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REPRESSION AND SUSPICION FOR SCHOLARS IN THE MIDDLE EAST

I have a piece on the Al Fanar site looking at the problems scholars face conducting research on sensitive topics (which can be almost any topic) in the middle east. After hopes were raised of greater access to and circulation of information after the Arab Spring, academics seem to be facing more repression than ever now. Foreign scholars are worried about getting in trouble or losing access to the countries they study. But I came across some cases of young scholars persevering in their work under extreme circumstances.

Lynch says he knows many scholars working “under the radar” and respects their decision to do so. Some have gone to extraordinary lengths. A European Ph.D. student who requested anonymity has been working in Egypt since 2010, researching labor relations. In 2012 he was questioned by the security services and told to “choose another country.”

The young researcher went on visiting a factory town, hiding in the back seat of a rented car when it passed police roadblocks on the way there. But “It’s been tricky to make new contacts,” he says. “People are extremely afraid of talking.” He also suffers from “the mental part of all this—the stress and anxiety and the feeling you’re a criminal when you’re not.”

“I’ve wondered every day if it was worth it,” he says. But “you don’t want to risk being excluded from the one place where you’ve invested so much time and effort, the geographical focus of all your academic endeavors.”

It’s hard to measure the extent to which Middle East specialists face intimidation because many prefer not to draw attention to any difficulties they have. “When a scholar gets into trouble, he or she thinks: if I can cast it differently, if I do it in a different country etc,” says Brown.

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Mediocrity

Maysaloon

Posted: 11 Jul 2015 02:10 AM PDT

I can’t write. My thoughts are scattered as my attention jumps from one story to another. I read into people’s comments on social media to the n-th degree. I know – not even sure how – where they are coming from when they make a statement about some subject, and that’s when I start to wrestle with ghosts. Start is probably the wrong word. My paralysis is because I am trying to reach the start point, the firm ground from which I can begin pointing out where everything started to go wrong. I read praise for a long serving foreign minister who has just passed away. The only discernible legacy I can make out is that “he was there”. He didn’t do much, but he was around to see stuff happen. So we clap for him because we don’t know what politics is. The only thing we know is mediocrity, so we applaud it as an accomplishment.On the same note we have the Pied Piper of the Middle East claiming that “the road to Jerusalem” passes through the towns and cities of Syria. Where do I start with that? I’ve spent the last hour typing and then deleting pages of nonsense on how wrong, how inconsistent, and how hypocritical that man’s statements were. A liar celebrating a day which is a lie, for a cause which is dead, to a people who are merely animated husks. Why should that bother me? Who was I trying to reach? I can’t honestly say.

We don’t even realise that the Middle East is dead, that there existed before all this noise pollution a region that had a very different view of the world, of its place in it, and a hope for the future that the soldiers killed. We think we have inherited something, but in reality we are all squatters in the mansions of people long gone. We dress up with the clothes they left behind, dine in their halls, and pretend to understand the books in their libraries or the art on their walls, like children play-acting at being adults, but we don’t get it. We have no idea.

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OPINION: The Paris Killings – A Fatal Trap for Europe

In this column, Roberto Savio, founder and president emeritus of the Inter Press Service (IPS) news agency and publisher of Other News, argues that the wave of indignation aroused by last week’s terrorist attack on French magazine Charlie Hebdo runs the risk of playing into the hands of radical Muslims and unleashing a deadly worldwide confrontation.

ROME, Jan 12 2015 (IPS) – It is sad to see how a continent that was one cradle of civilisation is running blindly into a trap, the trap of a holy war with Islam – and that six Muslim terrorists were sufficient to bring that about.

