Tuesday, May 29, 2012

Israel okays book licensing murder of non-Jews

[Originally posted at NOW Lebanon]

And for today’s sermon, let’s take a dip into the collected wisdom of West Bank Rabbis Yitzhak Shapira and Yosef Elitzur, as published in their 2009 opus, Torat Hamelech (“The King’s Torah”):

“Anywhere where the influence of gentiles [non-Jews] constitutes a threat to the life of Israel, it is permissible to kill them.”

“When we approach a gentile who has violated the seven laws of Noah and kill him out of devotion to the upholding of these Noahide laws, this is not forbidden.”

“You can kill those [gentiles] who are not supporting or encouraging murder in order to save the lives of Jews.”

According to the BBC, this inspired piece of exegesis even “suggests that babies can justifiably be killed if it is clear they will grow up to pose a threat.”

For some reason, the book – which was endorsed by relatively mainstream rabbis including Dov Lior and Yaakov Yosef – raised objections when it was published, prompting the Israeli attorney general to investigate whether it constituted incitement to racism and/or violence. Protests erupted in Orthodox circles last year when Lior and Yosef were taken into custody. In a statement yesterday, the attorney concluded that there was “insufficient evidence” for a prosecution.

Being a free speech absolutist, in one sense I applaud the decision. The pseudo-liberal concepts of “hate speech” and “abuse of free expression” don’t sit well with my enthusiastic blasphemy, and I believe we surrender dearly-bought terrain to fascism when we make it a crime to write words.

But ask yourself this: would the attorney general have ruled the same way had the book been written by Islamic fundamentalists, calling for the murder of Jewish babies? To ask the question is to answer it. So far from being a victory for liberal democracy, therefore, the decision is merely yet another example of the Judeochauvinist bigotry that poisons even (or especially) the highest echelons of the Israeli establishment.

Friday, May 25, 2012

Lebanon's clergy finds new common ground on need for more censorship

[Originally posted at NOW Lebanon]

A taxing problem of satirizing the religious is that they so often do a better job all by themselves.

How is one to improve, for example, on the name of the ‘Committee for the Conservation of Values’, Lebanon’s brand-new cross-sectarian censorship board? Not since Saudi Arabia’s ‘Committee for the Promotion of Virtue and the Prevention of Vice’ has Orwell’s 1984 been so faithfully reconstructed.

As the Samir Kassir eyes [SKeyes] website reveals, this first-of-its-kind collaboration between the official Sunni, Shia, Druze and Christian clergy aims to combat the “moral decadence”, “social corruption” and “threats to the Lebanese family” arising from the grave “abuses” of media freedom in recent times. As a charming afterthought, it even “invites” media outlets to “conduct self-monitoring”, in order to lighten the workload and streamline the overall purification process.

I telephoned SKeyes’ Ayman Mhanna, who had evidently guessed why I was calling when he picked up, laughing, with the words, “It’s not a joke.” He explained the unwritten gentleman’s code by which the mosque and the church – which are not formally invested with legal power to censor – enforce their will upon the state. “Whenever the censorship bureau sees anything at all related to religion, they take it upon themselves to forward the movie, the play, the script, or whatever, to the religious group that could be offended, and they wait for their response, and usually they respect their response and censor accordingly.” He pointed to the recent case of Tannoura Maxi, which had to be pulled from cinemas for a second round of censorship when initial cuts were found to have insufficiently satisfied the church. “No matter what the law says about freedom, in de facto terms [the religious leaders] hold the real authority.”

All of this makes me rather fed up. I’m fed up, in general, of the religious everywhere whining about “militant” and “oppressive” secularism while having things entirely their own way, all the time. I’m also fed up of hearing from otherwise liberal friends that the confessional system is the protector of freedom in Lebanon. Has it ever been more obvious that the country is not merely a theocracy, but a polytheocracy, and that the only thing God’s terrestrial deputies are able to agree on is the imperative of strangling and suffocating liberty?

Holy hell: Separating fact from fiction in the pilgrimage kidnapping crisis

[Originally posted at NOW Lebanon]

In one of a number of events contributing to unrest in the capital this week, over 60 Lebanese men and women were kidnapped on Tuesday in the province of Aleppo, Syria, on their journey home via Turkey from a Shia religious pilgrimage to Iran. News of the abduction sparked tire-burning demonstrations and road closures in Beirut’s mostly Shia southern suburbs—two days after deadly clashes in the nearby Sunni Tariq al-Jdeideh neighborhood—that only abated after Hezbollah Secretary General Hassan Nasrallah gave a speech appealing for calm. While the women were quickly released, arriving safely in Beirut in the early hours of Wednesday, at the time of writing 11 of the men have yet to be freed.

The exact details of the kidnapping remain incomplete, but what is known so far is that the pilgrims were travelling in two buses when they were pulled over by armed men. After being held for three to five hours, around 50 men and women were released while 11 men were kept captive. At a rally attended by NOW Lebanon on Wednesday in the southern suburbs held in solidarity with the abductees, Hezbollah MP Ali Ammar assured relatives that the men were alive and that the party had secured their imminent release through its various contacts. Prime Minister Najib Mikati and Parliament Speaker Nabih Berri were also reported to be working on the case.

