Prisoners of our guilty consciences

 
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By Khaled Diab

The intensifying crackdown on the media and civil society in Egypt leaves Egyptians who are out of the country feeling powerless to help and guilty about the freedoms they enjoy.

Photo: ©Khaled Diab

Wednesday 11 July 2018

Egypt’s war on dissent, opposition and the media shows no sign of abating. Worse still, it appears to have intensified in recent months, ever since the run-up to the presidential “election.” Even the recent Ramadan pardons issued by President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi will barely make a dent, because what the regime giveth, in its caprice, it taketh away.

By way of example, several prominent activists and bloggers have recently been arrested. These have included included Wael Abbas, the prominent journalist and blogger who has been shedding light on police brutality and other abuses since the Mubarak years; Walid al-Shobaky, a PhD student who works at the Association for Freedom of Thought and Expression; labour lawyer and veteran activist Haytham Mohamadeen; former actor Amal Fathy, who was arrested on terrorism charges for posting a profane video condemning the dire socioeconomic state of the country and sexual harassment; satirist Shady Abu Zeid, who is despised by the security services for mocking the police, and Shady al-Ghazaly Harb, a surgeon and activist who allegedly posted tweets that “insulted” the president.

In addition, controversial and daring atheist Sherif Gaber was prevented from leaving the country, detained for several days and then disappeared into the ether, his whereabouts unknown. That is not to mention all those who have been arrested or disappeared that we do not know about, or who are not prominent enough to be reported on by media, or the banal and everyday intimidations, threats and harassment from a security apparatus that has reached the threatening levels of excess that only the threatened can muster up.

It is difficult to watch what is going on in Egypt and not feel saddened for the millions of people who, set free by a dream, rebelled against their jailers, only to be imprisoned in a nightmare. Rarely have so many sacrificed so much for no visible gain and such an abundance of extra pain. Yes, the situation in Egypt is not (yet) as bad as in Syria, Libya or Yemen, but you know a country is in serious trouble when it builds new prisons at a frantic pace, while shutting down libraries, where jails have become repositories of squandered human talent and potential, and where prisons are home to more freethinkers than the country’s academies.

The situation appears all the more depressing when you consider that it need not have been so, that the Egyptian regime and military could have bowed to the inevitable, instead of attempting to reverse the irreversible. I am made painfully aware of this reality from my temporary base in Tunisia, which now stands where Egypt should and could have been, especially since the pre-revolutionary freedoms Egyptians were able to snatch from the jaws of the Mubarak regime outstripped anything Zine al-Abidine Ben Ali and his cohorts were willing to concede.

The situation here is far from perfect or ideal, and Tunisia faces enormous challenges, but people are largely free to speak their minds without fear of losing their freedom. Even unauthorized protests are left in peace, governments come and governments go peacefully, political parties try to cobble together compromises and build consensus, and no leader is above reproach or being unceremoniously dumped by the electorate.

Tunisia’s newfound freedom has made it a magnet for activists, dissidents and journalists from across the region. This includes a burgeoning Egyptian community of civil society activists and NGO workers, some of whom gather together to watch Egypt play in the FIFA World Cup, their downsized hopes of a modicum of national success disappointed. One Egyptian who cannot return to Egypt has adopted the FIFA World Cup as a kind of substitute for home, every fleeting hope causing his spirits to soar; every let down knocking him down. “I wish we could take pride in something,” one Tunis-based Egyptian remarked following Egypt’s mediocre performance against Russia. This is, of course, only football, as I am well aware, not being a great lover of the game. But for a traumatised nation with its revolutionary pride shredded and mangled, and its dignity crushed under the boot of junta rule and growing poverty, it is also a lot more than just football.

“Tunisia is an Arab country that was on pretty much the same path as Egypt after the revolution, and so comparing the two was inevitable,” observes Ahmed ElGohary, who works at the Cairo Institute for Human Rights Studies, which moved its headquarters from Cairo following a campaign of harassment from the state. “Our presence in Tunis is easier for some of us than Europe … but it also accentuates the sense of failure. Any small news item on the radio or the internet about Tunisian politics or human rights reminds you that we could have also had the same space to work and engage in Egypt.”

When confronted with the levels of injustice plaguing Egypt, I feel compelled to use the freedom I enjoy to write about it and to do my bit to confront it. Beyond questions of duty, I have a strong interest in and desire to write about developments in Egypt, even if my years outside the country outnumber my years living in it, but I do try to keep up with regular visits. And I believe I have every right to do so. In fact, I am convinced that everyone has the right to write and speak on any topic they choose, and that they should be judged on their knowledge and abilities, not on their background or situation, and that is why I write about many contexts in many countries. In reality, the only times I have ever heard complaints that my absence disqualifies me from commentary is from some supporters of the regime, for my criticism of it, and some Islamists, for my criticism of their project and my outspoken support of secularism.

That said, writing about Egypt from afar presents certain practical challenges. An important one for someone like me, who likes to write about the human angle, not just the aggregate geopolitical, economic and social picture, is keeping abreast of what is happening on the ground and what people are thinking as individuals. Getting a sense of the mood on the streets is challenging when you rely on occasional visits and secondary sources, yet acquiring the perspectives of individuals is much easier from afar than it once was. This is not ideal, but writers in the country also face challenges, albeit different ones, such as the distortions created by Egypt’s highly polarized political and social scenes, with the heightened levels of propaganda they contain.

“Whenever I write from abroad about Egypt, I’m always afraid that this distance might have made me lose touch with the pulse of the street,” observes Maher Hamoud, the former editor at Daily News Egypt who is currently based in Brussels. “I always cared in my writing (both in Egypt and Europe) about ordinary people and their real-life experiences.”

This distance has led Hamoud towards an increased focus on analysis. “I find myself compensating for this insecurity in writing about Egypt by being more theoretical and analytical (also historical) in my work,” he points out. I have also noticed this trend in my own journalism, though this is also partly a function of becoming more experienced, with editors seeking out my perspective, and being more interested in the connections between various parts of the world and various periods of history.

There is also the drive to contextualise, to highlight that what is occurring in Egypt is tragic, but it is not unprecedented or a uniquely Arab malaise. “I make sure to relate to the ‘developed’ countries and their problems while talking about Egypt,” notes Jehad (Jeje) Mohamed, an Egyptian freelance journalist who is currently based in Washington, DC. “It helps eliminate the ‘othering’ of Egypt and eliminate the white saviour complex that we are less and need saving, and so on.”

Covering Egypt from afar also presents certain moral and ethical challenges. One is the haunting sense of powerlessness and futility. As a journalist and writer, one can attempt to speak truth to power, but what if power does not care to listen? One can attempt to tell the world, but what if the world is preoccupied with other things, or some of it is applauding what is going on? Writing articles and posting tweets appears barely to make a shred of difference against the tide of brutality sweeping the country, the region and other parts of the globe. Does this apparent futility mean you should give up, or continue with greater gusto? Is it enough just to write and speak, or is there more one should be doing? The Sisi regime, like many in the region, may fear the pen more than the sword, and so it prefers to silence or discredit its holder, rather than heed its words.

Then there is the question of guilt. In Egypt, we say those with their hands in the water are unlike those with their hands in the fire. “I get the feeling I am talking from a privileged position, even though I was kind of forced to leave the country and was harassed, investigated and threatened all the time. People sometimes call it survivor’s guilt or something like that,” explains Jeje Mohamed.

“I feel guilty because I was luckier than others and was able to leave Egypt at a suitable moment and to continue my work with the same organization. Most of the others were not so fortunate,” says AlGohary. “And this feeling is renewed and grows every time an activist or human rights defender is arrested or banned from traveling.” Carrying around a guilty conscience for simply having got away is a common emotion I have noticed among Egyptian activists and journalists who have left the country or been forced out.

Even though I am not an activist, I also often experience an involuntary surge of guilt when I learn of the latest miscarriage of justice, or carriage of injustice, in Egypt, and think of the courage exhibited by the dwindling rank of colleagues who still manage, against increasingly draconian odds, to report independently and honestly from within Egypt. While journalists and activists are being intimidated, stripped of their freedom and robbed of their dignity, I lead a comfortable and remarkably unthreatening life in a picturesque seaside suburb of Tunis, for the most part. My days are generally spent writing and reading in peace, interspersed with looking after and caring for our son, without having to fear a midnight knock on my door. This affords me the luxury (and it is a huge luxury) to think and express myself, without the stifling shadow of fear and repression to cloud my mind, and perhaps also to see certain things that are not as visible from close up, or which may be distorted by the constant barrage of propaganda.

With everything that is going on in Egypt and the wider region, about which I also write (among many other things), as well as the violent intolerance of dissent exhibited by numerous state and non-state actors across the Middle East, the dissonance caused makes me sometimes feels like I am floating in the tranquil eye of a storm, close enough to observe but not be consumed by the surrounding cyclone.

This distance protects me from the tempest, and my foreign passport offers me a measure of protection from the vengeful whims of the regime when I visit Egypt, albeit much less than in the past. This causes me occasional mild anxiety, as I am aware that the unruly winds could shift and the storm could sweep me up in its destructive, increasingly indiscriminate path. And if someone were to decide to bring me down, they have a wealth of material to twist against me. When I hear some of the far-fetched and ludicrous cases made against dissidents and critics, I occasionally wonder what kind of alleged allegiance(s) they may one day concoct for me, a writer who has always prided myself on my independence.

This anxiety is at it most pronounced whenever I am entering or leaving Egypt. Part of the apprehension is irrational, perhaps founded on the number of times my family was banned from leaving the country when I was a young child. More rationally, I have been detained or delayed a number of times upon arrival or departure, including one marathon interrogation session of several hours, which, along with the random exercising of arbitrary power, makes me wonder whether next time will be “the time,” and whether my fate might be a short stretch of indignity in an overcrowded cell or the long-term deprivation of freedom.

My low-level anxiety is nothing compared to the undoubted fear and pain endured by those on the frontlines, despite all the risks, who were stripped of their freedom, often in degrading and violent ways, for their pains. How must it feel for someone like photojournalist Mahmoud Abu Zeid (Shawkan) to have survived the hell on earth of reporting on the lethal dispersal of the Rabea al-Adaweya encampment (which I had visited a couple of weeks beforehand to see what it was like for myself) and, instead of receiving treatment for the trauma all this death and destruction caused, to wait in purgatory for a potential death sentence?

