Killing the Ambulance Man
Sad news came on December 15 from Aden, the port on the southern coast of Yemen. The city had awakened to a day of civil disobedience, called to speed up what Adenis and other southerners hope will be their independence from the central government in Sanaa. As the day’s protests gathered steam, government troops shot and killed Khalid al-Junaydi, popularly known by his Facebook name, Khaled Aden.
As on all mornings of civil disobedience, Khalid had come with his car to Crater, the old part of town, where unarmed activists regularly challenge the troops trying to enter the areas taken over by the peaceful revolution. He always brought his car so that he could use it to transport injured demonstrators to a local clinic. There is no functioning ambulance service in Aden. (See my article in the last issue of Middle East Report for more about Khalid’s role in the protests.)
Stopped by masked soldiers, Khalid was dragged out of his car and taken to an unknown location where he was shot point blank in chest. The troops then drove him to a hospital in another part of town, and dumped his bleeding body at the door. He died there. Amnesty International says the “shocking, deliberate killing appears to be an extrajudicial execution prompted by his peaceful activism.” The London-based human rights organization calls for a full investigation, but thus far in the southerners’ struggle the Yemeni authorities have yet to order such an inquiry in a single case where unarmed demonstrators have been shot.
December 15 was a day of general strike. All schools, markets and places of business in the southern governorates were closed. Aden was filled with tear gas as the troops forced their way into the protesters’ midst.
The declaration of general strike was made at a joint meeting of the recently reestablished southern trade union confederation and groups affiliated with the Southern Movement or hirak. Khalid posted the declaration on Facebook only hours before he was killed.
The purposeful killing of the volunteer ambulance driver poses the question of how brutal the government repression will get. The activist youth, for their part, do not believe that violence will vanquish the hirak. In the words of a short poem that another activist posted on Facebook after Khalid’s death: “It is better once to die a martyr than to have a long life as the living dead!”
At the 2012 G-8 meeting and subsequently, President Barack Obama has suggested that a “Yemen model” of peaceful transfer of power can apply in Syria. Is killing unarmed protesters part of this model, or is it that the world simply does not know what is happening in southern Yemen? Time to wake up, in any case.
The Battle of Egyptian Football Fans Against Dullness
Ultras, or organized groups of football fans, represented an influential faction of the Egyptian revolutionary multitude in 2011. The ultras’ long experience of street fights with police at stadiums aided the revolutionaries in achieving many victories over riot cops in the early days of the January 25 uprising and subsequently. And the ultras’ combat prowess was not their only contribution to the uprising. More important was the carnivalesque character of their resistance, which transformed the protest scene into something more colorful, vital, choreographed and performative.
In the years since the January 25 uprising, the state has taken punitive measures against all of the main participants. Journalists find themselves persecuted, detained and even killed; human rights defenders are defamed and threatened, their activities restricted; political activists are detained without charge or, when indicted, subjected to harsh penalties in trials described as travesties of justice. All of this is happening amidst a sweeping crackdown on gender and religious non-conformists.
Ultras have absorbed their share of the collective punishment. The two biggest Cairo-based groups -- the Ultras Ahlawi and Ultras White Knights, who support the teams of the Ahli and Zamalek sporting clubs, respectively -- have paid a particularly high price. Ultras Ahlawi members faced a horrific massacre in early February 2012, when 72 fans were killed in the Port Said stadium in clashes with supporters of the other team. The police and soldiers who were on the scene moved not a muscle to prevent the killings. Most of the Ultras Ahlawi believe it was a plot approved by the army and Ministry of Interior to get revenge for anti-army chants at the preceding match.
The regime has not forgotten the White Knights, either, sending the infamous Murtada Mansour to launch a fierce campaign against them. A frequent state proxy in attacks on political dissenters, Mansour once filed a complaint with the public prosecutor’s office accusing the satirist Bassem Youssef of defamation of character. In March, Mansour was elected chairman of the Zamalek club. From this post, and with the eager backing of media outlets that regularly demonize the ultras, Mansour declared that the White Knights are “delinquents” (shabab sayi‘a).
Already, in February, the state had banned spectators from attending local and sometimes also international matches in stadiums. Consequently, Ultras White Knights’ only opportunity to see their team play is at practice on the club grounds. After becoming club chair, Mansour barred the White Knights from watching practice, as well, claiming that ultras are “terrorists” who cannot be allowed inside the gates. He went so far as to electrify the fence surrounding the club to prevent ultras from climbing over. Mansour has tried to replace the White Knights by paying other fans to cheer on the team.
For ordinary fans, these punishments might be easy to bear, but ultras feel them as an existential challenge. Attendance at team practice is one of the most important signifiers of the club’s popularity; indeed, it is what differentiates a popular team from a corporate-sponsored one. For the White Knights, there is an additional sensitivity: Zamalek is one of the most expensive clubs and membership there is an expression of particular class status. The vast majority of the ultras are not club members, and normally they were not allowed on club grounds except to attend team practice. Even then, they had to enter via a side gate that afforded access only to the practice field -- and not the other club facilities like restaurants and pools. It was also a common ritual for the ultras to go to club grounds to celebrate victories or to protest painful defeats. Deprived of even partial access to the club, the ultras have started to lose their sense of ownership.
Another front in Mansour’s campaign is his stated intention to sell the training grounds at the Zamalek club, Zamoura Stadium, named after the legendary player Muhammad Hasan Hilmi or Hilmi Zamoura, who went on to serve as club chairman. The White Knights have always regarded this historic spot as their rallying point. Mansour wants to tear it down and build a commercial mall in its place. The White Knights have strongly objected, claiming that Mansour is erasing club history.
From July to October, dozens of White Knights members were imprisoned on charges orchestrated by the club’s chairman. As the fight escalated, many anticipated that the ultras would back down, given with the hostile environment and the lack of support from their peers. The Ultras Ahlawi, for example, retreated from confrontation after the Port Said massacre, assembling only at matches and team practices. But the White Knights, as one of their leaders said, had nothing to lose and so they fought back vigorously. They have organized protests and flash mobs, issued press releases on Facebook and written parody chants mocking the chairman, whom they have dubbed kalb al-nizam (the regime’s dog). Their efforts culminated in mid-October when they videotaped a young fan throwing a bag of urine and feces all over Mansour. The chairman alleged that the bag contained acid and claimed an assassination attempt. With their constant pressure, the White Knights have not only embarrassed Mansour, but have also managed to get most of the detainees released against all odds. Zamoura Stadium is not yet sold.
The originality of the ultras’ repertoire guaranteed them these victories in the face of the club’s dull, obsolete techniques of repression. Ultras are still banned from most matches and the White Knights banned from attending team practices. A number of them are still behind bars. Nevertheless, the ultras’ struggles for their rights and the preservation of their club as they know are an invitation to all of us to revise what we consider revolutionary.
Ferguson to Palestine
The world’s attention again shines on Ferguson, MO, where Michael Brown, an unarmed African-American 18-year old was shot by white police officer Darren Wilson on August 9, 2014. This time, the occasion is the grand jury’s failure to indict the officer. There will be no trial. There will be no opportunity for Brown’s family to defend their son’s reputation and see justice served. The grand jury’s decision and the chief prosecutor’s comportment confirm that the American judicial process is undergirded by a racial caste system that criminalizes the movement and actions of African-Americans as individuals and perpetuates the isolation and marginalization of black American communities.
When Michael Brown’s stepfather Louis Head responded to the grand jury’s decision with “Burn this bitch down!” he was not, as the mainstream press and politicians would have it, inciting a riot. When young blacks lit police cars and businesses on fire, they were not, as the powerful would have us believe, rioting, looting and otherwise acting like criminals. Their actions, as well as the actions of those who remained peaceful, were signs of rejection, rebellion and revolt against an (il)legal system that perpetuates (in)justice.
