This week's window on the Middle East - September 24, 2012

Arab Awakening's columnists offer their weekly perspective on what is happening on the ground in the Middle East. Leading the week: Being all things to all men

Arab Awakening
23 September 2012
  • Being all things to all men
  • Surf safely!
  • Pope’s visit to Lebanon puts spotlight on Christians in the Middle East
  • Rough times in Tunisia: weak leaders vs. empowered fundamentalists
  • Freedom to preach
  • Egyptian Copts’ reactions to the ‘Innocence of Muslims’
  • Having tea with the enemy on the Syrian border
  • Being all things to all men

    By Dina El Sharnouby

    According to Egypt’s Independent News, some leaders of the emerging Conference party, with the aim of uniting political parties in Egypt, have been confused over whether to include Islamic parties such as the Freedom and Justice party, the political arm of the Muslim Brotherhood, or the Salafi Nour party. While the idea of unifying the liberals is not a new one, the question of whether or not this “liberal” alliance should include Islamic parties is indeed new. The Conference party is being put together now merely because of the upcoming parliamentary elections, and in the hope that the majority of seats will not be mainly taken by Islamists. Hence, including Islamists in the newly formed party would defeat the purpose. Wouldn’t it? Yet, testing the position of the Muslim Brotherhood in particular and their political strategies remains an important task.

    The Muslim Brotherhood, almost since its creation in 1928, has been the opposition. Adapting to successive political regimes, they have learned different techniques and strategies from violent to peaceful ones. From being an underground movement to finding political inclusion through student activities and syndicates, the Muslim Brotherhood have found unique ways to express or develop their political agendas. One thing that remained static over the years was the political struggle over power which confronted them as the opposition. What is new to them now is being in power: the tension that arises in how to deal with being the ruling power has been clearly observable since the fall of the Mubarak regime. Many of its members still take their demands to the streets. They have gone so far as to “demonstrate” their support for their candidate President Morsi. This makes it confusing to understand the role they are playing, and indeed what protest in Egypt actually means. Naturally, people demonstrate to demand better living conditions, yet the Muslim Brotherhood has acquired the habit of showing their presence in the public space, even when they are the ruling party. And they don’t seem to want to quit.

    This ambiguity around how to respond to the Muslim Brotherhood in the public space is apparent on Egyptian streets. Some activists such as Saad Eddin Ibrahim, even before the fall of Mubarak, supported the idea of including the MB in the political sphere to hold them accountable for their actions, demands, and strategies. The underlying thought is that not only should the public be aware of all political forces and ideologies, but also the hope that the MB will be cornered and exposed through thorough questioning of how they see Egypt, especially in relation to the Islamic doctrines that they are espousing.

    Since they have been in power, the Muslim Brotherhood has indeed had to refine their politics leading to some contradictions in their public announcements. The struggle within the Muslim Brotherhood could for example clearly be seen in 2011 when they announced that they will run for less than 50% of the parliamentary seats, but soon ended up in running for many more. More recently their Nahda programme that President Morsi used as his manifesto for the presidency has also been revised by them in an official statement declaring it has to be discussed with other activists, academics etc. if it is to be an inclusive project that can stand the test of catering for the concerns of the population at large. Thus, the internal conflicts and confusions of their own stance in terms of the roles they are playing, from the opposition to the ruling party, are made apparent.

    Including the Islamic parties in the newly forming Conference party might thus be a new strategy to test out their agendas within the “liberal” context, possibly neutralizing some of the political tension that has arisen over recent months. However at this stage it seems unlikely that this can come to fruition, since  for now the whole raison d’etre of the Constitution party is to offer an opposition to neutralize the role of dominant ideologies in the formation of parliament and government. It might be better to unite liberals to interrogate Islamist policies, exposing their strategies and ideologies to the public gaze, until rather fewer contradictions can be seen in the Islamists’ own actions. 

    Surf safely!

