Friday, September 29, 2006

Political Prisoners in Syria: The Perpetual Revolving Door

The current state of affairs in Syria reminds me of this line from an Egyptian movie from long ago : "every time we take a step forward, we take two steps back"(its sounds better sung repeatedly in Egyptian-accented Arabic). Just as Bashar allows the release of some of the signatories of the Beirut-Damascus declaration, Josh Landis reports on Syria Comment that eight young pro-democracy activists arrested earlier this year have had their trial postponed. They have been held without access to legal counsel or visitation rights. In the meantime Mohammed al- Abdallah, son of journalist Ali al-Abdallah continues his hunger strike and is joined in solidarity by five other jailed political prisoners. Additionally, two Palestinian human rights activists from the Yarmouk camp are arrested for belonging to a banned organization. They are: Sahar Ali al-Saleh and Samer Yousef Bakour.

So here you have it, Bashar's Syria 2006 looking very much like Hafez's Syria circa 1976 or 1986. Some may dispute that and say that the scale and severity of the crackdown on dissent has lessened. Perhaps, but a small improvement from a horrible state of affairs is still horrible. The problem is that things are getting worse not better. When it comes to the state of human rights in Syria, following the timid step forward in early 2001, we have taken ten steps back.

Names of imprisoned activists (link to
petition for their release):
  • Ali Nizar Ali
  • Husam Ali Mulhim
  • Tarek Ghorani
  • Maher Ibrahim
  • Ayham Saqr
  • Alam Fakhour
  • Omar Ali al-Abdullah
  • Diab Sirieyeh.

Monday, September 25, 2006

History and the Pope's Speech

This is a late post on the much discussed Pope speech but I could not ignore this editorial that appeared in the Jewish progressive newspaper, Forward. My view on this is pretty much the same as on the cartoon fiasco. I believe that the Pope intended what he said but regardless of that I am embarrassed by the response of my co-religionists. I could go on but it has all been said before so I will not belabor the point. I do like the historical perspective presented in this article though. The West often chides us Middle Easterners for having too long a historical memory, but perhaps many in the West have too short a historical memory; or maybe it is just selective amnesia.

The Pope, Islam and History

Fri. Sep 22, 2006

In the fall of 1776, as the newly independent American colonies set about drafting their individual state constitutions, a furious debate erupted over the rights of religious minorities. Preachers and populists warned that letting non-Protestants vote and hold public office, as Benjamin Franklin and Thomas Jefferson were urging, could result in "Jews, Turks and Infidels" taking over America. The cry was taken up in state after state and became a national movement. The association between Jews and "Turks" was a natural one for Americans of that era. Judaism and Islam were linked in the popular mind as kindred Middle Eastern cultures. The few Jews who had settled in America were mostly Sephardim, Portuguese Marranos who preserved the melodies, the recipes and even the ceremonial dress of their lost golden age in Muslim Spain.The association continued long after Jews won their rights. For nearly a century and a half after independence, American Jews who received senior diplomatic postings overseas usually got sent to Muslim capitals, where it was assumed that they would readily find a common language. That custom came to a sudden halt only in 1917, when the Balfour Declaration inaugurated a century of Muslim-Jewish hostility. No American Jew was appointed chief of mission in a Muslim country again until 1993, after the signing of the Oslo Accords.That history is worth recalling this week as we consider the furor touched off by a recent speech of Pope Benedict XVI, in which he seemed to suggest that Islam contains an innate streak of violent evil. His words have touched off a wave of violent protests across the Muslim world, reminiscent of last winter's Cartoon Jihad and similar incidents going back to the 1988 publication of Salman Rushdie's "Satanic Verses." Whether or not the pope actually meant to say what the protesters think they heard - that Islam harbors violence and evil - the protests seem ironically to have proved the point.Even more ironic, it's not at all clear that Benedict actually meant to say that. His speech was a learned discourse, before a college audience, on the importance of dialogue and the supremacy of reason. The address included a brief quote from a 14th-century Byzantine Christian prince, complaining to a Muslim - "with a startling brusqueness," the pope noted - of Islam's "evil" tendency to "spread by the sword."The words come from a distant time. Christianity had swept Europe, in large part by the sword, but then lost a two-century holy war to capture Jerusalem. The prince, the future Emperor Manuel II of Byzantium, was waging a lifelong, losing struggle to defend what remained of his own Christian empire from Muslim conquest. In a struggle for world domination between two competing empires, harsh words may be used. Such moments don't necessarily produce useful philosophical dialogue. That's partly what the pope was driving at.None of that has stopped a small army of Western commentators and editorialists from rallying behind the papal message that the Muslim protesters thought they heard. Benedict was right, these pundits say, to call Islam a violent faith. Muslims, they say, are conditioned by their religious tradition to neglect economic growth and good governance and to blame the parlous state of their societies on the West, Jews and anyone else they can find. Their religion teaches intolerance and celebrates violence, they say, and it's about time that somebody had the guts to stand up and say it. Nowhere is this sentiment more keenly felt than in some quarters of the Jewish community, where fears for Israel's survival in the face of Muslim rage have reached a fever pitch of late. In such circles, it's considered the height of wisdom to stand tall and speak truth to Islam - and to press at every opportunity for a confrontational Western response to Muslim provocation. Their hope is that the enlightened forces of Christendom, the Jews' natural and historic ally, may yet knock some sense into the benighted faithful of the Umma, and in the process, they reason, make Israel safe.But bad history makes for bad policy. The violent convulsions wracking the Muslim world today are no more inherent to Islam than the Crusades or the pogroms were essential to Christianity. As for the current confrontation between Islam and Judaism, it is, in the broad sweep of history, a mere blip, compared to the two-millennium nightmare of Christian persecution.History teaches that there are times to confront evil and times for dialogue. The ravings of an Ahmadinejad in Iran leave little room for useful exchange. Bin Laden and his ilk can only be hunted down, not wooed. But the Muslim world also includes major leaders, from the Egyptian, Pakistani and Palestinian presidents to the kings of Jordan, Morocco and Saudi Arabia, who want to end this sorry chapter in history and open a new one. It's important to know when - and how - to talk.Popes like to speak in enigmas. It's an old tradition, a way to help preserve their mystique. But there are times when clarity is what's called for. Benedict himself lectured a group of Muslim scholars last year on the importance of using words carefully. "Words are highly influential in the education of the mind," he said at the time. He was right; words have consequences. He's learning that all over again this week. We'd all do well to pay heed.

Thursday, September 14, 2006

Syrians Refuse to be Silenced

The following appeal was posted by Fares:

The updated high profile Syrian prisoners list include Mahmoud Issa, Michel Kilo, Khalil Hasan, Anwar el Bunni, Suleiman al-Shamar, Ali Abdallah, Mohammed Ali Abdallah, Kamal Labwani, Fateh Jamous, Habib Saleh and Aref Dalila.
It is easy to become complacent and resign oneself to the fact it all seems hopeless. But, at least, in honor of those few who believed that it is NOT hopeless, that this country has a better future beyond corruption and dogma.
We owe it to these prisoners of conscience and we owe it to the future of our country to keep pushing for their release.
We are all Free Syrians and We deserve a fair justice system, free speech and better policies.

I fully support Fares' statement and urge other Syrian bloggers to post this statement of support on their blogs. These prisoners are not criminals and they are not terrorists. These are true patriots concerned about the future of their country and with the courage to demand change from the disastrous course the country is currently on. They are asking for reform: for freedom of expression, a representative government accountable to its citizens, an end to corruption and the rule of law. Without these changes the full potential of Syria and the Syrian people will never be realized.

Monday, September 11, 2006

Differing Visions of Islam

Despite the descriptor under my blog banner, I have yet to explicitely discuss religion in any of my posts. The reason is that, to me, faith and spirituality are intensely personal endeavors. It is also an ongoing journey, in which, as a sentient human being, I will question any interpretation of my faith that I cannot reconcile with my basic sense of right and wrong. To some, that attitude makes me a bad Muslim or not a Muslim at all; I could say that it is their problem not mine, but in fact it is both of our problems.

Long before 9/11 inaugurated the East-West civilizational clash, Islam had been at war with itself. The reasons for that struggle are many and beyond the scope of this post. What is undeniable is that the outcome will determine the future of many regions of the world including Syria and the rest of the Levant. Most reasonable Muslims now clearly understand that there is a need for reform, tajdid wa islah, not in the direction of fanaticism but in the opposite direction.

The article below is the story of one such reformer, the Sudanese mystic Mahmoud Muhammad Taha. It is a long, well researched article that is worth reading. One of the conclusions of this article, is that progressive reform will come from the periphery of the Muslim world and not from its overheated Middle Eastern core. I would add that such ideas will come from even farther afield from Muslims living in the West. One such example is the Swiss-born scholar, Tariq Ramadan, who is, interestingly, the grandson of the Hassan al Banna, the founder of the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood. Whether the ideas of such thinkers, can flow back and inflence the wider Muslim world remains to be seen.

A radically peaceful vision of Islam.
New Yorker: Issue of 2006-09-11Posted 2006-09-04

In 1967, a law student at the University of Khartoum named Abdullahi Ahmed an-Naim was looking for a way to spend a summer evening in his home town, a railway junction on the banks of the Nile in northern Sudan. No good movies were showing at the local cinemas, so he went with a friend to hear a public lecture by Mahmoud Muhammad Taha, an unorthodox Sudanese mystic with a small but ardent following. Taha’s subject, “An Islamic Constitution: Yes and No,” tantalized Naim. In the years after Sudan became independent, in 1956, the role of Islam in the state was fiercely debated by traditional Sufists, secular Marxists, and the increasingly powerful Islamists of the Muslim Brotherhood, who, at the time, were led in Sudan by Hasan al-Turabi, a legal scholar. Politically, Naim was drifting toward the left, but his upbringing in a conservative Muslim home had formed him. “I was very torn,” Naim recently recalled. “I am a Muslim, but I couldn’t accept Sharia”—Islamic law. “I studied Sharia and I knew what it said. I couldn’t see how Sudan could be viable without women being full citizens and without non-Muslims being full citizens. I’m a Muslim, but I couldn’t live with this view of Islam.”
Naim’s quandary over Islam was an intensely personal conflict—he called it a “deadlock.” What he heard at Taha’s lecture resolved it. Taha said that the Sudanese constitution needed to be reformed, in order to reconcile “the individual’s need for absolute freedom with the community’s need for total social justice.” This political ideal, he argued, could be best achieved not through Marxism or liberalism but through Islam—that is, Islam in its original, uncorrupted form, in which women and people of other faiths were accorded equal status. As Naim listened, a profound sense of peace washed over him; he joined Taha’s movement, which came to be known as the Republican Brothers, and the night that had begun so idly changed his life. (Click here for the rest of the article)

Sunday, September 03, 2006

Naguib Mahfouz: A Eulogy

The passing of Naguib Mahfouz is a great loss to Egypt first but also to the rest of the Arab world. Here is fitting eulogy of Mahfouz by the Moroccan-French writer and intellectual Tahar Ben Jelloun:

Man in the Middle

New York Time, Op-Ed, Published: September 3, 2006
Tangiers, Morocco

INSTALLED at his regular table at his regular cafe in Cairo, a daily rendezvous that only illness could cancel, Naguib Mahfouz observed the anonymous crowd swarming the city streets with an eye that was tolerant, humane, sometimes ironic or arch, but never malicious. He was the voice and the memory of these lives, complex, small, grandiose, magnificent or modest — from the students who came to consult him to the waiters who served him his habitual coffee.
Balzac said that because the novel is the private history of nations, a real novelist must be able to plumb the depths of society. Mr. Mahfouz fit this description perfectly. You can’t understand Egypt without Mr. Mahfouz — without his characters, with whom every reader, Arab or not, can identify. In the days since his death, many have noted how Mr. Mahfouz helped Western readers understand the Arab world. But perhaps even more important, he helped the Arab world understand itself.
Before Mr. Mahfouz, the novel as literature — literature as map to understanding — was not part of Arab culture. In fact, until the beginning of the 20th century, Arabs didn’t write novels, in large measure because Arab society didn’t recognize the individual. Only in 1914, with “Zainab,” by Hussein Haykal, published as a serial, did what is considered the first real Arabic novel appear.
And it really wasn’t until the 1950’s, and the publication of Mr. Mahfouz’s “Cairo Trilogy,” that the Arab novel arrived as a major genre of literature. In the trilogy — “Palace Walk,’’ “Palace of Desire” and “Sugar Street” — Mr. Mahfouz described the lives of three generations of a family that stood in for a country making an epic transition of its own, from tradition to a halting form of modernity.
From a Western perspective, it is difficult, I imagine, to understand the cultural power these novels exerted. Even before Mr. Mahfouz won the Nobel Prize in 1988, the trilogy had the effect of liberating a generation of Arab writers. Young writers like Haydar Haydar and Fadhil al-Azzawi didn’t write like Mr. Mahfouz, but his books and his stature gave them the confidence to persevere in examining everyday life.
In his own generation, there is Yahya Haqqi, whose 1954 work “Good Morning!,” about an isolated Egyptian village’s passage into modern life, is a milestone in the history of the Arabic novel. There are also Taha Hussein and Tawfik al-Hakim, two important observers of their society who critiqued Western culture.
Like the characters in his novels, Mr. Mahfouz found himself at times trapped between tradition and modernity. His 1959 book “Children of the Alley,” which was not anti-Islamic but took liberties with the histories of the founders of the three monotheistic religions, was condemned by clerics, and after they complained to President Gamel Abdel Nasser, Mr. Mahfouz promised to not allow its future publication. (To Mr. Mahfouz’s dismay, a pirated edition of the book showed up on the sidewalks of Cairo.)
His relationship with Islamic militants continued to be an uneasy one. In 1994, they tried to stab him to death. Still, he had no hatred for them. He knew that their actions were dictated by ignorance, and as he said from his hospital bed, they had nothing to do with Islam. He hated conflict and supported the 1979 peace accords with Israel, a stance that led to boycotts or bans of his books in some Arab nations.
Mr. Mahfouz tried all styles of writing, including experimental novels. This amused him. His language, classical and conservative at first, became more inventive, incorporating what he heard in his neighborhood, which he never left. He didn’t travel. It’s said that he left Cairo once or twice, no more. He was an immobile voyager, an explorer of the human soul seated in a cafe.
It’s also been said that Mr. Mahfouz was a realistic novelist. This is not the case. Realism doesn’t exist, because life, especially life in Cairo, is itself a fiction, unfathomable, inexhaustible, where drama jostles with comedy, where tears run from joy or chagrin. Mr. Mahfouz didn’t have to invent situations or characters; it was sufficient for him to observe the people around him.
In “Sugar Street,” the death of a main character is signaled in a few words: “The master has left the house.” The same words apply today, to Naguib Mahfouz, master of the Arabic novel.

Tahar Ben Jelloun, the winner of France’s Goncourt Prize for “The Sacred Night,’’ is the author, most recently, of “The Last Friend.’’ This article was translated by The Times from the French.