This is from Amnesty International's report on the death sentence handed down to a senior cleric from Qatif, in Saudi Arabia's eastern, oil-rich and largely Shia region.
A death sentence passed today against a dissident Shi’a Muslim cleric in Saudi Arabia for “disobeying the ruler”, “inciting sectarian strife” and “encouraging, leading and participating in demonstrations” after a deeply flawed trial is appalling and must be immediately quashed, said Amnesty International.
“The death sentence against Sheikh Nimr Baqir al-Nimr is part of a campaign by the authorities in Saudi Arabia to crush all dissent, including those defending the rights of the Kingdom’s Shi’a Muslim community,” said Said Boumedouha, Deputy Director of Amnesty International’s Middle East and North Africa Programme.
Here is a short video clip of Sheikh Nimr, arguing for justice rather than sectarian loyalty: "You're Shia; don't oppress Sunnis. You are oppressed. If you oppress anyone, even Sunnis, Allah doesn't love you. […] The oppressed should gather together against the oppressors. El Khalifa [the ruling family in Bahrain] are oppressors, but Sunnis are not responsible for them. El Assad is an oppressor, but Shias are not responsible for him. The oppressed cannot defend oppressors."
The sheikh supported the protests that have been ongoing in the Eastern province for several years. The prosecutor in his case has asked that he be crucified. From the BBC:
Officials said he rammed a security forces vehicle, leading to a gun battle. However, his family disputed the allegation that he resisted arrest and insisted that he did not own a weapon.
The cleric was held for eight months before being charged and reportedly spent the first four in an isolation cell at a prison hospital in Riyadh.
Activists and relatives say Sheikh Nimr, who has a wide following among Shia in Eastern Province and other states, supported only peaceful protests and eschewed all violent opposition to the government.
In 2011, he told the BBC that he supported "the roar of the word against authorities rather than weapons... the weapon of the word is stronger than bullets, because authorities will profit from a battle of weapons".
His arrest prompted days of protests in which three people were killed.
Human Rights Watch said more than 1,040 people had been arrested at Shia protests between February 2011 and August 2014. At least 240 are still believed to be in detention.
The barbarity of the so-called Islamic State has inspired a new wave of "What is wrong with Islam?" hand-wringing. On American television it is as simplistic and disconcerting as one would expect. Muslims around the world meanwhile have predictable bristled at begin told they should immediately condemn or apologize for terrorism.
There is a serious conversation to be had about the lack of freedom of religion and expression in Islamic countries. The richest countries in the region use oil wealth to spread a noxious, bigoted, ultimately self-destructive version of Islam. Although many Islamic scholars have condemned IS, there is very little space for open, tolerant debate on matters of religion.
But terrorists remain on the fringe of Arab and Muslim societies. And Islamists are hardly the only ones who are illiberal in the Middle East. Discrimination against women and minorities is as rampant under "secular," military, US-backed regimes (it's not exactly hard to find in America either). Islamism and jihadism are modern, political phenomenon that have as much to do with oil wealth, despotism, and Western military interventions as they do with religion.
I want to share this video of the Lebanese band El Rahel El Kebir ("The Great Departed"), performing in a small cabaret in Beirut, to a laughing audience, sometime in August. This jaunty song is addressed to Islamic State leader Abu Bakr El-Baghdadi, whose claims to religious legitimacy it effortlessly demolishes.
The song starts out showering traditional blessings and titles on el-Baghdaid, but quickly takes a turn into mockery. It has lines like this:
علشان الإسلام رحمة، رح ندبح ونوزع لحمة، وعلشان نخفف زحمة، حنفجر في خلق الله
عشان لا إكراه في الدين فلنقض عالمرتدين والشيعة… والسنيين والنصارى يا خسارة
(In Arabic it rhymes. My awkward translation is "Because Islam is merciful… we'll butcher and hand out meat/To make it less crowded/We'll blow folks up/Because there's no compulsion in religion/we'll kill unbelievers..and Shia and Sunnis and Christians, what a loss!")
It's a catchy, brave little fuck-you. The Islamic State wants to be feared, to be taken seriously, and to pass for the representative of pure Islam. The US media is all to happy to oblige. Others in the Muslim world show it the contempt it deserves.
(Thanks to Karl Sharro for the tip).
We recently received this message, regarding an effort to crowd-fund the translation of what sounds like a fascinating series of novels set in Libya during and after the Italian colonial occupation.
