Category Archives: Islam

Time we had a little talk Mr. Freedom of Speech.

It’s time we had a little talk. Yes, you, little Mr. Freedom of Speech. Mr. I’ll say anything I please, wet my bed, consequences be darned. You little Borat, you. The Williamses are coming over, and I want you to promise you won’t use that word we talked about. You are too young to understand this now, but one day you will. Perhaps you will visit New York. And in Harlem, say, right outside St. Nicks you are going to shout the N-word at the top of your lungs. If you’re anything like your daddy, I know you’ll want to.

If you have any money or teeth left, you might buy yourself a ticket to Tel Aviv. Let’s just say it’s a place far, far away. Perhaps you will hop on a funny little bus to Jerusalem, like baby Jesus did. Take a stroll around the orthodox neighbourhood wearing freedom pants that expose your god-given right to tanned knees. No need to say anything really. No need to light up what mommie and daddy call a doobie to get stoned either. Please take your feet off the couch, honey. It’s not because you CAN stand on an expensive leather antique that you have to do it. You will learn this when you grow up. Or maybe not.

And no, you cannot drive the car until you are eighteen years old. You want to watch some more Mickey Mouse? You love cartoons, don’t you. Cartoons are funny, and easy to understand. But you have to know something, honey. When Pluto, or Goofy, of whatever they’re called, are hit by a truck, they really should be dead. Likewise, when you cross the street, we’d like you to be very careful. Not everybody is as smart and prudent as yourself.

Speaking of prudent, a pederast is– we’ll explain later. Let’s just say you want to stay away from Catholic priests. Now, your aunt Barbara is very religious, but she is okay. Luckily the newspaper people don’t generalize about white people. Perhaps it’s good to know that in the seventh century… ugh. Let’s just say things were very different when mommy and daddy were your age. And when your grandma’s grandma’s grandma’s grandma was your age, things were pretty terrible everywhere. People didn’t grow very old. And… There were lots of wars, terrible diseases, people blaming other people for everything that was going wrong, especially if they owed you money. A bit like… well, today. Honey, did you spill orange juice on the carpet?

No, I’m not angry like those people you saw on TV.. I told daddy not to let you watch the news. How do I explain this? A government is a bit like your mommy and daddy. We work to have a house, and eat and buy some nice things, and the rest we give to you. You don’t always understand all the strange things we do, so we tell you a simple story to explain the difficult thing. Mostly we prefer to just put you in front of the television. You watch a simple version of what grownups call ‘re-a-li-ty’. Sometimes it’s almost true. Very often it isn’t. People who are really angry on TV are mostly actors, or poor people who are getting paid to help governments or people who also want to play government get a point across. Only few can tell the difference. They are called a scientist.

Scientists say funny things. And they are always investigating stuff like chemicals, planets, electric things, or Muslims. Some say none of these things really exist, that matter is just a form of energy and ‘Muslim’ is like a group name for more than a billion very different people. Like Christian, or Jew, or left-handed. It means everything and nothing at the same time, subscribing fully to Heisenberg’s Principle of Uncertainty. You either look at the thing as a whole, or you look at the individual. The more you zoom in on the particle, the less you know about the group. And the more you zoom out, the less likely you can say anything meaningful. Not to mention, your observation fundamentally influences the observed. It is very complicated. For now, just remember to eat with your mouth closed, wash your hands, and –oh, there goes the bell. Remember what I told you! Try to act like a grown-up. Then again. Perhaps not.

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Filed under Belgium, Christianity, Islam, Israel, Judaism, Middle East, Revolution, seismic changes, Sinai

Bull in a china shop

Democracy is on the rise. Arabs are finally, painfully getting rid of their Western-supported or Western-opposed -and really, what’s the difference at the end of the day- dictators that have secured a steady and cheap flow of oil over the past decades. The democratic West looks on, emitting a feeble “Hurrah!”

“Come on. Can’t you guys at least pretend to be happy for us?” an Arab observer might say. “Sure, we’re a bit late to the party, but can we at least get a drink up in this bitch?”

Here’s the thing though, and for this we need to rewind the tape a good 25 years, the end of communism didn’t spell the end of history. The interesting times were only beginning, to paraphrase a famous Chinese proverb. Liberal markets and their inseparable political analogue democracy had won. Yeay! China, fast opening its economy to the forces of supply and demand, would soon learn that for that system to work, politicians too needed to receive feedback on their performance. A healthy market can’t survive without a steadily improving regulatory framework, i.e. a democratic-ish state.

