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.

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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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How iSlam made the West cool

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

Friday 31 May 2013

Medieval Muslim ‘jamming’. Image: Yorck Project

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Follow Khaled Diab on Twitter.

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

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America and Europe’s real “homegrown terrorism” threat

 
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By Khaled Diab

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

Tuesday 30 April 2013

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The same question could have been asked about Lanza.

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

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

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

Follow Khaled Diab on Twitter.

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

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Tahrir Square: For the sake of the forsaken

 
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By Osama Diab

For ordinary Egyptians, Tahrir is now a terrifying black hole, but for its marginalised occupiers, it is a liberator from political and social tyranny.

Wednesday 27 February 2013

Tahrir has become a black hole for ordinary Egyptians but a space of liberty for the marginalised. photo: ©Khaled Diab

Tahrir has become a black hole for ordinary Egyptians but a space of liberty for the marginalised. photo: ©Khaled Diab

“Do you like what’s happening in Tahrir?” taxi drivers ask me everyday on my way back from work, which is near the world-famous square. Fed up with this discussion and my inability to make any “acceptable” argument prompted me to consider moving somewhere that was within walking distance from my office.

For someone who has supported the revolution from the very beginning and throughout its different stages, and against the various counterrevolutionary forces – the remnants of the Mubarak regime, the military and the Muslim Brotherhood – this period has been the most difficult  when it comes to trying to sell and promote the revolution.

Any frequent visitor to Tahrir will notice a change in its demographic composition. The face of this highly symbolic square and its surrounding area has changed beyond recognition over the past two years. Before the revolution erupted, Tahrir was a symbol of state might and prestige, with high-ranking police officers aggressively managing the traffic flow of cars and pedestrians through and around the capital’s most strategic spot.

Within a kilometre of Tahrir in every direction is the highest concentration of state institutions in the country. The monolithic symbol of state bureaucracy, the Mugama’a, the parliament with its two houses, a large number of ministries (including the monstrous Ministry of Interior) are all located on the different ends of the Tahrir square area. The neighbourhood is also home to some of Egypt’s oldest and most luxurious five-star hotels overlooking the Nile, not to mention the famous Egyptian museum, the Arab league building and the former ruling National Democratic Party’s headquarters.

How did this area of potent political power and tight state control descend into a state of lawlessness is beyond most people’s comprehension. Many Egyptians now choose to avoid the area altogether while others are curious about who occupies and controls it. The motivation behind the recent clashes with the police during the revolution’s second anniversary were unclear even to the most competent of political analysts and to opposition forces. It is a defining characteristic of a revolution for events to move faster than the ability of most people to grasp them.

Many of those who occupy and control Egypt’s most institution-laden area are the country’s forsaken: street vendors, homeless teenagers and street children. They have replaced the generals, the police informants and government politicians who used to be in control just two years ago.

Tahrir moved from being the establishment’s headquarters to an area that is becoming rife with anti-establishment behaviour. It attracts the homeless, including children, rebel female activists, homosexuals, street vendors, substance abusers, etc. The groups who were the most marginalised for different reasons have found a refuge in an area completely liberated from oppressive state and societal authority. The occupation of Egypt most strategic square kilometre is a reminder of a triumph of the oppressed over the oppressor. For the outsider, Tahrir might have turned into a frightening, dark, and dirty black hole but for its occupiers it’s a breeze of freedom manifested in the absence of unjust authority.

The changing demographic make-up of Tahrir Square has turned it into a different world. No longer does it relate to the outer world where the state is gradually reemerging and playing its typical role of trying to control and dominate the public sphere. While the revolution outside of Tahrir is mostly defined as its first 18 days, in Tahrir, it has no clear start or end. It’s an ongoing feud with the authorities, society and the state. It is the fight of the marginalised to claim, even to grab, their share of the public sphere.

The revolution is no longer a well-packaged commodity produced by the so-called “Facebook generation”. It’s no longer a unified movement of educated and politically aware young voices who are able to organise, brand, rebrand and promote the revolution as a “civilised”, acceptable and legitimate movement in a near-Utopian setting.

