentalism, much of it messianic in nature. As the demographic balance between “secular” and “religious” gradually shifts in the latter’s favour, the importance of women living by the laws of the Torah and Halakha is growing. Although Orthodox women now have the opportunity to study Rabbinic texts and train in particular areas of Jewish law, the basic outlines of the traditional patriarchy still remain intact in religious circles.

The fog of conflict obscures the fact that the gender wars in Israel and Palestine are remarkably similar, and that Arab and Jewish women share much in common in their struggle against the patriarchal order. In a less polarised context, women on both sides of the divide might have found common cause in their struggle against the wave of increasingly rigid religiosity, and its accompanying gender restrictions, engulfing both societies.

This is the extended version of an article which appeared in Haaretz on 9 August 2012.

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A drinker’s guide to Islam

 
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By Khaled Diab

Although alcohol is ‘haraam’, Muslim societies have rarely managed to stay on the wagon, and vital parts of their culture have developed under the influence.

Tuesday 12 October 2011

Photo: © Khaled Diab

If I said that we went to an Oktoberfest last weekend, readers may wonder why I am writing about it. If I added that the beer festival in question was in the West Bank and there we encountered a couple of self-deprecating young Germans dressed in lederhosen, some may start asking themselves what I’ve been drinking, or perhaps smoking. 

To add to the bizarreness of the situation, this Oktoberfest, the seventh of its kind, took place not in hip Ramallah but in the remote village of Taybeh, perched picturesquely at 850m above sea level and with a population of just 1,500. Moreover, as my wife pointed out, fellow Belgians – who possess not only the world’s best beers but also perhaps the greatest per-capita distribution of breweries – and other Europeans may wonder why thousands upon thousands of revellers had trekked all this way to attend a beer festival with only one beer on tap. 

Secular Palestinians, expats and even leftist Israelis equipped with glasses of Taybeh beer wandered around food and handicraft stands, watched traditional Dabke dancers  – which our toddler son strutted his stuff to – modern music, comedy and theatrical performances. 

Despite its remoteness and tiny proportions, Taybeh has earned its place on the cultural and social map as being the location of the only Palestinian beer brewery. It has battled the restrictions imposed by the Israeli occupation and the rise of Islamic fundamentalism to become a rare Palestinian business and cultural success story. 

This may explain why Taybeh once adopted “Taste the revolution” as its advertising slogan. And, judging by its micro-brewery quality, the revolution tastes pretty good. 

The very existence of Taybeh overturns the stereotype associated with Palestinians – and Arabs in general – as teetotal, fanatical Muslims. This caricature has been reinforced since Hamas’s takeover of Gaza, where the Islamist party has imposed a de facto ban on alcohol, though bootlegging has become a popular, if risky, pastime

Taybeh by night. Photo: ©Khaled Diab

There are those who will protest that Taybeh is the exception that proves the rule. After all, it is the only Palestinian brewery, and it is owned and run by Christians. But the absence of local competitors has more to do with the difficulty of setting up a viable business in the Palestinian territories, which requires a certain foolhardiness and courage – and, anyway, most of the people who drink Taybeh are Muslims. 

In the wider Arab and Muslim context, booze is widely available. Although alcohol is generally considered to be haraam (forbidden) in Islam, only the most conservative countries actually impose a legal ban on it. Egypt, for instance, has a booming local alcohol industry that has been growing for years. 

This is not just a recent Western import or “innovation“, as conservative Muslims might believe. In fact, the history of the region where beer and wine were probably invented shows that most societies there have a long track record of falling off the wagon. The prominent 19th-century orientalist Edward William Lane – famous for his incredibly observant if somewhat condescending book, Manners and Customs of the Modern Egyptians – provides, in one of his lesser-known works, some fascinating details about the drinking habits of Egyptians. 

