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

Wednesday, April 25, 2012

Pascal Menoret and Toby Jones On Saudi Arabia and Bahrain


Recently at KEVO our very own (kind of - borrowed from NYU Abu Dhabi) Pascal Menoret and Toby Jones (Rutgers) spoke about Saudi Arabia and Bahrain in the wake of regional upheaval. 

Pascal opened up with two dates: February 24, 2011 and March 11, 2011. The former marking King Abdallah's return to the kingdom after a months long convalescence and the latter a "Day of Rage" modeled after the Egyptian gathering that culminated in the toppling of Hosni Mubarak. Thousands, if not tens of thousands, lined the streets of Jiddah to welcome the king while very few turned out for the protest. Saudi dissidents joked that the "Day of Rage" became a "Day of Police Demonstrations" as security forced constituted the only large presence. But the al Saud were not worried, notwithstanding the security precaution, and even allowed for journalists to parade the streets as a demonstration of official rhetoric: Saudi subjects are too well-cared for by their royal masters. 

20% of Saudis, according to official state figures, live on $3 and 5% live on $1. Literally, millions of improvised people in a nation resting on top of 25% of proven oil reserves. Social services in Saudi Arabia (ex. education and medical) rank low in quality. The Saudi people are clearly not well-cared for, but why does the system hold? Why the confidence of the al Saud?

Pascal outlined several reasons. The royals' ability to co-opt segments of the population, fermenting divisions between Sunnis and Shi'a, a promotion of a brand of Saudi nationalism and exceptionalism, an information blackout and the politicization of data (especially on demographics), censorship, sexual repression, and - what may be the crucial aspect of domination - the political economy of debt termed by Menoret as "the political economy of subjection". Saudis nations have accumulated heavy burdens of debt (60,000 are on a "bad debt list" and may be treated harshly, including jail) and through debt are financing their own subjection. 

Beyond that there is also the imbibed fear of repression that is recognized through the widespread prosecution of Saudis - intense and random - that has created a society were 1 in 600 Saudis are held in jail. Heavy repression and, in addition, difficulties in unifying are the challenges of Saudi dissidents and reformers.

Needless to say, a bleak picture. 

Jones spoke about Bahrain. Describing the nation as now effectively an apartheid state headed by an increasingly ruthless authoritarian (Sunni) monarchy systematically oppressing and repressing the Shi'a majority. Bahrain's regime, aided by Saudi and UAE troops, crushed a peaceful, pro-democracy movement back in 2011, but the protests continue along with their corollary of confrontations with the armed coercive state apparatus. For a background on Bahrain this Economist article is useful. 

Jones outlined a worsening reality where hopes for a compromise breakthrough are increasingly distant as the opposition has been radicalized through the bloody attempts at crackdown (the self-styled moderate vanguard has lost control and the "street" increasingly will settle for nothing less than the overthrow and exile of the royals as opposed to the erstwhile goal of constitutional monarchy) and the regime is now directed by hardliners unwilling to devise any plan of accommodation and committed to plenary obviation of the protest movement. These two polarized forces threaten to bequeath a bloody Sunni-Shi'a stalemate (akin to occupied Iraq) and regional intervention in Bahrain where Saudi, Iran, the United States and likely other nations contest the regional map on the landscape of Bahrain (akin to civil war, and arguably present, Lebanon). 

I would add (and I'm reasonably certain that Jones would agree): This is not to draw symmetry between a genuine democratic movement and an authoritarian system. The latter imposes a structure of violence that is the sparking force, conditions any reactive violent and is responsible for the entire scene of violence and its consequences.

The regime's sole basis of support has been the (mostly) Sunni middle class, but this class - Jones argues - is growing frustrated. The regime promised a crackdown would restore the order and stabilize the nation. But it is clear that political turmoil continues, especially in the villages outside of the capital Manama. Tourism, a crucial sector, has collapsed; the merchant class is shifting funds overseas, and many of the foreign banks (Bahrain's claim to fame is being a hub of mostly Islamic finance) and financial houses have relocated. Despite the regime's PR staging of a Formula One race in order to feign a turn to normality, the nation remains on precarious grounds. That remaining leg of support, akin to Syria's business class in Damascus and Aleppo, will only be aggrieved further as protests and confrontations continue and is vulnerable for the regime. 

Is there a way out for Bahrain based on liberal democracy? Jones is skeptical. The past conduct and present comportment of the regime does not augur well. 

The unifying force in Bahrain and Saudi Arabia, Jones concluded, is the political economy that the House of Saud must enforce - domestic and foreign - in the Gulf in order to maintain the royals' authoritarian rule: a regional, pro-Saudi balance and the economy of scarcity in the oil industry. 

An incredibly informative event, though sad, very sad. 

Jones' book, "Desert Kingdom" (Harvard University Press), is incredibly good and highly recommended. 

Pascal's book, "The Saudi Enigma", is on my summer's reading list but knowing Pascal I'm certain it is excellent. Pascal has a forthcoming book from Cambridge University Press, "Thugs and Zealots", on Saudi youth. 

Tuesday, April 24, 2012

Feminism Here & There

Foreign Policy has hired Mona elTahawy to explain to Americans why Middle Eastern Arab Muslim women suffer domestic violence and why they lag behind in entrepreneurial pursuits; it's really simple: "They" (the Muslim man) hate "us" (the Muslim woman). It's purely personal hatred, apparently, and not structures, institutions, consequences of regional turmoil (partly due to Western intervention), ect... What to say to an entire article premised on a talking point made famous by George Bush?

But what's coincidentally amusing is that while Foreign Policy thinks it's conveying depth in its regional coverage through a polemical article about how the Middle East mistreats women (and, of course, there is heavy mistreatment) due to some essentialist features of the "Muslim male mind", a fellow American publication has its own cover story about women, American women:

Saturday, April 21, 2012

"Here We Have A Grand Prix To Enjoy"

Bahrain's dear and beloved foreign minister has a message for all those obnoxious journalists and human rights activists: Go bother someone else! 