Some people’s dislike of the current Tahrir occupation, and their disquiet towards its occupants, is partly classist and partly practical, because of the inconvenience to the flow of traffic they cause for commuters on their way to work. However, for the marginalised of Tahrir, this negativity is a proof of life, an affirmation of the viability and effectiveness of their actions. Unlike the Facebook revolutionaries, Tahrir’s occupiers have no desire to please society or cater to its norms. Their struggle, in a way, is against the social order, and so upsetting polite society is something for them to aspire to.

The dominant and privileged classes of society have acknowledged these groups’ wretched existence for the first time. Finally,  they are beginning to ask, Who are these people?. We denounce and disapprove of violence but did we listen to them when they were peaceful? Were they given any other option to be heard other than through the sound of their stones? Is this in a way not our violence echoed and thrown back at us?

For the “Facebook generation”, the revolution and the occupation of Tahrir was a means to an end that involved a vision for a freer society. An integral part of their strategy was to engage the wider community and convince it of the revolution and cater to its socially acceptable norms, which is why the social impact of the 18-day revolution was rather limited, despite its remarkable political impact.

On the other hand, for the marginalised of today’s Tahrir, who operate outside the societal framework, the revolution is the end, not a means. They for the most part lack the skills and the social acceptability to engage with and persuade the larger community of the rightness of their struggle. For that reason, they don’t aim for a better world, but just a tiny square of the world where they exercise a degree of control and enjoy a sense of ownership, even if it’s over a space that is frightening, dark and dirty to others.

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Russia takes a “grown up” beating

 
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By Ray O’Reilly

The acid attack on the Bolshoi ballet’s director highlights the worrying spread of crime, corruption and intimidation to all facets of life in Russia. Update: reports coming out indicate that long-running internal strife at the Bolshoi may be connected to this attack.

Wednesday 30 January 2013 [update 19 Feb 2013]

Is no one safe from Russia’s criminal gangs and shady types? Kidnappings, extortion, bribes, threats … a litany of evil stuff that ordinary Russians face on a daily basis. Now the acid attack on Bolshoi ballet’s Sergei Filin puts Russia’s revered cultural institution in the spotlight.

Cut someone off on the road, fall foul of the police, forget to pay ‘taxes’, start up a rival business … or just become a public figure and you could well find yourself on the wrong side of a dangerous character.

What are the police doing about it? On paper, what the police are supposed to do: investigate, report and occasionally charge someone with a crime. But ask a Russian what the police are doing and the answer will inevitably be “very little” or “too much”.

It’s probably this kind of cryptic logic that got Russia into the trouble it now faces. Corruption, it seems, cuts deep into everyday life in Russia. I entered a search query starting with “Why are Russians …” and Google’s auto-complete function offered “so crazy and ruthless” before I had even finished writing “Russia”. The query results were illuminating. The top spot went to a Yahoo question-answer which elaborated on the Russian mafia’s turf battle with Italian-Irish hard-men in New York.

I then drifted to a story by Business Insider on why Russians use car dashboard cams to record “crazy” stuff on the road, from police graft and road rage to hit-and-runs. There is even a YouTube montage of some of the footage gathered by these ‘dash-cams’.

Russia’s former president Dmitry Medvedev blamed these problems on the “undisciplined, criminally careless behaviour of our drivers”, along with poor road conditions. The police also come in for criticism in the Business Insider report. According to Transparency International’s Corruption Perceptions Index, corruption undermines countries and institutions and “generates popular anger that threatens to further destabilise societies and exacerbate violent conflicts”.

Indeed, it is the sort of violence we are now witnessing as it spreads from business and politics into the cultural and arts scene in Russia – a facet of life you would not ordinarily expect to be dragged into the greed and graft cycle. In 2012, Russia ranked 133rd on the corruption index. “While no country has a perfect score, two-thirds of countries score below 50, indicating a serious corruption problem,” notes Transparency International.

