Justice in Egypt

The latest mass death sentence handed down in Egypt received a fair amount of press. (Enough to incense Egypt's Foreign Ministry, which has released its usual ridiculous statement sniffily calling for the respect of non-existent "international conventions" not to ever question the ruling of any judge anywhere). 

I wrote about mass sentences and the role of the Egyptian judiciary over a year ago. Since then the sentences have continued apace. The only reason this one has received particular attention, in fact, is  because the convicted included former president Mohamed Morsi. Those sentenced to death also include Freedom and Justice Party spokeswoman Sondos Asem and Professor Emad Shahin who having fled the country is currently teaching at Georgetown. The Atlantic Council's EgyptSource blog has an excellent round up of the cases, charges, and reactions here

As I've written before, I can think of few things more destructive to a social peace than the belief that there is no possible recourse to justice. All judicial systems are imperfect, but citizens must at least harbor the hope, the delusion even, that there are avenues for redress. 

Read More

The Fight For Yemen, Continued

The Fight For Yemen, Continued

In 1962, shortly before their own adventure in counterinsurgency in North Yemen began, Egyptian advisors who had been stationed there to reform the ruling Imam’s army spoke respectfully of how the locals had managed to defeat all of the Ottoman forces sent to the region in the early twentieth century. Unfortunately, this respect was absent at the highest levels of command back in Cairo when it launched its own adventure in counterinsurgency in North Yemen. The Nasserists by and large regarded Yemen as a backwater led by a medieval despot and populated by superstitious primitives, much as Western publications did during the 1934 Saudi invasion.

Major General Saladin al-Hadidi, as recounted by Jesse Ferris in Nasser’s Gamble, was so dismissive of the Yemenis he told a colleague who had just returned from North Yemen that given enough whizz-bangs and smoke machines, he could put on such a display as to freeze royalists guerillas in their tracks. Mr. al-Hadidi’s military intelligence directorate could not supply the Egyptian armed forces with accurate maps of the countryside immediately outside of Sana’a. Cairo quite literally did not bother painting an accurate picture of the place it went to war over.

Believing that North Yemen was the weakest link of the Arab monarchies, Egypt’s leaders enthusiastically greeted a September 1962 coup against the country’s hereditary Zaydi leader, Imam al-Badr, by a military faction led by a lower class Zaydi named Abdullah al-Sallal (later “President-Field Marshal” Sallal). Sallal’s co-conspirators styled themselves as “free officers” like those who had deposed Egypt’s King Farouk in 1952, proclaiming an end to slavery and a reign of terror against the Imam’s supporters. As soon as they took over the capital, Gamal Abdel Nasser rushed in arms, advisors, money, and “Free Yemeni” émigrés (one of whom was married to Anwar Sadat’s sister) that had been on standby for just such an occasion. Never mind that al-Badr had been more favorably inclined towards the Egyptians and Soviet bloc than his mentally ill father Ahmed (d. 1962) had been.[1] Or that Nasser himself had let this weakest link, “medieval” monarchy and all, join Cairo in a defense pact in 1958 to spite the Saudis.

Read More

On migration in the Mediterranean

There has been an odd meme spreading around since the tragic deaths of hundreds of migrants attempting to cross the Mediterranean over the last week. The idea, widely spread by the press and politicians, is that Libya is the source of all these problems. For example, in Politico:

One EU migration official spelled out just what would be needed to stop the flood of people seeking refuge in Europe.

“You have to stabilize the situation in the countries of origin,” she said. That means figuring out a way to return order to Libya, which has descended into civil war and chaos following the overthrow of Muammar Gaddafi’s dictatorship in 2011. That was the result of a NATO bombing campaign led by EU countries.

Libya is not the country of origin or the source of the migration, for the most part. It is a largely a transit country, and if you look at the country of origin of migrants you will see that many of them are not just economic migrants. Many, perhaps most, appear to be fleeing conflict zones or repressive regimes – Syria, Gaza, Somalia, Nigeria, Eritrea (where many migrants say they are escaping military service). So surely EU officials should be thinking about addressing the conflicts themselves, or at least the humanitarian crisis they engender? This seems to be particularly the case in Syria, since the humanitarian response (with chronic recurrent shortfalls in funding for refugee camps) has been largely inadequate.

Read More

Omar Bashir, Iran's ally, woos GCC over Yemen

Contributor Paul Mutter writes about an overlooked participant in Operation Decisive Storm in Yemen: President Omar Bashir's Sudan. The isolated regime has been happy to win some legitimacy through its token participation. Gulf countries meanwhile appear eager to move it out of Iran's sphere of influence. 

Compared with the Emirati and Saudi contributions to Operation Decisive Storm in Yemen, the Sudanese contingent is a mere token force. Yet the four Soviet-era Sukhoi Su-24 bombers now operating out of King Khalid Airbase carry weight well in excess of their bomb loads. Khartoum did not send over its ramshackle, barrel-bombing Antonov transports. It sent a full third of its most modern air assets to fly against the Houthis. Many of their victims will probably be civilians, as has been the case back home in the Nuba Mountains since the Su-24s were deployed two years ago, according to Nuba Reports and National Geographic.

Their presence serves little military purpose, given the firepower available to the GCC. Instead, by committing to the campaign, Omar al-Bashir’s clique has once again demonstrated the adaptability that has kept it in power since 1989. Focused on wooing their partner away from the Islamic Republic of Iran, the Saudi-led coalition has surely promised the ostracized president military, diplomatic, and economic aid in exchange for his assistance. Already, the Saudis have lifted banking restrictions against Khartoum, imposed in 2014. For the Sudanese regime, which seems to uncover coup plots within its ranks every few months, pours 25% of the national budget into fighting insurgencies it cannot decisively beat, and still cannot cope with the loss of most of its oil fields, such help is quite welcome

Read More

Media in the Arab world

Northwestern University in Qatar has just released its latest survey on media use and attitudes in the Middle East. It finds, among other things, that: 

Egypt, the most politically tumultuous of the countries surveyed, is the only country in which there was an increase in support for tighter internet regulation.

People don’t necessarily think the “democratizing” effect of the internet is a good thing: People who think online activity can increase political influence are more likely to want tighter regulation of the internet.

Fewer people are comfortable expressing their own political opinions, especially in Egypt.

