Robin Yassin-Kassab

Archive for August 2008

Dawkins or McIntosh

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I am increasingly infuriated by religious claims to certainty and by religious attempts to close down free thought (I’m not talking about high profile attacks on writers or cartoonists here, which have more to do with power politics than theology, but simply the resort to ‘it’s true because God says so’). Although some leftist and anti-imperialist Islamist groups have achieved great things, I find the current fashion for religious politics in the Arab world to be a dead end. Simple-minded slogans like ‘Islam is the solution’ are no solution. An analysis of contemporary disasters based primarily on class and state and corporation could conceivably provide grounds for unity and solidarity; political action based on Sunni or Shia myths will ultimately only help the empire to divide and rule; it will also empower rulers and institutions hiding behind religious cover. It is sad to watch the Muslims becoming more and more religious as they gallop further into social, economic and environmental catastrophe.

The rise of ugly modernist forms of religion is not confined to the Muslim world. Everywhere, the death of traditional religion has spawned a million poor substitutes. Under the pressure of traumatic social change, and almost always of war, traditional forms of Judaism, Christianity, Islam, Hinduism and Buddhism have morphed into Zionism, neo-conservatism, Bible-belt evangelical-nationalism, fascism, Stalinism, Ba’athism, Wahhabi-nihilism, state-Hindu chauvinism and Maoism. And fundamentalist atheism.

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Written by Robin Yassin-Kassab

August 21, 2008 at 6:07 pm


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I read at the Edinburgh Book Festival on August 12th. It was a double event, shared between me and Mohammed Hanif, author of the Booker-longlisted novel “A Case of Exploding Mangoes.” Mohammed’s book is a tragi-comic detective story which references Marquez’s “Chronicle of a Death Foretold”; and the murderee is General Zia ul-Haqq. (General Musharraf quivers between impeachment and exile as I type). It was great to meet Mohammed, not least because he knows several of the journalists I used to work with in Pakistan. One evening he cooked me a chilli-rich meal. I hope we meet again.

The death that has hung heaviest over the last week is not Zia’s but Palestinian poet Mahmoud Darwish’s. It was even a death foretold: the Palestine National Theatre was at Edinburgh performing a play based on the Darwish poem “Jiddariyya”, which concerns mortality and the extinction of identity, and which he wrote after heart surgery. It was a new bout of heart surgery which killed him. Such are the Edinburgh crowds that I failed to see the play. I did see Sabry Hafez give a talk on Darwish, and how the extinction of identity is for Palestinians an immediately concrete threat beyond the universal problem of physical death: Darwish was from a family of ‘mutaselaleen’, Palestinians who crept back across the border into ethnically-cleansed Israel in the months following their expulsion in 1948, and as a result his name could not appear on school registers. I wish I’d seen the play. Also sold out was a film on three screens by Iranian director Abbas Kiastorami. It showed, apparently, a Shia passion play, a taaziyeh for the martyrdom of Hussain, performed in an Iranian village.

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August 19, 2008 at 12:13 am

Complex Origins

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Sumerians at prayer

Sumerians at prayer

From a Muslim perspective, I’m used to seeing Judaism, Christianity and Islam as episodes within the same religion (which is not to deny their differences) – a series of revelations emanating from the same cultural locus. But since so many of the Abrahamic stories are inherited from earlier civilisations, even from the very first to write down stories, it may be that my definition of one religion, or at least one civilisation, should expand to include the earliest myths. Stories so early that we can reasonably guess their roots reach deep into our pre-civilised hunter-gatherer past.

Myth doesn’t mean untruth any more than a great novel does. Myth is heightened truth. A myth is perhaps more ‘true’ than reality because reality unfiltered is unstructured and unexplained. The fact that God uses human myths to talk to humans need not perturb the religious. “wa tilka al-amthal nadribuha lil-nas la’alahum yatafakiroon,” says the Qur’an. “We rehearse these parables to people in order that they may think.” From a religious perspective, the rehearsal of myths in sacred text is proof of God’s understanding of human minds. And where do the myths arise from anyway? From unforgotten events, and from us, from our shared Godstuff.

