The myth of the European jihadist hordes

 
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By Khaled Diab

The terrorist attacks in Brussels will reinforce the idea that returning jihadists pose an existential threat to Europe. But the facts say otherwise.

Bruxelles est (Re)belle. Miguel Discart https://www.flickr.com/people/miguel_discart_vrac/

Bruxelles est (Re)belle.
Miguel Discart https://www.flickr.com/people/miguel_discart_vrac/

Monday 28 March 2016

It has been described as a “treasure trove” and “goldmine”. German intelligence has reportedly obtained the recruitment documents of 22,000 members of Islamic State, also known as ISIS or ISIL.

While some have cast doubts on the authenticity of the information released in the media or raised questions about whether this was perhaps an intentional ISIS leak, the German security services are satisfied that the documents are authentic.

One thing this cache of documents and earlier finds clearly point to is the basic breakdown of where ISIS recruits come from. An analysis of 1,700 ISIS documents obtained by Zaman al-Wasl found that nearly three-quarters of recruits were from Arab countries, with Saudi Arabia leading the pack, followed by Tunisia, Morocco and Egypt.

Interestingly, Syrians only make up under 2% of the recruits listed in this cache, lending greater credibility to the notion that ISIS’s blood-soaked theocracy is a kind of foreign imposition.

However, while ISIS depends heavily on foreigners with no connections to the local social fabric, thereby facilitating its brutality, this figure is probably too low, especially considering how long the terror group has now ruled.

“It’s possible that [Syrians] are mentioned in other documents, and these are mostly about foreigners,” Hassan Hassan, co-author of the acclaimed ISIS: Inside the Army of Terror, told me. “Syrians have a sizeable presence within ISIS, particularly young people or former insurgents.”

Despite all the media hype and political frenzy accompanying the phenomenon of European jihadists, only a small minority of ISIS recruits in the leaked documents actually come from Europe.

This chimes with the estimates of Western intelligence agencies and independent think tanks. In early 2015, the International Centre for the Study of Radicalisation (ICSR) at King’s College London estimated the presence of 4,000 Western European fighters in Syria and Iraq. At the end of 2015, another estimate, released by intelligence consultancy the Soufan Group, put the number of Europeans combatants in Syria and Iraq at 5,000.

Although the number of European recruits appears to have risen significantly over the past couple of years, it still represents a miniscule proportion of Europe’s Muslim minority.

The European Union is home to 13-20 million Muslims, while Europe as a whole has a Muslim population of 44 million. This means that European jihadists in Syria and Iraq represents a maximum of 0.04% of the EU’s Muslim population.

Despite this microscopic fraction, the concave mirror of sensationalist politicians and media outlets makes it appear to be a monstrous phenomenon of giant proportions – as if a European jihadist foreign legion is marching to the Levant, while a similar army, disguised as refugees, is marching in the other direction, to conquer Europe.

This magnifying and amplifying effect has serious real-world consequences. One significant effect is how the hype shifts government responses away from holistic policies and towards narrow, security-focused punitive measures.

While fear of the terrorism potential of returning jihadists is understandable and we must be vigilant so as to prevent future atrocities, such as the recent attacks in Brussels which left at least 31 dead, this overlooks the fact, as the experience of some Muslim countries shows, that the most effective form of de-radicalisation of jihadists is often “jihad” itself. Confronted with the discrepancy between their “utopian” ideals and the ugly, murderous reality, many return wishing to turn over a new leaf and reintegrate into society.

Instead of locking ex-jihadists up and throwing away the key, or stripping them of their nationalities, thereby giving them no path towards de-radicalisation and re-integration, we need a more nuanced approach.

Though war crimes committed should be punished, the growing ranks of disillusioned ISIS defectors can be utilised to undermine the group’s appeal and propaganda, and assist in state efforts to prevent radicalisation among vulnerable individuals.

“Governments and civil society should recognise the defectors’ value and make it easier for them to speak out,” contends Peter Neumann, ICSR’s director. “Where possible, governments should assist them in resettlement and ensure their safety.”

Moreover, the exaggerated hype around jihadists makes ordinary Europeans feel far, far unsafer than they actually are and shakes their trust in their Muslim compatriots. It also causes a sense of greater marginalisation and isolation among ordinary Muslims in Europe, as they endure a mounting wave of racism and hate crimes.

“It’s like I can’t do anything anymore without feeling unsafe,” a young Muslim woman from Brussels told me recently. A young Arab man in Brussels told me that he was now afraid of his own beard and name.

This hysteria strengthens the hands of extremists. Islamist and jihadist recruiters are able to prey on the vulnerabilities and sense of alienation felt by young, disaffected Muslims to radicalise more of them. It also weakens and undermines the role of secular and moderate Muslims as cultural bridges.

Far-right and neo-Nazi hatemongers exploit the actions of the few jihadists to demonise the majority of peaceful Muslims – a strategy exploited by groups as diverse as the Front National in France, Jobbik in Hungary and numerous Republican presidential candidates in the United States, most vociferously by frontrunner Donald Trump.

In fact, the fixation on jihadists, Islamic terrorism and Muslims is distracting much-needed attention away from the odious and troubling phenomenon of the rise of far-right white and Christian supremacism and extremism, both in Europe and the United States.

On the other end of the scale, it has given the distorted impression that the bulk of Westerners are hostile towards Muslims. While this holds true in places like Italy and Poland, this is not the case in Western Europe.

Despite two major Islamic terrorist attacks in France over the past couple of years and the growing vocalness of the far-right, the vast majority of French people have a positive view of Muslims (76%), according to a Pews survey. Britons and Germans also hold similarly favourable views.

This points to a way forward out of the growing hate and animosity marking the public discourse. The silenced and increasingly side-lined sensible majority must seize back the podium from the extremists, whether they be Islamists or the anti-immigrant far-right, and the media and politicians must pay greater attention to us.

____

Follow Khaled Diab on Twitter.

This is the updated version of an article which first appeared on Al Jazeera on 17 March 2016.

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Western Muslims: The neglected link

 
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By Khaled Diab

Despite their under-utilisation and the suspicion they elicit, European and American Muslims can help bridge the chasm between “West” and “East”.

Tuesday 5 January 2016

As Marine campaigns to prove that Le Pen is mightier than the sword of Islam and Donald plays his Islamophobic Trump card, a sense of gloom has descended upon European and American Muslims and their sympathisers.

The latest poll by Brookings reflects the depth of mainstream hate and distrust in America: over three-fifths of those polled have unfavourable views of Islam, with this rising to a whopping 73% amongst Republican voters.

However, there is a sliver of a silver lining. Despite years of neo-con scaremongering, the vast majority of Americans do not subscribe to the “clash of civilisations” theory, with fewer than two-fifths believing that the values of Islamic and Western societies are incompatible.

As a longstanding critic of Samuel P Huntington’s simplistic theory, I am pleased with this finding. Interests clash, civilisation do not tend to. In fact, as I’ve argued numerous times before, the clash within civilisations is far greater than the conflicts between them.

Though Americans dislike Islam, over half of them expressed favourable views of Muslims, rising to two-thirds among Democrats. Those who knew a Muslim tended to be even better predisposed. For example, while only 22% of Republican voters who knew no Muslims viewed them favourably, this shot up to 59% for Republicans who were well-acquainted with some Muslims.

My own personal experiences back this up, especially in Europe. Europeans I know who live near Muslims or have actually visited a Muslim-majority country generally have a more positive view of Muslims than those who live in white suburbia.

