Monday, January 18, 2010

Global Imam vs Al-Azhar. The Iron Wall in Gaza

No clerics in islam !as it is often said but the reality may be slightly different since the modern times and the professionnalisation of the various religious careers. Since the last decades, the muslim clergymen are not anymore the ones they used to be, because of a set of changes in the social realm (education, urbanization…) and in the media : radio imams have been followed by tape imams, then came the time of the TV imams who became today internet imams delivering online fatwas. And it is no surprise that such a quick and violent and deep transformation of the religious institution leads to some eccentricities as it has been the case more than once.

Modern states have also played an important role, creating a religious bureaucracy submitted to stick-and-carrot incentives as illustrated by the last controversy about the building of an "iron wall" on the southern border of Gaza with Egypt.

As very few people seem to be convinced that it is a good idea to reinforce an already cruel siege on the population of Gaza, the Egyptian government called to the rescue leading clerics in order to legitimate what they were doing. One more time, shaykh Tantawi, rector of Al-Azhar, has demonstrated that he was an obedient servant of the state. He explained that opposing the wall was illegitimate and, thus, against against the islamic law.

Of course, such a statement has been followed by countless critics from all sorts of religious authorities, and notably enough from the « Global Imam », shaykh Qardawi, one – if not – the leading cleric for the Sunni Muslims.

But the worst thing is that the only voice to be heard for shaykh Tantawi’s defense was that of the Palestinian minister of religious affairs (Waqfs). He explained that Egypt was perfectly right in building on his border a wall (which will add to the suffering of the population of Gaza !)

Unsurprisingly, clerics in Egypt have opposed their reputed boss at Al-Azhar. Members of "Al-Azhar scholars front" have made a demonstration and various imams have refused to read the speech prepared for the Friday prayer in the Egyptian mosques. Their employer, the minister, has cut their wages in retaliation and it is possible that things get worst.

In the West Bank too, the local imams have been asked to read a prepared speech which was very critic of shaykh Qardawi. Those who have obeyed the official instructins have not been able to finish and the police had to come sometimes to calm the vociferous worshiping. Obviously, it is not necessary to be a sophisticated cleric to understand where does justice stand in Gaza case !

On the cultural side, famous Tunisian director Al-Majiri is preparing a moovie about the tunnelers of Gaza. Khalid Taja, a very respected Syrian actor, will play the leading role. Al-Qardawi’s life is represented on stage in a theater in Qatar. The illustration of this post is taken from the cover of a book edited by Bettina Gräf and Jakob Skovgaard-Petersen about Al-Qardawi well depicted in this interesting article.

As usual, the link to the original post in French.

Saturday, January 9, 2010

Me and my for husbands: gender equality and polygamy

Nadine al-Bedair has got some fame in the arab world since she started to work for the US financed TV channel Al-Hurra where she hosts a program about women issues. This young Saudi journalist has been the target of many comments a few months ago because of her pronounced taste for skirts which seem to be too short for other’s taste.

Again, she has been the focus of many comments in the arab media after she published, a few weeks ago, an article (arabic) in the Egyptian daily Al-masri al-youm about the right, for women, to have more than one man. Taking the arguments ordinarily used by men in order to justify their sexual “rights” to more than a woman, she explained how, in her view, real equality between men and women should also mean sexual equality and the right for women to polygamy.

Of course, Nadine al-Bedair “forgot” to mention that polygamy is licit – for the men – according to the religious texts. Furious condemnations have been pronounced from many parts of the arab world (an Egyptian MP for instance declared his intention to sue her and the newspaper’s editor for such a blasphemy), but there has been some people too, brave enough to defend, or better to understand, her views about gender equality.

In a second publication, under the title Now, you have tasted wrath savor (arabic), she explained her satisfaction for the discussions raised by her provocative writing, which, to her great satisfaction, did not provoke any official reproval in her own country. She also mentioned the legislation adopted in Arab countries like Tunisia or Morocco and called again for a real equality between genders, including in the sexual realm.

Obviously, there is some provocation in the outburst of a young journalist working for such a “pro-westernized” (if not pro-US) TV channel as Al-Hurra, and polygamy is not such a social problem in her country where, according to official statistics, it concerns no more than 1% of the population.

It remains that the “Saudi Nawal Al-Saadawi” as she has been called sometimes has reactivated the public debate about the women rights in the Arab society. Not a bad news at the beginning of a new year.

As usual, the link to the original post in French.

Thursday, December 31, 2009

No (Coranic) Logo!

Is there any connection with the agreement to be passed with Robert Murdoch’s very conservative and pro-zionist News Corps? To be sure, the pious commercials broadcasted by Alwaleed bin Talal Foundation on the various Rotana channels between racy videos clips have fuelled many discussions.

It is not the first time that such campaigns have been launched in the Arab media. There has been previously the Mercy campaign during Ramadan 08, or the Al-baraka bil-shabab (Youth is a blessing and/or The blessing youth) broadcasted by the MBC channel.

