Wednesday, July 16, 2014

A Long Shot, A Sure Miss, by Larissa Shulman

Football is a kind of contemporary nationalism, a symbol of a nation’s cultural and spiritual health. For the devout, those for whom football matters most, a match can produce a catharsis so profound and moving as to shake an individual to his core. It can also break a nation’s heart, as we recently saw during Brazil’s shattering home-defeat against Germany. This is all to say that football is much more than just football (except, that is, for soccer-playing Americans.)

Photo credit: Karim Jaafar | AFP | Getty Images, taken from CNBC
That is why Qatar’s bid to host the FIFA 2022 World Cup is loaded with a significance that is greater than the rights to host the world’s most watched game. Qatar’s winning bid means that it will be the first Middle Eastern country to host the World Cup. While this comes as a boon for the Arab world, it is accompanied by a host of problems, some of which are unique to Qatar and the Qatari bid, and others which are endemic to the Cup itself.

Lacking a vibrant football culture, Qatar seemed an unlikely choice to host the Cup from the outset.  The Arab World, moreover, is far from being the global heart of the game. This is not to diminish the importance of how the Arab World connects to its football teams. It is only to say that FIFA fans and players alike might be more at home in a locale that is more accustomed to, and invested in, football culture. 

Qatar also faces internal hurdles for hosting the game; temperatures reaching 49 degrees celsius during the summer raise concern for how teams will be able to play in such oppressive heat. Costly air-conditioned stadiums were proposed initially, but with mounting costs and infrastructural shortcomings, it does not seem that the proper cooling mechanisms will be feasible for summer games. To obviate this problem, FIFA proposed moving the games to Winter time, commencing in November and finishing in January. This move, however, puts a wrinkle in the football calendar of leagues around the globe.

Added to this are allegations concerning the legitimacy of the bid itself, casting a dark shadow on the already dubious choice of Qatar as the 2022 host.  Top FIFA officials are suspected to have accepted millions in bribes from Qatari billionaire Mohamed bin Hammam, accusations nefarious enough to warrant an investigation whose verdict is yet to be determined. Should these allegations be proven true, the bid for the 2022 game will once again be up for grabs.

Compounding this are the scandalous human rights violations of the foreign workers who were brought in to build the extravagant cityscape of stadiums. These stadiums, costing Qatar and its sponsors some $4 billion, seem exorbitant for a country of a mere 1.7 million people whose football culture is incipient at best and minuscule at worst.

Taken together or separately, the issues Qatar and FIFA face by maintaining the 2022 bid are severe, and this post does not lay out the comprehensive gamut of them.  Even if Qatar and FIFA withstand the investigation, and Qatar keeps the bid, the fervor, pride, and spirit surrounding the Qatari bid choice feel snuffed out.

Should the bid be determined null, and it seems that this will be the case, the Arab World will be deprived a cultural milestone. Following this, a breeding ground of contention and rage will be left wide open. With an increasingly isolated, messy Arab World, whose borders are currently in the process of being redrawn, it is a step in the wrong direction to take a point of pride and make it a point of contention. By doing this, FIFA risks representing further alienation of the Arab World from the West. 

Of course, this alienation is the clear lesser of the two evils.  Yet, it is impossible to ignore, especially with a century already marred by contentious and bloody Middle Eastern relations with the West. Though far from the wars of the Levant, the Qatari bid was a dangerous gamble and will now be an ugly mess to clean up.  The lesson learned is not a new one. It is one that tells us that our Western imports, the things we consider “global”, cannot be transposed onto the Middle East with an alacrity we take for granted.

Tuesday, July 15, 2014

Interest, Ignorance and Irresponsibility, by Valerie Strassman

Interest, Ignorance and Irresponsibility

“The World Cup is not just a great global sporting event; it is also inscribed with much deeper cultural and political importance.” — Martin Jacques