If black lives really mattered to that system, Michael Brown -- and two other victims of police brutality in St. Louis in the following two months, Kajieme Powell (23, killed by white police officers on August 19) and VonDerrit Myers, Jr. (18, killed by a white off-duty policeman on October 8) -- would not be the latest statistics in a well-established pattern of killing black men and refusing bring their murderers to justice. Powell’s shooting was caught on video -- it’s not for the faint of heart -- providing tangible evidence of the tendency of American police to resort to deadly force first rather than last.
I live less than half an hour from Ferguson. We Palestinians and our supporters in the greater St. Louis area have been active in the protest movement against the racial caste system ever since Brown was killed. Our activism in this area is very much part of our work to organize support for the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions campaign and challenge pro-Israel forces in our community since the 2008-2009 Israeli invasion of Gaza. As Bassem Masri, a Palestinian-American on the front lines of resistance to police brutality in the St. Louis area, puts it, “In Ferguson, I Am Reminded of Palestine.”
Michael Brown’s murder came in the midst of the latest Israeli assault on Gaza this past summer. It was not long before parallels like Masri’s were being drawn. The militarized police force in Ferguson fired tear gas and rubber bullets against demonstrators. Gazans tweeted advice on how to cope with tear gas. On my first trip to Ferguson, one day after the worst police violence, I was drawn to a black man waving the Palestinian flag. “Hey, that’s my flag,” I said. Right on cue, he responded, “This is our intifada!” During the first national march on Ferguson on August 30, our banner “Palestine Stands with Ferguson” got lots of attention from residents and supporters. We were deeply moved by our reception.
In the build-up to the October “weekend of resistance” when thousands came to march in St. Louis and Ferguson, Palestinians and supporters mobilized a 200-strong Palestinian contingent. We in the St. Louis Palestine Solidarity Committee (PSC) joined with the US Palestinian Community Network, Muslims for Ferguson, American Muslims for Palestine and the St. Louis-based Organization for Black Struggle to host the contingent and help plan the gathering. Palestinian-American New York human rights activist Linda Sarsour spoke at a “War at Home, War Abroad” forum on the eve of the march. Suhad Khatib of PSC spoke at the main rally at Keener Plaza. Her assertion that “black liberation is liberation for all of us” drew thunderous applause from the crowd. Palestinian-American spoken word artist Remi Kanazi performed at an October 12 rally of religious leaders featuring Cornel West.
On November 7, a delegation of ten students from Birzeit University sponsored by National Students for Justice in Palestine began a two-week Right to Education tour of the US with a visit to St. Louis and Ferguson. One of the Palestinian students, Shatha Hammad, told Ebony about her experience at a vigil for VonDerrit Myers: “It was an experience that renewed something inside me. As a Palestinian I see people every day getting killed and all my rights are violated. I don’t have any rights, basically. For a moment there I got used to it. But at the vigil when I saw everything and heard the people talk, something woke up inside me and said ‘You suffer from that and these people suffer from that, so you’d better stand next to each other and do something.’”
Larry Fellows III, a member of the Don’t Shoot Coalition and a native St. Louisan, also commented on the oppression that connects both communities. “We’re being told by force that we aren’t supposed to question or challenge what we know isn’t legal treatment. The companies that are spending billions of dollars to suppress Palestinians are doing the same thing in the States; the tear gas and bullets used in Palestine are the same as those used in Ferguson.” Law student Dayo Olopade argues that the situation in Ferguson is one of occupation. “When officers have the right to control your motions, actions and fate, there is no other word,” Olopade writes. “When, on top of that, the occupiers look nothing like you and do not share a community with you, it is far worse.”
“Intersectionality” -- coordinating with allies among other social justice networks -- has progressively become central to our work at the PSC. The culmination of these efforts prior to our Ferguson activism came in the Dump Veolia campaign in which the PSC joined environmental, labor and local political campaigns to force municipal services giant Veolia to withdraw from a contract to redesign the city’s water management system. Veolia’s servicing of West Bank settlements became part on the conversation in a standing room-only hearing before the city council’s Public Utility Committee.
The Ferguson intifada is about more than Michael Brown’s murder and the grand jury’s decision not to indict. Both are the latest entries in a centuries-old ledger of legalized racial discrimination. The latest incarnation of this system is the subject of Michelle Alexander’s book The New Jim Crow, which traces the roots of criminalization of black movement, the mass incarceration of black men and the disenfranchisement of the prison population to the Reagan-era “war on drugs” (TED Talk version here).
What do the words “legal” and “the law” and “civility” and “justice” and “non-violence” mean in the context of system that perpetuates violence, arbitrary injustice and gross violations of the human rights of a particular group of people? How can these platitudes have any meaning within a system that tells black youth again and again that their lives don’t matter?
As the date of the grand jury’s decision in the case of Darren Wilson drew near, activists for Palestinian rights joined forces with the myriad groups organizing protests and the inevitable violence of the police response. Those efforts are underway, and intersectionality thrives, as I write these lines.
Women's Rights Activists Between State Violence and Intervention
The November 15 attack on an armored car transporting Shukria Barakzai, a women’s rights activist and parliamentarian in Afghanistan, shook me to the core. The attack, which Barakzai survived but three passersby did not, took place shortly after my return from a women’s rights meeting in Turkey. Several Afghan activists were in attendance, and they face similar risks each day. As I read the news, I thought, “It could have been any one of them.”
The meeting, organized by the International Civil Society Action Network, brings together women’s rights and peace activists from a dozen or so countries in the Middle East, North Africa and Asia, with a focus on countries in conflict, in post-conflict transition or in which political space is restricted. The idea behind the meeting is to look at the impact of conflict and/or closed political space on women’s rights. This year’s meeting -- hosting women from 13 countries, from Tunisia to Tajikistan -- occurred against a backdrop of increased extremism, violence and militarization across the region.
A regional representative from UN Women informed the attendees that, at the current pace, another 81 years will pass before there is global gender equality. Eight decades may seem like a long time to wait for something that should already exist. But to many of us at the meeting, it seemed like an optimistic estimate.
After all, some of the women at the meeting were from countries, such as Afghanistan, where advocacy for gender equality puts one’s life in danger. Others came from countries reeling from the horrors of extremist groups like Da`ish, who have enslaved, raped and executed women just for appearing in public. At the same time, a recurring concern at the meeting was that we not turn Da`ish, barbaric and repugnant as it is, into a straw man that lets governments, armies, “moderate” Islamist parties and outside meddlers, regional or Western, off the hook.
A few things struck me at the meeting. First, the women themselves. Mainstream coverage of women in this region continues to promulgate the same old stereotypes of hapless, oppressed victims, acted upon rather than acting, needing to be saved. Yet here I was meeting women who simply could not be put into any box. There was the southern Iraqi woman whose appearance suggests that she is extremely conservative, but who in fact does interfaith work and is one of the most outspoken advocates for Iraq’s religious minorities. There was the Syrian woman who fled her home country, leaving behind a husband who was detained, but bringing along with her children, one of whom was critically injured at the time, and having less than $100 in her pocket, only to start a project to expand livelihood opportunities for Syrian women (many of whom are now heads of households) in Turkey. There was the Afghan woman who returned home after years in exile in Iran to start a news agency devoted to bringing more women into journalism and to providing analysis with a gender perspective that she finds is missing in Afghan media. Every woman I met was remarkable in some way. And yet so few of their voices are heard.
