Tuesday, October 10, 2006

hijab/ niqab/ blab

My position on the hijab, or head covering, for what it’s worth, is that it is unnecessary. Surat Nur of the Quran, verse 31, says: “…tell the believing women….not to display their charms (in public) beyond what may (decently) be apparent thereof; hence, let them draw their headcoverings over their bosoms.” Given that the Arab women and men of the prophet’s time all wore a head covering (as men in the Gulf still do – it’s an obvious clothing choice for desert dwellers), but the women often left their breasts bare, it seems obvious here that the injunction is not to cover hair, which was covered anyway by prevailing social custom, but to cover breasts. The more general directive is for both men (who are addressed in the previous verse) and women to dress modestly according to the standards of their time and place.

Many Muslims would point to the ahadith, the records of the prophet’s words and actions, instead of to the Quran for guidance on this point. The problem with the ahadith is that they are sometimes contradictory. Sunni and Shia Muslims claim different ahadith collections as authoritative. Although an elaborate medieval science was developed to establish the reliability of ahadith, its methods do not meet the rigorous standards of modern textual criticism, and we cannot be nearly as certain of the origin of ahadith as we can of the Quran. In any case, I’m the kind of Muslim who thinks we can appreciate the spiritual and social treasures of Islam without imitating the social habits of the first Muslims. The prophet never claimed to be anything more than a man. He and his companions were the products of a particular cultural context. When we learn from their example, we need to do so with our historical senses switched on, looking for general principles which we can apply to our own context rather than for abstract and timeless rules.

So the hijab is primarily a cultural issue. There are always ‘decency-boundary’ differences between and within cultures (for instance, it’s acceptable for women to go topless in a Paris park on a warm summer’s day, but not in Britain), and these are differences that a tolerant society should accommodate. It’s certainly not the business of the state to worry about what a woman wears, and in this respect I think the governments of Saudi Arabia and Iran (which insist on hijab for women) and the governments of France, Tunisia and Turkey (which forbid the hijab in schools or government offices) are equally wrong.

I still have my personal dislike of the hijab, however. What I dislike about it is the way it seems to symbolise the weight of honour and tradition, and this falling on the woman’s head, not the man’s. I remember seeing a couple in Pakistan, the wife in full chador stepping a few paces behind her husband, who wore baggy jeans, T-shirt, and back-to-front baseball cap. Dress differences point to double standards for the sexes in a range of situations. According to Islam, casual sex is equally wrong for both sexes, yet a blind eye is often turned to the sexual activity of promiscuous males, if they are not actively encouraged and admired, but a woman behaving in the same way will immediately be written off as a whore, a disgrace to herself and her family. And once you start focussing on pieces of cloth instead of on moral principles, where do you stop? I knew a Syrian doctor in Saudi Arabia whose wife actually wore a niqab to cover her face and a full length black abaya. She and her husband were walking one afternoon in a conservative town south of Riyadh when a mutawa (religious policeman) approached her with his stick raised, ready to strike. The husband stopped him, and asked what he thought he was doing. The mutawa explained that he wished to discipline this loose whore for wearing her abaya on her shoulders, showing her shape, rather than hanging it tentlike from her head. Which begs the question, was the niqab-clad Syrian betraying Islam while the mutawa, about to beat a strange woman in the street, was upholding the faith?

Some of the same Muslim men who expect their sisters to wear hijab think nothing of sexually harrassing women on the street. The principle behind the hijab has been jetisoned, but the piece of cloth remains. The sad fact is, despite all the Muslim talk about Western decadence, there is more harrassment of women on the streets of Arab cities than on the streets of London. (We have to admit here that Hindus and Mediterranean Christians can be as bad. Again, it’s a question of culture, not religion).

But having expressed my personal feelings, I must now dispel some non-Muslim stereotypes of the hijab, starting with the idea that all muhajiba women are oppressed, voiceless souls who are forced to wear the hijab. I’m sure there must be women who are ordered to wear the hijab, and many more who are not aware of the possibility of not wearing it - in the same way that English women wouldn’t consider going to work in only their underwear. But the usual situation in many countries is that individuals have made a (sometimes brave) personal decision to wear the hijab. My sisters, for instance, outraged my upwardly mobile father when they decided to put it on. My father had spent his life becoming bourgeois and couldn’t understand why his daughters would want to make themselves look ‘common.’ I admit to being disturbed when my wife, four years into our marriage, decided to wear hijab. And nothing infuriates me more than English people asking how I’d feel if my wife took it off, as if I’m the tyrant who told her to put it on in the first place.

The argument has been made that the revival of hijab has empowered a class of women to work who in previous generations would not have left their houses. At the same time, it has become less urgent for the bourgeoisie of an Arab world still riddled by class sentiment to show their distance from their poorer sisters.