Just a bit of background, after the Tunisian revolution and Egyptian overthrow of Hosni Mubarak the people of Bahrain joined their Arab compatriots in marching and rallying for democracy and representative government in their own country (a margin called for the outright abolishment of the carpet-bagging monarchy). Bahrain is effectively an apartheid state where a Sunni monarch favors the Sunni minority and disenfranchises the Shi'a majority; not only in parliamentary vote allocation (in the confined, to be generous, form of democratic-like governance allowed by the royals) but in state benefits and entitlements as well. This isn't a rigid form of apartheid akin to South Africa, but there is no denying that Shi'a are discriminated against based purely on the fact that they are Shi'a. 

Because of the sectarian schisms in the nation (a product of policy rather than history) the peaceful marches took on a sectarian character. They were never wholly Shi'a, but Sunni presence was less than forthcoming - Shi'a had a stronger claim to protest while many Sunnis feared a majoritarian government after growing accustomed to the benefits of minoritarian rule Whether the regime was willing to accommodate calls for a more robust parliament and fair distribution of votes and services is now speculation as the neighboring House of Saud sent in tanks across the Saudi Arabia-Bahrain causeway and ended the large-scale public displays of protest, although dissent and protest do continue in smaller, sporadic form (the al Saud have been aligned against any democratic movement in the Arab world, fearing precedents for their own highly repressive reign, and when they haven't been able to send tanks have sought to throw oil money in order to sabotage). And because of the sectarian split, the protests have been erroneously portrayed as pernicious doings of Shi'a Iran parlaying the Bahraini Shi'a as a fifth column to strike the Sunni Arab world. Okay then. 

For symbolic purposes, the regime even demolished the Pearl Roundabout which served as a meeting place akin to Cairo's Tahrir Square. The tanks have since left and Bahrain's government allowed for a human rights delegation as part of an effort to 'mend the wounds' and 'move on'. Really, they mean well. That delegation found evidence of not only heavy-handed police and military tactics, violent suppression of peaceful protests, arbitrary arrest and detention without charge, harassment of doctors treating the wounded, but also cases of official tortue which in many instances led to death. Over 20 Bahrains were killed during the initial phase of suppression and others have died since then (in a nation of 500,000 citizens). 

As for the Obama administration? Obama has since praised the Tunisian and Egyptian uprisings, but in Bahrain - where the US maintains the Navy's Fifth Fleet - the administration has adopted the following stance: "Victoria Nuland, the State Department spokeswoman, reiterated the administration’s position that it condemns all forms of violence. “These are unproductive, unhelpful acts in building the kind of meaningful trust and reconciliation that is needed in Bahrain, and we’re calling for...demonstrators’ restraint in ensuring that they are peaceful"

The administration's coy behavior and complete disregard for the structure of violence inflicted by the regime against an unarmed civilian population (feigning as if regime violence and demonstrators with rocks are equal) is quite reminiscent of when Hillary Clinton, hedging her bets, said that the US is not "taking sides" between the Tunisian people and the now-defunct Ben 'Ali regime. Courageously, Obama called for free election in Tunisia...after Ben 'Ali's plane departed. 

In its PR campaign to whitewash a bloody suppression aided by one of the most oppressive regimes, the authoritarian royals of Bahrain have won back their staging rights to host a Formula One race: "Bahrain's government has spent $40 million to host the global luxury sporting event, hoping to demonstrate that normal life has returned to the Gulf island kingdom after it cracked down harshly on Arab Spring demonstrations last year.  But vivid televised images of streets ablaze - as masked youths hurl petrol bombs and police fire teargas and birdshot - threaten to embarrass Formula One and the global brands that lavish it with sponsorship.  "The government are using the Formula One race to serve their PR campaign," said rights activist Nabeel Rajab. "It's not turning out the way they wanted."

And Bahrain's Minister of Foreign (Subservience) Relations does not want to hear it anymore:  
"If any here to cover ugly bloody confrontations ,go to syria. Here we have a grand Prix to enjoy. Also, there is an ongoing war n the Sudan"

That was his Tweet. It's really cute. And made more so by borrowing the tactics of the Israeli government: 

Of course, this is a transparent tactic of obfuscation - by their standards the Syrian regime and Sudan, likewise, can point to...Bahrain and Israel. If you can't protest them all, why bother? 

But, then, why wouldn't Bahrain turn to Israel's model? It seems to have worked well enough for Israel.

The Israelis would take offense if the al Khalifa didn't. 

Thursday, April 19, 2012

Sexual Harassment In the Arab World

A women's protest against sexual harassment in Tunis. Source: TunisiaLive. 

It is no secret that sexual harassment is  a common phenomenon in the Arab world. This isn't grounds for resorting to crude stereotypes about the vulgar and lascivious essentialist nature of Arab men. After CBS foreign correspondent Laura Logan was sexually assaulted in the midst of celebratory Cairo (when at least a million people were on the street of Tahrir Square), some racist and ignorant commentators held this ONE incident as somehow reflective of Arab male attitudes toward women. Most female correspondents were, of course, not bothered in the midst of millions of Arab men.

More to the point: As if sexual violence is absent from American (heavily male testosterone-fused) cowards - day or night. Sadly, a woman surrounded by excited men in a massive coward - and the anonymity that affords both the woman and men - is vulnerable to be attacked - if one wants to generalize, it should be a critique of male primitiveness rather than cultural misogynist norms. And the United States is one of the most violent arenas for women: 23 women in the US are killed every week due to domestic violence, nearly half of all high schools have been or know someone who has suffered physical attack from their boyfriend and, lastly, the number one reason for female admittance into the Emergence Room is domestic violence. The doyen of American feminists, Betty Friedan, wrote in her memoirs her own experience with domestic violence. 

All the above was an effort to situate the following in its proper context by criticizing Arab society while simultaneously disarming Western righteousness, which often (always?) harbor (sometimes in worst manifestations) the very ills they condemn in "the Other". There is no denying, as a frequent visitor to an Arab country, that sexual harassment is a major daily problem for many Arab woman. Anecdotal evidence is so pervasive that it rightly serves as grounds for stating that sexual harassment is a phenomenon widely practiced against Arab and foreign women. 