“From the conversations and writings of Arabs,” he notes, “drinking wine in private and by select parties is far from being uncommon among modern Muslims.” Lane also alludes to the fact that boozing was even more common in earlier centuries, before the introduction of tobacco and coffee as substitutes. Interestingly, the Arabic word for coffee, from which the English word derives, originally meant “wine”. That’s something to mull over while sipping on your morning caffeine shot. 

There is plenty of historical evidence to back Lane’s assertion. Numerous prominent Muslims throughout the ages drank alcohol. Even caliphs, such as the Abbasid ruler Haroun al-Rashid of One Thousand and One Nights fame, were reputed to indulge, despite their title of “commanders of the faithful”. 

Alcohol has played so prominent a role in Islamic history that many aspects of its various cultures and societies were formed under the influence, so to speak. This is evident not only in the starring (or should that be staggering?) role that booze has played over the decades on the silver screen, but also in traditional poetry and song.

Pre-Islamic Arabic poetry is famous for its odes to wine, known as khamariyat, and this tradition continued into the Islamic era. Take Abu Nuwas, Haroun al-Rashid’s camp court poet. In addition to his homoerotic ghazal, he penned endless verse in praise of wine. 

Although he was considered to be the greatest Arab poet ever during his lifetime, Nuwas has fallen out of favour with the modern Muslim reader. But he is not alone in talking up the virtues of drink. The celebrated poet and polymath Omar Khayyám wrote extensively about wine and love, as did the legendary Sufi mystic Rumi.

Modern-day puritans will argue that Khayyám and Rumi used wine and drunkenness as a metaphor for spiritual intoxication. But there’s no reason why their poetry should not be read both literally and figuratively, as mystics have long used alcohol (after all, we do use the term “spirit” to describe some drinks) and other drugs to alter their consciousness in pursuit of the divine.

The relatively relaxed attitude to alcohol in the earlier centuries of Islam may have been due to doubts, in the days before the religion had hardened into rigid orthodoxy, as to whether the Qur’an actually prohibits the consumption of alcohol or merely recommends moderation and/or abstinence. Some hadith (traditions of the prophet) even suggest that Muhammad may have actually drunk mildly alcoholic beverages.

Regardless of whether this is the case or not, devout Muslims have every right to consider alcohol haraam and not part of Islam the religion. But they must also accept that alcohol has always been an integral and largely tolerated aspect of Islamic culture.

This article first appeared in The Guardian’s Comment is Free section on 8 October 2011. The related discussion can be viewed here.

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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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Not so simply red

 
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By Christian Nielsen

The Simply Red lead singer’s admission that he slept with thousands of women shatters one longstanding ginger stereotype, but discrimination against redheads goes way back.

10 December 2010

“A red-headed man,” Simply Red’s lead singer Mick Hucknall told the Guardian last week, “is not generally considered to be a sexual icon.” But he admits to bedding severalwomen  a day during a three-year, well, purple patch between 1985 and 1987.

Married now with a young daughter, the 50-year-old singer is doing some soul searching, and perhaps a bit of guilt purging while he’s at it.  He regrets the philandering and admits to getting caught up in the pop-star lifestyle.

“When I had the fame, it went crazy,” he said. “I was living the dream and my only regret is that I hurt some really good girls.”

Hucknall describes his sexual adventures as an addiction, a surrogate for the love of his mother who abandoned him at a young age. But the story here is not the middle-aged fading pop singer who gets the girls – truck loads of them – but that the oft-maligned gingers of this world really are something special.

Hucknall’s revelation has inspired me to follow up a story idea I had about what it means to be a redhead. Red hair appears in people with two copies of a recessive gene on chromosome 16 which causes a mutation in the MC1R protein. According to our friend Wikipedia, it is associated with fair skin, lighter eye colour and sensitivity to ultraviolet light. Cultural and societal reactions to the simple fact of having red hair range from ridicule to admiration.

Different is as different does

Delving a little deeper, I confirmed my suspicion that gingers really are super-human – though not in a red-cape kind of way. They apparently have different tolerance and sensitivity to pain than the rest of us mere mortals.