I admire all those who stood up for their principles, even if it meant years in the slammer. The iconic representation of this is Alaa Abd El Fattah, who has been imprisoned by every leader since Mubarak, and is currently serving a five-year sentence. I sometimes wonder what it is like to live the monotony of incarceration, to be deprived not just of your freedom but also of your freedom of choice, to miss out on the milestones your family and friends reach in your absence, and the undoubted heartache you cause them, and the gap you leave in your child’s or children’s lives.

“The day that they broke into my house and arrested me, Khaled was sick and unable to sleep. I took him in my arms for an hour until he slept,” Abd El Fattah wrote in a letter during one of his shorter incarcerations, in 2014, in which he expressed profound longing for Khaled, his son, and Manal, his wife. “We may be handed down sentences, in which case time stops for me and continues to go on for you for years, which means that Khaled grows up without me. This means that he will undergo many colds and will sleep away from my hugs for long.”

The letter betrays Abd El Fattah’s sense of disillusionment at the direction Egypt had taken, and reveals how he was motivated mostly by guilt. “The previous imprisonments had meaning because I felt that I was in jail by choice and it was for positive gain,” he confessed. “Right now, I feel that I can’t bear people or this country and there is no meaning for my imprisonment other than freeing me from the guilt I would feel being unable to combat the immense oppression and injustice that is ongoing.”

Abd El Fattah is not just a prisoner of conscience but a prisoner of his own conscience. “It is true that I am still powerless, but at least I have become oppressed among the many oppressed and I no longer owe a duty or feel guilt,” he wrote.

Guilt is a surprisingly common reaction among survivors of torture and political imprisonment, especially once they return to their “normal” lives, their trauma untreated and often undiagnosed, even though it makes little rational sense. Despite the genuine and profound suffering they have experienced, they often feel bad for the continuing suffering of others and cope by externalizing and contextualizing their own situations in comparison with those who are perhaps worse off than they are. This causes many to suppress their own emotions, with potentially catastrophic consequences, both for the individual and for society, as the collective, cumulative trauma builds up, unresolved and unprocessed.

“I never thought of saying or sharing my feelings because there were bigger stories and deeper feelings, which I thought are more important or bigger than my own. Other people had more than that happening to them,” one former prisoner of conscience was quoted as saying in a rare study of trauma among political activists in post-revolutionary Egypt, carried out by Vivienne Matthies-Boon of the University of Amsterdam. Other effects of the trauma caused by the state’s brutal handling of dissent include polarisation, dehumanisation, demonisation and the normalisation of violence in the community.

Perhaps this desperate effort to contextualise is a last-ditch attempt to cling on to one’s sense of common humanity, which imprisonment and torture seek to destroy, by expressing empathy with others, by resisting the ‘selfish’ allure of personal pain for the solidarity of shared suffering. The alternative is the abyss of desensitisation, despondency and anchorless apathy. “Now my problem is that I don’t feel at all, I don’t fear death, I am not afraid. Right now I am not afraid to lose anybody,” confessed one of the traumatised activists interviewed in the study mentioned above.

Those pushed beyond their breaking points often become desensitised not only to their own suffering but also to the suffering of others. “When I see someone dying or I lose a friend, I am supposed to be really sad,” reflected another activist. “For me now, I am very okay with it … which is dangerous, because I think humans need to be sad about it.”

This provides some insight into how the state’s extreme crackdown on dissent and the mindless violence it has unleashed is not as mindless as it first appears. In a variation of the classic divide and rule mentality, it seems to be aimed at killing solidarity and obliterating hope. The regime also erodes an individual’s sense of certainty and security, and the trust of others in them, through more prosaic but highly punitive measures such as travel bans, the freezing of assets or open-ended legal action that drags on for years and years. By corroding people’s trust in and sympathy for one another and their sense of solidarity, the regime hopes to avert a repeat of the millions who took to the streets in 2011 to 2013.

When I was younger, my mother often criticised fellow Egyptians for their apparent apathy, arguing that those in power do not just give rights on a silver platter, that people must demand and seize their rights. The idea is that, eventually, the cost of opposing the popular will becomes higher than the benefits of oppressing and exploiting the people.

But what happens when a regime, like in Syria or Libya, behaves totally irrationally and finds no price is too high to pay, or makes others pay for its survival, even if it ends up governing a smouldering ruin? Or what happens when the dear leader, or king of kings, or surgeon of surgeons, or philosopher of philosophers, believes that he and the nation are one and the same thing, or, more frighteningly, that the nation is a part of him or subservient to him, and cannot or should not survive without him?

In Egypt, the regime seems bent on turning this logic of protest, dissent and revolution on its head. If there is method to its madness, it is that the cost of opposition should be set so excruciatingly and painfully high that people will desist and no longer resist, believing that resistance is not only futile but will make their situation much worse. Some ex-revolutionaries got that message loud and clear, with quite a few becoming depoliticised. “I just want to be alone … You feel this meaningless feeling,” confessed one participant in the study cited earlier. “You just want to stay at home or to hug someone you love, that is it.”

I do not wish to succumb to apathy and indifference. Although I accept that my writings could land me in trouble and have made reasonable sacrifices for my principles, I have little interest in becoming a martyr without a cause. I do not want to become a prisoner, not in a jail cell nor of my fears. I most certainly do not wish to be broken. And I suspect I can be broken. I do not know whether I possess the physical, mental and emotional strength to withstand torture or the humiliation of political imprisonment, and I am cowardly or courageous enough to admit that I do not wish to find out how strong my mettle is — I prefer that this question remains academic and unanswered.

As much as I dream of and desire freedom for everyone, I am not ready to sacrifice my own freedom to the machinations of the Egyptian regime — at least that is how I feel now, at this moment, when the individual price in Egypt is so high and the collective rewards so negligible.

Better, or at least more effective for me, in my humble, unheroic view, is to be free and to advocate and agitate for the freedom of others, to live to fight, or at least to struggle, another day. In fact, that is one of the motivating factors that led me to move away. I left Mubarak’s Egypt not out of any material need; I had a good career as a journalist, and before that as a teacher. I left to expand my margin of freedom as a journalist and writer and to enlarge my horizons as a human being, as well as to think and write outside the box about back home. This has not just expanded my horizons but also my mission as a journalist, which now includes challenging the false assumptions, misconceptions and biases toward Egypt and the wider region, to show it in a human and humane light, to flesh out its ambiguities, because it is in the ambiguities that the human resides.

Those of us on the outside can use our liberty not only to campaign for the freedom of those who have been deprived of theirs, but to play our modest role in keeping hope alive in the wastelands of hopelessness through which so many are wandering and wondering, to help people dream of a tomorrow that is beyond the nightmares of today.

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The drinker’s guide to Ramadan

 
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By Khaled Diab

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

Photo: ©Khaled Diab

Thursday 21 June 2018

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

—-

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

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“Instead of protecting me, they treated me like a murderer”

 
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By Boštjan Videmšek/DELO

In the two years since the EU’s inhumane deal with Turkey, the plight of traumatised refugees arriving on the Greek islands has worsened significantly. Instead of refuge, they are being offered prison.

Image: ©Boštjan Videmšek

Sunday 18 March 2018

It has been seven years since the conflict in Syria erupted and two years since the Balkan refugee route was shut down and the EU-Turkey deal to return refugees arriving in Greece to Turkey was set in motion, which have led to a severe worsening of the plight of refugees and migrants. Last August, when the Greek authorities succumbed to pressure from Brussels and took on a number of duties previously performed by various NGOs and solidarity initiatives, the conditions on the ground have reached new lows. As things stand, some 13,000 people remain trapped on the Aegean Islands, mostly in what used to be called ‘hotspots‘ but have now been euphemistically re-branded to become ‘reception centres’. A further 30,000 are still stranded on the mainland, many of them for two years or longer.

The Greek authorities have been efficient at guzzling up the European funds pouring in as payment for having turned the country into a buffer against all comers. But when it comes to the actual aid received by the refugees and the migrants, Greece has distinguished itself as slow, sloppy and often completely unresponsive.

The fate of tens of thousands has, thus, been handed over to an incompetent bureaucratic machine, whose main purpose seems to be stalling things to a standstill. Its second objective is to repel the ‘invaders’ massing at the borders. But the refugees and migrants keep pushing in. Owing to the horrendously escalated situation in Syria and the Turkish crackdown on Kurds in Afrin, a substantial mass of people is again making its way to the Aegean Islands. As for Turkey … Well, that destination is currently safe only for the loyal supporters of President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan and his authoritarian policies.

***

“If you’re waiting to die, you can just as safely do that in Syria,” Majd Tabhet, 24, said with a rueful grin. At a glance, it was clear that the articulate and urbane young man had grown highly adept at masking his pain.

After a few hours of conversation – actually a monologue – I was left with the burning question: how was it possible for this young man, who had undergone all the dehumanising savagery of European anti-refugee policies, to retain his basic sanity? And how could he still bear to look into anyone’s eyes without lashing out?

Majd, from Damascus, left his homeland in the wake of the first year of war. On receiving his conscription notice, he realised he that he was absolutely against taking up arms. He preferred to risk everything than to start butchering his friends, colleagues and neighbours, yet he still could not quite bring himself to believe the country had degenerated into all-out war.

“You see, my life was barely starting,” he shrugged helplessly, during our conversation at a social centre on Samos run by volunteers from all over the globe.

Prior to the escalation, Majd had been following the developments in Tunisia, Egypt and Libya. He had been listening in on his elders’ talk, and many of them had been foretelling the tragedy. It seemed obvious to Majd that pent-up hatred was boiling on every doorstep. Unfortunately, the regime had been prepared for the ensuing wave of protests. And Bashar al-Assad proved highly skilled at learning from his fellow tyrants’ missteps.

Majd’s conscription into the state military was followed by a very similar ‘invitation’ to join the ranks of the Free Syrian Army (FSA). Fortunately, the young man had already applied for the post of a steward with a Saudi charter jet company. He hadn’t exactly held high hopes of getting the job, but his perfect English and his innate resourcefulness and charm had apparently made an impression on his future employers.