Photo credit: DPA (German Press Agency)
The FIFA World Cup is the international soccer competition contested by the senior men’s national teams of the Fédération Internationale de Football Association (FIFA), the sport's global governing body. The first official World Cup game took place in 1930 in Uruguay. Since then, every four years, 32 teams are competing for the title at venues, except in the years of 1942 and 1946 in the wake of the Second World War.
The decision of who is going to host the World Cup has mostly been accompanied by criticism and contention. For example, when Argentina and Uruguay boycotted the tournament in 1938 to criticize the decision of holding the World Cup in Europe twice in a row, or the fact that until 2002, Asian and African countries have not hosted a single World Cup which nourished claims about a Eurocentric bias on FIFA's behalf. However, all this is not very surprising since what is at stake are large sums of money for the international sport federations and their corporate partners, real-estate speculations, prestige for the hosts and the power of the World Cup to create a sense of national unity and shared pride. It should be noted though, that hosting a World Cup does not necessarily pay off for the host nation. Professor Dr. Andrew Zimbalist, an authority in the field of sports economics, argues that above all countries which have not planned properly beforehand and want to accommodate these events “at any cost”, end up “spending billions of dollars that are completely wasted”.
In the case of Qatar “money is not an object”, muses Franz Beckenbauer, one of the grand figures of German soccer, who was a member of the FIFA executive committee from 2007 to June 2011. Shortly after Qatar won the bid to host the 2022 World Cup, first concerns about the extremely hot temperature with an average of 40° degrees and higher were raised. Beckenbauer was one of the first to suggest holding the World Cup in the winter despite major implications for the national leagues' game schedules. Yet, Beckenbauer also proudly admits, that “the Emir of Qatar proposed to cool down the entire country in case it is necessary”.
A completely different kind of criticism erupted when the British newspaper “the Guardian” revealed in September 2013 that thousands of Nepalese workers, forming the single largest group of laborers in Qatar, were held under conditions that are defined by the International Labor Organization as “modern-day slavery”. Following the prospect of work and high salaries, they often found themselves trapped in the country as their passports were confiscated and that they were condemned to live in labor camps with unsanitary and dilapidated conditions. Reportedly at least 44 workers died of heart attacks, heart failure or workplace accidents between June 4, and August 8 2013. These accusations triggered some interesting responses within the world of German soccer, which also allowed a glimpse on its ramifications and connections with the Emirate of Qatar.
Theo Zwanziger, former president of the German Soccer Association (DFB – Deutscher Fussball-Bund) criticized FIFA for awarding the World Cup to Qatar and especially condemned the first league clubs FC Bayern Munich and Schalke 04 for ignoring the issue of human rights violation in the Emirate. In the German newspaper “Welt” (the World) from February 13, 2014, Zwanziger was quoted with the words: “These clubs cannot simply put a blind eye on such incidents. Those who look away, are complicit”.
Indeed, neither club commented on the situation, although both of them are training in Qatar’s ASPIRE Academy for Sports Excellence during the winter. Quite on the contrary, Karl Heinz-Rumenigge, another authority in German soccer and currently the chief executive officer of the FC Bayern Munich AG as well as the acting chairman of the European Club Association, praises the “fantastic training conditions” and the “supportive hosts” in Qatar. Only Bayern Munich player, Anthony Ujah (22), has openly expressed his opinion by supporting a petition against the World Cup in Qatar on Facebook. “I come from a country [Nigeria], where people have to leave in order to find work and earn money to survive. That’s why I received the reports from Qatar with dismay and sadness. [...] we all thought slavery was abolished but that’s not the case. [...] It is unacceptable.”
            The most controversial statement about the labour slavery however, could be heard from Franz Beckenbauer, who also holds the position of an honorary president of Bayern Munich. Asked about the situation of labourers in the light of the Guardian's revelations, Beckenbauer reportedly answered, “I have never seen one single slave in Qatar. They all walk around freely – not tied to chains, or in a state of atonement. I have never seen such a thing [as a slave]“. Recently, Beckenbauer was banned by FIFA for 90 days from any football-related activity, because of his refusal to cooperate with an inquiry into allegations of corruption in allocating the 2018 and 2022 World Cups to Russia and Qatar. While the ban was eventually lifted, FIFA is still investigating the matter.
What was interesting to see, is that the notion of Qatar being an Arabic country and in fact, the first Middle Eastern country as well as Muslim country to host the World Cup did not play any role in the statements of German soccer officials or in the major German newspapers. Even the center-right, populist tabloid “Bild” (The Picture) is omitting any reference. Despite its tradition of sensational journalism that was on display for example, in one report about the German-Algeria match during the recent World Cup in Brazil which titled “Ramadan-Alarm: How hungry for goals are the Algerians during the month of fasting?”.
However, on the official FIFA homepage itself, Qatar is praising its commitment to ecology-friendly technologies, and architectural advancement, while emphasizing its Middle Eastern and Arabic background. “A World Cup in Qatar would be the first global sporting event ever to be hosted in the Middle East […] fans from around the world would experience the magic of traditional Arab hospitality and leave Qatar with a new understanding of the Middle East.”
            So what about Muslims in Germany? Are there any reactions to the scandals in Qatar? Only one article from June 20, 2014 could be found on the homepage of the “Islamic Newspaper” (Islamische Zeitung). The author, Benjamin Idriz, the Imam of the Sunni Muslim Islamic Community in Penzberg (Bavaria) and chairman of the multi-ethnic, Sunni Muslim association “Munich Forum of Islam” (MFI - Muenchner Forum fuer Islam e.V.) decries the international criticism of Qatar as pure “envy” of the “rapid and successful advance” of the Emirate. “It seems like that this small country, an Arabic country, is deliberately challenged for hosting the soccer World Cup…” While Imam Idriz admits that the status of laborers in Qatar is indeed intriguing, he doubts whether European states can voice any justified criticism towards Qatar in regard to the many refugees that die at the coasts of Europe. However, one of the main sponsors of the planned construction of the 'Munich Forum of Islam' is.... Qatar.

            So does Qatar being a Muslim country play a role in the German criticism in its role as future host of the World Cup? While German newspapers have widely reported on the international criticism regarding Qatar hosting the World Cup, relevant parties have largely dismissed such criticism under the guise of proclaiming envy of Qatar, or an interest in protecting already established ties to Qatar. The criticism seems generally focused on Qatar’s abuse of human rights as well as the still investigated corruption scandal. Comments referring more explicitly to Qatar as an Arab and/or Muslim country could only be found among the right-wing populist spectrum. 

Tuesday, July 1, 2014

Boko Haram: #BringBackOurRules, by Charlotte Payen

Photo of the abducted Nigerian school girls
Photo from International Business Times
Though active for more than 10 years, Boko Haram has significantly stepped up its terrorist activities since the early 2010s and is now an international threat. Mid-April 2014, the abduction of 300 Nigerian girls on their way back from school in Chibok, located in Northeast Nigeria, and of 20 other women early June, triggered an unprecedented online mobilization in political, humanitarian and even Hollywood circles. Besides becoming an international Islamist threat, Boko Haram faces another opposition, from Al-Qaeda. Indeed, the Nigerian movement and its actions are far from endorsed by Al-Qaeda’s current leadership and offshoots such as AQIM (Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb) despite what has been claimed.