Second, women seem to lose out, no matter what system or regime they encounter. In Egypt, for example, whether confronting the Islamists or the military regime, women are dealing with ideologies that propagate hierarchy, absolutism and male subordination of women. And prior to Husni Mubarak’s overthrow, women’s rights activists in Egypt were battling an authoritarian regime that paid lip service to women’s rights and to an extent coopted the movement to advance top-down “state feminism,” that is, women’s rights on the state’s terms. The women at the meeting -- regardless of where they came from -- shared similar complaints. They are marginalized. They are not sufficiently represented in government. They are subject to discriminatory laws. They are targeted by religious extremists. And when they dare to speak out, when they transgress the boundaries of what is acceptable, they are further vilified and sometimes made to pay the highest price.
Third, the women stated emphatically that they are tired of interventions and empty rhetoric that only make things worse. They are tired of “security” and “terrorism” being invoked by states whose agenda is to suppress freedoms for all, including women. In all of the women’s home countries, whether there is violent conflict or not, the fear of terrorism is being used to impose restrictions on assembly, association and organizing. Several women said they are tired of being used as an excuse by Western states to intervene in the region, often militarily, when in fact other political or economic interests are at stake. From Afghanistan to Iran to Egypt, the Western protestations of support for women’s rights breed suspicion of activists, who are accused of following a Western agenda and have their work discredited. The women from Pakistan said they live daily with the consequences of military interventions that only lead to more extremism. Women from Iran stated that they disproportionately bear the consequences of economic sanctions that impoverish them, push them to the margins of society and make them more vulnerable to forced marriage, trafficking and other violations of their rights. In families under economic strain, for instance, what limited resources may exist to support higher education for the children will go to the boys.
The overwhelming refrain at the meeting was that women must be included in decision-making and in peace processes. What happens to women in a country is often a barometer of what is to come. Women must be listened to and be part of the solution. Bearing in mind this last point in particular, the women present at the meeting issued a statement, which was shared on the last day with members of the press and policymakers. “One thing is guaranteed,” the statement concludes. “Our version of the region, our vision for the future, is about peace, freedom, dignity, rights, pluralism and prosperity for all. Listen to us. Join us.“
Title VI and Middle East Studies: What You Should Know
In the past few years, pro-Israel groups have mounted an escalating and concerted effort to set the contours of scholarly debate about Israel on American campuses. This fall, two such organizations, the AMCHA Initiative and the Louis D. Brandeis Center for Human Rights Under Law, are lobbying Congress and the Department of Education to punish Middle East studies centers that present alternatives to staunchly pro-Israel viewpoints. The lobbying campaign demands that the Education Department stop federal funding to these centers under Title VI of the Higher Education Act or engage in intrusive oversight of the departments to assure the prevalence of viewpoints more sympathetic to Israeli government policies. The Higher Education Act is up for Congressional reauthorization this year.
What is Title VI?
Title VI of the Higher Education Act, or HEA, provides federal funding to support teaching of foreign languages and area studies at US universities. The law has been on the books since the Cold War. Its purpose is to facilitate the training of experts in fields of study deemed relevant to US foreign policy. Russian language centers were some of the first programs funded under the HEA. Today, Title VI funds many Middle East studies programs in addition to international studies and language programs for every region of the world.
What are the claims made about Middle East studies centers with Title VI funding?
The Brandeis Center, along with a coalition of similar groups, has launched a campaign to police scholarly work and teaching in Middle East studies departments across the country. The principal tactic of this campaign is to equate any criticism of the state of Israel with anti-Semitism, and thereby declare that entire Middle East programs are intrinsically biased against Israel. Their end goal is to influence the political outlook of academic work on US campuses, applauding work that takes an unquestioningly positive view of Israeli state policy and censoring or sanctioning work that is critical of the acts or policies of Israel. That attempt to impose orthodoxy is a project antithetical to the mission of an academic institution, which should be committed to wide-ranging research and analysis unbounded by the political agendas that often dictate government decisions.
As part of this political campaign the Brandeis Center recently issued a “white paper” advancing three main arguments:
- Middle East studies programs at several universities are filled with anti-Semitic and anti-Israel bias;
- Title VI of the Higher Education Act requires funding recipients to provide a “balanced” view, at least of Israel. “Balance” essentially means inserting more sympathetic views of Israel; and
- Congress has previously concluded that Middle East studies programs are “biased” against Israel, and thus should implement a grievance and investigation procedure for the reporting of such bias.
What does this campaign demand?
The AMCHA Initiative, Brandeis Center and allied groups demand either that Congress cancel all Title VI funding of Middle East studies programs, or that it mandate that the Department of Education establish a mechanism to receive complaints of “bias” and then investigate academic centers in order to coerce those centers to promote pro-Israel viewpoints.
They suggest the formation of a committee to oversee all Middle East studies programs and search for “bias.” This committee, they suggest, should include “academics from Israel studies programs.” They want academics perceived to be sympathetic to Israel to oversee programming in Middle East studies.
Is there evidence of “bias” in Middle East Studies programs?
The Brandeis Center relies heavily on a “study” published by AMCHA about UCLA’s Center for Near East Studies (CNES). The study contends that 93 percent of CNES programs related to Israel are “biased” and that the programming has a “disproportionate” focus on Israel.
The study is plagued with problems, not least of which are overly broad and unreasonable definitions of “anti-Israel bias” and “anti-Semitism.” Anything straying from narrow pro-Israel orthodoxy is automatically judged to be “biased,” as in the case of the following events:
- A film about diverse perspectives on Israel within the Jewish community, in which the Jewish filmmakers interviewed people from groups as different as Stand With Us and Jewish Voice for Peace
- An event on a variety of Jewish perspectives about Israel-Palestine, including binationalism, that was co-sponsored by the Jewish Studies Program
Thus, AMCHA’s definition of “bias” is so expansive that it includes events sponsored by J Street, the “pro-Israel, pro-peace” group, and the Jewish Studies Program at UCLA.
AMCHA’s study also fails to place its analysis in the context of CNES programming about countries other than Israel-Palestine. It is typical for scholars to criticize aspects of the nation-states they study. Does UCLA’s CNES shy away from exposing problems in the policies of other Middle Eastern governments? The answer is clearly no, if events like “The Persistence of the Past: How Violence and Genocide in Ottoman Turkey Affect Our World Today,” “Stopping the Nuclear Threat from Iran,” “Egypt: Stillborn Revolution?” and “The Constitutional and Legal Status of Non-Shiites in Iran” are any indication.
AMCHA’s claims of “anti-Semitism” in CNES events fare no better when subjected to scrutiny. For instance, AMCHA’s examples of “anti-Semitic” activity at CNES include statements by speakers that Israel “den[ies] the absolute basic inalienable human rights of Palestinians,” that Israel “was created through colonialism” and that “colonialism and settler-colonialism are both inherently and unequal and unjust systems.” These statements are judgments about the history and policies of the Israeli state and government, and express no animus toward Jewish people because of their religion or ethnicity.
As an open letter from professors of Jewish studies concludes, AMCHA’s definition of anti-Semitism is so broad as to render the term meaningless.
These and other problems prompted the Middle East Studies Association’s Committee on Academic Freedom-North America to publish an open letter calling on AMCHA “to withdraw [its] report and to apologize to all those whom it falsely and tendentiously accuses of anti-Semitism.”
CNES at UCLA has now issued its own detailed rebuttal of the accusations made by the AMCHA Initiative and others.
Does Title VI require “balance”?
The Brandeis Center’s report claims that when Congress amended the language of Title VI of the Higher Education Act in 2008 to refer to “diverse perspectives” in federally funded programs, it intended to require all programs to provide a “balanced” treatment of all subjects. While the Brandeis Center admits that the phrase “diverse perspectives” has never been defined, it suggests that the Department of Education can and should define it.