We are currently trying to raise £8,000 to underwrite the production costs of Alessandro Spina's Libyan-Italian epic The Confines of the Shadow, which will be translated into English by André Naffis-Sahely. A 1300 page multi-generational series of novels set in Benghazi, The Confines of the Shadow is a sequence that maps the transformation of Libya from a sleepy Ottoman backwater in the 1910s to the second capital of an oil-rich kingdom in the 1960s.
Called “the Italian Joseph Conrad” and a “20th Century Balzac” by the Italian press, Alessandro Spina was a Syrian Maronite born in Benghazi in 1927, and he lived in Libya for most of his life, until he was forced to leave the country during the darkest years of Gaddafi's rule. He passed away in 2013, but not before his masterpiece was awarded the Premio Bagutta in 2007, Italy's highest literary accolade.
In the run-up to our publishing Volume 1 of this epic, The Nation published Naffis-Sahely's essay 'Spina's Shadow' in their August 18-25 issue. Banipal also featured the essay on their website to help promote our fundraising effort: Who is Alessandro Spina?
As this sort of project requires extensive financing, we are asking you to help contribute to the production of the remaining two volumes. This is the link to our Indiegogo site. The pledges range from £5 to £300, and we are grateful for all of them.
Please consider making a pledge today to help support the work of Darf Publishers. We are offering, among other perks, exclusive advance excerpts from Volume 1, a chance to put your name down for a deluxe hardcover edition of the book, as well as a limited edition of prints featuring the cover art. Once you’ve pledged, please help spread the word online.
I grew up in Italy but had never heard of Spina. I searched in vain for his books in bookstores there during a recent visit (they could be ordered but there wasn't time). After being forced to leave Libya, he lived in Italy as a comfortable recluse, entirely devoted to his writing, the friend and correspondent of several prominent Italian authors. He appears to have had a reputation but a very small audience. I don't know yet if his writing is as good as his publisher and translator claim, but I do know I'd like to find out.
What's been on the small screen in Egypt lately, from our TV correspondent Nour Youssef.
Egypt’s talk show hosts may have always been unethical and unprofessional, but they have never been quite this childish. It is hard to watch Ahmed Moussa giggle whenever his guests call the Qatari royal family and Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan names (for their support of the Muslim Brotherhood), and not think of my fourth grade arch enemy, Khaled Picksnosealot.
Last month there were five on-air fights (followed by numerous opportunities for the analysis and re-iteration of insults). One of the fights ended with business tycoon Naguib Sawiris comparing Al Kahera Wal Nas’s Abdelrahim Ali to (who has become infamous lately for playing private telephone conversations of activists, undoubtedly leaked to him by the security services) "an annoying fly that gets into the mouths of others" and another was started by the unknown founders of a failed Tamarod-like movement who complained about not getting a share of the praise for toppling president Mohamed Morsi in a seventh grade history book.
“(Mohamed Hassanein) Heikal is the one who made the theory that has held us back all this time!” announced Tamer Amin, who’s had enough of the reverence that the veteran political analyst and historian enjoys in the media. According to Amin, Heikal is guilty of giving the same advice to every Egyptian president: To put only those he can trust, and not those who are competent, in positions of leadership -- advice they all followed religiously, thus holding the country back. It is time to move on to younger thinkers, Amin says. Especially since “most of (Heikal)’s ’judgements and his political prophecies in the past years were wrong.” He ended this virtually unprecedented attack with a reminder that there are over 90 million Egyptians -- surely one of them can fill Heikal's shoes.
The strangest fight so far, however, was between satirist Bassem Youssef (who went into a forced retirement earlier this year when Egypt's "democratic transition" gave him more freedom of expression than he could handle) and AlQahera AlYoum’s Khaled Abu Bakr in New York. According to the latter’s side of the story (which is the whole story as far as the media is concerned), an unprovoked Youssef walked up to him to grudgingly say hello and then came back a moment later screaming obscenities and complaints about not being able to cycle on the Suez road unlike President Abdelfatah el-Sisi, whom he accused Abu Bakr and his colleagues of shamelessly shilling for. Youssef said all this in full view of women and impressionable children, every talk show from Tamer Amin to Osama Mounir took care to note. Even Mortada Mansour – a lawyer who has made a career of picking fights with public figures and threatening to publish the details of their affairs -- gasped at the idea of a man cursing in front of his wife, or worse yet, cursing the people of Egypt. (Anyone who has been to Egypt knows that the people of Egypt curse the people of Egypt all the time.)