Rula Jebreal.

Rula Jebreal.

“The presence of millions of Muslims living, working, voting in Europe and North America is a constant reminder that there is no clash between Islam and the West because Islam is part of the West,” contends New York-based Rula Jebreal, the prominent Palestinian-Italian journalist and novelist, who is the author of the compelling fictionalised autobiography Miral.

Although many on both sides of the divide see Islam and the West (Christendom) as being two discrete entities, I regard them as a single “mash of civilisations”. Islam is hardwired into Western civilisation through its philosophy, science, mathematics, medicine and more.

Even culturally, the West wouldn’t be the same without Islamic culture. Take just one man, the legendary though largely forgotten Ziryab, who single-handedly revolutionised European fashion, cuisine and music.

The same goes the other way around. Islam’s very roots were profoundly influenced by Christianity and Greco-Roman civilisation and philosophy. In modern times, the process of modernisation has largely been synonymous with Westernisation, first brought home in the minds of 19th-century Egyptians who moved to study and work in France. Even more recently, the Arab Spring drew large numbers of Western Arabs and Muslims back to their ancestral lands, especially Tunisia and Egypt.

Despite periodic animosity, this ancient link between Europe and the Middle East means that Europeans generally understand and sympathise with Muslims more, with Islamophobia largely the preserve of the far right – for now. “Here in America, however, Islamophobia has been mainstreamed,” notes Jebreal.

Throughout my long years as a journalist, I have drawn on my dual Arab and European heritage to highlight the nuances, ambiguities, diversities and subtleties of history, politics, culture and beliefs. This is out of a conviction that the devil, and demonisation, lie in sweeping generalisations, while the human and humanising reside in the detail. Simplistic narratives and solutions are appealing. However, in a complex world, reductionism lead to misdiagnosis and complications, fuelling ever greater mayhem and hatred.

Wajahat Ali

Wajahat Ali

And the growing prominence of Western Arabs and Muslims is helping in this humanising mission. “We see more people of colour and Muslims succeeding as journalists, story tellers, entrepreneurs, community activists,” explains Pakistani-American Wajahat Ali, a journalist and host with Al Jazeera America. “Tragedy and pain also compel urgency and inspire work. Post 9-11, you see a more proactive, progressive, engaged Muslim-American and Arab-American communities.”

Humour, from satire to parody, is a powerful tool in this effort, as it deploys laughter as a devastating weapon against bigotry. In my own writing, I have used satire to mock everything from far-right conspiracy theories about the Islamisation of the West to ISIS’s a-historical caliphate, which, unlike its predecessors does not tolerate science, literature, gay poetry or odes to wine.

Similarly, other Muslims, from stand-up comics to writers, have been employing gallows humour to draw attention to the plight of their community. For instance, when Donald Trump suggested that Muslims should carry special identification, Wajahat Ali quickly obliged and created his own Muslim ID card. In it, he described his ethnicity as “Bollywood” and his religion as “Sunny-side Sunni”.

Regardless of whether you employ reason or humour, it often feels futile, especially when hate seems to be gaining the upper hand. It seems to me that it is far easier to burn bridges, and scorch the surrounding earth, than it is to build them and plant the seeds of understanding and compassion.

Ayman Mohyeldin

Ayman Mohyeldin

This is a frustration shared by others. “The biggest challenge is overcoming the sheer scale of unawareness and miseducation  people in the US suffer from,” laments Ayman Mohyeldin, one of the few Arab-American journalists working in a high-profile position for a major US news network, NBC. “That can only be achieved through grassroots awareness and macro level visibility in the public sphere.”

“I don’t know if I made a difference,” admits Wajahat Ali. “I’ve been at this for 12 years and the level of anti-Muslim hysteria and bigotry is higher now than it was in 9-11.”

But this must not dissuade us from trying to reach out, even if the chasm is widening. “With every individual trying to blow up the bridge both from within and outside, there are 10 willing to build,” points out Ali.

“I am not willing to cede the ground to extremists on both sides ­– the jihadists and the Islamophobes,” insists a determined Rula Jebreal. “But in an age of 24/7 cable news and social media on phones, we don’t have much time on our side.”

And with fires blazing in the Middle East and the larva bubbling under the surface in Europe and America, I share this sense of urgency. “[We] need a multicultural coalition of the willing – a global justice league – to come together to bridge the divides,” proposed Wajahat Ali.

In my view, despite their under-utilisation and the suspicion they elicit on both sides of the growing divide, European and American Muslims are the best-positioned to play this role. They can help explain the so-called West to the so-called East and vice-versa, dispel the myth that some sort of “jihad” or “crusade” is in motion, and help replace animosity with co-operation.

____

Follow Khaled Diab on Twitter.

This article first appeared in The National on 19 December 2015.

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Defusing the social media timebomb

 
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By Christian Nielsen

Countering the “weaponisation of the internet” with top-down initiatives is unlikely to succeed. What we need are true grassroots efforts.

Tuesday 7 July 2015

Governments are playing catch-up as they grapple to deal with the growth in online propaganda and extremism.

Modern terrorists have embraced social media and “weaponised the internet” to achieve their goals, Mark Wallace, former US ambassador to the UN, told journalists at the Brussels launch of the European arm to the Counter Extremism Project (CEP) last week.

The timing, though tragic in light of the latest extremist attacks in Tunisia, France and the United States, has never been better to band together in the global struggle against extremism, he suggested.

Founded in the United States just nine months ago, CEP is rallying public support for programmes to counter the narrative of extremists, expose the sources of funding and inspiration for such discourse, and advocate for effective laws and policies that promote “freedom, security and tolerance”.

The US branch of CEP has the backing of some big names in diplomacy, law enforcement and community-based support aimed at identifying and changing the narrative of hatred that feeds radicalism, violence and terrorism.

What has gone so wrong that a youth from a comfortable suburban home in, say, Birmingham feels compelled to take up with murderers? This is the key question that an organisation like CEP seeks to tackle.

US Senator Joseph Lieberman, who lent his support to the European launch of CEP, said the world is awash in blood spilt in brutal acts of violence. And it is not state versus state, he said, but the acts of lone wolves, disenfranchised individuals and extremist organisations so often inspired by the internet.

The intensity of this crisis cannot be solved by governments alone, he continued, it needs counter-narratives from a range of voices – non-government actors, educators, local and religious leaders – to “break down the stereotypes that inculcate violence”, to stop and help people before they “go bad”.

CEP revealed two of its own weapons in this battle: what it calls its counter-narrative programme and digital disruption campaign. The former identifies vulnerable “at-risk populations” and employs influencers – people with an “out-sized” ability to reach and influence such as social workers, community leaders – to engage especially young people, listen to their concerns and address them with better narratives. The digital disruption, though sinister-sounding, is largely aimed at urging social media like Twitter to be more vigilant of the content on their platforms, and to urge the removal of extremist, threatening language.

This has been likened, the experts conceded, to “whack-a-mole” – the game where you hit a mole on the head when it emerges as more keep popping up around it – but it has already proved successful, CEP’s team confirmed.

The power of social media is in the network of connections; every time you take out nodes (sources), the spread of extremist diatribe is weakened and takes time to reconnect or find its critical mass again.

As it seeks to deepen and widen the programme, CEP is under no illusions that countering extremism and terrorist acts everywhere will be easy, especially as modern information flow tends to flout borders. There is no single answer and the challenge most definitely cannot be tackled by states alone.

