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Egypt, Israel and Omelas

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There is a short story, The Ones Who Walk Away From Omelas, by American science fiction author Ursula K. Le Guin that tells a faintly familiar tale.

Omelas is a Utopia. A warm, prosperous city of festivals, ringing with the sound of music and the laughter of children. The citizens are joyous. Negative emotions like guilt do not exist.

But Omelas harbours a dark secret, one on which its entire existence is predicated; the music, laughter, art and architecture all depend on one abominable thing. That a child, feeble-minded and with a body of festering sores, be kept locked up in a dark basement forever. To release the child, in fact to even speak one kind word would immediately destroy the city and it would never be able to rebuild.

The inhabitants know about the child. Upon being informed of its existence, many demand to see it whilst others, “are content just to know it’s there.” But they all accept that in order for them to thrive, the child must suffer.

I was recently introduced to this story by a journalist and blogger, Yuval Ben-Ami, who seeing in Omelas his own home of Israel, writes:

“Even as a teenager I knew that there were people whose lives were controlled by my nation’s army, and who didn’t even get running water in their houses. I knew that there were people imprisoned for years without fair trials. I knew…Israel was an Omelas, prosperous and happy while keeping children in a basement.”

But now, the revolution underway in Egypt has revealed an even greater extent of suffering. The intensity of the uprising has taken everyone by surprise, not least the Egyptians who protested with the exhilaration of those who have finally found their voice after years of being gagged, and whose exhilaration has just turned to dismay as pro-Mubarak supporters strike back.

The world watches on, not entirely sure what to make of it. Early reports out of the United States spoke of ‘chaos’ and ‘disorder,’ prompting New York based Egyptian columnist Mona Eltahawy to implore the media stop referring to it as such and call it what it is instead: an uprising, a revolt, an revolution. “Egyptians want to fix Egypt, they don’t want to destroy Egypt,” she told CNN.

Whilst some developments have been decidedly ugly, it was clearly a peaceful uprising until pro-Mubarak supporters struck back, opening fire and beating pro-democracy demonstrators. This has prompted calls from US President Barack Obama and British PM David Cameron for a peaceful and immediate transition.

However, this wasn’t the west’s initial reaction. US vice-President Biden, who stressed Mubarak’s status as a US ally as well as his “normalizing relationship…with Israel” declared that he would “not refer to (Mubarak) as a dictator,” best sums up America’s first response.

Clearly, the media, as they so often do, took their cues from the official, government perspective. So why was the west, and America, in particular so afraid of this revolution? So unwillingly to accept that after decades of despotic regimes the ‘Arab Street’ had finally had enough?

Could it be that, like the fictional city of Omelas, the status of Israel, as ‘the only democracy in the Middle East’ depends upon the misery and suffering of Arabs?

In the early days of the protests, Israeli newspaper Haaretz reported that the Israeli government had sent messages to its allies, including the United States, to support Mubarak. To prioritise stability over the possibility of an Egyptian democracy.

For decades America, has been propping up the authoritarian regimes of the Middle East, whilst simultaneously portraying itself as a champion for worldwide democracy. Israel was deemed worthy of support, its survival imperative because it was a democracy. But what we weren’t told was that in order for Israelis to enjoy their democracy, millions of Arabs must be denied theirs.

Incredibly, Arabs have been blamed for the lack of democracy that was forced on them. For years, given a false choice of secular authoritarianism or religious fundamentalism, the world had come to believe that Arabs and democracy just don’t mix, because of course, “they hate us for our freedom.”

But this revolution has given us insight into the breathtaking hypocrisy that has underlined America’s relationship with the Middle East. As Ben-Ami writes, “Is this Jewish state such a fragile fantasy, that an entire region of the world must be kept imprisoned in order for it to thrive?”

Since the uprising began on Jan 25, Al Jazeera has reported a 2000 percent increase in hits to its English language website. Most tellingly, 60 percent of these hits are coming from the United States. Americans, disheartened by the coverage of their own media, and concerned by their government’s military and financial support for a dictator who denied his citizens the very rights Americans claim to be exporting to the world, are turning to the Middle East itself for answers.