The survey is full of nifty graphics and has a lot of interesting findings. Folks say they support freedom of expression and internet regulation. They are increasingly worried about surveillance and hesitate to share their views online. Egyptians have a low opinion of their media, Emiratis think very highly of theirs. A majority of Saudis and Lebanese believe the international media is biased against them. The most in-demand content is comedy. The #1 media source remains television. (Unfortunately, given what  TV talk shows in the Arab world are). There is a section just on Qatar (in which citizens are asked if they are comfortable criticizing "powerful institutions" rather than, as with other countries, "the government" -- and of course forget about the emir). 

 

Ursula Lindsey

Ursula Lindsey is the managing editor of the Arabist blog. She writes about culture, education and politics in the Arab world. She lived in Cairo from 2002 to 2013 and got her start at the ground-breaking independent magazine Cairo Times. She was the culture editor of Cairo magazine in 2005-2006 and served as special projects editor at the independent news site Mada Masr in 2013-2014. She is the Chronicle of Higher Education's Middle East correspondent. She contributes to the BBC-PRI radio program The World, and has written for Newsweek, The New York Times, The New Yorker online, Bookforum and the blog of the London Review of Books.

American Qur'an

The artist Sandow Birk spent 9 years handwriting and illustrating an American Quran, featuring scenes from his native California. From the artist's site: 

At a time when the United States was involved in two wars against Islamic nations and declared itself to be in a cultural and philosophical struggle against Islamic extremists, American artist Sandow Birk’s latest project considers the Qur’an as it was intended – as a universal message to humankind. If the Qur’an is indeed a divine message to all peoples, he ponders, what does it mean to an individual American in the 21st Century? How does the message of the Qur’an relate to us, as Americans, in this life, in this time? What is this message that we have spent so much blood and treasure fighting against, and how can the message of the Qur’an be applied to a contemporary American life? In short, what might the Qur’an mean to contemporary Americans?

 I love this, and you can see it all here. HT Simon. 


2 Comments

Ursula Lindsey

Ursula Lindsey is the managing editor of the Arabist blog. She writes about culture, education and politics in the Arab world. She lived in Cairo from 2002 to 2013 and got her start at the ground-breaking independent magazine Cairo Times. She was the culture editor of Cairo magazine in 2005-2006 and served as special projects editor at the independent news site Mada Masr in 2013-2014. She is the Chronicle of Higher Education's Middle East correspondent. She contributes to the BBC-PRI radio program The World, and has written for Newsweek, The New York Times, The New Yorker online, Bookforum and the blog of the London Review of Books.

Tunisia's Rachid Ghannouchi on blasphemy, homosexuality, equality

In a new book, Au sujet de l'Islam ("Speaking of Islam"), Rachid Ghannouchi, the head of the Ennahda party in Tunisia, give his opinions on a number of contemporary issues. Here are a few quotes translated from a press summary:

On blasphemy: "It's forbidden in Tunisia, although freedom of conscience and opinion are protected by the Constitution. You have the choice to be Muslim or not, but you don't have the choice to mock the beliefs of others." 
On homosexuality: "We don't approve it. But Islam does not spy on folks. It preserves privacy. Everyone leads his/her life and is responsible before his/her creator." 
On equality: "Inheritance does not reflect the value of women versus men. They are equal in terms of their human value, but don't have the same rights and responsibilities in society." 

 

I wonder if the seemingly liberal position on homosexuality is a reaction above all to the pervasive spying under Ben Ali and the way the intelligence services used people's private lives, including real or false sexual allegations, as ammunition against them. On the old Islamist chestnut that men and women don't need to be equal in everything, just to have an equitable distribution of obligations -- What about the many men who live off their wives' work, or systematically refuse to pay alimony? Shouldn't they lose the rights of "breadwinners" when they shirk their obligations? 

Ursula Lindsey

Ursula Lindsey is the managing editor of the Arabist blog. She writes about culture, education and politics in the Arab world. She lived in Cairo from 2002 to 2013 and got her start at the ground-breaking independent magazine Cairo Times. She was the culture editor of Cairo magazine in 2005-2006 and served as special projects editor at the independent news site Mada Masr in 2013-2014. She is the Chronicle of Higher Education's Middle East correspondent. She contributes to the BBC-PRI radio program The World, and has written for Newsweek, The New York Times, The New Yorker online, Bookforum and the blog of the London Review of Books.

Weekend read: Kamel Daoud's counter-investigation

The Algerian writer Kamel Daoud's Meursault, contre-enquete is one of the best books I've read in a while. Inspired by Camus' The Stranger, it is a brilliantly written, sharp, sad, angry look at colonialism, religion, and the limits of "liberation." It is narrated by the brother of the unnamed Arab killed and quickly forgotten in Camus' novel. Adam Shatz has a great profile of Daoud, the city of Oran, where he lives, and the Algerian literary scene in the New York Times magazine.

After college, Daoud took a job as a crime reporter for a monthly tabloid called Detective. (“What made ‘The Wire’ so great,” he told me, “is that it’s a collaboration between a writer and a policeman, the dogs of the world.”) It was through traveling to small, remote towns, where he wrote about murder trials and sex crimes, that Daoud discovered what he calls “the real Algeria.” When Detective folded in 1996, he went to work for Le Quotidien d’Oran. While other journalists complained of the danger they faced from Islamist rebels, Daoud rented a donkey and went out to interview them. He reported on some of the worst massacres of the civil war, including the 1998 killings in the village of Had Chekala, where more than 800 people were slaughtered. His work as a reporter, Daoud told me, left him suspicious of “hardened positions and grand analyses,” and that sensibility infused the column he began writing for Le Quotidien. Daoud upheld no ideology, spoke in no one’s name but his own. To his new admirers, this was something to celebrate: the emergence of an authentically Algerian free spirit. To his adversaries, Daoud became the face of an Algerian Me-Generation: selfish, hollow, un-Algerian.

The New Yorker has also just published a short interview with Daoud and more importantly an excerpt from the forthcoming translation of his novel. 