Accusations as to the identity of the kidnappers have varied widely, mostly in accordance with established political divides. Allies of the Syrian regime such as Ammar have put the blame on the Free Syria Army (FSA), the most prominent militant component of the opposition to President Bashar al-Assad. This claim was echoed by the Lebanese National News Agency.

However, the FSA has denied all involvement, with leader Riad al-Assaad blaming “a group of bandits” belonging to “recently formed financial mafias” and adding that his fighters “will risk our life to liberate” the captives. Separately, high-ranking FSA officer Mustafa al-Sheikh said the kidnapping is “no doubt the work of the regime, which wants to sow chaos in the region” and “distort the image of the FSA”—a claim with which FSA spokesman Khaled Youssef Hammoud concurred.

For its part, the opposition Syrian National Council (SNC) has not made any direct accusations, although it has stated that it “does not think it impossible that the regime is involved in this operation.” The regime itself has placed the blame on an “armed terrorist gang.”

Meanwhile, one anonymous relative of a captive has accused “an extreme Syrian fundamentalist group” of being behind the kidnapping. Appearing to support this accusation is the claim made on Thursday by the Syrian Islamist Sheikh Ibrahim al-Zoaabi that he is attempting to mediate on the captives’ behalf. “The kidnapped [men] are well,” he told Reuters. “I am attempting to [help] release them, but the shelling of the Syrian army on this area prevents this until now.” He asserted that the kidnappers will soon release a tape showing the men in good health, and that they will be handed over to the Lebanese authorities.

As for the testimony of the returned abductees themselves, no consensus on the kidnappers’ identities has emerged. Some were adamant that they belonged to the FSA. NOW spoke to Siham Mahmoud, who was on one of the buses and whose husband, Awad Ibrahim, remains captive. “It was the FSA who boarded the bus and took the men away,” Mahmoud told NOW. “They introduced themselves as the FSA, and they even had a badge on their military uniforms that said they were the FSA.”

This is partly corroborated by statements given by fellow pilgrims at Beirut airport. Questioned upon arrival by Al-Jadeed, several named their captors as the FSA.

However, several also denied that the kidnappers identified themselves as such, and significantly contradicted the others’ testimony in numerous respects. For example, while some said they were abused while captured—“They insulted us, they wiped the floor with us”—others said they were treated well and were unharmed. While some said the kidnappers wore military uniform, others said they wore civilian clothes. While some told of encountering intimidation on the same road during the outbound journey to Iran, others denied any such occurrence. While all agreed that the captors were armed, some described them not as militants but simply as “criminals” and “immoral [people].”

Similar discrepancies arise with regard to the alleged motives of the kidnappers. In the video, one woman claims that the “boss” of the captors told them, “We don’t want anything from you. We just want to exchange [men] with the Syrian regime.” This is echoed by the aforementioned anonymous relative, who asserts that, “The hostages are being held […] in hopes of swapping them for those of their comrades held [by Assad’s forces].” If true, the incident would resemble the exchange that took place earlier in the month of two Lebanese, Abdullah al-Zein and Khodr Jaafar, for over two dozen Syrian nationals.

However, no such quid-pro-quo has been publicly requested by the kidnappers, and indeed Hezbollah’s Ammar has denied that they have made any demands.

With so much uncertainty clouding the details, and tensions palpable on the streets, there is little to do at this stage but wait for further information. When contacted by NOW on Thursday, Hezbollah press spokesman Ibrahim Moussawi was decidedly reticent. “I don’t have any updates, I’m afraid. But I can assure you there is a committee that is following the case minute by minute.”

Luna Safwan and Amani Hamad contributed reporting to this article.

Thursday, May 24, 2012

Fission and the fatwa

[Originally posted at NOW Lebanon]

The Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad reiterated today the claim that nuclear weapons are forbidden in Islam. “Based on Islamic teachings and the clear fatwa [edict] of the Supreme Leader, the production and use of weapons of mass destruction is [sic] haram [forbidden] and have no place in the Islamic Republic of Iran’s defense doctrine”, AFP reported him as saying.

The “Supreme Leader” in question is, of course, Grand Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, the cleric and absolute ruler of the country, who is said to have outlawed The Bomb several years ago (though no evidence has been made public), and who declared its possession to constitute “a major sin” in February this year.

Not nearly enough attention is paid to these remarks, if you ask me. After all, the Iranian regime is impugned for many things, but insufficient religious fanaticism is not one I can recall. The question begged by the fatwa is this: is the Iranian government an utter theocracy, horrified by “sin” and entirely servile to the dictates of the faqih? If so, whence the nuclear bomb? And if not – if, in other words, it is a rational, secular actor – then why should its nuclear arsenal be any more objectionable than, say, Israel’s?

Of course, even Supreme Leaders can make mistakes. The religious in general have a curious habit of producing “revelations” and revisions at strikingly convenient moments. One isn’t only thinking here of the comic fraudulence of, say, Joseph Smith, who couldn’t even convince his own wife of the tripe he peddled. I’m thinking also of Khamenei’s predecessor, Ruhollah Khomeini, who in 1987 declared his war on Iraq a “divine cause” to be waged “until victory”, only to “drink the cup of poison” by making peace with Saddam a year later. The beauty of being God’s hand-picked vicar is exactly that every new rule is just as unchallengeable as the last one.

