Political Protest, Social Change and Bare Breasts

(Inspired by a recent conversation with Nina Mankin and Tatiane Feres)

 

In the midst of the Femen-inspired current where women and girls in North Africa (Egypt and now Tunisia) pose naked in the name of freedom from societal oppression and patriarchy, I feel compelled to make a few remarks. I am aware that this is an extremely sensitive and emotional topic for everyone and I am keen not to be misunderstood. Therefore I will very carefully specify what I think the issues are.

 

  1. There is no doubt that there is societal prejudice against and relatively excessive control of the behaviour of women in Egypt and, I assume, in Tunisia.
  2. This is consciously problematic for some (and not all) women. This is an important point because many women will vehemently deny that they are under any oppression – which brings us to point 3.
  3. This control is society-wide in the sense that it is not just the prerogative of men, but also of women who believe that their place is defined by the space men have created for them.
  4. Some women and some men strongly believe that something should be done about this.
  5. Aliaa el-Mahdy and (more recently) Amina believed they were doing something about this by posing naked (Amina had the slogan ‘my body is mine and not the source of anyone’s honour’ written on her chest- see the photo attached). They believe they are challenging patriarchy and social/moral norms.
  6. There is no doubt that such actions, by definition, constitute a challenge to patriarchy and norms, but are they addressing women’s broader problems of achieving equal rights and recognition in these societies?
  7. One answer is yes: through being subversive you launch debate and discussion on those issues, issues which otherwise remain dormant.
  8. An alternative answer would be that such actions are counter-productive since in being so radical they will cause serious offence in those communities, and people will not see beyond the offence and grasp the message conveyed by this subversive act.
  9. There is truth in both answers. In the case of Egypt some felt that what Aliaa el-Mahdy did will be pivotal for women’s liberation movements, while some women activists felt it was counterproductive as it tainted women civil rights movement in the eyes of a conservative society waiting for any chance to accuse such movements of immorality.
  10. Again there might be some truth in both claims.
  11. So I don’t particularly feel I can confidently say such actions are productive or not, as this really will depend on the nature of the goal you want such actions to achieve. If you want to shock, and you perceive some long-term value in shock – through introducing new elements into collective consciousness for example – then they are productive. If you are concerned with slow, gradual, social change then you will perceive such actions as counterproductive, if not downright harmful to the cause.
  12. Both points of view have something going for them. I am left, then, with the message conveyed by women who bare nude in protest. This message at the core of it is quite simple: My body belongs to me.
  13. The simplicity of this message is what makes it so powerful and divisive.
  14. Basically you can either agree with this message or reject it. This is the source of the perennial misunderstanding between those with a religious outlook and those without, or between the majority of Egyptians, say, and the majority of North Europeans in relation to the question of the meaning of acts of nudity (excuse my generalisation but the point is to identify two positions rather than groups).
  15. The first position (P1) rejects this statement as false: your body does not belong to you, there are so many other caretakers such as God and Society.
  16. The second position (P2) finds this hugely insulting and demeaning. My body is mine, it’s the most ‘mine’ of all things, like my private thoughts. No one has any claim on my body.
  17. And so for P2, those who adhere to P1 appear to disrespect individuality at its most basic – the notion that you have sole autonomy over your body. This disrespect is further explained in line with common prejudice by saying, for instance, that those people (Arabs/Muslims/etc) are backward and belong to the dark-ages.
  18. Alternatively, for P1, those who adhere to P2 represent the worst excesses of individualism: unhinging the body from the sphere of morality as a meaningless physical substance. This may be further explained in line with common prejudice by saying, for instance, that those people (Europeans/Westerners/etc) are mired in immorality and disgusting in the way they have forsaken God.
  19. And so there is a stalemate and we can all part without an ounce of shared understanding and with both sets of prejudices confirmed. Great. Just another day of life as we know it.
  20. But there is a solution. And as with all good solutions it involves some kind of synthesis of P1 and P2, as both contain some truths, and the challenge is to articulate this synthesis .. to be continued ..

 

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The Gradual Isolation of Israel and the Inevitable Move of Israeli Voters to the Extreme Right

For those who have been following the news, you must have noticed a relatively new tide in international politics: Barring the USA (and a handful of other geopolitically insignificant countries) there is a real tide of international opinion that is increasingly critical of Israel’s colonialist policies, actions and general violence in the West Bank and Gaza. The most recent evidence for this are two overwhelming votes in the General Assembly of the United Nations. In the first (29 Nov 2012), Palestine was given ‘observer member status’; only nine countries voted against: Israel, the USA, Canada, Czech Republic, Panama, Marshall Islands, Micronesia, Nauru and Palau. The second resolution (4 Dec 2012) ordered Israel to open up its nuclear facilities for inspection; only six countries voted against – the usual suspects: Israel, the USA, Canada, Marshall Islands, Micronesia and Palau.