The lone wolf threat, an extremist who remains off the radar, still “keeps everyone awake at night”, stressed Senator Lieberman. “People reach into your neighbourhood from the other side of the planet.”

So the idea is to work from the ground up and provide the mechanisms and messages to raise awareness and negate the extreme voices that have won the early ground in this battle of our time.

At some point, like an AK 47 or any other weapon supplied to a terrorist, social media that don’t help in the campaign being waged against the weaponised words can be deemed to be providing material support. “We have to degrade [the extremists’] ability to spread cyber-jihad,” the senator stressed.

Somehow, you wonder

Though well-intended, most probably well-funded – CEP prefers not to reveal information about its backers – and definitely able to recruit big political names to the cause, I can’t help but doubt that even a trans-Atlantic organisation like CEP can really build a grassroots counter-movement, an Occupy Wall Street or Tiananmen Square moment. Pressure on social media outlets to crack down on the content is still a top-down measure. Yet it’s the bubble-up action at local level that stands the best chance.

At some point, probably at the lowest ebb, enough people (digital natives presumably) will have had enough of their youthful innocence being stolen from them by radicals and extremists… murderers hiding behind a perverted cause.

But have we reached the lowest ebb? It certainly seems like it, as more and more copycat killers pop up to grandstand in full view of the world’s internet denizens by killing innocent people, and claiming some spurious connection to one or another vying cult of death and destruction.

Yes, the time, tragically, is right but do the masses realise this? Will they raise their voices in protest and in their own way – with their own words and stories – counter extremism when and where it pops up? And do we need a project or programme to run such a movement? That’s to be seen.

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The empire must not strike back

 
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By Khaled Diab

Nostalgia for empire in the Middle East misses two points: we’re not witnessing the “final end of imperialism” and imperialism did not bring order.

Deposed Sultan Mehmed VI leaves for exile as the Ottoman Sultanate is abolished in 1922.

Deposed Sultan Mehmed VI leaves for exile as the Ottoman Sultanate is abolished in 1922.

Thursday 11 June 2015

When it comes to the Middle East, nostalgia politics is in vogue. While ISIS is busy “restoring” an a-historical caliphate, others are pining for the apparently lost innocence of empire.

Robert Kaplan expressed profound admiration for the supposed benefits that empire brought to the Middle East and some other parts of the world. “Imperialism bestowed order, however retrograde it may have been,” the intellectual who was named by Foreign Policy as one of the world’s top 100 global thinker in 2011 declared in the same magazine.

This supposed world-beating thinker seems convinced that “the age-old clusters of civilisations” has immunised Morocco, Tunisia and Egypt to the worst excesses of the current upheavals. Kaplan fails to answer why it is that, if this were so, the region’s most ancient cluster of civilisations, namely Syria and Iraq, are currently experiencing the most devastating tumult, while civilisation’s traditional backwaters of the Gulf are, at least superficially, relatively stable, for now.

At a certain level, I can understand Kaplan’s nostalgia for the Ottoman, and before it Roman, empire. After all, despite their ancestors’ painful divorce from the Ottomans, some Arabs shared in Turkey’s new sense of “Ottomania” – at least when Erdogan was still considered an Arab hero.

And at its best, the Ottoman empire was a de-centralised empire of relative local autonomy, marked by tolerance, prosperity, multiculturalism and, hard as it is to imagine today, a borderless space not unlike the modern European Union. The Tanzimat of the mid-19th century, among other things, created a common citizenship, erased ethnic and religious inequality and even decriminalised homosexuality, though they marked the beginning of more direct rule.

The Ottoman empire’s status as the “sick man of Europe” infected all its provinces and its strident and toxic form of Turkic nationalism – epitomised by the Young Turks, who introduced democracy to the Ottoman empire but then briskly withdrew it – did not lead to stability but catastrophe.

The “Three Pashas” in charge not only disastrously decided to join World War I, precipitating the collapse of the empire, they also engaged in a fit of bloodlust against the Armenians that makes ISIS look like amateurs.

The region’s new imperial management did not fare much better. Though the British and the French accelerated the region’s modernising impulse, they only paid lip service to the vaunted values of modernity, and hardly brought the stability Kaplan so values.

The great distance from and the lack of shared history with their subjects resulted in a callous disregard for their needs. This was reflected in everything from the Sykes-Picot arbitrary drawing of borders and the brutal suppression of regular uprisings to the imperial assumption that the region’s resources were the sole property of London and Paris.

Likewise, independence and post-colonial leaders promises of freedom were dashed when the foreign elites that had previously ruled were largely replaced by, in many ways, an equally “foreign” domestic elite, who looked and spoke like the “liberated” populations but behaved like their former masters.

Arabs originally saw America as an ally and kindred spirit for its apparent support for national self-determination and opposition to Anglo-French hegemony in the region. But instead the US largely replaced the direct rule of its predecessors, with the client-state model in which those who behaved could literally get away with murder, while local leaders seen to step out of line were “contained” or eliminated.

“The meltdown we see in the Arab world today… is really about the final end of imperialism,” Kaplan claims.

I expect this declaration to go the same way as Francis Fukuyama’s the “end of history” or George W Bush’s “mission accomplished”, i.e. into the dustbin of history. Moreover, this nostalgia for past empire, like the clash of civilisations theory, not only misdiagnoses the disease but also prescribes the wrong medicine.

“The demonstrably hands-off approach to these developments by President Barack Obama manifests the end of America’s great power role in organising and stabilising the region,” Kaplan writes wistfully… and wishfully.

Any level-headed analysis of the US’s decades-long involvement in the Middle East will conclude that Washington has done little to organise and stabilise the region. From its traditional role of propping up “friendly” dictators and autocrats and its subversion of numerous independence movements, to its disastrous decision to return to the era of military invasion and direct rule in Iraq, Washington has been a major contributor to regional chaos and instability.

Far from marking the “end of imperialism”, what we are witnessing today, a century after the implosion of the Ottoman empire, is its resurgence. In this new scramble for the Middle East, we are witnessing the petty sultans of the region’s crumbling states trying to hold on to their micro-empires; non-state armed groups trying to usurp them; Iran and the emerging powers of the Gulf seeking to expand their spheres of influence; and America’s longstanding hegemony being challenged by the new-old kid on the block, Russia, and newcomer China.

As the old order collapses, perhaps the Middle East does needs a new “imperial” age, but along the lines of a people’s empire. Just like the member states of the European Union decided voluntarily and democratically to unite territory that had only ever been integrated through conquest, the peoples of the Middle East could benefit greatly if the current conflicts and crises push them towards a voluntary union of equals.

However, at every geopolitical strata, there are currently too many enemies stacked against such an endeavour. But just as the EU would have appeared to be a delusional fantasy during World War II, perhaps this indicates that there is hope for our troubled region yet.

____

Follow Khaled Diab on Twitter.

This article first appeared on Al Jazeera on 29 May 2015.

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The death of sanity in Egypt

 
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By Khaled Diab

The sentencing to death of former president Mohamed Morsi is the latest chapter in Egypt’s comedy of terrors that could push the country over the edge

Wednesday 27 May 2015

It may well go down in history as Egypt’s show trial of the century – one that is not only unjust but also positively Kafkaesque in its absurdity and self-defeating surrealism.

