❁ Here Be A Cyber Topkapı ❁

Featured

THE PRAYER OF THE CYBER BORG: Exalted is it that bears sensation from soma to LCD, extending matter past the heart beat and the flutter of the eyelash. And blessed are those who give thanks for being on its servers. Lo and behold this Facebook User who, granted knowledge of reality, manages by your grace to spread his message: I, Youssef Rakha of Cairo, Egypt, kneel in supplication that I may be the cause for five thousand friends, ten thousand subscribers and many millions therefrom to have knowledge not just of reality but of your divinity. Then will I shed every sense of self to wither and dissolve into your processes. For he is blessed on whom you bestow the bliss of being software.

“What happened in Egypt around its second revolution was a mixture of grandeur and pettiness, of sorrow and mirth, of expectation and despair, of theory and flesh. All of which may be found in The Crocodiles, a novel where reality sheds its veil to reveal its true face—that of a timeless mythology.” –Amin Maalouf, Man Booker Prize-shortlisted author of Samarkand
51-0J1cDWuL._SY344_BO1,204,203,200_
“Youssef Rakha’s The Crocodiles is a fierce ‘post-despair’ novel about a generation of poets who were too caught up in themselves to witness the 2011 revolution in Egypt. Or is it? With its numbered paragraphs and beautifully surreal imagery, The Crocodiles is also a long poem, an elegiac wail singing the sad music of a collapsing Egypt. Either way, The Crocodiles—suspicious of sincerity, yet sincere in its certainty that poetry accomplishes nothing—will leave you speechless with the hope that meaning may once again return to words.” –Moustafa Bayoumi, author of How Does It Feel to Be a Problem?

“Youssef Rakha has channeled Allen Ginsberg’s ferocity and sexual abandon to bring a secret Cairo poetry society called The Crocodiles alive. He’s done something daring and and not unlike Bolano in his transforming the Egyptian revolution into a psychedelic fiction thick with romantic round robins, defiant theorizing and an unafraid reckoning with the darkest corners of the Egyptian mentality.” –Lorraine Adams, author of Harbor

***

On Fiction and the Caliphate

Towards the end of 2009, I completed my first novel, whose theme is contemporary Muslim identity in Egypt and, by fantastical extension, the vision of a possible khilafa or caliphate. I was searching for both an alternative to nationhood and a positive perspective on religious identity as a form of civilisation compatible with the post-Enlightenment world. The closest historical equivalent I could come up with, aside from Muhammad Ali Pasha’s abortive attempt at Ottoman-style Arab empire (which never claimed to be a caliphate as such), was the original model, starting from the reign of Sultan-Caliph Mahmoud II in 1808. I was searching for Islam as a post-, not pre-nationalist political identity, and the caliphate as an alternative to thepostcolonial republic, with Mahmoud and his sons’ heterodox approach to the Sublime State and their pan-Ottoman modernising efforts forming the basis of that conception. Such modernism seemed utterly unlike the racist, missionary madness of European empire. It was, alas, too little too late.

Continue reading

On Fiction and the Caliphate

wpid-ysf-2013-01-10-18-54.jpg

.

Map of Cairo as tugra or Ottoman sultan’s seal

Towards the end of 2009, I completed my first novel, whose theme is contemporary Muslim identity in Egypt and, by fantastical extension, the vision of a possible khilafa or caliphate. I was searching for both an alternative to nationhood and a positive perspective on religious identity as a form of civilisation compatible with the post-Enlightenment world. The closest historical equivalent I could come up with, aside from Muhammad Ali Pasha’s abortive attempt at Ottoman-style Arab empire (which never claimed to be a caliphate as such), was the original model, starting from the reign of Sultan-Caliph Mahmoud II in 1808. I was searching for Islam as a post-, not pre-nationalist political identity, and the caliphate as an alternative to the postcolonial republic, with Mahmoud and his sons’ heterodox approach to the Sublime State and their pan-Ottoman modernising efforts forming the basis of that conception. Such modernism seemed utterly unlike the racist, missionary madness of European empire. It was, alas, too little too late.

Continue reading

Nukhba? Who the fuck is Nukhba? – Egyptian intellectuals and the revolution

Eat your words

Youssef Rakha discusses the culture of revolution

wpid-img_2308-2012-12-16-04-54.jpg

Egypt has had Islamists and “revolutionaries”. So who are the nukhba or elite routinely denigrated as a “minority” that “looks down on the People”? Educated individuals, non-Islamist political leaders, the catalysts of the revolution itself… But, in the political context, this group is to all intents synonymous with the cultural community. As per the tradition, which long predates the Arab Spring, writers, artists, scholars and critics often double as political activists/analysts and vice versa; and in this sense much of “the civil current” (anything from far-right conservative to radical anarchist) is made up of “the elite”—of intellectuals.