In a world of globalised identities the return to hijab is predominantly political. It declares the wearer is Muslim and proud of it. When people have recently lost their organic connection to their village or neighbourhood, when hostile and artificial states ineptly claim their loyalty instead, and when they see Muslims being attacked whenever they switch on the TV, the declaration becomes more urgent.

As for the niqab, or face covering, it gives me the creeps. And if it gives me the creeps, it must absolutely terrify a lot of white Britons. In this respect, I agree with Jack Straw: the niqab keeps communities separated. It is both a symbol of alienation and an alienating device. It definitely alienates me. But then, I feel alienated from just about everyone for the first days of a visit to Britain, because nobody will establish eye contact. White men with military haircuts and tatoos give me the creeps. And don’t get me started on the types of people who I just don’t like the look of.

Outside the Gulf and Afghanistan, niqab-wearers are a tiny minority of Muslims. Yet some young British Muslims whose mothers wore a loose dupatta are taking to the niqab. I think this phenomenon is similar to that of Blacks who should know better following Louis Farrakhan or the five percenters, not because they really believe that the white man is the devil, but because they’ve found a sexy way to assert themselves and to reject the establishment. White youths used to stick safety pins through their noses back in the days when it was still possible to shock with body decoration.

While Jack Straw of course has the right to express his dislike of the niqab, I must say the timing looks suspicious. Britain is deeply implicated in a series of wars against Muslim countries: Palestine, Lebanon, Afghanistan, and Iraq, wars fought not for freedom and democracy but for capital and imperial control. In order to justify this latest bout of Western violence it has been necessary to exploit the September 11th attacks, to convince Western people that Muslims didn’t attack America because of American bases in the Gulf, or support for Israel, but because Muslims hate ‘our values’ and ‘our freedom.’

The first wave of anti-Semitism and Islamophobia developed in concert with the European land grab in the Middle East known as the Crusades. The traditional European anti-black racisms were constructed as a necessary accompaniment to the rise of European Empires in Africa and Asia. When Hitler’s plan to colonise Europe itself was defeated, racism was given a bad name for half a century. But now, Islamophobia is day by day becoming more accepted throughout Europe. It looks legitimate because Islamophobes have convinced themselves they’re battling for liberal values. The Nazis also thought they were fighting to keep Europe’s soul pure of Gypsy and Jewish contamination.

The attacks on Muslims come every single day. From Foreign Secretary Straw who helped destroy Iraq, from ‘liberal’ novelists, from the Pope, from Italian journalists, from Danish cartoonists and Dutch populists, from French philosophers and American tele-evangelists. Some criticisms are reasoned and seek dialogue, many others demonise, generalise, simplify, reduce. Most attackers are blind to the shortcomings and crimes of Christian or secular Western society, even as it drenches the Muslims in Depleted Uranium. An increasing number of Islamophobes have the wild glint of certainty in their eyes. Suggest that the Zionist lobby has undue influence on American foreign policy and you are ostracised. Blab about the Muslim invasion of Europe and you are taken increasingly seriously. I, for one, am very scared. The creeps I get from the niqab are nothing in comparison.

A couple of good articles on the niqab furore:



Sunday, October 01, 2006

Syrian Opposition

The Arabs of the Levant and Iraq love talking politics. This is one of the more rewarding things about spending time with them. In Syria, for instance, instead of enduring conversations about cars, house prices or football, you can immerse yourself in big issues: God and death, revolution and gender, secularism and resistance.

But because normal political life in Syria – organising parties, holding meetings and rallies, writing articles critical of the government – is criminalised, most people have no defined political affiliation. And it is of course impossible to accurately research political opinion, so any pronouncements on the views of Syrians are inevitably based on anecdotal evidence.

With that reservation, here are some pronouncements on the political views of Syrians. I base them on conversations with my Syrian relatives, my wife’s family, and many friends and colleagues from three years residence in the country and several long visits.

Syrians don’t enjoy living in a police state. This is perhaps the single most unpleasant factor in daily life in Syria, and it has poisoned society. People don’t trust each other. It’s well known that taxi drivers and the keepers of the shops that open early and close late are often mukhabarat. But who else? The neighbour? The man at the next desk in the office? The fear of listening ears is the reason why Syrians often talk government propaganda when their children are in the room. Things are not as bad as they were in the 80s, when mukhabarat would go into schools to ask children what their parents thought of the president, but things are still very bad.

Syrians are sick of the economic situation. Very many Syrians work long hours six days a week for less than $200 a month. Very many Syrians juggle two or three jobs in order to make ends meet. They can’t afford to marry until they’re in their thirties, they live in cramped accommodation, and they don’t even dream of such luxuries as a foreign holiday. This situation is partly caused by population explosion and the country’s location in a war zone, but is made much worse by official corruption, bureaucracy and economic mismanagement.