According to the Organised Crime and Corruption Reporting Project (OCCRP), a Russian initiative, a big chunk of that corruption is by traffic police, which along with kindergartens and universities, was ranked by Russians as the country’s most corrupt institution. “Over half of the population surveyed who interacted with traffic police said that they had been asked for a bribe,” the OCCRP reported.

Transparency International sums up the trickle-down damage that corruption inflicts on a society where trust in eroded: “Corruption translates into human suffering, with poor families being extorted for bribes to see doctors or to get access to clean drinking water. It leads to failure in the delivery of basic services like education or health care. It derails the building of essential infrastructure, as corrupt leaders skim funds. Corruption amounts to a dirty tax, and the poor and most vulnerable are its primary victims.”

This sort of corrupt influence doesn’t seem to stop at Russia’s borders. Interpol must have proverbial drawers-fall of mug shots of organised crime gangs operating out of Russia. Rumour has it that the Russian mob is establishing a foothold in underworlds in major cities around the world, from New York to Antwerp. (Clearly, I didn’t ask Interpol or the gangs to confirm this!)

Culture of violence?
Read any webpage on Russian culture and you will be reminded of its rich history, strong traditions and influential arts, especially literature, classical music, architecture and of course the ballet. People like Sergei Filin, head of Russia’s Bolshoi ballet, are household names in Russia … hell, the whole world. In fact, he is not the first ‘cultural name’ to come to the underworld’s attention.

“[Filin’s] acid attack has laid bare the poisonous atmosphere that has gripped the Bolshoi,” reports The Guardian. “Once the pinnacle of Russian cultural achievement, the theatre has been beset by scandal in recent years. Even a much-vaunted reopening in October 2011 was marred by accusations of corruption and poor workmanship.”

The attack puts the spotlight on a wave of violence that has swept Russia’s arts scene. In the past weeks, several theatrical figures connected to theatres in St Petersburg and Moscow were reported to have been threatened or beaten up.

Kirill Serebrennikov, a director at the Gogol theatre in Moscow, went so far as to publish on his Facebook page the threat he received, which according to The Guardian story went as follows: “Malobrodsky probably didn’t tell you what we said while we were beaten [sic] his Jewish mug, but if you don’t leave the Gogol theatre then you will be next. Happy New Year, with new feelings. They’ll beat you in a grown-up way. Wait for it.”

With all this crime, intimidation and fear of everything from shake-downs to death threats, it is little wonder that Russians record their trip to the supermarket on their dash-cam. But the scariest thing about this Filin story – and the thing that inspired me to write this little missive was the odd phrase, “They’ll beat you in a grown-up way”. It says your life, our lives, are filled with child-like notions of fair play. Where a dispute ends in a push-fight or a shouting match and everyone makes friends after the teacher intercedes.

In this dark underbelly, there is no teacher to protect you and the push could be at the end of a shank. A juxtaposition of innocence against anarchy… with all the makings of a Russian realist novel!

[Stay tuned for more intrigue!]

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Half-baked rules that take the biscuit

 
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By Christian Nielsen

Half-baked rules about homemade biscuits say a lot about the sort of society we live in and undermine community spirit. 

Friday 25 January 2013

Good-will gesture for firies sparks up home-baked brouhaha’ is the title of a recent story in The Age, an Australian daily. It’s tough for non-natives to understand, or hell anyone outside Australia, but basically it means that the townspeople responded to the good work being done by fire-fighters during the recent bushfires by baking cakes, cookies and other goodies. It’s a tradition in rural communities to rally together, with everyone doing their bit to beat back devastating natural forces like fire, floods and cyclones.

But in this case, their effort … their home-baked goods were rejected on the grounds that they were not prepared in industrial kitchens. This is the ‘brouhaha’ part. Indeed, it caused a stink and the fire authorities were forced to apologise for being overly “officious”, as they put it, about the regulations and not allowing people to cook something at home to support the brave fire authorities.

