A testimony from the siege

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The Gaza Spring

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At the time I had Islamist tendencies. I was still a schoolboy when the inqilab happened in 2007. (Thus spoke Amin, which is not his name: 22, author, activist, affiliate of Fateh, lifetime resident of Palestinian Rafah. We spoke on the roof of a mid-range hotel in Gaza City late last week. By inqilab, the accepted term—literally: “overthrow”—Amin was referring to the post-democratic, forcible overtake of power in the Gaza Strip by Hamas. Now I notice that, every time he said “they” in the abstract, “Hamas”, especially its security apparatus in Gaza, was what he meant.) At first they blew up all the security agencies; it’s unclear why, the buildings were empty. But they did. And they arrested everyone who said ‘I am Fateh’: all the militias, of course, but also civil servants, citizens, students…

        We thought it was an overthrow of the Palestinian Authority but it was really an overthrow against Fateh; and it was driven by power hunger… I happened to have relations in Fateh so I could see how they dealt with people. They would give you something called “the acquittal”: ‘Hand over your weapons and you can go, but don’t engage in any activity of any kind whatsoever.’ Sometimes they kept you under house arrest. That was the earliest period. Later President Mahmoud Abbas issued a decision that everyone should stay at home: all the Authority employees. He never called it that but it was a form of civil disobedience—a general strike. Everyone did stay at home, more or less. And so we discovered that they already had a full team of professionals in every field imaginable: security, health, education, everything; it was predictable that they should have security forces since they were a force of the resistance but they turned out to be ready to replace the Authority in every aspect of life.

        The next day people just accepted the situation, with unexpected equanimity. We were thinking there would be explosions or attacks, that life would be disrupted as a result of the sudden substitution—nothing happened. Maybe that was the result of people’s discontent with the Authority, because the Authority was somewhat corrupt even though we had lived well under it and you can tell it wasn’t very repressive by the fact that Hamas, its greatest opposition, was allowed to grow, and grow.

In time I slipped out of the crucible of the Islamists. I had no political interests per se but I decided to question what I had believed about Palestine, and I watched from outside. Eventually I became an organised member of Fateh through friends from university. They told me what was Fateh, who were Fateh. I was convinced; maybe because I’d seen the injustice against Fateh, I liked it. But then I also began to understand what was Oslo which at the mosque, within the crucible, they had taught us was wrong, the way they taught us that Fateh were all Zionized: traitors and apostates.

        I began to understand the meaning of peace, the different forms the struggle could take, things we used to consider haram (or prohibited by God) without thinking. It may be true that many members of Fateh really did collaborate with the Zionist occupation but the way the security-coordination terms of the Oslo agreement were misrepresented and the way you were supposed to dismiss all of Fateh as godless traitors—that was hugely exaggerated and manipulative, a lie. My first ever political activity was to join a gathering commemorating Arafat on the anniversary of his death. On campus. And I was beaten up: Islamist students from a number of universities attacked and cut it short.

        That day I ran away and got on a bus. They stopped it and searched the passengers for the black-and-white kufiya, which they associate with Fateh even though it’s a symbol of Palestine; but I wrapped my kufiya around my torso, underneath my shirt, and I got away. Before that I was neutral—I am not with you, guys, but I’m not against you. Now I am against you. Because something is seriously wrong. We commemorated Abu Ammar (i.e., Arafat) again, and we commemorated Abu Jihad (i.e., Arafat’s comrade in arms, the fidayeen leader and cofounder of Fateh Khalil Al Wazir, who was assassinated in Tunis in 1988); and every time we were subjected to verbal abuse as well as physical attack, and then arrests and summons as well. For a while I even stopped going to university because I was under pressure from my family who didn’t want me involved in any political activity, realising what could happen. So I started reading and finding out about things—what is Hamas, why Hamas, what is Fateh, whatever—and gradually developing an opinion and orientation of my own.

        As I fell on the wrong side of them, in the end, the main question was, Eish fih (or, “What’s wrong?”) We wanted to know where they thought they were taking things, what the purpose of the division was (between the Fateh-dominated Authority and Hamas): what is your issue with peace if you are not waging any resistance? Why do you even have a problem with Fateh if you’re adopting the exact same policy? Eish fih

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First we staged a protest against the closing down of Sharik, which is an NGO for young people and creativity and such; it was closed down on the pretext that prostitution went on in there, and that the activists and artists and civil society developers who worked there were in the employ of Israel. The second time I was arrested was on 29 January 2011, the day after the outbreak of the Egyptian revolution (i.e., Angry Friday, as opposed to the 25 January demonstrations that led to it) when we staged a march in solidarity. I was abused. Not beaten up, just insulted, questioned, told, “You are supporting people who are American agents. And what do we have to do with it anyway?” I was held for four hours.