In the wake of the Arab uprisings, some commentators (ex. Rashid Khalidi) have argued that the problem is (at least partly) rooted in the rule of Arab regimes. Arabs protested in the name of their dignity - the dignity denied them by humiliating and repressive regimes. As Arabs devalued themselves in a form of symbolic violence, the argument goes, young (often unemployed) Arab men shed their dignity and sense of shame and traditional respect for women and inaugurated a culture of cat-calls and whistles. Whether this theory is true or not isn't the point (a generation shift in treatment of women may be due to urbanization - before the local girl was known to all and could not be subjugated to hissing without it being public knowledge. A city of unconnected individuals changes the dynamic. Even today, men who holler at women avoid doing so to those who live on the block), the point is that sexual harassment exists and if the dignity argument is true than the transition to democratic and liberal polities where individual rights are respected should augur well for a change in male comportment. But it isn't cause-and-effect. The Arab opening offers Arab women an opportunity to declare their opposition to the harassment and organize against it along with parlaying organization into political power to that raises broader issues of gender rights onto the table: TunisiaLive for those interested has a very good discussion on this. 

Also recommended readings are Judith Tucker's and Leila Ahmad's books on gender and Islam. 

This will not be done by Westerners with a White Savior complex but by Arabs themselves. The Arab Uprisings have taught us that: liberation comes from within. 

Saturday, April 14, 2012

The Formula One Race in Bahrain

Despite ongoing protests, it appears that the Formula One race is on, and scheduled to begin in Bahrain next Sunday.

A Formula One race (via FIA). 

Bernie Ecclestone, the CEO of Formula One Management and Formula One Administration, argued that Bahrain's problems are separate from, and unrelated to the Formula One race; he articulated his refusal to interfere in Bahrain's domestic issues. "I don't think sports should be involved in politics," he told CNN yesterday.
Above: Bernie Ecclestone explains his decision to keep the Formula One race in Bahrain.

I think Ecclestone's desire to separate sports from politics is laudable. If we accept the argument that the F1 race ought to be cancelled in Bahrain in order to punish the government for its human rights abuses, then we could argue that 2012 Chinese Grand Prix race should also be cancelled. It is well known that China has an abysmal human rights record, and, to understate, does not look kindly on democracy activists.

In other words, cancelling the race in Bahrain would imply that human rights compliance is a prerequisite for hosting international events. If such is the case – and perhaps it should be -- then who gets to determine which countries are worthy of hosting? Who has the authority to set the terms of the debate in the first place? An editorial published in the Gulf Daily News last week made a similar point.

A press release from the Fédération Internationale de l'Automobile (FIA), the organization in charge of the Formula 1 race, explicates its decision to hold the race in Bahrain

The FIA must make rational decisions based on the information provided to us by the Bahraini authorities and by the Commercial Rights Holder. In addition we have endeavoured to assess the ongoing situation in Bahrain.

President Jean Todt led a fact-finding mission to the Kingdom in November 2011, meeting a large number of decision-makers and opinion formers, including elected Shīʿa members of parliament, the president of the Bahrain Independent Commission of Inquiry, ambassadors from the European Union countries, the Crown Prince, the Interior Minister and many members of the business community.

All expressed their wish for the Grand Prix to go ahead in 2012, and since then, the FIA has kept in close touch with all these stakeholders. Away from the public eye, the FIA has received regular security briefings from the most senior diplomatic officials based in the Kingdom as well as from other independent experts.
The Government 

Bahrain has assured the international community that the country is safe enough to host the race. Last night in an interview on BBC Arabic, one Bahraini pointed out that the Formula One race is extremely important for Bahrain's economy. Last year, when the race was canceled amidst protests, the tourism industry suffered immensely.

The Opposition

The race is likely to be held with heavy security measures, especially for team members. Bahraini opposition groups have continued to protest against the race, and have threatened to block main roads and burn tires everywhere in the country. Today, an unconfirmed rumor circulated that a bomb was found in the F1 track, then dismantled.

Violence continues in the Kingdom of Bahrain. Protestors have criticized the government's poor human rights record among other things, arguing that they are using the F1 race as an opportunity to improve their image on the world stage. The opposition has highlighted the plight of jailed hunger-striking Danish-Bahraini activist Abd al-Hadi al-Khawaja.

As Amnesty International pointed out,

Holding the Grand Prix in Bahrain in 2012 risks being interpreted by the government of Bahrain as symbolizing a return to business as usual. The international community must not turn a blind eye to the ongoing human rights crisis in the country. The government must understand that its half-hearted measures are not sufficient -- sustained progress on real human rights reform remains essential.
The Obama Administration has treaded carefully with its strategic Gulf ally, and has frequently been accused of hypocrisy.
In a statement last week on Bahrain, the White House alluded to the violence:
More broadly, we urge the government to redouble its ongoing efforts to implement the recommendations of the Bahrain Independent Commission of Inquiry, and renew our call for the government, opposition parties, and all segments of Bahraini society to engage in a genuine dialogue leading to meaningful reforms that address the legitimate aspirations of all Bahrainis.
In conclusion, I have tried to fairly portray the Formula One debate, which continues online (Twitter: #Bahrain #F1 #Formula1 #formulaOne).

Friday, April 13, 2012

Syria: Bad/Catastrophe

I had the fortunate opportunity to attend a workshop on the Syria uprising last Saturday where Paulo Pinto and Bassam Haddad, Professor of Middle Eastern studies at George Mason University, offered their insights. Since I wrote about another KEVO event headlined by Pinto (see above link), I will focus solely on Haddad's remarks.

The last thirty years have marked a period of transition in Syrian Ba'ath history from a leftist alliance with labor to a rightist tilt toward business. This privatization has led to diffuse regime power which is more pervasive in society. 

Economic policies have shifted from public sector to market-focused. And the beneficiaries have been  private and regime officials who left government for business. A consequent has been polarization between rich and poor, countryside and city. 