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Written by Robin Yassin-Kassab

August 5, 2008 at 1:40 pm

Arab London

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This appeared in Gulf Life (Gulf Air’s inflight magazine):

It’s August and, as well as the Notting Hill Carnival, west London is seeing its yearly influx of Arab tourists. While the visitors are here they’ll rub shoulders with a varied and well-established Arab community.

Unlike some cities, London is too mixed to be ethnically zoned. When I lived a few years ago on the Harrow Road in west London, my neighbours were Poles, Pakistanis, Trinidadians, Lebanese .. I could go on. In London there are no monocultural ghettoes, but there are cultural concentrations, and my Harrow Road bedsit was in the middle of the Arab one.

At lunchtime I would cross the canal to buy steaming bowls of harira from the Moroccan stallholders on the Golborne Road. North towards Willesden I would meet newly-arrived Iraqi refugees, each with a story. If I walked west to Shepherd’s Bush I found Syrian grocers selling olive oil from the old country, and balls of salty shellal cheese. On the Uxbridge Road I could even eat fetteh, the essential Levantine working man’s food, and I prayed with men of all sects in a basement mosque.

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August 5, 2008 at 10:21 am

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Somebody at Channel 4 has been making an effort. A few weeks ago a documentary called “Dispatches: It Shouldn’t Happen to a Muslim” criticised the rising tide of Islamophobia in the British tabloid media and the corresponding rise in physical attacks on Muslims. The presenter brought up a series of stories which I half remembered hearing before, and half remembered feeling vaguely embarrassed about. Like how the NatWest bank got rid of its piggy bank posters to avoid offending over-sensitive Muslims. Like how British hospitals have to rearrange their wards so the beds all face Mecca. Like how a Muslim hate mob vandalised a house in which British soldiers returned from Afghanistan were to be billeted. All of these stories were completely false. The Sun was not charged with incitement to hatred.

The documentary didn’t take on Islamophobia in the so-called ‘quality press’, legal system or government, and beyond references to the July 7th bombs in London it did not give a wider political context for the surge in Muslim hatred. It did, however, point to how serious the problem is becoming. According to opinion polls, which are slippery by nature, 51% of British people believe Islam in general is to blame for the 7/7 attacks. 26% think the presence of any Muslims in the country is a security threat.

A couple of days later there was a great British screen moment. The screen read: After The Qur’an, Big Brother – which blasphemously reminded me of the Islamic “After your mother, your father.” But “The Qur’an” meant a two hour documentary on various ways of reading the text in various social contexts.

Despite the inevitable simplifications (Iranian women are “uniformly dressed in chadors”) the documentary did an admirable job of showing the range and flexibility of Qur’anic interpretation. Space was given to mullahs and Sufis, liberals and conservatives, the hijabbed and the non-hijabbed, to stake their very different claims on Qur’anic meaning. One interviewee said, “The Qur’an is like a supermarket; you can take what you want.” Although the Tesco’s imagery grates, this is of course correct; like the Bible, the Upanishads and Shakespeare, the Qur’an is vast enough to provide succour to almost any world view.

As a corrective to the unreconstructed ‘essentialist’ orientalist discourses we still hear so much from, the documentary shone a healthy light on the changing nature of Muslim societies. The society chosen for exemplification is Egypt, where almost no urban women wore the hijab thirty years ago but where almost all now do. The reason for the change was, I think, correctly diagnosed as “military defeat and economic failure” leading to a new search for identity.

“The Qur’an” spent a great deal of time examining (or at least quoting) verses which seem to encourage, on the one hand, fighting, and on the other, peaceful co-existence, and decided that the text promotes “tolerance and intolerance in equal measure.”

