Nov 102015
 

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A funereal atmosphere descended over western capitals with the announcement of Turkey’s parliamentary elections’ results, widely described in European and American media as a “shock” and a “black day for Turkey.” The picture painted appeared very bleak, as a stream of reports, editorials and op-eds by opposition figures warned of a “return to autocracy and despotism” and declared the outcome as a threat to the “survival of democracy” in the country.

Absent in such doom and gloom analyses was the fact that Erdogan had accepted last June’s elections’ results, which had depleted his party’s parliament representation, and had sought to form a national unity government. As such proposals were firmly rejected by the opposition, he proceeded to call for early elections in conformity with the Turkish constitution.

Neither do those heaping wrath and scorn on the new “Ottoman Sultan” note that the Turkish president is surrounded by a ring of half and full-fledged despots from every side, in Jordan and the Gulf kingdoms, as in Iraq and Syria. Meanwhile, a little further away in the same neighbourhood, reigns a military general, who, only two years ago, had seized power through a blood-soaked coup after kidnapping the country’s democratically elected president and throwing him in jail. His tanks crushed the will of the people along with the skulls and bodies of hundreds of peaceful protesters, young and old, male and female, in one of the worst atrocities in contemporary history.

Yet this very same ruler, who presides over one of the most backward tyrannical regimes on the planet, is greeted with open arms in western capitals, in Paris as in Berlin. Today, he is being hosted by David Cameron in 10 Downing Street.

The message sent to the people of the region is loud and clear: either a made to fit democracy tailored to our needs and likes, or a dictator, odious though he may be. We will block our noses and shake the vulgar thug’s hand. We will call on our band of hired apologists: “experts,” “commentators” and “analysts” to concoct a set of justifications and excuses for his nauseating conduct, from mythical economic development and reform to political shrewdness, and if all else fails, reach for the Kessinger-Albright dictionary and throw in some “political realism”.

Ironically, while over 85% of eligible voters had participated in the Turkish elections, roughly the same percentage of Egyptians had chosen to collectively abstain from taking part in the recent shambolic Egyptian parliamentary polls. Thus they had denied the Field Marshal and his backers in Washington and London the fig leaf much needed to cover his dictatorial rule.

While Erdogan is vilified and chastised, the red carpet is rolled for Sisi. Yet one had placed his country on the route to democracy after five military coups and decades of absolutist army rule, while the other had put a brutal stop to his nation’s nascent democratic experiment.

Implicit in coverage of the Turkish elections is the assumption that those who had voted for the AK Party are impulsive irrational mobs easily duped by Erdogan’s “fear mongering” and “nationalist propaganda”. He has, we were repeatedly told, stirred their phobia of economic instability and insecurity. It is as though Turks had no right to fear for their economic interests or their security, with crises raging on their frontiers immediate and indirect, in Syria, Iraq, Yemen or Libya, while they host over two million Syrian refugees in their midst, with Europe and the U.S. unwilling to accept even a quarter of that number.

The millions who have taken part in the polls have made conscious informed choices, casting their vote for those whom they believe best represent their interests and respond to their legitimate fears (as voters do in every democracy around the world).

Here, as in much reporting and commentary on the Middle East, most western reporters and analysts prove unable to go beyond the boundaries of dominant narratives, or cross over ideological and cultural obstacles to grasp the reality on the ground and make sense of the actions of ordinary men and women or their motivations. They are displaying symptoms of what may be described as euro-centrism, egocentrism, or Orientalism. The external observer of colonial times, the missionary, traveller, or colonial functionary, has taken new contemporary forms: the expert, commentator, or correspondent dispatched from the old metropolis to the Empire’s peripheries. But the structure of the discourse and its content remain largely unchanged and their coded messages are constantly reproduced in new forms.

Very few in the region still take the west’s democracy rhetoric seriously. After invading and demolishing Iraq armed with promises of democratisation and emancipation, it installed a succession of sectarian despots. Instead of the sweet smell of freedom, Baghdad reeked of the stench of death and the smoke of civil war and terrorism. And no longer does Obama sing the praises of the sublime January Revolution, or fervently wish he were a rebel on Tahrir Square. The revolutionaries are rotting away in medieval dungeons while their jailor is entertained around western capitals. And instead of pointing the finger to the real tyrants up and down the Middle East and holding them to account, it is the region’s only democratically elected president (with the exception of Tunisia in North Africa) who is singled out for criticism and demonisation.

So, a small word of advice to western politicians and army of commentators and “experts”: trust me, when it comes to democracy in the region, silence is best.

 

Oct 302015
 

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If I got a penny for every time I was told that religion is the cause of all trouble, I’d be a rich woman by now. If only we had John Lennon’s religionless world, there would be no war, or conflict and everyone would love their neighbour. If only the theologians, clergymen, mullahs and priests could get on, the world’s problems would be resolved at a stroke.

No doubt, religion does play a part in many of the crises and conflicts raging around us. But more often than not, these problems take on a religious name and speak through the medium of religion, while having their roots in socio-political factors.