Musa was my older brother. His head seemed to strike the clouds. He was quite tall, yes, and his body was thin and knotty from hunger and the strength that comes from anger. He had an angular face, big hands that protected me, and hard eyes, because our ancestors had lost their land. But when I think about it I believe that he already loved us then the way the dead do, with no useless words and a look in his eyes that came from the hereafter. I have only a few pictures of him in my head, but I want to describe them to you carefully. For example, the day he came home early from the neighborhood market, or maybe from the port, where he worked as a handyman and a porter, toting, dragging, lifting, sweating. Anyway, that day he came upon me while I was playing with an old tire, and he put me on his shoulders and told me to hold on to his ears, as if his head were a steering wheel. I remember the joy I felt as he rolled the tire along and made a sound like a motor. His smell comes back to me, too, a persistent mingling of rotten vegetables, sweat, and breath. Another picture in my memory is from the day of Eid one year. Musa had given me a hiding the day before for some stupid thing I’d done, and now we were both embarrassed. It was a day of forgiveness and he was supposed to kiss me, but I didn’t want him to lose face and lower himself by apologizing to me, not even in God’s name. I also remember his gift for immobility, the way he could stand stock still on the threshold of our house, facing the neighbors’ wall, holding a cigarette and the cup of black coffee our mother brought him.
3 Comments

Ursula Lindsey

Ursula Lindsey is the managing editor of the Arabist blog. She writes about culture, education and politics in the Arab world. She lived in Cairo from 2002 to 2013 and got her start at the ground-breaking independent magazine Cairo Times. She was the culture editor of Cairo magazine in 2005-2006 and served as special projects editor at the independent news site Mada Masr in 2013-2014. She is the Chronicle of Higher Education's Middle East correspondent. She contributes to the BBC-PRI radio program The World, and has written for Newsweek, The New York Times, The New Yorker online, Bookforum and the blog of the London Review of Books.

Two very good books

The finalists for the International Man Booker prize have been announced. Two names on the list have written wonderful books that have meant a lot to me. Amitav Gosh's In An Antique Land is a book I would place on my Ideal Egypt Reading List. I have just been searching my shelves for it and am distressed not to find it. This is a work of creative historical research and reconstruction and of deft and very amusing sociological observation. Gosh did doctoral research in two Nile Delta villages in the early 1980s (and then returned for a visit at the end of the decade). He memorably sketches the personalities of his hosts; his interactions with the villagers -- who mock him for his Hindu beliefs but call on him to fix their Indian-made water pumps -- are deeply funny. In his book he also imagines the life of a 12th century Jewish trader based in Egypt and his Indian slaves. He uses the Geniza documents, an incredible trove found in a Jewish synagogue in Cairo (since throwing away paper with God's name on it is forbidden, the Jewish community there had been using the space between two walls in the synagogue as a giant waste paper basket for centuries). To me In An Antique Land was a lovely, personal reflection on Egypt's layered, multi-cultural past and on its submersion (some would say erasure) by the modern nation state. It's told  by a writer with great empathy, insight and intellectual curiosity about folks around him and ones who lived centuries ago. 

The Libyan writer Ibrahim Al Koni is also one of this year's list. I read Al Koni's نزيف الحجر The Bleeding of the Stone when I was studying Arabic in Cairo in the Spring of 2008. A wonderful literature professor from Cairo University assigned it to us and it electrified the class. I have read a few more books of his in translation since, but none have struck me as much as this one. Like so many of al-Koni's books it takes place in the Libyan desert, where the writer is from. 

Elliott Colla, who has translated and written some of the best commentary I've found on Al Koni, writes:

Taking the Twareg aspect of Al-Koni’s writing seriously allows us to recognize a radically redrawn map of the world—one in which the Sahara is a full, rather than empty space; one in which the Twareg lie not at the edges, but the center of history. Al-Koni’s novels take place in a desert world that is, despite its desolation, surprisingly rich in the sense that everywhere there are living beings struggling to live. In Al-Koni’s fiction, the meaning of life is always tied to struggle. Thus, Al-Koni’s novels paradoxically suggest that only here—in the harshest corners of the desert waste—does life emerge in its richest sense.
While each of Al-Koni’s novels has a different focus, they invariably sketch a richly detailed Twareg landscape whose heart is located somewhere between Aïr and the Hamada Hamra, Ghadamès and Agadez, Sebha and Tamenrasset. Indeed, it is the Acacus range, Al-Koni’s birthplace, which forms the geographical center of this fictional universe. The inbetweenness of this geography is not accidental, for center of this world is deliberately situated between two diametrically opposing social and philosophical forces. To the South lies a world of myth, magic and superstition. It is the place where the caravans carrying blue cloth, slaves and gold originate. To the North lie the distant Arab cities of the coast and after that the sea—a place associated with mechanized technology and warfare. Truth emanates from neither—rather, it is in the struggle between them, the struggle in the Twareg center, that meaning is to be found.

The protagonist is the lone, simple Asouf, a herdsman who lives deep in the desert, in precarious and often dangerous balance with nature. Then evil hunters -- who have already wiped out the gazelles of the area -- arrive, on a hunt for the waddan, a nearly mythical mouflon (a horned wild sheep) with whom Asouf has already had run-ins. Everything about the book is strange and unique: the setting (the Arabic novel is generally extremely urban, just think of the relationship between Mahfouz and Cairo); the agency given to animals (when a late chapter is told from the point of view of a gazelle we are hardly surprised); the unique spiritual universe in which imagery and symbolism from many different religions is combined. This is a world in which nature is cruel, but human are much crueler. The original Arabic is also beautiful. I can only speak to the laborious pleasure I got, sentence by sentence (the labour added to the pleasure -- reading in a second language is often very close reading), but Colla points out how it harks directly back to early Arabic literary tradition. 

Ursula Lindsey

Ursula Lindsey is the managing editor of the Arabist blog. She writes about culture, education and politics in the Arab world. She lived in Cairo from 2002 to 2013 and got her start at the ground-breaking independent magazine Cairo Times. She was the culture editor of Cairo magazine in 2005-2006 and served as special projects editor at the independent news site Mada Masr in 2013-2014. She is the Chronicle of Higher Education's Middle East correspondent. She contributes to the BBC-PRI radio program The World, and has written for Newsweek, The New York Times, The New Yorker online, Bookforum and the blog of the London Review of Books.

