Arab Liberals and Gaza: Or Why We Must Re-Define Resistance

21 11 2012

“To be rational when everyone else is emotional makes you a traitor,” noted prolific twitterati Iyad El-Baghdadi after his Palestinian identity was questioned when he became critical of Hamas’ extrajudicial killing of five alleged Israel collaborators. Disturbed by the images of bodies dragged in the street by motorcyclists, Al-Baghdadi spoke his mind and paid the price on his twitter feed. Critics lashed out with nasty epithets of “house Arab” and “colonized Arab.”

Despite being the stateless son of refugees, El-Baghdadi is – in the minds of his fellow Arab Muslim detractors – not supposed to think outside of the box, or at least say his thoughts his out loud. Merely questioning Hamas’ behavior immediately became grounds for Al-Baghdadi’s core identity to be attacked and ultimately revoked. His transgression was to openly question the “wrong” side of the Israel-Palestine equation. The message, El-Baghdadi observes, is “you either uncritically adopt our narrative, or you’re not one of us.”

The outrage – so strong that it would brook no dissent – is ostensibly generated by the Israeli army’s attacks on Palestinian civilians. Yet, when Hamas or another faction blows up a city bus or fires rockets into a classroom it generates no outrage. Why? Many never say but the underlying rationalization of such overt war crimes is “resisting occupation by any means necessary and available” or the even more simplistic “we are oppressed.”

People thunder furiously about an op-ed by Gilad Sharon calling openly for Gaza to be leveled and holding Gazans responsible for their fate after having willingly voted in Hamas. And the Hamas charter that calls for all Jews to be killed? It cannot be explained – unless you actually agree.

El-Baghdadi’s example illustrates that delivering harsh criticism of Israel as well earns no immunity. In fact, he got himself in further trouble on Twitter for criticizing the cheapening impact of using words like “genocide” and “Holocaust” to describe the situation in Gaza. One notable Palestinian-American celebrity tweeted: “Every time I see Iyad El-Baghdadi retweeted my stomach turns and I feel sick.” (A separate but important discussion is exploring why so many Americans of Arab background can get even more riled up than folks on the ground – from the safety of America.)

As someone who frequently tweets in both Hebrew and Arabic, I know firsthand how group-think can become a form of tyranny that makes liberals remain silent whenever tensions flare with Israel. Any word or phrase can be used to level charges of being a traitor. Being re-tweeted by an Israeli can seal the verdict, allegedly providing ammunition for “hasbara” efforts (this is precisely what happened to Al-Baghdadi, compounding his ad hoc expulsion). Expressing genuine compassion for friends across the conflict line risks ex-communication from a community that one belongs to and cares deeply about.

But staying silent has its own terrible cost. It means acquiescing to Hamas’ values, which run counter to a moral core that holds sacred human life regardless of ethnicity or faith. It flattens multiple identities into an imposed internal stereotype of what an Arab is and believes. It also reinforces external stereotypes of Arabs as bloodthirsty barbarians stuck in a pre-modern clan mentality. Both stereotypes deny individuality and the essential human need to express compassion.

Across the Middle East and in the Arab Diaspora, there are millions who have cheered uprisings against repression, throwing off decades of stifling group-think and having the freedom to debate openly about the future. The last two years have been transformative precisely because old dogmas were finally challenged and discarded, at least in part. It is long past time to bring the same spirit to the Arab-Israeli conflict – and most importantly to how we talk about it to each other.

For some Arab liberals, this change has already begun. Arguably the most influential Lebanese blogger Mustapha Hammaoui recently published a post provocatively titled: “What is the proper ‘Arab’ way of talking about Gaza?” After criticizing commentators from across the Lebanese spectrum, his piece grew to a crescendo: “Does being Arab require that I protest loudly when innocent Palestinian children are killed, but that I completely give away my humanity and turn a blind eye when innocent Israeli children are killed?”