Then came Tienanmen, followed by two decades of casual +10% growth lifting hundreds of millions of Chinese out of poverty. The U.S. and your average old European social-market economies managed 3% to 4%, in a handful of good years. In relative terms, and due to the end of cheap oil also in absolute terms, the latter have been getting poorer. As Marsellus Wallace tells Butch in Pulp Fiction: “That’s a hard motherfucking fact of life.” Now you can hide said fact by means of budgetary wizardry, selling state property, cutting welfare expenditure, education budgets, or simply allowing banks to blow bubbles until everbody’s high with dollar signs in their eyes, but sooner or later your boxer is going to refuse to go down in the 5th.

With China on a high streak, happily yodeling down the mountain with no seat belts and more importantly, no political feedback system to efficiently steer a fair and sustainable distribution of wealth, the question is this: Were generations of political thinkers, starting with the Greeks over Montesquieu to err, Ronald Reagan, and basically everyone involved in inventing post world-war II Western-style democracy, high on crack? American and European leaders are surely, quietly asking themselves this question: Has democracy as we know it become a liability to the quest for economic growth? Can we possibly beat China, or simply not be eaten by it, without emulating its totalitarian political system? Even tree-huggers are jealous by now at China’s relentless push toward renewable energy.

Like so many enchanted cat owners, one hesitates to imagine what politicians get up to at night. I’m sure some actually do go home to their wives or quietly read Proust. Until, that is, they are rudely interrupted by panicky business leaders who can’t compete against these Chinese juggernauts. Not with these workers’ wages. “Is there anything you can do?” Well, one way to ease a voter’s mind into voting against his or her interest is to scare them half to death. “Islam!” I mean, “Booh!” You can have the Rupert Murdochs of the free world constrict the free flow of information to fickle electorates or just go old-school, like South-Africa yesterday, by shooting dead 30 striking miners. Lots of subtle signs indicate that something is going on, something is changing, and it doesn’t sound/taste/smell like bold new steps to deepen  citizens’ participation in society.

While your cat -I mean, representative is having a great night out in the aviary, on the premise that China is doing fine without that rare bird called democracy, said up and coming superpower is secretly discovering the contrary. Local mayors, governors and assorted appointed apparatchicks cannot be trusted to operate complex economies without up to the minute feedback on just how bad they are doing. Capital punishment does not scare the corrupt into becoming holy men. Formerly jailed from the get go, bloggers are now issued punch-card licenses: yes, you’re allowed to finger-point failing hospitals or a crumbling bridge, but only about five times. It’s not democracy, but a far cry from the Cultural Revolution, and a giant leap for an institution attempting to feed and house a billion and a half people, otherwise known as the entire world population at the beginning of the 20th century. As the Chinese economy becomes more complex and grows, so will the need to quickly rotate the folks in charge. Crowd-sourcing the decisions underpinning these rotations is simply more efficient. Cheaper, if you will. Economically sound. Get it? I.e. free markets need political oversight, but political oversight needs oversight by free people. In other words, China did not magically break the bond between economic growth and popular emancipation. It’s simply not happening at a fast-food pace.

Are our politicians catching up to the fact that the Middle Kingdom is catching up, or are they still talking bull about the china shop?

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Filed under Arab Spring, democracy, Islam, Middle East

Wanderers of the Desert

A young teacher arrives at a village in the middle of the desert. His task is to, well, teach the children. Only problem is, the entire village is cursed, and the children disappear one by one to join a group of ‘wanderers of the desert’. Before leaving, a well speaks, urging them to break all mirrors in the village, and use the shards in an unexplained ritual. The story-telling of this beautifully shot film is both loose and low-paced, in step with recent Arab history. Torn between the mystical, anecdotal past, nostalgia for Andalusia -a paradise lost, and modernity in the guise of the wrathful police officer, the youth vanish into an aimless existence.

Tunisian director Nacer Khemir’s ‘Al-Haimoune’ or ‘Wanderers of the Desert’ perfectly captures the soul of the Arab World pre-revolution. Not in detailed exegesis, but as a broad metaphor for homelessness. A representative of the national state inspires confidence nor inspiration. The past offers a mere labyrinth of illusion, fairy tales, and unsubstantiated longing. The village itself, ruins of beautiful courtyards and crumbling arabesque walls, are reminiscent of so many abandoned villages formerly inhabited by Jews, the archetypal wanderers of the desert whose exile ended half a century ago but only in name, and not without displacing another people.

Whence from here? As the era of oil draws to a close, so must the Middle East’s subservience to the West that actually began long before the discovery of crude. The ballot box can only be the start of the end of wandering. Both Arabs and Jews have a long road ahead crafting a new symbiotic identity. Out of the desert and into a modernity that is not premised on the sword.

