The Egyptian Inquisition

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— By: Alexandra Kinias –

The hopes of 24 years old school teacher Demiana Abdel-Nour to return home from self-exile were postponed indefinitely, on June 16, 2014, when the Egyptian appeals court upheld a blasphemy conviction against her and sentenced her to six months in prison, in addition to the earlier ruling that only imposed a fine of LE 100,000. Among the many challenges taking place in Egypt, the developments in Abdel-Nour’s case were sidelined by most Egyptian media.

The young teachers’ nightmare started in May 2013, when parents of three of her pupils, accused her of insulting Islam and the Prophet Muhammad by saying that the late Pope Shenouda III performed more miracles than the Prophet. They also alleged that she placed her hand on her stomach to convey nausea when mentioning the Prophet. These accusations were entirely based on the testimony of the three students, all under the age of ten. Abdel-Nour denied all allegations, and the school administration as well as the confessions of ten other students acknowledged that there was no truth to any of those claims. Yet on filing the charges, the young teacher was immediately arrested and thrown in jail, pending investigations of the charges.

Two weeks into her arrest and after going on a hunger strike Abdel-Nour was released on LE 20,000 bail. Soon after she fled to France, in fear of the consequences, after the court refused her defense request to admit witnesses and reports demonstrating her innocence. And according to her lawyer, she was mentally preparing herself to seek asylum in France if the courts ruled against her, which is exactly what happened.

The incident of Abdel-Nour is not an isolated one, but another in the long strand of events that target the Coptic minorities and affirms that the religious intolerance is steadily increasing. It is only predictable that this phenomenon that has grown roots in the society will eventually become a trait in the absence of the supervision of civil institutions. However, what came as a disappointment was that this verdict was the first after the new constitution has promised equality and freedom of religion to all Egyptians.

Defamation of religion is a phenomenon that is practiced in societies where religious extremism is rooted. In such societies, zealots condemn, prosecute and kill those who speak out against their faith, while giving themselves the license to do and say the exact same against other religions. With the rise of conservatism, Egypt is aggressively following in the footsteps of countries that have been labeled among the worse in freedom of religion. And while it didn’t come as a surprise what the young teacher had to go through, I somehow had hoped for a miracle that would reverse the heritage of long decades of ignorance and intolerance, forgetting that magic wands are only used in fairy-tales.

Abdel-Nour’s case reminded me of the Spanish-American movie “Goya’s Ghosts” by Milos Forman that took place during the time of the Spanish inquisition where Muslims and Jews were prosecuted for practicing their faith. Ines, a young catholic woman, the character played by Natalie Portman, was accused of being a heretic because she decides not to eat a pork roast; a dish she particularly doesn’t favor, that was served to her in a tavern. And before she knew it, she was tortured by the Inquisition on the accounts that her dietary choice is dictated not by taste but by her clandestine conversion to Judaism. Ines was sent to 15 years in jail on the alleged charges, with no proof.

Abdel-Nour’s case was similar to Natalie Portman’s character in “Goya’s Ghosts”. While the fate of Ines was decided by speculations, Abdel-Nour’s was decided by the testimonies of three school kids under the age of ten.

Unfortunately, Abdel-Nour’s will not be the last case of blasphemy Egypt will witness in the near future. If the fate of a young woman was decided by the testimonials of three under age school children, we might as well bid adieu to a country that was once a safe haven to all religions. And unless the government that has promised equality and religious freedom and safety to its Coptic minority exerts tangible measures, together with social organizations, to promote civility into a society that has been injected with religious intolerance for many decades, one fears that Egypt may revert back to medieval times.

Sectarian tension won’t simply vanish overnight by just adding a clause in the constitution, but by working hard to burn out the sentiments that ignite them, from both sides. And Abdel-Nour’s case is yet another example that has left a bitter taste in the mouths of all Copts. For it is not merely about a person sentenced to jail, but of the right of citizenship that is divided equally among the partners of the land.

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Why there will be no Third revolution in Egypt?

— By Said Sadek

—– History is full of more unsuccessful uprisings and revolutions than successful ones. Inability to read the balance of powers, social-political and global situation always leads to failure:

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Here are the reasons why the planned uprising by the Muslim Brotherhood on the 3rd of July is going to be another failure.

1. The Brotherhood had failed during one year to mount any big demonstration or even a million to join any demo.

2. Reading the explosions in Itihadya as a sign that the Interior Ministry and Defense Establishment in Egypt are weak and conclude that the historical moment is ripe for an armed uprising is a FATAL mistake. A security failure here or there to prevent a terror operation does not mean that the interior Ministry cannot face an armed uprising with its leaders and locations known in advance. A booby trapped terror incident is not an armed uprising. Big mistake if you mix the two situations.

3. The 30th of June ruling coalition in Egypt consists of (Upper, middle classes, urbanites, Filoul, business, women, Copts, the Deep state is still strong while the revolutionary camp is fragmented and lacks credibility for supporting Morsi and reblling against him. A similar situation is occurring with Tamord that supported Sisi and now splitting against him. No credibility anymore in the eyes of public opinion. . The Muslim Brotherhood feels trapped further especially with growing international support and recognition of the Sisi regime. To have a successful uprising, the government must be totally unpopular. This is not the case yet for Sisi who had just officially assumed power. Mehleb Government takes difficult economic decisions but is still respected and no one accuses Sisi or Mehlb of corruption as the case was under Mubarak regime. So mobilizing masses against a respected government is more difficult task.