It is time to get out of the comprehensible “We are All Charlie Hebdo” wave, to look into facts, and to understand that we are playing into the hands of a few extremists, and equating ourselves with them. The radicalisation of the conflict between the West and Islam is going to carry with it terrible consequences

Roberto Savio

The first fact is that Islam is the second largest religion in the world, with 1.6 billion practitioners, that Muslims are the majority in 49 countries of the world and that they account for 23 percent of humankind. Of these 1.6 billion, only 317 million are Arabs. Nearly two-thirds (62 percent) live in the Asia-Pacific region; in fact, more Muslims live in India and Pakistan (344 million combined). Indonesia alone has 209 million.

A Pew Research Center report on the Muslim world also inform us that it is in South Asia that Muslims are more radical in terms of observance and views. In that region, those in favour of severe corporal punishment for criminals are 81 percent, compared with 57 percent in the Middle East and North Africa, while those in favour of executing those who leave Islam are 76 percent in South Asia, compared with 56 percent in the Middle East.

Therefore, it is obvious that it is the history of the Middle East which brings the specificity of the Arabs to the conflict with the West. And here are the main four reasons.

“We are falling into a deadly trap, and doing exactly what the radical Muslims want: engaging in a holy war against Islam, so that the immense majority of moderate Muslims will be pushed to take up arms … instead of a strategy of isolation, we are engaging in a policy of confrontation”

First, all the Arab countries are artificial creations. In May 1916, Monsieur François Georges-Picot for France and Sir Mark Sykes for Britain met and agreed on a secret treaty, with the support of the Russian Empire and the Italian Kingdom, on how to carve up the Ottoman Empire at the end of the First World War.

Thus the Arab countries of today were born as the result of a division by France and Britain with no consideration for ethnic and religious realities or for history. A few of those countries, like Egypt, had an historical identity, but countries like Iraq, Arabia Saudi, Jordan, or even the Arab Emirates, lacked even that. It is worth remembering that the Kurdish issue of 30 million people divided among four countries was created by European powers.

As a consequence, the second reason. The colonial powers installed kings and sheiks in the countries that they created. To run these artificial countries, strong hands were required. So, from the very beginning, there was a total lack of participation of the people, with a political system which was totally out of sync with the process of democracy which was happening in Europe. With European blessing, these countries were frozen in feudal times.

As for the third reason, the European powers never made any investment in industrial development, or real development. The exploitation of petrol was in the hands of foreign companies and only after the end of the Second World War, and the ensuing process of decolonisation, did oil revenues really come into local hands.

When the colonial powers left, the Arab countries had no modern political system, no modern infrastructure, no local management.

Finally, the fourth reason, which is closer to our days. In states which did not provide education and health for their citizens, Muslim piety took on the task of providing what the state was not providing. So large networks of religious schools and hospital were created and, when elections were finally permitted, these became the basis for legitimacy and the vote for Muslim parties.

This is why, just taking the example of two important countries, Islamist parties won in Egypt and Algeria, and how with the acquiescence of the West, military coups were the only resort to stopping them.

This compression of so many decades into a few lines is of course superficial and leaves out many other issues. But this brutally abridged historical process is useful for understanding how anger and frustration is now all over the Middle East, and how this leads to the attraction to the Islamic State (IS) in poor sectors.

We should not forget that this historical background, even if remote for young people, is kept alive by Israel’s domination of the Palestinian people. The blind support of the West, especially of the United States, for Israel is seen by Arabs as a permanent humiliation, and Israel’s continuous expansion of settlements clearly eliminates the possibility of a viable Palestinian State.

The July-August bombing of Gaza, with just some noises of protest from the West but no real action, is for the Arab world clear proof that the intention is to keep Arabs down and seek alliances only with corrupt and delegitimised rulers who should be swept away. And the continuous Western intervention in Lebanon, Syria, Iraq, and the drones bombing everywhere, are widely perceived among the 1.6 billion that the West is historically engaged in keeping Islam down, as the Pew report noted.

We should also remember that Islam has several internal divisions, of which the Sunni-Shiite divide is just the largest. But while in the Arab region at least 40 percent of Sunni do not recognise a Shiite as a fellow Muslim, outside the region this tends to disappear, In Indonesia only 26 percent identify themselves as Sunni, with 56 percent identifying themselves as “just Muslim”.