Haddad then outlined what he termed "stubborn facts": 
  • An opposition born out of decades of oppression and brutality, but does have problematic aspects. We may no longer take the uprising at face value. Started as legitimate uprising against dictatorship, but now less about democracy. Much more sectarian and anti-democratic, whether Islamist or not. Opposition today is not the opposition of yesterday. Vulgar sectarian currents are present, much of it animated by the fierce brutality of the regime. Also the opposition has failed to be transparent or independent (influenced by regional players). 
  • But no matter how problematic the actors on the other side, this does not mean that the regime should not be overthrown and opposed. A reason not to uncritically support the regime, but to demand the opposition step up. 
  • Americans, Saudis and Qataris are engaged in real politick. The United States does not have historical credibility to speak in the name of the Syrian people and Saudi Arabia and Qatar are far from democracies to be midwifing the revolution. Self-interested foreign intervention will cause much more bloodshed (just look at Libya - Syria will be a lot worse. And arms may go to al Qaeda, regional powers will intervene, and America will not benefit). Thus no nation wants to intervene and whatever on-the-side intervention exists is not about the welfare of the Syrian people, but the regional game of politics. 
  • Returning to point one: Revolutionary leadership in the future may no longer be taken for granted. 
Dynamics of the uprising. 

1) Structure and Causes - There have been decades of oppression and economic pauperization, but brutality, repression and authoritarianism do not on their own produce mass mobilization let alone revolutions. There is the matter of dignity of individuals in the mid-to-late 1990s. After Tunisia's uprising, the similarly extant problems and structural issues collapsed into a moment of collective consciousness. Suddenly, going to the street in 2011 is different than 2010. In the end, the uprising was imminent, just cannot predict when.
2) Regime Resilience - A question of structural factors: coherent and cohesive institutions have been emptied of meaning and autonomy as a result of a strategy. Military, for instance, does not have independent leadership. Thus there is no regime schisms: if ship falls, all sink. That cohesion stiffens regime resistance (all fall or stand together) and even if there is a coup will not have legitimacy because it will be internal to regime. Regime policies have also focused on supporting the minorities. This leadership creates fear (among minorities) of a majoritarian-led opposition. Anxieties not without some serious concern although not true that they would, say, slaughtered. And much of the urban middle class has assets intertwined with the regime. Even if they wish the regime to fall are nonetheless wary about a new social order, especially considering rural revolt is not a middle class uprising. So there is a class dimension. Thus a lot of the middle class is on the sidelines, which allows the regime to benefit. Lastly, oppositional fragmentation also aids regime. 
3) Impasse - On the ground there is a stalemate caused by the fact that no party is able to limit the other: regime cannot decimate opposition and opposition cannot kill regime. But time not on regime's side: lost its ability to govern expect by brute force. Can rule but not govern. Thus shelf life is limited. 
4) Where are we going? Transformation from domestic and legitimate uprising to an illegitimate (i.e. sectarian with undemocratic trends) and international reality. Syria is being played by foreign powers in an effort to redraw regional political map. A complex picture that requires us to think along layers of reality. Many Syrians, for instance, are opposed to the dictatorship but also opposed to the opportunism of the US, Saudi Arabia and Qatar who, if allowed to guide a post-regime era, may produce an equally awful reality. 

In sum, Syria is stuck been bad and catastrophic. But there is hope in the Syrian people. Many Syrians are charting an independent course in the form of communal meetings away from regime and foreign machinations in an effort to secure a future, if the regime falls, that is rooted in the aspirations of the Syrian peoples - discussed and debated in a manner befitting a liberal polity. 

May the well-being of the Syrian people prevail. 

Thursday, April 12, 2012

Courage to Think in Tunisia

On Monday, April 9, NYU's Center for Dialogues hosted an event co-sponsored by Human Rights Watch and Scholars At Risk titled "Courage to Think: Intellectual Freedom in Tunisia and the Arab Spring" moderated by the center's director (and American of Tunisian heritage) Mustapha Tlili and featuring four Tunisian academics.

Tlili gave the opening remarks, which I will briefly summarize:

Is the "Jasmine revolution" at risk? The protesters who brought an end to Ben Ali's regime are the educated sons and daughters of the state built by Habib Bourguiba, the independence leader among a generation of intellectuals who looked to Europe and the Enlightenment. Tunisian identity has been shaped by this history and an education valuing individual liberty, openness, and women's rights. It is this transmission of values from Bourguiba that has built a modern Tunisia.  
The so-called spring did not last, however. The Islamists have ushered in the Winter. Their rhetoric had been tactical and measured but after their October 2010 electoral victory has become harsher and forceful.  
One of history's darkest trends is when a minority hijacks a liberal revolution and gains control through any possible means, including violence. Will Tunisia follow that example?  
The world's liberal democracies need to influence the Islamist government in Tunisia to adhere to a free democratic society and to enforce the law against violent ultra-conservatives as opposed to allow them carte blanche in the name of  "freedom of expression". The ruling interim government must change its course to save Tunisia's "honor and image in the eyes of the world".  
If we are not vigilant and Tunisia's revolution is hijacked then the Arab world may witness a long (decades even) winter as Tunisia serves as a warning for the region. In other words, if liberal democracy cannot prevail in Tunisia, what hope is there for (allegedly) less propitious landscapes (such as Egypt)?  
Arabs will pay the price in backwardness and poverty, and the West will not be spared either: an explosive mix of backward, poverty, and fanaticism will lead to terrorism. 
I thought this presentation was problematic for several reasons, one I voiced in the Q&A: The speaker collapses the ultra-conservative Salafis with the more moderate and amendable ruling Islamists of al Nahda into one essentialist bloc that isn't useful for purposes of political distinction and also inevitably undermines what I believe to be the crucial task of compromise between secularists and Islamists (no matter what we may think, they exist, are prominent, and have to be part of the equation) during a transitory period toward the institutionalization of democracy when political polarization is a perilous path that may retard democratic gains. 

Tlili responded with what I thought was a fair answer: There isn't a blurring of lines between Salafis or al Nahda but a continuum. al Nahda is not the instigator of violence, but its passivity in the face of it makes it complicit. Why has it allowed, or failed to properly prosecute, acts of vandalism against a Christian cemetery, violence against Jews and the Russian Orthodox community, a radical cleric who on the main thoroughfare in Tunis called for the killing of Jews, and the beating up of artists? al Nahda is either managing its electoral base or allowing the Salafis to run wild in order to intimidate Tunisians and even maintain Salafis as a potential tool of violence. Is there then a blurring between the two? 