Founded in 2002 by Muhammad Yusuf, Boko Haram, which means “Western education is sin”, was initially an ultra-conservative movement of well-educated Muslim students standing against the tyrannical authority of a small, non-Islamic elite in the impoverished North of Nigeria. Becoming overtly political over time, its members exploited the anger generated by poverty in the region. They recruited unemployed, idle youths and by late 2003 launched their first offensives against governmental forces, which were regularly blamed for humiliation and abuse. At the time, by avoiding civilian casualties, the movement generated significant local support.

The violent turning point in Boko Haram’s actions and intentions occurred in July 2009 when its activists attacked a mosque and a police station in the city of Bauchi. The following clashes with the Nigerian security forces lasted five days, resulting in the death of 700 people, which included 300 from Boko Haram and it's leader Muhammad Yusuf. After this bloodshed, most of the remaining members fled to other African countries where they reportedly developed ties and received support and training from Al-Qaeda’s local affiliates, mainly al Shabaab in Somalia or AQIM in Algeria.
Boko Haram's leader, Abubakar Shekau
Photo from the BBC

Yet, this did not quite trigger the attention of the West, who was focused on Iraq and Afghanistan.  Their inattention actually helped to facilitate the development of Boko Haram. In July 2010, members who fled the previous year returned to the country. Abubakar Shekau claimed leadership and immediately expressed his admiration for Al-Qaeda, specifically Osama bin Laden. Better equipped and sophisticated, Boko Haram ignited in an escalation of violence, from gas bombs and grenades to assassinations. At the time, their modus operandi was gunfire from motorcycles or pick-ups mounted with artillery. It rapidly evolved to more indiscriminate violence, with the purpose of demonstrating the incapacity of the Nigerian state apparatus, and targeting the international establishment, by attacking the UN headquarters in Abuja in August 2011.

Nigerians Protesting in the #BringBackOurGirls Campaign
Photo taken from the New York Times
Since 2013, the situation has deteriorated. Nigerian authorities declared a state of emergency in the Northern provinces and the army repeatedly bombed villages suspected of hiding Boko Haram members, who in turn assaulted entire neighborhoods accused of connivance with the army. In addition, the group frequently bombed public places, such as a soccer stadium in Jos or a mall in Abuja, which respectively killed 40 and 21 people in May and June 2014. Since April, the faction began kidnapping Nigerian citizens- it was already involved in the abduction of foreigners in Cameroun. If it wasn't for the appeal launched on Twitter by Oby Ezekwesili, the Nigerian vice-president of the World Bank in Africa, the first wave of abductions would not have captured significant attention. The now famous #BringBackOurGirls made the mobilization global, resulting in widespread concern and daily rallies.

Interestingly, another campaign has emerged. Sustained by “traditional” Al-Qaeda members, it castigates the extent of the #BringBackOurGirls, a campaign that “taint[s] the image of the mujahideens” by emphasizing Boko Haram’s violence[1]. How Al-Qaeda’s central leadership has handled these extremist elements illustrates the disparity in actual networks of Islamic militancy. Boko Haram is a perfect example of an offshoot that Al-Qaeda could have done without.

Indeed, Boko Haram's actions do not correspond to the standards established by Al-Qaeda. The kidnapping and killing of Muslims does not correlate with strategies.  In the same vein, Al-Qaeda has in fact broke its ties with ISIL (Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant) in Iraq due to the excessive brutality of its members against Sunni populations out of fear of alienating potential supporters. Yet, the code of conduct remains fragile, as they keep on supporting the Somalian al Shabaab, which does not refrain from killing Muslims.

Furthermore, Boko Haram’s aims remain quite local. The faction calls for the establishment of an Islamic Caliphate in Nigeria, and is mainly driven by domestic factors. Its leader rarely mentions global jihad and when he refers to Al-Qaeda, it seems to be in line with his admiration. This “wannabe” stance is growing among extreme and brutal groups and is today one of Al-Qaeda’s main challenge, as it is unable to control the phenomenon. Another difference is the messianic element in Boko Haram’s rhetoric. Its leader claims, on released videos, to speak with God and demands its adherents to surrender all their possessions to the group.[2]

In spite of blatant existing ties and an assumed inclination to violence, Islamism and hostility against the West, Boko Haram is not an Al-Qaeda affiliate. Ayman Al-Zawahiri, Bin Laden’s successor, never publicly mentioned Boko Haram. His concerns about targeting civilians confirm his unease regarding kidnappings and Boko Haram’s reputation for carrying out mass murders of civilians. Boko Haram is not an AQIM offshoot. Though the latter provided some training and funds to the Nigerian faction in the past, the French operation in Mali, Operation Serval, broke many of these ties. Furthermore, AQIM wishes to remain more focused on strategies sanctioned by Al-Qaeda, namely the taking of Western hostages or attacks against sites such as the gas plant in Algeria in January 2013. If rival groups occasionally labeled themselves “Al-Qaeda”, it rather falls under communication tactics or an alliance of convenience.

Currently, the solution is to improve the domestic government’s capacities, in an effort to make security forces more effective and improve intelligence gathering. Yet, it does not weigh against corruption, military abuses or the long running ethnic and religious cleavages. Regional cooperation must be fostered as it can eventually prevent the deepening of rivalries. The Nigerian national army would be among the first to benefit from coordination with its neighbors, who are both accountable and collateral victims of the recent regional development. This issue was addressed in late May during the Nigeria +4 (Cameroun, Chad, Niger, Benin) mini-summit held in Paris, under the auspices of the French President François Hollande. The United States and the international community provided some help but, regionally, it does not seem to have gone further than an official declaration. 

