Welcome to Kalamna, the student blog of the Hagop Kevorkian Center for Near Eastern Studies at NYU.

Friday, March 30, 2012

Palestine Suspended Between Old & New

500 Dunam On the Moon is a short and affecting documentary (by an American) about the Palestinian village Ayn Hawd, south of Haifa, ethnically cleansed of its native Arab community by Zionist terrorist militias in the 1948 Israeli war on Palestine (Ayn Hawd is located in the territory demarcated for the Jewish state in the proposed United Nations partition plan). Ignoring a United Nations General Assembly, nearly unanimously renewed every year since, calling for the right of return of Palestinian refugees forcibly evicted or compelled to flight by the war (and direct Zionist threats) from their homes, Israel has refused to allow the original inhabits to resettle on their land.

Instead in 1953, the Israel state expropriated the land and help set up an artist colony on stolen Palestinian land - an illustrative example of the deceptive and fraudulent nature of Israel's incessant self-admiration as some sort of enlightened island in a sea of jungle Arabs. A nation that builds and markets its 'humanitarianism' on the ruins of another people.

But unlike many other Palestinians, the residents of Ayn Hawd did not end up outside the borders of Palestine. Their eviction did not throw them into, say, Lebanon but - to borrow jargon - down the block. Ayn Hawd became the Hebrew Ein Hod (a common theme in Israel is the renaming, or Arabic to Hebrew modification, of violently depopulated Arab villages) and Ayn Hawd resurfaced as a refugee suburb of its former home and its residents made into Israeli citizens.

The residents are entitled to the basics of Israeli citizenship law (to be distinguished - and this is crucial - from nationalism which is only afforded to Jewish subjects with all its commensurate privileges) but their new home isn't recognized by Israel. Placing them in legal limbo and without access to state services, such as paved roads. Housing permits are similarly denied. Palestinians may build anyway, but Israel may then cite the construction as illegal and demolish. Why doesn't Israel just recognize this new Arab community, especially as its inhabitants have effectively given up returning to their old homes? No specific reason is given and this case isn't unique. Many Arab villages remain unrecognized. Perhaps Israeli authorities do not want to provide services that would come with recognition. More likely a future eviction is in the works. The new Ayn Hawd, like the old, is located on prime real estate: the lush coast with mountain views and the Mediterranean Sea as backdrop. Israel may one day decide to build Jewish housing here and recognizing the current Arab village would make the current residents - even in Israel - harder to force out once again.

There is a lot to unravel in this short, but of great depth, film. But I want to concentrate on a few notes I took while watching:

- There is the case of the Palestinian (and hereinafter all Palestinians referenced are residents of the new Ayn Hawd descendent from the original town) who spent his years renovating old houses in the old town, now occupied by Israelis, alongside building the new housing to accomodate the growing - exclusively Jewish - settlers. The renovation of homes is clearly a deeply painful experience: Here is a Palestinian appearing perhaps old enough to have been a child at the time of eviction partaking in the architectural rebirth of his former town not for its rightful inhabitants longing to return but for individuals with no attachment beyond having found land advertised as deserted by the Israeli state. He resignes, and justifies, his conduct by stating that he needed to work. Today Palestinians on the West Bank build illegal Israeli settlements on the same premise.

Our Palestinian renovator recaps how the Israelis sought to convey friendship - but it was a phony hand. He later discovered that they were not his friends, he says, and he was only courted provided he worked for the Israelis and kept silent. Bringing up your grandfather's home, he relates, would cause anxiety among town residents who fear that the Palestinians may begin to demand the returning of their property. If only they'd recognize, at a minium, that they (the Israelis) took the land by force, but even this solace is denied him. One thing that is really bothersome, and this is me speaking, about Zionists is the refusal to even recognize past injustices. Put aside the debate as to whether those wrongs should be amended through compensation for Palestinians, return of property, and right of return of refugees - but even the acknowledgement that Israel has committed a historic injustice against the indigenous population is denied. This is akin to refusing to hand back Manhattan to the Indians (that's well understood), but denying that they were ever thrown off the land. 

- One incredibly striking scene was the fire that broke out in the mountains surrounding Ayn Hawd/Ein Hod and that enveloped the town itself. The documentary slices together news clips from Israel that (unbeknownst to them) tell the Palestinian story through contemporary events: Israeli anchors speak about how the fire has 'forced people out' and how they 'cannot return to their homes' and wonders whether this was a 'natural cause or crime'. In the end, Arabs - without evidence - were suspected but the residents of new Ayn Hawd strongly denied the charge. The town, even inhabited by occupiers, is their longed for home. Why would they want to burn it? It is, as one says, "our national home". 

In an amusing anecdote, the Israeli-occupied Ayn Hawd is apparently more threatened by the fire then the Ayn Hawd reestablished by Arabs due to the former having being surrounded by a ring of trees recently laid by the state. Trees described by Palestinians as "artificial". These trees may be the product of the Jewish National Fund which plants trees on razed Palestinian villages in an act of cruel beautification meant to erase the footprints of Palestine - some may call this "greenwashing" Israeli occupation. 

- Lastly, there is the artist whose paintings of Ayn Hawd represent neither old nor new Ayn Hawd; speaking to that suspended nature of Palestinian existence between a lost home and an indistinct future neither of which can be strictly captured by the brush. 

Palestinians show their humanity in these vulnerable moments of a state of exception - not recognized as a refugee nor resettled - in the state itself constructed as a state of exception. 

The paintings cannot resemble the old Ayn Hawd for remembrance is now deeply interwoven with the present tragedy. The town is now no longer the town as previously known because it can only be seen  through a rear view mirror; so the immemorial image is amended through memory - writing history, but, rather, here memory, backwards.

The painter cannot draw the past as past because its very existence is denied by the occupying state. It is as if the artist in refusing to draw the old Ayn Hawd but still labeling it as "old" is crying out for the nostalgia for nostalgia. 

And the "new" cannot just be a realist painting since that would accept the Zionist mythology and hegemony of discourse. Instead even though the colonizers may not recognize it (although they belie it in their fear, their inner knowledge, that Palestinians will give life and claim to their past existence and aspire to one day return), the Palestinian cannot draw the artifice of Zionist architecture without weaving through the history of dispossession and displacement that breaths - as it were - throughout the land. Thus the "new" Ayn Hawd is not painted as Israel imagines it since it invariably contains the old lost village. Like the Palestinian cause, that ancient Ayn Hawd cannot be extinguished. May it rise again. 

I highly recommend this film. 

Thursday, March 29, 2012

No Need To Fear Religiosity in Tunisia?

Over at MERIP Rikke Hostrup Haugbolle and Francesco Cavatorta have an amusing theory as to why the moderate Islamist al Nahda did so well in the Tunisian October 2011 election - the first free and fair contest in the nation's history. The usual explanations do not hold up since other parties can claim similar variables: 
First, it is said that Ennahda was very quick and skilled in reorganizing its structures across the country after Ben Ali fell on January 14, 2011.
A second explanation refers to the party’s reputation as an uncompromising opposition movement during the Ben Ali era.
A third focuses on the weaknesses of the other parties.
Fourth, some attribute the appeal of Ennahda to its constant quest for a democratic national “consensus” on the key institutional matters.
Finally, the party is said to have swayed many voters with pledges of job creation and replication of the successful Turkish model of economic development.
But all of these can be said about other Tunisian parties in one variant or another. So why did al Nahda do so well? Because the preceding decade has witnessed a rejuvenation in piety among Tunisians. But not the Political Islam menacingly portrayed in Western media. Rather a new generation of pious Tunisians who are seeking an individualized Islam - one that is based on freedom to practice faith as opposed to a political project to enforce a selective interpretation of Islam.

Tunisia in the decade leading to the January 2011 revolution witnessed the emergence of a civic Islam: Islamic private schools, Qur'anic classes and community social welfare organizations. In part, this was a reaction to the Ben 'Ali regime which publicly demoted Islam while emphasizing neo-liberal consumerism increasingly tainted with regime graft. By partaking in an Islamic civic activity - "performative activity" to borrow anthropological discourse - Tunisians were subtly engaging in an act of resistance against an authoritarian regime that promoted a particular life style which suited official corruption.

It is this cohort, the authors argue, that not only serves as the basis for the Nahda victory but has influenced the party to adopt an understanding of the role of Islam in public divergent from the maximalist, dogmatic and theocratic trope favored by ultra-conservatives:
The glue of these [Islamic] networks is a specific understanding and practice of Islam whereby religious precepts apply to those who choose them and are not imposed on the whole of the community. This shift in perspective has filtered up to the Ennahda leadership, which has repeated professions of tolerance incessantly since being legalized, partly to reassure secular Tunisians, but partly to reflect the views and practices of its new members and supporters. As Tirad Labbane of Riadh Ennasr said: “Our commitment to Islam does not mean that we want to impose what we do on others. In that sense, you could say that we are anti-salafi, because we do not approve of imposing behavior. If you want to wear a mini-skirt, it is not my problem; if you do not want to wear the veil, it is also not my problem. Choices have to be left to individuals; the state cannot impose behavior. From the state authorities we ask only that they let us do our work in peace.”
Their rallying to Ennahda is not necessarily based on the party’s policy statements or past record or on Ghannouchi’s leadership, but on the assumption that it is the political actor whose beliefs are closest to their own. 
These Tunisians are skeptical of any drive for a strong state. Young and old, the pious middle class rather supports the quest for a decentralized democracy with a thriving private sector. The new generation believes in free-market forces and wants to take advantage of the fall of the regime to expand the business opportunities they were denied under Ben Ali. The older generation has weathered the repression of the strong, centralized state and wishes to break it up. Their other bond is the attachment to religious values and practices that they believe should inform policymaking, but not dictate it. 
Recently, al Nahda announced that it will not include Islamic law as a source of legislation in a new constitution to be drafted. I wrote a piece on that here. 

I hope that authors are right. That al Nahda and the new pious character of many Tunisians is one enlightened with a belief in individual choice and liberty. If Tunisians can navigate this period in their history and establish an Arab Muslim democracy at home both with Islamic identity and individual liberty then they'll be trailblazers for the region once again. 

Wednesday, March 28, 2012

Tunisia's Religion Is Islam. So What?

Agence France-Presse. Salafi in Tunis at a rally for an Islamist constitution.

Tunisia's post-independence 1959 constitutes states: "Tunisia is a free, sovereign and independent state, whose religion is Islam, language is Arabic and has a republican regime." [Italics mine]. 

That italicized part says everything and nothing at the same time. It's origin was the compromise reached between the republic's first president, Habib Bourguiba, and the then mufti at al Zaitouna University, the nation's leading religious authority. The staunchly secular Bourguiba sought to appease religious and clerical elements by declaring that the religion of a free Tunisia is Islam. But so what? The pious may have got what they wanted by it does not entail any subsequent policies or norms of state discourse. Tunisia was not governed under Islamic law anymore than France under Catholic dogma. 

It is a simple reassuring line for those deeply rooted in Islamic identity while innocuous enough so as not to threaten those preferring a civil state, as the fashionable parlance now goes in the Arab world. In short, a bridge allowing for national consensus - Tunisia is Muslim, but the state does not seek to enforce "Muslim-ness". 

Since the downfall of the Ben 'Ali regime, vocal (albeit marginal) Salafis have chanted for strict imposition of their interpretation of Islamic law (Shari'a). Many secularists, liberals and Westerners have fretted that the moderate Islamist party may seek to gradually legislate Islamic fiqh into national laws. Many Tunisians have accused al Nahda (which won 37% of the vote in the last elections, a plurality, and leds a governing troika alongside two center-left, secular parties) of perfidy: a moderate mask for the task of surreptitiously building a theocracy. 

Since the currently seated elected 'constituent assembly' has a mandate to draft a new post-revolutionary constitution, a debate has been ensuing as to where the role of religion will be positioned in the new document. al Nahda, the leading voice, has stated its desire for no change. 

"Ennahda has decided to retain the first clause of the previous constitution without change," a party spokesman stated recently. "We want the unity of our people and we do not want divisions."

Most Tunisians are not concerned with having a long-winded discussion over the exegesis of Islamic jurisprudence and where it should fit in the state legal structure. The troika will be judged by its ability to deliver on economic grounds above all. And Nahda clearly has repeatedly sought to avoid being bogged down in debate over religion and culture - any effort to amend the above wording would have served as a lightening rod for critics and fundamentalist supporters distracting from the mundane work of economic revival. 

And while Nahda's statement will disappoint the Salafi faction, it will come as relief for secularists and liberals. But for most Tunisians this simply isn't the arena for reform they are looking for. It is met with shrugs. 

And this formula has worked well in the past. Moving forward, this is one thing about pre-revolutionary Tunisia that would be best left at peace. 

Monday, March 26, 2012

Light Calligraphy

I have noticed that this blog does not feature enough Middle Eastern art, and that's of course my fault. So here's an effort to make amends (source: designboom): 
exploring the gestures and movements of calligraphy, nantes-based artist kaalam (aka julien breton) has created a body of work that uses hand-held light and long-exposure photographic techniques tocapture the transient form within a real setting. often utilizing urban or historical sites as histhree-dimensional canvas, the self-taught artist creates his own latin-based alphabet that heavily draws from traditional arabic and eastern calligraphy. arresting and provocative, the floating light forms are not mere superimposed subjects but display a direct engagement with the surroundings. 
the capturing process, which can take as long as ten minutes, requires a choreographed movement which kaalam practices before hand in heavy repetition. different colours of 'ink' is achieved through pigmented gelatin which is applied directly onto the lamps. none of the photographs are retouchedor edited, illustrating the laborious process in a single shot.  

 Respectively, "last train", Brooklyn; "undercover", Brooklyn Bridge; "aerial"

Sectarianism in the Gulf

I recently learned about a volume on sectarianism in the Arab Gulf region (forthcoming, exact date of publication TBD). It will be based on a series of meetings and round-table discussions, which took place at the Center for International and Regional Studies at Georgetown University last October.

Some of the main goals of this “Sectarian Politics in the Gulf” research initiative included “an overall comprehensive look at sectarianism in the Gulf,” while at the same time unpacking the term, based on the idea that “any form of identity, whether sectarian or otherwise, is always fluid, negotiated, and changes from one area to another and one historical period to another.”

Above: a national unity slogan from last year's protests (courtesy AP - Hasan Jamal via Al-Akhbar English). 

Other topics included:

• Sunnism and State-Building in the Arabian Peninsula
• Rentier Politics and Sectarian Identity in the Persian Gulf
• Shīʿa Politics in Iraq
• Iraqi Kurds
• Ethnic Politics in Iran
• The Shīʿa in Kuwait
• The Kuwaiti Badu
• Shīʿa Identity and Politics in Bahrain
• The Saudi Shīʿa
• The Political Consequences of Yemen’s Ethnic Mosaic

I look forward to reading the “Sectarianism in the Gulf” anthology.

Friday, March 23, 2012

Ben Ali Apologia and Qatari Involvement

Since the downfall of the Ben 'Ali regime in Tunisia, a string of books - memoirs, tell-all, ect.. - have been published by former regime hands or other connected types. Many have illuminated heretofore hidden aspects of a dictatorship that reigned for 23 years. As The Economist recently reported:
In Tunisia Amor Chedly, an adviser to Habib Bourguiba, a former president, has published a bestselling account of the 1987 “medical coup” in which his ailing boss was deposed by Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali, who then ruled until he fled to Saudi Arabia in January last year. Other ex-officials are shedding light on formerly taboo subjects, including the assassinations of dissidents. Radhi Meddeb, a businessman, has published an economic manifesto, “Together let us build the Tunisia of tomorrow”, that has made him a political star.
Naturally, there is apologia and lament for the Ben 'Ali years as well. Mezri Haddad was until the revolution Tunisia's ambassador to UNESCO - the UN's cultural organization. Until the last hour he was a fixture on French television defending the regime and then after Ben 'Ali's exile quickly tried (unsuccessfully) to pose as an opposition figure.

Perhaps recognizing that his opportunism was too transparent and a cursory YouTube search would obviate any dissident claims, Haddad has opted to portray the regime as a worthy lost cause. In that effort he has published (in French) The Hidden Side of the Tunisian Revolution: Islamism and the West, a High-risk Alliance (see above). His thesis:

“Behind the intoxication of freedom and the triumph of democracy, loom three deadly poisons: the temptation of fundamentalism, the sublimation of anarchism and the abandonment of sovereignty."

Beyond that he argues that Ben 'Ali's regime was the least offender among Arab tyrants - a dubious statement. Tunisia consistently ranked among the worst in internet and press censorship. Any dissent was fiercely repressed - including 140 characters worth as the regime banned the Twitter pages of opponents. Ben 'Ali arrested more journalists than Syria's Ba'ath regime with less than half the population. Morocco and Egypt, among others, arguable allowed for wider parameters of criticism. 

In another effort to redeem his former patron's legacy, Haddad argues that Ben 'Ali produced the most prosperous North African nation. Whatever the indexes may say, Tunisia's revolution was born in a fit of resentment and frustration due to a growing sense of pauperization. 

So how does this tie into Qatar? Because recently Haddad refused to shake the hand of the Qatari ambassador to UNESCO in stated opposition to Qatar's involvement in Tunisian domestic affairs. “You destroyed Tunisia, Egypt and Libya. You created division in Syria and you plot against Algeria. You represent an enemy of the Arabs [...] it would dishonor me to shake your hand," Haddad reportedly said to the Qatari representative. 

Qatar has been playing an unseemly role resented by many Tunisians. The Qatari regime financially and diplomatically backs the ruling moderate Islamic faction al Nahda and Nahda's founder Rashid Ghannoushi has been a frequent visitor to the kingdom along with being awarded with an inordinate amount of favorable coverage on the Qatari station al Jazeera leading up to the October 2011 elections. 

The relationship between the monarchy and al Nahda is as such that a Qatari minister was an invited guest at the first session of the elected Tunisia constituent assembly tasked with writing a new constitution. 

All this has been to the great protestation of a many Tunisian secularists and liberals who fear that the Persian Gulf statelet is using its resources wealth to finance an Islamist party to the detriment of Tunisian sovereignty, secularism and liberalism. Even many Nahda supporters have complained about the neo-colonial patronage role played by Qatar in its intimate alliance with Nahda - as if a peninsula monarch is toying with Tunisia's fate in a leisurely compartment paid for by natural gas. Beyond concerns for disrupting the political field through a comparative advantage in funding other parties cannot match, it rubs against Tunisian nationalist sensibilities. "The people" sought the downfall of the regime not so a Gulf monarchy could seek to parlay their future into the grand ambitions of Qatari foreign policy. 

While protestations against Qatar are well-earned, in my opinion, it is absurd for someone like Haddad to pose as a defender of Tunisian dignity when he championed and continues to pine for a regime and ruling elite that did more to strike at the self-worth of Tunisians than anything Qatar has done. There was a time for Haddad to demonstrate his courage and respect/solidarity for his compatriots. He choose otherwise. 

Thursday, March 22, 2012

Hamza Kashgari to be released?

This is a quick follow-up to Isaac’s February 13 post about the Saudi writer Hamza Kashgari. Early last month, social networks were ablaze with chatter as the 23-year-old writer’s tweets regarding the Prophet Muhammad were considered extremely insulting and had incensed many in the kingdom. Fearing for his life, Kashgari had fled Saudi Arabia hoping to seek asylum somewhere but was intercepted en route in Malaysia, and deported back to the kingdom.   

According to veteran Saudi blogger Ahmed Al Omran, Kashgari may be set free in the next few weeks following his repentance in front of his family in a Sharia court in Riyadh.

Read Al Omran’s March 7 post here.    

Read Isaac's original post here    

Wednesday, March 21, 2012

The French Shooting: Between Muslim and Jew

French President Nicholas Sarkozy is eager to play hero ahead of the forthcoming presidential elections in April and (the run-off) May. The Socialist candidate - in a head-to-head contest - leads but there is also the insurgent far-right, nativist candidate (the National Front). Prior to running for the head office, Sarkozy served as Interior Ministry where he sought to brandish a reputation for toughness - a "zero tolerance"approach of heavy-handed policing in urban enclaves populated largely by North African immigrants and their offspring. 

Such was his approach that he once visited a Parisian banlieue and declared his intent to hose down the "rascals". Perhaps in recognition that urban crime is due to pervasive un-and underemployment which is in large measure a consequence of racist hiring practices in France, (A French study once found that an identical resumes with a French name like Jean was several times more likely to get a call back than one with a clear Arab name like Karim. This mirrors similar studies on "white" and "black" names in the U.S.) Sarkozy did champion an affirmative action program but it was dismissed by both the left and the right as an affront to France's supposedly egalitarian nature. Since assuming the president he has done little to address underlying socioeconomic concerns, prefer instead the policing track alongside vapid ostensible dialogues about "French identity". 

The recent tragic shooting at a French Jewish school - where a rabbi and three students were killed - follows the perpetrator's initial crime gunning down three soldiers on leave from base. The culprit has been identified as a militant Islamist acting in the name of al Qeada with allegedly past training in Afghanistan who claims that his shootings are in response to France's presence in Afghanistan, Israeli killing of Palestinian children and the nation's ban of the niqab (full-face veil). 

In order to preempt any far-right challenge on national security, Sarkozy has quickly labeled the incident a terrorist act and spoke with resolve about bring the gunman to justice. All that is fine and well, of course, and it may be cynical to suggest electioneering but...cynical I am. 

What was troubling about Sarkozy's comments after the final police showdown where the gunman surrendered and identified as a French-Algerian national is the president's words to the effect that he is committed to avoiding any outbreak in animosity between the nation's Muslim and Jewish communities - both the largest in Europe. 

This is odd for several reasons. First, why assume that French Jews will randomly act indiscriminately against their Muslim neighbors because a Muslim committed a crime anymore than Muslims would attack Jews in response to, say, Israeli brutality against and killing of Palestinians? 

But, more importantly, the aforementioned three soldiers are: Imad Ibn Ziaten, 30, Abel Chennouf, 25, and Mohamed Legouade, 23. 

This was a missed opportunity to underline common suffering instead of always resorting to a politicized and contemporary binary between Arab (Muslim) and Jew. But why bother when you can play the savoir of the nation?

Does Sarkozy instead to protect the Muslim community from retailing against its own as well? 

Tunisians Protest Against Salafi Call for Islamic State

On Tuesday, March 20, thousands of Tunisians marched in opposition to extremist voices calling for an Islamic state or a Caliphate. Tunisia's revolutionary uprising in January 2011 did not feature any evident exhibition of religious imagery or oratory, but Salafi (literally predecessors - those who aspire to live a conservative Muslim life ostensibly reflective of the life the Muslim predecessors lived in the age of the Prophet) voices have sought to claim the revolution as a mandate to impose Shari'a; or, rather, their puritanical interpretation of Islamic law.

Since the 1956 independence from France, Tunisia has been the most avidly secular Arab nation. President Habib Bourguiba (1956-86) curtailed the power of the clergy, banned polygamy and gave women equal divorce rights; and promoted an ideology of state secularism so gallant that he once drank orange juice during the fasting month of Ramadan.

Many Tunisians now worry that this legacy is being threatened. The current elected government is a "troika" consisting of a moderate Islamist party (al Nahda) alongside two left-of-center secular parties (CPR and Ettakatol). While al Nahda - which holds the most ministries and the premiership - has insisted that it does not aspire to ban alcohol or bikinis, that it will keep the nation tourism-friendly, and that Islamic laws are not an aspiration, many Tunisians protest that it has trended softly in response to often violent and disruptive behavior by Salafis. Detractors argue that either Nahda is playing a cynical electoral gambit wary of alienating part of its base or that at heart it shares the Salafi goals but prefers to allow them to carry the burden.

al Nahda argues that it isn't sympathetic to either the extremists or the secularists, but is trying to negotiate a delicate middle path and is also constrained by how much attention it can focus against Salafis considering much of the country is witnessing recurrent strikes and other pressing priorities - especially over unemployment. It isn't true that al Nahda has ignored Salafis. It sent in riot police when Salafis took over a university demanding that niqab (full-face veil) students be allowed to attend. The Salafis were kicked out and the university reopened with the niqab ban still enforced. A young Salafi who head-butted a secular lawyer was arrested and, last year, Salafis who attacked a cinema screening a anti-religious film were also arrested. Salafi violence has not gone without response. Although many Tunisians, myself included, have demanded a more forceful reply.

But where should this reply come from? The ruling coalition or civil society? The Tuesday rally was staged in response to a Salafi rally. Just as a past secular and liberal gathering was in response to the head-butting incident. Tunisian editorial pages, news programs and radio shows are at the forefront in speaking against extremism - as is the average Tunisian, secular and pious. Extremism cannot be defeated with the heavy hand of the state which may only exacerbate tensions and even imperil the freedoms of the general public in the name of "combating extremism".

As the Tunisian president Moncef Marzouki recently said, “The nation cannot be built with one color. Tunisia will pay a heavy price in blood and tears if [the state] has to confront by force extremists from all sides.”

The Salafis are a obnoxious bunch. But while loud they number a marginal few. They have to rely on dramatic episodes and  thuggery in their attempts to get their way. If this crosses the line into physical attacks or holding institutions hostage then that is, of course, a policing matter for the state. 

But it is up to Tunisian civil society to defeat extremism and bring many of the astray youth who fell for a vacuous ideology promising a false salvation from humiliation and depravation back into the mainstream fold and discredit the Salafi current. In calling for the state to defend Tunisia's liberal legacy, these very Tunisians are themselves doing it. 

The revolution did not rely on a vanguard. So why start now? 

Sunday, March 18, 2012

Do Scholars Distort and Misrepresent the Sharīʿa?

ONE could argue that an earlier generation of scholars of the 19th and 20th centuries presented a distorted, flawed picture of Islamic law (sharīʿa). One could also argue that many current Republican presidential candidates make inaccurate statements about the nature of Islamic law, as part of a political climate of hateful rhetoric. I have already written about a series of bills that seek to ban the sharīʿa (or "foreign law") from American courts.

But what about the conversation that is underway inside the academy? It is clear that the academic version of sharīʿa is drastically different from what Newt Gingrich or David Yerushalmi would tell you about it.

Above: hostility towards sharīʿa (Image credit). "Liberal scholars of Islamic law," writes Abu-Odeh, see themselves (and are for the most part seen) as paragons of reasoned study and elaboration in a world full of religious fraudulence, passive receptivity to inherited misinterpretations, and unabashed bias." (Abu-Odeh 2004, 807 

The question I ask in this post is: do American scholars misrepresent and distort the sharīʿa? My point here is not to criticize individuals, or to make claims about the nature of the true, genuine sharīʿa (whatever that is), but rather to revisit some interesting articles by Professors Lama Abu-Odeh (Georgetown Law) and Haider Ala Hamoudi (University of Pittsburgh School of Law) (available here, here and here) on this subject.

While the arguments in their articles focus on the way Islamic law is taught in American law schools, and Islamic finance, they make some insightful, more general points that interest me, especially regarding how identity politics influence scholarship.

Abu-Odeh points out the contradictions embodied by some American Islamic law scholars:

(click text above to enlarge)

Haider Ala Hamoudi emphasizes the need to move away from doctrinal studies of Islamic law. "The central flaw in the current approach to sharīʿa in the American legal academy,” he writes, “is the reliance on the false assumption that contemporary Islamic rules are derived from classical doctrine. This has led both admirers and detractors of the manner in which sharīʿa is studied to focus their energies on obsolete medieval rules that bear no relationship to the manner in which modern Muslims approach sharīʿa."

His approach, influenced by American Legal Realists, "and their emphasis on the importance of social, cultural, and economic forces on the development of legal doctrine" is useful for my research.

However, there are definitely some disciplinary differences between his article and my training at NYU. For example, I would avoid making the assertion that "there is no sensible way that modern rules could be derived from classical doctrine, either in letter or in spirit, and all efforts to do so have largely failed." While that is a perfectly valid point, I prefer to avoid going down the road of defining the sharīʿa; instead, I would state that a profound, contingent transformation and reconfiguration of Islamic law took place at the onset of modernity, and leave it up to Muslims to decide how to interpret it.

Friday, March 16, 2012

Symbolism in Tunisia


Tunisia's fringe albeit vocal Salafi movement seeks to compensate for a lack of broad following by staging orgies, pardon the French, of fanaticism. They need no "provocation"(an absurd proposition for their rampages and death threats), they chant, heckle and pounce for lack of anything useful to do. Many have become religious fundamentalists after failing to find employment, burdened with a sense of humiliation and turned to opportunist clerics for solace with plenty of free time to assimilate the oratory of extremism. 

Since the January 2011 revolution, Tunisia's Salafis have publicly attacked a leftist film maker, burnt the house of a TV station owner after the airing of a film that depicted God, and ran mayhem at a cinema that screened the irreligious documentary "No God, No Master" - attacking attendees and destroying property. 

Most recently, in a scene that outraged most Tunisians, one Salafi (later arrested for his act) head butted a Tunisian lawyer defending the aforementioned station owner at a trial pertaining to the broadcast:

Salafis also like to boast their own flag - a black parchment with white inscription. And they defame the Tunisian flag as the emblem of secular-nationalism standing in the way of their asinine and delusion aspiration for a pan-Islamic state or Caliphate.

Recently, at a university a Salafi climbed the main gate and removed the national flag. A female student at the campus went up and sought to stop him only to be pushed down by the Salafi demonstrating his idea of "protecting" women (Salafis often take up the mantle of "defending" Tunisian women: like minded individuals have caused disruptions in universities through their [sometimes violence] protest in support of a handful of female students who have been denied registration for wearing the niqab). 

That young student - Khaoula Rachidi - has now become a national hero among Tunisia's secular middle class inspiring a new found pride in the national flag. This latest act in a continuum by Salafis with a vulgar insistence of imposing their stamp on an unwilling nation far removed from the former's sensibilities has only served to further galvanize public opinion, this time by raising the national flag - exhibiting a battle for national identity through flags and their respective meanings in different communities:

The Salafis do not pose any consequential threat to Tunisia's secular and liberal order. Their numbers are too small and they need attention garbing displays or else no one would bother noticing. In addition, the security situation remains tenuous with many police still busy restoring order in restive interior towns - a reality Salafis exploit in organizing their spectacles. But their acts do not go without rebuttal. In the press, on blogs, and on the street many Tunisians register their abhorrence for such extremism and declare their commitment to the values the revolution was fought for: freedom, liberty and democracy. A liberal rally in Tunis after the head-butt incident was one of the largest since the revolution.

It is not just sloganeering, but reflects a determination to ward off extremist voices. It is now being dubbed a cultural war. But it is hardly that since the phrasing suggest an equal sided conflict. Salafis are simply trivial in the long run. 

Ultimately, I believe, that while it is vital to speak out against Salafism: argue and protest against, ect... that this is at heart a socioeconomic phenomenon. Why have some Tunisian youth turned to an extremist ideology that had no traction just a few years back? This question is best answered looking at the levels of unemployment, frustration, anger, resentment and - crucially - a feeling of humiliation that has bred a search for some vague notion of authentic identity and belonging to a larger community, hence a rock bottom convert's zeal toward Islam and the desire for a global Umma.

It is by addressing this inequities will the fanaticism exhibited in the videos above be slowly unraveled. 

Monday, March 12, 2012

Press Freedom Under Attack In Tunisia?

A short while back I wrote about the controversy surrounding a Tunisian paper's decision to reprint a photograph of a German-Tunisian footballer alongside his nearly-naked wife (see above). State authorities labeled it indecent and sent the prosecutors against the editor and two other individuals employed by the press organ.

Well, a verdict has been reached. The AP reports:

A Tunisian court on Thursday fined a newspaper publisher $665 for printing a photograph of a soccer player posing with his nude girlfriend, a ruling that raised concerns about a possible media crackdown by the country’s new Islamist government. The newspaper, Attounissia, a tabloid created after the revolution that ousted President Zine al-Abdine Ben Ali last year, published the photograph last month of Sami Khedira, a player for Real Madrid who is Tunisian and German, dressed in a tuxedo with his hands covering the breasts of his naked girlfriend, Lena Gercke, who is a German model. The publisher, Nasreddine Ben Saida, was fined for offending public morals and taste, the official TAP news agency reported.

The AP's judgement that this whole spectacle is cause for concern for press freedoms in Tunisia is made more forceful by Elliot Abrams, the in-house Middle East putative specialist at the Council on Foreign Relations:

Ghannouchi's finessing of the issue of press freedom — attack the company, not the journalists — is clever, for corporate fines will never attract the international attention and protests that arise when a journalist is jailed. But both methods can be effective in censoring Tunisia's newly free press, so Ghannouchi's failure to support freedom of expression is alarming. Ennahda dominates the new Tunisian government and parliament, so it will be difficult for liberal groups to defend press freedom if the ruling party will not do so.

For the record, the above referenced Rashid Ghannoushi does not play an official role in Tunisia's governing coalition and is no longer even the official held of the dominant party - although he remains influential within and without the party. 

Both the AP and Abrams may be overdoing it. Newspapers and broadcasters should be allowed to published whatever they wish free from state censorship. But state regulation in the name of "decency" is transnational, contingent, and may not be an authoritarian portent.

Let us recall the public outcry over a mili-second of "indecency" at the Superbowl a few years back. That led to a heavier hand at the FCC imposing millions of fines for violations of "decency" and forcing networks to rewrite scripts and adopt 5-minute delays on live programs, and leading to the radio departure of "shock jock" Howard Stern.

The U.S. is not alone. Western European nations, for instance, impose restrictions and fines on language or imagery that recall the Nazis.

The obvious point being that Tunisia, the pioneer in the so-called "Arab Spring", is not a trailblazer when it comes to imposing fines in the name of upholding public morals (albeit in Tunisia's case the fine is trivial as opposed to literally millions in the FCC's handbook). Many nations have limits on free publication and broadcast. Ideally, freedom of the press would be unqualified but in practice societies negotiate boundaries. Thus these restrictions are contingent on public moods liable to change. A few years after the Super-uproar died down the FCC loosened its grip and networks once again are "pushing the boundaries".

These boundaries do not mean a state is necessarily illiberal or it is liable to return to a dictatorship. Of course, if jail time is added to the mix that, then, elevates the concern. But that isn't the case in Tunisia. And neither is the fine meant to cripple the newspaper.

Democracy-in-practice is an interminable process of contested public space and constructed notions of acceptable and unacceptable public speech and imagery. American history (the era of "I Love Lucy" to whatever contemporary awfulness) is a testament to how parameters shift and individuals in a relatively free space are able to remold their societies, contest public space and expand horizons within the context of relative freedom.

My point isn't that Tunisia acted right. As stated, I am for plenary right to publish whatever. But I am making the case that this right isn't established even in the self-styled leaders of the free world and is not a necessary condition for the maintenance of a mostly free society. And that Tunisia's democratic future is similarly not in jeopardy.

Why expect Arab democracy to look any different from the messy reality in the West?

Sunday, March 11, 2012

Florida Bill Targeting Foreign Law Fails to Pass

Last week, Florida "Senate Bill 1360: Application of Foreign Law in Certain Cases," failed to pass. "I think the best way to describe it is Anti-Sharia Bill 2.0," wrote Professor Michael Helfand. "The bill is an update on Florida's previous attempt to introduce this anti sharia/foreign law bill with some changes."

According to the blog Gavel to Gavel, the gist of the bill is as follows: "Any court decision or ruling based, in whole or in part, on any foreign law or legal code that does not grant the parties affected by the ruling the same fundamental liberties, rights, and privileges granted by the State Constitution or the Constitution of the United States violates public policy and is void and unenforceable." (Image source: Election Watch)
The terms "foreign law" and "legal code" are defined in the bill as: "any law, legal code, or system of a jurisdiction outside any state or territory of the United States, including, but not limited to, international organizations or tribunals, and applied by that jurisdiction's courts, administrative bodies, or other formal or informal tribunals. The term does not include the common law and statute laws of England […]."

The reactions to the Florida Senate Bill 1360 echoed responses to similar legislation in other many states. Religious Jews feared that halakha would be targeted by the bill, making it difficult or impossible to conduct divorces in Florida beth din courts. Many Florida Muslims felt that Islamic law (sharīʿa), although not mentioned by name – a wise move on the part of the Bill's sponsors, given that a similar bill was struck down in Oklahoma for mentioning shari'a --- was unfairly targeted.

"I repeat my original suggestion," wrote one Florida resident in favor of the Bill. "Let those who want to live under Sharia law return to countries ruled by such judicial codes."

The Council on American Islamic Relations (CAIR) played a role in protesting the bill, while the organization American Laws for American Courts and its co-founder David Yerushalmi wrote model legislation that the Florida bill was based on. 

Reading further on in the bill, it is unclear what specifically is meant by the "fundamental liberties, rights, and privileges guaranteed by the State Constitution or the United States Constitution."

For further reading on the bill click here, here, here, and here.

Friday, March 9, 2012

Where's The Palestinian Gandhi?

Wendy Pearlman,
 Crown Junior Chair in Middle East Studies and Assistant Professor of Political Science at Northwestern University, spoke at KEVO this past week on her new book: Violence, Nonviolence and the Palestinian National Movement. 

Previously the author of  Occupated Voices, it was during that book tour that she often heard the common refrain, "yes, the Palestinians are suffering, but why do they resort to suicide bombings and the like?" Why is the Palestinian national struggle allegedly violent? She decided to make that her dissertation and the result is the aforementioned text. 

The Palestinian cause has never been exclusively violent, of course. Palestinians took up violence long after Zionist militias, many headed by future premiers of Israel, pioneered their own violence and terrorism in the name of "Israeli independence"against the British and the native Palestinians. Palestinians resisted Zionism in mostly non-violent manners until the late 1960s when some factions adopted political violence. 

But this was not universal. As Pearlman notes, the First Intifada was mostly nonviolent. It consisted of boycott action, marches, local committees and maintained a nonviolent cohesive postur even in the face of a brutal Israeli violence aiming to further subordinate the Palestinians. While over 1,000 Palestinians civilians were killed by Israel during the Intifada roughly a dozen Israelis were killed by Palestinians - demonstrating the asymmetry of the conflict but also Palestinian nonviolence. 

A little more than a decade later the Second Intifada erupted and this time violence was clearly embraced by various Palestinian factions in response to continued Israeli military occupation - most infamously in the use of suicide bombings. Over 4,000 Palestinians and 1,000 Israeli civilians were killed. Why the divergence of tactics? 

Why do some movements use nonviolent protest, others violent, and what is the source of this variation over time? 

A common assumption is strategic purpose (what they think will work), or culture or religion. In seeking to explain her theory, Pearlman adopts what she calls the Organizational Mediation Theory of Protest based on two principles: 

1) cohesion increases possibility for nonviolence
2) fragmentation increases possibility for violence 

So the First Intifada 1987-1993 was defined by linkage, network, activist ethic, unity, and national consensus in Palestinian civil society that established the boundaries of political conduct, nonviolent boundaries.

But the Oslo period serves as a period of fragmentation between factions - divisions arise - and the system is based on a vulnerable hold by 'Arafat. Public opinion is directionless and there is a lack of unity. Thus when negotiations fail it no longer is clear what to fight for. So that the Second Intifada does not look like the First. 

Many of the mechanisms that were maintained during the First Intifada were undermined through intra and inter factional division - class, generational and tactical. This veering away from cohesion was a result of conflict among Palestinians, but at heart due mostly to the continued occupation (more on that below). 

Thus the organization of nonviolence is no longer there - although many villages organize nonviolent cohesive protest - but at national level organizational cohesion, a source of leverage on political factions, has become diffuse. 

Thus (to be brief) Pearlman's answer to the Where's the Palestinian Gandhi? question is quite simple: 

Anyone who supports nonviolent protest should also support a depending variable, a strong and united Palestinian movement. Don't protest about the lack of a Palestinian Gandhi when Israeli occupation policies create the very atmosphere for fragmentation, violence, internal and external factional fighting that create the context where violence is then used. Protest the latter first. 

And Pearlman documents that a long history exists, beginning with the British, where Palestinian nonviolent leaders - who can exercise restrain and nonviolent direction - are arrested if not executed. It is not that the Palestinians protest violently or nonviolently in the eyes of their occupies, British and Zionist, but that they protest at all. And what is left except a disorganized population with no effective channel but the now directionless (but, in their eyes, purposive) violence? Is it any wonder that peripheral violence (most Palestinians are victims of violence and not perpetrators) takes place in this context?

The very occupation power Israel paradoxically claims there is "no partner for peace" while cementing her very policies that undermine the prospect for a strong nonviolent partner committed to concession.

A cynic (and this is not necessarily Pearlman's interpretation) would say that "peace" isn't really the goal for Israel since genuine peace would necessitate a strong Palestinian national movement, which is perceived as a threat to Zionism. Better to keep the Palestinians divided and weak, frustrated and angered, and occasionally strike at them (as in Gaza 2008-2009) in an interminable effort to sabotage Palestinian aspirations. And, where possible, outsource the occupation to willing Palestinians (the Palestinian Authority on the West Bank) while Israel maintains a matrix of control that seeks to deny to Palestinians any hope in political action. Violence, as long as it can be managed by Israel and isn't existential, may be useful: allowing the state to portray Palestinians as a pack of terrorists lacking any peaceful intentions and thus unworthy of statehood and consequently allowing Israel to maintain its grip on the West Bank and continue unabated the colonization scheme via illegal settlements under the pretext that there is no negotiating partner. "No partner for peace" becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy as the very occupation creates that condition. 

But is the cause hopeless for Palestinian? Pearlman argues not. She does not see redemption in the recent Hamas-Fatah unity deal which may just allow for continued factional rivalry under new cover, but takes hope from the growing grass-roots village movements - organic, locally-coordinated and peaceful - that may be the future basis for a strong Palestinian national movement. This will require perseverance and patience.