    By Sacha Robehmed

    Like many, I’ve followed the protests as they spread like wildfire across multiple continents. The clip of this incendiary anti-Islam film, “The Innocence of Muslims” on Youtube, the intensity of the media coverage, the recent #muslimrage tweets satirising Newsweek’s front cover, and its memeification — all could not have happened without the internet. 

    Other openDemocracy commentators have already provided insightful analysis and reactions in Qatar and the Gulf. Elsewhere, talk of freedom of speech and expression seems to have largely focused outwards on the US and also on Google’s removal of the video from Youtube in Libya without any court order. However, recent events should also prompt us to re-examine online censorship in the Middle East.

    On September 17, I noticed a tweet by Noura Al Kaabi, CEO of Abu Dhabi media hub twofour54, saying that links to the film had been blocked in the UAE. The UAE was not unique in doing so. Web pages with the video were blocked in Egypt, Libya, Saudi Arabia, India, Pakistan, Bangladesh, Malaysia, Indonesia, Singapore, and Sudan; in some instances the entire Youtube site was blocked.

    Internet censorship is not new to the UAE. It’s sometimes surprising - I managed to find an art news website inaccessible because it was called ‘Art Cult’, while the internationally popular blog ‘Postsecret’ has been blocked in recent years. Regardless of which of the two telecoms providerspeople are subscribed to, Etisalat or du, everyone is familiar with the page preventing access to a site: it proclaims ‘Surf safely!’, with a friendly looking cartoon character dressed in Khaleeji garb.

    There is some support for blocking certain online content from concerned parents in the UAE. But to others, it can be frustrating, particularly if the website blocked seems trivial and harmless. However, reactions to the content of “The Innocence of Muslims” have been anything but harmless. Residents in the UAE have non-violently condemned the video, and most seem sympathetic to its online ban, not wanting it to stir up any trouble within the country. 

    At the same time though, the Middle East (and elsewhere preventing access to the video) should be more introspective. While shocking, inflammatory films and images may be used by some to encourage and incite others to violence, trust has to be placed in people. With such tech savvy, demographically very young populations, policing the Internet will always be a losing battle. Instead, we should be encouraging online engagement as a source of diverse opinion, providing a high standard of media education, and seeking ways of harnessing the internet and social media for positive ends.

    Unfortunately, certain events in the region currently suggests otherwise. Jordan has just announced a recent law which allows greater control over ‘electronic publications.’ An American journalism professor in the UAE and advocate for greater press freedoms had his contract abruptly terminated in August. And in Saudi Arabia, Jeddah’s Social Media Week, part of a free-to-attend tech conference taking place simultaneously in several cities around the globe, has been postponed just days before it was due to begin. 

    Pope’s visit to Lebanon puts spotlight on Christians in the Middle East

    By Christopher Sisserian

    The recent visit by the Pope to Lebanon brought much international attention to the situation of Christians in the Middle East. The Pope who was received by representatives from Lebanon’s diverse range of religious communities stressed the need for interfaith unity in order to end violence throughout the region.  

    Though his calls for unity were well received, following his departure the harmonious atmosphere present during his weekend visit was brought to an abrupt end and Lebanon went “back to reality,” with one prominent political leader going so far as to say that Lebanon was once again ‘on the brink.’ The causes for such renewed concern were the bombing of Lebanese territory by Syrian jets, another kidnapping and mass protests in Beirut’s southern suburbs against the ‘anti-Islam’ film that has provoked similar protests across the world.

    However despite the relatively high degree of political tension endemic amongst Lebanon’s numerous sectarian communities, it seems to have inadvertently become an example in the region for inter-faith cohabitation, particularly with regard to Muslim-Christian relations. Having emerged from a 15-year civil war that was largely fought along sectarian lines, Lebanon’s unique post-conflict confessional system has proven stable (despite being highly inefficient). Ironically Lebanon is now finding itself in the position of being one of the few places in the Middle East where Christians live without feeling threatened.