Hammoui’s rejection of this false choice offers hope and a way forward for Arab liberals. To avoid being held hostage to the whims of illiberal and obscurantist ideologues, we need a clear set of values for navigating the complex reality of identity and geo-politics. Here is my first attempt to articulate these values, which deserve a rigorous and open debate:

  • Be yourself and allow others to be themselves. Don’t impose ideologies.
  • Discussion is not treason – don’t expel people (Arabs have had enough of that).
  • Self-criticism and introspection are healthy because they help clarify the truth.
  • Criticizing and even denouncing Palestinian leaders does not mean abandoning the plight of Palestinians. In fact, it may be the best thing you can do for them.
  • Don’t let the Islamists set the agenda and use Palestine to delegitimize liberals.
  • Keep perspective: Bashar Al-Assad today has more civilian blood on his hands that any non-Arab oppressor.
  • Avoid whenever possible cheapening rhetoric like “Holocaust” and “martyrdom.” (And no need to be holier than President Morsi, who kept the Rafah Crossing locked, destroyed smuggling tunnels, and just certified the Muslim Brotherhood’s recognition of Israel.)
  • Stand up for liberal values with consistency, recognizing that reality is complicated and doesn’t always have simple solutions.
  • It’s okay to be friends with Israelis, Jews, athiests, gays, masons – as it should be with a conservative religious Muslim.
  • Feel free to disagree with me.
  • Don’t be afraid to speak out even if you feel alone and the mob comes for you. If no one else does, I still stand with you.

Arab liberals must avoid the temptation to take leave of our moral values whenever Israel enters the conversation. I do not have the solution to the conflict with Israel, but I know that having a sense of compassion and humanity can help lead the way. But in the end, our main challenge is not Israel, but rather our (in)ability to have a conversation without fear or self-censorship.

What we need now is a new resistance movement – to resist being co-opted by Islamists and nationalists whose price for belonging requires betraying core human values. Our resistance movement struggles to secure liberty of thought and to reject the false choice of barbarism or guilt. We need to set ourselves free. We have a third way: Be ourselves without fear.

Again, feel free to disagree with me.





#Mauritania #April25 Ahmed Jiddou Released

27 04 2011
Ahmed_jiddou

Ahmed Jiddou, 27, and his 7 fellow protest leaders were released late last night after the youth staged a sit-in by the police station where they were held. Hundreds of youth protesters gathered in the Plaza by the police station and kept a very noisy presence in order to pressure the authorities to release the detainees.
Another detainee Cheikh Ould Jiddou, 40, (no relation to Ahmed) said that the police did not torture them but questioned them extensively about the protest leadership and its inner workings.
The photo above was posted by Ahmed Jiddou himself on his facebook profile to thank those who worried about his safety. “I would like you to worry about Mauritania, free it from the military’s clutches”, adding his call for fellow Mauritanians to “stop the country’s auctioning.” in an oblique reference to the Blokate Square’s sale by the government to General Aziz loyalists in a less than transparent deal.





#Mauritania #April25 Opposition MP’s Join Youth at Police Station Protest

26 04 2011

This video was shot today during the ongoing sit-in by the February 25 youth in front of the 4th district police station in Nouakchott where most of their detainees are thought to be held.
The protesters are joined by several opposition MP’s and leaders from the anti-slavery movement.
To an outsider this video is another banal protest, in fact, these very scenes show a new reinvigorated political discourse shaping the youth protest movement. The protesters have internalized the two main clean-break ingredients that allowed the Arab Spring to happen elsewhere:
- A post-ideological culture of civl rights
-A commitment to nonviolence
It’s worth also noting that the youth are camping up as we speak by the police station after they took over the plaza in front of the detention center. According to this blogger’s sources, the police is deliberately avoiding any direct contact with the protesters for fear of provoking a new round of mass protests as yesterday’s.
The government is rattled.




#Mauritania #April25 Detained Youth Leader in his own words

26 04 2011

AhmedJiddou.mp4 Watch on Posterous

Ahmed Jiddou, blogger, and February 25 movement activist speaking about his motives to come out to protest.He remains detained in an undisclosed location since his arrest yesterday during the April 25 Day of Rage.
He is a peaceful, nonviolent Mauritanian citizen who was exercising his constitutional right to express his dissent.
Video courtesy of @lissnup





#Mauritania #April25 Detained Youth Movement Members Pictures

26 04 2011
Freenouakchott7

These are photos of the February 25 youth movement members who were arrested yesterday April 25, 2011 by the Mauritanian government in Nouakchott during the Day of Rage protest in downtown Nouakchott. Some of them are held in an undisclosed location. The government still refuses to explain the reasons for their detention and their whereabouts.
Mauritania’s police has a long history of beatings, torture and mistreatment of political prisoners and detainees.
To date no human rights organization outside Mauritania has commented, covered or intervened on behalf of the protesters.
Picture courtesy of @Mauritanidem1





#Mauritania #April25 CNN iReport

26 04 2011
via @Lissnup, a tip of the hat to her all her work supporting the youth in Mauritania. Twitter is indeed the people’s news agency. On another note, when was the last time Mauritania was cover on any American mainstream media outlet?