The report’s characterization of the HEA, however, is inaccurate. In 2008, Congressional Republicans tried, but failed, to include an evaluation of “diverse perspectives” as a criterion for assessing applications for Title VI funding. Rather, existing law simply requires applicants to explain how they intend to provide “diverse perspectives,” not that diversity of perspectives is a condition of funding. The law is clear that Congress considered and rejected a “diverse perspectives” criterion as a condition of Title VI funding. (See “Selection of Certain Grant Recipients: Selection Criteria” section [20 USC §1127(b)].)
Congress correctly rejected the position now taken by the Brandeis Center report because it would place the Department of Education in the impossible and constitutionally suspect position of policing Middle East studies departments for “diverse perspectives” -- an imprecise and subjective standard that, if applied, would pose a substantial threat to academic freedom.
How does this campaign threaten academic freedom and dissent?
Constitutional protections of free speech are critical to the missions of universities. In fact, in Shelton v. Tucker (1960) the Supreme Court said that “the vigilant protection of constitutional freedoms is nowhere more vital than in the community of American schools.” Consistently, from Epperson v. Arkansas (1968) to Monteiro v. Tempe Union High School District (1998), and in other instances, federal courts have prohibited government interference with the content of speech in educational institutions. In West Virginia State Board of Education v. Barnett (1943), the Supreme Court clearly affirmed that there are no circumstances under which the government can legitimately determine what is “orthodox,” whether in politics or religious beliefs: “If there is any fixed star in our constitutional constellation, it is that no official, high or petty, can prescribe what shall be orthodox in politics, nationalism, religion or other matters of opinion.”
Congress clearly understood this matter when, as part of the 2008 amendments to Title VI of the HEA, they included the following qualification: “Nothing in this subchapter shall be construed to authorize the Secretary to mandate, direct or control an institution of higher education’s specific instructional content, curriculum or program of instruction.” (20 USC §1132-2: Rule of Construction)
This section is explicitly referenced in the grant application form for National Resource Centers and Foreign Language and Area Studies Programs. Thus, both Congress and the Department of Education have specifically acknowledged that they do not have the authority or the intent to prescribe to institutions of higher education what they must teach.
At the same time, universities are already obligated to eliminate discrimination against students on the basis of race, color or national origin, among other identity characteristics. (See 42 USC. §2000d et seq  and 20 USC. §§1681-1688 .) There are ample mechanisms on the federal, state and local level that protect students from discrimination in higher education. Most prominently, the Office of Civil Rights in the Department of Education provides a comprehensive regulatory scheme to address discrimination, including anti-Semitism. In fact, the Brandeis Center and its partners, including the Zionist Organization of America and the AMCHA Initiative, among others, have used this process to file complaints against at least four universities asserting that Palestine activism creates a “hostile environment” for Jewish students on campus. Four such cases were dismissed after burdensome and lengthy investigations determined the claims were unfounded and that the expression in question was protected under the First Amendment.
The Brandeis Center now seeks to duplicate the existing avenues for redress of cases of anti-Semitism by imposing a “diverse perspectives” requirement and enforcement mechanism in the Title VI funding structure. Existing law is more than adequate to deal with real instances of anti-Semitism on campuses. The reforms urged in the Brandeis Center report will create new opportunities for non-governmental, politically motivated organizations to misuse federal power to censor speech at universities that is critical of Israeli state policy or sympathetic to the rights of Palestinians. In so doing it would impose a political orthodoxy in a way that would threaten academic freedom and the vitally important role that academic inquiry plays in the exploration of complex notions of identity, belonging, dispossession, statehood and citizenship in the Middle East.
Is the Brandeis Center’s white paper a reliable source?
Finally, it is worth noting that the Brandeis Center’s report is filled with inaccurate citations and misrepresentations of the Congressional record. These are more than simple typographical errors. The Brandeis Center has claimed that a Congressional hearing, along with the head of the subcommittee itself, have already concluded that Middle East studies programs are biased, and have attempted to prove this claim by citing to the record. Referring to a hearing held by the Select Education Subcommittee of the House Committee on Education and the Workforce in June 2003, the Brandeis Center writes:
Thus, the committee concluded that the “Department of Education has no way of assessing whether the [outreach programs conducted by Title VI-funded Middle East Studies centers] give a fair, historically accurate and balanced view of the subject presented and thus fulfill the statutory purpose of providing not only language instruction, but ‘full understanding of areas, regions and countries in which such language is commonly used.’ (pp. 11-12) [Emphasis added]
This quote refers not to a committee conclusion but to testimony provided by the American Jewish Congress, as is clear in the record. (Even the citation for the report on the June 2003 hearing, “Id. at 164 (quoting the statute)” referring to “H.R. REP. NO. 804-811, at 163 (2005),” is incorrect. The first three digits of any House of Representatives report should refer to the Congressional session, which are numbered biannually. Congress has not been meeting for over 1,600 years.)
The Brandeis Center report also cites a statement by Rep. Pete Hoekstra (R-MI) on the need to “update programs under Title VI to reflect our national security needs in the post-9/11 era” as being made at the same hearing in June 2003. But Rep. Hoekstra was not present at the hearing. His statement actually comes from a debate on the House floor of HR 3077, which failed to pass the Senate. (Congressional Record, October 21, 2003) This bill was the first concerted attempt by precursors of AMCHA and the Brandeis Center to create a new mechanism for preventing “anti-Israel bias” in Middle East studies programs.
What’s the bottom line?
The Brandeis Center, as well as AMCHA and other organizations, are seeking to stifle legitimate protected speech on college campuses and restrict the free speech and academic freedom rights of those with whom they disagree. In addition to pressuring universities to punish students and academics for their advocacy for Palestinian rights, they are relying on shoddy “studies” and a misinterpretation of the law to convince lawmakers and officials at the Department of Education that Middle East studies programs are in need of regulation or defunding because of their “biased” content.
The truth is that these organizations have presented no credible evidence of bias in these programs and no legal basis for demanding that the government monitor and regulate the content or curriculum of an academic institution. In the distribution of funding, Congress and the Department of Education must abide by the strictures that the First Amendment places on the government’s ability to dictate the content of academic speech, despite what some lobbyists might claim.
Academic institutions and associations that wish to express concern about the proposals to monitor Middle East studies programs and dictate their content can contact the secretary of education, Arne Duncan, at 1-800-USA-LEARN (1-800-872-5327) or 1-202-401-3000 or by e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Palestine, Adrift at the Met
Opera is dying in New York. Or at least it was until last month.
Plagued by the aging of the fan base, New York’s last standing opera house is struggling to keep the art form alive and relevant. One year after City Opera closed its doors, the Metropolitan Opera was on the brink of shutdown this season until unions and management reached a last-minute agreement to lower costs.
Against this backdrop, it was surprising to see the city abuzz this fall over an opera. But, then again, nothing rouses New York elites so much as the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. And the opera in question, American composer John Adams’ The Death of Klinghoffer, depicts the 1985 hijacking of the Italian cruise ship Achille Lauro in the Mediterranean by a fringe Palestinian group and the murder of a wheelchair-bound Jewish passenger, Leon Klinghoffer.
Charging the opera with anti-Semitism, opponents began lobbying the Met to cancel the production before it had even premiered. Based on their reading of the libretto, these opponents claimed that the opera legitimizes terrorism. Though the Met rejected picketers’ demands to cancel the production -- no doubt a costly proposition -- it still bent over backward to appease its critics. The centerfold of the opera’s program contained a letter of opposition from the Klinghoffer heirs. And despite receiving a “not anti-Semitic” stamp from the Anti-Defamation League, the Met canceled its Live in HD simulcast of the opera, a service it offers to make opera more accessible to people who live far from Manhattan or can’t easily afford tickets. That decision, lauded by the ADL, came in deference to concerns that the opera could stoke anti-Semitism, especially in Europe where attacks on Jews spiked during Israel’s onslaught upon Gaza this past summer. It was a bizarre concession. If the opera is not anti-Semitic, why cancel its broadcast?