The emergence of new Islamist militant groups attests to the recent atomization of Al-Qaeda into small and largely autonomous entities. Though inspired by Al-Qaeda’s ideology, it appears that many are in fact even more radicalized than their iconic model. Yet, each movement maintains a proper identity; the consequent lack of generalization makes tracking their movements more complex. As a result, states are powerless to curb their activities. Whether these terrorist groups act locally or internationally may no longer be an indicator of a limited threat. Porous borders, transnational ties and external events can at any moment tip the balance of their action in favor of more global ambitions.

Sunday, June 29, 2014

Diwaniyya 31: An Analysis of the Syrian Revolution through Social Movements feat. Dr. Benedetta Berti

The Syrian Revolution, now civil war, which began in 2011, surprised many in the international community.  According to Dr. Berti, this is because analysts were examining the wrong indicators.  Dr. Benedetta Berti, from the Institute for National Security Studies (INSS), explains the Syrian Revolution using her specialty, the study of social movement. 
This episode is an in-depth analysis of the preconditions to the Syrian Revolution, the actors in the revolution, their goals and tools.  

Diwaniyya 31: Analyzing the Syrian Revolution through the Theory of Social Movements feat. Dr. Benedetta Berti
(Click the link to download. Macs: right click to save)

Samantha Sementilli-Producer, Editor, Host

Tuesday, June 24, 2014

Yemen: Key Battleground in Fight Against al Qaeda, by Andrew Vitelli

The al Qaeda movement was born in the mountains of Afghanistan and founded by Saudi native Osama bin Laden in the late 1980s.  Created as a response to the nation’s Soviet Union invasion in 1979, the formation of al Qaeda brought fighters from across the Muslim world to Afghanistan to battle Soviet control.  At the end of the war many mujahedeen, or holy warriors, found only one country willing to welcome them back with open arms. Thousands of hardened fighters affiliated with bin Laden’s nascent organization returned or resettled in Yemen, the homeland of bin Laden’s father Mohammed.

Yemen, which was divided into North Yemen and South Yemen until its unification in 1990, has played a prominent role in al Qaeda’s growth ever since. Though Afghanistan and Pakistan have long constituted the central command of the terror organization, influence has been shifting to Yemen since the U.S.-led “war on terror” decimated al Qaeda’s Afghanistan-based leadership following the September 11th, 2001 attacks. Even before bin Laden’s death in 2011, experts were predicting a shift of al Qaeda’s core to the impoverished Gulf state. In 2009 al Qaeda’s Yemeni and Saudi branches merged to form al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, or AQAP, led by former bin Laden secretary Nasir al-Wuhayshi.

“When it comes to al Qaeda, one of the main, I would say, dominant phenomena in the recent decades is the coming back of veterans from Iraq and Afghanistan to the east of Yemen,” explained Uzi Rabi, the director of the Moshe Dayan Center of Middle Eastern and African Studies at Tel Aviv University and the author of the newly-published book Yemen: The Anatomy of a Failed State. “It is very interesting to see how they have managed to build kind of a patronage network where some of the tribes, the local tribes, provide them with logistical assistance and support.”

The tribal structure of Yemen, one of the poorest countries in the world with nearly half its population living in poverty, predates al Qaeda by generations.[i] In the 1930s, a British official warned that the country’s Hadhramaut province alone contained approximately 2,000 different governments.[ii] Al Qaeda has long been successful in taking advantage of its operatives’ familiarity with the country’s tribal make-up as it’s battled the Yemeni government and plotted attacks against Western targets.

“They are not that strong to rule over the whole country. They are not that strong to topple the regime,” Rabi explained. Referring to the government of President Abd Rabbuh Mansur Hadi, who took office in 2012, he continued, “but the regime is not that strong to make them evaporate, so basically we have a stalemate here.”
In April 2014, two al Qaeda operatives were reportedly killed in Sana, Yemen’s capital, attempting to kidnap an American Special Forces commander and C.I.A. officer from a barbershop. The brazen kidnapping attempt – and the presence of the Americans at a downtown barber[iii] – once again put a spotlight on the role of the United States in the battle against AQAP.

While al Qaeda’s affiliates in Syria, Iraq and throughout North Africa have focused on battling for power and influence locally, AQAP remains committed to striking Western targets. The organization was behind the 2009 Fort Hood, Texas shooting that resulted in the death of 13 Americans, a failed 2009 bombing attempt in which a Nigerian sought to take down a Northwest Airlines flight with explosive-laden underwear and a failed 2010 attempt to take down a U.S.-bound cargo plane.

The United States has been active alongside the Yemeni government in battling AQAP. Under President Obama, the U.S. has relied on Predator drones armed with Hellfire missiles to target al Qaeda operatives throughout the country. In addition the U.S. has also helped train Yemeni Special Forces.
Rabi said President Hadi has been playing a double game in the government’s American-backed battle against al Qaeda.

“While getting support from the United States in order to do this war on terrorism thing,” Rabi explained, “the regime is providing al Qaeda activists with some support in order to buy immunity.”

