We often project our current political concerns backwards in time in order to justify ourselves. I say ‘we’ because everyone does it. Nazi Germany invented a mythical blonde Aryan people who had always been kept down by lesser breeds. The Hindu nationalists in India imagine that Hinduism has always been a centralised doctrine rather than a conglomerate of texts and local traditions, and describe Muslim, Buddhist, Christian, Sikh, Jain and animist influences on Indian history as foreign intrusions. Black nationalists in the Americas depict ancient Africa as a continent not of hunter-gatherers and subsistence farmers but as a wonderland of kings and queens, gold and silk, science and monumental architecture. To our current cost, Zionists and the neo-cons have been able to reactivate old Orientalist myths in the West, myths in which the entirety of Arab and Islamic history has involved the slaughter and oppression of Christians, Jews, Hindus, women, gays, intellectuals .. and so on.
Such retrospective mythmaking frequently goes to the most absurd extremes in young nations conscious of their weakness or of a need for redefinition (America may be one of these). Probably for that reason it is particularly evident in the Middle East.
Many Muslims go beyond adherence to those concepts and taboos that are necessary for religious belief and idolise or demonise historical figures who have nothing to do with the divine revelation. For many Sunnis, the first caliphs were ‘rightly guided’ saints who could do no wrong. During their reign there was no crime, poverty or injustice in the realm of Islam. For many Shia, the same men (apart from Ali) were decadent criminals. These secular figures were not deities or prophets but human beings working in specific contexts, with all the good and bad and moral ambiguity that implies, but Muslims frequently hold religious positions on their worth. The same applies even to later worldly figures like Haroon ar-Rasheed (saint or criminal) and Salahuddeen al-Ayubbi (likewise; as well as Kurdish traitor and hero of Arabism).
As expected, the Egyptian client regime allowed only a token number of Gaza Freedom Marchers to enter the besieged prison territory. Roughly 1400 activists from 43 countries were forced to remain in Cairo, where they managed to demonstrate outside various embassies and in the central Tahrir Square. Egyptian police turned out in huge numbers to harass the protestors and, most crucially, to stop Egyptians from coming into contact with them. (Ali Abunimah has been blogging on events in Cairo). The Freedom Marchers chanted ‘ash-sha’ab al-misri ma’ana – The Egyptian People Support Us’, a slogan which is undoubtedly true. The Egyptian regime, meanwhile, with the help of American military engineers, is building a metal wall across the frontier with Gaza which will reach deep underground and cut off the tunnels which are Gaza’s only lifeline. The corrupt Azhar Mosque authorities have declared this crime to be compatible with Islamic law.
The Gaza Freedom Marchers approved today an important declaration aimed at accelerating the global campaign for Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) against Israeli Apartheid. The Cairo Declaration deserves the widest possible circulation.
January 1, 2010
We, international delegates meeting in Cairo during the Gaza Freedom March 2009 in collective response to an initiative from the South African delegation, state:
Here are the thuggish Egyptian police harassing senior citizens and children on Israel’s behalf. It appears Egyptians are better at fighting for Israel than they were fighting against it.
Video clip from Thursday morning demonstration in Cairo, Egypt. Egyptians and internationals in the Gaza Freedom March assembled to protest Egypts crackdown on their freedom of movement. Police attempted to blockade some activists in their hotels, and allowed only a small number to travel to the border with Gaza. Video by Kayvan Farchadi with Sam Husseini.
27 December 2009 — My name is Roger Waters. I am an English musician living in the USA. I am writing to express my great admiration for and solidarity with the 1360 men and women from 42 different countries around the World who are gathering in Egypt, preparing for The Gaza Freedom March. We all watched, aghast, the vicious attack made a year ago on the people of Gaza by Israeli armed forces and the ongoing illegal siege. The suffering wrought on the population of Gaza by both the invasion and the siege is unimaginable to us outside the walls. The aim of The Freedom March is to focus world attention on the plight of the Palestinian people in Gaza in the hope that the scales will fall from the eyes of all, ordinary, decent people round the world, that they may see the enormity of the crimes that have been committed, and demand that their governments bring all possible pressure to bear on Israel to lift the siege.
I use the word ‘crimes’ advisedly, as both the siege and the invasion have been declared unlawful by United Nations bodies and leading human rights organizations. If we do not all observe international law, if some governments think themselves above it, it is but a few short, dark, steps to barbarism and anarchy.