In the Arab world, only in Iraq and Lebanon, where the two communities lived side by side, does a large majority of Sunni recognise Shiites as fellow Muslims. The fact that Shiites, who account for just 13 percent of Muslims, are the large majority in Iran, and the Sunni the large majority in Saudi Arabia explains the ongoing internal conflict in the region, which is being stirred by the two respective leaders.

Al-Qaeda in Mesopotamia, then run by Abu Musab al-Zarqawi (1966–2006), successfully deployed a policy of polarisation in Iraq, continuing attacks on Shiites and provoking an ethnic cleansing of one million Sunnis from Baghdad. Now IS, the radical caliphate which is challenging the entire Arab world besides the West, is able to attract many Sunnis from Iraq which had suffered so many Shiite reprisals, that they sought the umbrella of the very group that had deliberately provoked the Shiites.

The fact it is that every day hundreds of Arabs die because of the internal conflict, a fate that does not affect the much larger Muslim community.

Now, all terrorist attacks in the West that have happened in Ottawa, in London, and now in Paris, have the same profile: a young man from the country in question, not someone from the Arab region, who was not at all religious during his teenage years, someone who somehow drifted, did not find a job, and was a loner. In nearly all cases, someone who had already had something to do with the judicial system.

Only in the last few years had he become converted to Islam and accepted the calls from IS for killing infidels. He felt that with this he would find a justification to his life, he would become a martyr, a somebody in another world, removed from a life in which there was no real bright future.

The reaction to all this has been a campaign in the West again Islam. The latest number of the New Yorkerpublished a strong article defining Islam not as a religion but as an ideology. In Italy, Matteo Salvini, the leader of the right-wing and anti-immigrant Lega Nord has publicly condemned the Pope for engaging Islam in dialogue, and conservative Italian pundit Giuliano Ferrara declared on TV that ”we are in a Holy War”.

The overall European (and U.S.) reaction has been to denounce the Paris killings as the result of a “deadly ideology”, as President François Hollande called it.

It is certainly a sign of the anti-Muslim tide that German Chancellor Angela Merkel was obliged to take a position against the recent marches in Dresden (Muslim population 2 percent), organised by the populist movement Pegida (the German acronym for “Patriotic Europeans Against the Islamisation of the West”). The marches were basically directed against the 200,000 asylum seekers, most of them from Iraq and Syria, whose primary intention, according to Pegida, was not to escape war.

Studies from all over Europe show that the immense majority of immigrants have successfully integrated with their host economies. United Nations studies also show that Europe, with its demographic decline, requires at least 20 million immigrants by 2050 if it wants to remain viable in welfare practices, and competitive in the world. Yet, what are we getting everywhere?

Xenophobic, right-wing parties in every country of Europe, able to make the Swedish government resign, conditioning the governments of United Kingdom, Denmark and Nederland, and looking poised to win the next elections in France.

It should be added that, while what happened in Paris was of course a heinous crime, and while expression of any opinion is essential for democracy, very few have ever seen Charlie Hebdo and its level of provocation. Especially because in 2008, as Tariq Ramadan pointed out in The Guardian of Jan. 10, Charlie Hebdo fired a cartoonist who had joke about a Jewish link to the French President Nicolas Sarkozy’s son.

Charlie Hebdo was a voice defending the superiority of France and its cultural supremacy in the world, and had a small readership, which it obtained by selling provocation – exactly the opposite of the view of a world based on respect and cooperation among different cultures and religions.

So now we are all Charlie, as everybody is saying. But to radicalise the clash between the two largest religions of the world is not a minor affair. We should fight terrorism, be it Muslim or not (let us not forget that a Norwegian, Anders Behring Breivik, who wanted to keep his country free of Muslim penetration, killed 91 of his co-citizens).

But we are falling into a deadly trap, and doing exactly what the radical Muslims want: engaging in a holy war against Islam, so that the immense majority of moderate Muslims will be pushed to take up arms.