But the bottom line is those pushing for war on Iran can’t have it both ways. If the Iranians really are slaves to Khamenei’s fatawa, then as things stand there will be no bomb. If, on the other hand, they’re a pragmatic people amenable to reason, then a better excuse is going to have to be created for why they can’t have even one their regional rival’s estimated 200 warheads.

Tuesday, May 22, 2012

Military precision? Assessing the army's role in Abdel Wahed's killing

[Originally posted at NOW Lebanon. Co-written with Shane Farrell]

The killing of a Sunni cleric and his bodyguard by a soldier at a checkpoint in Akkar on Sunday is a setback to the image of neutrality on which the Lebanese Armed Forces (LAF) prides itself. The cleric, Sheikh Ahmad Abdel Wahed, was an outspoken critic of the Syrian regime, a fact that has led to speculation about a possible political motive for the killing. The incident comes days after deadly clashes began in Tripoli sparked by the General Security’s arrest of Shadi Mawlawi, an Islamist accused of belonging to a terrorist organization. Supporters of Mawlawi deny this, believing his arrest to have been political, due to his support for the Syrian opposition. He was released on Tuesday.

The precise details surrounding Sunday’s killing of the two men remain unclear. According to Abdel Wahed's driver, Khaled Merheb, whose story has been corroborated by most reports, the sheikh was in the car with his bodyguard, Mohammad Hussein Merheb, and Khaled Merheb was driving. At the checkpoint a verbal altercation between the sheikh and one soldier began after the sheikh was asked to get out of the car. The chauffeur stepped out, but Abdel Wahed took the driver’s seat and turned the vehicle around to go back, which is when the soldier fired at the car, killing the sheikh.

Assuming that this was the case—that is, that the killing was not in self-defense—then it constitutes a flagrant and criminal violation of military procedure, according to retired LAF General Elias Hanna. “The rules of engagement mandate a progressive increase in the use of violence. Firing should be the last step. You talk first, you warn, you create hurdles in the path of the vehicle, you inform another checkpoint. Only after all of these should you shoot.”

However, Hanna warned sternly against jumping to conclusions, given the current uncertainty about the details. “In such a critical situation, how can you have an opinion without facts? The shooting of the sheikh does not necessarily mean that the rules of engagement weren’t applied. What we lack so far is technical information of what really happened. Did the bodyguard of the sheikh fire on the army? I don’t know. So I think we have to wait and see the results of the investigation about possible weapons that were with the sheikh and his bodyguard.”

While such caution may well be wise, at this point the army seems to have accepted responsibility for the killing, describing the deceased in a statement as “victims” and expressing “deep regret” for the “mishap.”

According to Riad Kahwaji, chief executive of Dubai-based security think tank INEGMA, the army’s next move is of key importance, though it must act quickly and decisively. “The killing of the sheikh is a major setback to the army’s image and undermines its achievements over the past year. Having said that, if we see the army quickly apprehending, arresting and trying officers in accordance with the law […] this will act as a factor which will help restore confidence.”

An investigation into the incident began on Sunday, according to an army statement, but there have been calls, including by the Higher Islamic Council, for the investigation to be transferred to the Judicial Council, where it would be tried under civil law, rather than the military tribunal.

Although some have argued that the army is already taking sides in the conflict in Syria, for example by arresting and detaining regime dissenters who have fled across the border into Lebanon, Kahwaji disagrees. He did, however, express fears that the army may succumb to political destabilization. “The Lebanese cannot lose trust or give up on the military establishment. It is one of the very few—if not the only—state establishment which is to a large extent immune from the sectarian virus we have in the country. If the army splits, the country will disintegrate.”

Perhaps most dangerously, the Abdel Wahed shooting is likely to further sour relations between the army and the Sunni community as a whole. In a statement released Sunday, religious and political figures from the northern town of Minnieh said the killing “harms the army’s reputation and its relation with citizens in the North.” Hanna agrees, telling NOW that “There has been distrust ever since May 7, [2008],” when Hezbollah-aligned gunmen took over parts of mostly Sunni West Beirut and other areas of the country, without significant interference from the army. Hanna believes that Sunday’s events have only increased distrust among Sunnis toward the army and the wider security and intelligence apparatus. This distrust is especially pronounced in Akkar. However, he does not believe that recent events risk splitting the army, because “it is in no one’s interest to do so.”

In any event, the army will face substantial challenges in the coming weeks. Should it fail to deliver justice in Abdel Wahed’s case while also restoring the Sunni community’s faith in the institution in general, the prospects for a secure Lebanon will only deteriorate further.

Friday, May 18, 2012

Aleppo students stand tall

[Originally posted at NOW Lebanon]

Students raise the Free Syria flag at Aleppo University (Source: @HamaEcho twitter account)

There isn’t very much to say about the scenes from Aleppo University yesterday that isn’t instantly communicated by these images and videos.

It was just one of those unambiguously wonderful moments, when basic decency stands up to cruelty, and refuses to sit down again thereafter. I imagine that when the revolution finally succeeds, this will be one of the days the Syrian people look back on with the most pride.