In Omelas, not everyone was willing to accept the suffering of the child. They were “the ones who walk away.” No one knew where they were going, but once they knew the truth, they could no longer live in Omelas.

We don’t know what lies ahead for Egypt. But now that we all know the truth, its not enough for some of us to merely walk away.

It’s time to let the child out of the basement.

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Written by Ruby

February 8, 2011 at 2:38 am

My Crikey piece in full

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As I mentioned yesterday, here is my Crikey piece in full. Published Tuesday Feb 1, 2011:

Muslims don’t fit into a simple left v right debate.

In an attempt to undermine Labor’s traditional stronghold with immigrant communities, Fairfax columnist Paul Sheehan has cynically taken up the cause of Middle Eastern Christians and their persecution by a portion of the Muslim majority.

Sheehan begins by waxing poetic about a rally held in Martin Place last Wednesday, recalling a, “medieval…forest of crucifixes sprouted among a sea of earnest faces that would look comfortable on ancient coins.” The rally, “drawn from a broader Middle Eastern Christian Diaspora,” was protesting the current wave of terrorist attacks targeting Christians in the Middle East.

Less a meaningful comment on the attacks or the rally itself, and more the opportunity to take pot shots at “the Left” (including “the broadcast arm of the Greens, the ABC”), Sheehan boasts of the three Liberal MPs who spoke whilst scorning Labor’s single attendee Greg Donnelly, who was representing Premier Kristina Keneally.

Referring to Labor as, “the party of appeasement of Muslim belligerence,” Sheehan chastises the PM for not preparing a statement, and calls the absence of a Greens representative “predictable.”

Accusing both the Gillard government and the Greens of siding “with Muslims” against Christians, Sheehan gleefully concludes, “support for Labor is showing signs of disintegrating among Australians who take discrimination against Christians seriously.”

Whilst making much of the recent attacks against Egypt’s Copts, Sheehan fails to mention that after the New Year’s Day attack in Alexandria which killed 23 people; thousands of Muslims marched with their Christian compatriots against the radical threat. Many even formed human shields outside churches to allow worshipers to celebrate the Coptic Christmas without the fear of attack.

Sheehan is correct in denouncing violence against Christians. But his failure to acknowledge the support that some Muslims are providing the Middle East’s beleaguered Christians is dishonest in the extreme. Apparently the fact that many Muslims also “take discrimination against Christians seriously,” is not worthy of mention for Sheehan. Ironic in an article whose reason d’ etre is to criticise the omissions and absences of others.

His purposefully inflammatory statements signify so much of what is wrong in the current debate about Islam. Namely that, lacking the nuances of Christianity, Islam is a monolithic entity that is fundamentally incompatible with western values. Proving however, the old adage that a broken clock is right twice a day, there is a grain of truth in Sheehan’s statements.

The accusation that all Muslims are anti-Western and anti-Christian is as offensive as it untrue, and as it almost always emanates from the right of politics many of those on the left seek to counteract the claims by shouting them down. However, by doing so they are also unwittingly contributing to the problem.

There is no doubt that much of the attacks on modern Islam are simple bigotry. However, by dismissing all criticism as such, many leftists are actually engaging in what they purport to be against: dogmatism that doesn’t tolerate an opposing point of view.

The furore over Park 51, the so-called “Ground Zero Mosque,” is one example. With many denouncing it as an Islamist monument to victory on “conquered lands,” the squabbling between left and right became so loud, it drowned out the voices of Muslims themselves.

What could, and should, have been a legitimate debate about freedom of religion and cultural sensitivity, descended into a political melee, prompting Abdul Rahman Al-Rashid, general manager of Al-Arabiya Television to complain, “(T)he mosque is not an issue for Muslims, and they have not heard of it until the shouting became loud between the supporters and the objectors, which is mostly an argument between non-Muslim US citizens!”

By reflexively denouncing everything from opposition to Park 51 to questioning the place of the burqa in modern society, western leftists are also treating Islam as a monolith and denying Muslims the opportunity to debate these issues themselves.