    The primary reasons for this are threefold and unique to the country, so cannot be easily replicated in other countries facing sectarian tensions. Lebanon is made up of minorities with no single group comprising a majority. Within this set-up different Christian communities account for around 40% of the population, although no exact figures exist. As there is no majority – minority dynamic it would be difficult for one group to repress another. Secondly the Lebanese have already had their civil war, the memories of which are still fresh, which has produced a society determined to avoid a return to conflict that would benefit no one. Thirdly Lebanon’s Christians are politically divided fairly evenly between the two main blocks in Lebanese politics, broadly defined as either pro or anti Syria, which provides them with a certain degree of security against the current turmoil in the region as a religious community cannot be held to overlap with a political position.

    This is not the case elsewhere and as the situation in Syria escalates much of its Christian minority is perceived to be sympathetic to the Assad regime that allowed them the space to flourish economically. As the conflict escalates, it is becoming increasingly clear that certain outside elements are radicalising the Syrian opposition, with disastrous consequences for non-Muslims, many of whom are fearing for their future if they haven’t already begun to leave the country.

    The civil war in Syria is only the latest in a series of events in the Middle East that have resulted in a dwindling Christian presence in the region including the 1915 Armenian genocide; the 1923 Greek population exchange; the establishment of the Jewish state of Israel in 1948; the 1979 Islamic revolution in Iran and the attacks against Christian communities in Iraq amongst the post-2003 sectarian violence. These events have contributed to Christians in the Middle East now accounting for only 5% of the regions’ population, compared with 20% a century ago.

    Alongside the war in Syria there are fears that this decline will continue as a result of the Arab Spring transforming itself into an Islamist winter. Egypt’s Coptic community felt itself threatened immediately after the victory of the Muslim Brotherhood in the presidential elections. Although this initial fear has largely subsided, the country’s Christian minority remains concerned about their future, especially following the protests following the provocative and now infamous film produced by a US-based Copt.

    As a result of this religious-based tension it is widely accepted that the situation is deteriorating for Christians in the region, as recently stated by Lebanon’s own Maronite Bishop ahead of the visit by the Pope. However Lebanon, where political and religious tension has become the norm, is ironically not suffering a deterioration of Christian-Muslim relations. Rather existing alliances between Muslims and their Christian allies within both political blocks have hardened, just as sectarian positions have elsewhere, meaning the security of Lebanese Christians seems to be ensured for the foreseeable future.

    Rough times in Tunisia: weak leaders vs. empowered fundamentalists

    By Meriem Dhaouadi

    The Tunisian ordeal with hard-line salafis has become painfully visible especially after the bloody attack on the US embassy in Tunis last Friday, and the failure of the government in protecting Tunisian lives and preventing the vandalism of the American Cooperative School.

    Under the rule of the Troika government led by the ‘moderate’ Ennahda party, Tunisia has made hardly any progress in the issues of security that accompanied the fall of the Ben Ali dictatorship. The vulnerability of the security system in Tunisia has led to the proliferation of radical and extremist acts of violence against journalists, artists, politicians, teachers, as well as hotel owners for selling alcohol and the list goes on. The government has shown ambivalence towards containing the threat of these extremist groups. Torn between denial and a realization that it is time to take a firm stance against this poisonous ideology, the Tunisian leaders in power have failed to address the underlying issues that motivate them.

    The strong tradition of moderate Islam values in Tunisia has begun to fade away in the last few years with the introduction of the Wahhabi ideology via satellite TV and the internet. The long suppression of the Islamists and even the moderate teachings of Islam under Ben Ali had further nurtured extremism, the strict interpretation of Sharia and the resort to force to impose their will on Tunisian society. Today, the group who oppose democracy, free elections and the power of the people are more empowered but more underestimated by the Tunisian officials.  

    What has gone wrong? It all started with the emergence of a ‘Takfir movement’ - the making of accusations of apostasy - following the airing of the controversial movie Persepolis in October 2011, a phenomenon that risked endangering the cohesive and inclusive nature of the Tunisian society. The deteriorating socio-economic situation in Tunisia laid the foundation for the thriving of the Salafi movement, which has attracted more and more young people disillusioned and frustrated over the slow rate of change in their country. They seem to feel betrayed. Struggling to voice their visions in the absence of a strong political leadership, they find refuge in an alternative community, that of a ‘pure Islam’ dominated by the Salafis.