This made me think of the sometimes contradictory names of God: the Merciful and the Tyrant as well as the First and the Last. It made me think of all the strange binaries in the Qur’an. The words for ‘life’ and ‘death’ are each mentioned 145 times. ‘Spending’ and ‘satisfaction’ occur 73 times each. ‘This life’ and ‘the life after’ 115 times each. ‘The misled’ and ‘the dead’ 17 times each. And so on.

The Qur’an aims for totality, to broaden our horizons. It offers us a language to speak, a vocabulary – for instance – for both war and peace. And it describes itself as a ‘furqan’, a test.

The documentary reached a fine and logical conclusion: that in the Qur’an, “one consistent message comes through: think and think.”

But then it made much too big a deal about the Qur’an being originally written without tanqeet (punctuation distinguishing letters) or harekat (vowel markings), as if this was new information. One German professor’s interpretation of the Qur’an with the help of an Aramaic dictionary was interesting but vastly overblown. The dark-eyed maidens awaiting the faithful in paradise are translated by the professor as ‘bunches of grapes’. The documentary played this as if it would shake the foundations of Islam, but the general idea has always been uncontroversial. A clear majority of Muslims have always known that the descriptions of heaven and hell are symbolic images of the ineffable. The Qur’an (2:26) itself stresses this. At this point in the programme it seemed a bit like the writer had run out of things to say. He could have taken two more minutes on Palestine.

On that subject, the documentary stated: “In the last eight years, over 700 Israelis and over 2000 Palestinians have been killed.” While the real numbers are 1057 Israelis and 4862 Palestinians. http://www.ifamericansknew.org/stats/deaths.html#source The documentary also failed to mention the first and basic fact of the conflict: that most of Palestine was ethnically cleansed in 1948 and the remnant occupied and settled from 1967.

This lack of explanation makes the conflict seem like an ideological struggle between two equal parties, both with equal mythic allegiances to the land. This is misleading for two reasons. First, Israel is a nuclear-armed regional superpower while the Palestinians are stateless and very nearly defenceless. Second, although both sides do have strong mythical-religious claims on the land, and although both speak this resonant language when they are suffering or when they seek to mobilise their friends and allies, the conflict is no more about religion than the Northern Irish conflict was about Catholic-Protestant theology. It’s about territory and power and oppression.

If documentaries fail to give this context, who will? Certainly not the evening news.

While celebrating the 60th anniversary of apartheid Israel the Guardian stated that 250,000 Palestinians were expelled from their homes in 1948. I emailed to complain, and had to wait for more than a week until I received a reply saying that I wasn’t the only one to have questioned the figure, and that the Guardian was researching it. It took another few days for the hardworking research staff to learn that, since the work of Israeli new historians like Ilan Pappe in the 80s and 90s it has been accepted as historical fact that somewhere between 700 and 800 thousand Palestinian refugees were created in 1948. I wonder why it took so long to uncover this uncontroversial fact? I wonder which ‘research sources’ the Guardian relies on? I wonder how long it would have taken the Guardian to apologise if its front page had underestimated the number of Holocaust victims by two thirds? (No, I’m not suggesting that the two tragedies are analogous, but there is a link, made by the Guardian piece itself when it cast Zionism as the solution to the Holocaust).

No-one is more to blame for poor representations of Muslims and Arabs than Muslims and Arabs themselves. This is part of the general sickness. When I was researching Arab novels in English translation I discovered that none of the Arab culture ministries do anything organised to promote Arab writing and art abroad. Israel had a receptive Western audience for its 60th anniversary celebrations, but it was the efforts of its ministries, ambassadors and friends that allowed it to paint itself as a success story. Meanwhile in Egypt, this year’s Nakba commemorations were banned. (How many people in the West understand the word ‘nakba’? And whose fault is that?) I can understand the clients wanting to keep as quiet as possible, but not a country like Syria. Syria has a just foreign policy and a laudable history of ethnic, sectarian and religious co-existence. It is one of the world’s most generous providers of refuge – to Armenians, Palestinians and Iraqis. Despite being a nation of born storytellers, it has totally failed to tell this story internationally.

