July 1, 2015 § Leave a comment
This was first published at NOW.
In the Arab world, the public declaration of religious disbelief is as taboo as the open profession of homosexuality. Publically-declared atheists and agnostics can wave goodbye to social respect, marriage prospects, even legal recognition. Yet a 2012 poll in Saudi Arabia – a state whose legal system equates atheism with terrorism, and which potentially applies the death penalty to apostates – found that 19% described themselves as ‘not religious’ and a further 5% as atheists.
In his new book “Arabs Without God: Atheism and Freedom of Belief in the Middle East” (soon to be translated into Arabic as ‘Arab bala Rab’) journalist Brian Whitaker interviews activist and quietist unbelievers from around the region, and investigates the pressures ranged against them. Most usefully, the book provokes a question – how can a revived Arab secularism (freed from the taint of the so-called ‘secular’ dictatorships) provide a future in which the rights of religious majorities as well as unbelieving or sectarian minorities will be respected and strengthened?
Demands to believe and submit go far beyond religion. Whitaker quotes sociologist Haleem Barakat, who noted that, like God, the Arab head of state and the Arab family patriarch require absolute respect and unquestioning compliance. “They are the shepherds, and the people are the sheep.” (This is why ‘rab’ – which means ‘Lord’ rather than only the monotheist God – is as apt a translation as ‘Allah’ for the book’s Arabic title). So intellectual atheism is perceived as an attack on family and state, and on community solidarity. The contemporary politicisation of religious identity makes unbelief akin to treason in some minds; for this reason minority sects, dissenters and atheists are frequently seen as fifth columnists, agents weakening state and nation on behalf of foreign powers.
Identity politics in the region took on its modern forms with the building of centralised nation states. Nationalism itself was an assertion of a politicised cultural identity, first against the Ottomans, then against the European empires. For the new rulers of post-independence states, a fear of disloyal communities turned to a generalised rage for homogeneity – ‘the good citizen’, depending on where they found themselves, was to be an Arab, or a Muslim, (or a Turk, or a Jew) as imagined by the state. Many states standardised dress, dialect and worship.
The state’s top-down approach to culture is infectious. Opposition groups too, whether nationalist, leftist or Islamist, have sought to emulate the rulers by seizing control of the state apparatus and imposing their vision from above.
June 28, 2015 § Leave a comment
The late great Tony Judt delivered this call-to-arms at the Boston College on February 6, 2007.
Tony Judt, the Erich Maria Remarque Professor of European Studies at New York University, asserts that tenured university academics have a social obligation to “speak the truth in the public place.” In this Lowell Humanities Series lecture, he warns that public pressures and contemporary mores inhibit today’s intellectuals from espousing unpopular views. Controversial for advocating a combined Israeli-Palestinian state, Judt frequently contributes to the New York Review of Books and the Times Literary Supplement. His most recent book is Postwar: A History of Europe Since 1945 (Penguin Press, 2005).
June 24, 2015 § Leave a comment
This review appeared at the Guardian.
In “The Outsider”, Albert Camus’s iconic tale of alienation, ennui and ruthless honesty, the anti-hero Meursault murders an Arab on the beach at Algiers simply because the sun gets in his eyes. “The Meursault Investigation”, Algerian journalist Kamel Daoud’s first novel, winner of the Goncourt prize and from now on an indispensable companion to Camus, is narrated by the brother of the murdered Arab.
In a frame reminiscent of Mohsin Hamid’s Reluctant Fundamentalist, the tale is told in a bar in Oran, “a city with its legs spread open towards the sea,” and addressed one-sidedly to a Western literature student. The narrator intends to construct his own story by using “the murderer’s words and expressions” like the “stones from the old houses the colonists left behind.”
According to him, the dead Arab in Camus’s book was “a brief Arab, technically ephemeral”; nameless, he “had the name of an incident”. But now we learn his name – Musa, a Moses bearing a text on his back (“The Outsider” instead of the Ten Commandments). The narrator, his brother Harun (Aaron), pays homage to, critiques, summarises, analyses, refutes, echoes, quotes and competes with “The Outsider”, and other Camus texts too. In reference to “The Myth of Sisyphus” Harun speaks of “the absurdity of my condition, which consisted in pushing a corpse to the top of a hill before it rolled down, endlessly.”
All this of course wields symbolic power. Harun is an ur-Algerian reflecting on colonialism, the legacy of thousands of Meursaults and their callous indifference to Arab life. In that sense the novel contains a definite element of the empire speaking back. Yet the narrator rejects simplistic anti-colonial allegorising. “A few decades ago,” he says, “I would have served you up the version with the prostitute slash Algerian land and the settler who abuses her with repeated rapes and violence.” But Harun has since witnessed “the post-Independence enthusiasm consume itself and the illusions collapse.” The liberated capital looks like “an outdated actress left over from the days of revolutionary theatre” (the novel overbrims with such unsettling female images).
June 21, 2015 § Leave a comment
Gore Vidal: The Man Who Said No (1983) is a documentary film directed, produced, and edited by Gary Conklin. The film follows famed American writer and political gadfly Gore Vidal in his quixotic campaign against incumbent California Governor Jerry Brown for the Democratic nomination for the United States Senate in 1982. Vidal and State Sen. Paul B. Carpenter each won the support of 15.1% of voters in the primary election, but were easily outdistanced by Brown, who racked up 50.7% of the vote.
June 15, 2015 § Leave a comment
This very useful documentary on the Syrian revolution, in Arabic and Spanish with English subtitles, was made by a good friend (known on Facebook as Couteras Madriz), and features many of the creative and courageous activists I and Leila al-Shami interviewed for our forthcoming book. The film is particularly strong on the self-organisation of revolutionary Syrians in committees and councils, and on the counter-revolutionary challenges they face.
June 6, 2015 § Leave a comment
This review appeared in the Guardian.
Emma Sky’s “The Unravelling: High Hopes and Missed Opportunities in Iraq” is an very useful, eminently sensible “tale of unintended consequences, both of President Bush’s efforts to impose democracy and of President Obama’s detachment.” A critical insider’s account, it undermines the too-easy assumptions of left as well as right, realists as well as neoconservatives, exposing the achievements and (more often) stupidities of both administrations.
In 2003 Sky was a British civilian opponent of the war who nevertheless volunteered, arrived into chaos, and found herself governing the province of Kirkuk. When Saddam was a Western ally, a quarter of a million Kurds and Turkmen had been cleansed from Kirkuk and tens of thousands of (mainly Shia) Arabs moved in. Assyrian Christians and Yazidis add to the mix. Oil-rich, Kirkuk’s incorporation into Kurdistan would make that national project economically viable. “No group recognised the grievances of the others,” writes Sky, referring too to “the American tribe” who at first she railed against, “so out of place, running around in uniforms which looked like pyjamas, with their name tags on their chests.”
Sky witnessed the gallop from regime change to state collapse in the first days of occupation. The Coalition Provisional Authority and the Governing Council together institutionalised sectarianism. “The emphasis had been on identifying communal representatives rather than bridging communal divides.” Unelected Iraqi elites set about seizing the spoils, excluding Sunnis and the Shia working-class Sadrist movement.
June 6, 2015 § Leave a comment
The Living Dead is a series of three films focussing on the power of the past. It was the second major documentary series made by Adam Curtis. In it he investigated the way that history and memory (both national and individual) have been used by politicians and others. It was braodcast in 1995. The series features Paul Fussell whose book The Great War and Modern Memory is in the Listmuse 100 Best History Books of All Time list.