ISIS: Conspiracy theories in the Arab media

Not everyone in the Arab media thinks ISIS is part of a larger Western-backed conspiracy, but the view is depressingly widespread (even by those who in the same breadth demand retaliation against these apparently fabricated terrorists and their atrocities). In many of those theories, two reasonable points -- ISIS is in some sense a creation of regional and international powers, its rise a consequence of their terrible policies; and what they do is "un-Islamic," or horrifying to most Muslims -- are quickly pushed into the territory of non-thinking absurdity. Nour Youssef shares another of her expert round-ups. 

While Egyptian singer Sha’ban Abdelrahim was advising ISIS to plant cabbage and taro instead of bombs, Egyptian actor Mohamed Sobhy analyzed the terrorist group’s filmed beheading of 21 Egyptian Copts in Libya. 

Like Abdelrahim and essentially everyone who is not an MB-affiliated TV host, Sobhy asserted that the video is "an American film" with a joint “Turkish/Qatari/US/Israeli production.” The most obvious proof of this, Sobhy says, is that “Jihadi John”  who leads the beheadings, holds prayer beads, symbolizing Islam, in the same hand as a knife, symbolizing violence. “They” are trying to send a subliminal negative message about Islam. This is why the man spoke English: to reach the West and tarnish the image of Islam, he argued. 

Since the majority of Egyptian journalists subscribes to the belief that the US, Israel, Turkey and Qatar are out to destroy Islam, the Middle East and most importantly Egypt, little attention was given to ISIS itself. 

Also thinking it is all about them was Dubai’s former police chief, Dahi Khalfan, who believes the US “unleashed” ISIS’s leader, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, on the Gulf, just like it once used Saddam Hussein. 

Videos and more after the jump. 

Read More

The Arab of the Future

Here is a review I wrote for the LRB blog of the comic L'Arabe du Futur, by Syrian-French comic artist Riad Sattouf. It's a very accomplished, very troubling, work (and should be out in English soon). 

In Libya, where his father accepts a teaching post, the family lose their university housing immediately to squatters who invoke Gaddafi’s ban on private property. Sattouf’s mother, Clementine, nearly gets into trouble after she breaks into hysterical laughter reading out propaganda on the radio. Sattouf remembers the crowds jostling to buy unripe bananas and Tang, the afternoons spent playing unsupervised with the children of other foreign professors. In a child’s worldview, the strictures of a dictatorial regime are no more bizarre than most other rules.
When Sattouf’s father decides to take his family back to Syria, things turn almost farcically awful. He didn’t do his military service, so has to bribe his way past army officers at the airport. The family waits as a group of cab drivers has a brawl over who will take them. Back in the village, at the family home, the women sit in a separate room and eat the men’s leftovers. Sattouf’s father discovers that his brother has sold his land. The village is full of rubbish and feral little boys who wave sticks and threaten Riad.


1 Comment

Ursula Lindsey

Ursula Lindsey is the managing editor of the Arabist blog. She writes about culture, education and politics in the Arab world. She lived in Cairo from 2002 to 2013 and got her start at the ground-breaking independent magazine Cairo Times. She was the culture editor of Cairo magazine in 2005-2006 and served as special projects editor at the independent news site Mada Masr in 2013-2014. She is the Chronicle of Higher Education's Middle East correspondent. She contributes to the BBC-PRI radio program The World, and has written for Newsweek, The New York Times, The New Yorker online, Bookforum and the blog of the London Review of Books.

Social media and the Arab uprisings

Depressing at the state of things may be, I found researching and writing this article about the questions scholars are asking today about the role of social and digital media in political mobilization in the Middle East, for The Chronicle of Higher Education, very interesting. 

"It’s difficult to tell the story of the Arab Spring without talking about social media," says Philip N. Howard, a professor in the department of communications at the University of Washington. But "after years of excitement and effervescence," he notes, "we’re in a much more jaded or critical stage of inquiry."
Working on his book (with Muzammil M. Hussain) Democracy’s Fourth Wave? Digital Media and the Arab SpringMr. Howard developed a causal model that weighed access to new communication technology in Arab countries alongside other socioeconomic factors. He concluded that that access was part of the basic infrastructure needed for collective action to take place.
But by the time the book was published, in 2013, those mass mobilizations for change had seemingly collapsed. Today, out of half a dozen Arab countries that witnessed uprisings, only Tunisia has managed to see its democratic transition through. Across the region, the bloggers and activists who helped plan and publicize protests were sidelined by Islamist parties and military regimes. They have been silenced, imprisoned, or driven into exile.
Scholars are now asking a different set of questions: How did these huge and hopeful social movements fizzle? Why were they unable to achieve political gains? How is social media being used today by resurgent autocratic governments and by terrorist groups? 
Zeynep Tufekci, an assistant professor at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill’s School of Information and Library Science, argued in a recent paper that the ability to "scale up" quickly that social media offers to protest movements means they don’t have to do the hard and necessary work of building traditional organizations that know how to make decisions collectively, change strategies, and persevere. In a TED talk she gave in October, Ms. Tufekci compared today’s social movements, in the Arab world and elsewhere, to "start-ups that got very big without knowing what to do next."

You should also read this article on the topic by Sultan Sooud Al Qassemi, "Social media in the Era of ISIS."  

2 Comments

Ursula Lindsey

Ursula Lindsey is the managing editor of the Arabist blog. She writes about culture, education and politics in the Arab world. She lived in Cairo from 2002 to 2013 and got her start at the ground-breaking independent magazine Cairo Times. She was the culture editor of Cairo magazine in 2005-2006 and served as special projects editor at the independent news site Mada Masr in 2013-2014. She is the Chronicle of Higher Education's Middle East correspondent. She contributes to the BBC-PRI radio program The World, and has written for Newsweek, The New York Times, The New Yorker online, Bookforum and the blog of the London Review of Books.

Making fun of ISIS

Uh-oh, don't tell all the folks who are indignant over SNL's ISIS sketch, but people have been making fun of the group for a while in the Arab world. 

To mock ISIS is not to disrespect their victims. It is a way of challenging their self-important, grandiose, hypocritical thuggery and their determination to frighten us. 

The hostage in this video is being punished for a Playstation infraction. At the end there is a dance party. 