The fact that European right-wing parties will reap the benefit of this radicalisation goes down very well for the radical Muslims. They dream of a world fight, in which they will make Islam – and not just any Islam, but their interpretation of Sunnism – the sole religion. Instead of a strategy of isolation, we are engaging in a policy of confrontation.

And, apart from September 11 in New York, the losses of life have been miniscule compared with what is going on in the Arab world, where just in one country – Syria – 50,000 people lost their lives last year.

How can we so blindly fall into the trap without realising that we are creating a terrible clash all over the world? (END/IPS COLUMNIST SERVICE)

(Edited by Phil Harris)

The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily represent the views of, and should not be attributed to, IPS – Inter Press Service. 
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Some things are far scarier than a map

October 14, 2013 12:15 AM
By Rami G. Khouri
The Daily Star

An article and map in The New York Times’ Sunday edition two weeks ago examined the possibility that current upheavals may cause some Arab states to break up into smaller units. Written by the veteran foreign correspondent Robin Wright, the article created lively discussion among Middle East-focused circles in the United States, and in the Middle East   it sparked wild speculation that it evidenced a new plan by Western powers, Israelis and others of evil intent to further partition large Arab countries into many smaller, weaker ones. The title of the article, “How 5 Countries Could Become 14,” naturally fed such speculation, as did the immediate linkage in millions of Arab minds of how British and French colonial officials in 1916-1918 partitioned the former Ottoman lands of the Levant  into a series of new countries called Jordan, Syria, Lebanon, Iraq   and Israel, while their colonial handiwork had also created new entities that ultimately became independent countries such as Kuwait, Bahrain, the United Arab Emirates  and others.

Wright’s article explored the possibility that Libya  could fracture into three units, Iraq and Syria  into five units (of Druze, Kurds, Alawites, Sunnis  and Shiites), Saudi Arabia   into five units, and Yemen into two units. Syria might trigger such fragmentation across the region in stressed multisectarian societies. She did not advocate this, but only speculated whether sectarian stresses and conflicts might reconfigure countries that were not designed by the will of their own people.

Most critics of the article and map were horrified by the possibility that foreign powers may once again be at work redrawing the map of the Middle East, reaffirming two of the greatest lived traumas that have long plagued the Arab world: the ability and willingness of external powers to meddle deeply and structurally in our domestic condition, and the total inability of vulnerable, helpless Arab societies to do anything about this.

I understand the harsh reactions by Arabs who fear another possible redrawing of our map by foreign hands, but I fear that this is not really the bad news of the day; the really bad news is the state of existing Arab countries, and how most of them have done such a terrible job of managing the societies that they inherited after 1920.

The horror map is not the one published in the NYT two weeks ago; it is the existing map and condition of the Arab countries that have spent nearly a century developing themselves and have so little to show for it.

Not a single credible Arab democracy. Not a single Arab land where the consent of the governed actually matters. Not a single Arab society where individual men and women are allowed to use all their God-given human faculties of creativity, ingenuity, individuality, debate, free expression, autonomous analysis and full productivity. Not a single Arab society that can claim to have achieved a reasonably sustainable level of social and economic development, let alone anything approaching equitable development or social justice. Not a single Arab country that has protected and preserved its natural resources, especially arable land and renewable fresh water resources. Not a single Arab country that has allowed its massive, ruling military-security-intelligence sectors to come under any sort of civilian oversight. Not a single Arab country that has spent hundreds of billions of dollars on foreign arms and other imports and found itself able to ensure the security of its own land and people. And not a single Arab country that has developed an education system that harnesses and honors the immense wealth and power of millions of its own young Arab minds, rather than corralling those minds into intellectual sheep pens where the mind’s free choice is inoperative, and life only comprises following orders.