What is really threatening about The Death of Klinghoffer is that it offers a basic history of Israel that many Americans are unfamiliar with. The prologue features a Chorus of Exiled Palestinians who tell the story of their displacement in 1948. The idea of a people forced from their homes, murdered and disenfranchised by foreign settlers tends to elicit sympathy. The opera thus entertains the idea that Palestinians have legitimate grievances. Klinghoffer director Tom Morris said, “My ideal response is that people think about and reflect on the crime that the opera dramatizes and -- if they choose -- the circumstances which might have led to it.”
So perhaps opponents worry that the opera will prompt viewers to see the conflict in less black-and-white terms, a shift that dancer Jesse Kovarsky, who plays a hijacker named Omar, described experiencing himself: “As someone who’s been raised pro-Israel, who’s a Jew, who grew up in a country that is pro-Israel, I never knew anything about Palestine or Palestinians. And to be invited into this opera and encouraged to study that history, I’ve been exposed to a world that I totally…. I’m confused by my own upbringing in terms of how I see the conflict, how I see it now.” The idea that an opera can change a person’s perspective on a topic that has been front-page news for decades suggests how one-dimensional American understanding of the conflict is.
Klinghoffer sets the context in which the hijacking of the Achille Lauro took place through two choruses -- one of exiled Palestinians and another of exiled Jews. The Palestinians, dressed in drab gray robes that recall the grim reaper, are angry, destructive and violent. The Jews, in modern European garb, are calm and peaceful, singing of their attachment to the land and bearing olive trees.
Later, a Palestinian hijacker tells of how his love for the gun was born when he was just five years old. Although the hijackers relate atrocities committed against them by Jews, strangely the Israeli narrative is totally demilitarized. The casual viewer would not know that military service is a rite of passage in Israel or that militarism is valorized as a part of Jewish national identity. Guns are ubiquitous and openly brandished in the streets, and tourist shops display “Uzi does it” t-shirts to celebrate the Israeli assault rifle. The Israel Defense Forces is so beloved an institution that during last summer’s war on Gaza Israeli women mobilized in support of the troops by posting photos on Facebook of their scantily clothed bodies painted with the words “I heart IDF.”
Tom Morris’ production uses costume and set design to tie the opera’s events to the state of affairs in Israel-Palestine. A massive floor-to-ceiling illuminated backdrop displays the separation wall in various degrees of relief throughout the performance. The first scene opens with the year 1948 displayed on the canvas; as the chorus advances the years marking successive wars flash onscreen, while the landscape alters and the wall gradually takes starker form until reaching 2014, when an opaque, towering concrete barrier is all that stands. Next enters the Chorus of Exiled Jews, suitcases in hand. At the end of the first act the two groups of exiles take the stage together, their voices intermingling and overlapping. As the chorus chants, “No one bothers to look up from their work,” the audience sees the words “Apathy kills” prominently displayed among the wall’s Palestine solidarity graffiti.
Librettist Alice Goodman could not have imagined such a production when the opera was first performed in 1991. The decision to tie the events of 1985 to the present reinforces the fact that the purview of the opera extends well beyond the hijacking incident. Morris, who worked in Israel in the early 1990s, says he hopes the opera will help people better understand the conflict. So it makes sense that he would use set design to tie the events of 1985 to all that has happened since. But the liberties he takes with time and context are at times careless and even harmful.
Palestinians, already portrayed by the chorus in an ominous ghost-like manner, appear trapped in time. Some of the women wear the abaya (a loose cloak) and niqab (the full face veil), even though such attire is uncommon among Palestinians. They wave solid green flags, redolent of an undefined Islamic affinity, yet not a single Palestinian national flag is unfurled throughout the opera. The Islamic depiction of the Palestinian struggle is perplexing because the hijackers of the Achille Lauro were part of a secular leftist group, and in 1985 Islamism was a marginal political force among Palestinians.
Klinghoffer’s Islamic representation of the hijacking is not confined to its visual attributes. The hijackers’ lines suggest they are motivated, at least in part, by an ideological clash of civilizations. One hijacker attacks Western culture for its “idolatry” and tolerance of “sodomy.” The libretto intimates that the hijacking is a suicide mission led by men so fanatical they desire their own death. Mahmoud (the libretto uses a non-standard spelling of his name), one of the hijackers, sings, “We don’t worry as we want to die. It is you, it is they who desire to live.” Omar, too, expresses a wish to be martyred. A woman, perhaps a vision of his mother, dressed in the baleful clothing of the Chorus of Exiled Palestinians sings his aria. In place of his words from the original libretto, “My heart will break if I do not walk in paradise in two days,” Omar’s anima sings, “My heart will break if you do not walk in paradise within two days.” Coming from a mother-like figure, the line perpetuates dehumanizing Israeli propaganda that Palestinian mothers breed merely for the sake of the national cause and purposely sacrifice their sons.
That is indeed how Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, who attended the premiere, interpreted the line. “There is one very dramatic scene of a Palestinian mother raising this child. His toy is a gun from when he’s five years old, and she’s raising him so that he will one day do a very brave act that will result in his own death and then he will go to paradise,” she said. “It was chilling.” In fact, Justice Ginsburg conflated separate stories of two hijackers: Mahmoud sings of his early love of the gun and the woman standing in for Omar sings of desiring death. But together the general message is the same: Palestinian children are taught to hate and to devalue life. In this light, the Leon Klinghoffer character’s words during his bold and righteous broadside resonate: “We’re human. We’re the kind of people you like to kill.”
In actuality, the hijackers’ goal was to achieve the release of 50 Palestinian prisoners held in Israel, an objective the opera mentions in a hijacker’s verse. In other words, the hijackers hoped to use the hostages as leverage in a negotiation, not to perpetrate a bloodbath. It was a botched operation, with the four hijackers left directionless at sea and unsure how to proceed. The suggestion that the hijacking might have been a suicide mission makes little sense on the opera’s own terms because, as it depicts, the hijackers arranged an escape, abandoning the ship and their hostages.
Despite these historical inaccuracies, Klinghoffer projects an appearance of being well researched. The production takes pains to provide the audience with historical information that appears on a sidebar-like screen beside the stage. The audience is apprised of behind-the-scenes negotiations to free the hostages and Syria’s refusal to allow the ship to dock in Tartous. But these tidbits of information, known only retrospectively, add little to the audience’s overall understanding and could have been more skillfully incorporated into the libretto. Instead, the opera seems littered with explanatory footnotes. The effect is heavy-handed, with stuffy storytelling stifling emotion.
It is hard to imagine how The Death of Klinghoffer could be construed as anti-Semitic. It is true that some of the hijackers’ lines are anti-Semitic, but they are uttered to offer a portrait of the hijackers as depraved and maniacal, not to persuade the audience that Jews are less than human. The opera humanizes the hijackers in the sense that it gives them a voice, a backstory and a face. But, on the whole, Klinghoffer perpetuates stereotypes of Palestinians as violent, death-seeking religious fanatics. Klinghoffer might depict two sides to the conflict, but the portrait it paints of Palestinians is one that Palestinians themselves would struggle to recognize. What is most threatening about the opera for the Zionist narrative is that it recounts some of the less known and less savory aspects of Israel’s history: ethnic cleansing, massacres and apartheid.