Instead of to the barracks and the frontline, he was relocated high above to the Asian sky.

“I was so relieved. I managed to avoid the slaughter. And it was a good job, you know. But I simply couldn’t adjust to life in Saudi Arabia. Being a moderate Muslim, I found pretty much all of it alien, intrusive, unnatural and just plain weird. Everything there revolves around faith and countless ‘special rules’ one never heard of in Syria. I must confess it had a very repelling effect on me. My ideas about Islam were beginning to crumble. I was tumbling into an identity crisis. My personality was beginning to split,” Majd recalled.

As had been the case with thousands of his fellow refugees, his asylum application had been twice rejected by the Greek authorities. His current fate was to await deportation to Turkey, according to the provisions of the EU-Turkey deal.

Image: ©Boštjan Videmšek

Majd has spent most of his stay on the island at the infamous Vathy refugee camp, where the living standards are even worse than those at the similar hot-spots on Lesbos and Chios. On the day we met, two days of incessant rain had finally let up. For a long while now, no journalists had been allowed into these hellholes of human misery. But I managed to enter Vathy with the help of a group of residents, who didn’t need much to persuade me of the outrageousness of their situation.

The camp itself had been set up on a slope above the island’s capital. A muddy creek was running down the steep incline forming the ground floor, with drying laundry hanging off the ubiquitous barbed wire. A thin, knock-kneed boy was sitting in the mud and eating what remained of his breakfast. Suddenly, a rat shot by.

It was a far from uncommon sight. The camp was riddled with vermin. But for the most part, this was the least of the refugees’ concerns. On some days, the camp’s residents needed to queue for up to two hours to get fed. Their tents were so thin they were only suited for warm and dry summer nights. In the camp’s upper section, where the unaccompanied children were being housed, the ground was strewn with broken glass and all possible kinds of refuse. The boys and the young men were simply left to fend for themselves. A gag-inducing reek was blowing in from what could only charitably be described as toilet facilities. Many of the families here were spending most of their time hiding inside the containers. The campsite was simply not safe, especially for women.

Here, sexual violence has long become the norm. Alcohol, drugs and vicious brawls are abundant. Many of the camp’s traumatised and thoroughly humiliated inmates were finally beginning to lose their patience. Their anger was primarily directed at the continent of Europe, whose bureaucrats had seemingly solved the refugee problem by turning it into a life-sized Raft of the Medusa.

Anywhere but home

In 2015, three years after Majd arrived in Saudi Arabia, all the Syrian employees in Saudi companies were notified they were to return to their homeland. Syria and Saudi Arabia had severed all contact. Majd had ten days to decide on his next destination. All he knew for certain was that he would not be returning to Syria.

Had he been foolish enough to do so, he would have been jailed – either by the government or by the rebels. During his three-year stint abroad, both regime troops and rebel soldiers had repeatedly visited his family to look for him.

Given that Majd only possessed a Syrian passport, he was not exactly spoiled for choice. So he flew to Turkey. He had managed to save up some money, but he was painfully aware that he would be unable to go home for a long time. He rented a room in a house in Istanbul, where 22 other Syrians were already residing. Many of them had just recently arrived straight from the battlefield. They were exhausted and traumatised veteran soldiers. Many of them had also been thoroughly radicalised. Having already turned his back on Islam, Majd found their company exceedingly unpleasant. Since so few of them had work, they spent their empty hours preaching their religious and political doctrines to him.

“‘Leave me alone,'” I would tell them. ‘I don’t believe a word you say,'” Majd would tell them. “So they grew hostile. Had we been in Syria, I’m sure I would simply be murdered. Fortunately, they didn’t quite dare do that in Turkey. I was all alone and very exposed. But I refused to pretend and go along with them. It’s not in my nature. I lasted four months among them, then I was forced to leave.”

Through his connections he managed to land a well-paid job with a private company specialising in airplane rentals. During this period, bombs started crashing down on the section of Damascus where Majd’s family lived. Tanks were invading the outskirts of his neighbourhood.

It was the first half of 2015, when countless thousands of Syrian refugees had already struck off for the Aegean islands and beyond … hoping to reach Germany and northern Europe. Majd’s family – father, mother, brother, sister – decided to flee for Turkey. They arrived virtually penniless. For the period he remained in Turkey, it fell to Majd to support them. They were barely scraping by.

Throughout this period, the serious and introspective young man kept exploring Christianity and ‘seeking out a new way’. Following his visit to a small Orthodox church on the outskirts of Istanbul, a gang of young men beat him for being an ‘infidel’.

At the hospital where he was taken afterwards, he was questioned by the police. The Turkish policemen added a number of their own threats to the bargain. Majd no longer felt safe in Turkey. He knew he needed to push on to anywhere in the European Union, which he thought of as the Land of Freedom and Democracy – anywhere he could freely exercise his religious beliefs and address as many complex issues as he pleased.

“Well, I couldn’t have been more wrong about Europe,” he confessed 18 months after his arrival in Samos, speaking in a quiet, weary, all but defeated tone.

Monolithic migrant masses

“European refugee policy, and especially the conditions at the reception centres, is stripping the refugees of all dignity. They are being treated as a homogeneous mass, instead of as human beings, instead of as individuals with unique fates,” Aliki Meimaridou, the woman in charge of a Samos refugee mental-health support project run by Médecins sans Frontières (MSF).

Meirmaidu had been working on the island since last November. In her assessment, the refugees’ living conditions are absolutely scandalous. “Housing them amid all the mud and the rats in these overcrowded camps is humiliating. It is also not safe, especially for the women. There is a great deal of stress, depression and self-harm,” she explains. “These people have lost all control over their lives. Here on Samos, all the international human-rights conventions are being violated on a daily basis. Everything is just wrong. The procedures for obtaining asylum status are slow and chaotic, and the bureaucrats can do pretty much as they please.”

But the hardships the inmates face do not end there. “Their mental health is getting progressively worse,” the Greek humanitarian worker was quick to add. “Severe new traumas are piling up onto the prior ones. Relief is almost non-existent. The local solidarity movement has done its utmost to help. But I have to tell you: our mission here ends in March, and we shall leave highly frustrated… It shouldn’t be our task to plug up the holes in the official refugee policies. It is an almost purely political problem. One has to wonder where all the money pouring into Greece is ending up.”

Aliki Meimaridou also explained how the so-called ‘hierarchy of vulnerability’ system has led some refugees harm themselves intentionally and even to a number of calculated pregnancies because they see how pregnant women are granted swifter passage through the hell of Samos. “All this is pure pathology. These poor, aggressively passivised people are afraid to confess to getting better. Why? Because they know it would surely rob them of any chance of obtaining the medical certificate enabling them to proceed to Athens.”

Too late for refuge

Majd Tabhet arrived in Greece on 11 October 2016, just over six months after the so-called Balkan refugee route was shut off. Although Majd knew he was too late, he crossed into Greece anyway because staying in Turkey was growing too dangerous.

After he undertook a perilous night voyage on an overcrowded rubber boat, the police threw him into a huge tent outside a refugee camp. It was raining, and everything was covered in mud. “There were so many people crowded into that tent. We were utterly devastated. Hungry. Filthy. They were treating us like common criminals. We were insulted and pushed around. I could not believe my eyes: this was how Europe was treating refugees? I couldn’t bear to remain in that tent. I escaped the very first night.”

And on that very first night, he was promptly caught and beaten by the island’s police. This left him thoroughly confused, which he remains to this day, in spite of all his subsequent dismal dealings with the Greek bureaucracy. His suffering, however, had gradually delivered him from all his illusions and expectations.

“I had fled slaughter and religious violence, but here they were treating me like a criminal, like a piece of garbage. I had to ask myself: why should I even apply for a Greek asylum? It was clear this was not a good place. And also not a safe place, at least not for me,” he said. “But what choice did I have? I put in my application and spent the next several months in that camp. Among the rats. In an atmosphere of barely contained violence. With absolutely terrible food and severe overcrowding. Amid all this human chaos.”

Majd tried to manage as best as he could. He co-operated with the local solidarity movement and the various NGOs. He put in many hours as a translator. He helped out the stream of refugees arriving at the island. He sought out a local orthodox priest and informed him of his plight. The priest lost little time initiating him into the faith.

Crisis of faith

For Majd, Islam was now firmly consigned to the past, and he started learning about the rituals and the basic tenets of the Orthodox church. Soon after, he was baptised. He arrived at his first asylum interview with a broken nose. The previous day, he had been roughed up by a band of refugees who saw him emerging from the church. After a five month wait, his application was turned down. A local lawyer helped him formulate an appeal. But it got turned down as well. Majd’s status as a single young male had stripped him of most of his chances. The first time he was turned down, Majd was shocked. The second time his entire world came crashing down.

“All I wanted was to be safe,” he told me with tears in his eyes. Majd had by then realised he was to be deported. He was sharing a tiny tent with two and sometimes three companions in a chaotic and very dangerous camp. The camp’s official capacity was 700 people, but it was currently housing at least 1,500. Last August and September, as many as 2,200 were crammed there in absolutely savage conditions. And fresh refugees were arriving all the time. Every other day, a fresh boatload of them was delivered to Samos. The situation on the other Aegean Islands was much the same.

The UNHCR spokesperson Boris Cheshirkov confirms that recent months has seen a steady flow of vulnerable refugees into Greece: “Roughly 40% of those arriving in this last period are children. Many of them are parentless. There has also been an increase in invalids among the new arrivals. The situation is extremely sensitive.” Cheshirkov also drew the attention to the severe overcrowding and catastrophic conditions at the reception centres on the islands, especially on Lesbos and Samos. The most vulnerable refugees are being transferred to the mainland. “The reception centres have become a dangerous environment for women. There is very little oversight of what goes on. Sexual violence is on the rise. We at the UNHCR have recently pointed all this out in our official report,” he explains.

 

 

A hundreds days of destitution

To avoid deportation, Majd Tabhet accepted his Orthodox priest’s offer to move in to the monastery for a while. But he knew he would not be able to hide for long. After a few weeks, he was apprehended by the police. This was during last autumn. Majd was immediately put in a small detention cell at the local police station. Over the next few months, he was to share the cubicle with all sorts of criminals and a number of fellow refugees.