Ursula Lindsey

Ursula Lindsey is the managing editor of the Arabist blog. She writes about culture, education and politics in the Arab world. She lived in Cairo from 2002 to 2013 and got her start at the ground-breaking independent magazine Cairo Times. She was the culture editor of Cairo magazine in 2005-2006 and served as special projects editor at the independent news site Mada Masr in 2013-2014. She is the Chronicle of Higher Education's Middle East correspondent. She contributes to the BBC-PRI radio program The World, and has written for Newsweek, The New York Times, The New Yorker online, Bookforum and the blog of the London Review of Books.

How Islamic is the Islamic State?

Two very different takes, from two prominent middle east scholars, on the question of how Islamic the Islamic state is -- a debate that I am sure will be with us for a while.

This long piece in The Atlantic quotes Bernard Haykel (who was teaching at NYU when I studied there):

Many mainstream Muslim organizations have gone so far as to say the Islamic State is, in fact, un-Islamic. It is, of course, reassuring to know that the vast majority of Muslims have zero interest in replacing Hollywood movies with public executions as evening entertainment. But Muslims who call the Islamic State un-Islamic are typically, as the Princeton scholar Bernard Haykel, the leading expert on the group’s theology, told me, “embarrassed and politically correct, with a cotton-candy view of their own religion” that neglects “what their religion has historically and legally required.” Many denials of the Islamic State’s religious nature, he said, are rooted in an “interfaith-Christian-nonsense tradition.”
Every academic I asked about the Islamic State’s ideology sent me to Haykel. Of partial Lebanese descent, Haykel grew up in Lebanon and the United States, and when he talks through his Mephistophelian goatee, there is a hint of an unplaceable foreign accent.
According to Haykel, the ranks of the Islamic State are deeply infused with religious vigor. Koranic quotations are ubiquitous. “Even the foot soldiers spout this stuff constantly,” Haykel said. “They mug for their cameras and repeat their basic doctrines in formulaic fashion, and they do it all the time.” He regards the claim that the Islamic State has distorted the texts of Islam as preposterous, sustainable only through willful ignorance. “People want to absolve Islam,” he said. “It’s this ‘Islam is a religion of peace’ mantra. As if there is such a thing as ‘Islam’! It’s what Muslims do, and how they interpret their texts.” Those texts are shared by all Sunni Muslims, not just the Islamic State. “And these guys have just as much legitimacy as anyone else.”
All Muslims acknowledge that Muhammad’s earliest conquests were not tidy affairs, and that the laws of war passed down in the Koran and in the narrations of the Prophet’s rule were calibrated to fit a turbulent and violent time. In Haykel’s estimation, the fighters of the Islamic State are authentic throwbacks to early Islam and are faithfully reproducing its norms of war. This behavior includes a number of practices that modern Muslims tend to prefer not to acknowledge as integral to their sacred texts. “Slavery, crucifixion, and beheadings are not something that freakish [jihadists] are cherry-picking from the medieval tradition,” Haykel said. Islamic State fighters “are smack in the middle of the medieval tradition and are bringing it wholesale into the present day.”

Meanwhile Juan Cole makes the opposite argument in a post entitled "Today's Top 7 Myths about Daesh/ISIL" on his blog:

1. It isn’t possible to determine whether Daesh a mainstream Muslim organization, since Muslim practice varies by time and place. I disagree. There is a center of gravity to any religion such that observers can tell when something is deviant. Aum Shinrikyo isn’t your run of the mill Buddhism, though it probably is on the fringes of the Buddhist tradition (it released sarin gas in the Tokyo subway in 1995). Like Aum Shinrikyo, Daesh is a fringe cult. There is nothing in formal Islam that would authorize summarily executing 21 Christians. The Qur’an says that Christians are closest in love to the Muslims, and that if they have faith and do good works, Christians need have no fear in the afterlife. Christians are people of the book and allowed religious freedom by Islamic law from the earliest times. Muslims haven’t always lived up to this ideal, but Christians were a big part of most Muslim states in the Middle East (in the early Abbasid Empire the Egyptian and Iraqi Christians were the majority). They obviously weren’t being taken out and beheaded on a regular basis. They did gradually largely convert to Islam, but we historians don’t find good evidence that they were coerced into it. Because they paid an extra poll tax, Christians had economic reasons to declare themselves Muslims.
We all know that Kentucky snake handlers are a Christian cult and that snake handling isn’t typical of the Christian tradition. Why pretend that we can’t judge when modern Muslim movements depart so far from the modern mainstream as to be a cult?
2. Daesh fighters are pious. Some may be. But very large numbers are just criminals who mouth pious slogans. The volunteers from other countries often have a gang past. They engage in drug and other smuggling and in human trafficking and delight in mass murder. They are criminals and sociopaths. Lots of religious cults authorize criminality.


2 Comments

Ursula Lindsey

Ursula Lindsey is the managing editor of the Arabist blog. She writes about culture, education and politics in the Arab world. She lived in Cairo from 2002 to 2013 and got her start at the ground-breaking independent magazine Cairo Times. She was the culture editor of Cairo magazine in 2005-2006 and served as special projects editor at the independent news site Mada Masr in 2013-2014. She is the Chronicle of Higher Education's Middle East correspondent. She contributes to the BBC-PRI radio program The World, and has written for Newsweek, The New York Times, The New Yorker online, Bookforum and the blog of the London Review of Books.

Libya and Egypt

Yesterday the Islamic State released another one of its disgusting spectacles, featuring the murder of 21 Egyptian Copts who were kidnapped while working in Libya. 

Cartoon by Amjad Rasmi in Al Sharq Al Awsat (thanks to Jonathan Guyer)

Cartoon by Amjad Rasmi in Al Sharq Al Awsat (thanks to Jonathan Guyer)

TIMEP has an account of attacks on Coptic Christians in Libya, of which this is just the latest:

With the exception of the physician from Gharbeyya, who was killed with his family, the rest of the targeted Copts come from Upper Egypt, predominantly Minya, Assiout, and Sohag, which are among the least developed and poorest governorates in Egypt. 
...
Recently, the Egyptian government and security apparatus swiftly intervened to successfully free kidnapped Egyptian embassy personnel in Tripoli in January 2014, and truck drivers in October of that same year. However, the government has not been as quick or as effective on the kidnapping of Copts. In fact, Egyptian officials often seem indifferent to the incidents.

This time, while families mourned in the villages of Egypt's South, President Sisi has ordered air strikes in Libya. The piece in TIMEP points out the need to plan a safe evacuation for the thousands of Egyptian Copts in the country. There are already warning of possible retaliation against them. 