This perverse reality of Arab statehood and independence – not any possible future map – is the ugly reality that should anger us, even shame us. We have endured this for over four generations now, unsurprisingly bringing us to the point today where every single Arab country, without exception, experiences open revolt of its citizens for freedom, dignity and democracy of some sort, demands for real constitutional reforms, or expressions of grievances via social media by citizens in some wealthy oil-producing states who are afraid to speak out because they will go to jail for tweeting their most human sentiments or aspirations.

There is not much to be proud of in the modern era of Arab statehood, and much to fix and rebuild along more rational, humane lines. I don’t much care about lines on a map. I do care about the trajectories of our own national management experiences, which have been mostly disappointing, and in some cases profoundly derelict.

Rami G. Khouri  is published twice weekly by THE DAILY STAR. He can be followed on Twitter @RamiKhouri.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Daily Star on October 14, 2013, on page 7.

Rx for the Palestinians, and the region: managed conflict

 on August 25, 2013 48

You may have noticed that John Kerry’s peace process, by excluding Hamas among other measures, is aimed at managing the conflict. Not resolving the basic justice issues, because they seem too overwhelming, but putting the conflict on the back burner so it doesn’t boil up. Trying to sustain the unsustainable status quo by making it more sustainable.

In the New York Times, Edward N. Luttwak has the very same prescription for Syria. “In Syria, America loses if either side wins.” Luttwak wants endless bloodshed– “four of Washington’s enemies” tied down in neverending war. It seems like these include Israel’s enemies, Hezbollah and Iran.

His chief concern seems to be Syria’s troubles pouring into Israel:

At this point, a prolonged stalemate is the only outcome that would not be damaging to American interests.”

…Mr. Assad’s triumph would dramatically affirm the power and prestige of Shiite Iran and Hezbollah, its Lebanon-based proxy — posing a direct threat both to the Sunni Arab states and to Israel….

Israel could not expect tranquillity on its northern border if the jihadis were to triumph in Syria…

By tying down Mr. Assad’s army and its Iranian and Hezbollah allies in a war against Al Qaeda-aligned extremist fighters, four of Washington’s enemies will be engaged in war among themselves and prevented from attacking Americans or America’s allies.

That this is now the best option is unfortunate, indeed tragic, but favoring it is not a cruel imposition on the people of Syria, because a great majority of them are facing exactly the same predicament.

This reminds me of the vision laid out to me when I first visited Israel: They don’t want us here so there must be one war after another after another till they accept us. It in turn reminds me that many years ago the “Arabists” in the State Department warned the White House that Israel could only be established by force, and preserved by force.

That is how things have worked out. Now that force seems to include Managed Conflict in Syria, Egypt, Lebanon too.

Speaking of a lack of vision, here is Luttwak on Gaza back in early 2009, during Cast Lead. “Yes, Israel can win in Gaza.” More justification of conflict management, forever. And treating a slaughter as a victory.

Consider: According to Gaza sources, until the ground fighting started some 25% of the 500 dead were innocent civilians. The Israelis claimed that 20% of the casualties from the aerial attack were civilians. Either way, this was an extremely accurate bombing campaign….

So how did Israel do it? The only possible explanation is that people in Gaza have been informing the Israelis exactly where Hamas fighters and leaders are hiding, and where weapons are stored. No doubt some informers are merely corrupt, paid agents earning a living. But others must choose to provide intelligence because they oppose Hamas… Hamas completely disregards the day-to-day welfare of all Gazans in order to pursue its millenarian vision of an Islamic Palestine.

Some in Gaza must also resent Iran’s role in instigating the barrage of rockets fired on Israel. And all must know that the longer-range rockets are supplied by Iran along with money for Hamas leaders, while ordinary Palestinians languish in poverty….

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Exclusive: UK’s secret Mid-East internet surveillance base is revealed in Edward Snowden leaks

 Britain runs a secret internet-monitoring station in the Middle East to intercept and process vast quantities of emails, telephone calls and web traffic on behalf of Western intelligence agencies, The Independent has learnt.