Egypt’s former president Mohamed Morsi, along with 105 co-defendants, has been sentenced to death for a prison break during the upheavals of the 2011 revolution. On the ethical level, this trial is a travesty because Morsi did not enjoy due process in a highly politicised trial which Amnesty International described as “grossly unfair” and “a charade based on null and void procedures”.

In addition, as a long-standing opponent of capital punishment, I find the reckless abandon with which Egyptian courts have been handing out death sentences to hundreds of Muslim Brotherhood supporters both wrong and highly troubling. And this is occurring just when Egypt seemed to be a country on the road to phasing out capital punishment.

The fact that a handful of the hundreds on death row have been executed may indicate that Morsi will never actually be put to death. However, even life in prison without first going through a fair trial before an impartial court would be an inhumane and profound injustice.

Beyond issues of ethics and morality, Morsi’s sentence – the most symbolic of the recent persecution of the Brotherhood which has seen hundreds of protesters killed and thousands of supporters thrown behind bars, not to mention legion secular activists – could possibly push the situation in Egypt over the edge.

Within hours of the verdict, reports emerged that three judges were shot dead in the Sinai, possibly in connection with the trial. And just as Morsi’s ouster escalated the insurgency in the desert peninsula, his death sentence is likely to play a similar role, not just in Sinai but also on the Egyptian mainland.

And the tragedy of the situation is that it need not have been so. In fact, the past two years have been a veritable comedy of terrors in Egypt.

Morsi’s dictatorial grab for power which began in November 2012, his knack for losing friends and whipping up popular disapproval, as well as the Muslim Brotherhood’s colossal incompetence and mismanagement of the country meant that the movement which had made successive governments quake for some eight decades had lost its political legitimacy and become a spent force.

Instead of giving Morsi a 48-hour ultimatum following the huge protests of 30 June 2013, had the military steered the country towards early elections, much of the subsequent blood and tears could have been avoided.

However, the Egyptian military decided to follow the path of greatest resistance. After Morsi’s ouster, the al-Sisi regime used oppression and persecution where magnanimity and reconciliation would have been far more effective.

Rather than finish off the movement, the regime’s myopic and bloody purge – which included the deadly dispersals of largely peaceful sit-ins, mass arrests, trials in kangaroo courts and the outlawing of the Brotherhood  – has strengthened and radicalised what remains of the Muslim Brotherhood, and possibly won it back some of the public sympathy it has lost.

It has also sent out a message to many Islamists that the political process is not for them and that peaceful change through democracy will not occur. The Muslim Brotherhood’s decision to renounce violence in the 1970s was a controversial one – which led to violent splinter groups being formed – but the movement’s successful use of its soft power silenced many of its Islamist critics and even drew in new and unlikely supporters when the persecution of Egypt’s secular dissidents left it as the main opposition movement. A significant percentage of these supporters will now likely follow the path of political violence, convinced that the secular state is irredeemably “evil” and “un-Islamic”.

After their disastrous year in power and given their theological basis, I do not entertain delusions, like some do, regarding the Muslim Brotherhood’s commitment to democracy. Like far-right movements in Europe, the Brotherhood’s leadership saw the democratic process not as a tool for the peaceful transfer of power but as a drawbridge leading into the palace which they would slam firmly shut afterwards.

But the Brotherhood’s antidemocratic tendencies are no excuse to persecute and demonise the movement. Having it involved in the political process is far better than turning its members into social pariahs and outcasts who, with nothing left to lose, may prove willing to lose everything.

But, sadly, in Egypt’s zero-sum political culture, there is far too much of a winner-takes-all mentality. Following Mubarak’s removal from power, the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF) brutally clung on to power for as long as it took to load the dice in its favour, especially when it came to the protection of its huge economic fiefdom. The army had hoped that going through the motions of “democratisation” would lead to the emergence of a toothless parliament and lame duck president which, like in the Turkey of yesteryear, could be controlled from behind the scenes.

Instead of playing ball, the Muslim Brotherhood set their own power grab in motion, with Morsi ironically appointing al-Sisi to head up SCAF because he apparently believed he was sympathetic to their cause and was junior and inexperienced enough to dominate and control. When Morsi started ruling by presidential decree, this not only made him hugely unpopular across Egypt but also set him on a collision course with the army.

The military saw Morsi’s grand failures and mounting opposition to his rule as its ticket to return visibly to the driver’s seat. Buoyed by ephemeral popularity, the al-Sisi regime has massively overplayed its hand. Egypt has seen a tidal wave of state violence and oppression, not just of the Brotherhood but also of the secular opposition.

This manic exercise of state power has seen Sisimania wane considerably. This is reflected in how al-Sisi is no longer the media darling he was before gaining office. Despite massive crackdowns on the press, voices of dissent and criticism are rising once again in the media, with some even calling for early elections.

With the state’s machinery of repression working at full throttle, al-Sisi’s regime is faced with stark choices: either follow al-Assad’s path and possibly push the country into the abyss, or follow Tunisia’s path of reconciliation, consensus politics and democratisation.

____

Follow Khaled Diab on Twitter.

This is the updated version of an article which first appeared on Al Jazeera on 17 May 2015.

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Freedom of repression in Egypt

 
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By Khaled Diab

The Republic of Tahrir revolutionaries dreamt of an Egypt of freedom, but the only thing that seems free these days is the value of human dignity.

Saturday 10 January 2015

In December 2011, the glimmer of hope that would spark revolution across the Arab world was ignited in Tunisia with its jasmine-scented revolution. While Tunisians have managed to take advantage of the intervening four years to set in motion a process of rapid democratisation – including two sets of free elections (2011 and 2014), the drafting of a non-partisan constitution, not to mention the democratic and peacefaul transfer of power – other countries in the region have not been so fortunate.

The Tunisian path of consensus politics, which helped the country navigate some of the greatest hazards and perils of revolution in a largely peaceful manner, has been absent from Egypt, where each change in leadership came with a “winner takes all” confrontational and combative attitude.

As we approach the fourth anniversary of the Egyptian revolution, the high hopes of “bread, freedom and social justice” seem as far away as ever – some fear that they have moved impossibly out of reach.

In addition to the nose-diving economy, which has been kept afloat since 2011 through the largesse of the Gulf allies of the moment, this regression has been felt acutely and painfully in the area of freedom of expression, particularly the media.

While the revolutionaries of the Republic of Tahrir had dreamt briefly of an Egypt that would be a beacon of freedom, the only thing that seems free these days is the value of human dignity. The counterrevolution – which actually began with the ouster of Hosni Mubarak, when the regime amputated its head to keep its body intact – seems to be reaching an end goal of sorts, through a process of heavy-handed crackdowns and co-options.

In terms of repression, 2014 was a particularly harsh year, in which Egypt found itself in the uncoveted top 10 jailers of journalists. “Egypt more than doubled its number of journalists behind bars to at least 12, including three journalists from the international network Al Jazeera,” said the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ), an independent NGO based in New York which has been dubbed “journalism’s Red Cross”.

Like Al Jazeera’s Baher Mohamed, Mohamed Fahmy and Peter Greste, many of the imprisoned journalists listed by CPJ are accused of having links or sympathies with the previous regime of Mohamed Morsi. These include members of the highly influential citizenship journalism site Rassd News Network (RNN), which is affiliated with or at least sympathetic to the now-outlawed Muslim Brotherhood.