        The way it happened was they would send you a summons and you would turn up the next day. You were a prisoner of course but you were treated with relative respect. There were no beatings though the questions were extremely personal and probing… They would shoot us with their cameras, and during the questioning they would review the images and if you were sitting next to a girl you would be asked who that girl was and why she was dressed provocatively and, whatever your response, called all sorts of names. Even when you went to Egypt for a holiday—everyone in Gaza spends part of the summer in Egypt—you could be filmed there and questioned about what you were doing on your return. But no matter how hard you try to cooperate with them they never believe what you tell them. That’s what I discovered the first time I was under clear-cut political arrest, on 27 February, 2011, when I was held for two days.

        Already at this point something called the Dignity Revolution has attempted a Fateh overthrow of Hamas. It was a disastrous failure and the suppression was truly stupid, heavy-handed and humiliating; I was among those arrested but I had been interrogated before and they quickly realised I had nothing to do with it… I was arrested again on 11 March and they wanted to keep me till 15 March to prevent me from joining the protests planned for that date, because they believed I could be an influential party. In the end they released me and told me to come back on 14 March before anything happened; I did not, I went to the demonstrations, which on purpose we staged a day earlier than planned.

        Anyway, people who were arrested on those occasions formed the core of the group who staged the 15 March protests last year (i.e., Gaza’s mini-revolution and principal contribution to the Arab Spring, which went almost entirely unreported here as elsewhere); the demonstrations were staged simultaneously in coordination with protests in the West Bank. Our purpose was to end the division; we didn’t care who was to blame, we wanted national unity. It’s clear to me now that a party who stops me from pursuing this aim is a party that’s against national unity, maybe even a party who has a vested interest in Gaza’s isolation considering that goods are smuggled in from Israel despite the siege.

We went out on 14 March. We gave a press conference and announced we would start a sit-in then and there; we wanted to stage a carbon copy of the Egyptian revolution. We had the support of all the political factions including some Hamas figures—Ghazi Hamad and Ahmad Youssef, for example—though at this point we were all in the 18-25 age bracket; no one was older than 25. So we stayed the night of 14 March; we had said that no flags would be raised apart from the Palestinian flag.

        On 15 March the biggest march we had ever seen arrived in buses and they raised flags that were the Palestinian flag on one side, the Hamas flag on the other. When we argued with them they said the shahadah on the Hamas flag could not be dropped, it was the statement of our faith—”There is no God but God, Muhammad is the Messenger of God”—the usual religious discourse, that is.

        In the West Bank it was a slightly different story: after very slight encroachments on the protest, President Abbas ordered the distribution of shawerma sandwiches and drinks to the protesters—I’m sure he was trying to contain the situation but it made him look good.

        So on the spot we invented the slogan: ‘Al katiba ya shabab, khalli ej jundi lal ahzab: “To Katiba, young men. Leave the [Unknown] Soldier to the [political] parties.” Katiba is a spot near the university campuses, which are very close together, while the Unknown Soldier you could say is Gaza’s answer to Tahrir Square. What we didn’t have time to think about was that Katiba was a very bad choice from a security standpoint: it’s very easy to be surrounded and controlled there. Anyway, we headed over to Katiba where we put up posters and slogans to make it clear that we had withdrawn from the protest that was misappropriated by the government. They sent people who told us we had to leave by five pm; we said we were not leaving. People went off to bring over tents and supervisions and transported the stuff we had installed in Unknown Soldier the previous day. All was set for spending the night.

        At seven pm I was standing with a young man with a beard who was raising the Palestinian flag and I was handing him a glass of tea. I was saying, “You want some tea?” and he was saying “Yes”—and the next thing you know is this surge of bearded civilians with sticks. I won’t even pretended they were just ordinary people because we knew some of them and they were Hamas. (Those are virtually identical to the pro-Mubarak and pro-SCAF “honourable citizens” who attacked demonstrators in Cairo.) Anyway, the first person to hit me, across the chest, was the young man I was handing the tea. Afterwards we found out there were many such infiltrators.

        It was like an charge of the Mongols, the most brutish attack you can imagine: beating, insults, abuse of women, even some of our mothers who were there. Some of my friends were so badly hurt they could not move. An activist friend of mine and I escaped and spent the night at a friend’s in Gaza City, and apart from brief appearances on campus we never went home; we stayed hidden for a week because, as we heard, they had distributed our pictures to security so that we could be arrested at checkpoints.

        The next day there was a demonstration on campus and it was brutishly suppressed. On 17-19 March we tried again but the numbers had dwindled and many were arrested. Until 30 March, Land Day, when we were arrested on the charge of raising the Palestinian flag to spread sedition.

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This is my experience with political suppression. Intellectual suppression is another story. In the briefest possible way: whoever is not with them is against them; and this is hardly unusual for Islamists. I am not the only the example. A female blogger was arrested because of what she wrote on her blog—nothing to do with politics. The first time I was arrested because I had written about my arrest in the Egyptian revolution solidarity protest. Another time, also because of something I had written, on the charge of “spreading secularism and falsifying (not simply misquoting) the Quran”.

        After the second arrest we were released to find we had turned into atheists on the street. I even had trouble with my own family. It was a systematic defamation of character. What happened was—I stopped writing poems and articles; and when I started writing again I did it in a different way, not just to protect myself but to protect my family. Later, after a long bout of depression—for weeks I didn’t even step out of the house, I would ask my brother to buy me cigarettes—I decided I wanted to leave Gaza altogether. That was perhaps the strongest effect all this had on my life.

        It happened after a visit to Cairo, I was arrested a while after my return on the charge of collaborating with foreign intelligence and being an agent and things like that. This created problems with my friends and even with myself… I stopped undertaking any activity: neither political nor civil nor literary nor intellectual. Once again on my brother returning from Egypt while I was still there, they wanted to arrest him because of me. I couldn’t sort out residency in Egypt and I had to cut short my stay and come back to deal with it.

        On all these occasions I was insulted, maybe even pushed around a little, but there was no beating as such. It was nothing compared to people we heard about: someone detained for 180 days; someone forced to stay standing for 40 days; someone suspended from their hands or feeds for extended periods. But the last time I was arrested was after talk of unrest because of the lack of electricity—you know electricity is only available for a few hours a day in Gaza, but if you object you are spreading rumours and perpetrating sedition. There was talk of another attempted overthrow and I had nothing to do with that either but I was arrested again. And this was my worst experience of humiliation and beating. It was only one day, but I went home passed out.

        But it was being accused of working for foreign powers that affected me the most. Family relations intervened and negotiated on my behalf until my release was finally secured, but I fell into a long depression. You try to serve your homeland and this is what happens to you? I won’t deny it, it was then that I started thinking, and I continue to wonder about it now: “The homeland is the thing raises you up, that is why you hold it sacred. It is not the thing that humiliates you.”

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Interview by Youssef Rakha

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Strangers in the House

A growing body of literature attempts to transcend the antagonistic narrative of Muslim encounters with the West. But these revisionist histories, Youssef Rakha writes, still pit ’us’ against ’them’.

The Enemy at the Gate: Habsburgs, Ottomans and the Battle for Europe
Andrew Wheatcroft
The Bodley Head
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When Philip Mansel’s delightful portrait of Ottoman Istanbul, Constantinople: City of the World’s Desire, 1453-1924, was published in 1995, the Serbian genocide of Muslim Bosnians had reached a new pinnacle in Srebrenica, the Iraq disarmament crisis was escalating after Saddam’s son-in-law, who ran the country’s weapons development programme, defected to Jordan, and the EU signed a Customs Union with Turkey, which was already a candidate for membership.

Here were three apparently unrelated examples of the interface between East and West, each saying something different about the possibility of a clash or a dialogue or a marriage of civilisations: they were like grandiose Muslim rumblings in the stomach of the post-Christian order.

Mansel’s anecdotal narrative of the rise and fall of the House of Osman in Europe touches on the Balkans, the Arab world and European colonialism, but it does not concern itself with Muslim-western relations in the present day. Mansel is impressed with the cosmopolitanism and the multicultural norms of the Ottoman polity, but he does not seem to register the connection between the end of Ottoman rule on the one hand and the decline in the unity and authority of Muslims on the other.

Amazingly, it took 10 more years – spanning September 11 and its ongoing, bloody aftermath – for a Turkish-speaking westerner, Caroline Finkel, to produce the first authoritative contemporary history of the Ottoman Empire in English, Osman’s Dream: The Story of the Ottoman Empire, 1300-1923. By dispelling misconceptions about the savagery and lethargy of the Turk, by stressing the role of tolerance and pluralism, this long overdue annal of Ottomania made a critical contribution to the popular but ineffectual Arab attempt to “wipe the filth off the face of Islam” after September 11.

Yet for Arabs – at least until the 1990s – the thesis that the Ottomans were abusive colonisers was taken more or less for granted: Ottoman injustice has been a basic tenet of Arab nationalism since the First World War. In the popular Arab imagination, the Ottomans were vain and ruthless autocrats who plundered, tortured and suppressed Arab national aspirations. The post-2001 idea of a Muslim insurgency threatening the supposedly liberal western status quo was enough to invite a revision of the Ottoman era among Arabs – if not westerners. But lately western historians have turned their attention to the Ottomans to make sense of Islam’s encounter with Europe, a dangerous rite practised in a startling range of historical loci from Al Andalus to Israel.

Andrew Wheatcroft’s recently published take on that rite of encounter is neither partisan nor reductive, but it falls slightly short of transcending the very them-and-us approach it sets out to debunk. The author of Infidels: A History of the Conflict Between Christendom and Islam, Wheatcroft is at the cutting edge of an essentially retroactive genre of history writing that has gained momentum since the turn of the millennium. (Not all history is retroactive: it may reinvent the past, but it need not do so directly in response to the present.)

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In The Enemy at the Gate, Wheatcroft focuses on the Ottomans’ second unsuccessful siege of Vienna in 1683 to analyse not only Europe’s fear of the Turks but also, as Wheatcroft declares, fear itself. Wheatcroft says he wanted to tell this story to show up statements like that of the former European Commissioner, the Dutch politician Frits Bolkestein, who said that if Turkey joins the EU, the liberation of Vienna will have been in vain.

Bolkestein’s statement follows in the western (and Arab nationalist) convention that saw the Ottomans as foreign invaders. The belief is that, where Ottomans existed in Europe, they did not belong there. Yet it was in present-day Greece that Ottoman power was first consolidated towards the end of the 14th century. On taking Constantinople in 1453, Mehmet II proclaimed himself sultan i rum – heir to the Byzantine emperor. His eventual successor Suleiman I had among his titles “Caesar of all the lands of Rome”.

Suleiman was universally regarded as the most pre-eminent of European monarchs, having secured his hold on Rhodes, the Balkans and, by defeating King Louis II of the Order of the Golden Fleece, much of Hungary and Bohemia. He may have been despised as a Muslim, but he was no less western for being so. Though relative upstarts in Europe, Muslims had controlled significant parts of the continent, on and off, for many centuries; the notion of western versus Muslim that we so readily embrace today was neither current nor very tenable.

The House of Hapsburg, to whom members of the Order of the Golden Fleece owed allegiance, were elected Holy Roman Emperors in 1452, less than a year before Mehmet took Constantinople. So it is hardly surprising that the Ottomans should target their capital, Vienna – not only were the Hapsburgs the rival imperial force in central Europe, they were also the 15th-century heirs to a position (instituted by Otto the great in 962) that directly challenged the Ottomans’ claim to be Rome’s successors.

The Ottomans first attacked Vienna in 1529; scholars still debate whether the failed siege was an attempt to expand the empire into Western Europe or simply a gambit to secure the Ottoman hold on Hungary. Unlike the 1683 siege, Suleiman’s failure to take the city was not entirely disastrous – it involved no definitive defeat, and some historians believe he did not seek to take the city in the first place, but simply to demonstrate his supremacy all the way up to its walls. The next few decades demonstrated that Vienna was logistically if not militarily beyond the reach of the Ottomans, and for many years campaigns never went as far.

Mehmet IV, who was crowned at the age of seven and spent most of his reign hunting, was the first Ottoman to hand over power to the Grand Vizier – giving rise to the common error of confusing the Sublime Porte, a reference to the vizierate, with the Sultan. Mehmet’s ascension, though it brought an end to a period of instability within the House of Osman, coincided with military advances among the Ottomans’ rivals; no longer was the devlat i aliye, or Sublime State, at its magnificent peak.

The first of two Viziers under Mehmet IV, Köprülü Mehmed Pasha – founder of the great ethnically Greek Köprülü dynasty of effective rulers – waged successful European campaigns against Poland, Venice and Romania. But his successor, Kara Mustafa Pasha – an adopted son of Köprülüs, to be succeeded by Fazl Mustafa Pasha, a true Köprülü – failed to carry on the good work.

Supporting Imre Thököly’s Hungarian uprising against Habsburg rule, Kara Mustafa failed to take into account the alliance between the Holy Roman Emperor Leopold I and the King of Poland, John III Sobieski (who commanded the imperial forces against Kara Mustafa) and other Catholic leaders; he misjudged the Ottomans’ client states of Moldovia and Wallachia, and crossed the Crimean Khan of the Tatars, whose forces would have been instrumental to an Ottoman victory.

A two-month siege culminated in the routing of Ottoman forces and a weaker position in southern Hungary, and on December 25, 1863, Kara Mustafa was executed in Belgrade on orders from the Janissary commanders. It is said that the croissant was invented in Vienna in the wake of this battle, its distinct shape intended to celebrate the Austrians’ victory over those fearsome bearers of the crescent flag.

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Factually, Wheatcroft could have summarised these events in a single chapter which, placed panoramically at the start, would have given him the chance to justify his seemingly arbitrary choice of close-ups and show how they might fit together to support the view that, notwithstanding wars, atrocities, and exclusive claims to the divine, Muslims and Europeans (including Jewish Europeans) remain part of the same, croissant-eating humanity.

But here as in Infidels, his earlier study of Enmity, which covers broader territory, Wheatcroft fails to recognise Muslims as part of the fabric of European history, opting instead for the traditional view that they remained, within European reality, an intrusive and scary other. At the deepest intellectual level, he seems to bolster, rather than undermine, Bolkestein’s statement.

This is not Wheatcroft’s intention, but where Enemy at the Gate is concerned, his task is complicated by the difficulty Finkel so impressively managed to overcome: that the Ottomans were too multifarious, their conflicts and alliances too changeable, their organisational structures too complex, and the causal chains informing any one point in their history too many and interlocking to yield a single well-supported argument.

Unlike Finkel, who walks a consistent tightrope to maintain her grand narrative without compromising ambiguity and detail, Wheatcroft frequently and somewhat fitfully switches his wide-angle lens for a macro. He spends more time on the subsequent Habsburg conquest of Buda, for example, than he does on the glitch in Ottoman-Tatar relations which very possibly perpetuated the Ottomans’ defeat at Vienna on September 12; he gives short shrift to Sultan Mehmet IV’s reign; and fails to present Kara Mustafa’s failure in the wider context of Ottoman decline – a slow process that had only just begun.

One wonders to what extent Wheatcroft’s failure to include Muslims as native agents of the unfolding of European history is typical. In recent years a whole army of historians have applied themselves to the task of advancing western-Muslim comity by retelling episodes of conflict and exchange. Their object seems to be to make events like the Balkan conflict, Turkey’s bid to join the EU and Arab discontent with the West less potentially disturbing.

But in grounding the present in a past previously distorted and neglected, in seeing the past through the often narrow tunnels of the present, few of them have managed to shed the notion of a division essentially separating them from the Muslim world.

In God’s Crucible: Islam and the Making of Europe, 570 to 1215 (also published in 2008), David Levering Lewis, by contrast, makes the fascinating claim that what we think of as the West would never have emerged as a whole entity had it not been for the influence of, and conflict with, the Arabs and Berbers of Muslim Iberia. This goes beyond the notion – recently reiterated in books like The House of Wisdom: How the Arabs Transformed Western Civilisation by Jonathan Lyons, Aladdin’s Lamp: How Greek Science Came to Europe Through the Islamic World by John Freely, and The Great Arab Conquests: How the Spread of Islam Changed the World We Live In by Hugh Kennedy – that Al Andalus (or, indeed, Ottoman Constantinople) was a haven of religious tolerance, ethnic intermingling, and scientific and humanitarian advance.

Few will question the argument that, if not for the Spanish Muslims’ transmission of learning all the way from Baghdad into Europe, the Renaissance could not have happened. But few ask what – beyond questionable economic benefits – makes the Turks so eager to be Europeans today, or why it is that so many Muslims are oppressed, disinherited, even mass-murdered under the present, western order.

Lewis stands out for proposing a credible integration, as opposed to a curt acknowledgement, of the rite of encounter. Muslims are not simply, as Wheatcroft suggests, Europe’s antagonistic but morally comparable peers. Instead, having been the superior other whom we (Europe) managed in time to outdo, Muslims are us.

The latter argument makes a far more convincing case for the hypothesis of a single civilisation readjusting its constituent elements through the centuries. But since the consequent insights are reflected in neither policy nor attitude – look at the various phenomena of Muslim immigration to the West and you will see just how disparate and unequal the alleged two sides remain – perhaps all that the retroactive history is doing is dealing with Western fear of Islam, not as a contestant in the making of civilisation but as an agent of insurgency, retrogress, chaos.

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