As a symbolic site, Aleppo University is almost unimprovable. Aleppo, the most populous city in the country, was a bastion of regime support, we were always being told. Its largely Christian middle-class was said to be highly distrustful of the opposition, fearing an Iraq-style slaughter once the Salafists established the caliphate in Damascus, as we were assured they would.

So much for all that.

On the campus squares yesterday, clean-shaven young men stood shoulder to shoulder with (often unveiled) women, carrying not the black flags of Islam but the green, white, red and black of Free Syria. Nor were they chanting “No God but Allah,” but “Hafez al-Assad – dog of the Arab world” and “The people want to arm the Free Syrian Army.”

In honor of their courage – the students were tear-gassed, beaten and reportedly even fired upon by regime forces – today’s protests across the country will take place under the banner of the “Heroes of Aleppo University.”

I’ll drink to that.  

Wednesday, May 16, 2012

Assad turns to Qana tactics

[Originally posted at NOW Lebanon]

A Syrian child holds a poster associating President Bashar al-Assad with Israel (Reuters)

Nothing, of course, should surprise us about the Assad regime anymore, but it’s still possible to marvel sometimes at how utterly, brutally contemptuous of human life it can be.

It’s also remarkable how frequently, and how uncannily, its behavior resembles the very worst of its supposed arch-rival in Tel Aviv. Take today’s report from the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights that the regime “opened fire on a refugee camp in southern Syria […] killing three people including a child”. Who, you may ask, are the occupants of this camp? “Palestinian refugees and Syrians displaced from the occupied Golan Heights”.

Now consider this, written by Vittorio Arrigoni, reporting from Gaza during Israel’s Operation Cast Lead: “On the previous day two doctors at the Jabalia refugee camp had died when they were hit by a missile shot from an Apache helicopter.” Or, if you prefer something closer to home, peruse Human Rights Watch’s account of how in Qana in 1996, “Israeli artillery guns […] fired a deadly mix of shells into the sprawling U.N. base there, killing over 100 children, women and men who had sheltered there.”

But, of course, nothing the Assad regime stoops to, not even the broad-daylight murder of Palestinian refugees, will stop its cheerleaders from touting their tired slogans of “resistance” and “Arabism”. They should not count on history to be kind to them.

Sunday, May 13, 2012

Palestinians and Assad: It's complicated

[Originally posted at NOW Lebanon]

Against the overwhelming condemnation directed by the international community at the Syrian regime for its bloody crackdown on domestic opponents, President Bashar al-Assad has always had one trump card with which to rally supporters to his side: his proclaimed devotion to Palestine. “Who, more than Syria, has offered to the Palestinian cause?” he asked in a speech in January. His allies in Lebanon also routinely reach for the same defense: “Can anyone say that the Syrian regime […] did not support the resistance in Palestine?” asked Hezbollah Secretary General Hassan Nasrallah in February. Even British MP George Galloway recently reiterated his admiration for the regime he describes as “the last castle of Arab dignity,” praising the government’s “[refusal] to cut their relationship with the Palestinian revolution and its resistance.”

Many Palestinians in Lebanon, however, appear to remember things a little differently. NOW traveled to Beirut’s southern suburbs and asked Palestinian refugees if they thought the Assad regime has been good for Palestinians and how they view events in Syria today. Several refused to talk – reluctant, perhaps, to add to the numberless difficulties of life in a camp. But among those who did, there was little consensus, with some defending the regime, most ambivalent toward it and some openly supporting the opposition.

Ibrahim, pharmacist: How could I compliment the Assads? When the Syrians entered Lebanon [in 1976], they massacred Palestinians. Historically, as Palestinians, we don’t like the Syrian system, and this is known. So I am with democracy in Syria and with changes for the system, but only in a manner that serves the interests of Syrians, not the US. There’s a big American project for the Middle East, and we are against this, whether we like Assad or not.

Abu Tareq, grocer: Yes, Assad has been good for us. What’s happening today is not a revolution – a revolution is against your enemy, not your own government. I support every revolution that calls for reforming or improving the system, but this is not the case in Syria; this is started by Israel and its Arab allies. They never did anything for Palestine, so what are they going to do for Syria? This takeover by the Muslim Brotherhood is the biggest victory for Israel, because now they have more reason to build a Jewish state next to the Islamic countries.

Abu Jamil, member of prominent Palestinian political party: One has to separate the social and economic issues from the political ones. In Lebanon, we are forbidden from working in more than 70 professions, whereas in Syria, a Palestinian has more rights – he can be a doctor or an engineer; he has economic freedom. Of all the countries that host Palestinian refugees, Syria offers them the most social benefits and rights. However, politically, we actually have less freedom in Syria. Palestinians there cannot hold a march or form a party. The regime forbids it. So, of course we are for democracy and more rights in Syria, for both Palestinians and Syrians.

Abu Ahmad, arguileh café owner: No, Assad hasn’t been good for us. Listen, I’ve been following politics for 30 years. This so-called revolution is just a conspiracy, not only against Syria but the whole region, and specifically against Muslims.