Egyptian military incursions into Libya are a bad idea according to this article in the Cairo Review:

Yet the opposite is happening in Libya. First, Qatar and Turkey have and are providing arms and equipment to the Tripoli-based faction. Second, it has become evident—as well as openly announced by members of the Dignity operation—that Egypt is heavily involved in assisting efforts against Islamists in both the east and, as continuous airstrikes indicate, in the west. Libya is thus becoming a proxy for a larger regional struggle that pits anti-Islamist coalitions (led by the United Arab Emirates, Egypt, and Saudi Arabia) against the presumed supporters of Islamists (Turkey and Qatar). Such international support for the factions undermines UN mediation efforts. In particular, the backing that Egypt provides to General Haftar and Operation Dignity empowers those forces that want to continue the armed struggle until the whole country is “liberated” from those who understand that there is no military solution to the crisis, rather only a negotiated one.

Since the collapse of order in Libya, Egypt has been the most affected by the instability. The power vacuum allows extremist elements to infiltrate Egyptian territory and carry out attacks against security forces. The temptation then is very high for the Egyptian state to intervene directly in Libya and secure at least a buffer zone, but also possibly exert full control over as much of Libya’s eastern territory as feasible. An open intervention by Egypt’s military, however, would not only hinder a peaceful settlement in Libya, but also negatively affect Egypt’s interests. It would entrench the polarization of Libyan forces on the ground, further diminishing prospects for a political solution, and entangle Egypt in a war against forces that will gain wider support as the local population shifts from anti-Islamist sentiments to animosity toward a foreign invader.

Another piece worth reading is Jon Lee Anderson's profile of General Haftar, Egypt and the United Arab Emirates' strongman of choice in Libya. 

Haftar reached out to contacts in what remained of Libya’s armed forces, in civil society, in tribal groups, and, finally, in Tripoli. “Everyone told me the same thing,” he said. “ ‘We are looking for a savior. Where are you?’ I told them, ‘If I have the approval of the people, I will act.’ After popular demonstrations took place all over Libya asking me to step in, I knew I was being pushed toward death, but I willingly accepted.”
Like many self-appointed saviors, Haftar spoke with a certain self-admiring fatalism. But his history is much more complex than he cares to acknowledge. As an Army cadet in 1969, he participated in Qaddafi’s coup against the Libyan monarchy, and eventually became one of his top officers. “He was my son,” Qaddafi once told an interviewer, “and I was like his spiritual father.”

 

1 Comment

Ursula Lindsey

Ursula Lindsey is the managing editor of the Arabist blog. She writes about culture, education and politics in the Arab world. She lived in Cairo from 2002 to 2013 and got her start at the ground-breaking independent magazine Cairo Times. She was the culture editor of Cairo magazine in 2005-2006 and served as special projects editor at the independent news site Mada Masr in 2013-2014. She is the Chronicle of Higher Education's Middle East correspondent. She contributes to the BBC-PRI radio program The World, and has written for Newsweek, The New York Times, The New Yorker online, Bookforum and the blog of the London Review of Books.

Writing and reading about Qatar

In the Chronicle of Higher Education, I profiled a young literature professor, writing instructor and novelist, Mohanalakshmi Rajakumar, who works in Qatar and finds the emirate a great setting for fiction -- even though her own last book was banned. The article is behind our paywall but here is an excerpt:

A daughter of Indian academics who emigrated to the United States, Ms. Rajakumar, 36, arrived in Doha in 2005, to serve as assistant dean of student affairs at Georgetown University’s School of Foreign Service in Qatar. A few years later, while working at Bloomsbury Qatar, a branch of the British publisher, she decided to try her hand at writing. "I thought: Wait a minute, I’m as good as some of these authors," she says.
While pursuing her literary goals, she also encouraged others to do the same. She started teaching writing and founded the Doha Writers’ Workshop, the first group of its kind in the country. Its meetings made her aware of the many stories Qataris were interested in telling.
With support from the U.S. State Department and from Qatar University, she established the Qatar Narrative Series, with an open call for essays by female residents of Qatar. At the time, says Ms. Rajakumar, "People said, ‘It’s such a private culture, they value anonymity, they don’t want to lose face. You’ll never get them to sign their name.’" But the series was a success. From 2008 to 2011, Ms. Rajakumar co-edited four anthologies of Qatari writing.
She uses the collections in the writing classes she teaches. It helps to show students "a book of published essays by people they can relate to," says Ms. Rajakumar, who has also taught at Virginia Commonwealth University’s Qatar campus.
Ms. Rajakumar herself has written half a dozen books, published on Amazon. In the spring of 2014, she released Love Comes Later, the novel about young Qataris trying to find the right partner.
"All of my books are built around a question," explains Ms. Rajakumar. A major one for the young Qatari would-be writers she’d spent time with was: "Who are we going to marry? Is there any chance for love?" With Love Comes Later she imagined an answer.
When her distributor’s agent let her know the book was banned in Qatar, Ms. Rajakumar was surprised. She had anticipated being asked to make some changes for the Qatari edition (a common requirement for local publication and distribution), and was prepared to do so. "As a writer," she says, "if you don’t have readers, you might as well not be writing."
Neither Virginia Commonwealth, where Ms. Rajakumar was working at the time, nor any of the other Western universities publicly questioned the ban. Responses from faculty colleagues varied, she says, with some giving her "high fives" and others asking, "How are you still here?"
Read More

King Abdullah's mourners

It's been quite something to watch governments across the middle east -- and beyond -- pay tribute to Saudi Arabia's late King Abdullah. Egypt cancelled the January 25 anniversary celebrations (the symbolism here is heavy as lead) and the UK flew flags at half-mast. Most Arab countries declared several days (or even weeks) of national mourning -- something they generally don't do when dozens of their own citizens are killed in tragic accidents or terrorist attacks. I guess Saudi military acquisitions (for the West) and investments and subsidies (for Arab neighbors) are worth that much. 

Western media has largely parroted the claim that the king was -- in the Saudi context -- some sort of moderate and reformer. This is really a stretch. While Abdullah did not seem to be as repressive and hidebound as other members of the royal family, he never put that family's power-sharing deal with the kingdom's fundamentalist religious clergy in question.