Research suggests that while people with red hair are more sensitive to thermal pain – something to do with lower levels of vitamin K – they are less sensitive to pain coming from multiple modalities, including “noxious stimuli such as electrically induced pain”. It has also been found that people with red hair respond to anesthetic and analgesics differently.

[Can you picture a battery of redheads hooked up to the mains for a series of lab tests  followed by hits of morphine? No. Okay, just me then.]

The scientists put this unexpected relationship between hair colour and pain tolerance down to a genetic mutation in a hormone receptor that responds to melanocyte-stimulating hormone (the skin pigmentation hormone) and endorphins (pain-relieving hormone), and possibly others. This doesn’t mean redheads are mutants. We all have mutations (genetic or other) which give us our physical characteristics, like curly hair. [Mick Hucknall got the double-whammy mutation of red, curly hair.]

The number of talented ginger sportsmen and women belies the total number of redheads in the world – estimated at 1-2 % but as high as 6% in northern and western European populations. What separates the top 10 from the many others trying to make it in top-level sports is not necessarily raw talent. It boils down to mental strength and physical endurance or the ability to fight through pain and recover fast.

It’s pure speculation on my part, but the super-human pain tolerance trick could be useful in today’s physically demanding sports regimes [I’d be happy for the more scientific readers out there to blow this out of the water].

Fascination and prejudice

Red hair has had it’s good and bad times in history. During the reign of Elizabeth I, it was quite fashionable and regal to be a redhead. Many painters have depicted their red-headed women as alluring subjects in the vein of Botticelli’s The Birth of Venus and Titian’s red ladies, which were so prevalent the term titian stuck for redheads.

But the redheaded were less favoured by history.  In the Middle Ages, red hair was thought to be a mark of what’s been described as beastly sexual desire and of unearthly beings. The Brothers Grimm speak of a savage red-haired man in Der Eisenhans, while other fables and stories attribute red and green eyes to be the mark of a witch, werewolf or vampire.

In Gulliver’s Travels, Jonathan Swift paints the redhead in Hucknallesque terms: “It is observed that the red-haired of both sexes are more libidinous and mischievous than the rest, whom yet they much exceed in strength and activity.”

Even today, you’ll hear a comment or aspersion almost every day in the media, with terms like ‘ginge’ and carrot-top aimed squarely at the hapless redhead. It’s like a long-running joke perhaps going all the way back to English resentment of the Celts (red hair is more prevalent in Ireland and Scotland) following centuries of independence battles. Again, this is all pure speculation.

It seems even with modern science on their side, the myths, lies and prejudices directed at redheads will not go away. Any wonder they’ve got such fiery tempers!

This article is published here with the author’s permission. ©Christian Nielsen. All rights reserved.

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Why doesn’t God use Faithbook?

 
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By Khaled Diab

If God wants to reach out to humanity, why rely on prophets and scripture when he presumably has the power to connect with each of us directly?

3 September 2010

An article I recently read posits that, even if we were able to create a foolproof experiment to prove the existence of God, it would not only spell the end of atheism, but also of Christianity (and I presume the same applies to the other monotheistic religions), because without faith there can be no religion.

But do we really need to wait for God to rear his divine face to lay to rest the spectre of religion? For the sceptics among us, this is figuratively a doomsday scenario, as we would have to live with our doubts until the Day of Reckoning comes, which we, of course, highly suspect won’t arrive, leaving us stuck in a sort of secular purgatory for all eternity.

But it strikes me that we’re asking the wrong question here. God may prove to be an impossible hypothesis to (dis)prove, but the same does not apply to faith itself. I believe we can test the veracity of religion, especially religious scripture which claims to be divinely inspired or even revealed.  So, here is my own modest attempt to test run religion and show that it is not worthy of our faith.

God, the author, or humanity, the ghost writer?

