All That Happens In The Middle East Can’t Be Explained By Religion
January 16, 2011, 8:56 pm
Filed under: Middle East, Muslim World | Tags: , , , , ,

Uncertainly rules the day in Tunisia. Zine El Abidine Ben Ali, the country’s strong-armed and authoritarian ruler since 1987, is in Saudi Arabia while the interim government struggles to restore some semblance of order.  “Confusion, fear and horror in Tunisia as old regime’s militia carries on the fight,” reads on headline in the Guardian. To be sure, the days, weeks and months ahead are likely to be just as tumultuous.

But the New York Times, which has otherwise done a decent job of covering the story, can’t seem to report the facts on the ground without breaking into the quite-familiar and largely-contrived secular/religious divide that seems to always explain events in the Middle East. For instance, in its description of transpiring events, Times reporter David Kirkpatrick includes this bit of insight:

Tunisia is far different from most neighboring Arab countries. There is little Islamist fervor there, it has a large middle class, and under Mr. Ben Ali and his predecessor, Habib Bourguiba, it has invested heavily in education. Not only are women not required to cover their heads, they enjoy a spectrum of civil rights, including free contraception, that are well beyond those in most countries in the region.

Tunisia, of course, is one of the most unfree societies on the face of the planet. Ben Ali was an autocrat in every sense of the word. But as the Times seems to suggest, the fact that contraception is readily available and that women aren’t forced to cover (they aren’t mandated to do so in most of the Muslim world), is supposed to make up for, soften, or perhaps, rationalize the repression. It’s an entirely bankrupt approach that fails to explain the complex nature of Tunisian affairs.

Writing in Religion Dispatches, Haroon Moghul illustrates why the secular/religious explanation is not only lazy and hackneyed, but often, useless in understanding people’s grievances. He writes:

There must be an explanation for why a journalist would make such a broad, unsubstantiated statement, and it returns us to the simple need to define Arabs as either secular (like us) or religious (unlike us), an effect of which is a confused causation. Namely, because many Arab states aren’t democracies, they must be Islamist states, where of course women must have to cover their heads.

This assumption lazily equates the public practice of Islam with all things undemocratic, whereas we are inclined to view secularism–even when enforced by a dictator–as explicitly preferable, even though in the experience of many Arabs (and Muslims), secularism is the ideology which justifies control of their lives, religion, and politics.

Moghul’s piece is excellent. Read it all here.



Geert Wilders And The Making Of A Demagogue
March 9, 2010, 1:36 am
Filed under: Muslim World, Religion, Society | Tags: , , , , ,


Far Right Dutch parliamentarian Geert Wilders has become somewhat of a celebrity among right-wingers, fascists and nativists who loathe Islam and by extension, Muslims.  In the Netherlands, his popularity has increased tremendously and his party, whose platform is almost exclusively one of attacking Islam, did well in recent local elections and is poised to do even better in national elections this Summer.

Wilders’ trial for inciting religious hatred has become a cause célèbre for some on fringes of the American political discourse.  It should come as no surprise that those who defend Wilders most vociferously are often the same ones associated with questioning the authenticity of President Barack Obama’s citizenship.  In this world, conspiracy theories abound and the truth, more often than not, is disregarded as deceit or dhittude.

Wilders’ defenders see him as a “true champion of freedom,” and as one of the few politicians in Europe willing to confront the Islamization of Europe.  Enough is enough, they argue.  Islam is on the verge of dominating all of Europe and antifascist forces within Europe who oppose Wilders are allowing the continent to destruct from within.  Of course, that narrative is pure fantasy and Muslims constitute a very small minority in much of Europe, but facts seldom get in the way of hate.

Wilders has called for a banning of the Qur’an, has supported ending immigration from countries where Muslims are in the majority and of course, wants to outlaw the hijab.  Outside of the Netherlands, he is best known for his controversial movie, Fitna, which ties passages from the Qur’an to acts of violence and terror.

He contends that he does what he does because freedom of speech gives him that right.  To the casual observer, that seems a bit ironic, given his own intolerance.  As Ian Baruma put it, “for a man who calls for a ban on the Koran to act as the champion of free speech is a bit rich.”

The Globe and Mail’s Doug Saunders puts a little more context to Wilders’ platform.

Perhaps we’ve forgotten, perhaps he doesn’t realize it himself, but his words and the message of Fitna are exactly – to specific phrases, to the tone of louche brotherliness – what was said about the Jews.

It wasn’t the people but the “the code of Jewish ethics,” the well-documented desire of Jewish believers to take over countries and industries and societies. Judaism wasn’t another religion but an ideology, closely linked to communism (“Judeo-Bolshevism” was your grandfather’s “Islamo-fascism”). And it was the terrorism and violence that Judaic beliefs always seemed to bring to societies. Don’t forget that Kristallnacht, the concerted violence by the Nazis against Jews and their property in 1938, was provoked by an act of Jewish terrorism, the assassination of a German diplomat in Paris. The connection between the Torah and the violence was evident to many decent and otherwise liberal-minded people.

Wilders epitomizes the very definition of a demagogue. And during times of economic uncertainly, demagogues usually perform well.  But while the rise of Wilders is worrisome, history has shown us that society is invariably on the road to progress and progress has never gotten along with intolerance.  In fact, intolerance hates progress just as much as Geert Wilders hates Islam.

Anti-Islam Dutch MP gains momentum



As Regional Neighbors Grow, Poverty Lingers in Yemen
August 18, 2008, 11:55 am
Filed under: Muslim World, Poverty | Tags: , ,


Though poverty is a ubiquitous scene in much of the Muslim world, specifically the Middle East, most of the attention if often placed on a few key locations. The dominant discussion often highlights disparities in the Palestinian territories, Iraq and Afghanistan, regions that are facing military occupations, displacement and political instability. What is often lost, than, is a look at how conditions are deteriorating in places like Yemen, the poorest country in the Arab world. Surrounded by oil rich nations, Yemen has not developed like its regional neighbors and most Yemenis, for a variety of factors, see emigration as the only outlet. This article from the Yemen Times, the country’s largest English language paper, explores the degree of poverty among Yemeni widows and orphans.

Poverty, illiteracy and lack of skills to earn a sustainable income, coupled with weak social and domestic relationships, all contribute to putting Yemeni widows in desperate need of help and attention.

Every day is a challenge for Jamila, a 45-year-old Yemeni widow who lives with her five children and her elderly sick parents in a very small room on Siteen Street in Sana’a.

Rarely eating three meals a day, the entire family lives in extremely poor sanitation conditions. Jamila has made one corner of the room a bathroom while the other serves as a makeshift kitchen with a small kerosene stove and a few plates.

The occasional aid (food or clothing) she receives from neighbors or local charity organizations is never enough. She forced her three children to leave school to work as shoemakers, while she works as house cleaner, using what little money they all make to buy food and pay their room rent.

Jamila is one of many Yemeni widows who find themselves struggling alone after losing their husbands and their household’s breadwinners.

Although there are no studies or figures on the number of widows in Yemen, Rashida Al-Nusari, director of the Social Affairs Ministry’s women and children unit, affirms that widows and orphans comprise the majority of Yemen’s poor and are its neediest class.

Such women are more likely to face threats to their economic security. “Even those widows who enjoy social insurance can’t get it directly because all insurance documents must be in a man’s name,” she notes.

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