Fair enough, but I still contend that al Nahda is more varied and diverse in outlook, even though admittedly there are pro-Salafi currents in the party. One criticism of the party I do share is their weak-kneed, at best, approach to Salafi violence (sometimes arresting them, but no public prosecutions to date) while forcefully going after a newspaper editor for alleged indecency and recently arresting, charging and sentencing two young men for posting images of the Prophet Mohammad on Facebook. al Nahda may be wary of going after Salafis because they do serve part of their base (one member of the panel suggested Nahda was hedging its bets), but the party cannot just be indiscriminately lumped in with the former. 

I also strongly contest the idea that Bourguiba had raised "sons and daughters". This is a paradigmatic statism that imagines Tunisians as less agentive, idealizes Bourguiba's authoritarian years, and may be conflated with a pinning for a return to the old system of charismatic, self-aggrandizing politics. Let us not forget that Bouguiba once stated, "I am the state". This mindset produced the president-for-life in Tunisia. And we should qualify what constitutes "modernity" since many secularists believe that only a Western way-of-life is "modern". Many al Nahda voters are education and ambitious professionals with all the commercial modern amenities, and their commitment to their faith and vote for a party they believe represents their values does not make them less "modern". Tlili, I believe, uses "modern" in an exclusive manner; a modernity that is a political project. 

And backwardness and poverty, even mixed with religious zeal, (a point made by others as well) is not the cause of terrorism. 

The other speakers, I believe, offered a more measured presentation. 

Professor Hamadi Redissi (al Manar University - School of Law and Political Sciences) spoke about the hopeful post-revolutionary turn from uncertainty toward the building of stable democracy. But he criticized al Nahda for refusing to govern in a more conciliatory manner befitting a transition period. Instead its efforts to monopolize the process, after its electoral victory, has resulted in tension and polarization: secularists and Islamists, state and society. 

He also noted how the "newcomers" (Salafi) have put al Nahda in a bind: it cannot repress them given the reality of democracy but as the same time these "newcomers" are highly aggressive and even challenge the party's understanding of Islam in Tunisia. How al Nahda navigates this moment will determine whether this period will be a moment for democratic consolidation or a portent for a bleak future. 

Then Professor Fawzia Charfi (Professor of Physics, University of Tunis and former cabinet secretary for higher education in the first post-revolutionary interim government) spoke about one of the hopeful signs in the constitutional draft proposals. A draft written by the former head of the electoral commission has been tabled; one that includes the liberal rights enshrined in the UN's Declaration of Human Rights. 

These aspirations for a liberal constitution are shared by civil society in a reflection of Tunisian gains and the history of liberalism and secularism in Tunisia, and if the nation succeeds it will be another example for the Arab world. 

Professor Ikbal Gharbi (Professor of Anthropology at Zaytuna University, the premier center for Islamic jurisprudence in the nation) spoke about how the revolution has presented an opportunity to live through the ecclesiastical debates she had been teaching for years. 

Gharbi went on to detail the history of religiosity and co-existence in Tunisia. The Jewish minority has lived for a millenium and Christianity has been present since Roman times. There are sects of Islam, ex. Shi'a, in the south. And Tunisia Islam has been heavily influenced by Sufi trends emphasizing balance, love of life and a convivial atmosphere. But this reality is threatened by the Salafis who have acted aggressively against the Jewish and Christian minority, along with Shi'as. A monastery of a Sufi saint in Tunis has been attacked, for example. Tunisia's history of religious tolerance - codified in a pact in 1861 - compels us to be vigilant. 

The Salafis are promoting the false idea that there are those pro and con Islam. The truth is that Tunisian Islam is centuries old and a faction has kidnapped it in the name of Wahhabi and a unilateral reading. But Gharbi is not without hope: Tunisian youth, in particular, have brought a new sense of unity: We should overcome this clash between religion, identity and freedom. 

Well said! 

For the record, she has been a personal victim of Salafi thuggery in the form of an apostasy accusation because she dares to teach religion as a subject of study as opposed to preaching it as infallible truth. 

Lastly, there was Habib Kazdaghli (University of Tunis-Manouba and Dean at the humanities school). Mr. Kazdaghli has been at the center of a months-long drama at his university when a collection of Salafis (not students, but "outsides" in Kazdaghli's word; and some dressed in "Afghan garb") violently took hold of the university after their 'sisters in Niqab' were denied admission to class on the grounds that a full-face veil obstructs the communicative aspect of higher education. His office was turned into a Salafi camp until they were forced out by riot police. Kazdaghli expressed gratitude for the secular and liberal President Moncef Marzouki (the head of the center-left CPR, one of two secular parties in a governing troika with al Nahda) for criticizing the Salafis and conveying his collegial support as a former academic, but had less than enthusiastic words for the way al Nahda handled the affair by being, in his view, less than forceful in defending the university. 

The universities in Tunisia can play a crucial role in creating a space for education and debate in the nation's future and he touched on the already promising changes: Deans and university boards used to be appointed by the ancien regime, but the revolution enabled all schools and colleges to have elected board of directors and trustees. Last June elections were held at 195 institutes. The revolution rid the universities of the police. On every major campus there was a police center that reported to the Interior Ministry. And student prisoners, of course, have been freed. 

Academic freedom, the concern of the panel, is still a cause calling for its courageous fighters. Every single one of the guests has been targeted by Salafis for insufficient piety or "un-Islamic" ways. And they have had to contend with ultra-conservative voices. Ms. Charfi, for instance, relates how from the beginning of her tenure as a cabinet secretary she was being petitioned by Salafis calling for gender segregation. But, as Gharbi noted, take a look at the intermingling of sexes at the hajj: Islam is a not a faith of segregation. 

In the end, the panel concluded, what is needed is a constitutional provision securing academic freedom. The Salafis may protest. That have that freedom, but freedom also needs law and order to ensure freedom for all. 

A snapshot of post-revolutionary life in Tunisia. 

Wednesday, April 11, 2012

"Tunisia After the Revolution"

Tunisia, the tiny brave nation the sparked the Arab uprisings, relies heavily on tourism. But the revolution, subsequent instability and a months-long civil war in next-door Libya convinced many tourists to look elsewhere. 