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Filed under Arab Spring, end of oil, Islam, Judaism, Middle East, Palestine, Tunisia

Salafists R us

Make that; salafist! Even as I write this my faithful WordPress spelling minder suggests I write ‘falsify’ in stead. As in; they are out to make you believe muhammadan fruitcakes are taking over the whole goddamn place. Your place or my place? From Sinai to the shittier neighborhoods of Brussels. In Egypt they are the ghosts of the tortured let out the box after the demise of Hosni -at least he was our kind of dictator- Mubarak. Disappointed in the Muslim Brotherhood, who are fast becoming a Muslim-Democrat version of Angela Merkel’s CDU, salafists seem to espouse ideas about women comparable to the American Republican Party.

In Belgium, salafists are called Sharia for Belgium, and are represented by a wheeler-dealer car mechanic with a penchant for mixing a thick Antwerp accent with Koranic catch phrases. In one memorable Youtube video the bearded, long-robed clown stood in front of the Atomium, a fifty year-old building that consists of nine giant aluminum balls connected by stiff rods, calling it un-islamic and hoping, in sh’Allah, it would some day crumble spontaneously. Belgians; Christian, Muslim, and non-believer alike all had a good chuckle about that. And by chuckle I mean, irresponsible politicians facing municipal elections later in the year lined up to call for the zealot’s expulsion to a country his parents were born in shortly after World War II. Special laws were mulled to, well, out-law Sharia for Belgium and the kind of burlesque exaggerations a Flemish party representing twenty-five percent of voters gets away with every day.

Salafism is a problem indeed. Every country has them in some or other manifestation. With the good comes the bad they say, and Egypt’s going through some bad shit right now. They; the country, its democrats, women, middle class, poor and unemployed, its youth will deal with these newly-unleashed conservative forces or be consumed by them. Europe has a pretty good idea of what that looks like, however much it chooses to forget. Salafists ‘r us, bearded, with a little mustache, or suited up like, say, the CEO of FN Herstal.

In ‘Sinai’, what appears to be an attack by religious wackos is exactly that, or rather, something else entirely. 

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Filed under Al-Qaeda, Arab Spring, Belgium, Brussels, Cairo, democracy, Egypt, Islam, Middle East, Revolution, seismic changes

A lot to learn..

Egypt’s parliament dissolved. “What is this, 19th century Europe?” I said to Jalal. “Dissolving is not a solution.” Then again, maybe it is. I never paid much attention in high school chemistry. Jokes aside, it’s not like the parliament was very active. In fact, the Brotherhood was fast losing street cred over its elected members’ laisser-gouverner attitude. “There’s something fishy about the whole thing,” Jalal opined. Lord knows who’s plotting what against whom. Is Mubarak’s heir apparent Shafiq planning to rule by decree should he win today’s presidentials? Will a Mursi Brotherhood victory overturn the high court’s decision, further complicating the constitutional quagmire?

Lord knows I haven’t a clue. Egyptians are slogging it the hard way it seems. As is their right. But what is right in the stark floodlight of might, be it noun or verb? If all this sounds confusing it’s because your humble host has been evaluating French development aid to Palestine, drinking too much coffee, and sleeping way too little. This aid business is a tough racket. I’m not even talking about the deserving, downtrodden beneficiaries. Of which, one hastens to add, there are many. Just ask the sandwich guy catering the workshops, board meetings, steering committees, wrap-up sessions, and focus groups. Cynicism aside, these things are unavoidable, if at times a bit annoying. A bit like Parisians when the rent is late, if you’ll excuse my French.

What has all this to do with Egypt, or the Sinai, you may ask? Well, the Hebrews crossed the latter before falling on the Canaanites, did they not? And, if I may quote the ever grandiose Lebowski: “Given the nature of all this new shit, that, uh, instead of running around blaming me, this whole thing might be a whole lot more uh, uh complex. It might not be, you know, just such a simple– You know?”

I blame the coffee. Especially the iced derivative so liberally domed with whipped cream by Jerusalem’s Austrian Hospice’s hirelings. And if not the coffee, I’ll denounce time itself, or the scruffy cat at the restaurant that may or may not have been a shapeshifting time traveler from the Andromeda Galaxy bent on inter-civilizational tomfoolery. Did I mention it’s 35 degrees in the shade? Perhaps the Temple Mount security people were temporarily suffering from melting eyeball syndrome (unknown in medical circles as M.E.S.) when they unwittingly let a certain falafel sandwich-munching foreigner onto the grounds this afternoon. Relaxing in the shade, watching kids kick around a pigskin,  parents relaxing hither and tither, I could feel ten days of endless, horribly essential palaver subside.

“Muslim, in sh’Allah?” the waqf guy inquired politely. “No,” I answered in truth. Just a person looking around, trying to learn a thing or two about this crazy place we call the world, understanding ever less.