Image: The separation wall near Bethlehem. (Ted Swedenburg)
Losing Hope in Iran and Egypt
The decision to leave your country, especially when you leave for political or ideological reasons, can be gut-wrenching. My parents made that decision for me when they left Iran in my early adolescence. Unlike some Iranians forced to flee, my parents were not members of a persecuted religious minority. Nor were they high-profile political activists at immediate risk of arrest. But as people who had demonstrated against the Shah’s dictatorship, and had hoped that the 1979 revolution would bring democracy and social justice to Iran, witnessing their country plunge into authoritarianism and turn into a theocracy was more than they could bear. It was like the country they knew and hoped for no longer existed. Add to that the fact that, in September 1980, Saddam Hussein ordered the invasion of Iran, igniting a cruel war that would last eight years, and my parents felt that the best option for them, my two sisters and me was to build a future elsewhere. It was a decision that tormented them as they made it, and continued to occupy their thoughts for years after emigration.
Of course, my parents are not unique. Following the 1979 revolution and throughout the Iran-Iraq war, hundreds of thousands of Iranians fled into exile and became part of a diaspora that is scattered all over the globe.
And though the Iran-Iraq war is long over, and though the extreme brutality of the first years following 1979 has given way to oscillating periods of calm and unrest (the most famous episode being the mass protests after the 2009 presidential elections that brought Mahmoud Ahmadinejad into office for a second term), Iranians continue to leave Iran, for a combination of ideological, political and economic reasons. Not in the same large numbers, but in a constant trickle.
During a recent trip to Iran, practically every young person I met (and some not so young) had a question for me about migrating. These are not political activists at risk of detention. They are people tired of living with a sense of hopelessness, a feeling that their talents and abilities are going to waste in a country where advancement through merit has become a joke, a premonition that nothing will change for the better. This hopelessness became particularly acute after the protests following the 2009 elections were crushed. Many of the activists left Iran. The US-led sanctions, which have had far-reaching, devastating effects on the economy, are also fueling the desperation.
The overwhelming desire to leave is painful to see each time I am confronted with it. It is upsetting that some 30 years after the events that propelled my parents’ departure, the situation in Iran remains dire, and that young people in particular have lost faith in a better tomorrow.
I am also confronted with these sentiments in Egypt, the country I have called home since 2005. The January 25, 2011 uprising that led to Husni Mubarak’s resignation brought with it an incredible optimism. One activist described feeling at the time that everything was possible. The succeeding events -- the transitional period of army rule, the elections that brought the Muslim Brothers to power -- may have been seen as setbacks for many of the activists who were driven by a desire for greater democracy and social justice in Egypt. But most of my Egyptian friends who had spent days protesting in Tahrir Square felt that the setbacks were inevitable and indeed necessary on the long road to true political transformation. It was unrealistic to think the Brothers would have no role in the new Egypt, they would say, even as they were disappointed and at times enraged by the Islamists’ tactics, refusal to compromise and, in many instances, clear hypocrisy. The Egypt my friends wanted was still possible and still worth fighting for. And fighting was still possible, in spite of everything.
Everything seems to have changed since then. The protests of June 30, 2013, the army coup that removed Muhammad Mursi from office, the massacre of hundreds of Muslim Brother supporters in August 2013, the lack of accountability, the support for the massacre drummed up by state media, the drafting of a constitution that is supposed to enshrine the rule of law at the same time that the most basic principles of humanity are flouted, the elections that brought ‘Abd al-Fattah al-Sisi to power, the jailing of journalists, the mass death sentences issued for Muslim Brothers, the draconian anti-protest laws, the threats looming over NGOs, and numerous other developments, big and small, have sunk these same once hopeful, bright-eyed friends into depths of depression.
And so, one by one, we hear of departures. Some of the same people who returned from overseas to take part in the shaping of a new Egypt have decided to leave again. Some have decided that now is the time to pursue an advanced degree, a job, a fellowship -- anything that will take them away. Some journalist friends, terrified by the imprisonment of their colleagues, are seeking postings elsewhere. Some who work for NGOs are bracing for a crackdown, due to restrictive NGO legislation, and have moved their operations elsewhere. Some, visiting friends who are behind bars for violating the protest law, fear that remaining in Egypt will only bring the same for them. They are thinking of leaving.
In short, what I am witnessing in Egypt now, the conversations I am having, evokes memories of Iranian friends and acquaintances going into exile. Once again, I watch some of a country’s best and brightest unable to bear the pain of coping with a “tomorrow that never came.” And, with their departures, that tomorrow becomes more and more distant.
An Interview with Mohamed Elshahed
Mohamed Elshahed is a young, dynamic architect and researcher who is documenting changes to urban space in Egypt at his highly popular blog Cairobserver. Elshahed completed a doctorate in Middle East studies at New York University and is now a postdoctoral fellow at the Berlin-based Forum Transregionale Studien. He also holds a MA in architecture studies from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. His dissertation is titled, “Revolutionary Modernism? Architecture and the Politics of Transition in Egypt, 1936-1967.” It argues that 1950s urban and architectural development associated with Nasserism refashioned preexisting architectural production in the service of “necessary transitional authoritarianism” in Egypt.
What is Cairobserver and why did you start it? How is it different from other publications and websites on architecture and city life?
Cairobserver started in April 2011 as a personal blog about architecture, heritage, urbanism and other aspects of life in the Egyptian capital. Since then the site has evolved into a platform for reflections on the urban condition of Cairo, as well as other cities in the Middle East, posted by me and guest bloggers.
Perhaps what sets Cairobserver apart from other sites that deal with issues related to architecture and urbanism is that it is anchored in Cairo, a city that hasn’t been at the top of the list when it comes to architecture and urban studies. International (read, English-language) sites continue to look at European and American cities with a bit of interest in Asia, particularly the rapid urbanization in China. When it comes to the Middle East, coverage has been almost entirely focused on Dubai and other Gulf cities.
In 2010, when I had moved to Cairo to conduct my dissertation research, I realized that very little online speaks to the urban reality of Cairo. The plethora of websites about cities reproduces very similar themes -- star architects, sustainability and green architecture, what are dubbed as global urban trends, such as gentrification. While all these topics are interesting, Cairo wasn’t a place where contemporary architecture with a capital A was a prime concern. Nor was it a place where gentrification, pedestrianization or wholesale neoliberal takeover of urban heritage were happening, at least not in ways similar to the case studies on sites such as CityLab (formerly The Atlantic Cities). In the occasional coverage of cities from the global south (mostly South Asia or Latin America), the focus would typically be on topics such as slums and urban resilience. These broad-brush strokes did not really provide a useful toolbox for someone sitting in Cairo and interested in urban issues. Cairobserver was my humble attempt to fill the gap.
Cairobserver also comes out in a beautiful print edition. What made you go in that direction when most publishing seems to be going online?
My desire to create a print publication was partly influenced by my doctoral research. I had been collecting print material from the 1930s-1970s, ranging from booklets and pamphlets to magazines and journals. These sources form the backbone of my project, which looks at how architecture and the city were not only built but also mediated during the middle of the twentieth century. I realized that in 50 years a similar project about our present time would be nearly impossible. By comparison to the rich print culture of the early and middle twentieth century in Egypt, including specialized journals and magazines dealing with architecture, today the options are slim. There isn’t a single newspaper or magazine in Cairo that facilitates the circulation of ideas about the city, its history and development, and that can act as a bridging medium between professionals, policymakers and residents. Similarly, while Egypt was home to the first Arabic-language architectural journal, established in 1939, there simply isn’t one of that caliber today. There had been several attempts over the past couple of decades but with serious drawbacks related to content and design.