But when Sheehan simplifies a complex problem by saying, “the left sides with Muslims,” he simultaneously demonises all Muslims and undermines efforts by liberal Muslims to counter the extremism that threatens to engulf them.

His comments also diminish the efforts of those Tunisians who have forced a dictator from his lofty perch. Their revolution has ignited dissent in neighbouring Algeria, Yemen and Egypt, also struggling under authoritarian regimes.

These are not Islamist uprisings, in fact, these dictators held onto power largely by pointing to the radicals waiting in the wings. Like Iran’s failed Green Revolution they are protests by Muslims who don’t seek to replace a secular dictatorship with a religious one, but who crave freedom. Since when has freedom being incompatible with western values?

Those who denounce Islamic ideology as ‘medieval’ would do well to note that the golden age of Islam was actually in the Middle Ages, when art and literature flourished. Muslim women, not yet driven behind the veil, enjoyed rights that were unseen in the west until the 20th century.

While Muslims were excelling in science and mathematics, the Catholic Church was torturing heretics and burning ‘witches’ at the stake.

Fundamentalist Islam is a modern construct, a reaction to secularism and western hegemony. The way to counteract its growing influence is not by decrying Islam itself as evil, but nor is it by dismissing all criticism of it as racist.

It is time for secular and other liberal Muslims in this country to be a given a louder voice, for in the polarising Us v Them framework that Sheehan champions, they are the biggest casualty. Conservative Muslims far outnumber seculars and liberals, and the gulf between them- both in numbers and ideological position -is growing.

But as long as some western voices continue to assume Muslims are homogenous, and other western voices respond by defending fundamentalism at the expense of dissent, then the voices of progressive Muslims who seek to alter their negative image in the west, as well fight the growing radicalisation in their midst are marginalised into irrelevancy.

Written by Ruby

February 2, 2011 at 6:43 am

Posted in Islam, Media

Tagged with , , , , ,

Islam is not a left/right issue

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I have a story in Crikey today. It’s my first piece for them so I am quite excited. Unfortunately, you have to be subscribed to read it in full. I will link to it anyway, but first this excerpt. Will post the whole thing tomorrow.

The accusation that all Muslims are anti-Western and anti-Christian is as offensive as it untrue, and as this view very often emanates from the right of politics many of those on the left seek to counteract the claims by shouting them down. However, by doing so they are also unwittingly contributing to the problem.

There is no doubt that much of the attacks on modern Islam are simple bigotry. However, by dismissing all criticism as such, many leftists are actually engaging in what they purport to be against: dogmatism that doesn’t tolerate an opposing point of view.

The furore over Park 51, the so-called “Ground Zero Mosque,” is one example. With many denouncing it as an Islamist monument to victory on “conquered lands,” the squabbling between left and right became so loud, it drowned out the voices of Muslims themselves.

What could, and should, have been a legitimate debate about freedom of religion and cultural sensitivity, descended into a political melee, prompting Abdul Rahman Al-Rashid, general manager of Al-Arabiya Television to complain, “(T)he mosque is not an issue for Muslims, and they have not heard of it until the shouting became loud between the supporters and the objectors, which is mostly an argument between non-Muslim US citizens!”

Written by Ruby

February 1, 2011 at 7:24 am

Posted in Islam

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My first appearance on television…

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Well, after lots of thinking, and second-guessing it appears I shall be making  my television debut tonight on Insight, the forum program on SBS hosted by Jenny Brockie.

The producers read my article in the Herald about the burqa and why I think a ban will not resolve the issue and think I may have something to add. Now I am not entirely sure I will be heard above the din but one of my points was that this is an issue which needs to be discussed amongst the Muslim community so I am pleased that SBS is on board with that.

The audience will be mainly Muslim and the guests include Muslim intellectual Tariq Ramadan, writer/comedian Tanveer Ahmed, a young woman who wears a burqa out of ‘choice’ and Cory Bernardi (0f course!).

Let’s hope I don’t get tongue tied! Though I imagine my role is going to be very minor since I am neither for a ban nor against it. Ah, moderacy, you are so inconsequential!

Ruby

Written by Ruby

September 21, 2010 at 2:39 am

Posted in Islam, Television

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