In the end, the ladies of Bairnsdale, a town in the centre of the fire-affected part of south-east Victoria, were told they could deliver their goods to the cricket club where anyone could enjoy them, including the fire-fighters! ‘Ridiculous bureaucracy in life-and-death situations’ could have been an alternative newspaper title for this sad state of affairs.

You have to wonder how we got to this. So many people in Australia … the whole world … are overweight from over-indulging in cheap processed foods. Wouldn’t a home-made alternative be a welcome change? Apparently not. Regulations are regulations, after all.

The pioneering spirit of the ‘new’ world meant that people banded together in times of need. Minor as it may seem, every gesture, every bit helped. Thanksgiving in the United States, as far as I understand it, calls up this sort of sentiment. It’s all part of a patchwork of acts that holds people together – a common decency that we seem to see less and less of until a major disaster strikes and we realise that the institutions governing society are merely a construct.

Laws and regulations, governing bodies … all the intermediary players in a working democracy are there for a reason. I get that. I’m not an anarchist. But when these authorities, these itsy-bitsy rules get in the way of humanity, of communities finding themselves again, they are no longer serving citizens; they become self-serving.

Let’s hope Australia – any nanny-state under the illusion that ‘more rules is good rules’ – can learn a valuable lesson from the Bairnsdale bakers.

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The battle for the soul of the Arab man

 
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By Khaled Diab

The polarised debate over Arab women overlooks the fact that men can be victims of the patriarchy too and their identity is a cultural battlefield.

Friday 18 May 2012

‘Why do they hate us?’ was the controversial question posed by the Egyptian-American columnist Mona Eltahaway in the hotly debated May/June issue of Foreign Policy magazine. “Until the rage shifts from the oppressors in our presidential palaces to the oppressors on our streets and in our homes, our revolution has not even begun,” writes Eltahaway. “Name me an Arab country, and I’ll recite a litany of abuses fuelled by a toxic mix of culture and religion.”

Although Eltahawy’s essay is, sadly for Arab women, factually accurate and I agree with almost everything she says, I find myself differing with her about what she omits to say.

To borrow her own words, Eltahaway’s essay, despite the substantial space available to her, does not move beyond reciting a long “litany of abuses” without making any attempt to depict the complexity of the situation and highlight the grey areas. Largely missing from her analysis are the diverse shades of opinion and attitudes across the Arab world, and the very real gains made by Arab women in many countries, especially in the professional and educational spheres.

As a long-time admirer of Eltahawy’s journalism and activism, I find it hard to fathom why liberal, empowered Arab women who have challenged discrimination in every walk of life hardly feature in her article, though she does mention some who have resisted the abuse of “virginity tests” and forced marriage, or defied the Saudi ban on female driving.

Her loaded ‘why do they hate us’ question also turns a blind eye to a highly inconvenient reality for advocates of gender equality like myself: many Arab men and women do not regard traditional gender attitudes to be a sign of hatred, but rather of love and respect. In an interesting turning of the tables, conservative Arabs are reciprocating the Western interest in the subordinate position of Arab and Muslim women by setting up think tanks to examine the “oppressed” status of the Western woman.

Weird, you say? Yes, until you consider that many conservatives in the West hold similar views of their societies, as reflected by the recent so-called “war on sex” launched by many of the candidates in the Republican primaries. And I’m sure many Haredim women in Israel do not regard a “dignified” dress code or the erasure of women’s faces from billboards or de facto gender segregation on some buses, with women forced to sit in the back, as signs of their inferiority.

In fact, you could say that one major factor behind the patriarchal orders durability and longevity, which survives to some degree even in the more egalitarian West, is its ability to co-opt and condition certain women into accepting and even embracing the status quo and linking the status of some women to the oppression of others.