#Mauritania #April25 Portesters in their own words

25 04 2011




#Mauritania #April25 Activist Ahmed Jiddou Arrested

25 04 2011

Ahmned Jiddou seen in minute 1:06 of this video calling for protest, was arrested today. He has been one of the most active promoters of today’s demonstrations.





A Dead Posh Mauritanian Jihadi

30 07 2010

A Lost Generation? (Via Alakhbar)

Unfortunately, the limited conversation ongoing in the West about AQIM is still uninformed by the realities of that group’s penetration in Mauritania; the analysis that is currently available focuses on the geopolitical and kinetic aspects of confronting the group. Little is said or shared about the alarming rise of Mauritanian youth being radicalized, indoctrinated and ultimately converted into militant Jihadis. For instance, no one has commented yet on the identity of the Mauritanian AQIM fighter who was killed during last week’s Franco-Mauritanian raid in Mali.

Abdelkader Ould Ahmednah, identified by the Mauritanian authorities as the Mauritanian of the group, challenges many assumptions about the spread of Jihadi ideology in Mauritanian society.

- Abdelkader Ould Ahmednah is one of three siblings who were recruited by AQIM. Two of his siblings are under arrest right now for alleged involvement in the killing of American citizen Christopher Leggett. in fact, they were the ones who identified him to Mauritanian security officials who brought photos of the dead gunmen to them in order to glean some fresh intel about AQIM fighters.

-Abdelkader Ould Ahmednah was arrested in 2006, and was sitting in prison until he was released in the amnesty declared by former President Sidi Ould Cheikh Abdallahi in 2007. obviously, that was short-sighted decision: no one seems to have thought of the consequences of allowing such a hardened radical back into the nature.

-Judging by the failure of the so-called de-radicalization effort setup in late 2009 by General Aziz in partnership with Mauritania’s Muslim Brotherhood and Salafi spiritual leader, the problem at hand is not merely that we are dealing with some misguided youth who incidentally picked up the wrong brand of Islam.

More importantly than the above points:

-Abdelkader Ould Ahmednah is the son of a very wealthy businessman who hails from the Smasside tribe. This is former President Maaouyia Ould Taya’s tribe. The Smasside came to ABSOLUTELY dominate the Mauritanian economy under Taya’s rule in the 90′s through family-based cartels that were given a monopoly over fisheries, export and import, and representation of foreign commercial institution. As such, Ould Ahmednah had a guarenteed path to become, like many of his young tribesmen, a wealthy prosperous businessman. He chose otherwise.

You see where I am going? Ould Ahmednah and his siblings, are part of the country’s privileged elite. They were not driven into violent Jihadism by poverty. If anything, they were seduced by this ideology because Mauritania’s crumbling educational system fed them a belief that Islam is the core of their societies and that they are citizens of the Islamic Republic of Mauritania.

Yet, they cannot reconcile that ideal with the realities of a society crumbling before their eyes. The next simplistic leap of faith for them is that if society is straying, then it must be that it needs to return to its core values as those have been abandoned somewhere between the glorious mythical past of the Islamic Ummah they were taught, and modern day Mauritania.

As a Mauritanian by birth, I am haunted by my society’s inability to reconcile itself with its own past and identity. I feel that as long as Mauritania’s national narrative emphasizes Islam-a vague Islam at that- as the center of our national identity, we will be creating more Ould Ahmednahs. All it would take for someone (as the Muslim Brotherhood is doing right now) is to claim the mantle of Islam to disguise any ideological message to recruit a generation adrift and in search for bearings.

This is not at all a dismissal of Mauritania’s failed governance and in that respect, I am NOT optimistic. The responsibility rests squarely on the shoulders of Mauritania’s elites who spend their time squabbling over political power without ever feeling the need to redefine their society and face its demons, ancient, and modern.