4. To have a successful uprising you need the support of many classes and forces. This is totally lacking at the current moment. Also if no sizable part of the police or army joins you, Allah blesses your soul in your grave or in jail for life if you are lucky.

5. Ramadan culture and consumerism will make most people either spectators or join the government to beat those who try to disturb their gradually returning to stability state. Fasting and hot weather will not push people to the streets but to stay home. Weather and Ramadan are against any uprising now. Successful uprisings take place under good weather conditions.

6. Revolutionary change in a society is never complete, and the outcomes are highly variable. Elements of the old order live on, as they did in France after 1789 and Russia after 1917, confounding the idealistic intentions which launched the revolution. Hence Filoul [ Mubarak's supporters] continue to be part of the political scene in Egypt.

7. Revolution is a long historical process. Change takes time. Changing an institution takes decades not a year or two. You need training and re-education of the bureaucracy.

8. If you are against the military rule and Islamists, do you have realistic alternative? Political realism is lacking. You need to read properly the Egyptian political reality and come down to earth.

9. A slogan to mobilize Egyptians to bring Morsi back will abort any uprising before it starts. Mobilizing Egyptians for the continuing economic problems now also won’t help. Egyptians after 3 years of uprisings are exhausted and won’t do it again as this will not lead to inevitable prosperity and security . Revolution is no longer the main choice of the majority of the masses or the credible influential elite.

10. Revolutions are not as easy to call for like home delivery pizza . Because Egyptians made 2 revolutions in three years this does not mean that the Third one is going to be free or coming soon. For successful rebellions, it must happen at the right place, at the right time, and be led by the right people. This is not available now in Egypt. Islamists are the wrong people to lead a revolution now.

11. Arab culture is not famous for producing smart politicians among opposition or governments. Of the worst politicians islamists take the lead. Note the Muslim Brotherhood spent 80 years to reach power and could not stay in power for more than a year . This is no compliment.

12. Revolutionaries and islamists have a failed vision of history and need to read more about the sociology and history of revolution and social psychology of public opinion.

13. Pro-Islamist street operators and planners of uprisings have been a failure for a year. I don’t see any change Thursday 3rd of July.

14. The aim of this drummed up uprising is psychological stress, trying to get international pressures to get the Brothers back into the political scene before parliamentary elections and prevent internal explosions inside the Muslim Brotherhood.

15. If Islamists are counting on the international community to save their skins and prevent the Egyptian Government from cracking down on them violently this time, they are committing another fatal mistake. The government did not bow to international criticism for mass capital sentences against islamists nor the jailing sentences against Aljazeera illegal correspondents in Egypt. So don’t count on any foreign pressure to save you if you start using guns or Molotov. Government firepower is still stronger.

16. The media are against the Islamists and their uprisings. This means the message reaching the masses to mobilize or not is controlled by the ruling class not any counter-culture trend. Alternative media are not totally on your side.

Dr. Said Sadek  is a Professor/Political Commentator/ Media and academic consultant ·

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The Virtual Revolution of Iranian Women

– By: Alexandra Kinias —

In defiance to the rule of the Mullahs that hijacked their liberties and rights and has been keeping them hostage for the past 35 years, women in Iran have finally been given a global platform and an opportunity to share with the world their stolen moments of freedom. Thanks to the young exiled Iranian British journalist Masih Alinejad who created ‘My Stealthy Freedom’ [1], a Facebook page that became the voice for Iranian women to share their photos without their headscarves and to reveal their true sentiments about Hijab and how it has shaped their lives.

It all started when Alinejad shared her photograph on Facebook that was taken while she was running down a London street without a headscarf, and which she accompanied with the comment, “Every time that I run in London, feeling the wind in my hair, I remember that my hair is like a hostage in the hands of the Islamic Republic government.” [2]

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Masih Alinejad running down a London street without a headscarf. Photo taken from Facebook

“I was sure that most Iranian women who don’t believe in the forced hijab have enjoyed freedom in secret,” she says [3]. She asked her friends and followers if they would too like to share their experiences of stealthy freedom from their headscarves. However, she had not anticipated that this invitation to share their stolen moments of freedom would create such a global buzz. With the scores of photos she received from Iranian women who responded to her call, the page attracted the attention of the world and exposed the realities of the conditions that these women are living in. And within less than a month, her post had ignited a movement that gained enormous momentum and sparked a virtual revolution that exceeded the expectations of Alinejad herself. The page was followed by more than a quarter of a million people from every corner of the globe, and counting. They joined to support these women who are fighting a battle to achieve their basic human right and to applaud their bravery and their act of rebellion against the status-quo, and a tyrannical regime. What was even more compelling was the encouragement that these women received from Iranian men who supported them in their battle. Many of the photos were taken with or by husbands, fathers, sons and often boyfriends. Yet with their hands tied there isn’t much they can do, for they too suffer under this theocratic rule.

On her Facebook page and in various interviews, Alinejad explained that she had not created ‘My Stealthy Freedom’ with a political intent and neither is she against the veil that her mother is still wearing back home in Iran, – but [rather to support] the right of Iranian women to choose either way. “I have no intention whatsoever to encourage people to defy the forced hijab or stand up against it,” she said. “I just want to give voice to thousands and thousands of Iranian women who think they have no platform to have their say.” [4]

And as agreed by many contributors to the page, their objection is not to the veil, but to its compulsion. On the contrary, many attributed their dismay with the veil is because of their lack of choice. Had they been given the free will to choose, some women confessed that they might have considered to be veiled.