Examples are found in the Northern Ireland dispute as in the Middle East conflict. Though those at loggerheads happen to belong to divergent confessional communities, Catholics and Protestants, Jews and Muslims/Christians, they did not come to blows because of their religious affiliations. Their grievances are fundamentally political, even if they hide themselves in the guise of religion and communicate in its language.

Religion is often the mirror that reflects worldly tensions. To say that religion is divisive is to attempt no analysis of the problems at hand. It is to stop at the surface making no effort to dig deeper for the underlying problems seething underneath.

Take the orgy of sectarian bloodshed that has been raging in Iraq for over a decade, for instance. Sunnis and Shia have been killing each other by the tens on a daily basis. Do not venture into a Sunni dominated area if your name happens to be Hassan, and you have more chance of ending up with a slit throat on some street corner if you suddenly lost your way and found yourself in Sadr city and you were called Omar.

But let us not stop there, let us ask the difficult questions others would rather we left undisturbed. Why do Iraq’s Sunni and Shia kill each other today when they didn’t years ago? Why were they able to coexist before, but find that impossible to do today? Every Iraqi tribe and family numbers both Sunni and Shia. They intermingled, intermarried, lived not only side by side but under the same roof, often sharing the same bed. This was the case even under Saddam’s despotic rule. Then and before, for centuries Iraq was one of the world’s most diverse places, a veritable mosaic of religions, ethnicities, sects and denominations, Muslims, Christians, Sabians, Yazidis, Sunni, Shia, Kurds, Turkmen all peacefully shared the same space.

This was Iraq before. It isn’t Iraq today, since the American/British invasion and Bremer’s transitional authority, which destroyed Iraq’s political order, substituting it for one grounded in sectarianism and ethnic factionalism. National identity was broken asunder, the common torn apart, only narrow group affiliations remained. In the chaos that followed, every splinter group wanted to seize all, leaving the rest with nothing. Forming the security and police forces in the new Iraq along sectarian lines poured oil over fire, equipping one faction with the tools it would later use in its quest to exterminate its rivals.

Shiism and Sunnism are not to blame. Bush, Blair and Bremer are.

Neither are Judaism, Christianity, or Islam responsible for the Middle East conflict. Palestinians and Israelis invoke religious symbols and references in their rationalisation of the dispute, in a space laden with sacred meanings for both sides. But the truth is that this is not a conflict over a mosque, church, or temple, though it has come to be symbolised by such monuments. Primarily, and above all, it is over land, dispossession, settlement, occupation and will to liberation. The relationship is more between occupier and occupied than between Jew and Muslim/Christian. More than the Quran or the Old Testament, it is the Balfour Declaration and the great powers’ strategies in the region that have spawned and dictated the course of this long and painful drama.

Many more examples could be cited for the superficiality of explanations of socio-political movements and phenomena in exclusively religious terms, from the Reformation in 16th century Europe, to Islamic radicalism in the 21st. Religion is neither the root of all virtue, nor the cause of all evil. Good conditions spawn good religion, bad conditions bad religion. The evils of reality have a habit of metamorphosing into evil religion. It is the chaotic war-torn and crisis ridden Middle East today that fosters and nourishes the extreme violent ideology of al-Qaeda and ISIS.

Humans and societies are not blank pages, but the carriers of a profound cultural, symbolic, and historic heritage, through which they communicate and make sense of reality. This imbedded repository of values, images and references, is inevitably invoked in peace as in war, and more so in war and times of turmoil. Amidst tension, cultural, religious, and national identities are awakened, activated, and intensified.

This is not to say, as Marx had done, that religion is a superfluous illusion. It is an integral part of the collective memory and consciousness of groups and individuals. Through it they ascribe meaning to their experiences and justification to their actions. It functions silently unnoticed amidst stability and calm and becomes more vocal, more visible and sometimes more explosive through crisis and turbulence. There is no inherently peaceful religion, and no inherently aggressive religion. Take Christianity, for instance, it inspired asceticism and otherworldliness, just as it ignited the flames of conflict and schism, in the 16th century, wars of religion as in the Crusades. There is no religion per se.

In short, we would do well to avoid peering at reality through the prism of ideas and doctrines. Humans, you see, walk on their feet, not their heads.

http://www.huffingtonpost.com/soumaya-ghannoushi/religion-is-not-to-blame_b_8417720.html

Oct 272015
 

ID-10051186With over 1.6 billion followers, one third of them living as minorities, Islam is a major force in the world today. An active factor in international relations, its influence is far from local or confined to countries and communities classified as “Muslim.” With the presence of Muslims in Western capitals and the rapid diffusion of mass-communication media, Islam has become a globalized subject, albeit one largely viewed through the prism of security and intelligence. Amidst the rise of al-Qaeda, ISIS and other terrorist groups, it has become increasingly perceived in Europe and the U.S. as a generator of crises and a threat to global stability and security.

In spite of the deluge of images and narratives of Islam that has flooded the public space since September 11th, knowledge and understanding of the subject has remained limited. Few know the enormous diversity of the Muslim world and its societies, on the levels of schools of thought, religious interpretations, or sectarian pluralism. Fewer still realize that there exists no uniform Islam but divergent tendencies fostered and promoted by the general political climates where different Muslim communities happen to find themselves.