In addition to this, two days ago several key European countries – Germany, England, Spain – and many others threatened to withdraw their ambassadors – a serious diplomatic move – after Israel began constructing settlements on occupied land in the West Bank. In particular, there was outrage at plans to build on an area called E1, which would separate East Jerusalem (universally agreed upon as the capital of the future Palestinian State) from the West Bank. This move was seen as retaliation for Palestine’s symbolic move at the United Nations.

How will Israel respond to this tide of international condemnation and support of the Palestinian cause? Israel, for a few years now, has been moving steadily to the right. For example, Liberman, a far right politician who only recently would not have dreamed of it, is now in main-stream politics. The Israeli people are voting for more extreme and right wing governments who engage in war and extend the occupation. It is fair to say that the average Israeli voter is experiencing a state of paranoia. Israeli voters who go for the Netenyahu/ Liberman coalition and shun right-of-centre and centrist parties believe that the whole world is against them and that they need to bring in war-mongers like Netenyahu and Liberman to save Israel. The problem is that the actions of these politicians is only turning international opinion against Israel and making it lose support. In response to this, in response to international isolation, the Israeli voters will become even more paranoid and insular, imagining a threat at every corner and feeling that the whole world is against them. The logical conclusion to this will be an extreme right government that wages active war against its neighbours. This is not farfetched: we have seen Netenyahu’s warmongering about Iran. If the Israeli government wages war on its neighbours to appease its paranoid and insular Israeli voters then a broader middle-east war will no doubt be set in motion. At that point the Israeli psyche will be deeply paranoid and the Israeli populace isolated (with only America and perhaps Micronesia and Canada for support), to the extent that the voices of reason within Israel will be completely lost, even if now they are not heard.

This broader middle-east war will result in tens of thousands of death, if not more, and will lead to a true re-ordering of geopolitics in the region, including the very definition and structure of Israel and Palestine. Then, maybe, just maybe, we will finally see a solution to the Israeli/Palestinian problem.

THE DOGMA IS DEAD! LONG LIVE THE DOGMA!

Ideas, like their bearers, pass through several stages unto death. They start life as solutions to practical problems and, if they endure, sediment as inviolable truths about the world. These truths may take on an ethical significance and the ideas become binding moral imperatives. Ideas are born pragmatic, their coming-of-age is positivist, and their maturity lies in a mysteriously compelling normativity. Perpetually and surely, ideas progress towards death, a death that we call ‘reality’. We do not allow ideas to die, we resurrect them by keeping them part of that most concrete of things: reality, the archaeological sediment of centuries of ideas; what our great relatives and their ancestors have thought up to control the world and each other. An idea is most relevant and immediate when it is born, when it still has an intimate relationship to the practical circumstances it arose to address. In time, the material and social conditions change and ideas must change with them. But many ideas persist and we, seemingly oblivious to their death, allow them to remain in our cognition much like mummified relics or, in a word, dogma.

*

To be free of dogma is to realise when an idea has died. Dogma is death, the death of ideas. For an idea only rises to the status of dogma when it presents itself as that which it is not: as ‘truth’ or ‘reality’ or the ‘good’ as opposed to that which it was: a solution to a problem somewhere in the past, a problem that no longer exists but for which the idea continues to present a ‘solution’. Dogma recreates the original problem, in order to present itself as the only solution.

*

Religion in the 21st century is pure dogma. The ideas that constitute organised, prescriptive, a-spiritual religion have served their purpose. Religion has nothing to offer but a limitation on thought and a constraint on morality. It tells us what we cannot think; it delineates the limits of thought. Religion tells us what we should do in a world that is different to the one where its precepts were first formulated. A sceptic questions a grand ideology that purports to explain everything without ever doubting itself. Religious dogma tells us that a woman’s body is sinful, it needs to be hidden and covered, and this is presented to us as an entirely natural and self-evident truth; a real and genuine problem. Religious dogma recreates a problem – the woman’s body – in order to offer a solution: a host of limitations on women’s freedom. And it doesn’t matter if women endorse the dogma willingly or if they believe that by covering themselves they will go to heaven. It doesn’t matter because they too are allowing the dead ideas of religion to persist among us: they too are guilty of this perpetual resurrection.

*

Scepticism is the mirror that confronts the idea with the image of its own death. Scepticism frees us of dogma, and allows us to align ideas with the social and material world surrounding us.  A sceptic questions the basis of an idea, its raison d’être. A sceptic is not scared by an idea’s claim to truth or goodness; he can see beyond this, he can see that it is dead: a sediment.