The rigid dress code imposed on the women in Iran doesn’t allow them to choose what they wear in public. And walking the streets without the proper Islamic attire that consists of a chador and a headscarf subjects them to punishments that may vary from a fine to verbal warning, and often detention that can last for few hours, after which a male relative; a brother, father or a husband has to collect them in person from the police station.

The smiles of the women enjoying their stolen moments without the headscarves and their testimonials captured the hearts of people worldwide. ‘My Stealthy Freedom’ posted photos of women of all ages standing in green fields, on snow summits, on the beach, at work, on sand dunes, in the streets, driving their cars and wherever they got a chance to steal these moments away from the eyes of the morality police. With their headscarves held up high and billowing in the wind like colorful banners, some faces were concealed with dark glasses; some women gave their backs to the lens while others gazed daringly to the camera. But none-the-less they all had their hair flaunting on their shoulders, dancing in the wind, as many wrote.

In a photo, where three generations of women from the same family smiled to the camera, the grandmother who stood next to her daughter and granddaughter wrote, “We wish that the new generation tastes this most basic freedom before their hair goes gray. Is this too much to ask?”

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Three generations in one frame at a corner of the street. Photo from Facebook

The heartwarming testimonials of those joyful moments are memorable, yet it is still painful to read what it feels like for these women to be denied a simple pleasure that is taken for granted elsewhere. All they want is the right to choose what to wear. Their stories reinforce the belief that theocratic regimes are out there to steal people’s rights of choice, and happiness. It is not just a head cover, but a sign of control enforced by the government. “[The] hijab is about control,” Alinjejad says. And the “Iranian regime would never want to lose control. [5]

In one photo a woman is standing on the beach with a wide grin on her face and holding the scarf in her hands above her head. “I’ll let the wind blow away the darkness of my scarf. I’ll let the blaze of hope of individual freedom shine in my heart and keep my soul bright and vivid.”

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I’ll let the wind blow away the darkness of my scarf. Photo from Facebook

In another photo where the caption shows that it was shot in 2003, a woman in dark sunglasses stood on the beach with her 6 years old next to her in her bathing suit, her head tilted and her blond curly hair falling on her shoulder. “Despite the fact that there were many police officers there and my family did not think it was a good idea to take my scarf off, I did it; because I really felt like letting my hair feel the wind a little bit. I yearned to turn into a drop of water in the sea. I hope my 6-year old daughter will never have to enjoy her freedom stealthily.”

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I did it because I really felt like letting my hair feel the wind a little bit. I hope my 6-year old daughter will never have to enjoy her freedom stealthily.” Photo from Facebook

A woman giving her back to the camera and looking at extended green meadows wrote, “This is Iran. The feeling of the wind blowing through every strand of hair, is a girl’s biggest dream.”

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“ The feeling of the wind blowing through every strand of hair, is a girl’s biggest dream.”

Another woman wrote, “It felt like God was caressing our hair with his own hands.”

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“It felt like God was caressing our hair with his own hands.” Photo copied from facebook

Alinejad came under attack from conservatives and fundamentals in Iran who accused her of working with foreign governments to promote promiscuous behaviors. She had also been exposed to smear campaigns and would be arrested if she returned to Iran for spreading immorality, “I’m a journalist, I’m doing my job,” she said. “I’m reporting about what exists in Iran, I’m not creating anything.” [6]

In response to her Facebook page, hardcore Islamists rallied the streets of Tehran to call on the government to enforce the country’s strict Islamic dress code for women and to take actions to stop the influence of Westernization that is invading the country. “The youth should be vigilant and be aware that the same enemy that has blocked our access to nuclear science is trying to drive us towards abandoning the hijab and towards corruption,” said one young protester, adding, “It is the same enemy. I ask all my good friends to do a little bit more thinking first, and then do whatever they want.” [7]

Ironically, it was the voice of women who joined this rally that demanded the government to take actions against other women who don’t want to comply with the enforced dress code and warned that they will start another revolution if the Hijab situation does change. And while women pro-hijab are given the right to demonstrate, those who are against it are denied such right.

Even though President Rohani has taken a less strict view of the dress code, allowing looser clothing to be worn in the hot summer months, saying the emphasis should be on virtue rather than fashion [8], yet, his voice is silenced by the conservative Iran’s Revolutionary Guards who have more power than the president when it comes to enforcing the country’s Islamic laws, including the enforcement of the dress code.

In Iran, where demonstrators are crushed and opposition in hunted down, ‘My Stealthy Freedom’ gave women an opportunity to rally against their oppressor from behind their computer screens and their voices echoed worldwide. It is too early to predict how this movement will unfold or what the fate of these courageous women who stood in the front lines exposing their lives to danger would be. No one is immune from the consequences of their actions when governed by tyrannical oppressive regimes, especially the ones that are concealed under the religious cloaks. What this movement had succeeded so far to accomplish is that it has exposed the lies and the fake image that the Islamic government has been projecting to the west. The news about women’s rights in Iran has always been portrayed from one side. Thanks to the cyber age and the social media for playing a viable role in making the voices of the oppressed women heard. ‘My Stealthy Freedom’ is a drop in the ocean for these women who put their lives in the crossfire to pave the road to the future generations to be able to enjoy their freedom.