RNN’s Mahmoud Abdel Nabi has been in jail the longest of the dozen reporters behind bars. He was arrested, in July 2013, while covering clashes between pro-military and pro-Morsi protesters in Sidi Beshr, Alexandria. He is accused of inciting violence and the possession of weapons.

The other RNN staff members in jail are Samhi Mustafa and Abdullah al-Fakharany,  who were indicted in February, along with dozens of others, for allegedly “forming an operations room to direct the Muslim Brotherhood to defy the government”.

Even for journalists without any alleged political allegiances, simply doing their jobs during the dispersal of the al-Raba’a and al-Nahda protest camps – which Human Rights Watch calculates led to the death of at least a thousand, including four journalists – could easily land them in jail.

This is exactly what happened to the freelance photojournalist Mahmoud Abou Zeid, a contributor to the UK-based citizen journalism site and photo agency Demotix, who was arrested in August 2013 while covering the dispersal, though the French photographer and Newsweek journalist he was with were later released.

Some reporters have fallen foul of the regressive and controversial anti-protest law passed in 2013. These include Ahmed Gamal, a photojournalist with the online news network Yaqeen, who was arrested on 28 December 2013 while covering student protests at al-Azhar University in Nasr City, Cairo. Ahmed Fouad of the local news website for Alexandria, Karmoz, who was arrested in January 2014 during pro-Muslim Brotherhood protests in Sidi Beshr.

Despite such incidents, the anti-protest law is intended primarily for protesters and dissidents, both of the Islamist and secular variety. In fact, some are convinced that this law criminalising dissent is part of a “targeted mission to eliminate the prominent revolutionary figures”. This political purge has targeted such leading revolutionary figures as the sibling duo, Alaa Abdel-Fattah, who is accused of not being a “true” revolutionary and of seeking the country’s “destruction”, and Mona Seif, who went on a hunger strike for 76 days to protest her brother’s incarceration.

The al-Sisi regime has also had reformists and human rights defenders in its crosshairs. These include Yara Sallam, a transitional justice officer at the independent Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights (EIPR), who was sentenced to three years at the end of October for allegedly participating in a political march. In December, this was reduced to two years.

EIPR and other NGOs in Egypt are threatened with closure due to the government’s insistence to apply the letter of a controversial 2002 law and even more regressive draft legislation.

But coercion is not the only tool the regime wields. It has also blended this with the co-option of high-profile voices. A number of prominent private television channels and TV personalities have weighed in behind Abdel-Fattah al-Sisi’s leadership.

This was on clear display during last summer’s war in Gaza. For example, the regime’s leading cheerleader, Tawfik Okasha, ridiculed Gazans for not being “men” because “if they were men they would revolt against Hamas,” he blasted.

Beyond the media, some lawyers have taken it as their personal mission to shut down free speech. A recent example was the law suit brought against the famous pro-revolutionary Egyptian actor Khaled Abol-Naga which accused him of “high treason” for daring to criticise President al-Sisi. The case has triggered a wave of anger and protest amongst artists.

Although “Sisimania” has cooled down considerably since the former general became president, there are still many patriotic readers who take any sleight to the leader personally, as reflected in the mirthless reactions of readers to the cartoons and caricatures of Mohamed Anwar.

To add insult to injury, the regime has co-opted the revolution itself and has appointed itself as its sole guardian and guarantor, as reflected in the presidential decree al-Sisi intends to issue which “criminalises insulting the 25 January and 30 June uprisings”.

The regime is also positioning itself as the self-appointed defender of public morality, as highlighted in the recent spate of arrests of alleged homosexuals, in spite of the fact that homosexuality is not actually illegal, as well as the arrest of people suspected of being atheists, despite their being no law in Egypt outlawing atheism, and the recent closure of what the media dubbed the “atheists’ café”.

Amid this onslaught on the media and the freedom of activists and citizens to express their political thoughts, it is easy to feel despair for Egypt’s future and its people’s aspirations for freedom, dignity and equality.

However, it is important to contextualise matters. Despite the devolution, Egypt at its worst is still freer and its people more openly defiant than just about everywhere in the Gulf at their best. For instance, Qatar’s domestic media does not enjoy freedom nor does it agitate for it, exercising a great deal of self-censorship.

Contrast that to Egypt where, despite all the crackdowns, arrests and intimidations, there are still independent voices who refuse to be cowed, coerced or co-opted. This is embodied in Egypt’s dynamic citizen journalism scene and its independent publications, such as Mada Masr.

Even private TV does not always sing from the government’s hymn sheet. A recent example of this was an ONtv programme exposing the ill-gotten gains of the mysterious billionaire Hussein Salem, who was recently acquitted of corruption charges alongside his patron, Hosni Mubarak.

Many activists and human rights defenders are still striving to fight the corner of freedom. The award-winning Association for Freedom of Thought and Expression (AFTE) has not taken the regime’s recent infringements lying down. It has issued numerous scathing reports on the subject, including one entitled “Has journalism become a crime in Egypt?”

Understandably, the ranks of the defiant are shrinking in Egypt, as many once-critical voices are silenced and an increasing number of journalists and activists take flight mostly out of despair, but also out of fear.

But this situation is not inevitable nor necessarily indefinite. Just as a generation of young idealists defied all odds and expectations to bring the regime to its knees, the spirit they set free may be suppressed for a time but it cannot be extinguished.

____

Follow Khaled Diab on Twitter.

This article first appeared in Al Jazeera on 28 December 2014.

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The language of Arab (dis)unity

 
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By Khaled Diab

The romantic myth that Arabs share “one heart and one spirit” led pan-Arabism to talk unity while walking the path of disunity.

Charismatic and a natural orator, Nasser appealed to millions of Arabs, including this crowd in Syria. Photo: al-Ahram.

Charismatic and a natural orator, Nasser appealed to millions of Arabs, including this crowd in Syria. Photo: al-Ahram.

Sunday 4 January 2015

Given how widely it is spoken and understood, Arabic is one of the UN’s six official languages, alongside English, French, Chinese, Russian and Spanish. Spoken by some 300 million people as a native language, Arabic is also used liturgically to varying degrees by the world’s 1.6 billion Muslims.

The Arabic language gave us not only timeless contributions to philosophy, the sciences, literature and art, but also to the formation of modern Arab identity and nationalism. “Every Arabic-speaking people is an Arab people. Every individual belonging to one of these Arabic-speaking peoples is an Arab,” claimed Sati al-Husri (1882-1968), an early Arab nationalist of Syrian extraction who, ironically, grew up in a well-to-do family which was closely linked to the Ottoman Empire.

Al-Husri believed that this common linguistic heritage gave Arabs “one heart and one spirit” which, in turn, qualified them both as a single nation and a single state. This romantic notion was central to efforts to create secular Arab nationalism, from Baathism to later Nasserism. Michel Aflaq, one of the founding fathers of pan-Arabist Baathism, believed that both language and history were unifying forces for Arabs.

But surveying the current state of destructive disunity plaguing the Arab world, one might be excused for wondering if Arabs truly are of “one spirit”, why it is they have failed so dismally to  beat together as “one heart”.

Not only did the dream of a single Arab nation collapse many years ago, even the individual nation states so despised by pan-Arabists are crumbling before our eyes, with the two strongholds of Baathist ideology, Syria and Iraq, lying in smouldering ruins.

How did we arrive at this sorry state?

Diehard pan-Arabists place the blame squarely with (neo-)imperialism, with the conservative Arab regimes and with the failure of the revolutionary regimes to implement pan-Arabism properly.