It marked the beginning of the worst hundred days of his life.

Several times, Majd was convinced he was losing his mind. It felt like he was constantly fending off demons. He refused to be put on antidepressants or any other kind of medicine. He was subjected to the vagaries of his various cellmates’ fates. Apart from them, he was completely cut off from the world. His lawyer could not – or would not – help. The humanitarian workers were powerless, as they themselves were exposed to increased regulation from Brussels and Athens.

For a hundred days, Majd did not see the light of day. There was no room to exercise in the overcrowded prison. Sleep was very hard to come by. Hygiene was horrendous, to put it mildly. The food was a disaster as well.

Twice, the Syrian convert was transported to a different location. At one of those two detention facilities, the cell he shared with three Algerian men was constantly illuminated by a bright red light. It was pure torture. Then, one morning, Majd simply collapsed. He was taken to a hospital to run some tests. Upon reading the results, the attending doctor announced that sugar levels in his blood were in the potentially lethal range. She gave the policeman who brought him a good talking to. Then she wrote a recommendation that Majd should be released immediately.

However, the Greek bureaucracy refused to give in without a fight. Majd’s release certificate took 12 days to arrive from Athens. In the meantime, the exhausted and severely ill young man nearly lost his mind. “I’ve been to many places, but they only jailed me in Europe,” Majd spat. “Instead of protecting me, they treated me like a murderer.”

The words were pouring out of the young man along with his tears. “The whole system here is rotten, I simply can’t understand it. They had all the relevant information about me, but it didn’t seem to matter one bit. If I had lied or faked severe illness or lunacy, I would have long reached Germany. But I’m still stuck here. I’m not even on my way to Athens. I have fought, I have suffered … And now I’m completely lost, with no chance of continuing my journey. I’m trapped on this island, and sooner or later I’ll get deported to Turkey. It simply doesn’t make any sense.”

On any given day now, Majd runs the risk of being approached on the street by police officers who could either send him off to Turkey or imprison him again. By this point, he wouldn’t mind returning to Turkey that much, he admitted. The crestfallen refugee couldn’t find a single reason to sustain his faith in Europe. His life melting away, every day here seemed lost to him. Seeing that he was obviously running out of energy, it was little wonder his days were getting shorter and shorter. All he felt like doing was sleeping.

From talking to him, it was clear that the years of suffering had seriously hurt him. He knew very well he needed help. But there was none to be had, even from the God whom he had so feverishly sought out. “When you’re beaten to the ground, nobody will pick you up. Not even God. I managed to learn that much.”

From wedding planner to war photographer

Majida Ali, 41, hails from the vicinity of the besieged Eastern Ghouta. She spent years suffering in both regime and rebel prisons, where her body and soul were stolen from her. Utterly ruined, she eventually managed to flee to Greece through Turkey. Once she arrived, she was forced to face the entire spectrum of local bureaucratic savagery.

Before the war broke out, Majida was living some of the best years of her life. After completing her degree in economics and political science, she started a wedding planning company, which became a huge success in Damascus. For a time, Majida was able enjoy the finer things in life, turning herself into a minor celebrity in the process. That last part was to prove the engine of her undoing.

In the spring of 2011 war broke out. Majida had grown up in a military family: her late father had been a high-ranking officer in the Syrian army. Owing to her tremendous respect for the army, she refused to give credence to the reports of regime atrocities against protesters. She was also unable to believe the news of the sudden emergence of foreign fighters is some parts of Damascus.

No, she firmly told herself: such a thing was simply impossible in the Syria she knew.

So she took to the streets to establish what was actually going on. She took many pictures of the protests and the first tanks rolling through the streets of her home town. Frantically darting her way through the initial shoot-outs and bombings, she took in the first heaps of corpses.

It took a few weeks for the last of her illusions to crumble. What she found hardest to grasp was how perfectly ordinary people could overnight morph into cold-blooded killers… And how easily the old, repressed hatreds could be catalysed into outbreaks of collective lunacy.

Eight years later, no end to the lunacy is in sight.

Turning herself into a citizen-journalist, Majida set out to document the various forms of violence erupting around her. Then her friends and relatives started disappearing. After a few months, she was arrested by government soldiers. On account of the photographs found on her camera’s memory card, she was immediately jailed. For a month she was beaten and tortured. She became the victim of several sexual assaults. She could see people dying all around her from the wounds sustained through torture.

Majida eventually managed to secure her release from the government prison by drawing on her family’s connections. She knew very well she could not remain home. She wandered all over Syria: writing, taking photos and reinventing herself as she went along.

It wasn’t long before she was apprehended by the members of the Free Syrian Army (FSA). At first, she believed their intentions were honourable. But she was wrong. She was accused of collaborating with the regime and thrown into an improvised jail cell. There, the whole sordid tale of the regime prison repeated itself, until, as she puts it, the woman in her was eviscerated.

“During the five war years I spent in Syria,” she told me, “I spent about half that time in various prisons. It didn’t much matter if they were of the government, rebel or Islamist variety: the jailers’ approach was basically the same. Yet I also managed to learn so much. Some of the worst criminals had taught me a number of things. You know, I can turn myself into a regular Ali Baba.”

***

Before her final escape from the war-torn land, she was again imprisoned by the regime. This time, she was convinced she would not make it. The authorities had actually notified her family that she was dead. What remained of her relatives even held a symbolic funeral for her.

After all the violence and suffering, Majida finally lost the connection to her soul. Her connection with the outside world had been broken long ago. On 17 March 2016, she was released. The help of friends got her first to Turkey, and then two weeks later, here, to Greece. But she was too late. The Balkan corridor had been welded shut.

“When we arrived on Samos,” Majida Ali went on, “We were all put inside a closed camp. It was just one more prison. I can tell you I wasn’t myself at the time. I was profoundly traumatised. I even lost my memory for a while. I didn’t have a clear idea of who or what I was. I had no home left. I was so alone and vulnerable. I wasn’t at all familiar with my rights. I was in dire need of all kinds of assistance.”

Throughout our conversation, she kept flicking anxious glances at her cell phone. She was perpetually terrified of receiving a call from Eastern Ghouta and the Damascan quarters that had been bombed hard over the past few weeks. Ten days earlier, the regime bombardment had cost her another sister. Altogether, she had lost 45 relatives in the Syrian war.

Her three brothers were currently held in three different prisons. She had no clear confirmation they were even still alive. Her gravest fears concerned her mother, who, after the bombs had flattened the family home, had moved to a safer part of Damascus where she now spends her days preparing meals for four hundred people.

“My mother is my hero, you know,” Maida related, laughing and crying at the same time. “She is the only one I can trust. She tells me not to worry. She sometimes scolds me for giving in to panic – she says my time would be better spent improving my situation.”

Their refugee status is nothing new for Majida Ali’s family. Her grandfather had been a reputable Palestinian businessman. Fleeing Israeli violence, he left the country in 1949. He bought a large plot of land on the outskirts of Damascus and built housing for numerous Palestinian families.

“I don’t know, it seems being refugees is my family’s eternal fate. And the fate of thousands of other families from our country. Together, we are a mirror to the world. The mirror to all of us,” Majida observed. “Maybe that’s why I can’t bear to plan for the future. My very genes are aware that tomorrow my world could be turned upside down again.”

For five months Majida had been residing at Vathy, a 21st-century concentration camp and one of Europe’s human landfills. Once more utterly alone, she was again exposed to sexual harassment. It was her first contact with the continent of Europe: danger instead of safety, prison instead of aid, humiliation in place of dignity; bureaucracy masquerading as justice. It took 14 months after she filed her application for the first official interview to take place.

“It was a time of extreme hardship for me. I think it’s not that much of an exaggeration to say I didn’t exist at all. I made my bed here in the mud and tried to help the others. I got in touch with the local solidarity movement. I took it upon myself to organise a school for the women and children,” recalled the Syrian wedding planner, turned war photographer, turned prisoner of conscience, turned torture victim, turned refugee. “I tried to stay active. Every day, I work very hard to dam the flood of my poisonous thoughts. It is all I can do not to completely lose it. I’m fighting off my pain all the time, all the time… And I’m always steeling myself against the next loss.”

Integrating into the community

When we took a stroll around the island, Majida was cordially greeted by every other person we passed. During the two years she has spent on Samos, she has taken an active part in the local community, even if that community was so conservative it first refused to accept that Majida was still wearing a headscarf.

But things have changed. The derogatory remarks were much rarer now, and as for threats, they all but vanished. For the past few months, Majida had been employed at the Help Now NGO, where she specialises in helping refugees. The people here have got used to her, and she has grown accustomed to them.

When they ask her about the war and her own life story, she usually gives out very vague and generalised answers. She knows that very few people can comprehend what she has been through. And what she is still going through. She has learned to avoid a certain type of men. “I know those eyes,” she told me. “I know what they want.”

Her wish was simply to live, she added. But not on charity – never charity. She has consistently refused any form of monetary aid. Her aim is to live exclusively off her own labour. Until now, she has been successful at the task. Her driving force has become helping out her traumatised peers. She has no intention of returning to her homeland, now or ever. Her Syria no longer exists. Perhaps it never had. Perhaps it had all just been a big illusion, a sordid lie. In fact, this interpretation struck her as the most plausible. How could she otherwise explain that it all ended in such slaughter?

“When I was granted asylum, I decided to stay here on Samos. My friends and acquaintances weren’t sending me very good news of their stay in Europe,” she explains. “Many of them have been badly disappointed. Some of them have been broken by the experience. I, myself, decided to put an end to years of suffering. It was my choice: I decided to choose life.”

 

 

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The truth about Islamic reformations

 
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By Khaled Diab

Islam needs a reformation for Muslim societies to develop and prosper, is one of those rare convictions shared by both Islamophiles and Islamophobes. Tunisia has done just that: radically reformed its brand of Islam and established a vibrant democracy to boot, yet prosperity eludes it. Why?

This protester spray paints the question: “What are you waiting for?”
Photo: ©Khaled Diab

 Thursday 18 January 2018

Seven years after the downfall of Tunisia’s long-time dictator Zine El Abidine Ben Ali, Tunisians have been out on the streets once again, in one of the most sustained waves of protest since the 2010/11 revolution.