The endless reprimands to “The Boy” (Youssef’s new derogatory nickname) also included suggestions of emigration and of revoking of his citizenship; a photo-shopped picture of him as a rabbi from Moussa and a monologue from Mounir about how Youssef will never be back on TV because Sisi is a “decent” man who won’t stand by as Youssef expands the vocabulary of innocent Egyptian women, making them prone to lewd behavior and talking back.Read More
A few months ago I finally got around to reading a short story collection by the Iraqi writer Hassan Blasim. I was impressed by the wit, originality and punch of his writing, their well-balanced mix of very dark humor, brutality and pathos.
Hassan Blasim’s short story collection The Iraqi Christ, translated by Jonathan Wright, opens with a crowd gathered at the headquarters of Memory Radio in Baghdad, ‘set up after the fall of the dictator’, to take part in a storytelling competition. Everyone believes their own stories are ‘stranger, crueller and more crazy’ than everyone else’s. But they are also all afraid that they will not have the chance to tell them, that a suicide bomber may ‘turn all these stories into a pulp of flesh and fire’.
Blasim’s book was published in 2013, when Iraq had already suffered a decade of violence after the US invasion. Since then, the country’s very existence has been called into question by the rise of the so-called Islamic State. How to hold the pieces of one’s identity and humanity together is, unsurprisingly, a major theme of contemporary Iraqi fiction.
You can read the whole review here.
“They are not Muslims, they are monsters,” David Cameron said on September 14 of the so-called Islamic State, after it released a video showing the execution of aid worker David Haines.
What is it that makes the group monstrous? First of all how it compels us to look at it.
The word monster derives from the Latin monstrare, which like montrer in modern French and mostrare in Italian means to show. Monsters attract our attention. During the middle ages in Europe, monsters -- deformed children, conjoined twins -- were put on display for the entertainment and religious edification of crowds.
It is both hard to watch and hard to turn away from the nightmarish spectacles IS shares online. Young Shia men plead to camera; their prone bodies twitch as they are shot one by one. YouTube and Twitter’s decision to block these videos shows how anxious we are about their power. Regardless, the image of a man in orange and kneeling before a black-clad executioner, mouthing well-rehearsed propaganda as a hand with a knife dangles in the background, is etched in our minds now.
The word monster may also derive from another Latin verb, monere, meaning to warn or advise; a monstrum was something people pointed out to each other but also a “supernatural being or object that is an omen or warning of the will of the gods.” This is quite close to how IS sees itself: the bearer of a dire divine message. Even to those of us who do not share its religious beliefs, the group may seem a dark portent of our times. Its existence is a remonstration, divine or not -- how could we let this happen?
Ancient monsters were freaks of nature. Modern monsters are reflections and composites, created by men from parts of themselves (think of the doctors Jekyll and Frankenstein). The more they resemble us, the scarier they are.
Osama Bin Laden was partly created by US support to the mujahedeen in Afghanistan in the 1980s, and by the Western media after 9/11. But, lecturing in Arabic from a cave, with his beard and his funny clothes, he seemed exotic.
The Islamic State is creepily familiar -- speaking to us in our language and on our terms, Tweeting about how great living under Sharia is. Some of the parallels seem purposeful on their part: Carrying stolen US-made weapons, they water-board their prisoners and put them in orange jumpsuits. They make the men they are about to kill into mirrors, faces we can’t help imagining as our own.
The members of the Islamic State bear full moral responsibility for their crimes. But the organization could only have arisen out of a particular, devastating vacuum. The forces that converged to bring this gang of zealots and murderers to prominence includes the US invasion of Iraq; the Assad regime’s limitless brutality; the Gulf States’ oil-fueled bigotry; the paranoia of the Russians. On some days I let my imagination run away with me and think of IS as a compendium of all the worst tendencies and motivations of Arab regimes and their foreign backers; of every sordid calculation, every feckless decision, every strain of arrogance and intolerance and injustice. Above all of the inconceivable cruelty and stupidity it has taken to push two entire countries into their graves, their cities turned to dust and their people, for years now, bombed, butchered, terrorized, and driven from their homes.
Who else could we expect to thrive there but these monstrous young men (and women), these children of our age?
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A great story in Mada Masr about the mysterious, unaccountable funds to which Egyptians are being strongly encouraged to donate.
Driven by curiosity, rather than patriotic sentiment, I also decided to donate to the Tahya Masr fund. Rather than promise Sisi my vital organs, I settled on a humble LE100 and accepted that I would be outdone by an 8-year-old.
When I arrived at the National Bank of Egypt, one of four banks that accepts donations, I quietly stated that I was here to donate to the Tahya Masr fund. The security guard and the policeman sitting next to him greeted me with excitement and respect.
“That’s it?” the policeman asked cheekily as he handed me a number and asked me to wait my turn.