Such an arrangement recalls al Qaeda’s complicated relationship with former President Ali Abdullah Saleh, who ruled Yemen from 1990 to 2012 and North Yemen from 1978 to 1990. In the early 1990s, Saleh and the Islamists were convenient allies in Saleh’s fight against the socialists battling for control of the country. Looking to win American backing while avoiding a full-on confrontation with bin Laden’s supporters, Saleh half-heartedly cooperated with the American investigation[iv] following al Qaeda’s October 2000 bombing of the USS Cole in the port of Aden[v] in southern Yemen. The attack killed 17 American sailors. It wasn’t until after the September 11th attacks – and the bombing of an oil tanker in the Gulf of Aden a year later – that Saleh changed his direction and cracked down on al Qaeda in earnest.

By 2003, the joint U.S.-Yemeni effort had crippled al Qaeda’s Yemeni branch. In February 2006, however, 23 al Qaeda members including Wuhayshi tunneled out of a Yemeni prison and sparked the group’s resurgence. By 2009, AQAP was again considered to be the most dangerous al Qaeda affiliate in the region. The group took over several towns in Yemen’s Abyan Governorate in 2011 as the Arab Spring spilled into Yemen and eventually forced Saleh to step down. Hadi managed to regain control of these areas a year later.

According to Rabi, Al Qaeda’s fight against Yemen’s government is just one of many power struggles in the country. Rabi called Yemen a failing or failed state, saying it should be analyzed as a collection of power centers rather than a nation state. 

“The state has weakened, and a byproduct of that is a strengthening of what you would call the extremist movements,” Rabi said. “You have different powers, different players, and each one of them has a different dream about how Yemen should look like in the future.”

[ii] Schanzer, Jonathan, “Yemen’s War on Terror,” Orbis, Summer 2004.
[iii] Schmitt, Eric and Almosawa, Shuaid. “2 Yemenis Shot by Americans Are Linked to Qaeda Cell.” The New York Times, May 10, 2014.
[iv] Johnsen, Gregory. The Last Refuge: Yemen, al-Qaeda, and the Battle for Arabia. (New York, NY: Oneworld Publications, 2012.) 84.
[v] “USS Cole Bombing Fast Facts.”, September 18, 2013.

Thursday, June 5, 2014

We are HERE, we’re QUEER we’re ARAB get used to it! The gay rights movement in the Arab world in the light of the Arab spring, by Adam Moss
When Mohamed Bouazizi set himself on fire in December 2010, setting off a wave of protests in the region eventually termed the Arab Spring, it’s unlikely he had any idea his act would allow a small opening for a myriad of human rights issues to come to the forefront. One of these issues has been LGBT rights.
In the early days of the Arab spring, after the fall of President Ben Ali in Tunisia and President Hosni Mubarak in Egypt, many had high hopes (perhaps wishful thinking) that the Arab world was in the midst of something similar to the revolutions of Eastern Europe during the early 1990s, which resulted in western-leaning secular liberal democracies. Four years later, this hope has yet to come to fruition[1].  
Within and outside the Middle East the issues of LGBT rights have always been contentious, clashing with both societal norms and religious dogmas in many countries. In the Middle East this is heightened by the importance placed on the family unit within society in conjunction with religion. Furthermore, it is currently a popular view within the Arab world that homosexuality not only is the sin beyond all sins; many equate the gay rights movement with colonialism and western imperialism[2].
Despite tremendous society pressure, however, the LGBT movements and LGBT issues have finally made their way into public debate within Arab society. Whether it is positive or negative, the LGBT issue has made its debut within mainstream media, through news reports and articles on Al Jazeera, Al Arabiya, LBC and MURR news, as well as in international media such as CNN, BBC and France24.

Social media has also played a role in advancing the movement’s public visibility. Post Arab spring there has been an explosion of Arab LGBT related accounts and pages on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram and personal blogs, which are tailor-made specifically for each country or cover the Middle East as a whole. This has allowed for networking between activists and members of the LGBT community, crossing local and social barriers. One of the most interesting Facebook pages is ”Gay Middle East Identities”, which allows its 10,000-plus members to not only view current news about LGBT issues in the Middle East, but to dive deep into medieval and even pre-Islamic LGBT history[3].

Additionally, there have been a variety of online gay magazines and print editions that have debuted in recent years, including Mawaleh in Syria, Ehna in Egypt, Gayday in Tunisia, Aswat in Morocco, Barra in Lebanon and My.Kali in Jordan[4]. These magazines bring for the first time modern LGBT-related issues and topics written in Arabic.

Moving offline, there are many human rights groups in the Arab world that are sympathetic to the gay rights issue. Currently, however, there are only two gay right groups - HELEM in Lebanon and Al Qaws in Palestine - which have broken through the glass ceiling and made small but important strides for the movement[5].

To get further insight into where the gay rights movement stands and where it is headed, I spoke with a human rights advocate, freelance editor and journalist and former editor of the Gay Middle East website. For purpose of this article, he wishes remain anonymous.

Given your history as a leading activist for gay rights in the Middle East, how would you describe the gay rights movement in the area before the Arab spring? When did it start?
The gay rights movement in the Arab world really started to come into fruition or take hold in the early 2000’s with the inception of HELEM in Lebanon. In reality though, there have been discussions for years about gay rights, going all the way back to the 1970s. However, it was very difficult to mobilize, due to the fact that in many countries it was and still is illegal to be a homosexual. Most of these meetings or discussions took place in a clandestine nature.The movement really grew together with the growth of the Internet. It allowed for a place or an area where people and group could discuss, network and mobilize without the eyes of the public or the government. This mostly took the form of blogs, and journals.

Do you believe it has changed after the Arab spring?
There is really not a before or after. The spring neither enabled nor disabled the LGBT rights movement. The Arab spring was about basic rights; you cannot start pushing for LGBT rights before basic rights are met. On the sidelines of the revolution in Egypt and Tunisia it was discussed, but even secular left organizations did not and do not want to touch the issue yet.
Within the LGBT community there is hope that secular liberal democracies will rise one day. However, there is also fear of the rise of political Islam taking over. There is debate within the community if the status quo is better or if the revolution has improved the situation for the LGBT communities.

How big of a roll do you think social media has played?
As I stated before, the growth of the LGBT movement came with the growth of the Internet. However, in regards to the Arab spring, there were many LGBT bloggers that declared that they were part of the Arab spring or supported the Arab spring in Egypt, Tunisia, Syria and even Morocco. However, there is a mutual strategy of supporting the spring but not pushing or not touching the gay rights issue as of yet. Basically it is a sit-and-wait strategy. Being active in the revolution but keeping a low profile on the LGBT issues.

What about all the online gay magazines that I have seen, what is their role?
Ah the magazines, yes, many have opened up over the past few years. My Kile in Jordan is the most successful. There is also GayDay in Tunisia, and Barra in Lebanon. They are mostly used as an outlet of fun for the gay community. I would not say they are used for social mobility or the gay movement itself, but they are also a part of it. The magazines mostly have fun stories discussing lifestyle, fashion, etc.  
After the revolution, the GayDay magazine in Tunisia opened up, and ironically enough the new Human rights minister of Tunisia came out against the magazine, calling it immoral and stating that LGBT rights are not a part of the revolution. However, this backfired because it brought a lot of attention to the magazine and it has now become more popular than ever.

How do Middle Eastern gay rights groups and movements deal with/fight religious objections?
This is where gay rights organizations in the Middle East differ from western gay rights organizations. LGBT organizations and movements in the Middle East are very cautious not to touch religion, unlike western LGBT organizations. To take on religion would be detrimental to the cause. LGBT organizations preform a delicate balancing act in regards to religion. LGBT organizations take on a secular agenda or an ethic agenda rather than a religious one.
However, you cannot generalize each country or movement, within each country religion has a different role and this derives in part from their culture and colonialism. For example, the British set up a monarchy system in the Gulf States that is tied in with religion. If one were to take on religion, they’re in a way taking on the government, which as you know would bring unwanted attention.
In the Levant and North Africa it is a little different because you had the British or French civil code as a basis for laws that are placed against homosexuality under mandate system.
Lebanon, whom was under the French Mandate, is the only secular democracy in the Arab world. However there too, religion takes a big role defining the rights one has within society. Nevertheless, HELEM and the LGBT movement have been able to make small but important changes through the courts to better the lives of homosexuals i.e.: stopping anal interrogations by the police, having the Psychological society remove homosexuality as a mental disease (the only Arab country to do so), and recently a judge ruled that homosexuality is not considered unnatural and therefore it is not illegal.However, even in Lebanon they do not take on religion at this stage, it is too taboo of a subject. There are many other rights that need to come first before religion. It is an unspoken agreement not to touch religion, but to try to change it from within.

What do you mean by ‘change religion from within’?
LGBT rights groups try to point out or argue that being homophobic or attacking homosexuals is against Islam. That homosexuality is compatible to Islam or Christianity. Again, they really do not try to touch religion too much. In the West there are gay Muslim associations, but as of now not in the Middle East.

Do you believe that the Arab spring changed the situation for the better or for the worse?
The Arab spring in some form or another has been hijacked by Qatar and Saudi Arabia, due to their support of Islamic groups or dictators that benefit them. LGBT bloggers in Jordan support the King over the Arab spring due to this fact. Both Qatar and Saudi Arabia have been pushing their ideology with oil money, and what is ironic is that both of these countries are western allies. Remember that the protests in Syria, Egypt and Tunisia were not about political Islam, and this is what Qatar has been pushing throughout the region. Many are afraid of Qatar.  There is a feeling of disappointment within the LGBT community, not just in regards to the revolutions, but also disappointment with the West. The West preaches about human rights and basic rights and supports the Arab spring, but when it comes down to it, the West really does not care about human rights and especially gay rights; for example, look at Saudi Arabia.  The more religious elements take over, the harder it is for the movement to make strides. The mood in the begging was euphoric and now the mood has changed to caution. It is too early to say when will the Arab spring end, so as of right now we cannot answer if it was for the better or for the worse for the gay rights movement.

How do you see the future of the gay rights movement in the Middle East?
Currently at the moment, I am quite pessimistic in the short run, but in the long run I have hope. Once people feel they have power or have a voice, this is the start, the start of a real revolution and change. You can’t put it back in the bag; people now feel they can make a change.
Bringing down Mubarak and Ben Ali was really something; this is people power. The LGBT community is part of this people power. They cannot be discounted; they are now part of public discourse.  Change in the Middle East, and especially in regards to human rights, moves at a snail’s pace. The fact today that there is online gay rights activism throughout the Middle East and that in Lebanon HELEM and the gay rights movement have been able to make small strides, is a huge step, huge.  The best bet for LGBT groups is to try to work with the civil society and not against it. We must push for basic rights first and then only afterwards can we push for LGBT rights. Once we have this, I believe that the gay movement will really start to take a hold in the Middle East.

[1] Editorial: Three years on, the heady promises of the Arab Spring have delivered only chaos, crackdown and civil war [Editorial]. (2013, December 20). Independent Voices.
[2] Sofian Merabet, "Creating Queer Space in Beirut" in Sexuality in the Arab World, eds. Samir Khalaf and John Gagnon (Saqi Books, 2006)

[3] Traub, N. (n.d.). In Gay Middle East Identities. Retrieved May 17, 2014, from
[4] Janne Louise Andersen, Pushing for sexual equality in Jordan. Al Jazeera (2014, April 25). Retrieved from (Last accessed: 2014, May 2011)
[5] Helem. Retrieved from (Last accessed: 2014, May 11)

Wednesday, May 7, 2014

The Thawra generation: A talk with Egyptian revolutionaries, by Lucy Oleinik

More than three years have passed since the first revolution in Egypt. Three tumultuous years have altered the Egyptian society once and for all. During this time multiple revolts and protests took place in the infamous Tahrir Square and beyond. However, what will always remain embedded in our minds is that very first Thawra (Arabic- revolution), when the young generation first voiced its dissent. They took to the streets spontaneously, ushering in an era of change. This unprecedented massive movement lifted the hopes of millions worldwide.

Today we are witnessing a vicious circle. Young people in Egypt are still unemployed, disgruntled and uninvolved in the political process. Prominent activists such as Alaa Abd el-Fattah, a dissident blogger, are behind bars. Thousands of other young Egyptians are locked up for utterly ridiculous charges. Ahmed Maher's story (leader of April 6 movement) is rather telling in this regard. He is now serving a three-year sentence for attending an illegal protest. Since the ban of more or less police-sanctioned demonstrations in November, some 16,000 people have been jailed.

Mohammed Emara and Tariq Yusuf were at the forefront of the protests in 2011. Based in Cairo and Alexandria accordingly, they joined the April 6 movement in 2010 and were actively engaged in promoting the revolution. They are now willing to take a look back at the time when spirits were high and ponder over the situation in their homeland.

Q: How would you describe the first revolution from today's perspective?

Mohammed: I realize now that as protesters we were hasty, disorganized, and somewhat romantic. We all came from completely different backgrounds. The only thing we had in common was striving for liberties. We naively believed overcoming corruption and bribery was possible. Was there any strategy behind this idea? Not really. We were so exhilarated about the revolution we didn't give much thought to its consequences. It's perfectly understandable that such unexpected success had blinded us completely. One day there was just a group on Facebook – “Kullena Khaled Said” (“We are all Khaled Said”) – and the next day actual protests began. Soon enough, these demonstrations would bring tangible results. Night-time curfews were perceived as a considerable achievement. For the first time our voices mattered. We might have failed in the long run, but we most certainly embraced freedom at its best.

Tariq: I must agree. What united us was the fight against the regime's preposterous favoritism and unlimited bribery. We didn't set specific goals. The young people of Egypt just had enough. Today I clearly understand we lacked a leader and a consistent program. Back then, I saw everything through rose-colored spectacles.

Q: Would you say the main aspiration back then was to topple the regime?

Mohammad: As I said, it all started with sporadic demonstrations against the regime. It felt as if the society exploded from internal grievances. We were hoping for a change, but no one thought we would come that far.

Tariq: It was an outcry of Egyptians in search of a better life. Ousting Mubarak was out of the question when we first went out to protest. Only after the military crackdown did we come up with an open slogan "اسقط يا مبارك"  (“Bring down Mubarak”). After his resignation, it took us a while to process this news. As Mohammad mentioned, we never thought we would come that far.

Q: How was Morsi perceived when he came to power?

Mohammad: Some revolutionaries hated him and didn't vote for him. Others hated him, but still voted for him, hoping he would supervise a collective constitution. I personally voted for Morsi. To me he seemed like a better alternative. After all, the anger towards the old regime was overwhelming and no one wanted to see members of Mubarak's cabinet back in charge. Besides, the Brothers have always appealed to the religious Muslim majority.

Tariq: I am Christian and I voted for Morsi nonetheless. The Brotherhood's program seemed promising. However, what really mattered to the revolutionaries was the fact that the democratic elections were taking place in Egypt. The turnout was impressive and for the first time there was no fraud. Yet again, we were too preoccupied with the present to think a few steps ahead.

Q: What is the mood in the Egyptian society today?

 Mohammad: There is certainly a sense of desperation. The elections are looming, as you know. Named Hamden Sabahy is the only viable opponent to Sisi at the moment . Although the former was a revolutionary, most activists believe his participation is a setup. Taking into account that Sisi enjoys the backup of the military and intelligence forces, the odds are in his favor. The media is growing more conservative by the day, calling jailed activists foreign-paid spies.

Tariq: I should correct Mohammed. The youth feel reckless, whereas the older generation openly supports Sisi. The Homey Egyptians ,"Hizb al Kanaba" (“the sofa party”) as we call them, are his main proponents. These people prefer sitting on their sofas, watching TV, and blabbering instead of taking action. Sisi's agenda of security and stability sounds compelling to them. The revolutionaries in turn feel betrayed and know Sisi's regime is another trap where social rights won't be welcome.

Q: What awaits Egypt in the nearest future?

Mohammad: It hurts me to say so, but Egypt will most probably deteriorate to a state of backwardness. With Sisi in power, the crackdowns on revolutionaries are likely to intensify. It's an embarrassing feeling when you are incapable of helping your country. The "Thawra" generation is in a deadlock.

Tariq: I am not that pessimistic. Maybe the youth is going through a hard time, but we will not give up on our hopes so easily. Wallahi (Arabic- I swear to God) Egypt is slowly moving towards another revolution. This time we will be prepared and the Old guard won't stand a chance. As one Egyptian proverb teaches us: اللى مكتوب عالجبين لازم تشوفه العين (One will inevitably meet one’s destiny.)

 Photos are courtesy of Mohammad Emara.  

Sunday, May 4, 2014

Reports and Representation: Arabic Media in Israel Looks to Overcome Difficulties, by Andreas Schneitter

When students ask Jack Khoury how to pursue a career in professional journalism, Khoury has the same advice every time: read everything you find, go to every place you can, talk to everyone you meet and be diligent, day and night. "As a journalist from the Arab community in Israel, you need to work as hard as three Jewish journalists together," he explains. It's the Jack Khoury way.

Khoury is a unique figure in the Israeli press scene. He broadcasts a news show on Radio A-Shams, an Arabic news station in Nazareth, and writes for the Israeli newspaper Haaretz. For Haaretz Khoury covers a wide range of topics including Israel’s Arab population, the Palestinian territories and the greater Arab world. His latest articles, all written in Hebrew, cover meetings between Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas and U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry, mass death sentences handed down in Egypt and an accident on a construction site near Karmiel in which a young boy lost his life.
Khoury began his career as a reporter for local Arabic and Hebrew newspapers in the Galilee in the late 1990s. He now publishes approximately seven articles a week in Haaretz, one of Israel's major daily newspapers. This is a rare feat for Israeli-Arab journalists. "As far as I know, I'm the only one," says Khoury. 

For this reason, Khoury is a periodic guest at the offices of I'lam, an NGO based in the eastern quarter of Nazareth. I'lam was founded in the year 2000 by Arab-Israeli journalists and academics and works to help further the careers of Arab journalists in Israel. I’lam educates these journalists on mobilizing media platforms to improve their journalistic skills and to strengthen the identity of the Arab minority within Israeli society. Last year, I'lam launched the first forum  of Arab journalists in Israel and the West Bank. This forum allowed young and experienced professionals of local and international media to shared their experiences and discuss the problems facing the Arabic media in Israel. The title of last year's conference was "Organizational Challenges of Local Arab Media."

Indeed, the challenges are numerous. "When we talk about Arabic media in Israel, we talk about a small market," says Amal Jamal, general director of I'lam and scholar of Political Science at Tel Aviv University. "The advertising market and the financial capabilities are very limited [in Arabic media]." Another problem is the educational situation. "Future Israeli media workers have the possibility to gain their first experience at Radio Galatz during their compulsory army service, where they are trained by professionals. There is no alternative for young Arabs, who usually don't join the army," Jamal adds. The I'lam staff tries to close the gap by offering courses and workshops about photography, writing for the media and journalistic investigation in the fields of economic, political and environmental issues. However, with the number of Arabic media outlets increasing during the last years because of online publications and local papers, quality couldn't keep pace. Almost every village has a local paper, Jamal says, "but the number of newspapers is not the same as quality. Those newspapers cover only a small area and don't have the ressources for serious investigations, meaning the professional level is low. They are willing to take anybody who has a good camera and knows how to write, a little bit. In this case, competition damages the professional dimension."

Fayez al-Shtiwi has his own perspective on the realities of the Arabic media in Israel. Al-Shtiwi is the co-owner of Kulal-Arab, one of the leading weekly Arabic papers in Israel. Kul al-Arab is located in Nazareth, only a few steps  from the office of I'lam.
“If you want to be a good and successful Arab journalist in Israel, you can’t work for our paper eternally,“ al-Shtiwi says. “You must leave and I will be happy to support you." The average salary at Kul al-Arab is around 6,000 NIS a month, which is less than half the amount a journalist in the center will make. Kul al-Arab's circulation has declined in recent years to 38,000 issues weekly, which  are mostly sold in Arab villages and towns inside of Israel. "Only 10 percent are distributed in Ramallah, Bethlehem and East Jerusalem. However, in the North of Israel Kul al-Arab is one of the most important voices. In Nazareth, it is sold in 160 shops alone, while national papers, like Yedioth Ahronoth, are almost invisible."  Through these examples, al-Shtiwi has stressed the importance of local media for the Arab minority in Israel. According to several studies[1] and I'lam's surveys[2], Israel's Arabic citizens mostly appear in the national media for reasons relating to security, criminality and intelligence.

"To sum it up," says Amal Jamal, "the majority of this country shows no interest as long as the daily life of the Jewish majority is not affected, and vice versa. You find in Israel two public spheres that are totally separated."

Fayez al-Shtiwi enhances the importance of Arabic media in Israel by representing the political, social and cultural issues of a significant part of Israeli society and by offering a different view on the country than the national media. Still, according to his experience, Arab journalists will hardly find job opportunities in the Hebrew media because of the language barrier and the general bleak economic situation which most private media companies face. Al-Shtiwi estimates that the only people who are willing to follow Kul al-Arab outside of the Arab population "are the guys from the intelligence service." Though unsaid, the implication seems clear: the vast majority of Israel's public doesn't care about what is going on in the Arabic minority.
Except for Haaretz, says Jack Khoury, "because the owners and editors believe these are important issues to cover for a national paper." However, the subscribers of Haaretz don't seem to agree; usually Khoury's articles about the local Arab population receive only mediocre reading traffic.

[1]    Anat First: „Enemies, fellow vitims, or the forgotten? News coverage of Israeli Arabs in the 21st century“
      Abeer Baker: „Minorities, Law, and the Media: The Arab Minority in the Israeli Media“
[2]    Amal Jamal, Kholod Massalha: „The Discourse of Human Rights in the Israeli Media“, Ilam Media Center, 2012.
      Amal Jamal, Rana Awaisi: „The Challenges to Journalistic Professionalism: Between Independence and Difficult Work Conditions“, Ilam Media Center, 2012.