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FOR THOSE TIMES WHEN "DURKA DURKA MOHAMMAD JIHAD" JUST WON'T CUT IT

 

Entries in political theory (2)

Wednesday
Apr252012

Mona Eltahawy and the treatment of Arab women - detoxifying the debate

Mona Eltahawy's article Foreign Policy article Why Do They Hate Us? about the treatment of women in Arab societies has stirred up some serious debate, but from reading online comments and articles in response, the discussion has drifted - again - from the treatment of women to the nature of Islam. 

In Londonstani's view this is a shame. Although he doesn't know Mona personally, she was a close contemporary at the Reuters Cairo bureau and Londonstani has followed her writing and activisim for a long time since. So before everyone goes into Ayan-Hirsi-Ali mode because Mona supported the French niqab ban, it's worth re-reading Mona's activism against the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan as well the "Ground Zero mosque" debate. Mona is not "anti-Muslim", a "repentant Muslim" or a "self-hating Muslim". Dismissing her as such does nothing to address the abuse she raises. 

In the article Mona raises important points that need to be addressed, not swept under the carpet because 1) the West is equally bad in a different way 2) dirty laundry should not be aired in public 3) it's disloyal for a Muslim to criticise the actions of other Muslims. 

There is a tendency for discussions around Islam and rights to rapidly veer off course. On one hand, there are those looking to make the point that there is something fundamentally wrong with Islam. While on the other, there is a feeling that Islam as a religion is being attacked, and by extension all Muslims are potentially under threat of physical harm.

Somewhere in the middle, the possibility of an honest reflection of attitudes and practices in the Muslim world (yep, these issues are also present in Muslim Asia and Africa) get squeezed out of existence - which is a tragedy because the conversation needs to happen for all the reasons Mona points out. 

In general, efforts to promote rights in Muslim societies tend to follow two routes; the first seeks to justify rights through religio-legal reasoning and portray them as already existing within the religious framework, while the second castigates religion as the source of the problem. 

Both have their limitations. The first elicits a theological debate that ends up lost in the intricacies of competing interpretations of religious texts and the second is perceived as an attack on Islam so has limited traction outside a small clique of ideologically driven campaigners. This isn't new. The Muslim world has straight jacketed itself to a limited, black and white, emulate-or-reject-the-West argument since Napoleon seriously fractured its self confidence in 1798 with his occupation of Egypt. In recent decades, this myopic approach has become even more warped by an increasingly popular perception that "rights" and "freedoms" are "Western" concepts with no precedent in Muslim history. 

Londonstani thinks Mona is exactly right in saying; "Our political revolutions will not succeed unless they are accompanied by revolutions of thought..." However, the way this article will be perceived will limit the potential for her argument to stir that revolution. 

Responding to Mona, Nesrine Malik writing for the Guardian sees patriarchy rather than all men as the root of a problem that submits weaker sections of society to inequality and injustice at the whim of those who wield power. She points out that "in Saudi Arabia women cannot drive, but men cannot elect their government, instead they are ruled over by a religiously opportunistic dynasty. In Egypt, it's true that women were subjected to virginity tests, but men were sodomised. In Sudan women are lashed for wearing trousers, but ethnic minorities are also marginalised and under assault." Does Darfur ring a bell?

The solution she says is "a more generous political space will allow for the challenging of patriarchy, which in turn extends the roots of political reform deeper." 

The real tragedy of the Muslim world, Arab or otherwise, is political culture has lost any connection to justice and equality, which used to define the discourse between the rulers and the ruled. Now, to be popular you need to prove how "Un-Western" you are. And, women's rights are seen as a Western concept. It's the opposite of Garbzadegi, the Persian concept of "Weststruck". If you want the Muslim world to jump off a cliff, tell it cliff jumping is Western culture's ultimate expression of personal freedom, and the US administration is committed to championing its cause across the world. 

There is reason to be hopeful. As Londonstani argued in a book he wrote a couple of years ago (plug: The Long Struggle) the Muslim world will only be able to deal with issues related to religion and rights when it detoxifies its relationship with the West. 

As political changes in the Arab world allow space for much-delayed discussions about religion, politics, rights and responsibilities, the West's loss of economic primacy is leading to a decline in cultural authority. These two processes together could, perhaps, encourage the re-birth of that space for honest reflection that has been squashed to death over the past few decades. 

Tuesday
Feb212012

Networks and counternetworks 

Author Jonathan Liddell has been in Homs reporting on the Syrian regime's assult on the city. His dispatches - describing how medics and the wounded are being targeted - adds to the harrowing picture of events unfolding in Syria.

The printed edition of the Guardian has a side bar by Liddell titled: "How I made it into Syria undercover". Londonstani is unable to find this smaller piece in the online edition, so it's worth copying out a small portion of it for a little closer attention:

"The Ba'ath part and the mukhabarats (security agencies) - a grid that has dominated the life of the country for decades. Society had in these past few months put in place a counter-grid, almost as effective, made up of civilian activists, notables, religious figures, and, more and more armed forces... This counter-grid resists the other one, circumvents it and is even starting to absorb it in part."

For those interested in political activism or social change, the idea of identifying and connecting networks (or grids) is something that comes up time and again. Politicians running for office and writers rely on endorsements as much as underground urban music promoters in the UK rely on informal networks to get the word out and sell tickets.

There is often reference to networks of some sort or another in the thinking of activists from Martin Luther King to Gandhi to Omar al Mukhtar. While thinkers like Saul Alinsky have focused specific thought on identifying and connecting networks.

While a range of actors, activists and agitators seek to multiply effects by utilising networks, there are, in Londonstani's experience, two notable exceptions; al-Qaeda inspired extremism and Western public diplomacy.

At first glance, AQ seems to be all about networks and alliances; AQ in the Islamic Meghreb, al Shabab, utilising "lone wolves" etc. But all of those examples are tactical alliances with like-minded organisations. And, without a doubt, harnessing networks for tactical benefit has served AQ well. However, AQ is limited in utilising networks to accomplish its ultimate aim of world wide conflict by the rigid nature of its ideology. AQ is fantastic example of the "strength through unquestioning unity" school of thought, which means there is a very definite limit to how much it will allow its ideology to adapt or be influenced by the ideas or needs of potential allies, collaborators and the general public.

Londonstani, although not an expert in AQ ideology (you need to look to people like Will McCants or Thomas Hegghammer for that), sees the group's "Vanguard" ideology as rooted in the idea that effective action can only be accomplished by elite groups who drag the masses along with them.

Public diplomacy by the likes of the US and UK largely seems to avoid engaging with networks of civil society, media and business actors in places where they want to have an impact. (Arriving with an army to talk to rebels about how to help remove a dictator is not quite the same thing). However, one possible model to look at is the way international aid organisations like Oxfam, Amnesty and the ICRC spend much time and resource identifying those with similar aims to them and working them.

Either way, identifying, assessing and engaging with networks in order to make things happen is not the easy way of getting things done. But it is the most effective. If you don't think so, just look at AQ's (lack of) mass popularity across the Muslim world.