After my number was called, I walked up to the desk, bolstered by my two new friends at the door, and stated that I would like to donate to the Tahya Masr fund, to which a busy bank teller shook his head and asked for my ID.
First, however, as a contributor to the fund, I had a few questions: how much money has been collected so far, where will the money go, and how soon?
The bank teller responded impatiently with “I don’t know” to every question.
I then asked what the difference was between account number 306306 and 037037. He went into a discussion with his neighboring colleague, and finally came back with an answer: “306306 is called Support Egypt, while 037037 is called Long Live Egypt.”
Both accounts were active at the same time, and people can still donate to either one, I learned.
“Now, are you going to give me the money?” the teller asked, as I handed over my LE100 bill, not knowing where it would end up
This summer, The Arabist household relocated from Egypt to Morocco, after well over a decade living in Cairo. It wasn't an easy step to take.
We left at a low point (even as we fear that things will be getting worse still). There are many things I won’t miss about Egypt, especially Egypt of late: the hypocrisy, the violence to bodies and to truth, the staggering waste. I won't miss the conspiracy theories and the mock trials; or the way people lower their voices again now to talk about politics; the smug smile of the new president or the anxious, endless diatribes of his sycophants.
But Cairo is also where Issandr and I met, spent most of our twenties, and became journalists. It’s where we witnessed tens of thousands of strangers dancing a conga line all night around Tahrir Square. So I want to write about the things we will miss.
Driving home on the Kasr El Nil Bridge with a good song playing on a crackling taxi stereo, wishing a silent goodnight to the bronze lions who guard the bridge. Windows rolled down, watching the newlyweds taking their pictures, the young couples in intense negotiations, the teenage boys sitting on the railing laughing, the families out for a midnight stroll. The great black river carrying a rare breeze and full of reflected light, small open motor boats skimming its surface like electric water bugs, draped in colored lights and pulsing with pop music. As you think: There's no city quite like this.
Having fuul for breakfast from a cart in Garden City.
The time-lapse pyrotechnics of flame trees slowly blooming.
Mangoes, fresh pomegranate juice and molokheyya.
Egyptian dialect in all its inflections and registers, from the cynical to the lyrical, the melodramatic to the bombastic. The stream of jokes and anecdotes and delightfully surprising things you hear every day in a city this big and loquacious.
The many kind, funny, graceful, ridiculously optimistic, incredibly forbearing, brave people we've met.
The grimy glory of Islamic Cairo and Khedival Cairo. Especially on Friday mornings.
Getting deliveries of everything at every time of day and night.
I just bought my copy of Brian Whitaker's new book on atheism in the Arab world, Arabs Without God. This is the third in a series of books Brian – a veteran Guardian reporter and the man behind one of the oldest blog and websites on the region, al-Bab –has written over the last several years that deal with freedom of conscience and/or lifestyle in the Middle East, and they've always been interesting.
In a blog post announcing the book, Brian writes:
The aim of Arabs Without God is not to make a case for atheism but to argue for the right of Arab atheists to be treated as normal human beings. The first half, based on interviews with non-believers, looks at how and why some Arabs choose to abandon religion. Chapters in this section also explore the history of Arab atheism, arguments about the divine origin of the Qur'an, and the way atheism relates to gender and sexuality.
One of the more unexpected discoveries was that Arab atheism is somewhat different from atheism in the west: "scientific" arguments about the origin of the universe are much less prominent. In interviews, the issue most often cited by Arabs as their first step on the road to disbelief was the apparent unfairness of divine justice. The picture they had acquired was of an irascible and sometimes irrational Deity who behaves in much the same way as an Arab dictator or an old-fashioned family patriarch – an anthropomorphic figure who makes arbitrary decisions and seems eager to punish people at the slightest opportunity.
There is an excerpt of the book here. I am a fan of such publishing efforts on issues that may not find a wide commercial audience (especially ones that can bypass the publishers), so if you have an interest in these issues I'd encourage you to get a copy of the book.
It is impossible, as a journalist working in the Middle East (albeit one who never ventures into war zones) not to take the murder of James Foley, and then Steven Sotloff, -- and the alleged torture that preceded it -- personally. I didn't watch the videos; the still photo of each man kneeling next to his executioner was enough. How sickening to see a human being reduced to a prop in his own gleeful murder.
These men's killings have been followed by some lovely remembrances and many reflections on our vulnerable, hard-scrabble profession. My first reaction to Foley's murder was incomprehension and indignation at the idea that anyone should be freelancing from such a dangerous place at all.