Paraphrasing the calls demanding the removal of the president in January 2011, the demonstrators of January 2018 have been chanting: “The people want to topple the budget.”

The 2018 budget fuelling public anger led to spikes in value-added tax and social security contributions and a planned slashing of the budget deficit demanded by the IMF, which will cause Tunisia’s poor continued pain. In a bid to counter public anger, the government of President Beji Caid Essebsi unveiled plans to reform medical care, housing and increase aid to the poor.

But the upheavals in Tunisia should, by right, not be happening, according to the received wisdom. Public intellectuals and media celebrities in the West, as well as many Muslim reformers, have been informing us for many years that Islam desperately needs a reformation. This would enable Muslims to shake off benighted Islamic dogma and embrace democracy, heralding an era of freedom and prosperity.

For example, more than a dozen years ago, Thomas Friedman, the guru of hollow, superficial punditry, urged Muslims to embark on a Lutheranesque Reformation to create “an Islam different from the lifeless, anti-modern, anti-Western fundamentalism being imposed in Iran and propagated by the Saudi Wahhabi clerics” – never mind that Martin Luther was a fundamentalist zealot and his reformation plunged Europe into generations of war and conflict.

Friedman also believed that America could expedite this reform process towards an Islamic enlightenment by bombing Iraq and resurrecting it as a beacon of freedom, free markets and democracy –  and we all saw how well that worked out.

Although American ordnance and weapons, unsurprisingly, set Iraq back generations, some countries have found their own way towards democracy and a reformed Islam without the need for trillion-dollar American wars.

Tunisia has, over the past seven years, built up a vibrant and functioning democracy, which has not only avoided the nightmare counter-revolutions and wars which have consumed other countries in the region whose people dared to dream of a better tomorrow, but it also guarantees an impressive range of fundamental freedoms for Tunisian citizens.

Moreover, Tunisia boasts more female representatives than the United States: almost a third of seats in Tunisia’s parliament is held by women, compared with under a fifth in the American Congress. In addition, Tunisia possesses an essential plank of social democracy which has been almost completely dismantled in America: a vibrant trade unions movement.

As for reinventing Islam, Tunisia has been doing that for the past century and a half, which has led to a distinctly Tunisian brand of the religion. In the 19th century, numerous Tunisian intellectuals and activists sought ways to reconcile their faith with modernity and science. In the 1950s, the government led by liberation leader Habib Bourguiba secularised the country and introduced a radical reformist personal status law which equalised the relationship between men and women and banned polygamy.

Fears that reforms would be slowed or reversed by the revolution have proved unfounded. Rather than Islamise society, Tunisian society has secularised the country’s main Islamic party Ennahdha, which has gone from an overtly Islamist platform to reinvent itself as a party of ‘Muslim democrats’.

In recent months, Tunisia has rolled out an impressive package of reforms which will have profound implications on the local brand of Islam, and perhaps Islam in other parts of the Muslim world.

Tunisia’s parliament pushed through landmark legislation to outlaw all forms of violence against women, from street harassment to domestic violence, as well as the scrapping of the controversial practice of allowing a rapist to escape punishment by marrying his victim.

In addition, the government has removed the bureaucratic hurdle that prevented Muslim women from marrying outside their religion. Most ambitiously of all, Tunisia is pursuing legislation that will grant women equal inheritance rights to men, which has provoked the ire of the conservative Muslim establishment elsewhere, including Sunni Islam’s leading institution, Al Azhar.

Despite this impressive political, social, cultural and religious progress, Tunisia’s economic fortunes have not kept pace, the treasure at the end of Friedman’s freedom rainbow has failed to materialise. The economy still grows, but more sluggishly than before, while inflation and unemployment remain high.

So how come Tunisia has not been able to cash in on its reforms?

In my new book, Islam for the Politically Incorrect, I offer an explanation for this apparent paradox. At one level, this is because reformations do not lead to socio-economic development but are, instead, the product of it.

In addition, religious, social and political reforms are what you might call the software of development, and Tunisia has given itself a major upgrade in these areas. However, the software is useless without the appropriate hardware. What use is having the operating system for a supercomputer when you only possess a punch-card mainframe to run it on?

And the economic hardware requirements today are exponentially higher than they were when Europe had its Reformation, Counter-Reformation and Enlightenment. Whereas back then, when Christendom was pirating the latest software from Islamic culture and competing to smash Islam’s monopoly on global trade, the hardware requirements, in terms of resources and infrastructure, were relatively modest, today that is no longer the case.

As a small illustration, the OECD group of industrialised states spent, in 2009, $874 billion on research and development. To put that in context, the gross domestic product of Egypt, the most populous Arab country, was $336 billion in 2016, while Tunisia’s is a mere $42 billion, less than half Google’s annual revenue.

And that is just annual spending on R&D. That does not include the huge amounts the West and other advanced economies invest in education, not to mention the generations-long construction of legacy intellectual and technological capital.

Gaining Tunisia and the wider region, not to mention other poorer countries, access to the phenomenal levels of necessary resources will require both a pooling of regional wealth as well as radical policies to address global interstate inequalities. In the absence of enlightened mechanisms for wealth and knowledge sharing and redistribution, we are likely to see the burgeoning of regional and global conflicts that may make the current upheavals seem minor in comparison.

Of course, whether or not democratisation and enlightenment lead to prosperity, they are noble goals to pursue in their own right for the sake of freedom, fairness, justice, knowledge and human dignity. However, if they do not deliver on the economic bottomline, these advances are fragile and can quickly be shattered by popular discontent and populist authoritarian forces. If human enlightenment is to survive, let alone thrive, we need global solutions, not local illusions.

 

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Israeli pilgrim in Prophet Muhammad’s house

 
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By Khaled Diab

A visit by an Israeli Jewish blogger to some of Islam’s holiest sites has stirred up controversy and anger. But should it have?

Wednesday 27 December 2017

A photo of a smiling man dressed in a traditional Arab thawb, keffiyeh and agal while standing in the middle of the Prophet’s Mosque in Medina, Islam’s second holiest site, has sparked online outrage among some Arabs and Muslims.

That’s because the man in question, who has posted his photo posing with a bag emblazoned with Hebrew letters reading ‘Ben Tzion’, is not a Muslim worshipper but an Israeli Jewish blogger.

Instagram, where Ben Tzion had been chronicling his escapades, suspended his account, he claims, and the account is, at the time of writing, no longer active, following a deluge of angry comments.

Under the hashtag ‘#صهيوني_بالحرم_النبوي (‘Zionist_in_the_Sanctuary_of_the_Prophet’), numerous Arab Twitter users expressed severe criticism of Saudi Arabia for allegedly breaking the Arab boycott of Israel, seeing this as a further escalation of the kingdom’s apparent attempts to normalise relations with Israel.

Some took it as an opportunity to spew bigoted anti-Jewish sentiment. “Umar Ibn Al-Khattab… expelled Jews from madina [sic] 1400 years ago and now Saudi government are [sic] allowing them back again,” wrote one Twitterer.

The incident became a battleground in the ongoing Gulf propaganda war between Qatar and a Saudi-led alliance which has laid it under siege, supporters of which have accused Qatar of being an Israeli stooge. The truth is most Gulf countries have been discreetly cultivating relations with Israel for many years now.

“You prohibit Qataris from entering it but you allowed your cousin, the Jew, to enter,” wrote one Qatari user.

Despite (false) allegations that the Israeli blogger was on an officially sanctioned visit and that the Saudis had knowingly let him enter, Ben Tzion himself maintains otherwise. Speaking to BBC Arabic, he said that his trip, for which he used an undisclosed non-Israeli passport, was a private visit, to meet Saudi friends he had got to know in college in America (on a previous visit, he had visited a college friend in Iran).

In a telephone interview with the Times of Israel, Ben Tzion explained that the visit to Saudi Arabia was part of a regional ‘goodwill tour’ which also took him to Iran and Lebanon, both of which Israel defines as ‘enemy states’, prohibiting its citizens from travelling there, on pain of possible but unlikely prosecution – unless they happen to be political dissidents or Palestinians.

This two-sided rejection might be the reason why Ben Tzion keeps his full name and current location under wraps. In fact, a source close to the Times of Israel informed me that, although Ben Tzion occasionally blogs for the online news site, nobody there has met him in person.

Of Russian origin, Ben Tzion grew up in the United States, where he graduated from Babson College, a prestigious business school, and worked in real estate in the Boston area – he holds American, Russian and Israeli citizenship, my source informed me.

“No one in the Arab world ever approached me with hostility,” Ben Tzion told the Times of Israel. “Among regular people, there is no hatred. I was in Beirut two weeks ago – there’s no hatred, people are friendly.”

This revelation will shock and dismay a large number of Israelis, many of whom, I have learnt through years of interaction, are convinced they would be lynched upon entering Palestinian neighbourhoods of Jerusalem, let alone travelling deep into ‘hostile’ Arab territory. This is especially the case among Israeli Jews who equate contact with Arabs as a form of betrayal and self-hatred aimed at the destruction of the Jewish state by other means.

But such contact highlights the importance of direct, grassroots people-to-people contact. It helps demystify and humanise the other side. While this, in and of itself, will not solve the complex issues at the heart of the decades-old Israeli-Palestinian conflict, understanding and empathy are vital prerequisites to eventual resolution.

Many Arabs will protest that this whitewashes the Israeli mistreatment of Palestinians and normalises the occupation. In my view, a distinction must be made between private, independent Israeli citizens and activists, and representatives of the state or members of organisations affiliated with the state or defending its crimes – and this distinction should be incorporated into the Arab boycott.

This does not mean that Arabs have to agree with Israelis or turn on the Palestinians. It simply means that they need to engage with Israelis and assist their Palestinian brethren in making their case.

Some Arab activists will counter that the boycott is effective and is working, as evidenced by the panicked anti-BDS legislations and activities of the Israeli state, including the recent decision to deny entry to a delegation of European parliamentarians and officials who had intended to visit jailed Palestinian leader Marwan Barghouti.

However, the limited successes BDS has scored lulls activists into a false sense of confidence. Even though Israel has become the subject of greater social and political opposition in Europe, this has scarcely made a dent in its economy and, as protection against possible but unlikely European sanctions, Israel has actively nurtured deepening ties with Asian and African states.