This brings me to another breed of Arab men completely absent from Eltahawy’s essay: those who believe in women’s rights and have stood shoulder to shoulder with women in their quest for (greater) equality. In fact, perhaps the first advocate for greater rights for women in Egypt was Qasim Amin who echoed Eltahawy more than a century ago in his The Liberation of Women (1899). “Throughout the generations our women have continued to be subordinate to the rule of the strong and are overcome by the powerful tyranny of men,” he wrote. “The inferior position of Muslim women is the greatest obstacle that prevents us from advancing toward what is beneficial for us.”

It would also seem that just as women have become a political football in the culture war between a hegemonic West and a defensive Arab world, it is my view that men have too. Western discourse, especially in conservative circles, tends to focus on the Arab man as a woman-hater or terrorist, ignoring the liberal breed of Arab men I mentioned above. Meanwhile, in a supposed bid to defend their culture against the onslaught of modernity, as well as to protect the patriarchal privileges they enjoy, conservative Arab elites talk up traditional gender roles and mock and demonise men who deviate from them either as weaklings or Western stooges.

Moreover, one factor behind the enduring presence of patriarchy in the Arab world is what the academic Deniz Kandiyoti called the “patriarchal bargain” in which the Ottomans, British and French bought the submission of men by offering them absolute power over women. Arab dictators like Mubarak have played similar tricks. As one Egyptian feminist put it to me: “If you can’t control your income, the fate of your family or the politics of your country, then you will try to control what you can, that is the private sphere.”

In addition, though women are the traditional patriarchy’s greatest victims, many men suffer too. After all, the patriarchal order is in place primarily to serve the interests of the top dogs, the alpha males, with the beta and gamma males often oppressed severely, as the beatings and rapes of young male protesters in Egypt clearly illustrate.

Traditional concepts of manhood can also hurt those men unwilling or unable to live by them. The gap between the regular Arab man, the “average Mo”, and the Arab myth of manhood is bound to breed feelings of inadequacy, because, in societies – where many women have become men’s equal and even surpassed them in schools, universities and the workplace – the chasm between fantasy and reality is a yawning one.

Moreover, it can leave impressionable men who hold no grudge against women and have no objections to living in equality with them unwilling to do so publicly to avoid mockery from their peers and superiors. As long as conservative circles continue successfully to equate female emancipation with male emaciation, capitulation to foreign powers and the loss of cultural authenticity, the quest for gender equality will stall.

What we need are mainstream, “average Mo” role models who demonstrate that believing in gender equality squares with being a man, and that empowering women also empowers men and society as a whole. And this is one lesson that the revolutionary youth in Egypt and Tunisia who have inspired the Arab world can teach over time.

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

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Striving for imperfection

 
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By Christian Nielsen

The subtext of the bestselling novel, The Imperfectionists, is elusive… But could it have something to do with the imperfections of modern Western society?

Wednesday 25 April 2012

The New York Times describes Tom Rachman’s bestseller, The Imperfectionists, as “nothing short of spectacular”. It’s a big rap for the former journalist’s debut novel, but much deserved. Problem is, I can’t work out who or what is supposed to be imperfect. Perhaps it’s me.

I guess I’m struggling with the subtext of the story, or perhaps there simply isn’t one. The book is really an ensemble of mini-stories brought together through eleven characters and their association with a declining English-language newspaper. The parallels with Europe’s own ignoble slide and that of the traditional print media are certainly hard to ignore as candidate ‘subtexts’.

Rachman appears to have erected a Dorian Gray-esque full-length mirror in which we – the reader, old Europe, print journalism… – get to see every wrinkle, every inadequacy, every (hidden) imperfection.

The Impefectionists is a splendid original, filled with wit and structured so ingeniously that figuring out where the author is headed is half the reader’s fun,” writesTimes.

‘Fun’ isn’t the word I’d choose to describe the reader’s journey, but to each their own. But I do agree that it is quite ingeniously crafted, and I love how each new character is parachuted in from the first words and seamlessly brought in line with the wider storyline before landing beautifully.

While I would happily reel off a number of other book review-ish observations, I feel more compelled to draw out this baffling subtext question. And after reading the feature story, entitled ‘The French Disconnection’, in this week’s Time magazine I get the definite scent of a lead.