Some old-school Arab nationalists with whom I’ve spoken portray Syria as having been the last bastion of pan-Arabism and the last hope for the Arab nation, and that is why the West conspired to bring it down. Even the Islamic State (ISIS) is seen by some as being part of an elaborate Western plot.

The trouble with this theory is that Syria had long stopped even trying to pay lip service to pan-Arab ideals. In addition, the rot and corruption within had so weakened the state that when Bashar al-Assad decided ruthlessly to cling to power at any cost, it sent Syria into a reeling tailspin and meltdown, leaving it wide open to become a multinational battleground.

Moreover, placing the bulk of the blame at the outside world’s feet facilitates a dangerous level of self-deception. It also curtails an honest analysis of why pan-Arabism failed.

While it is true that, in its heyday, pan-Arabism, such as the Nasserist model, had many foes, both regionally and in the West, it also contained many of the seeds of its own downfall.

One major failing was the utopian idea that just because millions of people spoke the same language, they somehow constituted a single nation whose nature was unity and, so, any discord was seen as going against the natural order. This is in spite of the fact that, like in Europe until recently, the Arab world has never been unified except at the point of a sword – and often simultaneously under the control of competing empires or dynasties.

But even linguistically, Arabs are not unified. While some dialects of Arabic are mutually intelligible, others are so far removed that, in other contexts, they would be classified as separate languages. For example, even after years of exposure to Moroccans in Europe, I, as an Egyptian, still do not understand their darija.

The reason these dialects – which can be about as mutually intelligible as the Romance languages are to each other – are classed as “Arabic” is more political than linguistic.

This is why Arabs from different countries often resort to fusha (Modern Standard Arabic) to make themselves mutually intelligible, in a phenomenon known as diglossia. However, not all Arabs can speak fusha and those who do communicate with it use it as a second language.

And just like linguistic diversity is concealed under the umbrella of “Arabic”, social, cultural, economic and political diversity has traditionally been glossed over in pan-Arabist discourse, as if it were an inconvenience rather than a reality.

Despite some common features between clusters of Arab societies in terms of culture and history, there is a mind-boggling array of differences not only between Arab states but also within them. This clash between ideology and reality is one factor behind pan-Arabism’s efforts to suppress diversity rather than to accommodate and celebrate it.

To complicate matters further, Arab countries have and had radically different forms of government, levels of wealth and degrees of development. Even for the best-thought-out integration projects, this is a major challenge that requires years of serious planning and preparation.

But the idea that speaking the same tongue makes us “one” has reduced the concept of Arab unity either to hollow slogans or to disastrous marriages that were rushed into hastily and impatiently, such as the damaging United Arab Republic (Syria and Egypt), the United Arab States (the UAR and North Yemen) the Federation of Arab Republics (Libya, Egypt and Syria) or the still-born Arab Islamic Republic (Libya and Tunisia).

That does not mean that the principle of pan-Arabism is necessarily a bad idea or an unattainable ideal. In certain respects, it was an unsurprising product of its times. The increasingly feverish and intolerant Turkish nationalism which accompanied the decline of the Ottoman Empire led Arab intellectuals, activists and reformers to grope around for an alternative.

Pan-Arab nationalism was an attempt to square the circle of gaining independence from Turkish repression while maintaining the advantages of  a frontierless region bestowed by the Ottomans. That partly explains why Egypt was not an early convert to this ideology, because it had already removed itself from the Sultan’s sphere of influence.

El-Qawmiya el-Arabiya also recognised that, alone, each Arab state would be weak.

Today, as much as a century ago, the region desperately needs to find a way to rise out of the ashes of conflict and weakness and towards a future of co-operation and strength. This time, the utopian dreams and hollow slogans of yesteryear are gone.

In their place, an organic, bottom-up process of common identity building is taking place, spearheaded largely by young people. From pan-Arab TV hits like Arab Idol to the previously unthinkable level of interaction facilitated by social media, Arabs are discovering their rich diversity as well as the shared features of their identities and common causes.

This loose sense of a common plight and a common destiny was reflected, exactly four years ago, in how the spark of hope lit in Tunisia spread like wildfire across the region. In the early days of the Egyptian revolution protesters borrowed Tunisian slogans and chanted “We are all Tunisia”, while activists exchanged tips for dealing with police and teargas.

Despite the ongoing collapse of the current Arab order, this grassroots route to greater co-operation offers some hope for the future.

____

Follow Khaled Diab on Twitter.

This article first appeared in The National on 20 December 2014.

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Arabic: The language of confusion?

 
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By Khaled Diab

If an Arab says he’ll kill you, don’t  worry – he wants to buy you dinner. Whether Arabic dialects are a single language is politcal, not linguistic.

Photo: Aieman Khimji / Wikimedia Commons

Photo: Aieman Khimji / Wikimedia Commons

Tuesday 30 December 2014

Earlier this month, the United Nations celebrated Arabic Language Day which got me musing about whether that should be in the singular or take the plural form, Arabic Languages Day.

It is something of a recurring joke among Egyptians who do not speak foreign languages to quip that they speak two languages: Egyptian and Fusha (Modern Standard Arabic).

For language purists and traditionalists, the various forms of colloquial Arabic (amiya or darija) are simply bastardisations of classical Arabic and do not merit much attention.

In fact, it took decades of struggle before Arabic vernaculars became accepted as more than spoken languages. The late colloquial poet Ahmed Fouad Negm – who managed to piss off three Egyptian presidents enough to jail him – did not just shock the establishment with his irreverence, dissent and obscenity but also his insistence on employing Egyptian working class Arabic, rather than the refined poetic language of classical Arabic, in his verse.

But Negm, and other trailblazers before and since, have given amiya authenticity, respectability and, most of all, street cred. And today colloquial Arabic is used regularly on TV, social media and even in literature.

This is just as well. As any frustrated foreign learner of Arabic can tell you, speaking the classical language can make you sound like you’ve stepped out of a TV period drama about, say, Saladin, or give people the impression that you’re a newscaster – in other words, it’s just not natural.

Not only does standard Arabic not feel natural to most Arabs, the differences between it and some vernaculars is so great that schoolchildren sometimes feel they are learning a second language, though not quite a foreign language.

But when it comes to the dozens of Arabic dialects, some would surely qualify as a foreign language. If the definition of a language is that its speakers can understand each other, then Arabic often fails this test, since some of its dialects are mutually unintelligible.

The decision to classify all these dialects as being the same language is both political and historical. Arabic is at the core of modern Arab identity and so promoting the idea of common nationhood has required the glossing over of these linguistic differences. Such apparent linguistic unity also encouraged the illusion that Arab unity was natural and inevitable, which meant that pan-Arabism rested more on sloganeering than on concrete efforts to bridge the huge cultural, economic, social and political differences in the region.

In addition, Arabic remains the only generally accepted liturgical language for Islam – which used to confound me as a child when I came across Pakistani and Indian friends in London who knew the Quran by heart but didn’t comprehend a word they recited.

Speakers of dialects from the Arab Mashriq (East) cannot generally understand people from the Arab Maghreb (West). Try as I may, I have never managed to decipher Algerian, and Moroccan is a serious challenge, even after encountering many Moroccans in Belgium. While travelling around Morocco, I was amused by the fact that it was sometimes easier to communicate with locals in French than in Arabic, since many were not well-versed in standard Arabic.