Moreover, the current situation empowers extremists, who increasingly call the shots, and opportunists, who take advantage of the chaos.

While principled Arab activists and citizens refuse to reach out to ordinary Israelis, the de facto Netanyahu oligarchical dictatorship is forging ever-deepening ties with equally unscrupulous Arab despots and dictators. And they are doing so not in the interest of peace, justice and security, but to further their own self-interest through conflict and war, injustice and insecurity.

Grassroots contacts founded on principles and dialogue are not simply about paving the way to a better tomorrow – they are also about sidestepping a worse and more destructive future from sucking our region even deeper into the abyss.

Another feature of the Arab backlash on social media was the rejection as somehow impure or contaminating the notion of a non-Muslim entering an Islamic sacred site. As someone who has entered the holiest sites of many other religions, I find this attitude bigoted and intolerant. While there are plenty of mosques, including the fourth holiest in Islam, the Great Mosque of Kairouan (Tunisia), which permit non-Muslims to enter, Mecca, Islam’s most sacred city, is the exclusive domain of Muslims.

This is completely unacceptable morally and counterproductive culturally and politically. Moreover, allowing non-Muslims into Islam’s most sacred heart would open up its soul to the rest of humanity.

____

This article first appeared in Haaretz on 23 November 2017.

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A US embassy in Jerusalem changes nothing and everything

 
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By Khaled Diab

Donald Trump’s announcement on Jerusalem changes nothing on the ground but everything on the horizon. It is the final death certificate of the peace process. Now it’s time for something completely different.

Photo: ©Khaled Diab

Saturday 9 December 2017

Donald Trump has recognised Jerusalem as the capital of Israel and pledged to move the American embassy in Israel from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem.

Moving the embassy to Jerusalem would change nothing on the ground, as America already recognises Jerusalem in deed, and even in words, as reflected in the constantly deferred Jerusalem Embassy Act which was passed by Congress in 1995.

In addition, numerous countries operate consulates-general in Jerusalem, which officially do not report to neither the Israeli nor the Palestinian authorities. This is both a throwback to the original conception of Jerusalem in the 1947 UN partition plan as an internationally administered ‘corpus separatum’ and a tool of convenience for diplomats wanting to deal with both the Israelis and Palestinians. In fact, some of these consulates-general are embassies in all but name.

Whether or not America or any other country recognises Jerusalem as Israel’s capital, Israel regards it as such and is pursuing that goal aggressively through a blend of policies. Immediately following its conquest of East Jerusalem, Israel annexed the Palestinian part of the city and widened its municipal boundaries to cover large swathes of the West Bank. In addition, the Knesset, the prime minister’s office and Israel’s ministries are all located there.

Recent years have brought about accelerated settlement building in and around the annexed municipal area, effectively joining greater Jerusalem into a contiguous ring suffocating East Jerusalem and splitting up the West Bank in such a way as to make a Palestinian state unfeasible To anyone who has spent any significant period of time in Jerusalem, like myself, the rate and speed of construction is truly breathtaking.

Add to this the various Israeli policies being used to squeeze or push Palestinian Jerusalemites out, such as the near impossibility of Palestinians acquiring permits to build, home demolitions, the revocation of residence permits, not to mention the economic, social and political isolation of East Jerusalem from the rest of the West Bank thanks to the Israeli wall and barrier.

On the Israeli side of the equation, American recognition will not magically render Jerusalem Israel’s “united and eternal” capital, and not just because nothing is eternal, not even eternity, but also because Jerusalem is a bafflingly dysfunctional and divided city, and words and wishful thinking will not magically change that reality.

Over and above the headline fault lines dividing Jerusalem’s Israeli and Palestinian residents, there are also simmering tensions within each community between the religious and the secular. This has got so bad on the Israeli side that recent decades have seen an exodus of many secular Jerusalemites towards Israel’s more liberal coastal regions, transforming many Jerusalem neighbourhoods into pictures of black and white uniformity, the colours of choice of ultra-orthodox Jews.

Although America’s recognition of Jerusalem as Israel’s capital changes nothing on the ground, it has the potential to change everything on the horizon. Jerusalem, after all, is at the heart of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and is a potent cultural and religious symbol for Palestinians and Israelis alike.

This is reflected in how the old city’s skyline, dominated by the Dome of the Rock, features on everything from pre-partition Zionist posters inviting Jews to visit or come to Palestine, to the calendars and posters hanging on the walls of Palestinians in Jerusalem, the West Bank, Gaza and the diaspora. “Next year in Jerusalem,” is a Jewish payer recited in the disapora for centuries. Similarly, when Palestinian refugees think of return, they tend to picture Jerusalem.

Not being able to access Jerusalem is a constant source of frustration and disappointment for Palestinians who live in the West Bank, some within spitting distance of the holy city, and in Gaza because they lack the required Israeli permits. The number of Palestinian millennials I know who have never seen Jerusalem or last saw it when they were very young. One young Palestinian woman who was attending the same conference as me when the announcement was made could more easily travel to Brussels, where we were, than the half a dozen kilometres from Bethlehem to Jerusalem, which she’d last visited as a child.

Beyond the symbolism, Jerusalem is a microcosm of Palestinian suffering under occupation and their dispossession. For a bitterly disenchanted, disappointed and divided people, it is also a potent issue around which to rally. Where years of talks have faltered, Donald Trump has succeeded in uniting all Palestinian political factions in their opposition to his move, prompting them to call for “days of rage”, with the Friday protests leading to sporadic clashes and the death of at least two Palestinians, in Gaza.

Whether or not this leads to a fresh outbreak of prolonged protest or a new intifada depends on many factors. But with an intransigent Israel, no clear and consensual vision for Palestinian politics and no visionary leadership to channel public sentiment, any coming wave of protest is likely to be as directionless and futile as recent waves have been.

Meanwhile, some fear that Trump’s decision will embolden Israel to accelerate its settlement building. However, what this overlooks is that Trump’s very presence in the White House has emboldened the extremist Israeli government, and this is not the first nor will it be the last green light the US president will give the settler movement.

Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas has cautioned that moving the embassy would have “dangerous consequences” for “the peace process and to the peace, security and stability of the region and of the world”.

Trump’s announcement has already brought protesters out on the streets of many Arab and Muslim countries, with some of the largest demonstrations in Tunisia, which is a bastion of pro-Palestinian sentiment and where freedom of assembly and expression are a protected right. How long such street protests will last and what effect they will have is unclear.

Moreover, it is impossible to predict what consequences this decision will have on an already volatile and inflamed Middle East. It could lead to a regional flare up and conflagration, as many fear and some even hope. But if it does, it will be more a function of already brewing tensions and longstanding grievances than this decision specifically.

However, it could also have no immediate consequences because much of the region is embroiled in its own problems and some, like Saudi Arabia, are interested in forging a cynical, implicit or explicit, alliance with Israel against Iran. What is certain is that it will fuel popular resentment, and with it hatred and bigotry.

As for fears about what this will mean for the peace process, I ask, what process? As I and many other critics of the Oslo accords have argued for years, the ‘peace process’ died a long, long time ago. In fact, it was still-born, partly due to its fatal birth defects and partly due to the events which followed. This latest move is an implicit confirmation of this reality by Washington, which has never been an “honest broker”.

It is high time for the Palestinian leadership to recognise this fact and to replace this futile process with a civil rights struggle, and to demand that the international community, especially Europe, support Palestinians in their efforts to gain concrete equal civil, political and economic rights, instead of forever chasing the mirage of a independent state for which no space exists any more.

—–

This is the updated version of an article which first appeared in Italian in Corriere della Sera on Wednesday 6 December 2017.

Follow Khaled Diab on Twitter

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Muslim women in short skirts and the Tunisia paradox

 
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By Khaled Diab

Bombing Afghanistan will not bring back women in short skirts, rather it will only empower men in short skirts (beards and long trousers). The path to gender equality lies in internal reform, as Tunisia demonstrates.

Tuesday 5 September 2017

While not quite the face that launched a thousand ships, a photo of Afghan women in miniskirts in 1970s Kabul helped convince Donald Trump to commit more troops to Afghanistan rather than to pull out of the unwinnable war, according to information revealed by The Washington Post.

National security adviser HR McMaster had wanted to show Trump that “Western norms had existed there before and could return,” according to the report. That the national security adviser would choose this means of persuasion and that the president would be convinced by it betray a profound misunderstanding of Muslim women, their status and how to liberate them.

Bombing Afghanistan will not bring back women in short skirts, rather it will only empower men in short skirts (and long trousers), i.e. the Taliban. Regardless of what an invader professes to offer, people tend not to take kindly to being maimed, killed and occupied for their ‘liberty’, which strengthens the hand of those fighting the occupier.

More importantly, Muslim women do not need American (mostly) men with guns to empower them. The reverse is usually true, as reflected by the worsening status of Iraqi women since the US invasion in 2003, which occurred long before ISIS came on the scene. In contrast, the most successful experiments in female emancipation in the Muslim world have been organic and internal, drawing inspiration, not imposition, from the West.

A case in point is Tunisia. In the cosmopolitan capital Tunis, where I live, you do not need to consult grainy black-and-white photos, women dressed in short skirts, shorts, sleeveless tops and tight jeans abound on the streets, while many of the beaches are filled with local women sunbathing or swimming in bikinis, who often share the water with their burkini-clad conservative compatriots – even if they do often view one another with mutual contempt.

Of course, clothes are only fabric-deep and are an unreliable bellwethers of a woman’s religious beliefs and of how empowered she is, as I highlight in my new book Islam for the Politically Incorrect. There are women who dress in revealing clothes but are religiously conservative and pious, and there are women who wear a hijab but barely practise their faith and are sexually liberal.

What is far more significant is the progress Tunisian women have made. In some respects, they are ahead of many of their western counterparts. For instance, abortion was legalised in Tunisia several years before it was in the United States. Today, almost a third of seats in Tunisia’s parliament is held by women, compared with under a fifth in the American Congress. However, despite being highly educated, Tunisian women make up a far smaller fraction of the labour force than their western peers.