It is such conditions that define the form of Islam that gains prevalence in a given historical context. Like any other major religion, Islam has been in its past, and continues to be in the present, subject to multiple strategies of interpretation. In general terms, we can speak of three prominent trends competing over the hearts and minds of Muslims around the world today.

The first is theocratic, at the service of absolutist rulers for whom Islam is a means of acquiring a de facto authority wrested by the force of the sword and hereditary succession, above any checks and restraints, and free of any accountability. This Islam is armed with its network of institutions, funds, and functionaries. The essence of religion as an authentic spiritual experience is irrelevant here. What matters are the rituals and outward forms of religiosity as the source of power legitimation. Religion is a mere obedient and obliging servant of the ruler, his interests and whims. In the Arabian Peninsula, a Wahhabism wedded to rule by the sword represents the clearest embodiment of this form of Islam.

Its proponents are as eager to exhibit the ritualist and formalistic aspects of Islam in a crudely interventionist way, such as the imposition of prayer, the segregation of men and women and enforcement of the niqab, as they are to keep it remote from politics and the realms of power and authority. As soon as these taboos are touched, the religious establishment, with its guardians of the sacred army comprising official scholars, clergymen and preachers, springs into action, denouncing the culprits as deviant and unorthodox, thereby furnishing the religious cover for their silencing, oppression and elimination.

The second strategy is as morally absolutist, dogmatic, legalistic and exclusionary as the first but espouses a different type of politics. It is an anarchist form of Wahhabism. It feeds on the climates of crisis, wars and conflicts raging in Muslim lands and seeks a source of justification for the perpetration of violence and terror in the theology of Islam.

This minority current had been isolated in Khandahar and the distant mountains of Tora Bora. But the military invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq and widening circle of political, sectarian and ethnic conflicts has strengthened it and enabled it to resonate with growing sectors of angry, anxious and disillusioned Muslim youth. The Arab awakening, which gave people in the region hope of the possibility of peaceful political change, had dealt a powerful blow to this tendency.

But as its great aspirations were crushed under the boots of generals in Egypt, burnt in the furnace of civil wars in Libya and drowned in the bloodshed of Syria, this violent anarchist current gained fresh momentum and rose to the forefront once more. For all its noise and the enormous exposure it receives, however, it still fails to command religious legitimacy or acceptance in the eyes of most Muslims, who still dismiss it as religiously deviant and politically counterproductive, damaging to the image of Islam and the stability of Muslim societies.

The presence of such extremist groups and the extent of their influence depend to a large extent on the general political climates prevailing in the Muslim world. Unfortunately, these conditions, particularly those reigning in the Arab hemisphere, show no sign of rehabilitation or stabilization.

These two trends are at loggerheads with democratic modernist Islam, whose roots lie in the 19th-century Islamic reform movement founded by Jamaluddin al-Afghani and Mohamed Abdu, which revolves around the notion of compatibility between, on the one hand, Islamic spiritual and religious values and, on the other, what it describes as the “requisites” of modern times. These include the imposition of checks and balances on power, the adoption of democratic mechanisms and procedures, and the emancipation of Islam from what proponents of this reformist school describe as the “prison of stagnation and imitation.”

With the advent of modernization, urbanization and mass education, this current has amassed considerable influence in Muslim societies (and later among Muslim minorities). Today, it is under pressure from multiple quarters. One of these is the theocratic camp, which considers the very presence of an Islam that calls for restrictions on the authority of rulers and respect for the will of the people, expressed through electoral democracy, a direct threat to its existence. This explains the unrelenting war waged by certain Gulf states on the wave of democratic change in the Arab region for the last three years.

Alongside pressures from Arab theocracies, democratic Islam is challenged by Salafi jihadists who dismiss it as “diluted,” “soft” and “naive,” pinning its hopes on peaceful protests and ballot boxes, which, unlike armed warfare, lead nowhere.

And beyond the Muslim landscape, this brand of Islam is viewed with mistrust by many in American decision-making circles and across the Atlantic. In the name of realism and pragmatism, these prefer to deal with rulers who, though authoritarian and ruthless with their masses, are pliant and willing to leave their markets wide open for Euro-American goods and squander billions in their nations’ resources on weapons no one else would buy. These are, therefore, infinitely preferable to elected leaders bound by the will of their people and committed to their interests.

Those who call for the reformation and democratization of Islam seem to miss an essential fact: that a democratic reformist Islam has existed since the 19th century. It has its own literal body, pioneers, and thinkers, within both Shia and Sunni Islam. The question is: Does the situation of present-day Muslim society, marked by crisis, tensions, foreign interventions and political despotism, foster this reformist democratic Islam, or does it promote its violent and theocratic rivals?

Rather than sifting through Muslims’ religious texts, theological tracts and medieval polemical disputes, those agonizing over the “problem” of Islam would do well to ponder the concrete reality of real, living Muslims and seek to fix it rather than striving to fix Islam.

(photo courtesy of  Nutdanai Apokhomboonwaroot, Free Digital Photos)