There is a certain level of mutual unintelligibility even between dialects in close geographical proximity. Even among mutually intelligible and relatively similar dialects, like Egyptian and Palestinian, there is plenty of room for confusion.

When I first moved here, to Jerusalem, I was surprised to discover just how different the words in Egyptian and Palestinian were for many basic items. These include bread (eish/khobez), shoes (gazma/kondara) and slippers (shebsheb/babouj). Many basic phrases also differ significantly: How are you? (ezayak/kefak?), good (kewayis/meneeh), What’s this? (Eh dah/Shoo hada?).

Many common verbs vary too: look (bos/itala’), run (igree/orkod), lift (sheel/irfa’a), hug (uhdon/a’ebot), etc. This is why I sometimes feel sorry for my son. At five, he is grappling with four languages (Arabic, Dutch, English and French), but the Arabic component must feel like more than one language to him.

Sometimes, and this is where the real fun begins, the same word exists but it can have quite a different meaning, leading to much mirth or confusion or even insult.

Palestinians have repeatedly described a person to me as “naseh”. To my Egyptian ears, this means smart, clever or even a wiseass. But here it means chubby. Some Palestinians have on occasion told me that I look “da’afan” which to my ears sounds like “weak” or “under the weather,” but to them it means “you’ve lost weight.”

Speaking of health, many Palestinians bid each other farewell by saying: “Ye’tek el-afiya” which literally means “May you be given rigour.” In Egypt, we only say that to sick people and so, in my early days here, I wondered why some people thought I was unwell.

Sometimes these dialectical differences can cause bewilderment. While “mabsout” in Egypt and some other countries means happy or in a good mood, in Iraq, it means to be “beaten up.” A friend relates an anecdote in which an ICRC worker visiting Iraqi prisoners asked them whether they were “mabsouteen” and they were utterly confused by the question.

Speaking of violence. A German friend of mine who went out to dinner with a Tunisian was told in no uncertain terms that her date would “khalas aleki.” In the Egyptian dialect she knew, it meant “finish her off.” Confused, she asked him why he wanted to kill her, to which he explained that, in Tunisia, it means that he was going to pick up the tab.

Sometimes, Arabs visiting other Arab countries can unintentionally cause insult. While in many dialects “marra” is just the normal way of referring to a woman, in Egypt, it is derogatory and verges on calling her a “slut.”

Even respectful terms like teacher (me’allem, for a man, or me’allema, for a woman) mean something different in Egypt. For Egyptians, a me’allem is the boss of a gang or a group of manual workers or craftsmen, while a me’allema is a head belly-dancer.

With all these mind-boggling variations, whether or not Arabic qualifies as a single language or many languages is really in the eyes, and ears, of the beholder.

If the idea of Arab unity is to have any kind of future, these linguistic differences, not to mention socio-economic and political ones, need to be recognised and accommodated. Arabs need not speak with a single voice, but need to find harmony among their chorus of divergent voices.

____

Follow Khaled Diab on Twitter.

This is an extended version of an article which first appeared in Haaretz on 18 December 2014.

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The death throes of Arab thuggery

 
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By Khaled Diab

Arab civilisation has not collapsed but the thuggish political, economic and religious mafias dominating the region are dying violently.

Prompted by social media, pro

Prompted by social media, pro

Friday 17 October 2014

In an influential essay in Politico, the veteran Lebanese journalist Hisham Melhem who is the Washington bureau chief of Al Arabiya, sounded the death knell for Arab civilisation.

“Arab civilisation, such as we knew it, is all but gone,” was his bleak prognosis. “The Arab world today is more violent, unstable, fragmented and driven by extremism… than at any time since the collapse of the Ottoman Empire a century ago.”

Melhem then goes on to detail a long list of ills plaguing the Arab world: from the apparent defeat of the Arab Spring revolutions in most countries to the failure of Arab secular and monarchist regimes, not to mention the proliferation of fundamentalist violence.

“Is it any surprise that, like the vermin that take over a ruined city, the heirs to this self-destroyed civilisation should be the nihilistic thugs of the Islamic State?” he asks.

But to my mind, the domino-collapse of one state after another is not a sign of the death of Arab civilisation, but is rather the result of the implosion of three bankrupt forms of despotism: that of the tyrannical Arab state, Islamist demagoguery and foreign hegemony.

Despite the massive differences in the forms of government and the nature of the governed, most post-independence Arab states shared one thing in common: they all served a narrow elite to the detriment of society as a whole. Wherever you turn your gaze, you will find, almost without exception, seated in the place of the previous imperial overlords are local masters.

In addition, the foreign rule of yesteryear did not go away, it just changed its face and modus operandi. The loose-knit Ottoman empire in which local leaders and elites paid lip service and tribute to the Sultan but sometimes behaved like independent leaders, such as in Egypt, was replaced by the British and French who spoke the language of independence but often engaged in direct rule.

When the United States muscled out the old-world European powers, it spoke the language of self-determination and anti-imperialism but created its Pax Americana empire which exercised control through vassal leaders in client states and a ruthlessly punitive approach, including crippling sanctions and invasions, towards those who rejected its hegemony. The upshot of this is that Arab populations have lived under a double oppression: that of their native rulers and that imposed on them from distant capitals.

Just like Washington tolerates little regional dissent, domestically, Arab regimes have shared, to varying degrees, a ruthless attitude to opposition. This had the dual effect of robbing their societies of a clear cadre of effective alternative leaders and empowering ever-more extreme forms of opposition by side-lining or eliminating moderates.

Although a lot of attention has been directed at regime crackdowns against the Islamist opposition, especially the various chapters of the Muslim Brotherhood, less well-known is that secular dissidents suffered repression easily as harsh or more so, especially leftists.

This is to be expected of the Gulf monarchies whose claim to legitimacy is founded on dubious religious pretexts. However, the revolutionary republican regimes of Egypt, Syria and Iraq, despite their reputation in America for having been closet communists and pro-Soviet, not only dealt ruthlessly with the liberal opposition but were also bitterly anti-communist. For example, Nasserist Egypt not only banned the liberal nationalist al-Wafd party in 1953 but also carried out a harsh crackdown against leftists and communist critics. This was partly out of distrust of Moscow and partly to maintain their claim as the sole representatives of progressive values.

In Iraq, the communist party was, for decades, one of the most influential opposition currents, yet was not tolerated neither by the “liberal” royalists nor the “progressive” Free Officers and Ba’athists which came later. The most brutal anti-communist crackdowns were probably those carried out by pro-British Iraqi Prime Minister Nuri al-Said in the late 1940s and in the 1960s following a failed anti-Ba’ath coup attempt. Saddam Hussein also dealt ruthlessly with the party, both as head of security and intelligence in the late 1960s and on the eve of becoming president in the late 1970s.

Though the reasons varied, the decades-long oppression of secular opposition forces in the Arab world had far-reaching consequences. One was the decimation of the ranks of viable alternative leaders, which was acutely felt when the leaderless Arab uprisings did not manage to assemble a credible leadership quickly enough to consolidate their gains.

This, along with the weak, corrupt, incompetent and dysfunctional nature of Arab secular regimes – not to mention the “democratic” fig leaf the West used to disguise its interests – led to the discrediting of secularism in the minds of many, and, after decades of being in vogue, Westernisation became a dirty word rather than something to aspire to.

This left an ideological and political void which radical, anti-authoritarian Islamism managed to occupy, for a time.