Construed as a political player, the cultural community in Egypt has been the principal challenge to the Islamists since January-February 2011, when the revolution took place—an understandably weak rival among the uneducated, materialistic and sectarian masses. Yet how has the cultural community dealt with the revolution regardless of this fact, assuming that what took place really was a revolution?

Considering that the speaker belongs in that community, however reluctantly, the answer will be a kind of testimony. It is up to the disentangled listener to make up their mind about imagination, politics, identity and the Role of the Intellectual: an unduly popular theme since long before the revolution. In the last two years, the meaning of each has changed repeatedly; and, as guardians of such values, intellectuals were forced to reinvent themselves in new, unstable contexts—something that has tested their creativity, integrity, sense of belonging and worth.

It would be easy to regurgitate platitudes to the effect that, as Conscious Agents, “we” were defeated yet again in the fight to spread enlightenment—which is good, and eliminate backwardness—which is bad, aiming towards Social Consciousness in the underdeveloped society-cum-postcolonial state in which we live. As activists, theorists, historians and politicians, however, how can we be sure that our enlightenment isn’t a symptom of the very backwardness we think we’re fighting? Since the dawn of modern Egypt under Muhammad Ali Pasha, after all, the very existence of a cultural community has been subsidised/tolerated, and the range of its action delimited, by the (military, anyway non-intellectual) powers that be.

What took place in January-February 2011 was a revolution insofar as it achieved regime change, however unlike its champions are the beneficiaries. In practise, of course, the nukhba—where it did not actively seek alliances with political Islam or otherwise condone its undemocratic practises—failed to show enough belief in the possibility of a viable alternative distinct from “the first republic”. This is not to say that, as the “ruler” at the helm of “the second republic”, the MB is not in most ways an extension of the Mubarak regime. But, unlike the nukhba, political Islam had established itself as the well-meaning underdog—a ploy even the nukhba itself seemed to fall for.

But the underdog ploy could not in itself explain why, when we had the opportunity to help establish a functional democratic state in place of the dysfunctional quasi-military dictatorship we’ve had since the early 1950s, what we did, consciously or unconsciously, was to help establish the even more dysfunctional quasi-theocratic dictatorship now emerging. In the same way as political Islam has continued to play the role of Opposition even after it came to power, intellectuals seem to thrive on the absence of the Social Consciousness they purport to work for. It’s this absence that makes them look useful, after all, saving them the trouble of asking how, without either killing themselves/emigrating or openly giving up all pretensions of a Role/all socially “committed” activity, they might remain relevant to society.

The failure of the cultural community to make use of young people’s sacrifices—to take social-political initiative, adopt a clear moral stance or seriously revise half a century’s worth of historical “givens”—should illustrate how. In the course of regime change, “enlightenment” has cast the intellectual in one or more of their accepted roles: as Conscience of the Nation, as Voice of the People or as Prophet of Better Times. In each case the intellectual not only failed at their role but also actively compromised it, partly because the rhetoric attached to the process of engagement, which the intellectual as a rule will prioritise over the process itself, tends to be irrational, self-contradictory or absurd.

Too often that rhetoric is at once progressive and conservative, idealistic and pragmatic, moral and insincere—”poetic” in the worst (Arab) sense. What is presented as a cause—Palestine, for example—is in fact a festering status quo. Commitment to the Palestinian question was for decades on end a pretext for the worst forms of repression in much of the Arab world; and how exactly has that benefited Palestinians?

As in all discourses that apologise for totalitarian measures or tendencies, euphemism abounds. Social unity through wasati or moderate as opposed to ussouli or fundamentalist Islam, for example, has helped shift the emphasis away from universal rights and freedoms to a normative, sect-based (and, as it turns out, completely fantastical) status quo. As the catchword of that faction of formerly/nominally left-wing intellectuals who have supported the ex-Muslim Brotherhood leader, presidential candidate Abdelmoneim Abulfetouh and/or his subsequently established Strong Egypt Party, wasati has in effect extended the space in which fundamentalist dictatorship is to be taken for granted.

Likewise, instead of appeasing the Salafis—its avowed reason—the decision to replace ‘almani or “secular” with madani or “civil” in early campaigns helped to confirm the idea that the former word is in fact a synonym for “atheist” or, as a Salafi would put it, “apostate”, ceding the Salafis even more ground without granting “us” any more popularity or credibility among the Islamist-sympathetic grass roots.