While Tunisian women established an actual feminist movement almost a century ago and it has been two centuries since some Tunisian men started advocating for women’s rights, it was not until their country gained independence that women’s rights began to advance in earnest. Freed of their French overlords, Tunisians were finally liberated from the equating of religious conservatism with authenticity during the struggle for independence and could pursue a progressive programme of reform and modernisation in earnest.

Habib Bourguiba, leader of the liberation movement and the country’s first post-independence president, is often credited with putting in place the enlightened and progressive legal framework which has so benefited Tunisian women in comparison with their Arab neighbours.

But Bourguiba did not emerge in a vacuum, nor did he operate in one, even if he was a dictator. Bourguiba took over the reins of the nationalist movement at a time when women (not to mention women-friendly men) were playing an increasingly prominent role in civil society, journalism, anti-French activity and in demanding gender equality. This long tradition of hard battles and hard-won gains, underpinned by the foresight of the early codification of equality in law, can be seen today.

The received wisdom among many observers was that the revolution of 2010/11 would spell disaster for women’s rights in Tunisia, that dictatorship was the only way to impose modern secular values on a society presumed to be steeped in religion and tradition.

While a significant percentage of Tunisians are, like many Americans, deeply religious and conservative, the country’s founding vision has proven remarkably durable, despite recent economic hardship and the uncertainty of revolution, thanks to the robust activism of Tunisian women and secular forces, as well as to the relatively enlightened pragmatism of the country’s mainstream Islamist party, Ennahdha.

More impressively still, it seems that the cause of gender equality is progressing, rather than regressing – which would appear paradoxical, especially when compared to the much of the wider region. In fact, recent weeks have seen frenzied activity in this regard. Backed by civil society and cross-party support, Tunisia’s parliament pushed through landmark legislation to outlaw all forms of violence against women, from street harassment to domestic violence, as well as the scrapping of the controversial practice of allowing a rapist to escape punishment by marrying his victim.

A couple of weeks later, on Tunisian Women’s Day, President Beji Caed Essibsi unveiled plans to annul an unconstitutional circular or decree barring Muslim women from marrying non-Muslim men and called on the government to review Tunisia’s archaic and unequal Islamic inheritance laws, which grant men double the inheritance of women.

The proposed marriage reform has met with little opposition from mainstream Islamists, even if some conservative men I have encountered have been outraged and baffled by the move. Speaking on a popular FM music channel, Ennahdha’s vice-president and co-founder Abdelfattah Mourou called the question of whom a woman chooses to marry one of “personal choice” – though he did hint that if she wanted to please her God, she would not marry out of the religious fold.

However, the issue of inheritance has proven far more thorny, as anything relating to money tends to be. While men safeguarding male privilege would be unsurprising, many of the staunchest opponents to the proposed inheritance reform are reportedly conservative women. “I have spoken with so many women who feel strongly about this,” Ennahdha’s Mona Ibrahim was quoted as saying.

Secular women feel just as strongly about the issue, albeit from the opposite direction. For instance, a friend, Shiraz, is married to a French man who was obliged to ‘convert’ to marry her, but this is, at the end of the day, a simple procedure that, for the pragmatist, is neither here nor there. In addition,

“What bothers me the most is the question of inheritance. Why should a man get double what a woman gets?” Shiraz asks. “It is just so unfair.” At times the injustice is multiplied, Shiraz points out, in the case of, say, rural women who go to the city to work and send back large chunks of their earnings to their parents who use the money to buy land or build a house. When the parents die, they are entitled to half of what their brothers receive.

The controversy over inheritance has sparked a heated but civil debate in Tunisia, with religious and secular voices falling on both sides of the debate. However, President Essibsi’s proposal has whipped up a storm of protest, as well as a wave of support, for Tunisia and Tunisians across the region, both in the real world and on social media, with one nutty and fanatical Egyptian columnist proposing the Arab world declare a holy war against Tunisia’s ‘apostasy’.

Further illustrating how hell hath no fury like middle-aged conservative men scorned, clerics at Egypt’s al-Azhar, traditionally considered the highest seat of Sunni learning in the world, expressed the kind of outrage and fury one normally associates with mass murder at how their Tunisian counterparts had broken with orthodoxy, not to mention al-Azhar’s theological hegemony, to back equal inheritance rights.

Tunisia’s Grand Mufti Othman Batikh’s response to the attacks, in contrast, was measured and dignified, pointing out that Islam was not set in stone, and that past interpretations that suited one age needed to be reinterpreted in light of the changing circumstances of another age.

Whether or not the ambitious inheritance reforms, which civil society has been advocating for some years, succeeds is uncertain, but it has opened up a necessary public debate and provided liberals and progressives with much-needed momentum.

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The sound of religious discord

 
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By Khaled Diab

We need to reach a future in which the religious freedom of Muslims who wish to hear the call to prayer does not infringe upon the peace of mind of non-Muslims and non-practising Muslims.

Should the adhan go back to its unplugged roots? Photo: ©Khaled Diab

Should the adhan go back to its unplugged roots?
Photo: ©Khaled Diab

Tuesday 29 November 2016

Politics makes for strange bedfellows. A bill before the Israeli Knesset intended to deprive Muslim muezzins of their loudspeakers initially met with stiff resistance from Ultra-Orthodox Jews, both Haredim and Hassidim, who became temporary allies with Palestinian-Israeli and Jewish leftist politicians.

United Torah Judaism’s Yaakov Litzman, who serves as health minister in the current cabinet, threatened to torpedo the proposal, not out of love of the Islamic call to prayer, or adhan, or for his Muslim neighbours but because he, like the Shas party, feared it could also be used to curb the rights of Jews to make holy noise. “Since the technology developed, loudspeakers have been used to announce the onset of Shabbat,” Litzman noted last week. Indeed, a siren is sounded across Jerusalem and can be clearly heard in many Arab neighbourhoods.

Now Litzman has reportedly withdrawn his appeal after he was apparently reassured that an exception for the Shabbat siren would be included in the proposed legislation, paving the way to a preliminary reading at the Knesset.

Unsurprisingly, Palestinians and their allies – within Israel, in Arab and Muslim countries and in the wider world – are outraged by this discriminatory initiative. They see it as yet another example of ultra-nationalist Israelis attempting to silence Palestinians and erase another poignant symbol of their culture.

This explains why there have been numerous protests against the bill, with Hamas’ leader in exile, Khaled Mashal, warning Israel that it was “playing with fire”. Turkey, with which Israel has recently mended diplomatic fences, also expressed outrage, as did Jordanian football fans. In addition to the expected condemnation by Islamists, secular and Christian Palestinians have also been vocal in their opposition to the draft legislation.

“If mosques are silenced, we will make sure that the muezzin will be heard in churches, in Nazareth, in Haifa, in Jaffa and in Jerusalem,”  Basel Ghattas, a Knesset member who belongs to the Joint List, said defiantly. “This bill poses a danger not only to mosques or to Muslim Arab citizens, but also endangers churches and Christian Arabs and the Palestinian identity.”

And churches have already been tolling their solidarity. The adhan was even heard in the Knesset when a couple of Arab parliamentarians recited the call to prayer, in a sort of holy filibuster, while some of their Jewish counterparts heckled them.

Some defenders of the bill will protest that the draft legislation is not targeted at mosques but at all houses of worship that make excessive noise. But that would be disingenuous.

The original wording of the bill, which was introduced by Moti Yogev of the far-right HaBayit HaYehudi party, did not mince words about its intended target, mosques, and the wording was changed to encompass all houses of worship only after the justice system objected to it as discriminatory.

If the bill were truly about controlling overly zealous holy noise, then existing noise pollution regulations would suffice, as head of the Joint List Ayman Odeh has pointed out, and numerous grassroots compromises have been hammered out in mixed Arab-Jewish communities.

In fact, this is how most Western countries tackle the issue – noise regulations that apply to everyone, religious and secular alike. However, MK Yogev’s clear intention – to single out Muslims’ public presence – isn’t satisfied by laws that are inclusive such as these. There is more than an echo of the rise of Trump and other far-right demagogues, who find the idea of legislation targeting only Muslims appealing.

Moreover, a non-discriminatory law would not exempt the Jewish siren or the blaring speakers used during Jewish holy days, including in predominantly Arab areas, such as Sheikh Jarrah, which is the location of the Shimon Hatzadik tomb, where a noisy annual festival pumps up the decibels and blocks roads.

If it were a question of preserving tranquillity, then the mayor of mixed Lod would not have decided to protest the noise made by mosques by creating a competing ding by blaring out a traditional Jewish prayer from city hall at the same time as the adhan.

What this reveals is that holy sound has become an under-appreciated and under-reported battleground in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. For example, it sometimes strikes me that during periods of high tension or in areas near settlers, mosques appear to get louder. In East Jerusalem, where I live, I have noticed that mosques are at their loudest during periods when there are protests or clashes with Israeli forces.

Beyond the sensitive Israeli-Palestinian context, the excessive sound pollution caused by mosques has not gone without objection, albeit of an often-muted nature as the loud protests of the pious can silence dissent. In a number of Muslim societies, a sign of the growing sway of Islamists and the intimidation they exercise, not to mention overcrowding, is the growing number and volume of calls to prayer, with tiny corner mosques run by Salafists often sporting the loudest amplifiers.

An early example of efforts to bring this phenomenon under control was Tunisia’s first president and independence leader Habib Bourguiba whom, a Tunisian friend informed me, banned loudspeakers during the dawn prayer (al-fajr) out of consideration for the sick, students and workers who needed to sleep.

Several Muslim countries, including Jordan, the UAE and Turkey have a unified adhan to minimise the cacophony caused by numerous mosques calling the faithful to pray at slightly different times, causing a sort of sound cascade. Egypt, whose loud and rebellious population defeats any attempts at noise control, also tried but failed to introduce such a system.

From a functional perspective, the adhan has effectively become obsolete in the 21st century. With the proliferation of alarm clocks, including Mecca-themed ones, apps, SMS alerts and other technologies, the adhan broadcast by the mosque no longer serves a practical purpose.

Of course, the adhan is inextricably linked to the cultural identity of Muslim societies around the world, in the minds of Muslims and non-Muslims alike. Despite my annoyance at being flung out of bed, especially when the speaker is so loud that it sounds like you are sleeping atop a minaret, I have been moved by the sublime beauty of the adhan when performed by capable muezzins, such as when I have heard it from rooftops near al-Azhar and al-Hussein mosques in Cairo.