The station is able to tap into and extract data from the underwater fibre-optic cables passing through the region.

The information is then processed for intelligence and passed to GCHQ in Cheltenham and shared with the National Security Agency (NSA) in the United States. The Government claims the station is a key element in the West’s “war on terror” and provides a vital “early warning” system for potential attacks around the world.

The Independent is not revealing the precise location of the station but information on its activities was contained in the leaked documents obtained from the NSA by Edward Snowden. The Guardian newspaper’s reporting on these documents in recent months has sparked a dispute with the Government, with GCHQ security experts overseeing the destruction of hard drives containing the data.

The Middle East installation is regarded as particularly valuable by the British and Americans because it can access submarine cables passing through the region. All of the messages and data passed back and forth on the cables is copied into giant computer storage “buffers” and then sifted for data of special interest.

Information about the project was contained in 50,000 GCHQ documents that Mr Snowden downloaded during 2012. Many of them came from an internal Wikipedia-style information site called GC-Wiki. Unlike the public Wikipedia, GCHQ’s wiki was generally classified Top Secret  or above.

The disclosure comes as the Metropolitan Police announced it was launching a terrorism investigation into material found on the computer of David Miranda, the Brazilian partner of The Guardian journalist Glenn Greenwald – who is at the centre of the Snowden controversy.

Edward Snowden (AFP/Getty) Edward Snowden (AFP/Getty)

Scotland Yard said material examined so far from the computer of Mr Miranda was “highly sensitive”, the disclosure of which “could put lives at risk”.

The Independent understands that The Guardian agreed to the Government’s request not to publish any material contained in the Snowden documents that could damage national security.

As well as destroying a computer containing one copy of the Snowden files, the paper’s editor, Alan Rusbridger, agreed to restrict the newspaper’s reporting of the documents.

The Government also demanded that the paper not publish details of how UK telecoms firms, including BT and Vodafone, were secretly collaborating with GCHQ to intercept the vast majority of all internet traffic entering the country. The paper had details of the highly controversial and secret programme for over a month. But it only published information on the scheme – which involved paying the companies to tap into fibre-optic cables entering Britain – after the allegations appeared in the German newspaper Süddeutsche Zeitung. A Guardian spokeswoman refused to comment on any deal with the Government.

A senior Whitehall source said: “We agreed with The Guardian that our  discussions with them would remain confidential”.

But there are fears in Government that Mr Greenwald – who still has access to the files – could attempt to release damaging information.

He said after the arrest of Mr Miranda: “I will be far more aggressive in my reporting from now. I am going to publish many more documents. I have many more documents on England’s spy system. I think  they will be sorry for what they did.”

David Miranda, left, with Glenn Greenwald (AP) David Miranda, left, with Glenn Greenwald (AP)

One of the areas of concern in Whitehall is that details of the Middle East spying base which could identify its location could enter the public domain.

The data-gathering operation is part of a £1bn internet project still being assembled by GCHQ. It is part of the surveillance and monitoring system, code-named “Tempora”, whose wider aim is the global interception of digital communications, such as emails and text messages.

Across three sites, communications – including telephone calls – are tracked both by satellite dishes and by tapping into underwater fibre-optic cables.

Access to Middle East traffic has become critical to both US and UK intelligence agencies post-9/11. The Maryland headquarters of the NSA and the Defence Department in Washington have pushed for greater co-operation and technology sharing between US and UK intelligence agencies.

The Middle East station was set up under a warrant signed by the then Foreign Secretary David Miliband, authorising GCHQ to monitor and store for analysis data passing through the network of fibre-optic cables that link up the internet around the world

The certificate authorised GCHQ to collect information about the “political intentions of foreign powers”, terrorism, proliferation, mercenaries and private military companies, and serious financial fraud.

However, the certificates are reissued every six months and can be changed by ministers at will. GCHQ officials are then free to target anyone who is overseas or communicating from overseas without further checks or controls if they think they fall within the terms of a current certificate.