Syrians are nationalists, anti-Zionists and anti-imperialists. They feel strongly about Israeli occupation of the Golan and Palestine, and about the American dismantling of Iraq. They support resistance in these places, as well as often idolising Hizbullah’s resistance in Lebanon. The Syrian regime has used nationalist stands to bolster its position with the people and to justify its endless ‘state of emergency.’ Syrian nationalist feeling, however, predates the Baath and will survive it. Syrians are seldom fooled by the regime using ‘the struggle’ as a propaganda tool. They feel that the country would be better able to realise its nationalist aims if it were more democratic, if the people had more rights.

Syrians are worried by sectarianism, despite often being sectarians themselves. This is something that helps keep the government in power, especially after the bad example of Iraq: if the regime fell and left chaos in its absence, there could be a sectarian war. Of course most Syrians wouldn’t want one (just as most Iraqis profess no hostility to members of other sects), but they fear that a minority could get one started. Sadly, just under the polite surface, many Syrian Sunnis blame the ‘backward’ Alawis for the brutality of the regime, and Alawis, Druze and Ismailis fear being branded heretics by the Sunni majority, and Christians see Muslims as uncivilised, and so on. That’s not the whole story, but sectarianism in Syria is deeply rooted, and dates back at least to the last half century of the Ottoman Empire.

That’s the people. But who is the opposition in terms of organised groups?

The most important opposition to the Baath has traditionally been the Muslim Brotherhood, based in urban Sunni communities. In the late 70s and early 80s the Brothers decided that dictatorship could only be toppled by violence, and they launched a campaign of bomb attacks and assassinations against regime targets. Sometimes they attacked Alawis who were not connected to the regime, for purely sectarian reasons. The regime responded with a reign of terror. There were mass arrests and disappearances. Then, in 1982, the Brothers took control of the city of Hama, where they executed Alawis and Baathists. There was no easy solution to the situation. Secularists and religious minorities were terrified of a countrywide Brotherhood victory. In any case, the Brothers couldn’t win a clear victory. Even if they’d been able to take the big cities, they wouldn’t have been able to take the army. Negotiations and concessions were needed. But both sides saw it as a life or death struggle, and death is what they got. The president’s brother Rifaat led planes, tanks and footsoldiers against Hama. Tens of thousands were killed, and the historical heart of the city destroyed. Chemical weapons were probably used. Details are sketchy because journalists were unable to enter the city. A real Falluja situation.

The Brotherhood was routed in Syria. Those brothers who were not killed or imprisoned left for Europe, Jordan or the Gulf. Its leadership in London has recently made common cause with ex-Vice President Khaddam after his break with the regime. This was not a popular move in Syria, and the Brotherhood now has questionable levels of support, although its right wing traditionalist ideology remains widespread.

A younger and more extreme brand of Islamism, Salafi nihilism represents a tiny minority of Syrians, but one which seems to be growing. Their belief that not only Alawis and secularists but also mainstream Sunnis are kuffar, and that democracy is a kaffir system, will make it impossible for them to participate in Syrian politics in the future. They could, however, given the right chaotic circumstances (see Iraq), cause a lot of trouble.

There are Kurdish groups, some of which campaign for greater cultural and political freedoms for Syria’s Kurds (tens of thousands of whom do not hold full citizenship), and some of which would like to achieve autonomy or even independence.

There are still some independent Marxists (as opposed to those who’ve been co-opted by the government’s Progressive National Front), and disgruntled anti-regime Baathists.

There are independent liberals like (former) parliamentarians Riyadh Saif and Mamoun Homsi who face harassment and imprisonment for combating corruption and speaking out against human rights abuses. Such figures address issues which concern all Syrians, and their discourse excludes nobody.

Then there are West-based people. Some, like Farid Ghadry, have no support in Syria and are creations of foreign lobbies. Much more credible are people like Ammar Abdul Hamid, who campaigns for a liberal democratic future and the rights of minorities. In my view, Ammar’s ‘camp’ tends at times to be idealistically pro-American and fails to recognise that a more democratic Syria will support armed resistance to America and Israel more, not less.

Whether I agree with all these people or not, I’m sure that a happier future requires that they be allowed to freely express their views in Syria. The government may have a point when it says that sectarian groups threaten social peace and the stability of the country, but if or when, and how, to silence these groups are issues that the whole of society needs to debate openly. On Syrian TV, when the word ‘church’ is mentioned in a foreign film, the subtitles translate it not as ‘church’ but ‘place of worship.’ The same patronising censorship is applied to all issues of sect and politics inside the country, and it doesn’t work. Not allowing people to talk about sect just allows the venom to build up. As for liberal democrats like the currently imprisoned Kamal Labwani and Michel Kilo, people who’ve never attacked anyone for ethnic or religious reasons, the ‘undermining social stability’ argument is a sorry excuse for suppressing legitimate peaceful dissent.

Fares at Freesyria is running a campaign on behalf of some of the prisoners. http://freesyria.wordpress.com/freedom-campaign/

More information about the political situation inside Syria can be found on Joshua Landis’s Syriacomment: