Saturday, 29 January 2011

We've waited for this revolution for years. Other despots should quail

Change is sweeping though the Middle East and it's the Facebook generation that has kickstarted it

#, Saturday 29 January 2011 20.00 GMT
Mona Eltahawy

My birth at the end of July 1967 makes me a child of the naksa, or setback, as the Arab defeat during the June 1967 war with Israel is euphemistically known in Arabic. My parents' generation grew up high on the Arab nationalism that Egyptian president Gamal Abdel Nasser brandished in the 1950s. But we "Children of the Naksa", hemmed in by humiliation, have spent so much of our lives uncomfortably stepping into pride's large, empty shoes.

But here now finally are our children – Generation Facebook – kicking aside the burden of history, determined to show us just how easy it is to tell the dictator it's time to go.

To understand the importance of what's going in Egypt, take the barricades of 1968 (for a good youthful zing), throw them into a mixer with 1989 and blend to produce the potent brew that the popular uprising in Egypt is preparing to offer the entire region. It's the most exciting time of my life.

How did they do it? Why now? What took so long? These are the questions I face on news shows scrambling to understand. I struggle with the magnitude of my feelings of watching as my country revolts and I give into tears when I hear my father's Arabic-inflected accent in the English of Egyptian men screaming at television cameras through tear gas: "I'm doing this for my children. What life is this?"

And Arabs from the Mashreq to the Maghreb are watching, egging on those protesters to topple Hosni Mubarak who has ruled Egypt for 30 years, because they know if he goes, all the other old men will follow, those who have smothered their countries with one hand and robbed them blind with the other. Mubarak is the Berlin Wall. "Down, down with Hosni Mubarak," resonates through the whole region.

In Yemen, tens and thousands have demanded the ousting of Ali Abdullah Saleh who has ruled them for 33 years. Algeria, Libya and Jordan have had their protests. "I'm in Damascus, but my heart is in Cairo," a Syrian dissident wrote to me.

My Twitter feed explodes with messages of support and congratulations from Saudis, Palestinians, Moroccans and Sudanese. The real Arab League; not those men who have ruled and claimed to speak in our names and who now claim to feel our pain but only because they know the rage that emerged in Tunisia will soon be felt across the region.

Brave little Tunisia, resuscitator of the Arab imagination. Tunisia, homeland of the father of Arab revolution: Mohammed Bouazizi, a 26-year-old who set himself on fire to protest at a desperation at unemployment and repression that covers the region. He set on fire the Arab world's body politic and snapped us all to attention. His self-immolation set into motion Tunisian protests that in just 29 days toppled Zine El Abidine Ben Ali's 23-year dictatorship. We watched, we said wow and we thought: that's it? Ben Ali ran away that quickly? It's that easy?

Ben Ali called his armed forces for help 27 days into the popular uprising. It took Mubarak just four days into Egypt's revolt to call the army. He had unleashed the brutality of his security forces and their riot police, but they couldn't stem the determination of the thousands who continued to demand his ousting. He put Egypt under information lock-down by shutting down the internet, Burmese-junta style, but still they came.

Ben Ali's fall killed the fear in Egypt. So imagine what Mubarak's fall could do to liberate the region. Too many have rushed in to explain the Arab world to itself. "You like your strongman leader," we're told. "You're passive, and apathetic."

But a group of young online dissidents dissolved those myths. For at least five years now, they've been nimbly moving from the "real" to the "virtual" world where their blogs and Facebook updates and notes and, more recently, tweets offered a self-expression that may have at times been narcissistic but for many Arab youths signalled the triumph of "I". I count, they said again and again.

Most of the people in the Arab world are aged 25 or are younger. They have known no other leaders than those dictators who grew older and richer as the young saw their opportunities – political and economic – dwindle. The internet didn't invent courage; activists in Egypt have exposed Mubarak's police state of torture and jailings for years. And we've seen that even when the dictator shuts the internet down protesters can still organise. Along with making "I" count, social media allowed activists to connect with ordinary people and form the kind of alliances that we're seeing on the streets of Egypt where protesters come from every age and background. Youth kickstarted the revolt, but they've been joined by old and young.

Call me biased, but I know that each Arab watching the Egyptian protesters take on Mubarak's regime does so with the hope that Egypt will mean something again. Thirty years of Mubarak rule have shrivelled the country that once led the Arab world. But those youthful protesters, leapfrogging our dead-in-the-water opposition figures to confront the dictator, are liberating all Egyptians from the burden of history. Or reclaiming the good bits.