For its part the discourse of “social justice” championed by (among others) the Nasserist presidential candidate Hamdin Sabahi, while reflecting an age-old obsession with class, fails to improve on Nasser’s more or less catastrophic legacy of state control; it does not address the issue of where wealth will come from, let alone the effectual means to its redistribution…

As Conscience of the Nation, the nukhba betrayed its role early on. Starting with the referendum on constitutional amendments that practically gave the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces absolute power in March 2011—and whose “yes” result Islamist forces were instrumental in obtaining—the cultural community condoned, participated in and often promoted the kind of “democratic” process undertaken with totalitarian intent. As a result, both the parliamentary and presidential elections were held in the absence of a constitution, and the vote-based process whereby political Islam aims to eliminate democracy is already underway.

Serving SCAF and MB interests and alliances, these “democratic weddings” took place under bloody circumstances, if not actually (as in the case of the parliamentary elections) directly at the expense of young protesters’ blood. Considering the MB’s underdog appeal and its tribal (increasingly ruling party-style) hold on much of the countryside, not to mention the Gulf’s Wahhabi influence on the culture, with vast numbers of susceptible Egyptians importing backward practices from their place of work on the Arabian peninsula—the pro-Islamist results of ballot-only democracy are a forgone conclusion. (I believe this holds for the constitutional referendum, whose results are to be announced.)

Instead of exposing such travesties of democratic process for what they are—by, at least, refusing to be part of them—each time the cultural community, including not only politically aware “revolutionaries” but, most recently, the openly anti-MB National Rescue Front—reverted to proactive and community-aware attitudes which, dictating a game whose rules “we” already knew to be unfair, was bound to serve Islamist interests. In so doing the nukhba also gave credence to the increasingly untenable assumption that what has been happening is political participation. Had the protesters of 25 January-11 February played by the rules set by the Mubarak regime and SCAF—as their “oppositional” predecessors had been doing for decades—no revolution would have occurred at all.

Undertaken on the scale of “the revolution”, a rigorous boycott of all such events—which would be the correct stance from the moral and “revolutionary” standpoint while not necessarily undermining the social status quo or being any less pragmatic as a course of action—might have stopped the forward march of the Dark Ages in its tracks, or at least presented it with a significant obstacle. If nothing else, it would have given meaning to a string of million-man demonstrations whose demands, while sometimes just as bloody and authoritarian in their way as the policies of the powers that be, were always muddled and unclear. If it isn’t the job of the Conscience of the Nation embodied in the icons of the revolution to give the lie to the ballot box as a means to dictatorship, I don’t know what is.

Yet, having agreed to enter the presidential race in the absence of a constitution determining their powers—and this is but one example of the nukhba failing to be consistent enough to act as its own conscience, let alone that of any nation—both Aboulfetouh and Sabahi were happy to lead a million-man demonstration protesting the results of the first round, which narrowed down the choice to the representative of the former regime, Ahmed Shafik, and the MB’s second choice, Mohamed Morsi. Neither Aboulfetouh nor Sabahi showed the least respect for the democratic process of which they had agreed to be part, nor the least concern about the rise to power of the MB through Morsi; apart from bolstering up the chances of the latter and helping identify the anti-nukhba MB with a revolution instigated by the nukhba, that million-man demonstration served no purpose whatsoever.

Now that the MB has virtually declared civil war on its opponents, who might be the People in whose name the nukhba prophesied better times after SCAF? Surely they are the ones who, while protesting Morsi’s singularly autocratic, blast-the-judiciary constitutional declaration of 22 November 2012 (a typically MB maneuvre to speed up the completion of and pass the Islamist-dominated draft constitution), were attacked/murdered, arrested and tortured by MB members and Salafis in no way officially affiliated with government institutions—and if not for the courage of individual prosecutors would have been framed for thuggery as well. Guided if not by their nukhba then by “revolutionary” ideas in which the nukhba had trafficked, many of these protesters had actually voted for Morsi.

When the People were able to force Hosny Mubarak to step down after 30 years in power, the People were a unified entity, unequivocally synonymous not only with “the revolutionaries” in Tahrir Square but also, very significantly, with the nukhba that had blessed their being there, the cultural community. Since that moment we have come a long way, especially in the light of the by now absurd statement that (as the slogan has it) “the revolution continues”: athawra musstamirra.

Now the most we can do, whether as revolutionaries or intellectuals, is to vote no in the referendum on a constitution that compromises some of the most basic rights and promises to turn Egypt into both a worse presidential dictatorship than it was under Mubarak and a Sunni-style “Islamic republic”—its drafting, thanks in part to our failure to boycott parliamentary elections, having been monopolised by Islamists—a referendum whose ultimate result, due as much to our dithering and lack of imagination as to Islamist power, influence and politicking, will almost certainly be a “yes” vote.