To counter both the secularist and Islamist threat to their legitimacy and rule, a number of Gulf states went on the offensive and actively exported, lubricated by petro-dollars, their own brand of Islam, such as the ultra-conservative Wahhabi ideology from Saudi Arabia or Salafism from Qatar.

For a while, political Islamism’s simple “Islam is the solution” formula apparently won a lot of supporters as a counter to the failure both of secular pan-Arabism and conservative monarchism, but this is waning.

Though the secular opposition forces may have been down, they were definitely not out. This was reflected in the progressive, leftist, pro-democracy nature of the 2011 Arab uprisings, especially in Tunisia, Egypt and Syria.

This set alarm bells ringing in what had become the trinity dominating Arab politics: the Arab autocracies (whether republican or monarchist), the Islamist opposition and the US-led West. And each of these set in motion their own anti- or counterrevolutionary forces.

The one country where these forces did not manage to cause major mischief is the only place where the Arab Spring has been a relative success: Tunisia. For a time, Egypt looked like it might also escape this fate but, instead, turned into a battleground for regional and international forces.

But the worst proxy battleground has been Syria. Caught between the intransigent and murderous Assad regime and its allies in Russia, China and Iran, on the one hand, and the unholy alliance between the United States and the conservative Gulf monarchies, on the other hand, the peaceful, secular uprising didn’t stand a chance.

What the above reveals is that it is not Arab civilisation which has died, but the political order put in place almost a century ago following the collapse of the Ottoman empire is going through its death throes. And like dying wild animals, these beasts are at their most dangerous when fatally wounded.

Despite the surface decay in Arab society, submerged underneath are the fresh shoots of a robust, youthful, dynamic civilisation kept from blossoming by the stranglehold of the suffocating weed on the putrid top soil of the established order.

This is visible in the courageous youth who led the revolutionary charge against despotism, neo-liberalism and socioeconomic inequality. It can be seen in how tens of millions of Arabs have lost their deference to their leaders and their awe of authority. It can be traced in the innovative reinvention of religion and in the growing assertiveness of the a-religious, not to mention in the pent-up creative social, economic and even scientific energies eager to be unleashed and harnessed.

Once the crushing weight of the oppressive weed has been removed, future generations will have the space and opportunity to enable a true Arab Spring to bloom. But the road to recovery and then progress is long, hard and gruelling.

____

Follow Khaled Diab on Twitter.

This article first appeared in Haaretz on 2 October 2014.

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Send Qatar off and bring on Tunisia for 2022 World Cup

 
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By Khaled Diab

If Qatar gets a red card for the 2022 World Cup, Arabs should enter a joint bid to host it in Tunisia, regional role model for revolution and reform.

Jubliant Qataris celebrate news of 2022 win. Image: Qatar 2022 official site

Jubliant Qataris celebrate news of 2022 win. Image: Qatar 2022 official site

Thursday 12 June 2014

Like many people of conscience around the world, I am alarmed that Qatar is set to host the 2022 World Cup.

Qatar’s successful bid to organise football’s greatest tournament has trained the international spotlight on the inhumane and dangerous treatment of South Asian migrant workers in the tiny emirate and the wider Gulf region.

Many Qataris and some other Arabs see hypocrisy in the controversy. “Over 20 countries have organised the tournament and they only make this fuss about Qatar,” one Twitter user complained.

Some went even further: “We have to stand assertively against this kind of racist behaviour,” said Kuwaiti politician Ahmad al-Fahad al-Ahmed al-Sabah, who is also the president of the Olympic Council of Asia.

Though I don’t think racism comes into it, at a certain level there do appear to be double standards.  After all, there is a long history of the World Cup being abused as a political football by unscrupulous regimes: from fascist Italy in 1934 to junta-ruled Argentina in 1978. Inmates at the notorious Esma detention centre could hear the ecstatic crowds cheer Argentina to victory against the Netherlands in the final.

Even the 2014 Brazil world cup has not been without controversy, with protests over the costs and the treatment of indigenous tribes.

But it looks likely that allegations of bribery, which Qatar denies, rather than human rights abuses, may drive the final nail in the coffin of the Qatari tournament.

Both Qatar’s initial awarding of the 2022 World Cup and the possibility that it may lose it have stirred mixed emotions in the wider Arab world. It sparked enthusiasm in Qatar and some quarters that an Arab country had finally joined the major league of organising football.

“Congratulations to Qatar and to us for the football victory,” wrote Jihan al-Khazen in the pan-Arab daily al-Hayat back in 2010. “Winning the right to host the championship is an honour to all Arabs.”

Even if they were perplexed as to why minute Qatar with little footballing tradition to speak of had gained this “honour”, many Arabs echoed al-Khazen’s sentiments. For example, both Egyptian fans and the Egyptian Football Association sent Qatar congratulatory messages at the time.

However, the recent strain in Egyptian-Qatari relations over allegations that Qatar bankrolled and supported the despised Muslim Brotherhood have curbed the enthusiasm of some Egyptians.

This prompted Kamal Amer of pro-government Rose al-Youssef to urge his readers last year to overlook what he described as temporary differences and to focus on the “Arab, Middle Eastern and Islamic dream” of hosting the World Cup. He even suggested that Qatar could benefit from Egyptian expertise in the run-up to the event.

So far, the latest round of allegations has elicited little reaction in Egypt, which is preoccupied with meatier matters, such as the recent presidential elections and the anointing of its probable latest dictator, Abdel-Fattah al-Sisi.  Nevertheless, the FIFA corruption allegations have received a civil handling. For example, the outspoken, pro-regime TV presenter Amr Adeeb, rather than gloat at Qatar’s predicament, focused on the ethics of the matter.

“It’s not a question of whether Qatar should host the World Cup, it’s a question of morality,” he said on his popular talk show Cairo Today. “We were happy that Qatar was the first Arab country that would embrace the World Cup,” Adeeb noted.

However, if Qatar gets the red card for the 2022 championship, which I think it should still stay in the region. The World Cup has left its traditional venues of Europe and Latin America, to visit Asia, the United States and Africa, so the Arab world should get a shot too.

Although I prefer the idea of a fixed venue  classified as international territory, I believe holding the World Cup in the Middle East can be an opportunity to honour all those who sacrificed for the dream of the Arab Spring, provide relief to a troubled region and promote some inter-Arab co-operation amid the strained relations afflicting the region. This can be done through a joint Arab bid from several countries.

Given how it spearheaded the Arab revolutionary wave and has been a relative trailblazer in democratic reform, I would argue that the honour should go to Tunisia to be the actual host. Moreover, the Eagles of Carthage have significant footballing pedigree. Tunisia has qualified for four World Cups and was the first African side to win a match at the championship, back in 1978.

However, given the country’s modest means, a regional fund should be established, bankrolled by the rich Gulf states, including even Qatar, to finance preparations for the tournament. Other regional footballing heavyweights – like Egypt, Algeria and Morocco – can provide their technical expertise.

In addition, to avoid the waste associated with the tournament (which can only truly be curbed with a fixed venue), a blueprint should be drawn up that creates the maximum number of jobs ethically and every piece of infrastructure must be recyclable.

This would not only help to raise Tunisia’s prestige and stimulate investment in the country, creating much-needed jobs, it would also promote a deeper sense of shared identity across the region.

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Follow Khaled Diab on Twitter.

This article first appeared in The Guardian on 5 June 2014.

 

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