Written by Robin Yassin-Kassab

August 4, 2008 at 4:39 pm

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A Great Day in the Axis of Evil

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Since Hizbullah rearranged Lebanon in May, the following has happened:

Syria and Israel have engaged in peace negotiations, under Turkish rather than American auspices, and on terms which are not humiliating to the Syrians and Arabs – so far at least. Bashaar al-Assad has also been well received in Paris, signalling a definite end to the period of European ostracism.

Hamas has negotiated a ceasefire with Israel and – so far – the Israelis are respecting it more than they ever respected ceasefires with the Palestinian Authority.

On July 16th, Israel did what it vowed in July 2006 it would not do: it received its prisoners (or their remains) as part of a prisoner-swap deal with Hizbullah. The Lebanese resistance has now succeeded in having all Lebanese prisoners returned home. Contrast the unanswered pleadings of Mahmoud Abbas, whose US-backed administration has failed to have any of the 11,500 Palestinian prisoners released. More prisoners, in fact, are being taken on the West Bank every night. Contrast the supine regimes in Jordan and Egypt, which have made peace with apartheid Israel while Jordanian and Egyptian prisoners in Israeli prisons are still unaccounted for. The lesson is clear: resistance pays. Obedience to US-Israeli hegemony only results in more weakness.

Israel’s war aims in 2006 were to defang the resistance and remove its deterrent power. In the event, the deterrent power that was removed was Israel’s. Far from surging in hours, 1982-style, through the south and the Bekaa, Israel bled for five weeks in the border villages. By all accounts Hizbullah is better armed now than in 2006, and its deterrent power increased.

After the war, Israel and its Western allies aimed to isolate Hizbullah politically in Lebanon, or at least to push it back from the border. There are UNIFIL troops in the south, but Hizbullah is still there on the ground, keeping a low profile, and actually protecting UNIFIL from al-Qa’ida-type attack. As for isolating the resistance on the Lebanese scene, Hizbullah has foiled the attempt to defang it by proxy, and masterfully, with its usual disciplne, clearing out the militias backed by the US and its clients and then immediately handing positions over to the national army. If it had been stupid, Hizbullah could have taken the government. It didn’t, but it did ensure the capabilities of the resistance. Syria and Qatar worked to encourage the compromise, marginalising the Saudi role. Sinyura and Jumblatt are doing a lot of public word-eating. The resistance has outmanouvered the empire politically as well as militarily.

And now a great, if questionable, surprise: the US is reported to be planning to open an interests section in Tehran, which would be the first official diplomatic contact since the revolution that removed the Shah. It looks like a great day in the axis of evil.

I think it’s still too early to say the direct extension of the war to Iran is impossible. The recent friendliness may be a PR exercise aimed to portray America as the flexible partner. America may intend to take control of European-managed talks with Iran merely so as to obstruct compromise. Mujahideen-e-Khalq and an array of ethno-separatist and sectarian opposition militias are still conducting covert operations against Tehran with American funding and direction, often out of bases in American-occupied Iraq.

But it does look as if the tide has turned against war. America and Israel have been at war with themselves for years over Iran. The publication of the National Intelligence Estimate in November 2007, which concluded that Tehran had halted its nuclear weapons research in 2003, is significant. The agencies went public because they wanted to reign in the neoconservatives who have done so much to hasten the financial, military and moral demise of the American empire. Most of the military hierarchy agree. Observers not blinded by arrogance or ideology can see that Iran is strong, and that its response to attack will be considerable.

Iran isn’t as strong as the propaganda suggests – it’s not a rising nuclear-fascist giant, but a deeply troubled country, globally still weak and unsure of itself. But it’s far better organised and better educated, more stable and more free than any other Middle Eastern state, with the possible exception of Turkey, from Pakistan to Algeria. Including, in at least some ways, Israel.

Written by Robin Yassin-Kassab

August 2, 2008 at 10:56 pm

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