The national climate has gotten a lot better in the last several months after the historic free and fair October elections. Protests, riots, and strikes are a near daily occurrence but now in a normalized manner befitting a democracy as opposed to a general state of insecurity.

One of the reasons for the revolutionary upheaval was the state of the economy, especially high youth unemployment. Creating a thriving economy remains a laborious task and unemployment has actually risen since the revolutions as businesses have shut doors and tourism taking a fall.

You can do YOUR part but checking out this beautiful country.

That is why I was quite pleased to see the New York Times travel section do a very nice piece on Tunisia this past week:

BELOW the watchtower of the ancient fortress known as the Ribat, a panoramic view of the Tunisian city of Sousse unfolds. To the east lies the Mediterranean coast, where the Carthaginians moored their navy during epic battles with the Roman Empire. To the south and west, the labyrinthine passageways of the medina, the city’s old walled quarter, extend to the vanishing point amid a sea of tightly packed houses and minarets.....
For those further intrigued, a few years back the Times did an even better piece - less a blow-by-blow travel account and more a poignant memoir on Tunisia - that featured one of my favorite places in the country:

The crowd that gathers at El Firma, a 1920’s colonial farmhouse-turned-restaurant on a desolate stretch of land outside Tunis, is as sexy and stylish as any in the world. The work of two young Tunisian brothers, Sadri and Iyed Tej — one trained in Nice, the other at the legendary Institut Paul Bocuse in Lyon — and a Tunisian designer, Mona Mechri, El Firma is an incredibly beautiful place: antique cushioned chairs reupholstered in fuschia and furs play off the rough, warm texture of old stone walls; in the long, narrow dining room, a large plate-glass window frames a tumult of vegetation outside, lighted from below. On a soft night recently, when the seating moved out into the large, open courtyard, I found young Tunisian fashionistas just home from Paris or Rome sitting on sofas backed by elaborate antique headboards while their mothers (even more stylish) remained at tables deep in conversation in a jumble of languages. Above it all, a canopy of sheer curtains billowed sensuously in the soothing breezes of the North African night.... 

Check it out!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

Monday, April 9, 2012

Islam in Brazil: Local and Transnational Trends in the Making of Diasporic Islam

Last week, the Kevorkian Center was honored to host Brazilian anthropologist Paulo Pinto, Director of the Center for Middle East Studies at Universidade Federal Fluminense.

Paulo had done extensive fieldwork among Sufis in Syria and has now undertaken a study of Muslims in Brazil. With regards to the latter, the key questions he presents are: what is Islam in Brazil? how is Islam produced in Brazil?

While this short blog will not recap all his insights, I would like to focus on a few that really struck me. 

Pinto rightly emphasis taking into account local dynamics alongside national and transnational orders in the way of making Brazilian Muslim identity. 

There is a parallel history of Islam in Brazil. A colonial heritage of African slaves that disappears in with end of slave trade due to cut off with African and assimilation to Catholic or African Brazilian religions. 

And the contemporary Muslim presence of Middle Eastern immigrants (mostly Syrians, Lebanese, and Palestinians). But this presence is based on a search for a community in the name of ethnic identity. Muslim immigrants articulate identity as Syrian, for instance, due to a Brazilian immigrate narrative viewing Arabs as undesirable non-Europeans and Islam as less than favorable. 

Between the 1920s-1960s, Brazil witnessed the creation of Muslim charitable societies that ensure social welfare but also places of sociability to maintain Muslim identity. 

The 1960s-1990s witnessed the first mosque (mainly due to funding from Gulf countries and Iran). But Islam is understood as a cultural heritage within larger set of religious norms. Until the 1990s Islam is understood by Muslims in Brazil (or at least institutions) as a Middle Eastern cultural heritage and not a missionary religion. The first conversions start in 1990s and spark fierce debate: Should we accept them? How do we integrate people who do not know Arabic or cultural norms? 

Some preachers argue, for instance, that Brazilian society is not conducive to Muslim life. In 1995, Maria Morara, an engineer from a Catholic university, converts to Islam after traveling to Egypt and Turkey. But a many preachers reject her and she starts a debate with the preachers arguing that Brazil is indeed compatible: traditional, religious, and very family oriented; and Evangelical Churches are not much different from Islam and manage convert millions, and Islam could do the same only if it took seriously the task of tackling Brazilian religiosity. During this era, some communities begin to open up for converts. And in 1997 Rio-based institutions stop being heritage-oriented and begin to see Islam as a universal message for all and accept conversion of Brazilians without Arab or Muslim background. By 2010, half of Brazilian Muslim community is already converts and the figure is 85% in Rio. 

But this is not without internal tension between Brazilians of Arab heritage and simply Brazilians (everybody without Middle East background). For instance, a Brazilian Arab Christian who converts to Islam is considered Arab but any other isn't. So ethnic and heritage-bound identity remains very important. Arab Brazilians righteously argue they have an imbibed (one surmises) Muslim culture and do not need to learn it while converts challenge/retort that they know the actual purpose of Islamic norms and practices as opposed to Arabs who simply reproduce their heritage. A binary between  tradition vs. acquired religion. 

Among converts many identify with Salafi (conservative Islam), a codification of Islam as a way-of-life learned and followed, and more than the sacred texts. Very pedagogical. But born-and-raised Muslims do not see any attraction to Salafism. Instead Islam in often an expressed (occasionally Sufi) cultural tradition (Sufi traditions in Brazil are just traditions removed from pious sentiments. Ex. muwlid (Prophet's birthday), a Sufi holiday opposed by Salafis as antithetical to orthodox Islam). When these traditions and rituals are performed in mosques, such as muwaild, this is where religious differences between born-and-raised Arab Brazilians and converts rise to the fore as the latter exit the mosque in opposition to the intermixing of culture and Islam.

But converts do not deny religious value of some culture aspects, such as Arabic where Islam isn't localized but complement to religiosity. Or living in a Muslim society: Syria, Lebanon, Saudi Arabia, India, South Africa, and Pakistan are popular destinations. 