    The Salafist message in Tunisia is wideranging, for one faction of the group advocates moderate rhetoric. Abu Iyad, for instance, a Salafist jihadist leader said in a sermon last Monday in El Fateh mosque in Tunis, “Tunisia is not a land of jihad”. On the other hand, some violent groups claiming to adhere to the Salafi movement have been aggressive, starting with the violent clashes in the University of Manouba over the ban of the niqab on campus, and including calls for murder from mosque platforms. The infidels should, “be killed and their blood spilled”, said one Sheikh Houcine Labidi, the imam of the famous mosque in the capital Tunis. There has since been widespread damage done to shops selling alcohol in Jendouba, in northwestern Tunisia; the disruption of cultural events deemed ‘inappropriate’ and not halal enough to be performed (like the piece by renowned Tunisian actor Lotfi Abdelli; attacks on art galleries. Everything of this nature that has happened is exacerbated by the laxity of the Tunisian authorities.

    Tunisia has even imported some radical “friends of Syria” to help fight Bashar Al Assad‘s unholy regime. They were financed for their trouble by some wealthy Gulf states who set up recruitment centres for Mujahedeen in Tunisia to fight alongside the Islamist  revolutionary forces in Syria, aiming to topple the secular regime and establish a more religious state.

    Tunisian leaders must quickly and boldly address the problem of fundamentalism through building more robust democratic institutions, debate forums and a national dialogue to bring together those Tunisians manipulated by Wahhabi outside forces and the rest of Tunisians. The aim must be to build post-revolutionary Tunisia hand in hand as a home for diverse ways of thinking but for people who can coexist in peace and harmony.

    Freedom to preach

    By Karim Adel

    Last week I was on tour throughout the UK (seven cities) and I decided to stay a full week in London. During that week, while I was busy looking around the British Museum and Hyde Park… shopping at Camden Market and in Oxford Street… between feeding pigeons in Trafalgar Square and squirrels in the parks… I heard about new turmoil back home in Egypt and the rest of the Arab and Muslim world.

    See, this is not the first time this has happened. Another western movie has emerged, well at least its trailer, on the net… and, it’s yet another movie that disrespects Prophet Mohammed and actually goes out of its way to make up stories and incidents and even give room to sexual scenes in what is quite clearly not a work of art, or even an attempt to create a movie, so much as it is a very clear attempt to create tension between the western world, and in particular the US where the movie was produced, and the rest of the Muslim world worldwide…   Surely no better timing than right before the US election… Surely no coincidence that it was unleashed on us online on Sept 11, right after Netanyahu's speech critical of Obama's leniency towards Iran during his presidential term….

    As fully expected by the perpetrators, the Arab and Muslim world has been boiling as a result of this insulting garbage and demonstrations and attacks have been going on around US embassies all over the Arab world, most violently in Cairo, Egypt and in Libya where the US Ambassador and 3 other Americans were attacked and killed!!           

    As a Muslim I find myself asking… If we follow Prophet Mohammed, why can’t we actually try to act like him? Our Prophet was never a man of violence and anger and fury, so why do so many of us look angry and act like it all the time, even if it is in retaliation? Prophet Mohammed was often attacked, ridiculed, cussed at, stoned, beaten and boycotted! Yet he never reacted in violence towards people and if anyone actually reads Islamic history nowadays they would know that when the people of Tayeff attacked Prophet Mohammed and stoned him and injured him, angel Gabriel asked Mohammed if he wanted to order the mountains to close up on and squash the whole city of Tayeff, but prophet Mohammed stopped him and said No! Give them a chance for mercy and their sons and future seeds might become faithful and better men….Where are we heading as Muslims, with all this violence? Would our own prophet who we think we are defending have let us kill in his name?

    Two wrongs never made a right… and we still can’t justify that movie even if we are wrong to react to it that way… It is like someone accusing you of being a terrorist so you get angry and break his car window for it… well you may have not been a terrorist before he accused you but you became one afterwards!