The idea that the house of Saud is being held hostage by religious extremists...they empower and fund those extremists, whether we're talking about the kingdom's own religious establishment or jihadist groups abroad. Yes there are tensions with the clergy sometimes -- tensions within an established alliance.

Not to mention Saudi Arabia's foreign policy, on which the late king presumably had some input: the kingdom has bankrolled and led a regional counter-revolution, going to great lengths to roll back the Arab uprisings, and to bury both mass social movements and political Islam. 

Ursula Lindsey

Ursula Lindsey is the managing editor of the Arabist blog. She writes about culture, education and politics in the Arab world. She lived in Cairo from 2002 to 2013 and got her start at the ground-breaking independent magazine Cairo Times. She was the culture editor of Cairo magazine in 2005-2006 and served as special projects editor at the independent news site Mada Masr in 2013-2014. She is the Chronicle of Higher Education's Middle East correspondent. She contributes to the BBC-PRI radio program The World, and has written for Newsweek, The New York Times, The New Yorker online, Bookforum and the blog of the London Review of Books.

Michel Houellebecq’s Francophobia

In the latest issue of the New Yorker, Adam Gopnik writes about Michel Houellebecq's latest, in which he imagines France electing a Muslim president and its intellectual classes cravenly converting to Islam and adopting Sharia. This gives an idea of the current French zeitgeist.

I haven't read this book, but I've read most of Houellebecq's previous works. I don't agree with Gopnik that he is not a provocateur. And I find Gopnik's definition of satire bizarre. He writes that "Houellebecq is, simply, a satirist. He likes to take what's happening now and imagine what would happen if it kept on happening." But that assumes that "what's happening right" now is the ascendancy of French Muslims to power. On the contrary, French citizens of Arab origin remain a small minority, economically marginalized, targeted by rising right-wing parties, and not at all homogenous -- hence the problem of discussing France's "Muslim community" (many of them are not practicing Muslims) or using the even more condescending category of Frenchmen and women "issus de l'immigration" ("offsprings of immigrants") -- for how many generations must French citizens with Arab names be categorized this way? I would argue that satire is a way of revealing a truth -- about an argument, a point of view, the world we live in -- through its gross exaggeration. 

Houellebecq is an interesting writer; he can be funny and thought-provoking. But he's not a satirist. He's a reactionary -- his seeming cynicism is masked, depressed romanticism. What Gopnik gets right is how much the hysterical discourse on identity in France is based on personal nostalgia, the inability of a certain class of French intellectuals to accept that France is a different country now. Here he is on Eric Zemmour (another writer whose fixed preoccupation with the cultural, sexual, political threat posed by Muslim men is just ridiculous). 

"In the back of Zemmour’s mind, it seems, is an oddly singular and specific place to long for—the Gaullist France of the booming sixties, when Zemmour was a kid. Society held together, authority was firm and essentially benevolent, each man had a role, each woman could choose to stay home if she wanted, and Catherine Deneuve was in every other movie. This is a nostalgia that Houellebecq, who was also a kid then, shares."

I'll never forget reading a column by another French writer in which he lamented the sight of halal butchers and Arab internet cafes in Paris, as if it were the end of the world. It was the end of his world, I guess, since he had too little imagination to make room in it for historical and social change, for anyone different. Or to reflect for one moment on how much more drastically the French colonial presence once altered and alienated the reality of other peoples. 

3 Comments /Source

Ursula Lindsey

Ursula Lindsey is the managing editor of the Arabist blog. She writes about culture, education and politics in the Arab world. She lived in Cairo from 2002 to 2013 and got her start at the ground-breaking independent magazine Cairo Times. She was the culture editor of Cairo magazine in 2005-2006 and served as special projects editor at the independent news site Mada Masr in 2013-2014. She is the Chronicle of Higher Education's Middle East correspondent. She contributes to the BBC-PRI radio program The World, and has written for Newsweek, The New York Times, The New Yorker online, Bookforum and the blog of the London Review of Books.

Reactions to the attack on Charlie Hebdo

  • Buzzfeed rounds up cartoons of solidarity from around the world. 
  • "Although Muslims may not agree about the idea of freedom of expression, even non-Muslims who espouse it say it comes with responsibilities. In an increasingly unstable and insecure world, the potential consequences of insulting the Messenger Muhammad are known to Muslims and non-Muslims alike." This is from a piece by a radical London-based cleric published on the USA Today site entitled Why Did France Allow the Tabloid to Provoke Muslims? To which I would ask: Why the Hell Do You Think You Have The Right to Go Through Life Unprovoked?
  • Of course the overwhelming majority of Muslim clerics and thinkers condemn the attack. 
  • Juan Cole argues that this is a sophisticated operation aimed at alienating French Muslims and increasing recruitment. "Al-Qaeda wants to mentally colonize French Muslims, but faces a wall of disinterest. But if it can get non-Muslim French to be beastly to ethnic Muslims on the grounds that they are Muslims, it can start creating a common political identity around grievance against discrimination [...]Al-Qaeda in Mesopotamia, then led by Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, deployed this sort of polarization strategy successfully in Iraq, constantly attacking Shiites and their holy symbols, and provoking the ethnic cleansing of a million Sunnis from Baghdad. The polarization proceeded, with the help of various incarnations of Daesh (Arabic for ISIL or ISIS, which descends from al-Qaeda in Mesopotamia). And in the end, the brutal and genocidal strategy worked, such that Daesh was able to encompass all of Sunni Arab Iraq, which had suffered so many Shiite reprisals that they sought the umbrella of the very group that had deliberately and systematically provoked the Shiites."