In a related tangent, each Muslim community in Brazilian (meaning regionally) produces a different codification of Islam and Muslim identity because local dynamics connection differently to national and transnational processes. Ex. Rio is different from the tribal area near Paraguay, Brazil and Argentina.

What I found so interesting in the talk is the difference between pedagogical Islam and an Islam that is imbibed through upbringing. An Islam that is simply Islam without necessitating explanation. Islam is culture. Islam is going to mosque on Friday but drinking on Saturday. Islam is a holiday centered around food. As one Muslim recently said, "I don't do Islam correctly, but you don't actually know that...lines between Islam and Afghan culture are blurred." 

This is the Islam I was brought up in and the one I practice now, and the only Islam I recognize: We live Islam as we live it. And that is the source of our unassailable faith. This is our connection to Allah.

And it is the Islam of 99% of Muslims, Brazil included.

As a corollary, here's an interesting video on the rise of Islam in the favelas of Brazil:

Friday, April 6, 2012

Idiot "Feminism"

Here is a cartoon published in a French publication as of late:

On the left, the Spring Arab Collection headlined with "Degage", the oft-repeated Tunisian arm-waving cry for Ben 'Ali to "Get Out". And on the right, a beautiful black one-piece with a daring eye cut just in time for the Fall Democratic Collection this season evoking "Charia [Shari'a, or Islamic law]".

Does a silly and simplistic cartoon like this even warrant critique? Have the fall elections in Tunisia and Egypt ushered in the burka? The French media often have an eye on Tunisia, no less, and here the ruling government has been anything but theocratic - even ruling out Shari'a as a source of legislation in the new constitution.

I mean, really! What stupid nonsense (please let me vent!!!)!!! 

Thursday, April 5, 2012

Coming Out Muslim

NYU's LGBT student organization recently held an event titled 'Coming Out Muslim' exploring the intersection between queerness and Islam. In the form of a live-show performance, two queer Muslims, Wazina Zondon and Terna Tilley-Gyado (the latter a convert or revert in Islamic parlance), engaged mostly individually but at times collectively in a verse, sketch and dance interplay seeking to convey their identity as queer and Muslim. The event was not only amusing in its own right but politically significant in presenting an image of the diversity of Muslim "life as lived", to quote the anthropologist Charles Hirschkind, far removed from the silly and prejudicial images on mainstream television.

Wazina, a young Queens native of Afghan heritage, launched the show with a humorous take on 'what made me queer'. Of course, as Wazina related to the audience, being queer is as natural for her as a straight person being straight. As she succinctly put it: Never gave much thought to what made me queer...just found whatever I found attractive...like who you like and move on. But here are the theories:

1) Boy George. Yup, this gay pop artist is at 'fault'.

2) Boys and Hellfire. Her parents' admonition that 'eight minutes of pleasure are not worth an entirety in hell...so stay away from the boys.'

3) Never got the Birds and the Bees talk (ironically now a sex educator at a New York public school). Where did babies come from? You prayed for them. Fear of the immaculate conception made her queer.

4) Never had any girl friends in high school. This is her father's preferred theory. According to her (somewhat disapproving father), because she never got any attention from girls in high school when the first girl (her girlfriend) gave her the time of day, his girl-attention starved daughter became queer.

But, as Wazina concluded, nothing really made her gay…"Allah made me gay." 

Terna, an American of Christian Nigerian heritage, had an amusing anecdote about the Homo-Monster. "Don't go running after people's daughters! Africans don't do that kind of 'thing'!" her mother shouted as she was packing for a trip to Nigeria. Terna assured her mother that she will not, but how absurd the command was. Are all queers lascivious individuals who run around after people's sons or daughters? Queer, Terna noted, has traditionally meant strange and odd, but does it also mean monster. "Am I a monster because I am queer?" she pondered. The "Homo-Monster"?

And what is meant by Africans not doing that kind of 'thing'? Not natural for Africans? Was the continent homo-free until White people started colonizing?

One interesting point of the show was during an intermission when an audio montage was played of stereotypical questions or statements put forth to Muslims in America (or the West in general): 

You don't look muslim...do you wear black because of your religion?...does your mother wear a buuuurrrrkkkkaaaaa?...do you pray five times a day?...what does your family think about the war?...when are you going to do your pilgrimage?...since Afghanistan is in Asia how come you don't look Chinese?…can you actually be gay and Muslim? 

Some innocuous, some ignorant, and some silly. 

Trying to recap the rest of the show may be difficult since it quickly moved from one scene to the next as if streams of thought. So I'll just relate it as such: 

Why my parents don't approve? Is is because of their interpretation of the Qur'an? Or Afghan cultural and norms? Or family's sense of respectability? ... 

I stay in Islam because there is no racism in Umma (Islamic community) and I know there is room for me... Islam has never turned its back on me as opposed to the people who interpret it ...

I don't do Islam correctly, but you don't actually know that...lines between Islam and Afghan culture are blurred. 

I will end where the evening ending: with one of the very poignent aspects of the show when Wazina read from a letter to all her lovers and girlfriends who have sought to offer advice on how she should  address her family's fraught feelings toward her queerness: 

My family is not your struggle...support me without judgement...they won't fall in love with you if you demonstrate 'cultural sensitivity'...they are not for you to rationalize or quantify...my success is unlike the ways you're used to. 

My success is listening to their stories even after they kicked me out of the house...they are so many ways I don't know them...they walked miles across their homeland...living in a world where people only see you by your beard or your suspicious accent …I don't know them. 

Why am I not mad at them? Success is them knowing I am not how they wanted me to turn out and I'm still invited home…sharing space…moving one step further with father…working-class revolutionary spirit…how will (or when) families come together?…love them for all they are and are not just as you love me. 

A performative rebuke to all the essentialist nonsense hurled at Islam...however Muslims make sense of their faith.

Wednesday, April 4, 2012

Egypt's Personal Status Code in the Post-Mubarak Era

It is well known that many campaigns to implement Islamic personal status law codes (or, family law codes) in the modern Middle East were characterized by alliances between (feminist) activists and authoritarian governments. As Frances Hasso points out in Consuming Desires: Family Crisis and the State in the Middle East (2011), which focuses on Egypt and the United Arab Emirates,

the most paradoxical aspect of the legal and procedural personal status changes […] is that most social sectors take expansion of authoritarian state control over the family for granted and even encourage the logic of efficient management and regulation of these relationships of exchange.
Members of the National Council for Women, headed by Suzanne Mubarak (2010) (via Al-Ahram Weekly).