For these reasons I thought it would be a worthwhile experiment to create a paper version of Cairobserver. The first issue was bilingual but I’m moving toward making the print version exclusively in Arabic since it is printed and distributed in Egypt (as opposed to the bilingual but mostly English online version which reaches both a local and an international audience). I also wanted to invest in the print edition’s design so that it appeals to a variety of readers and makes a contribution not only to the conversation about the city but also to the production of print culture in Egypt today. The second issue came out in January 2014.
I think the turn from digital to print is not as unusual as it may seem. There is a resurgence of print culture around the world with more do-it-yourself magazines than ever before. In the Middle East there is also a resurgence, with many new magazines, such as The Outpost, Brownbook, The Carton, Portal 9 and WTD.
Unlike the blog, the print edition costs money to produce. For the last issue I launched a crowdfunding campaign and raised the $5,000 to cover the design, copy-editing and printing costs of 1,500 copies at 44 pages each. There were two successful launch events in Cairo at Megawra and Nile Sunset Annex. The distribution is informal. The issues are distributed for free.
I have made a call for contributions for two new issues, one themed #University and the other #Downtowns. The idea is to widen the scope of voices represented by opening the magazine and blog to students, architects, social scientists and interested residents. A crowdfunding campaign for these new issues will launch in November 2014. I’m also open to finding other ways of funding the print edition such as sponsorship and grants.
In what way was Cairobserver shaped by the political upheaval in Egypt over the past three years?
In 2010 there was a sense of frustration in Cairo. For me the city was itself a source of frustration because its governing logic was clearly not meant to make it a better place for people. Trees were cut down randomly by the same authorities who failed to collect garbage; infrastructure was extended to secluded new cities in the desert with no population while crowded areas were underserved; public transport was not maintained and private cars were encouraged; public spaces were intentionally made uninhabitable. There was a need to talk about the day-to-day use of the city but there was no venue to do the talking. Given the stagnant political situation, it seemed that little could change, anyway.
Then January 2011 happened. By April Cairobserver was online because for once I thought there might be a chance to talk about things like the cities we live in, and actually make some change. There were other initiatives that deal with architecture, urbanism and heritage that were established after 2011 such as Megawra and Cluster. The Tarek Waly Center for Architecture and Heritage also started to produce its triannual newspaper starting in 2011. So I would say that for many, the possibility of imagining a better future, including a better urban future, was ignited by the events of 2011.
What specific changes in architecture and urban space, or understandings of these, have you witnessed following the uprisings?
I think there have been immense changes not only to the spaces of Egyptian cities but also in the perception of urban spaces and the ways in which certain actors engage with specific sites within various cities.
The physical changes to cities have unfortunately been for the worse: There is the sometimes temporary but often permanent encroachment on public space, particularly around police stations and other kinds of government buildings that might be associated with the army or the Interior Ministry. Entire streets have been blocked off, as well as sidewalks, to create security buffer zones. Trees have been cut down to create lines of sight for snipers and surveillance cameras and snipers. All in all, there is a militarization of Egyptian cities in ways we haven’t seen or felt before, at least not to this degree. This militarization is now taking on legal cover. The president just announced that all civilian infrastructure will now be governed by military law. Other major physical changes are the rapid destruction of heritage and the expansion of speculative real estate development, particularly in the informal market.
Perceptions of the city and engagement with its condition have also changed, especially with civil society initiatives (many of which will be affected severely by the new NGO law) and private capital initiatives such as the Downtown Contemporary Arts Festival. There has also been a surge in entrepreneurship catering to the upper class with many new establishments such as streetside restaurants and cafés. Of course, these ventures are limited to pockets in the city, but I think it is as an odd, even counterintuitive development that amidst the political circus of the last three years there are five new burger shops opening in Zamalek.
In the meantime, the great majority of city dwellers are still paying the highest price for the uneven distribution of services and the terrible governance, particularly on the municipal level.
What do you think of the Cairo School of Urban Studies?
The Cairo School of Urban Studies is a great idea, as Cairo is still a generative laboratory for studying urban processes and subjectivities. I think, however, that besides the edited volumes Cairo Cosmopolitan and Cairo Contested there hasn't been a consistent effort to bring the concept of the “school” to its full potential.
Diane Singerman, along with Kareem Ibrahim of Takween Integrated Development, established Tadamun, an initiative that picks up where the Cairo School of Urban Studies left off. Tadamun is an initiative with consistent output of new knowledge about the city and it is grounded in the city. Its output is easily available online in Arabic and English and they hold events and workshops in communities.
So I think the Cairo School of Urban Studies, which remains a concept, can benefit from Tadamun’s experience over the past couple of years. The “school” needs to take shape as a real space in Cairo in which events and talks take place, knowledge is produced and disseminated, and experts, scholars, activists and Cairenes meet. The downtown campus of the American University in Cairo is a possible place for such an institution to take root.
What are your plans in the near future?
In the near future I’ll be working to produce the two issues mentioned above. There is also a possibility for a special print issue supported by the Arab Council for Social Sciences. In December I am organizing a film program in collaboration with Zawia, an independent art house cinema in downtown Cairo. The theme will be “Life in the City” and the program will include documentary films that highlight particular aspects of life in Egyptian cities.
Life and Death in the Graves of Mecca and Medina
On September 1 The Independent published a piece by Andrew Johnson detailing plans by the Saudi state to move the final resting place of the Prophet Muhammad from the Masjid al-Nabawi in Medina to an unmarked grave in the nearby Baqi‘ cemetery as part of an ongoing scheme to expand the mosques of the two holy cities.
The article relies primarily on a summary of an academic study published by the Saudi Authority for the Affairs of the Masjid al-Haram and the Masjid al-Nabawi that had been provided by Irfan al-Alawi, head of the Islamic Heritage Research Foundation. Contrary to Alawi’s summary, the author of the study did not call for disinterment and reburial of the Prophet, but rather the construction of a wall to separate the Prophet’s tomb from the prayer area and the removal of all decorative motifs from the mosque, thereby preventing undue veneration of the Prophet rather than God. (See pp. 225-226.) Even so, Alawi’s reporting, most recently on the destruction of historical sites in Mecca and Medina, has circulated widely in the Arab, Iranian and Pakistani press, resonating with many Muslims who see the move as evidence of a broad “Wahhabi” assault on Islamic history, popular devotional practices and even the person of the Prophet.
While the Independent article may be exaggerated in its details, the concern for the sanctity of the Prophet’s body, the fear that it could be buried in an unmarked grave, are products not of timeless “Wahhabi” doctrine, but of a much more recent history of state formation in Mecca and Medina. It is worth reflecting on an earlier moment of destruction in Mecca and Medina, which highlights the particular political logic of the Saudi transformation of the urban devotional landscape of these cities and the attention directed at the Prophet’s grave. The armies of ‘Abd al-‘Aziz b. al-Sa‘ud (d. 1953), the founder of the Saudi state, conquered the cities of Mecca and Medina in 1924 and 1925, respectively. Early the next year, the state systematically destroyed the domed mausoleums of the Mu‘alla cemetery in Mecca and the Baqi‘ cemetery of Medina. Both housed the tombs of the Prophet’s family and companions, but Baqi‘ had been held in special reverence due to the interment there of the Prophet’s daughters, wives, aunts and, in a particularly ornate mausoleum, several of the Shi‘i imams. The graves of Baqi‘ were the object of visitation (ziyara) for both Sunni and Shi‘i Muslims, and were especially frequented during the hajj season. The Prophet’s grave in the Masjid al-Nabawi was damaged, but left intact. In all cases, the practice of visitation was vigorously policed by the committees of public virtue to ensure that pilgrims did not pray to the dead or confer on them powers reserved only for God.