However, we need to reach a future in which the religious freedom of Muslims who wish to hear the call to prayer does not infringe upon the peace of mind of non-Muslims and non-practising Muslims, as well as children, the elderly and the sick.

One way to do this is by preserving both the beauty and tradition of the adhan. Since the call to prayer only serves an aesthetic purpose in our high-tech world, muezzins should return to their roots, climb the minaret and give us only acoustic renditions of the adhan.

But this unplugged adhan is not something the Israeli Knesset can or should impose.

____

Follow Khaled Diab on Twitter.

This article which first appeared in Haaretz on 23 November 2016.

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The Arab media paradox: Free expression amid repression

 
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By Khaled Diab

Frustratingly for Arab dictators and despots, no matter how much they try to silence, intimidate or co-opt the media, new loud and critical voices emerge.

The frontpage of the normally pro-regime al-Musawer protests the storming of the journalists syndicate and the media crackdown in Egypt.

The frontpage of the normally pro-regime al-Musawer protests the storming of the journalists syndicate and the media crackdown in Egypt.

Wednesday 11 May 2016

It is not just the news that is depressing. The state of the media around the world is increasingly becoming a cause for alarm. Tuesday 3 May was World Press Freedom Day and almost everywhere you turn your gaze, media freedom is under threat from governments, terrorist organisations, crime syndicates and corporate interests.

Freedom House’s latest report found that global media freedom was at its lowest level in a dozen years.

According to the Washington-based watchdog, only 13% of humanity enjoys access to a free press. Even in countries where freedom of the press is legally protected and supposedly sacrosanct, the media is experiencing mounting pressure, as governments exploit the threat of terrorism to enact restrictive legislation and populist right-wingers find ways to co-opt or muzzle the media.

A similar message is echoed by France-based Reporters Without Borders whose latest Press Freedom Index (PFI) has registered a growth in violations of nearly 14% since 2013. This reveals “a deep and disturbing decline in respect for media freedom at both the global and regional levels” which “is indicative of a climate of fear and tension combined with increasing control over newsrooms by governments and private-sector interests”.

These violations can verge on the insultingly absurd. An example that would ring familiar with many Arabs was the case late last year of a Thai man who was arrested for “lèse majesté” late last year for allegedly “insulting” not the ailing King Bhumibol himself but his beloved dog in a series of Facebook posts. As is often the case, the real target of the junta’s ire are the allegations the same man published about widespread corruption in high places.

In both rankings, the turbulent and conflict-ridden Middle East props up the bottom half of the global league and, according to Reporters Without Borders, is “one of the world’s most difficult and dangerous regions for journalists”. Freedom House concurs, noting that “governments and militias increasingly pressured journalists and media outlets to take sides, creating a ‘with us or against us’ climate and demonising those who refused to be cowed”.

Journalists here are at risk from repressive regimes and their security apparatuses, armed militias and terrorist groups, religious radicals, not to mention the threats posed by regressive laws, those above the law or general lawlessness, depending on the location. With all the dangers to life and livelihood which independent media professionals in the region experience, it is almost a miracle that anyone would make journalism their career choice.

The main good news about the region’s media emanates from Tunisia, the only Middle Eastern country to rise in the PFI rankings. But even in the Arab uprisings’ greatest success story so far, journalists still face regular harassment and often exercise self-censorship.

The largescale war against media freedom in the Arab world actually distorts a key and perhaps paradoxical truth: never have Arabs enjoyed freer access to information and never have the region’s journalists and citizens mounted such a constant, consistent and comprehensive assault on the state’s media dominance. This is especially the case in the frontline states of the Arab revolutions.

The most incredible and laudable examples of this must be the journalists and citizen journalists working to record and broadcast the truth in the region’s war zones – Syria, Iraq, Yemen and Libya.

Despite being the deadliest country for journalists in the world, many Syrians continue to put their lives on the line to  report on the crimes and violations of the Assad regime, ISIL and other armed groups. One of the most dramatic examples of this is the award-winningRaqqa is Being Slaughtered Silently’, a citizen-journalist group reporting independently out of ISIL-controlled territory.

Although government crackdowns have narrowed the space for free expression, frightening and cowing many in the process, the region’s courageous independent journalists have been forcing open the cracks left behind.

In this regard, the digital and social media have been a lifeline. Two prominent examples of this are the audacious and daring investigative journalism sites Inkyfada in Tunisia and Mada Masr in Egypt.

For their part, regimes have been fighting back. Not only have Arab governments invested heavily in surveillance and monitoring technologies, they have also sought to beat activists and revolutionaries at their own game by building up a dynamic propaganda presence online.

But frustratingly for Arab dictators and despots, no matter how much they clampdown on free expression and try to silence, intimidate or co-opt the media, new loud and critical voices, whether underground or in broad daylight, invariably emerge.

This was amply been demonstrated by the remarkable media and protest campaign spearheaded by the Egyptian Journalists Syndicate to defend press freedom, call for the resignation of the interior minister and demand an end to repression.

Although the days are long gone when Arab regimes enjoyed a near monopoly on the flow of news and information within their borders, they still act as though they can control the minds and consciousness of their citizens.

Once upon a time, Arab leaders could figuratively parade without clothes in front of their pliant media and hypocritical “Yes men” and nobody would dare tell the emperors they were nude. Though our leaders would love nothing more than our turning a blind eye to their naked lust for power, millions of Arabs are no longer willing to applaud our emperors’ new clothes. The Arab public has become unwilling to accept illusion and delusion as substitutes for actual change.

It is high time for Arab governments and other repressive actors to learn that the wise way to deal with criticism is not to shut down critical media but to respond to and engage with opponents and critics, and to enact meaningful and deep reforms.

____

Follow Khaled Diab on Twitter.

This is the updated version of an article which first appeared on Al Jazeera on 3 May 2016.

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Millet in the Middle East: Disunity in diversity

 
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By Khaled Diab

The Middle Eastern practice of assigning a faith to every citizen and a separate court system for each religion promotes division and sectarianism.

Tuesday 3 May 2016

In the 15th century, the Ottoman Empire, drawing inspiration from Persian and Islamic precedents, created what was known as the “millet” (nation or community) system which granted each recognised religion or sect a great deal of autonomy in managing its own affairs, from setting laws to collecting and distributing taxes.

In its heyday, the millet system – which was progressive by the standards of the time – enabled the Ottomans to prosper as a patchwork of languages and cultures.

However, under strain from imperial decline and growing nationalism, the millet system was creaking and seriously showing its age by the 19th century, prompting a series of reforms, known as “tanzimat”, aimed at creating a uniform and equal Ottoman citizenship.

Across the region today – even in Israel personal status and family laws are partially based on or inspired by the millet system. This means that, in the Middle East, we are destined – or doomed, depending on your perspective – to be born into a pre-determined religion or sect, regardless of what an individual actually believes.

With the exception of Tunisia, where identity papers do not mention religion and courts are civil, this accident of birth shapes the most intimate aspects of our lives, including marriage, divorce, inheritance and death.

If you happily belong to your designated community and are satisfied to live by its religious laws, then your life will be a contented one.

However, if you reject some of the traditional tenets of your faith, such as Christians who believe in divorce or Muslims who believe in equal inheritance rights for men and women, then life may prove difficult.

Women, who are discriminated against by pretty much every religion and sect, are particularly vulnerable when disputes arise, such as Christian women battling husbands who have converted to Islam for custody of their children.

In addition, if you belong to an unrecognised religious minority, such as Bahais, Hindus or Buddhists, then you may have trouble practising your faith.

Now if you don’t believe in God, you are still stuck with the religious label attached to you at birth, and face the risk of prosecution or even persecution in some countries.

Fortunately, in Egypt, there is no law against atheism and atheists are coming out of the closet, despite piecemeal attempts at repression. Syria once allowed complete freedom of belief, including atheism, though it severely restricted political expression. At the other end of the scale, in Saudi Arabia, atheism is classified as “terrorism”, despite the huge underground atheist movement there.

One curious effect of the millet system was that three neighbours and friends – for example, a Muslim, a Christian and a Jew – living in, say, Cairo might have shared the same language, culture and social reference points, yet they officially belonged to different “nations”.

Conversely, Christians, Muslims and Jews from opposing ends of the empire, who would not be able to comprehend each other’s speech and even culture, would have been members of the same “nation”.

In its early days, this system was workable in a vast and diverse empire confident in its variety, but in the contemporary, embattled nation-states of the region the modern vestiges of the millet system have proved an obstacle to forging a common national identity.

No matter how much nationalists insist that God is for the individual and the nation is for everyone, the confessional courts, even if they only deal with personal and family law, suggest otherwise, particularly in the minds of religious conservatives and radicals.

I would hazard to say that the religious and sectarian strife we are witnessing in the Middle East is, in part, down to these divisions. This is because defining a person’s religion and sect from birth, and providing them with differential treatment because of it, leads to social rigidity, identity politics and the difficulty in forming hybrid identities.

A classic example of this is Lebanon, where religion and sect do not just govern issues of personal status, but define the country’s political landscape, with its strict laws on which political positions go to which community. This perpetuates the small nation’s divisions.

The modern manifestation of the millet system also encourages institutionalised discrimination against minorities, by blocking minorities from the upper echelons of politics in many countries and enabling unscrupulous civil servants and security officials to mistreat those who are different.

In extreme cases, it even facilitates persecution. For example, the religion field on Iraqi identity cards has been misused by the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL, also known as ISIS) and other militias to target citizens who belong to other religions and sects.

Fortunately, there are reformers who are striving for change, and they have scored a number of recent successes. This includes the introduction of civil marriages in Lebanon and the removal of the religion field fromTurkish ID cards.

It is time for Middle Eastern countries to remove all mention of religious and sectarian affiliation from official documents, and to abolish religious family courts.

This would not only be good for the freedom of belief – not to mention love and the equality of citizens – it would also reinforce a sense of common national identity among communities within a country, promoting a sense of unity in diversity.

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Follow Khaled Diab on Twitter.

This article first appeared on Al Jazeera on 12 April 2016.

 

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