Stereotypes, ignorance and misrepresentation have long pervaded US media coverage of Islam. In his 1981 book Covering Islam, the late Edward Said analyzed these distortions in the light of the relationship between knowledge and power and found that hostile representations are often informed by the particular circumstances of the engagement between the US and the Muslim world and the asymmetry of power between them. Little has improved in the years since, even as the focus on the region has intensified. Many of the misrepresentations that Said observed still abound, but the increased attention since the end of the Cold War, and especially since 11 September 2001, has inflamed suspicions and reinforced resentments making it easier for demagogic politicians to exploit. In his timely and insightful new book, Engaging the Muslim World, University of Michigan professor Juan Cole debunks prevailing myths and presents a set of compelling policy prescriptions that aim to encourage dialogue and defuse hostilities. However, while he convincingly addresses the questions of knowledge, unlike Said, he leaves issues of power largely unexamined.
I’m very satisfied that the Boycott Divestment and Sanctions movement conducts itself with the utmost ethical consistency and respect to international law (if it didn’t, I wouldn’t advocate it). It’s true that it’s following the South African model, but at the same time it’s setting an example of its own. As a young activist, it’s a pleasure learning from its outspoken leaders. In my involvement in the movement, every step presents us with an ethical challenge. Avoiding the pitfall of a sweeping, uncommunicative action, the Global BDS movement, led by the Palestinian people, is employing guidelines of a “smart boycott”, differentiating institutions from individuals and Zionists from Jews. It’s never simple and dedicated research and much debate goes into every initiative. As a student of the boycott tactic, it’s just as important for me to learn what not to do, and examples are ample.
And here’s one more on Obama’s speech in Cairo. Adam Morrow and Khaled Moussa Al-Omrani of IPS give an overview of what human rights activists in Cairo think of “the speech no other president could make” as Jonathan Freedland put it in his typically deferential commentary in the Guardian. As opposed to seeing the speech as “sensitive, supple and sophisticated” (Freedland), opposition journalist and reform campaigner Abdel-Halim Kandil argues that “Obama’s visit was a show of support for both the dictatorial Egyptian regime and the criminal policies of Israel regarding the Palestinians…It represents an acknowledgement of Egypt’s role in serving U.S. and Israeli policy objectives, while totally overlooking the regime’s dismal record on human rights and political reform.” For more on this, see Ann’s analysis of the spectrum of responses to the speech posted below.
Egyptian officials are lining up to praise U.S. President Barack Obama’s address to the Islamic world delivered in Cairo Thursday. But local campaigners for political reform say the speech was disappointingly light on the issues of democracy and human rights.
“Obama spoke very briefly and in very general terms on these two subjects,” opposition journalist and reform campaigner Abdel-Halim Kandil told IPS. “Despite the hype, Obama’s speech was little more than an exercise in public relations.”
Ali Abunimah puts a bit of perspective on Obama’s call for a “new beginning” by taking to task the US President’s reference to “America and Islam”. This is the same old terminology in use by the Americans which refers to the former as a “concrete specific place”, with the latter reducing over a billion people to a “single, coherent entity” (to borrow a phrase from Edward Said).
Once you strip away the mujamalat – the courtesies exchanged between guest and host – the substance of President Obama’s speech in Cairo indicates there is likely to be little real change in US policy. It is not necessary to divine Obama’s intentions – he may be utterly sincere and I believe he is. It is his analysis and prescriptions that in most regards maintain flawed American policies intact.
Though he pledged to “speak the truth as best I can”, there was much the president left out. He spoke of tension between “America and Islam” – the former a concrete specific place, the latter a vague construct subsuming peoples, practices, histories and countries more varied than similar.
For Obama’s Cairo speech to have any resonance among Arabs, writes Robert Fisk, he would have to deliver his lecture from Gaza and not one of the world’s worst human rights violators, Egypt.
Maybe Barack Obama chose Egypt for his “great message” to Muslims tomorrow because it contains a quarter of the world’s Arab population, but he is also coming to one of the region’s most repressed, undemocratic and ruthless police states. Egyptian human rights groups – when they are not themselves being harassed or closed down by the authorities – have recorded a breathtaking list of police torture, extra-judicial killings, political imprisonments and state-sanctioned assaults on opposition figures that continues to this day.
The sad truth is that so far did the US descend in moral power under George W Bush that Obama would probably have to deliver his lecture in the occupied West Bank, even Gaza, to change the deep resentment and fury that has built up among Muslims over the past eight years. This, of course, Obama will not do. So Egypt, sadly, it has to be, though he will see nothing of the squalor and fear in which Egyptians live. Continue reading “Robert Fisk: Police state is the wrong venue for Obama’s speech”