But underlying the debate over the (im)permissibility of visiting tombs were two markedly different concepts of death held by a broad community of Muslims, on the one hand, and the scholars of the Saudi state, on the other. The practice of visitation and the direction of invocations and requests to the deceased, both of which were forbidden by the Saudis due to their seeming conferral of divine powers on the dead, were dependent on a particular view of death shared by many Muslim communities that assumed a continuous and affective connection with the living. Members of the South Asian Ahl al-Sunna wa-l-Jama‘a, for example, argued that the prophets, martyrs and even many pious lived on corporeally in the grave, reciting prayers and listening to the entreaties of living Muslims who visited them. Indeed, for many, the dead in the grave could feel physical pain and pleasure, not only that associated with the terrors of the grave, but also that derived from the felicitations (or insults) of the living. In this state of qualified corporeal life, in the realm of barzakh (the state between death and resurrection), the dead could act as mediators between the living believer and God, through the practice of tawassul or intercession.
Contrary to this view, the view of the ‘ulama’ aligned with the Saudis argued that although the prophets’ corpses (including that of the Prophet Muhammad) may not decay in the ground, they were unable to hear the supplications of believers and were incapable of effecting benefit or harm in the living world, powers reserved exclusively for God. Indeed, with the destruction of the tombs at Baqi‘ and the subsequent policing of religious practices by the Saudi committee for public morality, death came to be defined primarily in biological terms. The state of barzakh was understood as pertaining to knowledge of the unknown (‘ilm al-ghayb) and beyond the limits of human understanding. Even the Prophet himself was considered but a corpse in his tomb.
This understanding of the finality of death was not merely a juridical position authorized by the Qur’an and the traditions of the Prophet (or one of “Wahhabi” doctrine), but the result of the formation of a new type of Saudi governance, one that increasingly took the management of biological life (and death) as its target. It is no coincidence that the same year the mausoleums of Baqi‘ were demolished the first Saudi public health authority was established with its headquarters in Mecca and under the direction of the Syrian physician Mahmoud Hamdi. Its primary purpose was to oversee the management of public health and hygiene in the holy cities, especially during the pilgrimage season. The establishment of hospitals, dispensaries and regulations for public sanitation followed, including strict laws for recording and tending to the dead and the dying. That is, beyond regulating the ritual life of Muslims in the holy cities, the nascent Saudi state also targeted the biological lives (and deaths) of its subjects. Moreover, this new politics of life was intimately and inextricably intertwined with the government of religious belief and practice. Care of the body was now to be a common spiritual-governmental exercise overseen by the institutions of the state.
In short, reference to a rigid “Wahhabi” iconoclasm rooted in a literal reading of the Prophetic tradition provides little insight into the events of 1926 or 2014. Rather, we should look at the formation of a common economy of biopolitical and legal/theological power. Most importantly, this means asking how doctrine and the regulation of the body in life and death come together in the everyday practice of government.
The expansion of the Masjid al-Nabawi is after all only one part of a massive urban development plan that calls for the construction of new ring roads, high speed rail, apartments and flats for permanent and seasonal residents, and the expansion of public services in the city. Much of this project, couched in the language of modernization and development, is devoted to the state management of populations -- their lives, movement and security. In such an urban landscape, Baqi‘ and the Prophet’s grave will always stand out as sites at which this biopolitical order is brought into question.
Southern Yemen After the Fall of Sanaa
The mysteries in the September events in Sanaa loom large. Who decided that security forces should not try to stop the Houthis from entering the Yemeni capital? Why didn’t Hashid tribes, closely tied to the political elites of Sanaa, stop them? These are questions that southerners are asking when trying to make sense of what happened on September 21 when Ansar Allah, the militia of the Houthi political group, stormed the largest city in the north.
What many believe is that the Houthis were used by former president ‘Ali ‘Abdallah Salih to dislodge Maj. Gen. ‘Ali Muhsin al-Ahmar, a long-time player in the Yemeni political elite and his former righthand man, and to weaken al-Ahmar’s political affiliate, the Islamist party known as Islah. For decades, the Sanhan tribe to which Salih and al-Ahmar belong has monopolized power in Sanaa, excluding not only the Houthis but also the biggest tribal confederation, the Bakil. These tensions have hindered state building in northern Yemen since the 1960s, but have very little to do with the south, where the hirak, a movement for autonomy from the capital, continues to build momentum.
Southerners received the news of the Houthi takeover of Sanaa with mixed feelings. Some are optimistic that the sudden change opens up the possibility of breaking the overall political deadlock that men such as Salih created. Others see the country dragged more deeply into the great game between the Saudis and the Iranians for regional hegemony, a message that satellite channels from the Gulf repeat evening after evening. For still others, the Houthis are just hicks with no manners. Rumors spread through qat chews and social media that while the Houthis presented acceptable views on women’s role in society at the National Dialogue Conference, at home their wives have no rights whatsoever. More than ten years of disinformation in Yemeni state and independent media has borne fruit: Houthis are seen as the ultimate other. Their leader ‘Abd al-Malik al-Houthi’s assurances that the movement will meet the southerners’ demands are not believed. Instead, some prefer to follow the call of the Southern Military Council to seize control of southern cities. Headed by Muhammad Salih Tammah, this new body gathers together southern officers who were expelled from the army after the 1994 civil war to supervise the formation of a southern military force. Towns are falling outside the control of Sanaa; after Sanaa fell to the Houthis, the governor of Aden, Sanaa-nominated Islah party representative Wahid Rashid fled Aden and left his office to a deputy. It is evident that he expected Aden to be next to fall into the hands of anti-government forces. In Aden his escape was received with amusement.
The only southerner participating in Sanaa’s endless power game is President ‘Abd Rabbu Mansour al-Hadi. He may have learned the main lesson from the 30-year tenure of his predecessor Salih: Make your enemies fight each other. That the Houthis are attacking Islah party offices and homes of prominent Islahis such as Tawakkul Karman certainly indicates that he has. To southerners, it makes no difference. Hadi is seen as just as culpable as his predecessor in the assault on the south in the 1994 war and afterward.
Southerners have reacted with little enthusiasm to Hadi’s move, following the peace deal with the Houthis, to replace his political adviser with a hirak representative alongside Houthi man ‘Ali al-Sammad. The nominee, Yasin al-Makkawi, is an Adeni intellectual and hirak activist but hardly represents the movement as such. Older southerners remember that another Makkawi acted as political adviser to the British when Aden was a Crown Colony.
Local organizations loosely attached to the hirak, political parties and the mighty tribal groups of Hadramawt are busily holding meetings in Aden, Mukalla and Cairo. At issue is the search for a common leadership to shepherd the south toward successful disengagement from Sanaa. As an Adeni hirak leader put it to me, “Unification of the hirak under one leadership is a must.” While some politicians, such as the Yemeni Socialist Party’s northern wing, still believe in federation, others, including the party’s southern wing, are moving toward backing full independence.
The problem facing the hirak is to secure the cooperation of the tribes in oil-rich Hadramawt and the area further east, al-Mahra, which abhor any outside ruler. The Hadrami tribes’ meeting included local political parties and issued a call to remove the Yemeni army from Hadrami territory. But, as for autonomy from Sanaa, the meeting simply pleaded with Hadi to visit for talks about the future of the area.
The “southern peaceful revolution,” as the independence movement calls itself, is a grassroots movement. On the surface, some of its activities seem apolitical, such as efforts to restore historical monuments or demands to reopen the Sira brewery, which ran three shifts per day before it was hit by bazooka fire during the 1994 civil war. On a daily basis, though, the hirak is building up an alternative to the rule of Sanaa. Even if the hirak fails to unite as a credible political force representing the entire south, grassroots action will continue to keep Sanaa out. As tribes are capable of closing roads and seizing oilfields, there is little that Sanaa can do to regain control of the alienated south.