The holy books of the three Abrahamic faiths all claim divine authorship, or at the very least, divine inspiration. But if scripture contains the word of God (or his son), why do the monotheistic religious texts show such clear signs of human authorship and contain a recycled mix of older, often polytheistic, myths and legends (Sumerian, Persian, Egyptian, etc.)?

Moreover, if the message in scripture, like the Supreme Being, is timeless and for all time, why do they teach us values and standards that we would, otherwise, find reprehensible and unacceptable, such as slavery (in Judaism, Christianity and Islam), the subjugation of women, the slaughtering of your (read God’s) enemies?

In defending religion, many believers will argue that scripture appeared in the context of a different time and place and, so, not all of it is binding in the modern context. But if we go down the road of selectively choosing which articles of faith to hold on it, what’s to stop us from ditching it all and starting from scratch to create something more appropriate?

Similarly, scripture contradicts so many scientifically proven facts – and contradicts itself, such as in the case of the creation of the world in Genesis I and Genesis II – that it would cast serious doubt on God’s knowledge of the Universe he reportedly created.

Scripture v Faithbook

The Abrahamic tradition of religion is founded on the dual pillars of message (in the form of scripture) and messenger (in the form of prophets and even the son of God). The most fundamental question this raises is: what is the point of this?

If God is omnipotent and omnipresent, surely he could conjure up more imaginative and effective ways to communicate with his creations. As any good communicator knows, messages are often distorted or corrupted in their transmission. So, what better way to avoid confusion than to drop outdated and outmoded scriptures and communicate with each of us directly?

After all, we humble humans already possess the technology, if it were universally distributed, to communicate with everyone on the planet, and social networking sites already boast hundreds of millions of users. So, why can’t God use his omni-powers to create some sort of interactive interface, a sort of Faithbook, to talk to every human? I’m sure he’d have billions of friends (or should that be worshippers?) if he did.

Some might say that God doesn’t have the time to waste on this, but I thought he had all the time in the Universe. Others might argue that this world is a test of our faith and, by revealing himself to each of us, God would be making it too easy. Well, Adam and Eve lived by God’s side and still they disobeyed him – that’s the beauty of free will.

Besides, as they stand, the Abrahamic religions are exclusive clubs that only save those who belong to them. If God is as just and loving as they say he is, then surely he would want to offer all humanity an equal shot at salvation. By addressing us individually, God would be doing the ultimate to empower and enfranchise his creations – not to mention, hold us accountable – and to democratise religion.

Raise prophets by cutting out the middlemen

As purportedly the ultimate proponent of equality, God should not be elevating some humans above others. Yet, between us and him, he has elevated prophets and clergy. If God’s prophets are meant to be role models to us all, why are so many of them such unpleasant characters or commit acts which would otherwise be regarded as reprehensible, or at the very least unacceptable: stealing from neighbours, committing war crimes, sexually coercing women and killing their husbands, committing incest, marrying children, murdering siblings, and much more.

And even though many prophets had commendable attributes, they were human and are, hence, fallible, so it is best that God cut out these middlemen – and they are always men.

Humanity’s forgotten half

The human race is, more or less, evenly divided between men and women. Despite the insistence of religious modernisers and reformers that God is an equal opportunities creator, scripture seems to place men consistently a cut above women, and demands that women obey men.

Right from the word go, Genesis informs us that Adam was created first and Eve was fashioned out of his rib (or simply created after him, according to the Islamic version). Not only is this creation myth totally unscientific, it also makes no symbolic sense. With the human reproductive functions being what they are, one would expect that, if anyone were to come second, Adam would follow Eve. Even at the molecular level, we see that two X chromosomes result in a female, while an X and a Y chromosome result in a male, which might suggest that the male gender is more ambiguous than the female.