More later when I have more time to write..





Digiactivism Alive in Mideast

26 07 2010

Doesn’t  Sound “Passive”, eh?

Every now and then, someone in the West comes to make some outlandish claim about the use and potential of Social Media in the Middle East, hint: the Iran Twitter Revolution. This time, it comes from the Middle East from Rami Khouri who writes for Lebanon-based Daily Star. His central claim, in his piece picked by the New York Times (..) is that Arabs who are using social media tools are largely spectators:

Blogging, reading politically racy Web sites, or passing around provocative text messages by cellphone is equally satisfying for many youth. Such activities, though, essentially shift the individual from the realm of participant to the realm of spectator, and transform what would otherwise be an act of political activism — mobilizing, demonstrating or voting — into an act of passive, harmless personal entertainment.

This claim does not stand the test of reality, take for example the recent anti-censorship protest in Tunisia reported on this blog, or even closer to Mr Khouri’s levant, the case of Egyptian citizen Khaled Said whose killing at the hands of Egyptian police officers became a rallying point for those same “passive” Arabs. Khaled Said’s murder was quickly picked up and relayed via twitter, Facebook where a group for him quickly grew to include over 200000 users. Later on, those same “passive” youth took their online virtual activism to the real world by organizing protest demonstrations, sit-ins- flash mobs. Now, hold your breath, just last Sunday the latest protest demonstration took place thousands of miles away from Khaled Said’s native Alexandria, it happened here in the US in New York.

Many of us have grown so used to seeing this cycle unfold in the Middle East over the last few years, however, what is remarkable is that the time it took in 2005 to start an advocacy campaign  has been considerably shortened, primarily, due to the scale of users and the growing skill pool: thousands and thousand more Arabs are in fact using Social Media tools. For instance, the Khaled Said tragedy broke out in June, we’re now in the end of July and protest has already been exported outside of the Middle East.

So, it would not be very hard to see why Khouri’s claim here seems bizarre:

We must face the fact that all the new media and hundreds of thousands of young bloggers from Morocco to Iran have not triggered a single significant or lasting change in Arab or Iranian political culture. Not a single one. Zero.

if we only considered the full impact of the Khaled Said campaing (which is just the newest of many): it allowed Egyptian activists to force the government’s hand, the killers are facing trial, and there is an entire new discourse emerging in Egypt crystalizing young Egyptian hopes for their civil rights to be respected: a demand to stop police brutality.

Interestingly, the protest and the sit-ins that happened in Egypt itself were largely driven by young activists without any implication of the existing political parties, thus, it is interesting how new media is giving these activists a voice. Consider for example this new tactic used by young Egyptians to identify  police officers who are involved in torture and compiling their names. See the growing “piggipedia” archive on Flickr tracking those police officers. Talk about crowd-sourcing justice..

Without belaboring the point here, Rami Khouri misses the mark entirely on the realities of Middle East Digiactivism.

On the geopolitical side of Mr Khouri’s piece, chiefly his complaint, heard ad nauseam in the region among those very same activists he dismisses so lightly, about the “hypocrisy” of American government’s interest in social media while it supports the very same dictatorships that crush liberties:

One cannot take seriously the United States or any other Western government that funds political activism by young Arabs while it simultaneously provides funds and guns that help cement the power of the very same Arab governments the young social and political activists target for change.

My answer is very simple, these activists might actually NOT, I repeat, NOT NEED US government’s funds or support. They have done fine for themselves so far and grew their skills tremendously. most of them factor already in their game plans that there is no cavalry that will be forthcoming from DC to do a job they already figured how to do for themselves, thank you very much!

Otherwise, check for yourself the scores of Arab bloggers and  journalists who are rotting in jails or facing harassment without a peep heard from Washington about them.

That is the unspoken code many of the shakers and movers of Mideast Digiactivists agree on, and Mr Khouri completely ignores: “we don’t care for what you want, we’re doing our own thing, leave us alone.”, I heard that for myself while attenting the Arab Bloggers conference back in December 2009 where I ran a session precisely discussing the issue of funding.

As of now, it looks to me like Washington DC politicians need Middle East activists a heck lot more than Middle Eastern activists need them..








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