Abu Muhammad: Yes, Assad has been good for us. Of all the Arab governments, his is the only one that kept the resistance alive, and said no to the US, in a way that protects the Palestinians’ best interests. Of course, no one envies Syrians for the situation they’re in right now. We all want Syria to be safe and sound, as a people and a regime. But we shouldn’t talk about Syrian internal affairs because it’s something for them to decide themselves.

Ramzi, shopkeeper: We Palestinians are against everything that’s happening in the Arab region. Yes, there is injustice and oppression in Syria, and we are against that; we are with the people. But this is not an Arab Spring. It’s chaos and ruin. It’s not only destructive for the regime, because Syria is not only represented by a regime; it’s destructive for the people.

Abu Daoud, shopkeeper: No, Assad hasn’t been good for Palestinians. Today, I see this as a revolution, because the regime cannot satisfy the vision of the people. I hope this situation will soon be resolved for good.

Khaled, shopkeeper: I don’t care about what’s happening in Syria, I’m neutral toward it. Our situation as Palestinians in Lebanon is more important. What has any country ever offered us?

Luna Safwan contributed reporting to this article. Some of the above names have been changed at the respondents’ requests.

Friday, May 11, 2012

US military tells recruits to wage "total war" on Islam

[Originally posted at NOW Lebanon]

Here’s a thought experiment: suppose that an extremely sophisticated and well-equipped Muslim-majority army was found to be instructing its officers that a “total war” on Christianity was required; this war being waged on Christendom’s “civilian population wherever necessary”, with the “historical precedents of Dresden, Tokyo, Hiroshima [and] Nagasaki being applicable” to Vatican City, Bethlehem and the Christian quarters of Jerusalem. None of us, I hope, would dispute that this was the most fantastic and wicked fanaticism; the sheerest and most abominable religious lunacy.

Yet switch the above religions around, and insert “Mecca and Medina” in place of the Christian cities, and you have – verbatim – the material with which officer recruits at the US Defense Department’s Joint Forces Staff College were being enlightened by one Lieutenant Colonel Matthew Dooley until April of this year.

What does one even begin to do with such a piece of information? No doubt it will do wonders for the claim – reiterated by al-Qaeda leader Ayman al-Zawahiri just this week – that US troops in the region are the twenty-first century’s “Crusaders”. It’s worth pointing out, therefore, that Dooley’s course was dropped after complaints from the students themselves, and that it was denounced by Chief of Staff Martin Dempsey as “totally objectionable” and “against our values”.

At the same time, this is but one in a long list of such incidents for the US army, whose ranks have been increasingly poisoned by a hideous Christian chauvinism for some years now. The late Christopher Hitchens – no dove on ‘War on Terror’ matters – wrote in 2009 of the “clique within the United States military that is seeking to use the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan as an opportunity to mount a new crusade and to Christianize the “heathen””. And the intimidation and marginalization of less devout troops has grown so intense that nonbelieving soldiers have felt compelled to form groups, such as the Military Religious Freedom Foundation and the Military Association of Atheists & Freethinkers, whose websites enumerate in sobering detail the daily infringements of religious freedom that the American constitution is supposed to protect.

If the US is serious, therefore, about confronting dangerous religious ideology, it has plenty to be getting on with in its own armed forces. The dishonorable discharge of Matthew Dooley – who is at present merely “suspended” – would be a useful start.

Wednesday, May 9, 2012

Asking the impossible? Lebanon's march for secularism

[A condensed version of the below was posted on the UK National Secular Society website]

“Religion belongs to God, the country to everyone” – Butrus al-Bustani, Lebanese secularist, Arab nationalist and polymath (1819-83)

While in most respects the previous seventeen months have seen undreamt-of victories for civil liberties in the Middle East, there is one crucial measure by which things have not improved, and in fact threaten to worsen considerably: the separation of religion and politics. In the Gulf, petro-monarchs have set aside their traditional tribal and other distrusts in the spirit of Sunni unity and purity against the Shia heretics of Bahrain. Entire cities in Yemen have been taken over by Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP). In Syria, what started as a nonviolent uprising now looks to be heading toward a civil war with ugly sectarian undertones. And in North Africa, Islamist parties have won by dizzying margins in every election from Cairo to Casablanca.

So it was with no small satisfaction that I surveyed the crowd at the Lebanese Laïque Pride Secular March Towards Citizenship in central Beirut on Sunday. For the third year in a row, the country’s secular community took to the streets to call for an end to the sectarian order and the implementation of a number of draft laws against things like censorship and domestic violence. To the bemusement and occasional encouragement of bystanders, some 1,500 students, professionals, activists and even the odd celebrity marched for three hours carrying banners like “Civil marriage not civil war” and variously chanting “What’s your sect? None of your business!”; “Revolution!”; and “The people want a secular state”.

As well they might, for Lebanon is a country where being born into the wrong religion means you can’t become president. Nor can you become prime minister, or speaker of the parliament, and so on down the cabinet, every seat of which is constitutionally reserved for a member of one faith or another. Civil service, military and security positions, too, are rationed along communal lines. Not even university faculty appointments are suffered to upset the sanctity of the sectarian calculus.

Similarly, citizenship is officially defined by faith, so that marital, inheritance and other such disputes are settled not by lawyers but theologians. What does that mean in practice? Well, for starters, that a Muslim man is fully within his rights to beat his wife, thanks to Sura 4:34 of the Qur’an, which, after laying down that “Men are in charge of women”, instructs husbands to “strike” wayward spouses. This jewel of 7th century Bedouin culture is the law of the land in 21st century Lebanon. In 2011, the Sunni Grand Mufti, Muhammad Qabbani, actually rejected a draft law against domestic violence on the grounds that “it harms the Muslim woman and denies her of the rights granted [to her]”. But the humiliation doesn’t end there: that same husband may also rape his wife, since the learned sheikhs decline to recognize the concept of marital rape in the first place. “There’s nothing called rape between a husband and wife”, as the al-Jamaa al-Islamiyah [Islamic Group] MP Imad Hout eloquently put it last December. “It’s called forcing someone violently to have intercourse.”

What else? Those born outside the eighteen recognized sects – such as the 4,000-odd Jehovah’s Witnesses – are effectively disowned by the state, unable to get married and denied various other basic entitlements. While atheism isn’t illegal – Article 9 of the constitution guaranteeing “absolute freedom of conscience” on the God question – every Lebanese is nevertheless branded from birth, on official identity documents*, by his father’s sect, so that an atheist born of a Christian is forbidden from marrying an atheist born of a Muslim. (Nearby Cyprus, as a result, does a lucrative trade in civil marriage tourism.)

To the outsider, this might all seem fairly straightforward to reform with some basic legislation. Alas, there are immense obstacles to this, many of them spawned and cultivated by the system itself. For one, the clergy has a financial interest in the status quo. To take just a small example, every Christian who marries is obliged to pay a fee, or ‘donation’, to their local parish. This tax (as it ought to be called), which can run into the thousands of dollars, is required irrespective of where the ceremony actually takes place. And it is, of course, distinct from the substantial extra raked in for the hiring of the premises and priest, or priests. Thus do the Lord’s terrestrial deputies succeed in turning even an occasion of love into yet another sordid extortion racket.

Moreover, and speaking of which, politicians have created a viciously destructive cycle in the phenomenon of patronage. Without exception, every major party invests its funds in the development of its ‘own’ religious community, whether it’s Hizbullah for the Shia (bankrolled by Iran); the Future Movement for the Sunnis (bankrolled by Saudi Arabia); the PSP for the Druze (bankrolled by the Jumblatt family wealth); or any of the Christian parties (bankrolled by various domestic and foreign donors). Nor is it limited to philanthropy – a tantalising array of string-pulling services are offered the loyal co-religionist, from legal assistance to healthcare to circumventing commercial red tape to simply getting a better number plate for the Merc. This of course sees to it that the state is kept weak – for what politician would choose to work for legitimacy so long as it can be bought instead? And what voter, without a viable state alternative, will opt for anyone who doesn’t put their interests first?

Kept permanently supine by these twin jackboots of religious and political authority, Lebanon’s secularists also face the task of winning over the country’s liberals, many of whom are unconvinced of the merits of scrapping the existing system altogether. Michael Young, the Lebanese-American columnist and author of The Ghosts of Martyrs Square: An Eyewitness Account of Lebanon’s Life Struggle, even partially defends the present arrangement, writing in the book that, “What makes Lebanon relatively free in an unfree Middle East is that the country’s sectarian system, its faults notwithstanding, has ensured that the society’s parts are stronger than the state; and where the state is weak, individuals are usually freer to function.”

I asked Young last week to elaborate on his position, which he did as follows [Disclosure: He is a regular contributor to my employer, NOW Lebanon]: “I would love to see, between now and tomorrow morning, a completely civil and secular order in Lebanon, but the reality is that we are not in London or New York. This is a society whose social and political development since around the 19th century has been based on confessional power sharing. So it’s unrealistic to say we will simply dump this sociological reality and go for a secular system. Change has to come gradually, from within, and you have to think in terms of wedges. Civil marriage, for example. From these we can eventually move on to secularising parliament, as stipulated by Ta’if [the revamped constitution that ended the civil war in 1989], in the context of a national dialogue on deconfessionalisation. But I’m not a big optimist that any of this will happen soon. Unfortunately, sectarianism has really entered the consciousness of many Lebanese, and it’s almost a default part of thinking in the country.”

Whether or not one agrees on the details, Young is surely right that secularism must be accepted socially before it can be sustained politically. The startling electoral successes of Islamists in countries as developed as Turkey, and now Tunisia, attest to that. What’s so disheartening in the case of Lebanon is that it didn’t by any means have to turn out this way. For at that very moment Young mentioned in the 19th century, when the Ottomans were beginning to institutionalise sectarianism by partitioning Mount Lebanon into two distinct Maronite and Druze qa’imaqamat, or administrative districts, something very different was taking place simultaneously. From Ahmad Faris al-Shidyaq, the lexicographer, novelist, founder of Arab socialism (al-ishtirakiyya) and pioneering modernizer of the Arabic language; to Ibrahim al-Yaziji, the poet, scholar of grammar, music, medicine, art and astronomy, and creator of the first Arabic typewriter font; to Butrus al-Bustani, the polymath known as al-mu’allim (the master) with whose famous aphorism I began this article; the Lebanese were playing a central role in an extraordinary intellectual and cultural spring that was flourishing across the entire Levant.