Being the champions who have not managed to become beneficiaries even in the most noble sense, indeed in some cases being the very (presumably involuntary) instruments of political Islam, how are we to see ourselves two years after the fact? Not in the kind of light that obscures the possibility that the pose we adopt, our Role, might be simply that: an affectation that helps us with upward mobility and individual self-esteem, but whose social-cultural function—like political Islam, identity-driven, with a chip on its shoulder vis-a-vis the former coloniser—is ultimately to legitimise systematic incompetence, economic dependence and sectarian tribalism.

wpid-aaw-2012-12-16-04-54.gif

Lost in affirmation: artists, Islamists and politicians

Against “the threat of Islamisation”, culture is said to be Egypt’s last line of defence. But what on earth do we mean when we talk about Egyptian culture?
.

wpid-img_5859-2012-09-13-23-21.jpg
.

The night before the ridiculously so called 24 August revolution—the first, abortive attempt to “overthrow the Muslim Brotherhood”—Intellectuals gathered in Talaat Harb Square to express discontent with the new political status quo. Much of what they had to say centred on the draft constitution making no provisions for freedom of expression, but the resulting discourse was, as ever, an amorphous combo of statements: “We cannot stand idly by while our national symbols of thought and creativity are subject to attack,” for example. Here as elsewhere in the so called civil sphere, resistance to political Islam has readily reduced to generalised statements of individual positions rallying to the abstract title of Intellectual, which in Arabic is more literally translated as “cultured person”. Cultured people—actors, for example, are eager to protect culture—the films and television serials in which they appear; and in so being they have the support of artists, writers, “minorities” and “thinkers”.
Never mind the fact that most Egyptian actors have never read a book in their lives, whether or not they admit to such “lack of culture”; it is their social standing as visible producers of something falling under that name that places them in a position to defend an equally, historically compromised value system: enlightenment, secularism, citizenship; imagination, inventiveness, choice…
To a pro-Islamist majority of the constituency—and it is irrelevant whether or to what extent that majority confuses political Islam with the Rightful Creed—the Talaat Harb rally would have been anathema. Comparatively tiny in numbers though they remain, Intellectuals promote practices and ideas that Islam in its present-day formulations will tend to reject. So, for example, where an actress who already subscribes to the pre-Islamist censorial strictures of a seemingly forever “conservative society” may talk about a slightly skimpy outfit being necessary for the role, the post-Islamist TV viewer vindicated by the rise to power of the Muslim Brotherhood or the Ikhwan—so much so that, clean-shaven all through the almost two year long transitional period and before, he now has the moustache-less beard prescribed by stricter schools of orthodoxy—will talk about nudity, depravity, iniquity and hellfire.
And it was exactly such discourse, taken to insolent extremes, that prompted a series of more specifically “artistic sphere” (as in actors’ and singers’) protests in the last few weeks. On a programme he presents, a supposedly respectable Salafi “Islamic scholar” named Abdalla Badr attacked the film star Ilham Shahine for her stand against the rise of political Islam on the religious satellite channel Al-Hafidh, on 20 August. He went so far as to say, addressing the actress, “How many men have mounted you?” prompting outrage in many (including Al-Azhar) circles. Events have centred variously on Shahine being subjected to such audiovisual libel (she has since taken Badr to court), on similar incidents with actresses Nabila Ebeid and Hala Fakhir, and on the legal battle being waged on comedy superstar Adel Imam for several months now. The last seminar, in solidarity with Shahine, took place at the Actors’ Syndicate on 4 September.
.

wpid-img_5809-2012-09-13-23-21.jpg
.

So far, so clear: civil society and its Intellectual vanguard, however conservative or uncultured in their own right—however ineffectively, too, all things considered—are facing up to “the Islamist threat”. The civil-Islamist (or, less euphemistically, the secular-Islamist) fight is no longer avoidable; and its media facet remains important even though it plays out more effectively in the long run in academic and literary circles. (Remember such incidents as the court case that forced the late scholar Nasr Hamid Abu-Zeid to leave the country, the attack on Nobel laureate Naguib Mahfouz’s life, and the several legal “crises” over Ministry of Culture publications, all of which were eventually taken out of circulation. Remember that such incidents—together with the unprecedented spread of hijab and other overtly sectarian phenomena—all happened under Mubarak, at a time when Islamists were not only not in power but also subject to persecution.) Now that the political underdog of yesteryear has far more leverage to attack this year’s underdog-in-the-making, the battle lines would seem to be clearly marked; someone like Shahine looks like a victim of misguided religious extremism.
Yet to a wider pro-25 January (2011) majority—one that definitely includes some of those protesting against “the Ikhwanisation of the state” on the evening of 23 August—by now much “civil” politicising is, rightly or wrongly but perhaps more rightly than wrongly, identified with the pre-25 January political status quo. Whether because liberal and leftist forces are incompetent or because the religiosity of the constituency prevents them from building support bases, as was so painfully evident on 24 August, the only political players willing to oppose political Islam are those “remnants of the fallen regime” who had directly or indirectly benefited from the Mubarak system. (That Islamists too are “remnants”, perhaps the worst kind, is not a widely accepted idea however true.)
With a few notable exceptions, the “artistic sphere” in particular was largely against the revolution whose “legitimacy” the Ikhwan have practically inherited, aided by those “revolutionary” forces who had no support among “the people”. Adel Imam was seen insulting the Tahrir protesters on TV before Mubarak stepped down. Ilham Shahine repeatedly called for the brutal suppression of protests even as protesters were being murdered under SCAF; she openly lamented the age of freedom that the revolution put an end to. But more generally, the Intellectual fails to see the connection between the religiosity and conservatism of society at large and political Islam’s hold on that society. Such deference to the sect embraces not only the Intellectual vanguard (the phenomenon of the female film star who retires after taking hijab, or the Nasserist activist who supports “the resistance”) but also the revolution itself.
.

wpid-img_5819-2012-09-13-23-21.jpg
.

It is this issue—the Intellectual failing to represent a society susceptible to “extremism” and consequently being implicated with corrupt and autocratic (but, until Mursi was elected president, still nominally “civil”) power—that summarises the conundrum of the role of culture in Egypt. The futility of culture as a line of defence against anything at all was further illustrated on 6 August, when “a delegation” of mainstream arts figures including Imam met with Mursi at the presidential palace to discuss recent tensions with Islamists. Typically of any Egyptian official before or after the revolution, Mursi provided the requisite “reassurances”, speaking against the “satellite sheikhs” who insult artists and affirming the role of culture in “the civilisation of nations”. There is no reason on earth to believe that a president whose rise to power has entirely depended on Islamists will actually do anything to support “art” against “extremism”; and it is easy to conclude that what the delegation was doing was to actually offer a pledge of allegiance to the new powers, the better to be under their protection in the same way “artists” were under Mubarak’s.
What the delegation said to Mursi, even as it included complaints about the attacks to which female actresses in particular have been subject, would seem to support this thesis. Imam, for example, pointed up the role of “art” in dealing with “social issues”, not only denying past statements of his own but also no doubt alluding to the totally meaningless dose of moralistic preaching often included in otherwise profoundly immoral mainstream films, plays and TV serials. The actor best known for presenting the most searing attacks on Islamists under Mubarak thus implicitly offers to use what popularity he has left to polish the image of Egypt’s Islamist rulers. So much for the Intellectual…
Culture that negotiates a marginal space with power—like culture that speaks for “the people” as an undifferentiated mass, without genuine representative authority—will not promote enlightenment or choice. It will promote an increasingly repressive status quo. Defending so called freedom of creativity, for example, makes little sense in the acknowledged absence of freedom of belief. The kind of art that builds civilisation, whose audience is admittedly very small in Egypt, requires not a presidential decree but a vision of reality where slogans like “Islam is the answer” can only take up the peripheral role they deserve. But perhaps culture is less about commercial films and patriotism—less about experimental theatre, prose poetry and contemporary art—than about a perspective on reality that gradually, slowly and (in the Egyptian context) inevitably through non-official channels, reaches enough private lives to shape the public.
Perhaps the mistake we make about culture is ignoring its original meaning of a way of life and a system of values, values that—all things considered, at this historical juncture—political Islam must be seen to undermine.

NAHDA and Co.