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“Hoping for the day when all my nation’s women can taste freedom with their whole bodies and souls.” Photo from Facebook

“Hoping for the day when all my nation’s women can taste freedom with their whole bodies and souls,” one woman wrote.

(All pictures are copied from the Facebook page, “My Stealthy Freedom” and its creator’s Masih Alinejad’s page. The property and copyright are of their respective owners)

References:
1- My Stealthy Freedom
2 – Iranian women defy law, shed hijabs in public for ‘Stealthy Freedoms’ campaign

http://www.ctvnews.ca/world/iranian-women-defy-law-shed-hijabs-in-public-for-stealthy-freedoms-campaign-1.1824491#ixzz32lNgfuIG

3- ibid
4- ibid
5. The Facebook page where Iran’s women are unveiling on line

http://www.thedailybeast.com/articles/2014/05/18/the-facebook-page-where-iran-s-women-are-unveiling-online.html

6- Iranian women defy law, shed hijabs in public for ‘Stealthy Freedoms’ campaignhttp://www.ctvnews.ca/world/iranian-women-defy-law-shed-hijabs-in-public-for-stealthy-freedoms-campaign-1.1824491#ixzz32lNgfuIG
7- Iran women’s “stealthy freedom” dress code backlash

http://www.euronews.com/2014/05/17/iran-women-s-stealthy-freedom-dress-code-backlash/

8-ibid

 

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Changes

Article and photographs by: Bente Haarstad

Published with author’s approval.

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Norway have changed a great deal the last years. The population has grown more than 10 percent in just a few years. Now we are 5.1 million people, 0.5 million more than in 2005. All this growth because of immigration, because Norwegians are like the rest of Western Europe, in decline. Immigrants now accounts for 15 percent of the population, in the capital Oslo, 31 percent, and for the third year in a row Muhammad is the most popular name for newborn boys. It used to be Per, or Ole.

These photos are from a walk in Oslo a short time back. That is a part of the city called Greenland (Grønland). “I can honestly say that when I walk through the streets of Greenland where I live, it does not feel as though I live in Norway,” wrote Mina Bai recently. She is a refugee from Iran living in Norway: “It feels more like it’s Norway that has been integrated into other cultures than that immigrants are integrated in Norway. Covered women, big halal banners, coffee and tea houses filled with men and with mosques collection consists only of men” (my translation).

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I took these pictures in March, and I must say it was a shock for me to not only see numerous women completely covered in niqab walking the streets, but also shops selling full cover for children. It was a shock because I have been supporting human rights and womens rights since an early age, and I live in a country that rank as one of the most equal countries in the world. Haven’t I heard that these things is a matter of free choice? Yes, absolutely, and I don’t belive it. In these matters I listen to feminists who knows better, like Egyptian Mona Eltahawy. In this brilliant interview with Al Jazeera she comment about niqabs: if somebody chooses to be a slave, am I supposed to support that choice, because they chose it?” You can read a transcript here.

Walking in this district of Oslo I passed four mosques in a matter of few minutes. That is also a big change. Norway have been a Christian country for 1000 years, and until 30-40 years ago it was more or less the only religion, except for a few Jews, a few atheists etc. In 1974 a group of 20-30 muslims of Pakistani origin established the first mosque in Norway, Islamic Culture Centre. Since then there are many, and about 200.000 muslims. In comparision there are about 1300 Jews in Norway.

But is it a problem? No religion is a problem for me. Religion is a personal matter as I see it, but it is of course also culture, history, communal rituals, and not the least: politics. And we have got our share of political Islam by these changes. And that is certainly a problem, a problem that large parts of the Norwegian society do not take seriously. Partly because they do not know enough, partly because the subject is not politically correct.

The Nordic countries, these small countries on the brinck of the North Pole are exporting Syria-bound jihadists. About 40-50 Norwegian jihadists have gone to Syria to fight for extremist groups, and at least six of them are believed to be killed. Last week we got news of two, among them Norwegian-Albanian Egzon Avdyli (25) who is said to have been killed fighting for the al-Qaeda-group Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL). When this was known a leader from The Islamic Council Norway, an organization for 43 mosques and muslim organizations in Norway, commented that “there is not a big difference between the combat training that Norwegian Muslims get in Syriaand the training given in the military service.” Well, that is not true. I would say it is the opposite: The military training given in Norway is to be able to defend a democracy if neccessary, while organizations like ISIL wants to abolish democracies and impose totalitarian rule.Some wants to start in the Western country they live in, like Anjem Choudary, a British islamist who also have followers in Scandinavia. In this video he talks about why there should be sharia laws in the UK.

Less than eights months ago about 70 innocent people were brutally murdered in a shopping mall in Kenya. A Norwegian citizen is believed to have been among the al-Shabaab terrorists, also a group connected to al-Qaeda. Norwegian media writes about this for a couple of weeks, then it gets silent, hardly a word since then. I know this suspect is probably dead and can’t defend himself, but I still find it strange. This terrible incident have so many similarities with the terrorist Anders Behring Breivik, who less than three years ago killed 77 innocent people in Norway, also because of a crazy political idea. I find 4.5 million hits if I google Behring Breivik, only a few if I google Nordmann + Westgate. Strange since they are both terrorists from peaceful Norway. The big diference must be the etnicity. Or the religion they used as alibi for atrocity.

So why mention all this after a stroll in Oslo? Because I think this country is changing too fast, and because we have failed in integration. Not only failed of course. There are immigrants who do perfectly well,  as scientists, many journalists in major newsrooms, and we had a Muslim in our last government. But we also have a lot of immigrants who don’t talk Norwegian (among them 14.000 schoolchildren only in Oslo), more than 5000 asylum seekers who the local communities refuse to settle, schools with hardly any Norwegian pupils, thousands of illiterates who will maybe never get an education or a job, an increasing number of poor families, and a new working class. Many immigrants have problems getting a job, and if they do it will often be a low paid one.

The largest groups of immigrants in Norway is people from Sweden and Poland, who come here to work. But we are also among the countries that grants most asylum applications, 46 percent got a “yes” in 2013. The European Union  granted refugee status to 15 percent of the asylum seekers last year.

Somalis are now the largest group of immigrants from non-western countries in Norway. Last month it was revealed that hundreds of Somali children have been sent abroad alone, many because they don’t want their children to be too “Norwegian”.  They come as refugees, but do they really need protection if they send their children back to that same country? And why are so many immigrants (not all by all means) against the values and human rights in their new country if persecution made them flee ? And why threats or attacks on people of their own community who don’t behave in “the old way”. The lesbian writer Amal Aden is one example, or the musician and director Deeyah, of Pakistani origin, who had to flee Norways because of threats from her own community. Last year she won an Emmy Award for her film Banaz A Love Story, about honour killing. Deeyah has not moved back to Norway were she was born, and I wonder if eyes are still closed.

There are 14.800 people in Norway now waiting for asylum, or to be sent back. Sweden receives even more refugeesNine out of ten asylum seekers have no paperwork on who they are. Sweden gives them permit to stay in a far greater extent than other Nordic countries. In Sweden there is even less discussions on this topic than in Norway. And you can loose your job if you do, claims the former journalist Gunnar Sandelin. He has written abook together with Karl-Olov Arnstberg that is bestselling even if it is said to have got only one devastating review in Sweden (“Same old rascism in a new wrapping”). I agree with a Norwegian editor that comment on the lack of debate “If one does not discuss the numbers and also the resourcespeople come withhow can one then discuss what is needed for creating sustainable societyAnd if you do not discuss numbershow do you thenhave an overall plan for the reception?” But it is a difficult topic to write about, the possibility of being misunderstood is imminent.

Tony Blair are among the spokesmen that have warned about radical Islam lately. Researchers in UK have recently revealed that radical Muslim clerics based also in countries like USA and Australia are using social media to incite westerners waging jihad in Syria.  In Nigeria the Nobel Prize Winner Professor Wole Soyinka in the same way now warns against Boko Haram threatening humanity, after the abduction of more than 200 school girls by the islamist group. This week the leader of the group sent out a video with a horrifying message. I think it is time to fight such groups and such destructive ideologies even if they live amongst us, not the least if they live amongst us. And to support the moderate and secular, like Ahmed Akkari, a Danish imam who started a fire by damning Muhammad cartoons some years ago, now a former islamist.

Some pages I recommend: Mona EltahawyThe Islamic Far Right of BritainHate Speech InternationalQui Sont les Freres Musulmans/Hva er det muslimske brorskapetMuslims Facing TomorrowFree ArabsOpplyste muslimer,

No person in these pictures are in any way involved in any of the stories mentioned.

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Egypt’s cultural decline and the boiling frog theory

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–By: Alexandra Kinias

With the abhorring cultural decline in Egypt one can’t help but draw a correlation between such decline and the rise of radical or what became known as political Islam, that has swiped the country and already mutated into terrorism in the name of God.

It is quite a thorny thought that on first impulse, may initiate fervor attacks and criticism from devout Muslims. However, it is not Islam that is under attack, but rather the actions of radical sheiks and religious scholars who have appointed themselves custodians of the faith; the neo-Islam. These fanatics believe that by demolishing the culture of beauty and creativity from the hearts and minds of people, and by filling the vacuum with God’s teachings that they have falsely misinterpreted to support their doctrine, that would enable them to resurrect their lost Caliphate.

The warped mentalities of zeal and fanaticism  that ceased to evolve since the Middle Ages, persist on rejecting any adaptation to exist within the contemporary boundaries of modernity, except, of course, the use of modern devices, gadgets and weapons that enable them to spread their venomous belief  of hatred, intolerance and annihilation of the other.

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They are fighting arts and science today and ignoring that the Islamic Caliphate thrived in Baghdad and Andalusia when the Emirs embraced tolerance and enlightenment. At the peak of the Andalusian and Abbasid Dynasties when Arabs were more advanced, refined and cultured than the neighboring lands, arts, music, science, philosophy and literature thrived. And no historian would refute that the light of the Islamic civilization went out when they followed the rigorous creeds of fanatic scholars.