To add insult to injury, Eve leads Adam astray by convincing him to eat from the forbidden Tree of Knowledge. In the Islamic version, they are both blamed equally but, still, there are numerous passages in the Qur’an which stress the inferior status of women. For example, Surat al-Nisa (Verse on Women) informs us quite explicitly that: “Men are the protectors and maintainers of women, because God has given the one more (strength) than the other, and because they support them from their means. Therefore, the righteous women are devoutly obedient, and guard in (the husband’s) absence what God would have them guard.”

This raises the question of why God is such a macho, especially considering that there’s little actual difference between the two genders, and women have consistently proven themselves men’s equals in all walks of life. If, as scripture seems to suggest, women are so much more imperfect and fallible than men, why on earth did the Supreme Being bother to create them? Couldn’t he have just made humanity asexual? Or could it be because it was man who created God in his image, rather than the other way around?

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Do no haram

 
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By Khaled Diab

A new search engine claims to filter out ‘haram’ (sinful) content for the faithful. Should non-believers now demand their own version – let’s call it Godpile – that blocks religious content?

10 September 2009

We live in tough times for the faithful, for vice has gone virtual and a worldwide web of sin has been weaved online. The fleshpods of the internet make the fleshpots of Egypt seem tame in comparison, and all the godlessness online would make the throne in heaven shake in rage.

Luckily, some good Samaritans have come to the rescue. A few months ago, a group of Orthodox rabbis launched Koogle, the kosher search engine.

Perhaps not to be outdone, a Muslim equivalent has also just been launched in time for Ramadan, a time when virtuousness is an extra-special virtue.  I’mHalal claims to filter out haram or sinful content, and may soon promote halal or virtuous content through special widgets.

“Our goal is to create a safe environment for Muslims to search the worldwide web,” said the search engine’s creator Reza Sardeha, an Iranian-Kuwaiti based in the Netherlands. In addition to blocking sexually explicit content, I’mHalal is also progressively excluding content deemed to be haram by selected Islamic scholars.

Secular and progressive Muslims are not amused. “Muslims are not children. What’s the point of free will if someone else always decides for you what’s right and what’s wrong?” believes Mona Eltahawy, an Egyptian journalist based in New York.

Even some devout Muslims find it objectionable. “Two words I’m absolutely sick of: halal and shari’a – and coming from a practicing Muslim that’s saying something. One more Halal invention and I’m converting to Scientology,” said one commenter on Facebook discussion.

Despite the protests that this amounts to censorship, Sardeha insists that: “We have absolutely no intention of being a dictatorial search engine” and that I’mHalal is not intended to be a “political censor”.

But determining what is sinful is no easy feat. Halal, like its cousin kosher, is pretty straightforward when it comes to diet. The overwhelming majority of Muslims accept that eating pork and drinking alcohol is haram (sinful). Of course, many are willing to run the risk of divine retribution (“vengeance will be wine”?) to savour the joys of intoxication, but even if a flying pig landed beside them on a desert island, they might well not eat it.

However, beyond the bread-and-butter issue of food, determining what is halal is wrought with difficulty. In fact, it could spark a theological controversy and force this search engine, which is currently targeted at “moderate Muslims”, to install varying levels of virtue and vice.

For instance, like Judaism, the strictest interpretations of Islam ban “graven images”, not to mention poetry and song. Should an Islamic search engine, then, block YouTube, TV channels and all embedded images on a page?

How about non-halal views? Should a search engine like this not return results that contradict Islamic orthodoxy, are critical of Islam, or advocate atheism? Although I understand why people adhere to a faith and take a more nuanced view of religion than many other non-believers, I write plenty of stuff that would be considered haram.

Luckily for me and open-minded Muslims,  I’mHalal does not seem to have blocked my writings questioning Islam and religion, such as my guides to Ramadan for the non-believer and the drinker, or my piece on atheism in Islam.

Although I don’t like the idea of divine or worldly censorship, my belief in freedom of choice means I cannot object to self-censorship of this sort. The danger is that, once the technology is perfected, theocratic regimes, such as in Saudi Arabia or Iran, could force citizens to use it and block other alternatives.