It’s sometimes argued – usually by theocrats – that secularism is merely the latest guise of imperialism; yet another round in the White Man’s perennial quest to subdue the Orient. This is an argument that can only be made from the densest ignorance of Lebanese history, for, as the above men showed, there certainly need be nothing ‘Western’ about the values of the Enlightenment. My favourite example of the unprecedented spirit of resistance to piety and irrationality in the air at the time is the 1882 ‘Lewis Affair’, in which students at the Syrian Protestant College (as the American University of Beirut was then known) boycotted classes and even dropped out in protest at the firing of a professor for expressing Darwinist leanings. Orientalism, you say? Tell it to the dozens of freethinking young Arabs who were prepared to sacrifice their college degrees to defend reason and science from the ossified superstitions of American Christian fundamentalists.

Indeed, in many ways that was the whole point. Bustani and his peers were men of tremendously diverse interests and backgrounds – both Christians and Muslims among them – but they were united by two passions above all: secularism and Arab nationalism. Crucially, they understood the subversive potential of the former, and its indispensability for the latter, so that, so far from being an appeasement of their colonial masters, they saw secularism as their greatest hope of shaking them off. Simply put, for them, secularism and independence were one and the same struggle. Who can look at today’s Lebanon, beholden to the dictates of regional allegiances cultivated on purely sectarian grounds, and disagree?

To get an idea of how far we’ve declined since then, consider that the name given to the period by Arab historians is al-nahda, or ‘the awakening’. If that sounds familiar, it might be because it’s also the name of the new ruling party in Tunisia – a party that in just a few months has carried out what commentator Hussein Ibish has described as “severe attacks on religious dissidents”, including the jailing of bloggers and television producers for blasphemy. To crush your country’s irreligious community is one thing, but to do it in the name of secular emancipation takes a very special kind of contempt.

Yet nobody complains at this despicable insult to a noble chapter of Arab history. If the region’s secularists, therefore, are to indeed eradicate sectarianism from the consciousness of their peoples, there are surely worse ways to begin than by reclaiming the memory of their own intellectual – and yes, if you like, spiritual – forefathers, who appreciated so keenly so many years ago that secularism and liberation and dignity were not only mutually compatible, but in fact equivalent expressions of the same common goal.

* Correction: I initially had said that religion was included on passports. This is not true.

Friday, May 4, 2012

Al Qaeda letter, dated 2007, refers to "brothers in Lebanon"

[Originally posted at NOW Lebanon]

Among the 17 previously classified letters captured during the killing of Osama bin Laden and released yesterday by the US military is one addressed, according to the document guide, “to a legal scholar by the name of Hafiz Sultan” and authored by an unnamed al-Qaeda operative “of Egyptian origin”.

In most respects it’s a fairly typical one – the author inquires as to the possibility of using “chlorine gas” weaponry in Iraq, and attaches some upbeat correspondence from “the brothers in Algeria” (“Things are steadily improving: morale is rising […] Every week there is a bombing”).

What caught my eye, however, was the following aside: “We will try to make arrangements with the brothers in Lebanon to have one of their representatives visit us in the near future. God grant us success.”

Of particular interest is that the letter is dated 28 March, 2007 – less than two months before the start of the mini-war between the Lebanese army and members of the Salafist outfit, Fatah al-Islam. Of course, post hoc need not imply propter hoc, etc., but that the group had links to al-Qaeda now looks all but certain. Hopefully, further releases from the archive will shed more light on this still-murky history.

Thursday, May 3, 2012

Geagea assassination attempt proves existence of God, claims new party poster

For those of you who imagine that the crude manipulation of religious credulity for political gain is somehow an exclusively Muslim phenomenon, consider the new billboard I noticed this morning recently erected by the Lebanese Forces, the militia-turned-party that has its roots in Lebanon’s sectarian Christian far-right:

The text at the top has been variously translated to me as “If God is with you, then you’re safe”; “If God is with you, who is stronger than you?”; and “If God is with you, who dares to be against you?” The man pictured is the LF’s leader, 'Dr' Samir Geagea, extending his hand in a gesture probably not accidentally reminiscent of Michelangelo’s ‘The Creation of Adam’.

The line is an obvious reference to the recent attempt on Geagea's life, in which he narrowly evaded two sniper rounds fired at his Maarab residence. Evidently, for the LF, his survival cannot be put down to mere chance: nothing less than a genuine miracle occurred on April 4th, 2012.

I’m struck anew how infinitely fascinating are the methods of the Almighty. His omnipotence notwithstanding, He apparently couldn’t simply have had the assassins undergo, say, a last-minute change of heart. Nor was He interested in any of the arguably more exciting means available for thwarting their plan - lightning strike; spontaneous combustion; sudden encirclement by man-eating dinosaurs; etc. And, for all His moral pontificating, He curiously sees no reason to have the culprits caught and punished for trying to eliminate His earthly comrade. No, instead, He opts as always for a shabby half-measure; a mediocre cop-out that bears the stamp, in every detail, not of a divine intelligence but a common mammal. 