Egypt, once the beacon in the Middle East; its culture has not just gone stagnant, but is also sliding into the dark ages with tangible decline that the country has not witnessed in more than a century. Anyone who would refute the idea that Islamists were to blame, since they were in power for just one year, must remember that the destruction of the cultural identity had started over half a century ago. The Islamists whom their target is to wipe the Egyptian identity were the catalyst added to the equation and who played a viable role in expediting the process.  In other words, the rise of Wahhabism influence imported from the Arabian Sahara was directly proportional to the deterioration of the cultural standards of the people. The decay in the cultural infrastructure of Egyptians has left its fingerprints everywhere. The masses are no longer appreciative of music, literature or fine arts. And with the plummeting cultural standards many Egyptians, who are nostalgic to the good old times, are wondering what the hell had happened to the artistic taste of the people.

Affected by collective reasons, the snow ball that had started rolling with Nasser’s military coup d’état in 1952 had gained momentum along the way. For many years after the military coup, and until Nasser’s death and beyond, Egypt was the cultural beacon that shone on the surrounding lands. It may be more truthful and accurate to describe Egypt during that time as a vehicle that was still moving with the momentum of the past era. Music, theater, movies, opera, ballet, folkloric and other forms of dancing, and arts thrived prior to Nasser and kept rolling by the force of inertia until it finally ran out of momentum.

The era prior to Nasser’s military coup was referred to as la belle époque. This era started with the reign of the Khedive Ismail (1830 –1895) which was a period of extreme extravaganza in the Egyptian history as Cairo became the mirror image of Paris, both architecturally and socially.  This era reached its peak with the majestic celebrations of the opening of the Suez Canal in 1879. And during the time of the descendants of the Khedive Ismail and from the cultural, social and literary heritage represented in movies, books, music, and art collections, Egypt was not inferior to European countries.1

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Khedive Ismail with world leaders at the inauguration of the Suez Canal

With the international acclaim that came with the Suez Canal, Egypt became a magnet that attracted artists, architects, writers, merchants and businessmen from all over the world. They settled in Egypt, blended in this cosmopolitan society and lived in harmony with Egyptians. These expatriate communities were pivotal in the building of the thriving culture.

Unlike Mohamed Ali, the founder of modern Egypt, and his successors, Nasser’s dreams or illusions – depends on which side of the spectrum one stands – of creating a Pan-Arab state and bringing Egypt back to the sphere of the Arab realm, was a repellent to the expatriate community. To achieve his dreams Nasser stomped on the bodies of the foreigners and the Egyptian Jews. His vision not only failed to unite the Arabs, but also deprived Egypt of a community that had enriched it culturally, professionally, economically and socially. And while it was fortunate for the neighboring countries to inhale the richness of the Egyptian culture, they contributed nothing to Egypt but their impoverishment; then, oil had not yet been discovered.

With the forced or voluntary expulsion of expatriates who were major contributors to the Egyptian cultural life, a vacuum was left in many sectors of the society. And without having a new experienced generation to step in and fill the gap; many activities eventually faded. And as the older generation of Egyptians who grew up living in this cosmopolitan environment aged and perished, it was replaced with a newer one that had already been bred with minimal interest or appreciation to arts and beauty.

The cultural decline that had started during Nasser’s time was politically and not religiously motivated.  In one of the most failed moves by a leader, the sequestration of assets and properties included movie theaters, studios, labs, music and movies production companies that belonged to both Egyptians and non-Egyptians. Under his dictatorship, the censorship bureau thrived and set new standards for books and movies’ production.  It is no surprise that the government control of the entertainment business propelled the decline. Nasser, with all his faults, however, may be credited for curbing the influence of the Muslim Brotherhood [MB] who were after closing down the entertainment business altogether. With the crack down on them and as they became enemy of the state, the MB understood that they won’t be able to overpower Nasser, so they changed their strategy. Instead of fighting the leaders they brainwashed the people. With the death of Nasser in 1971, the snowball of cultural decline that had started rolling kept gaining momentum. Inevitably by then the MB had already entered the scene.

The MB and the other groups that were spawned out of it, adopt a rigorous creed that battles human creativity and arts in all its forms: music, sculpture, photography, dancing and painting. They consider such activities as a waste of the Muslim’s time that should be spent in worshiping his God. With no appreciation for culture or arts, the neo-Islamists’ continuous battle has and always been the destruction of both the Egyptian identity and culture to be easier for them to control the people. They view the monuments of the ancient Egyptian civilization as idols that should be destroyed; same as the Taliban destroyed the Buddha Statues in Bamian.  Also in their footsteps the Taliban justified the burning of books and films’ reals of Afghani movies produced prior to their rule thus wiping out the cultural heritage of the country. And following the same creed, the books of the Andalusian philosopher Averroes were collected and burned during the reign of the Andalusian Emir Al Mansour who ruled from 1884 AD – 1199AD. Averroes, known in Arabic as Ibn Rushd, was the founding father of secular thought in Western Europe and whose work was the base of the 13th century philosophical movement. Burning the books of this great philosopher was among the many nails in the coffin of the Andalusian Caliphate.

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I don’t want to keep beating a dead horse, but history would be distorted if we ignored that the 30 years of Mubarak’s corrupt regime contributed immensely to the decline of all human values. Mubarak, a leader with no vision, had set the clock back to the dark ages. The last generation born under his rule had been living in nothing but a cultural decline. And the boiling frog theory could easily be applied to both the older and younger generation of Egyptians whom their culture was being destroyed gradually and steadily.