  • Moroccan novelist Tahar Ben Jalloun makes a similar point, arguing that the attacks express "a fierce and radical intention to prevent Muslims from observing their faith in a secular land, while respecting the laws of the Republic, [an intention] to isolate them and make them France's enemies." 
  • "The murders today in Paris are not a result of France’s failure to assimilate two generations of Muslim immigrants from its former colonies. They’re not about French military action against the Islamic State in the Middle East, or the American invasion of Iraq before that. They’re not part of some general wave of nihilistic violence in the economically depressed, socially atomized, morally hollow West—the Paris version of Newtown or Oslo. Least of all should they be “understood” as reactions to disrespect for religion on the part of irresponsible cartoonists. They are only the latest blows delivered by an ideology that has sought to achieve power through terror for decades." George Packer in the New Yorker. But how can we disassociate that ideology from history and politics, from Western interventions , conflicts and dictatorships in the Middle East, or from the current debate in Europe over the integration of its Muslim minorities? How can we explain its spread and virulence without any context? 
  • From Jacobin magazine: "Now, I think there's a critical difference between solidarity with the journalist who were attacked, refusing to concede anything to the idea that journalists are somehow 'legitimate targets,' and solidarity with what is frankly a racist publication."  Thanks for not conceding that we journalists are "legitimate targets." Does that really need to be said? 
  • Scott Long questions the "I Am Charlie" online meme in a nuanced and thought-provoking way. "I am offended when those already oppressed in a society are deliberately insulted. I don’t want to participate. This crime in Paris does not suspend my political or ethical judgment, or persuade me that scatologically smearing a marginal minority’s identity and beliefs is a reasonable thing to do. Yet this means rejecting the only authorized reaction to the atrocity. Oddly, this peer pressure seems to gear up exclusively where Islam’s involved. When a racist bombed a chapter of a US civil rights organization this week, the media didn’t insist I give to the NAACP in solidarity. When a rabid Islamophobic rightist killed 77 Norwegians in 2011, most of them at a political party’s youth camp, I didn’t notice many #IAmNorway hashtags, or impassioned calls to join the Norwegian Labor Party. But Islam is there for us, it unites us against Islam. Only cowards or traitors turn down membership in the Charlie club [...] This insistence on contagious responsibility, collective guilt, is the flip side of#JeSuisCharlie. It’s #VousÊtesISIS; #VousÊtesAlQaeda. Our solidarity, our ability to melt into a warm mindless oneness and feel we’re doing something, is contingent on your involuntary solidarity, your losing who you claim to be in a menacing mass. We can’t stand together here unless we imagine you together over there in enmity. " Long also discusses the myth that satire is a weapon always directed by the weak against the strong, and reminds of the anti-Semitism of the father of French satire, Voltaire. 
  • Here is a counter-vailing argument regarding Charlie Hebdo's offensiveness. "....the kind of blasphemy that Charlie Hebdo engaged in had deadly consequences, as everyone knew it could … and that kind of blasphemy is precisely the kind that needs to be defended, because it’s the kind that clearly serves a free society’s greater good. If a large enough group of someones is willing to kill you for saying something, then it’s something that almost certainly needs to be said, because otherwise the violent have veto power over liberal civilization, and when that scenario obtains it isn’t really a liberal civilization any more. Again, liberalism doesn’t depend on everyone offending everyone else all the time, and it’s okay to prefer a society where offense for its own sake is limited rather than pervasive. But when offenses are policed by murder, that’s when we need more of them, not less, because the murderers cannot be allowed for a single moment to think that their strategy can succeed." 

 In other words, a violent threat to censor a particular form of speech can only be countered by exercising that very speech. When some Muslims threaten to kill those who depict the Prophet, liberals must depict him on principle. This is a sharp argument, although one problem is that it requires us to evaluate the intentions of satirists and provocateurs.  In a piece we linked to recently, Adam Shatz showed how Islamophobia in Europe (and before that, anti-Semitism) has long covered itself in the mantle of a defense of free speech and liberal values. And how much does context -- Muslims in France are a minority from once colonized territories who continue to face discrimination -- matter in evaluating whether Charlie Hebdo was standing up to a totalitarian threat or picking on a marginalized minority? Could they have been doing both? 

I didn't read Charlie Hebdo, so while its covers were tasteless, I don't know if its editorial line was racist. Many, including some  former contributors, have argued so. But that does not matter. I defend the right of its staff to do their work in safety. I have no problem whatsoever expressing solidarity with a racist publication -- I'm not expressing solidarity with their views, but with their right to not pay with their lives for the expression of those views. I also defend everyone's right to call them out on those views, then and now.  I am so tired of these false and furious debates on the middle east, Islam, terrorism, in which everything is obscenely simplified (for or against terrorism? Islam? racism? satire?) and people cannot acknowledge more than one principle, one position, one idea, at a time. 

1 Comment

Ursula Lindsey

Ursula Lindsey is the managing editor of the Arabist blog. She writes about culture, education and politics in the Arab world. She lived in Cairo from 2002 to 2013 and got her start at the ground-breaking independent magazine Cairo Times. She was the culture editor of Cairo magazine in 2005-2006 and served as special projects editor at the independent news site Mada Masr in 2013-2014. She is the Chronicle of Higher Education's Middle East correspondent. She contributes to the BBC-PRI radio program The World, and has written for Newsweek, The New York Times, The New Yorker online, Bookforum and the blog of the London Review of Books.

On "idiots"

Someone wrote in to express their anger that I called the terrorists who attacked Charlie Hebdo "idiots":

"Murderous idiots????... Idiots???... This is the best you can do? Knowing that you have a much sharper pen when it comes to others who commit similar atrocities why don't you take a moment to read Christopher Hitchens on religious fanaticism and stop hiding behind your Arabist veneer?"

I have read some Christopher Hitchens, but his best writing is not, in my opinion, on religious fanaticism. Let me just say this: calling the terrorists "idiots" was not intended to make light of their terrible act. But the men who did this are deeply stupid; and I say this as someone convinced (partly from recent personal experience) that stupidity can be one of the most devastating and poisonous forces unleashed in a society. I also say this to put these guys in their place. They are not evil geniuses; they are not holy warriors; they are not terrifying avengers. They are nasty little murderers who make a mockery of the religion they purport to defend and who outdo Islamophobes' worst stereotypes. They are hateful, harmful idiots. 

"It's hard to be loved by idiots.."

2 Comments

Ursula Lindsey

Ursula Lindsey is the managing editor of the Arabist blog. She writes about culture, education and politics in the Arab world. She lived in Cairo from 2002 to 2013 and got her start at the ground-breaking independent magazine Cairo Times. She was the culture editor of Cairo magazine in 2005-2006 and served as special projects editor at the independent news site Mada Masr in 2013-2014. She is the Chronicle of Higher Education's Middle East correspondent. She contributes to the BBC-PRI radio program The World, and has written for Newsweek, The New York Times, The New Yorker online, Bookforum and the blog of the London Review of Books.