    On the other hand, the western world needs to be less welcoming to such acts of hate that come out in the name of freedom of speech!No man has the freedom to attack someone else’s freedom of faith, thought, ideas or art creation… you can love it or hate it but it is still mine and you have no right or freedom to openly disrespect it...

    I think the makers of that movie should be investigated and the real motives of those who made this movie should be discovered and announced with full detail on who funded this project and for what sick political reason it was made so specifically in its timing..

    And since I was asked about this so many times in the UK I will say it here once and for all…To all non-Muslims, please take it easy on Islam and if you want to know about it so much - please read the Quran.  You can’t find out what it is like by looking at how a few Muslims act, any more than you will find a Christian who is a walking Bible!

    And to all Muslims, the best way to follow, honor, and defend our prophet is to learn about his life, how he lived and try to be like him. He was a pleasant, smiling, well spoken, peaceful man! And Islam means submitting all will to God, In PEACE.

    Egyptian Copts’ reactions to the ‘Innocence of Muslims’

    By Ali Gokpinar

    The Innocence of Muslims trailer caused fierce anger not only in the Muslim world but also globally. The unfortunate consequences led one headline to ask if support for the Arab Spring was worthwhile! They trivialize the legitimate demands and achievements of the Arab street. On the other hand, Morris Sadek’s connections with Sam Bacile and his promotion of Islamophobia in the west to help his Coptic fellow-travellers has complicated matters considerably, since the Muslims did not protest or used violence against the Copts but blamed the US for the film. Why and how did the Copts react?

    On September 11, Egypt’s Copts protested against the film as they found it blasphemous, denounced Islamophobia and drew a distinction between themselves and some radical figures of the diaspora. However, they still fear they will suffer attacks once the storm is over. Despite the leadership gap in the Coptic Orthodox Church due to an ongoing election process, both local officials and branches in the US were quick to denounce such acts and show empathy with their fellow Muslim Egyptians. Indeed, such reactions are significant gestures towards coexistence. As one of my Coptic friends recently told me, “despite many problems regarding the new political climate in Egypt, we reject sectarianism and want to be in full harmony with Muslims”.  For years now, many have believed that the Copts of Egypt and the Muslim majority are at loggerheads. But my research in Egypt shows that the tendencies towards conflict and coexistence between the Copts and majority Muslims are more complex and depend on a legion of unaddressed causes, ranging from the policies of Mubarak’s authoritarian regime, to the rise of different religious groups, or the nature of the entente between the Coptic Orthodox Church and the regime.

    The Coptic diaspora has always been more radical than those at home, championing their mobilization of by drawing attention to the discrimination and grieving over their co-religionists’ experience of it. Nevertheless, the Copts at home have not necessarily agreed with this activism - not because they have not experienced discrimination, but because the young generations of the diaspora are too radical and lacking experience in coexistence with Muslims. In many ways, the diaspora Copts take their bearings from the European and American workings of Islam, which limits their understanding of Islam on the ground. They left the persecution of the Copts unaddressed as they continued with their protests.

    Recently, some figures of the Coptic diaspora condemned the film and its content as they were smart enough to see how it might harm their co-religionists as well as their own diasporic claims. This significant development may be instrumental in directing attention to actual and practical problems of the Copts that could prompt more thoughtful solutions and contribute to the development of Egypt. For example, instead of highlighting profound religious differences and calling for action against certain Muslim groups, it would be wise to work on how the Copts can achieve full equality, implement democratic political reforms, and challenge President Morsi to keep his word regarding the appointment of a Coptic vice president.

    Nevertheless, the discussion above does not necessarily ignore the Salafi trend’s and other political institutes actions against the Copts. However, it is important to identify which Salafi group or public institutions encourage such divisive policies in order to revive the Revolutionary spirit that will reconstruct Egypt and give the position to the Copts they deserve.