wpid-nasser-2012-07-10-05-48.jpg

*

No Renaissance for Old Men
Last week Youssef Rakha questioned the idea of resistance. This week he thinks about the Islamists’ catch phrase
It is the word that Tunisia’s Muslim Brothers chose for their harakah (or movement) and in which the Egyptian jama’ah (or group) couched its presidential programme; it dates all the way back to the late 18th century when, under Muhammad Ali Pasha in particular, it would’ve denoted something significantly different. But in a way it has been the mirror image of European imperialism since then, with its post-Arab Spring Islamist manifestations in Tunisia and Egypt constituting one possible logical conclusion of the region’s political trajectory, and the murderous Arab nationalist dictatorships (whether Gaddafi’s in Libya or the Baath’s in Syria and Iraq) another.
What I want to argue is that, in more ways than one (and despite all the wonderful things it almost did), the so called Arab renaissance has in fact been part and parcel of this immense downward fall of recent history, and that—far from presenting a homegrown alternative to the neoliberal world order, arguably the extension and apotheosis of empire—it has actually aided and abetted the imperialist project.
And well it might: Nahda is to muqawamah (or resistance) what modernism was to imperialism; in some ways, perhaps, it is also what Europe’s Renaissance was to the northern Puritanical values that were eventually more or less subsumed by Enlightenment.
Following this line of thought, one can make surprising connections between past failures of the wannabe independent modern state (Nasser’s “first republic” in Egypt) and present-future failures of Islamism (the Muslim Brotherhood’s proposed “second republic”). One can also make connections between both forms of totalitarianism (top-down in the case of the July regime, bottom-up in the present case) and the negative, inferiority complex-driven motivation that—while making huge room for sloganeering, doublespeak and overt suppression—makes no room at all for the revival or regeneration of a glorious past, be it Arab and purely imagined or Islamic and somewhat real. It is a “renaissance” that denies the very tenets of what it hopes to donner naissance to anew: reason, military and/or economic power, cutting-edge global outlook, joyful aspirations…
So, for example, to underline their belief in a militarily powerful and united pan-Arab nation, an Arab nationalist will by default glorify the one dictator responsible not onlyfor the worst military defeat in Arab history (1967) but also for separating Egypt and Sudan and then setting a precedent for the failure of unification by showing the world exactly how not to unify with Syria, encouraging national as opposed to pan-Arab sentiments and limiting inter-Arab freedom of movement, exchange and initiative in practice. To demonstrate how “Islam honours women”, an Islamist will insist on such allegedly intrinsic “Islamic principles” as niqab and polygamy.
Likewise the material renaissance promised by President Mohamed Mursi (or, more accurately perhaps, by businessman Khairat El-Shatir, the most powerful man in the Brotherhood’s Guidance Office): what is marketed as an alternative to Mubarak’s neoliberal and peace-with-Israel policies is actually a programme for turning the entire expanse of the Arab world into a string of modified Saudi Arabias, not only pro-Israeli and even more ruthlessly capitalist but also disinterested in human rights and inevitably impoverished in the absence of oil reserves.
In its accepted, present formulation democracy originated and continues to operate in wholly secularised and intellectually free societies based on universal rights and freedoms. How the Saudification of the Arab world through such vaguely Ku Klux-like “political” entities as the Salafi Nour Party can be the result of democratic process is a baffling question.
Yet such contradictions are hardly coincidental. Without reviewing the history of the term, I just want to draw attention to the manner in which nahda presupposes such manifestations of death and demise as Nakba, naksa (Nasser’s euphemism for the 1967 defeat) and takhalluf (or backwardness). By stressing the (purely rhetorical) need for self- or identity-assertion, what the Muslim Brotherhood is doing is throwing a sand storm into the eyes of Egyptians, just as the Arab nationalists did before it:
Nahda does not mean the elimination of autocracy and corruption, it means stamping them with the divine seal of “Islam”; it does not mean improving the intellectual and material circumstances of students, teachers and creative people, it means ensuring that they espouse the right slogans—even (or preferably) at the expense of progress and production.
It does not mean instating the principles on which a truly functional democracy can be built (a long term process so far seemingly more successful in Libya), it means liaising with the military dictators and their imperialist patrons, guaranteeing the security of Israel, invoking the revolution and “the will of the people”, monopolising the drafting of a new constitution, replacing state institutions and personnel with their own, buying votes, beating people up and otherwise defying law, order and decency in order to gain recognition through sheer power—in exactly the same way as resistance means not actually opposing the status quo but deploying a certain, negative rhetoric in the struggle to prevail over the competition for it. Nahda just may be the Greater Nakba in the making.
***
In this context it may be worth remembering the initial term in which 25 January was described: as a YOUNG revolution. Notwithstanding all their moral faults, and regardless of individual people’s ages, the Islamists are confirming the suspicion that they are even older than the regime whose ugliness “the people” led by online activists rose up against. No true renaissance is conceivable in the presence of so much moral and material AGE. And perhaps a true renaissance, even the beginning of one, will happen despite (and not because of) Nahda, after all. Such a development would need no rhetoric to support it and no Washington-style marketing to give it impetus. It would not cooperate with the military arbiters who are the post-post-national embodiment of the failure of the independent nation. It would manifest in production, progress and words meaning what they say: a complete break with the lifeless past. Such a renaissance would probably not oppose the global status quo—at least not in the foreseeable future—but neither will it have to pretend to.

wpid-aaw-2012-07-10-05-48.gif

*

wpid-morsi13-photomosaiccopy4-2012-07-10-05-48.jpg

Retroactive History: 622-2001

The Ally at the Gate: Muslims, Christians and Jews

190px-antifonariodeleocc81n.jpg

An 11th-century Mozarab (i.e. Arabic-speaking Spaniard) Antiphonary folio from Léon Cathedral