An interesting questions raised by such advertising campaigns, tackling “virtuous issues,” is the use of statements (ahâdith) of the Prophet Muhammad. Obviously, there is no problem at all with the message itself but the context might seem too profane and thus unsuitable to the dissemination of the sacred words.

At least it is the point of view of various Saudi religious scholars who have forbidden, some time ago, the use of Coranic inscriptions on players shirts during soccer competitions (they still remain legitimate for charity matches!) Similarly, Al-Azhar has recently condemned the use of Coranic verses for politics of business! According to a previous official national mufti, the sacred words must remain a guide for life and not a logo!

In short, No Coranic Logo! to use Naomi Klein’s motto. But such a claim might become a dead letter considering the countless stickers printed with sacred words posted everywhere in the Arab world… The religious message is everywhere but his meaning is vanishing.

With the usual link to the original post in French, one of the videos of the Al-baraka bil-shabab campaign...

Saturday, December 19, 2009

Voices of the (arab) nation : Arabism, songs and linguistic adaptability

In the days of the triumphant Arabism, when Cairo was not only the unchallenged political capital of the area but also its cultural one, there was no question about it: Arab stars had to express themselves in colloquial Egyptian even if classical Arabic was used from time to time for “higher” (or less popular) forms of cultural expression.

It was thus a real symbolic turn when the famous Abdel-Halim Hafez decided in the late 60’s, dressed in the local garment, to sing various pieces from the Kuwaiti traditions (see this interesting article, in Arabic, in the daily Al-Quds al-arabi.)

Today, it’s nobody’s surprise when an Arab singer, from whatever country of the area, uses another variety of colloquial Arabic: Egyptian stars sing in a so-called “Arabic of the Gulf” (a mere fiction as there is of course a fair amount of local variations), Lebanese or Iraqui starlets whisper in Egyptian colloquial, to say nothing of many popular voices from the various Maghreb countries who sing either in Egyptian or or forms of colloquial arabic.

During the three or four last decades, the Arab linguistic map has greatly changed thanks to the always growing cultural industries with their transnational media. Indeed, the new generations have probably lost some proficiency in “classical” Arabic, but they have developed new linguistic skills, especially an unprecedented adaptability to cross-over boundaries of all local variations of the Arabic language.

Many times, this linguistic ability is a mere gimmick in order for a singer to gain the favours of a special audience. But the shifting from a vernacular to another can also be used in very conscious way, as a political gesture. Latifa for instance was born in Tunisia and has worked, among others, with the Lebanese composer Ziad Rahbani and the Iraqi singer Kadhem al-Saher, after she has become a panarab star when she left her country for Egypt.

She is now promoting her new CD with songs in “Arabic from the Gulf,” a decision in line with the political stand she took in various circumstances, for instance at the 2004 Music Awards in Los Angeles when she declared that her happiness wont be complete without the liberation of the Palestine and the Iraqi people. When asked about the issuing of her new record with songs in the colloquial Arabic used in the Gulf area, Latifa explained, according to the Lebanese daily Al-Akhbar), that singing in another vernacular than you native one, when you are from the Maghreb or whatever other part of the Arab world, is a way to brake the borders drawn between the Arabs by colonialism (أحبّوا ذلك أم كرهوا، لا بدّ من كسر الحدود المرسومة بين العرب جغرافياً، فنياً وفكرياً. لأن هذه الحدود من ركائز الاستعمار).

And with the usual link to the original post in French, a rare video of the “brown nightingale” in a Kuwaiti song.

Sunday, December 13, 2009

One, two, three, viva l’Algérie!

They look “too much like Arabs” in France, but Algerians are nonetheless often considered to be too close to the Frenchies by many Arabs "surprised" by the way they live a complex identity in which colonial history and globalization merge to lead to a slogan like “One, two, three, viva l’Algérie!”

As everybody with some interest in soccer and/or politics in the arab world knows: Algeria has defeated Egypt and will be the only Arab country to participate in the next world cup in South Africa. A long-waited revenge for the Algerians who have being waiting for their turn to come in that competition for 20 years, precisely since Egypt eliminated them from the final competition 20 years ago.

In the two countries, and also in Sudan where the last match took place, the real confrontation did not occurred on the ground only but, first, in the media where experts from the two countries added fuel to the flames, then in the streets where crowds of galvanised supporters of the two national teams expressed violently their feelings against their supposed “arab brothers.”

Such clashes raise many questions. First about the freedom given to media to say and write whatever they wanted on that matter, something which is not so usual in both countries and which suggests that the authorities saw some interest in not interfering in a polemic announced well in advance by a round of shared accusations and insults among Internet users of the two countries.

A “game” in which Egypt was due to score better than Algeria, the latter not having notorious panarab TV’s sportscasters like ‘Amr Adib who performed extremely well as a fanatical and almost racist supporter of his national team. For instance, during an on-air program, he has been fool enough to call for retaliations against the Algerians living in Egypt… But the truth is that the Algerian press has not managed in a much clever and professional way.