Foley was apparently a "freelance correspondent" -- isn't that a contradiction in terms? -- for Global Post. Also reportedly, that organization's CEO was very personally (and financially) committed to doing right by him and trying to bring him back. Both he and Sotloff seem to have been determined to go to Syria, despite having little to no institutional backing.
There have been plenty of articles and personal essays in recent weeks about the erosion of real jobs in the media and the toll that freelancing from the Arab world's uprisings and wars can take. (One doesn't have to be on the front lines of war to experience post-traumatic stress order). It's worth remembering, of course, that local fixers for Western news outlets have been getting kidnapped and killed on a regular basis for the last decade.
In the past few weeks there have been some interesting debates on the paying of ransoms and the keeping quiet about abductions (a report on the radio program On The Media suggested that the media blackout on kidnappings by extremists meant we were unaware of the extent of the phenomenon in Syria). What I haven't seen is editors, publishers or media owners clarifying what their policy on accepting freelance work from conflict zones is; or making a commitment to remunerate and protect freelancers better. In piece after piece, freelancers describe the ridiculous conditions under which they report, while those with salaried jobs wring their hands and say things like: "This is a sad reflection on the state of foreign reporting today."
Freelancing is fine when you are young, starting out, and not reporting from somewhere where you are putting your life at risk -- but isn't it high time that the US and Western media actually took greater responsibility for the safety and fair pay of those providing it with content? (If you know of any discussions/new policies being instituted, please share in the comments).
Ramy Khoury argues in the Daily Star that the extremist movement is the nearly inevitable result of the region's (often foreign-backed) authoritarianism.
But the single biggest driver of the kind of criminal Islamist extremism we see in this phenomenon is the predicament of several hundred million individual Arab men and women who find – generation after generation – that in their own societies they are unable to achieve their full humanity or potential, or exercise their full powers of thought and creativity; or, in many cases, obtain basic life needs for their families.
The expressions of bewilderment we hear today from many Arab and Western politicians or media analysts about why the Islamic State rose and what to do about it have zero credibility or sympathy in my book. Some of the same people who pontificate about the Islamic State threat were often directly involved in actions that helped to bring it about (corrupt Arab security states, the invasion of Iraq, and total support for Israel).
Peter Harling, in Le Monde Diplomatique, looks to Sunni resentment and the "void" of good governance and international diplomacy.
At root, IS simply fills a void. It occupies northeast Syria because the Syrian regime has by and large abandoned it, and the opposition that might have replaced it has failed to secure a genuine sponsor, in particular the US. And, in Iraq, IS has surged into cities such as Fallujah and Mosul because the central power in Baghdad has largely neglected them: the Iraqi state maintained a presence there that was simultaneously corrupt, repressive and flimsy. IS’s rapid expansion into zones in northern Iraq controlled by Kurdish forces, but inhabited by Christian and Yezidi minorities, is unsurprising, given the lack of real interest shown in the victims by their ostensible protectors, the Kurds, who were quick to withdraw to their own territory.
IS also fills a void on a more abstract level. Simply put, the Sunni world has trouble coming to terms with its past and imagining its future. A fragmented 20th-century history, following a long period of Ottoman occupation which was seen as a period of decline, ended with a succession of failures: anti-imperialism, pan-Arabism, nationalist movements, socialism, various forms of Islamism, capitalism — all led only to bitter or ambiguous experiences. Thus far, with the exception of Tunisia, the hopes born of the 2011 uprisings have turned to ashes. So where can Sunnis turn to find inspiration, self-confidence and pride? The reactionaries in the Gulf and Egypt? The Muslim Brothers, who are on the ropes? Palestinian Hamas, locked in a perpetual impasse in its resistance to Israel?
This summer, while the young men of the organization-formerly-known-as-ISIS -- men whose inner lives I find it hard to fathom -- were marauding across what is left of Iraq and Syria, I was reading the powerful anthology Syria Speaks: Art and Culture from the Frontline. I just reviewed it for the blog of the London Review of Books.
Much of the work in Syria Speaks seems to have been written a year or two ago, and what a difference that time makes. Most of the more than fifty contributors are outside Syria now; their hope and defiance seem out of date. Yet the book is a valuable reminder that the early protests against Assad were both peaceful and democratic. It also sheds light on the way the protesters’ aspirations were ground into irrelevance.
In the opening piece, the journalist Samar Yazbek travels though the countryside around Aleppo, Idlib and Hama:
The sun was blazing down, so intense that it was impossible to cry. Everyone spoke with granite-like solemnity; a brief sigh was enough to occupy the whole space… It was as though we had uncovered Syria’s true identity after all this time: a country made of earth, blood and fire, where explosions never ceased.
You can read the rest here.