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Filed under Arab Spring, Christianity, Egypt, Islam, Middle East, Palestine, Sinai

Mother of the world

Egypt’s is often described as a patriarchal society. Guys call the shots. Prior the revolution the men running the secular dictatorship slowly but surely traded women’s rights and general liberal tenets in exchange for tacit support from an Islamic movement that officially didn’t exist. But guys have always called the shots, even before the Brotherhood and more recently Salafi influence could be felt. Save for Cairo’s mini-skirted fifties and sixties, it is believed that peering into the past is equivalent to looking at male-dominated troglodyte gloom. Europe might have taken a head start on the whole women’s rights fad, but it took a few Swiss Cantons until the eighties to grant women suffrage and to this day a sizable male-female wage gap persists.  Patriarchy appears ingrained in the human genome, or at least a quasi-universal habit that’s hard to stamp out. Or is it?

Matriarchy is often wrongly interpreted as the opposite of patriarchy, i.e. a political and/or social system where women rule over men. History cites the Cretan civilization, Hopi Indians, and, to this day, the Iroquois Confederacy and Mosuo Chinese as examples. However these are rather characterized by the sharing of power equally, not one gender lording over another. What are guys so afraid of then?

Classical (need I say male-dominated) anthropology has gone from considering matriarchy an early stage of human development, to holding it never existed at all. To some early researchers Neolithic female cult-figures suggested most ancient societies might have been matriarchal. During the sixties and seventies some went even further, theorizing a kind of prehistoric global matriarchal society, a golden epoch of equality in balance with nature with which enlightened denizens communicated by means of hallucinogenic mushrooms and trance-inducing rituals. Mankind, awakened once more, would return to that state in the coming age of Aquarius. Obviously, this non-materialistic war-less Shangri-la, would ruin the economy, not to mention many a male CEO’s end of year bonus.

Hipster cynicism aside, it makes plain sense for one gender not to enslave/underpay/overdress/underdress another. Many countries have come a long way, and yes, the Middle East is lagging behind on many fronts. Howe’er… Things are not all as they seem. A secular dictator is not necessarily a women’s rights champion. And banning a movement that espouses patriarchal views deprives women of the opportunity to expose and combat enduring silliness. Democracy, despite auguring the rise of Islamizing political parties, is a precondition to blooming Arab women’s rights movements. And move they will. As indeed they have in the past, before and after the advent of Islam. Read, if you’ll excuse my French, the friggin’ history books.

Even the ancient Egyptians knew where it was at. Hathor, a type of early goddess, took the place of earlier idols in much the same way as the Virgin Mary replaced local mother-divinities in Europe. At Wadi Maghara in Sinai she appears on one tablet wearing a pair of horns supporting the orb of the full moon, and described as mistress of the turquoise land.

In Sinai the book, there comes a woman wielding unfathomable powers. She takes on the old secular generals as well as the new Muslim guard. Fatally, not democracy but the sword is her weapon of choice.  

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Filed under Arab Spring, Cairo, democracy, Egypt, Feminism, Islam

The Arab Spring… some awkward questions

If Al-Qaeda supports the Syrian armed opposition, as Iraqi journalist and writer Hamid Alkifaey asserts in a Bitter Lemons op-ed, have they in fact, unlike the abstemious western powers, achieved the moral high ground, reminiscent of international jihadi fighters supporting Bosnian Muslims against Serb atrocities in the nineties? Or was it never that black and white? Is it today?

Was Bin Laden’s aim really to strike at the American freedoms he so despised, or did he in fact mean to destroy the Saudi-American duopoly holding back the freedoms Arabs have had to live without ever since the rise of the global petro-economy? Concomitant to that question, do Arab revolutions form the apogee of political islam or the beginning? If political islam is a problem for western observers, why have western observers and actors to this day condoned and supported the worst examples of such regimes like Wahhabi Saudi-Arabia, ever-regressing Pakistan and pre-9/11 Taliban?

Did the American invasion of Iraq, the rhetoric of which at least was premised on Arabs’ readiness for western-style democracy, augur the Arab spring, or delay it? As bloody as the Syrian uprising is and undoubtedly will be, will it ever be as costly in human lives as the American wars against Iraq and the American-sparked Iraqi civil war was?

When the Arab spring arrives in Palestine, and it seems finally to be doing just that, which regime will it topple? The glorified municipal committee called the Palestinian Authority, or the real determinant of Palestinians’ everyday lives? Will Arabs living inside Israel stay on the sidelines? In other words, will the revolution transcend the multiple administrative strata imposed on Palestinians, to wit: Palestinians inside Israel -almost the same rights as Jewish Israelis, Palestinians in annexed East-Jerusalem -significantly less rights than Jewish Israelis, Palestinians in the West Bank -right to receive foreign aid, Gaza Palestinians -full rights to do whatever they please except to leave the 360 square kilometer ghetto by sea, land, or air? Have fears regarding the coming storm played a role in the surprise shaping of Netanyahu’s national-unity government?

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Filed under Al-Qaeda, Arab Spring, democracy, Islam, Middle East, Revolution, seismic changes, Sinai