She elaborates:

In the MENA region, women come to rely on undemocratic or authoritarian states for their extractive, redistributive, and policing authority over husbands and fathers. Indeed, the endurance of authoritarian MENA states may uniquely depend on this calculus (Hasso 2011, 133).

In a recent article, Hoda Elsadda complicates the relationship between activists and authoritarian governments. She argues that many women’s rights campaigns in Egypt did not dovetail with government policy or serve the interests of the Mubarak regime. At the same time, she emphasizes the challenges facing activists in post-Mubarak Egypt, namely the association of women’s rights with Suzanne Mubarak.

"One of the key obstacles that women’s rights activists will face in the months and years to come," she writes, "is a prevalent public perception that associates women’s rights activists and their activities with the ex-First Lady, Suzanne Mubarak, and her entourage—that is, with corrupt regime politics in collusion with imperialist agendas."

While personal status laws portray and sell themselves as modernizing and emancipating women, Egypt's personal status law reforms are currently under debate. Mohamed al-Omda recently suggested altering the khulʿ provision (Law No. 1 of 2000), which currently permits women to seek divorces without their husbands' permission. As Sarah Mourad points out, child custody laws are also being debated:

amendments to several articles of Egypt’s Personal Status Law that were made in last March’s constitutional amendments are under debate as well. The changes made to the Custody Law 25 of 1929 (amended by Law 4 of 2005) gave divorced mothers the right to keep their children until the age of 15, instead of 10 for a son and 12 for a daughter. Changes also allow fathers to have care of their sons/daughters for 48 hours a week instead of only three hours a week.

Monday, April 2, 2012

Abu Dhabi's New Parliament: Local & Global

NYU Abu Dhabi @ NYC (at the refurbished townhouse on 19 Washington Square North) recently held an event presenting the architectural design for the United Arab Emirates' new parliamentary building, the Federal National Council (FNC).

Steven Ehrlich at Ehrlich Architects (Los Angeles), a former peace corps volunteer in Morocco and Nigeria, is the man behind the project. He titles his architectural philosophy"multicultural modernism".

Ehrlich, as his resume suggests, is no vapid man chasing a high-profile project and putting a nice label on it. His philosophy is grounded in the world outside America's borders that he witnessed as a young man. Take his time in Morocco ('69-'72), there he made note of the common gathering space in the center of markets - a living room on the scale of an entire city - and the casting of shadows and movements of lights that characterize the suk in Marrakech. And I have to stay that his observation seemed so evident and yet it was if something that stood in front of me for so long needed to be pointed out. I have been to the suk in Tunis and elsewhere numerous times, and there is an almost natural way in which shade is built into the structure: 

Marrakech, Morocco. 

Fez, Morocco. 

Then there is the dichotomy between asymmetry in housing (more organic and responsive to the environment) and the use of symmetry for important monuments, particularly mosques, in Arabic-Islamic landscapes. 

Notice the contrast between the asymmetrical homes and the symmetry reserved for the Grand Mosque of Kairoun (Tunisia), for instance: 

Ehrlich also spent time in the Sahara and West Africa. His observations here would also later influence his work: buildings that grew out of the ground and harmonious with their environment, it is these structures that are most sustainable for their builders do not have modern tools. Again the marketplace serves as a courtyard of the city and shade extant even in the public streets.

Dogan (?) tribe in West Africa, for instance, have found there is no need to create new form as they replicate the square bottom and round top for both baskets and homes with different symbolism: rain falls, the grain raises. Again, living in delicate harmony with their environment. The lesson: indigenous architecture leads to a sustainable future. Best to learn from the fathers. 

The challenge for Ehrlich and his team then in designing their ideal building (and let me state here that this rather small L.A. shop won a 14-firm competition that included much better known heavy weights Zaha Hadid, Norman Foster, and others) was to combine local and global. To quote Ehrlich, How to make something ancient and contemporary and culturally rooted and part of a global dialogue?

How can you be simultaneously global and local? An example of how not do to this would be the glass-rimmed towers in some Middle Eastern architecture meant to convey "modernity" but such structures are  incongruent with the local environment. Ehrlich argues for embracing the indigenous styles (for instance, Islamic tradition of geometry) and local ethnography and cultural elements. Everything looking the same would be a great tragedy. 

Their winning entry (the new Federal National Council Parliament Building Complex will be 1million sq feet along the cornice facing north and flanked by two buildings) will seek to create a symmetrical building. 

The main meeting room is the central building - a dome structure acts a shade rather than enclosing the space. And notice that the pattern design is the sun's gift rather than been craved in stone (akin to the shade pattern in the above suk). There is a strong tradition of pattern in Islamic design - and in this case the pattern will come from sun and shade and always change from time of year and day: 

The dome structure evolved from the national flower (tribulus omanense) from five to a ten point connection.

The assembly hall is the imploded structural pattern of the dome into wood-clad beams inside the chamber. There is controlled natural light - majlis (seating area) above with frosted glass center. Notice how the geometry is the architecture instead of the typical Western attempts of having a box with geometry over it. 

In my question to Ehrlich I wondered if this new building will be part of the urban fabric of Abu Dhabi and the UAE. The late Anthony Shadid (how poorer are we without him?!) wrote about the new building projects in Doha - all quite impressive akin to the above - meant to situate the Qatari city as a global capital, but these projects are not seen as reflective of the social milieu among the local populace. Existing more as elite motifs projecting the elites' aspirations for global recognition within the Persian Gulf's new architectural competition for iconic structures (launched by Dubai's glitzy building speer) rather than having meaning at home. Ehrlich took my question and rephrased as such: will Emirates recognize (in the imagination) the FNC akin to the way Americans see the U.S. Capital? He thinks they will, especially since the structure not only includes elected (and this requires a caveat I will explain later) representatives, but also public space: gallery and a library, for one. Time will tell. 

P.S. As for the political elements, I will save that for a follow-up post.