Talking about the French Presidential candidates’ inability to connect with the country’s disenfranchised people, the article cites a “wildly popular” pamphlet, entitled Indignez-Vous! (Time for outrage!), written by French writer, diplomat and World War II resistance fighter Stéphane Hessel.

Hessel exhorts France, in particular its youth, to “recapture the spirit that fuelled the war-time resistance of the Nazis and mount a ‘peaceful insurrection’ against injustice, ‘mass consumption, the disdain of the weak and of culture, general amnesia and the endless competition of all against all’”.

The pamphlet basically rails against the sort of “populist appeals” not, according to Time, witnessed in half a century in France. One might equally say these populist – and in parts right-leaning politics – are not exclusive to France, as highlighted in The Chronikler’s spotlight on the far right. The economic and social strains facing Europe today embolden populist and right-wing rhetoric.

“What’s new and unusual [compared to the extreme-right rhetoric of the past in France] is that that rhetoric has become mainstream. In the process, it reveals a lot about the unsettled state of France today, a country that feels victimised by a changing world, economically stagnant and poorly governed,” observes Time.

To my mind, this statement could just as easily be applied to Greece, Spain, Portugal and lastly Italy, the fictional home to Rachman’s dying newspaper.

Founded in Rome in the 1950s, the paper rides the post-war internationalisation of Europe and manages to build a strong and loyal readership. But like its host nation, and arguably the wider region, the hapless paper misses opportunities to modernise and innovate. It struggles to find meaning and value in global society.

There is also perhaps a touch of irony in that the newspaper is owned and run by Americans – a nation that values and usually successfully capitalises on just such opportunities.

Could this be the imperfection implied in Rachman’s title? How can this band of outcast American journalists and editors strive for perfection in such an imperfect setting?

Let me off the hook, will you … read the book and tell me know who the imperfectionists are!

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The sacred right to ‘insult’

 
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By Khaled Diab

Jailing Egyptians for insulting religion and the military goes against the revolution’s spirit, and violates people’s secular and sacred rights.

Monday 31 October 2011

The revolution seems to have made the Egyptian regime very quick to take offence from all those ungrateful pesky Egyptians. In April, the courageous blogger Maikel Nabil Sanad was jailed for three years on the ludicrous charge of “insulting the military” – which is an offence only to our intelligence. The posts that got him in trouble include one in which he contends that “the army and people were never a single hand” and another that accuses the interim regime of “recycling the same old shit” but this time on a china plate – not to mention his view that the Coptic Pope Shenouda III has a “long history of hypocrisy with [Egypt’s] leadership”.

In protest against his sentencing, Sanad began a long hunger strike in jail which has placed his health at serious risk. Now reports are emerging that he has been moved to a psychiatric hospital, drawing severe condemnation from Egypt’s mental health community. An interesting blog containing Sanad’s determinedly outspoken writings from prison has been set up by his friends.

Human rights activists cautioned at the time of Sanad’s imprisonment that it set a “dangerous precedent”, and their warning seems to have been sound. Since the revolution began in January, an estimated 12,000 civilians have stood in the dock before military courts, which is more than the total number of cases during the Mubarak era. This is despite the fact that one of the key demands of the revolution was to abolish the emergency laws that make it possible for the regime to execute such summary “justice”.

Now Egypt’s civilian courts have joined the fray of Egyptian institutions making offenders out of bloggers who cause offence. Ayman Youssef Mansour also received three years, but this time not for offending the demigods of the military but rather for “insulting” Islam, “promoting extremist ideas” and “inciting sectarianism” on Facebook.

Unfortunately, the court gave absolutely no details about what exactly Mansour had written and my repeated attempts to dig up his writings online only led me to the empty shell of his Facebook page. But judging from other online content, which has riled pious Egyptians, I suspect that, though Mansour’s page may have caused offence, especially if it was atheistic, it probably did not incite sectarianism or fitna.