The precise budget for this expensive covert technology is regarded as sensitive by the Ministry of Defence and the Foreign Office.

However, the scale of Middle East operation, and GCHQ’s increasing use of sub-sea technology to intercept communications along high-capacity cables, suggest a substantial investment.

Intelligence sources have denied the aim is a blanket gathering of all communications, insisting the operation is targeted at security, terror and organised crime.

Arab atheists inch out of shadows despite persecution in Mideast

Kamran Jebreili/The Associated Press
When 23-eyar-old Rafat Awad of the United Arab Emirates told his devout Muslim parents that he was an atheist, they brought home clerics to try to bring him back to the faith.

The Associated Press

Published: 03 August 2013 07:17 PM

Updated: 03 August 2013 07:17 PM

Rafat Awad fervently preached Islam at his university, encouraging his fellow students to read the Quran and pray. But throughout, the young Palestinian-born pharmacist had gnawing doubts. The more he tried to resolve them, the more they grew.

Finally he told his parents, both devout Muslims, that he was an atheist. They brought home clerics to talk with him, trying in vain to bring him back to the faith. Finally, they gave up.

“It was the domino effect — you hit the first pin and it keeps on going and going,” Said Awad, 23, who grew up in the United Arab Emirates and lives there. “I thought: It doesn’t make sense anymore. I became a new person then.”

Being openly atheist is an extreme rarity in the Arab world, where the Muslim majority is on the whole deeply conservative. It’s socially tolerated to not be actively religious, to decide not to pray or carry out other acts of faith, or to have secular attitudes. But to outright declare oneself an atheist can lead to ostracism by family and friends, and if too public can draw retaliation from Islamist hard-liners or even authorities.

Still, this tiny minority has taken small steps out of the shadows. Groups on social media networks began to emerge in the mid-2000s. Now, the Arab Spring that began in early 2011 has given a further push: The heady atmosphere of “revolution” with its ideas of greater freedoms of speech and questioning of long-held taboos has encouraged this opening.

One 40-year-old Egyptian engineer, born a Muslim, told The Associated Press he had long been an atheist but kept it a deep secret. The 2011 uprising in Egypt and its calls for radical change encouraged him to look online for others like himself.

“Before the revolution, I was living a life in total solitude. I didn’t know anybody who believed like me,” he said. “Now we have more courage than we used to have.”

His case illustrates the limits on how far an atheist can go. Like most others interviewed by The Associated Press, he spoke on condition of anonymity for fear of reprisals, harassment or troubles with his family. His “going public” is strictly online.

Even the Internet is not entirely safe. In most Arab countries, being an atheist is not in itself illegal, but there are often laws against “insulting religion.”

Last year, Egyptian Alber Saber, a Christian who identifies as an atheist, was arrested after neighbors complained he had posted an anti-Islam film on his Facebook page. Though he denied it, he was sentenced to three years in prison for blasphemy and contempt of religion. Released on bail during appeal in December, he moved to France.

Similarly, a Palestinian atheist, Waleed al-Husseini, was arrested in 2010 in the West Bank town of Qalqilya for allegedly mocking Islam on the Internet. He was held without charge for several months, and after his release also fled to France.

Still, the online space is flourishing. There are some 60 Arabic-language atheist Facebook groups — all but five of them formed since the Arab Spring. They range from “Atheists of Yemen” with only 25 followers, to “Sudanese Atheists” with 10,344 followers.

There are pages that appear dormant, but most maintain some activity. An “Arab Atheist Broadcasting” outfit produces pro-atheism YouTube clips. There are closed groups, like an atheist dating club in Egypt.

Some draw strong negative comment. One responder, calling himself Sam, maintained that “attacking Islam has become the cheapest flight ticket to Europe,” a reference to those who have fled their Muslim homelands. Writing on the website Elaph, Sam referred to Westerners who convert to Islam, saying “We Muslims take the best of them and they take the garbage from us.”