But why let all that ruin an opportunity to assert that God is not only on the side of your sect, but in fact your political party, while comparing the head of that party to the biblical father of mankind himself in the process?

Wednesday, May 2, 2012

Syria dishevels Lebanon's Shia

[Originally posted at NOW Lebanon]

It’s always been incautious to speak of Lebanon’s Shia as a politically homogenous, monolithic entity, and perhaps never more so than today, when despite the dangers imposed by an authoritarian leadership, the voices of dissent that have always existed are multiplying to an unprecedented extent as a result of the events in Syria. In consequence, experts interviewed by NOW Lebanon say that prominent Shia parties – Hezbollah chief among them – have embarked upon an extraordinary campaign of political and religious coercion in an attempt to maintain their iron grip on the community.

“Naturally, people are still scared to voice their condemnation of the Syrian regime in public,” said Ali Haidar, a Shia journalist from South Lebanon. “But in private, there are many who have started doing so. And on the Internet too, we’ve seen many Facebook groups, such as ‘Southerners with the Syrian Revolution,’ in which Shia are expressing discontent with the regime, and how Hezbollah has handled everything. Their numbers may not be large – usually each one gets one or two thousand supporters – but they’re growing, and their condemnations are powerful.” Expatriates, too, are often at odds with the party’s position: “As well as the leftists, and the educated elites, those who live outside the South, or the [mainly Shia Beirut suburb] Dahiyeh, or Lebanon altogether, tend to be more vocal in their negative opinions,” Haidar said.

Accordingly, Hezbollah has launched a major campaign in defense of the regime, painting the Syrian uprising not as a democratic movement but as a threat, first to the party itself, and second to the Shia community as a whole. Ali al-Amin, a Shia journalist for al-Balad, told NOW Lebanon that, “Since they can’t defend the Syrian regime as a democratic or law-abiding government – because it so obviously isn’t one – Hezbollah has instead encouraged the Shia to think of [the Syrian uprising] as a conspiracy, not only against Syria but also against the Islamic Resistance in Lebanon. Moreover, they’ve managed to turn the situation from a battle between oppressor and oppressed into one that targets the very existence of the Shia. Thus the people are confused; because while they can’t support a regime that is killing its own people, nor can they support an opposition that they’re being told is targeting their sect.”

Haidar agrees, adding that this maneuver has taken on an explicitly religious character, to the point of asserting that the downfall of the regime will have theologically calamitous implications for the Shia. “There has actually been a fatwa issued, by Iran and passed down through [Hezbollah Shura Council cleric] Sheikh Muhammad Yazbek, stating that it is haram [forbidden by Islam] to watch any television channel other than Al Manar, Addounia TV and OTV. In fact, it’s long been part of their ideology that any information coming from outside party-approved sources is a lie. Moreover, the Shia have been instructed that it is takleef, or an Islamic duty, to condemn the Syrian uprising. To truly understand this, one has to understand the al-Jafr book [a mystical Shia text], to which everything taking place in Syria is being related by the clerics. In short, the Shia are being told that if [Syrian President] Bashar al-Assad falls, it will precipitate the arrival of the [occulted Imam] Mehdi, and the community is not supposed to be ready for that yet.”

At the same time, however, the party has subtly adjusted its stance on Syria in what may be an attempt to regain the loyalties of dissenters. As the author and columnist Nicholas Noe wrote in a recent article in Foreign Policy, “After one year of doubling down on their support for [Assad], Lebanon’s Hezbollah has finally shifted its public position […] [Nasrallah is now] frank in equating the opposition and the Assad regime, urging – even pleading for – a negotiated political solution.” According to Amin, “They’re moderating their position because their rosy image in the Arab world is being tarnished. They’re stressing the narrative of dialogue and reform to try and give an impression of impartiality. Furthermore, they’re avoiding getting themselves into any further internal Lebanese conflicts so as not to jeopardize their hold on the cabinet.”

Haidar, on the other hand, sees a foreign hand in this shift. “Nasrallah is not an autonomous leader; he’s a field commander. He simply takes orders – from Syria, but primarily Iran – and implements them. Even the decision about joining in the suppression of the Syrian revolution isn’t made by him. If there has been any moderation in his stance, it’s been directed by the Iranians, who are trying to relegate Syria to a side issue, given their preoccupation with the bigger question of the nuclear program.”

Perhaps surprisingly, given the extent of the coercion outlined above, neither expert interviewed believed the fall of the Assad regime would have serious detrimental consequences for the country’s Shia parties. “[Amal leader] Nabih Berri has long held a grudge against the Syrians, whom he suspects of plotting against him,” said Haidar. “For example, they wanted to put [former General Security chief] Jamil al-Sayyed in his place as parliament speaker before the Hariri assassination. So the fall of the regime wouldn’t necessarily be unwelcome for him. It might even be to his benefit, as he might lead the next political phase.”

As for Hezbollah, “Even if the regime falls, they’ll still have Iran,” said Haidar. “And the Syrian border would likely stay porous for a long time afterward, as it did in Iraq. It could work to their benefit as well.”

“They would have to adapt their strategies and their ways of doing things to some extent,” said Amin. “But there’s unlikely to be as great an inversion as many people seem to think.”

Luna Safwan contributed reporting to this article.