Although atheism can be just as oppressive as any other belief system if it becomes the official ‘religion’ of a repressive state, as the Soviet Union amply demonstrated, I’ve never heard of any member of Egypt’s marginalised, unrecognised and forgotten atheist minority ever calling for a ‘jihad’ or ‘crusade’ against believers.

For instance, many Egyptians have been campaigning for the removal of a controversial satirical Facebook page, which mocks religion mercilessly. The content of the page ranges from juvenile and absurdist humour – “If a prophet comes who declare ‘Aha‘ ['Oh Shit'] I shall believe in him” – to biting political satire and social commentary, but it is all rather harmless.

One post, citing God’s various haughty titles such as “King of Kings”, asks whether “God suffers from megalomania or is just the Muammar Gaddafi of the heavens”. Another post, mocking Mubarak’s attempts to hold on to power by ostensibly delegating his authority to his intelligence chief, Omar Suleiman, reports: “God has declared … that he does not intend to run for a second godly term and that he is handing over all his powers to the angel Gabriel.”

Though each of these posts gets dozens of likes, indicating that many Egyptians and Arabs approve of this brand of humour, they also elicit hundreds of comments, many of them condemnations and childish insults by believers, many of which are, ironically, blasphemous in nature.

Of course, I can see why, in a largely religious society, the mocking or deriding of the most fundamental beliefs people hold dear can cause anger. But trying to shut down such debate or jail those who hold contrary views goes against the spirit of freedom embodied in the Egyptian revolution. And even for those Muslims who do not believe in modern secularism, Islam itself has traditionally guaranteed freedom of belief for all. This is spelt out, for example, in the constitution of Medina and the long tradition Muslim societies have had of tolerating criticism and the ridiculing of Islam.

More pragmatically, it is in every Egyptian’s interest to scrap the vague legislation that outlaws the “ridiculing or insulting” of any of the Abrahamic faiths. Though the law appears to accord all Egyptians equal rights, this is only the case if we assume that all Egyptians are Muslims, Christians or Jews – but there are those who belong to other religions or none. Then there are those with alternative, more liberal interpretations of their faith, such as academics, novelists and film-makers who have had cases brought against them by Islamists. And not only is this vague law a gift to ultra-conservative Islamists, it was also thoroughly exploited by the former regime to silence its critics.

And far from preventing the fitna the law is apparently designed to do, it may actually stoke the fires of sectarianism and division by creating a new battleground in the courts. This can be seen in how some conservative Christians have taken the Islamists’ lead and are, too, bringing cases to the courts against those they perceive as having defamed their faith.

And who is to determine what’s defamatory? In some ways the very existence of Islam and Christianity can be seen, at one level, as being mutually insulting to each other. After all, regardless of the respect Muslims hold for Christians and their faith, Islam ultimately emerged as a ‘corrective’ for the deviations that Christianity had apparently taken from the ‘true faith’, and challenges some fundamental Christian beliefs. Could that not be interpreted as insulting?

Similarly, Christianity still exists because Christians do not accept that Muhammad is a true prophet, regardless of how much many Christians admire and respect him as a man, leader and visionary. So, it is best for everyone just to live and let live.

The new Egypt must uphold the rights of everyone to believe in what they want and speak freely about their beliefs. It must also protect its minorities, not only Christians and Baha’is but also the officially voiceless but significant nonbelieving minority.

 

This article first appeared in The Guardian’s Comment is Free section on 27 October 2011. Read the related discussion

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Feeling Europe’s pain

 
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By Christian Nielsen

All is not well in the old world of organisational paternity, job security and economic rationality. But the silver lining is that we have millions of virtual ‘friends’ to feel our pain.

Friday 9 September 2011

As the networked society lurches from place to platform, and younger generations rail against babyboomer notions of working, saving and, indeed, living, very little of the Europe’s cradle-to-grave social paternity pact looks likely to survive. 