It is impossible to know the number of atheists in the Arab world, given their secrecy. It is not clear whether the increasing online activity reflects that numbers have risen or simply that more are emerging from isolation. Over a dozen interviews with atheists suggest both. In any case, atheists remain a tiny minority. The Arab Spring uprisings fueled the debate in the region over the role of religion in society and politics, but even secular activists are quick to distinguish themselves from atheists.

Disillusion with the post-revolution rise of Islamists, who demand strict implementation of religious rules, has also prompted some to reassess their beliefs.

Watching the changes pushed Fadwa, an 18-year-old Tunisian woman, from detached agnostic to atheist.

“Before the revolution, people didn’t see Islam as the problem, but after the revolution, they saw what political Islam was — and what Islam is,” she said.

She says she is now involved in online groups and talks to her friends at university about being an atheist. Because of her beliefs, rumors have been spread around campus that she’s promiscuous, she said. But she worries worse could happen, such as being targeted as an apostate — one who has renounced Islam.

Some Muslim theologians say that’s a capital offense, but no one is known to have died in recent times for being an atheist. Other sages say atheists should only be punished if they proselytize. Others yet say ex-Muslim atheists should be tolerated, citing the Quranic verse, “There is no compulsion in religion.”

Most scholars “differentiate between somebody who has an opinion, and others who disturb the peace of society” by spreading their views, said Jerusalem-based Muslim theologian Mustafa Abu Sway.

Even harder is the social cost. Declaring oneself an atheist can mean breaking from family and friends and networks that determine a Muslim’s entire social life.

The online venues give those questioning their faith a space to go through what can be a traumatic process. Many describe years of depression and isolation. The atheists interviewed by AP said online access to like-minded people gave them courage. All said they were surprised to discover other ex-Muslims out there. They also said reading articles online by prominent Western atheists like Britain’s Richard Dawkins pushed them along the path.

Theologian Abu Sway said he sees no possibility atheism will spread among Muslim communities. What’s happening today is “a phase rather than a serious position,” he said. “It could be an expression of dissatisfaction with traditional institutions. We don’t have the Richard Dawkins type. We don’t have our own serious contender. It’s not something systematic.”

Mohammed, a 26-year-old Egyptian, says his family still has no idea he considers himself an atheist, even though he has participated in some of the earliest Arab atheist forums online.

“There are people who say we should be brave and speak out. That’s just talk,” said Mohammed. “I could fight to say what I think, but I won’t be able to stay with my family.”

He said he was devout as a teenager but grew confused over questions about whether God allows free will — a debated topic in Islamic theology. That, along with science studies, unraveled his faith, he said.

“I couldn’t control my thoughts anymore. I began to be divided into two: between my brain and my faith,” he said.

The Mideast was once a more tolerant place for questioning religion. In the 1960s and 1970s, secular leftists were politically dominant. It wasn’t shocking to express agnosticism. There were even a few vocal atheists, including Abdullah al-Qusseimi, a Saudi writer who died in the 1990s and is revered by Arabs who quit Islam.

But the region grew more conservative starting in the 1980s, Islamists became more influential, and militants lashed out against any sign of apostasy.

Perhaps the pendulum is swinging back, said al-Husseini, the Palestinian atheist now in France.

“I think many people were afraid, but now they see there’s people like them. They find courage,” he said. “They exist on the internet — they might have fake names, but they are there.”

source

The Revolution is NOT Dead: Antoine Gregoire at TEDxYouth@Hamra

[youtube http://youtu.be/o4B2DmWGwNg?]

          Publiée le 16 sept. 2012 par

Journalist for iloubnan.info on internet issues, Antoine Gregoire has a master in History, a master in War Studies and in his spare time he’s a reggae DJ and revolution writer and freedom researcher.

Anthony Shadid

Anthony Shadid (1968-2012): Pulitzer-Winning NY Times Middle East Correspondent Dies in Syria. Click on image for Democracy Now report

See also this article on a book by Anthony Shadid to be published shortly

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