But as the genie is now out of the bottle, at this rate we may soon have search engines designed to answer people’s spiritual questions modelled on the Ask Jeeves format, possibly named Ask Jehovah or Ask Allah. Since there seems to be a growing market for niche search engines, may be we’ll soon get one for atheists, perhaps it could be called Godpile, which blocks religious content. Personally, I wouldn’t use Godpile, just as I wouldn’t use I’mHalal, but there might be a market for it out there.

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Face to faith: Ramadan for the faith-challenged

 
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By Khaled Diab

Ramadan possesses a certain secular appeal but fasting requires the non-believer to square the philosophical circle.

30 August 2009

Summer Ramadans are the toughest. In northern climes, the yawning chasm that separates dawn from dusk makes the long, meandering days feel less like a pleasant stroll and more like an epic marathon. Further south, the days may be shorter and the hunger less palpable, but the intense heat makes the faster feel lost in a desert of thirst.

Although I no longer do Ramadan, the first time I ever fasted, when I was seven, happened to be one of those endless English summer days upon which the sun never seems to set. Muslim children are not obliged to fast and my parents thought I was too young, but I’ve always been up for a challenge. Besides, there was a mysterious and exotic appeal to those rituals which transformed life within the confines of our home, but hardly caused a ripple in the routines of the outside world.

That first day, Palestinian friends hosted us for iftar. As our mothers prepared a delicious Middle Eastern banquet to mark the start of the month, the kitchen became a torture chamber – teasing and tormenting me with an array of delicious, mouth-watering aromas.

The last couple of hours were sheer hell: it seemed that time itself had become so hunger-stricken that it could no longer function properly, and crawled from one second to the next like a snail on tranquilisers. All the adults commended me for getting so far and urged me to break my fast, but a stubborn streak inside me insisted that I would eat and drink only when the grown-ups did.

With practice over the years, fasting got much easier physically but much tougher philosophically. Ironically, I took up fasting in a non-Muslim country as a child and abandoned it in a Muslim land as an adult. Even before I lost my faith completely, I was never really a practicing Muslim: I’ve never prayed regularly, nor have I ever read the Qur’an in its entirety, let alone memorised it. In fact, fasting Ramadan – but not the marathon prayer sessions and Quranic recitals associated with the holy month – is the only aspect of Islam that I have ever stuck to religiously.

I’m not entirely sure why that was. Part of the reason could be the special spirit of solidarity that marks Ramadan. The short fuses, ready tempers and irritability excepted, there is the camaraderie, unison and communalism of the season, the festive air, like Christmas for a whole month, the enchantment associated with the partial reversal of night and day, the bubbling late-night waterpipes, the pre-dawn beans on a Cairo street corner.

More profoundly, another explanation could be that, beyond the religious duty, Ramadan carries a secular appeal. Praying would involve expressing devotion to a being – or creator – and a belief system which have always raised doubts in my mind. In contrast, fasting is not just a ritual for its own sake but is also about self-discipline, exercising control over your body and empathising with the predicament of the less fortunate.

But despite my secularised version of Ramadan, certain tensions between Islamic norms and my a-religious outlook were increasingly thrown into sharp relief. Could girlfriends and later cohabitation mix with fasting? How should I handle my fondness for alcohol? Did I want to be like those non-practicing Muslims who seek salvation for their ‘sins’ through seasonal devotion, especially as I did not see what I was doing as sinful? As a free-thinker for whom the questions and contradictions in religion multiplied with time – rather than resolved themselves as confident believers assured me they would – could I continue to hold on to an artefact of a faith which clashed with the reality I observed?

Increasingly unable and unwilling to square the philosophical circle, I eventually abandoned this last vestige of my religion because, in the end, I seek food for thought and not for the soul.

This column appeared in The Guardian newspaper’s Face to faith series on 29 August 2009. Read the related discussion.

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