Greeks are on the streets protesting that austerity measures imposed on them as a pre-condition for bailout loans by the European Union and World Bank are crippling the small country. Those with an understanding of economics are claiming it will stimy demand and further hobble the economy’s ability to ‘grow’ itself out of the debt crisis that the Greeks have saddled their children with. 

Rational observers of the situation in other EU member states, but especially Germany, shake their heads in disgust that their hard-earned savings are being squandered on profligate states, in other words ‘lazy good-for-nothings’. But no one is allowed to say that for fear it stirs up the sort of divisions that in the past have led to fragmentations in Europe’s social order, and even wars. 

Portugal and Ireland have also faced harsh economic realities of late, but appear to have taken their medicine with a degree of understanding based on the thinking ‘we probably got ourselves into this in the first place’. 

Facing the ire of the world’s financial markets, the Italians are now also on the ropes. Parliamentary promises of sweeping cuts to bring the country’s bloated debt under control are being watered down by an ineffectual Italian government bent on safeguarding the wealth of the few.

Belgium, the place where the European Union starts – and perhaps ends – is not looking so good either, with markets starting to grow weary of the country’s inability to form a federal government which, as outsider’s perceive, is the only body capable of addressing the small nation’s own financial woes.

Britain’s got its own troubles, both economic and social, which largely coalesce under the banner of ‘what to do about youth disenfranchisement’. Well, more jobs and social mobility would be a start, so the chorus goes.

France, Holland and Germany are trying to pick up the economic pieces, while Spain is doing its best to put its own house in order. And the Nordic bloc are trying to remember why they got themselves into this Union in the first place – though Denmark and Sweden probably knew something by opting out of or neglecting to sign up to the euro. 

Friends like these

With economic stress, the usual issues of health, wellfare and social protection come under serious scrutiny. Younger generations, perhaps with the exception of those in Greece, are largely under no illusions that the systems set up by their parents and grandparents to provide a secure net and a way forward for post-war Europe will serve them equally as well.

Graduates and entrants to the labour market today are increasingly working on ‘contracts’ with minimal perks and protection and maximum ‘flexibility’, as it is no doubt sold to the X and Y generations who, according to Entrepreur  magazine, are sincere in their comittment to jobs but for a ‘limited time’. Employers, who perhaps initially lamented this new twist on company loyalty, are now spinning it to their own good. It costs way too much in most EU countries to hire and fire people under permanent work contracts, so this is a win-win, as they see it.

With this so-called ‘job mobility’ in overdrive – a euphamism for hidden, and even real unemployment – the contributions to Europe’s once highly valued pension and social welfare system are thinner or more fragmented, at best. And then the whole ageing European population argument pops up, which is a ticking timebomb for the current 35 to 50 year-old workers who are like the factory, the factory worker and vaccuum-sealing machine in the corner. This worker bee generation is struggling to pay for the babyboomers who are exiting through the gift shop, their own teenage children’s education and (potentially bleek) future, all the while hearing that the social contributions they are squirelling away may well be a dry well when and if they are ever allowed to retire.

Troubling as this all sounds, there is a silver lining … social networks have apparently got our backs. ‘Job for life’ may not be trending right now, but who the hell cares? We’ve friends for life, millions of them all over the world who ‘like’ us even though we don’t have a job or can’t pay for the next round. In fact, we’re all gurus in our own minds with more ‘followers’ than James Jones ever mustered.

We’ve got faster, better, ‘funner’ smart devices and no shortage of apps to serve our every whim. And there is the whole ‘future internet’ (which is, by the way trending) thingy that promises to unleash the power of all the data we’ve been happily putting out there, joining up stuff, services and infrastructure in a federated wonderland which has the potential to create new business models, more and even better jobs, and the ever-illusive economic growth. Yes, we’re in hommage to the European Commission’s ambitious Digital Agenda.

So, a message to all you belt-tightening Greeks, confused Italians, stoical Swedes, miffed Germans … you’ve got loads of friends who feel your pain, and that’s really all that matters.

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