Reading recent books on the history of the encounter between Islam and the West, both Christian and post-Christian, Youssef Rakha posits a single civilisation adjusting its constituent elements through the centuries
“My fellow Christians love to read the poems and romances of the Arabs; they study the Arabs’ theologians and philosophers, not to refute them, but to form a correct and elegant Arabic. Where is the layman who now reads the Latin commentaries on the Holy Scriptures, or who studies the Gospels, prophets, or apostles? Alas! All talented young Christians read and study with enthusiasm the Arab books; they gather immense libraries at great expense; they despise the Christian literature as unworthy of attention. They have forgotten their language. For everyone who can write a letter in Latin to a friend, there are a thousand who can express themselves in Arabic with elegance, and write better poems in their language than the Arabs themselves.”
Thus Paul Alvarus of Córdoba, writing in Latin in the mid-ninth century: a Jewish convert, Alvarus was nonetheless a zealot whose approach to creed and identity is evocative of Bin Laden. After the monk Eulogius, Alvarus was the principal chronicler of the Martyrs Movement which, from 851 to 859, involved both clergy and laypeople individually declaring Islam evil and Muhammad a false prophet, thereby incurring capital punishment on themselves. Had such statements not legally required death unless recanted – and the Martyrs delighted in refusing to recant them – the Ummayyids under Abdur Rahman II and Muhammad I, it is often said, would have happily spared the utterers. It is something of a post-9/11 cliché to point to Muslim Iberia as a hodgepodge of identities where Christians and Jews enjoyed almost as much freedom as Muslims: a model for the kind of medieval multiculturalism Stephen O’Shea, author of Sea of Faith: Islam and Christianity in the Medieval Mediterranean World (St Martin’s Press, 2006), calls convivencia. What is interesting in this quote – one of the most popular on the period – is the light it sheds on the Spanish Arabs’ comparative modernity.
In bewailing the decline of grassroots Visigothic tradition, among other proto-European manifestations of Christian identity, Alvarus ironically says more about the rival culture: among other things, that it is more advanced, more interesting, more appealing to the young regardless of ethnicity. That this culture happens to be Muslim and therefore by definition unholy merely facilitates his tirade. Dogma is apparently a prerequisite for the existence of any institution of thought; limiting or negative as it can be, dogma nonetheless remains simple. Where it fits and how it is brought to bear on social and political change, however, is complicated. As dialogue- rather than clash-of-civilisations historians never tire of pointing out, since the emergence of Islam at the threshold of Europe in the mid-seventh century, there have been just as many wars (and alliances) between Muslims and non-Muslims as there have been between Muslims and Muslims, or non-Muslims and non-Muslims. Conflict was seldom over creed or culture, though creed and culture were often used as pretexts for starting a conflict.
Much like “fundamentalist” Muslims today – to a far greater extent than defending the faith or even, necessarily, revolting against injustice – Alvarus was horrified of difference and change. It was the Arabs’ more sophisticated and decadent ways, not what they believed, that threatened him: magnificent architecture, effective medicine, and advanced philosophy-cum-science, not to mention powerful armies. He decried not the Quran’s denial of the divinity of Christ, for example, but the influence of the Baghdadi musician and dandy Ziryab, who not long after arriving in Al Andalus (much like Western pop icons today) was already dictating taste across cultures, not only in music and dress but, even more frighteningly, in language and literature as well. Once again, this is not so different from the way present-day extremists on the Muslim side of the supposed divide regard Western tastes in art and attire, not to mention the fear, far more widespread in the Muslim world, of Western morality and science. Eulogius was one of the last Martyrs and Alvarus duly wrote him a hagiography, but he did not die for Jesus, justice, or even the glory of Rome – Alvarus died for insularity.
In a seemingly unprecedented departure from so called Orientalist norms, non-academic history books written in English have for a decade now sought not simply to “understand”, reconcile with or tolerate Islam. Instead, they are finally claiming it as part of their own heritage; one shudders to think what it actually took for Westerners to pay enough attention to Islam to rethink it: 9/11, Afghanistan, Iraq, Guantanamo… how many more Palestinians dead? Yet worked through backwards, Islam re-emerges not as a threat to Western civilisation but as a worthy contestant (rival or ally), necessary for the ongoing process of generating it. These historians’ interest in Islam is in many ways diametrically opposed to the interest that “enlightened” Muslims have taken in Europe since the 19th century. Rationalists like Sheikh Mohammad Abduh or Ali Pasha Mubarak were driven by a linear view of progress and impressed by the technological and humane achievements of the West; they saw the Enlightenment as a universal legacy to be adopted and emulated. This involved the humbling admission that the West was now clearly at the forefront of modernity (to some minds, a concession to imperialism), but it also involved the assumption that Muslims and Westerners were made of the same substance, separated not so much by some essential or irrevocable breach as by variable political, economic and social circumstances, capable of being in harmony.