The boiling frog story is a widespread anecdote describing a frog slowly being boiled alive. The premise is that if a frog is placed in boiling water, it will jump out, but if it is placed in cold water that is slowly heated, it will not perceive the danger and will be cooked to death. The story is often used as a metaphor for the inability or unwillingness of people to react to significant changes that occur gradually. And that’s exactly what happened to Egyptians.

The neo-Islamists and with the golden opportunity handed to them of the absolute no reaction from the Mubarak’s administration towards the changes that were introduced through them into the society; they were able over three decades to sow the seeds that advocated against culture and arts as anti-religious. And with the punishment of God’s wrath hovering over the heads of those who are involved in them, arts were abandoned and creativity was chocked. And gradually they succeed in wiping out the remnants of a culture that was once glowing and a glorious civilization that had once been.   But they continue on this slippery slope, Egyptians who were submerged inside the boiling pot where the frog was being boiled are finally feeling the heat and are wondering in apprehension how the decline had reached this deteriorating level.

Unfortunately there are no short term solutions. The road to reformation is long and bumpy. There are no miracles or magic wands that would reverse the damage that the nation had been subjected to, but no hope is ever lost. Egyptians are well aware that there is a problem and acknowledging that is the first step to solve it. Salvaging the Egyptian culture is a mass scale project. It is the responsibility of every Egyptian. They owe it to the future generations.

Reference:

1. Egypt’s Belle Epoque: Cairo and the Age of the Hedonists Paperback by Trevor Mostyn

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The Power of the Pen

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By: Alexandra Kinias —

Original article published in Kalimat Magazine

In June 2010, Yasmin Helal was attending a film festival in Cairo. Three children approached her asking for money. She had no change to give them, but Helal had three school bags in her car trunk that she was donating to a charitable organization. So instead of sending the kids away, she gave each a school bag. This simple act of goodness changed not just the children’s lives but Helal’s as well. The events of that night culminated with the young engineer quitting her job and founding Educate-Me, a non-governmental organisation (NGO) that was initially founded to help reinstate dropouts back to school. In its short lifetime, however, Educate-Me has broadened its mission, becoming an organisation that also tries to improve the well-being of underprivileged children. Educate-Me is also developing special educational programs for children to help them improve their skills and enable them to pursue their future dreams. Helal was attending a conference in Boston, Massachusetts where I had the chance to talk with her.

“I was selected among ten other candidates, after winning the entrepreneurship competition of NEGMA, the American-based NGO, back in March 2013, to attend an accelerator program and to present my project at MIT,” Helal explained.

NEGMA was established by seven Egyptian-American and Egyptian professionals from the Harvard and MIT communities after the January 25th uprising. They wanted to have an impact on the social and economic needs in Egypt by empowering entrepreneurs and innovators who are developing programs to solve some of Egypt’s significant challenges. To support this vision, the NEGMA Conference was established to help translate ideas into action for a brighter future for Egypt. And since education is a topic that cannot be ignored, it was no surprise that Educate-Me was among those selected by NEGMA.

Helal goes on to say that the “accelerator program started with attending the Harvard Arab weekend conference then followed by workshops and field visits to other organisations and schools. The workshops have been really helpful in terms of covering different topics that we had identified as potential areas of development, and the field visits gave us access to a network.

Helal recalled how this organization project started. On that same night she gave away the three school bags, she was approached by a middle-aged man asking her for school bags for his daughters. “I had no more bags, but I promised to bring him the bags the following day. I also learned that his daughters dropped out of school because he couldn’t afford the small tuition. I told myself that I will confirm his story and if in fact he was telling the truth, I will pay for their tuition. At the same time, I thought this is not enough, because I was certain that there are many similar cases like his. These cases needed more effort from our side to be able to reach them. At this point I decided to start this project with a goal to look for dropout children who could not afford the tuition and reinstate them back to school. I wanted to give them a chance like the chances we were given in our lives.”

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Educate – Me classroom

Helal, who graduated with a biomedical engineering degree with honours from Cairo University, was also a player for the Egyptian Basketball National Team. She quit her job at the telecom giant Alcatel-Lucent, where she worked as a Middle East and Africa Network Design Engineer, to launch her NGO—which raised a lot of eyebrows. When asked about the challenges she had launching her project, Helal responded, “One of the main challenges I faced was the social pressure I was exposed to when I decided to quit my engineering job and dedicate my full time to Educate-Me. This was not familiar to our culture. The whole social entrepreneurship ecosystem is not yet mature or empowered like it is in the West. It was also challenging to find the right people who shared the same passion and vision for a better education.”

Helal continued, “Even though my initial aim for Educate-Me was a small fundraising initiative that assists in reinstating school dropouts back to school, I was lucky to be joined by my co-founders Mohamed El Haw and Amr El Salanekly, and together our journey changed course. Educate-Me evolved into a foundation that is now fully established in the community—with a community development centre and with its own educational system and educational curriculum. We are not just reinstating the children back to school, but we are also helping them develop their skills and talents that enable them to compete in today’s world. We are helping them grow up with goals, ambitions and vision, and to become of benefit to their communities.”

Since its founding, Educate-Me has been well received by both the children and the parents of the village of Konayyesa, Giza, where it was established. This positive reception inspired Helal and her team to establish their first community development centre in this neighbourhood. “So far, we have reinstated more than 200 children back to school over a period of three years, and recently we have established illiteracy sessions for mothers in the community. We have also created jobs. The illiteracy classes are delivered by four women from the community who are trained to deliver the service. So our service is from the community and to the community.”