    Having tea with the enemy on the Syrian border

    By Rita from Syria

    Intensified shelling on the town of Jibata al-khashab has made it virtually impossible to get out to the relative safety of neighbouring villages, and I had to find a place to spend the night in the heart of the guesthouse, where members of the FSA had dropped me off, hung a portrait of Bashar al-Assad decked out in military fatigues.

    While not far away the FSA are making bonfires from similar images...

    Although such an image may not be out of the ordinary in areas of Syria under the control of the regime, in this town it looked out of place. Jibata al-Khashab, located on the Syrian border with the occupied Golan, has been under the control of FSA battalions for the past two months. During this time the town has been subjected to a suffocating siege by Syrian regime forces that surround it on all sides, able to prevent much needed food and fuel supplies from coming in – and amplifying the suffering of its residents. 

    So I am confused: the very idea of being in the home of a family supporting the regime has got me worried. What is the FSA doing dealing with supporters of the regime? However, the hospitality I then receive at the hands of the family soon dispels my doubts. Majida, my host, smiles when I ask her about the impact of her pro-regime position on her relations with people who seek refuge in her home. She tells me, "Our homes have always been open to strangers and all those who need our help, this is our upbringing and our traditions and even though our political opinions are not in agreement at all with the opposition, at the end of the day we are all Syrians".

    Despite most of her family supporting the regime, Majida and her family have not abandoned their commitment to provincial Syrian traditions and have continued hosting whoever knocks on the door no matter what their political affiliation. The village guest house, in which the portrait of Bashar al-Assad hangs, has welcomed numerous Syrian dissidents fleeing from the oppression of the regime and some wounded FSA fighters. About their relationship with the FSA battalions she tells me: "Even though most members of the FSA in this town come from other parts of Syria – as God is my witness – they have shown only respect and high ethics in their dealings with us. A few spats have broken out, caused by some unruly elements in the town because of long-standing family disagreements. But the FSA stepped in and helped to resolve them".

    Abu Diaa, the field commander of the Mu'awiyah bin Abi Sufyan battalion in the al-Furqan brigade of the FSA echoes this concern about community relations in Jibata al-Khashab: "The inhabitants have long lived here as one family and have been able to build a special relationship despite sectarian diversity in the region. We are guests in this town and there will come a time when we have to move on to somewhere else, so we do not want to leave disputes between the people of the region and ruin the civil peace. Even though we captured a number of people who were collaborating with the security and regime forces, we have released them in order to protect the social fabric".

    Inhabitants of the Syrian rural areas enjoy a self-sufficiency which is based on the cooperation between residents of its towns and villages in every aspect of their work and everyday life. Sharing lifestyles and dividing work establishes a common culture and a network of close familial relations which characterize rural communities in general. The cohesion of the structure of the rural community has been affected by the tense political situation in different ways and to varying degrees. But interestingly, this structure has strengthened as a cohesive force in areas controlled by the FSA, while it has disintegrated in some other areas that are still under the authority of the regime.

    Syrian security forces have followed a policy of arming civilian supporters of the regime, allowing them to form the so-called 'local people's committees'. These committees are granted broad powers in their areas of operation: for example, putting up roadblocks to search people and cars. They have even been granted license to loot houses and act as shabiha. This has created a rift and armed clashes in rural communities between the sons of one district or one village, ending with the deaths of several young men.

    While opponents of the regime and activists are chased down by regime forces and subjected to arbitrary arrest and liquidation in areas under regime control, by contrast, regime supporters in areas controlled by the FSA can express their opinions freely. We can even find them sitting in the village guest house sharing jokes and drinking tea in one of the most beautiful scenes of the revolution that I have seen.

    In the simple rural community of the town of Jibata al-Khashab - where life is based on agriculture and breeding livestock - residents in cooperation with local battalions of the FSA have managed to find a modus vivendi which  allows them to maintain national cohesion and attain a high degree of acceptance of political differences. This gives us a shining example of life after the fall of the regime, if authorities in the future deal realistically with the diversity of Syrian society and respect its differences.

    Thousands thanks to Tahir Zaman for translating this article

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