Think back to Suez to appreciate the historic amnesia of a regime that cares only for its survival. In cracking down on protesters, Mubarak immediately inspired resistance reminiscent of the Arab collective response to the tripartite aggression of the 1956 Suez crisis. Suez, this time, was resisting the aggression of the dictator; not the former colonial powers but this time Mubarak, the dictator, as occupier.

Meanwhile, the uprisings are curing the Arab world of an opiate, the obsession with Israel. For years, successive Arab dictators have tried to keep discontent at bay by distracting people with the Israeli-Arab conflict. Israel's bombardment of Gaza in 2009 increased global sympathy for Palestinians. Mubarak faced the issue of both guarding the border of Gaza, helping Israel enforce its siege, and continuing to use the conflict as a distraction. Enough with dictators hijacking sympathy for Palestinians and enough with putting our lives on hold for that conflict.

Arabs are watching as tens of thousands of Egyptians turn Tahrir Square into the symbol of their revolt. Every revolution has its square and Tahrir (liberation in Arabic) is earning its name. This is the square Egypt uses to remember the ending of the monarchy in 1952, as well as of British occupation.

The group of young army officers who staged that coup in 1952 claimed it as a revolution, heralding an era of rule by military men who turned Egypt into a police state. Today, the army is out in Tahrir Square again, this time facing down a mass of youthful protesters determined to pull of Egypt's first real post-colonial revolution.

Monday, 24 January 2011

Religion may be a red herring when it comes to anti-Islam sentiment

Casual generalisations about Muslims often take the place of deeper discussion of migration and integration

#, Monday 24 January 2011 12.57 GMT
Nesrine Malik

The question: Is hatred of Islam now acceptable?

"Are you a practising Muslim"? is one of the first questions I am asked socially. Initially, I took it to be harmless curiosity about reconciling faith and London living. But over time, I realised that mostly it was shorthand for "Are you that kind of Muslim?" – the underlying assumption being that a practising Muslim is automatically a more extreme type than the non-practising one. While this goalpost-moving is mildly annoying, it's nothing sinister. Reassured that I am not that kind of Muslim (rather, one that although practising, is secular in outlook/dress etc) many then are comfortable to make the comments and jokes Lady Warsi claims are "Islamophobic".

Islamophobia is a strong word, and one that is too often used as a catch-all. I am not much concerned with what people express in private as long as it is not manifested in public affairs or in an intimidating or discriminatory fashion.

Has it become more commonplace to make casual generalisations about Muslims? In my experience, yes it has, but we need to discriminate between comments made in a social setting (which can result from a combination of social awkwardness, tasteless sense of humour, general clumsiness or a way to make people feel better about themselves by agonising over the woman next door who wears a burqa) and others that are made by columnists, opinion leaders and politicians.

These are the avowals that lend such opinions an air of respectable legitimacy – where fear of Islam then bleeds into the political sphere and starts stepping on the toes of freedom. Philip Hollobone's attempt last year to ban women in burqas from attending his surgery was a manifestation of this and fringe parties can then also annex general discomfort into political capital and support. This is the creeping discourse that see many practising Muslims being classed as extreme.

This is not to say that people should self-censor and default to muted political correctness, another cul de sac. But a more nuanced reflection would be helpful, one that focuses on social exclusion, poverty, the climate in Muslim cultures of origin and real, existing negative practices – rather than banging on about verses in the Qur'an. More often than not Islam is brought up to avoid tackling the more complicated and emotive topics of immigration and integration. It is convenient shorthand for Muslims as well, where religion is closely tied to search for identity and expression, and Islamophobia an easy cop out from seriously engaging and claiming responsibility for community isolation.

True, there is a special place in atheist hell reserved for Islam but Britain's tradition of integration and inclusion is more robust than the cheap sensationalistic shots of Richard Dawkins et al. Indeed, in the wake of Hollobone's attempt to ban burqa-clad women, representatives of Liberty were looking into whether his endeavour was in violation of the Equality Act.

The truth is somewhere between Victoria Coren's trivialising and Giles Fraser's pronunciations that Islamophobia is the moral blindspot of modern Britain. Lady Warsi was right to tackle the rising tide of anti-Islam sentiment but was wrong to root it in the fact that the new secular intellectual drift has no tolerance for people like her who "get God". Religion may be a red herring in this instance. I do think most religious practices are seen as anachronistic or just plain weird in an increasingly godless society but that's not the starting point with regards to Islam. It's about being a distinct minority under the spotlight and how the political/social body is reacting and coming to terms with it

Nesrine Malik is a Sudanese-born writer and commentator who lives in London. She previously worked in the financial sector