*

For many decades now and we have had the foundations to live without an eternal guarantor. Unlike Descartes for whom the world was unimaginable, unthinkable without a mighty Agent overseeing its Truth. We no longer need God. It is not that we have, necessarily, ceased to believe in Him (even if some of us think admitting this is crucial), nor that we feel compelled to prove His non-existence – as atheists are inclined to do, no: we just no longer need him; much like a toddler no longer needs a walking-brace once his legs can carry him. We can tolerate a sense of ‘fundamental insecurity’, we can tolerate ‘existential angst’ – in short, we can tolerate life without God. And none of this is new: this is the legacy of the enlightenment, and has been with us, with a particular laity that is, for centuries. It is no longer unusual – let alone heroic – to forsake God.

*

Throughout the enlightenment, the idea that religion is a necessary condition of meaning-fullness gradually declined, and a slowly emerging humanism began to fill its place. This was not easy. Descartes, the first of the modern, radical sceptics, went as far as the cogito. But he ended up preserving God, the guarantor against falsehood and the protector from nihilism. Nietzsche’s madman roamed the streets declaring the death of God, only for the philosopher himself to die, in the most ironic of predicaments, in the midst of syphilitic insanity. In time, the conditions for a genuine secularity were laid down and human beings were able to seek fullness and meaning without the need for God.

*

Religious political parties are agents of death; they traffic in the dead ideas of religion. And they are only able to do so because we, the People, have allowed these ideas to persist among us; we have continually resurrected them. By capitulating on our failure to eradicate dogma, Religious parties secure power and wield it upon us the willing and thankful people.

*

Have we, Heirs of the Enlightenment, rid ourselves of dogma? Have we trained ourselves to see ideas through the lens of pragmatism? Liberty, Equal Opportunities, Human Rights, Individualism, Freedom of Speech. These are just a few of the ideas that have become our lingua-franca. They are, or have become, self-evident truths. While John Stuart Mill might have had to argue for Liberty, we no longer need to. Evidently, it seems, these ideas represent a massive leap over religious dogma: they reflect a more inclusive society and broader possibilities for human flourishing. But are these ideas beginning to exert a hold on us that exceeds the hold of expediency? Are they, that is, progressing slowly towards death?

*

It’s a story we are all familiar with now: we live in the midst of an aggressive Individualism. Our value system is struggling to define itself independently of the ethos of consumption. We struggle against this but are always driven back by sheer momentum but also by bottomless greed. And then we are faced with fundamental inequalities, and many tell us that that is fine; that is the way it should be. We all have Equal Opportunities, the dogma goes, so you have only yourself to blame when your share of the material world doesn’t match your expectation or your needs: each to his own. And not only do we no longer need to justify the primacy of Liberty, no, some of us are prepared to kill others to bequeath upon them that most precious of our discoveries: Freedom. And you can talk, you can denigrate others, you can burn books like they did in the Middle-Ages and we will call it Free Speech. The rot at the core of enlightenment ideology is rapidly spreading and the stench is becoming unbearable.

*

Freedom of Speech, Individualism, Liberty, Equal Opportunities: dogmas rapidly approaching death. To free itself of thousands of years of Pharaohs, Sultans, Kings and Lords humanity had to discover the individual. It had to enshrine the rights of each and every person, not in order to worship them, but by way of expediency: a solution to the problem of absolute power. Now, these ideas have lost their pragmatic value: they are no longer responding to a practical need. Absolute power is no longer in the hands of the Monarchs; power is in our hands. But we squander it willingly to those gigantic entities that manufacture our desires while also selling us their satisfaction. Individual rights and Liberty have become the justification for the status quo: they have become ideals that no longer limit absolute power but create it.

*

Some of us can see that the dogma of the enlightenment and the status quo which it now creates are not sustainable. We are told that we are using up the planet’s resources; melting the poles; raising the temperatures. And if we do not do something about it, many of us will die not so far from now. And this indeed might appear as a highly pragmatic set of ideas. There is a problem, we need to address it, and this is how we do so. But… already, we can hear those who want to raise those ideas to the status of ethical imperatives. They are not content with the issue being a pragmatic issue which should be addressed, they want to transform the ideas into dogma, and thereby move them faster along the path of their inevitable destruction; towards their death. And we must resist this; we must insist that the connection between an idea and the practical need it arose to address is not lost. Because if we do not do so we will join the chorus of humanity in that famous call that echoes from the dark ages and has not yet left us: The dogma is dead! Long live the dogma!

Mohammed Abouelleil Rashed   2012

The Dirty Road to Purity: Why the ‘Salafis’ are Apostates (and in presenting themselves as the Representatives of Islam are doing it and us a great disfavor)

When Prophet Mohammed set out to establish Islam over 1400 years ago, he was not starting a new religion; he was not creating a new doctrine or a novel set of ecclesiastical principles. Mohammed’s message was a return to origins, to the essence of the first monotheist’s – Ibrahim – message of a one and true God, a message that got corrupted along the millennia and which Judaism and Christianity had failed to preserve in pure form. Mohammed sought to purify monotheism both of the outright polytheism that dominated the society he lived in, and the human fabrications that corrupted the Torah and the Bible. The goal was a return to a pure form of monotheism characterised by a total surrender to God and the realisation of His will on Earth through a community of believers now bound not by tribal affiliation but by a shared and uncompromising faith in the One.

Fast forward to 2012 and we have – in the wake of the Egyptian Revolution – a curious phenomena which has existed for a few decades (and in Arabia for centuries) but which had only explicitly appeared on the social and political landscape of Egypt after Hosni Mubarak was pushed aside by the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces on 11th February 2011. The ‘salafis’ – as they call themselves – derive legitimacy through affiliating with the Prophet’s companions (salaf); the devout brethren. They call for a return to the ways of the salaf who in virtue of being the first generation of Muslims and contemporaries of the Prophet are prime examples to be followed. Muslims, so they believe, should align their conduct, practices, values and habits with the salaf in order to purify Islam of the accretions that have accumulated over the past few centuries, and which contaminate the message of the Prophet.

There are thus two returns to origins: the first is the Prophet’s return to the Abrahamic message; the second is the ‘salafis’ return to the Prophet’s brethren’s example. These two returns might seem identical but they are not. The Prophet was reclaiming the essence of a call that had first been made many centuries before. He applied this message to the society he found in Arabia at the time, a society that had its own cultural values and social structure. Thus the monotheistic message was wielded upon a tribal, paternalistic society with a strong code of honour and a multitude of gods. Society had to change to allow a true and deep monotheism to flourish, together with the values that accompanied the (historically relative) newly founded equality of all before God.

The ‘salafis’ call to return to origins is not a return to the monotheistic message which the Prophet had espoused, it is a return to the ways of the Prophet and his brethren and therefore by proxy – so the ‘salafis’ think – to the Prophet’s original message. Nothing could be further from the truth. In espousing his message, the Prophet was not returning to the ways of Abraham, but to the essence of the message of Abraham. Imagine that Abraham had sported a decent moustache, would we then expect the Prophet to have grown a moustache in an attempt to return to the ways of Abraham? Of course not. The Prophet’s goal was not a return to purity of appearances, but purity in the conception of and relation to the One. And this is what the ‘salafis’ completely miss. In placing complete emphasis on the ways of people who lived 1400 years ago the ‘salafis’ are in effect worshipping a society and not a God. In donning untrimmed beards and head to toe black wraps they are worshipping a socio-cultural-historical moment and are committing the idolatory that the Prophet had spent the last twenty-three years of his life fighting against. Had the Prophet been born in the 12th century towards the end of the Abbassid Caliphate, the ‘salafis’ would now be wearing turbans and vests. The ‘salafis’ have and continue to commit the basic error of mistaking the sign for the signified, much like a dog that insists on staring at its master’s finger, instead of what this finger is pointing at.

Mohammed Abouelleil Rashed

Egypt: Only Secularism can guarantee Justice and Equality

Secularism is not at all opposed to religion, not a single bit. Politically, it simply means the separation between government and religion. Worship, by all means, but do not include religious ideology in the bodies that run people’s’ affairs. It makes so much sense, doesn’t it? If we in Egypt adopt secularism then we can expect the following:

1. No more political parading in the name of Islam, which means an end to the abuse of Islam for political ends.

2. No more political interference in how people practice religion, e.g. Friday prayer sermons will no longer be ‘directed’ by the government.

3. A much more fair system of inheritance, e.g. there is no longer any reason why the man deserves as much as two women.

4. Eliminate any possibility of someone legislating for issues such as compulsory wearing of the veil/niqab or prohibition of consumption of alcohol on religious grounds.

5. A renewed focus on real scientific research as opposed to pathetic attempts to ‘Islamise’ the knowledge coming from the ‘West’ or finding proof that the Qur’an had already predicted the most recent and ground-breaking scientific discoveries.

6. A real attempt to protect freedom of worship for all: Muslim, Jewish, Christian, Pagan, Buddhist, etc., etc., including the freedom to worship nothing at all.

7. An end to medieval laws that criminalize any critical assessment of religion, in particular Islam.

8. And perhaps most important of all: it might help move religion back to where it can do the most for people: PRIVATE LIFE

A secular political system will eliminate fundamental injustices and inequalities and set Egypt on the right track. Unfortunately, religious parties have gained a lot of ground in the recent elections, and it might be a few years before people have a sufficiently developed political consciousness to be able to separate their personal identity from how they would like to be governed.