When asked about the method that Educate-Me has developed for its tutorial program, Helal explained, “What we do generally is let the kids decide for themselves what they want. They come to our centre and decide what they want. We offer them many options they can choose from: English, handicrafts, digital literacy and other subjects, but it is their responsibility to decide what they want to learn and how they want to learn it. We’ve been getting more than 75 percent attendance rate in the centre, which means that kids are actually interested in the project.”

There’s no doubt that the education system in Egypt is in peril. The World Economic Forum Global Competitiveness Report 2013-2014 rated Egypt as the worst country in the world in the quality of primary education. Egypt is listed 118th overall, eleven spots lower than last year’s ranking. Providing some insights about the poor quality of education in Egypt, Helal said, “Among the major problems that students face in public schools is the learning environment itself. The classrooms are not well equipped, the desks are broken and some classes are crammed with more than 100 children. It is impossible to learn in this environment, especially when you have just one teacher per class. Moreover, these teachers are underpaid so they force the children to get private tutoring with them. And this is the decisive factor for whether the children will pass the exams or fail. One of the children showed me his mathematics test results where he scored 23 out of 25. I tried to resolve it again with him to help him understand what he had missed, only to realize that he doesn’t even know how to read. The teachers give the answers for the test to those who take private lessons with them. Education should have a purpose and not just to get a good grade or a certificate. Another problem in the education system is that it relies mainly on standardized testing and getting the children to score well on exams, which defines what is going to happen in their future.”

In spite of the political turmoil in Egypt, Helal admitted that the current situation has benefited Educate-Me. After the revolution, a lot of Egyptians started feeling the urge to contribute to the development of the country, and accordingly, the number of Educate-Me staff and contributors increased immensely. And because Educate-Me started before the revolution, Helal and her team has managed to be ahead in terms of understanding the depth of the problems the country is facing. However, given the security issues and instability in the country, many of the organisation’s activities have been periodically interrupted.

Educate-Me is a long term project. It will grow and evolve, just as the children do. Helal and her team recognize that there are no speedy solutions. Success is achieved and milestones are met on daily basis, but the project will really bear fruit when the children complete their high school diploma. Educate-Me in not just a tutoring program, but is rather a second chance handed to underprivileged children who have been living in harsh social conditions and with bleak futures. When their world turned against them, Educate-Me reached out to them and allowed them not just to dream of changing their world, but also showed them how to strive towards achieving a better and more hopeful future.

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Hisham El Kheshen tells the story of the life and death of Adam Al Masry – Book Review

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– By: Alexandra Kinias

In the 2000s, the suicide of two Egyptian citizens in London shocked both the Egyptian community in the British capital and those who lived thousands of miles away back home. The most traumatic was the suicide of Soad Hosny, the diva who was beloved by millions all over the Middle East. The second was of Ashraf Marawan, the prompt businessman and son-in-law of the late president Nasser of Egypt. While Scotland Yard investigations ruled both cases as suicides, a lot conspiracy theories were weaved by Egyptians that the deceased were both murdered. Speculations about the reasons of these crimes covered a wide spectrum of reasons, but nothing was definitive. Along those lines Hisham El Kheshen structured his fourth novel, “Adam Al Masry.”

The novel opens with a dramatic scene that takes place in the waiting room of a London hospital. In this scene, readers are introduced to the main characters who are gathered in anticipation for a miracle to save an anonymous person. And when the doctor announces his death, the narrator describes the sadness and shock of those whom the deceased had touched their lives, one way or another. And the scene culminates with the narrator’s revelation that the deceased was in fact murdered by one of those who stood in the hospital’s waiting room mourning him. But even with a murder in its opening scene, El Kheshen’s book is not an Agatha Christie’s suspense novel. The character driven and fast pace thriller also conveyed an interesting plot that was also adorned with adequate amounts of intimacy.

London is where the story unfolds. The back-stories of some of the characters were quite familiar at the time when I was growing up in the seventies. Back then it was quite fashionable for young people to travel to the UK to work during the summer vacations. And as El Kheshen depicted in the novel, London at that time was a summer destination and a business hub to wealthy Arabs. Even though he novel takes place in the present, El Kheshen captured the essence of this era with proficiency.

“Adam Al Masry” is very well written novel with events intricately woven like a spider’s web. From the first scene I was attracted to the elegance of the language which El Kheshen mastered. I enjoyed the novel structure, characters, the plot and as the story unfolds, I was reminded over and again why I enjoy reading. The novel explores the intertwined lives of expatiates living in Western societies and how they are united in their adoptive countries by their common backgrounds.

El Kheshen offered us a glimpse inside the souls of his characters that he skilfully dissected and exposed its complexity and conflicts. He ended the scene with chilling statements that raised our curiosity to keep turning the pages to learn more. And as the secrets were revealed, as the pages were turned, and the personalities unraveled, the suspense escalated and the pieces of the puzzle fell in place.

Together with his meticulous attention to details, El Kheshen also introduced many controversial subjects are still considered a taboo. Discrimination against the Copts in the work force, euthanasia, human rights, women’s treatment in misogynist societies and global terrorism were among these issues.

Reading “Adam Al Masry” was similar to riding on an emotional roller-coaster. It covered a wide range of human emotions and needs. Readers will relate to the novel emotionally, one way or another. I highly recommend it to.

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