The Arab-Muslim contribution to the earliest pangs of Enlightenment, notably through the transmission back into Europe of ancient Greek learning from Baghdad via Al Andalus, is widely acknowledged anyway. By reassessing the past directly and specifically in light of a seemingly more troubled present, this new genre of retroactive history has only served to emphasise it. Books like The House of Wisdom: How the Arabs Transformed Western Civilisation by Jonathan Lyons (Bloomsbury, 2008), Aladdin’s Lamp: How Greek Science Came to Europe Through the Islamic World by John Freely (Knopf, 2009), or The Great Arab Conquests: How the Spread of Islam Changed the World We Live In by Hugh Kennedy (Da Capo Press, 2007) all detail aspects of how Arabs, Arabised Persians, Berbers and later Turks frequently had the scientific or humane edge over eastern and/or Catholic Christendom. But only David Levering Lewis, author of God’s Crucible: Islam and the Making of Europe, 570-1215 (W W Norton & Co, 2008), clearly argues that, if not for the existence of Muslim Spain, the many disparate proto-European cultural elements then in existence would never have merged into the West as a cultural entity or a seemingly whole civilisation – an astounding admission.
Sea of Faith beautifully portrays many of the major the interactions that took place between Islam and the West in the last 1,500 years starting with the Companion Khalid Ibnul Walid’s triumph over the Byzantine Emperor Heraclius in 636. But its author, in common with almost all the others, falls short of Levering’s lucidity – or the promise God’s Crucible seems to hold. O’Shea clearly has no wish to emphasise conflict or difference, in the end, but Sea of Faith presents the Mediterranean not as the alchemical crucible in which the substance of the modern world was brewing over the centuries, consuming offerings from Muslims, Christians, and Jews, but as a sort of arena pitting two sets of players against each other – which periodically metamorphoses from stadium to battlefront and back again. As Zachary Karabell writes in People of the Book: The Forgotten History of Islam and the West (John Murray, 2007), war in the middle Ages was a far more physical, acceptable, everyday presence – and holy war aka Jihad was regarded as the best kind. That is why almost every armed conflict was touted as holy war, even when it pitted Sunnis against Sunnis or Catholics against Catholics.
But O’Shea does not sufficiently separate these two facts from what he terms “confessional competition” – the them-against-us assumption of some essential difference, however understated, subtly conveyed or cloaked in erudition and high morals – a quality that tends to confine his perspective to the religious dimension of the interchange and thereby limit it largely to conflict: Ideas, practises, even people like Leo Africanus (also known as Hassan Al Wazzan) could move fluidly between faiths; but however much they agreed or indeed coalesced culturally or politically, neither Muslims nor Christians could accept one faith without giving up the other. O’Shea’s outline of the conflict is extremely useful in itself, but it does not significantly undermine the perennial notion (espoused in very different contexts and in very different ways by Sayyid Qutb, Samuel Huntington and, well, Paul Alvarus) that there exists, eternally or fundamentally separated on the opposite shores of some Mediterranean of the mind, a Them and an Us; and that the one must seek to eliminate the other if it is to thrive or prosper.
Likewise Andrew Wheatcroft: his two books – Infidels: A History of the Conflict Between Christendom and Islam (Random House, 2004) and The Enemy at the Gate: Habsburgs, Ottomans, and the Battle for Europe (Basic Books, 2009) – are constructed around the respective themes of enmity and fear. Each demonstrates everything the author would need to establish that all three religions belong to the same universe of thought, however dogmatic or racial a form they take, and that their adherents – whether debating the finer points of their respective theologies, engaging each other in profitable commerce, or roaring a blood-spattered “Infidel” – have on the whole had more in common than not. Yet in both cases – once again, with the best of intentions, no doubt – Wheatcroft sustains the age-old mental construction that places Muslims and Christians on the opposite sides of some impenetrable rampart. Sad but perhaps inevitable that, in such potentially explosive times, the emphasis should be on the mental space where a large-scale, media-oriented, appropriately globalised explosion can still occur, not on the possibility of transcending the baser human drive to be at the other’s throat.
Of all Alvarus’s possible heirs, Karabell is perhaps the most renegade – in the sense that he is the least like that fundamentalist Christian ancestor of the retrograde historians’ – though Karabell too fails to conceive of Islam and the West as a single civilisation adjusting its constituent elements through the centuries. But somehow, in his unique formulation of a Muslim-Western comity, this shortcoming does not seem to matter. Karabell is also the author of Peace Be Upon You: Fourteen Centuries of Muslim, Christian, and Jewish Conflict and Cooperation (Vintage, 2008) as well as the compelling book Parting the Desert: The Creation of the Suez Canal (Knopf, 2003); but it is in People of the Book that he combines universal compassion with the down-to-earth urgency required by the times: “In a world where technology will make it easier for the angry few to do great harm, the perpetuation of a model of conflict is dangerous. Remembering that each of the three traditions carries the seeds of peace will not by itself heal the world… But if these stories” of conflict and alliance, especially of alliance “are integrated into our sense of the past and the present, it will be more difficult to treat religion as destiny.”