Both Algerian and Egyptian leaders did not travel to Sudan in order to assist to the last match between the two teams, but they had sent their closest counsellors. No less than the two President’s sons on the Egyptian side, with a bunch of pop stars and movie actors. A move which has not been very successful as the disappointed Egyptian supporters turned their anger against their official representatives.

The whole story is too long and complicated to be summarized in a few lines To say nothing about a fair amount of casualties and various violent demonstrations in both countries, it is worth to mention that the two countries are engaged in a diplomatic crisis as severe as the ones Egypt has known from time to time with Israel since Camp David agreements.

Of course, countless comments in the Arab press about the “battle of Khartoum,” denouncing the politicization of these football matchs or the “ballification” of the politics (تكوير السياسة) as a way to prevent that all the frustrations of the Arab youth to get out of hand.

As usual, the link to the post previously published in French.

Tuesday, December 1, 2009

"Murdochtana": an Arab media revolution

Saudi officials or “para-officials” started to pay serious attention to the Arab media industry as soon as the end of the 1970’s. Various panarab newspapers like Al-Hayat or Al-Sharq al-awsat were bought and (re)launched using the very first digital technology at that time. A bit later, the state took a majority control of the shares in the Arabsat program.

Saudis have also be involved with the first satellite TVs: MBC as soon as 1991, then ART in 1993, Orbit un 1994. Last but not least, Al-Walid ibn Talal became a major player on the Arab media scene when he bought from shaykh Saleh Abdullah Kamel’s (owner of ART) his shares in the top Arab channel, the Lebanese LBCI, in 2003.

Thanks to his private holding, the Saudi prince has become now one if not the Arab media tycoon whose more valuable asset is probably Rotana, a globally integrated firm with a record label where most of the major Arab pop stars have signed, more than half a dozen of TV channels from disco to religious programs as on Al-Resalah TV channel, not forgetting various societies for advertising and the organisation of events, a chain of hype restaurants and pubs burgeoning in all the major Arab cities, etc.

Entertainment is Rotana’s job. Nonetheless, politics are not very far. Being a global company, Rotana has to work on an international scale, dealing thus with the very sensitive issue of normalisation with the Israeli state, one of the implications of the agreement signed in June 2008 between Sony and Rotana which became its regional representative. As a consequence of that, some “Israelis” Internet sites (run by Palestinians) are now tops charts in a country like Tunisia because they are targeted by young Arab internet surfers aiming to download Rotana’s products.

And it is just a beginning… Whatever is its future after the financial crisis, there is no discussion about a dramatic change in the managing of the company. After endless rumours about the departure of many stars for other societies, Rotana has decided to down-size dramatically its offices in activities in Beirut for various reasons, including a serious clash between Pierre Daher, LBC’s General manager who has been preferred to Gabriel Murr, who, in turn, has obliged Rotana to pay cash the fact they had fired him!

After the many difficulties faced by Walid Ibn Talal who did not succeed in breaking the veto against a film industry in Saudi Arabia, finding a way out of the crisis, obviously is not an easy job for Rotana’s boss. This could explain the expected agreement with another global tycoon, Robert Murdoch.

A deal has been searched at least since spring 2008, when Rotana contracted with the 20th Fox Century for the broadcasting of the Fox Movies channel in the Arab world. Today, it is said that the negotiations between the two media giants could lead to the buying by News Corp of some 20% to 25% of Rotana shares (between 250 and 350 million US dollars).

Adding to the Saudi supremacy, such a deal - if confirmed - between the neocons tycoon and the “liberal” Saudi prince, owner of the major dream factory for today’s Arab youth, opens a new stage in the Arab media history.

As usual, here is the links to the two posts (1) and (2) previously published in French about Rotana.

Wednesday, November 11, 2009

Sex & the Arab City: Arab winds of change.

Reading the countless comments in the press and on the Internet about the arrest and judgment of the “Saudi Casanova” who boasted his sexual exploits on the panarab LBC channel, gives the feeling that Arab sexuality is really an interesting topic (in the “West” at least).

More recently, female pop singers have moved once again the sexual issue to the top of the chart. In Egypt, first, when an Egyptian MP, close to the Muslim Brotherhood, protested against the coming of Beyonce, a symbol of depravation and immorality, to the rich and fancy Red Sea Resort.

Different characters but more or less the same story in Morocco after Haifa Wehbe performed at Agadir tolerance concert. Although a large number of the (masculine) audience was obviously fascinated by the "aura" of the Lebanese icon, wearing an offensive négligé, comments in the local press, for instance in the daily Al-Tajdid, close to the religious opposition, opposed violently what the perceived as a pitiful picture of a South ripping off clothes and dignity.

Such polemics are nothing new of course (see for instance this previous post) but it gives us the opportunity to mention an interesting discussion on a related topic between Brian Whitaker, the Guardian’s Middle East Editor and As’ad Abu Khalil, a Lebanese born professor of political science at California State University.

Under the title Arab Winds of Change, Whitaker underscores what he sees the real challenges in the region: “If asked where change is likely to come from in the Arab countries, I would not put much faith in "reformist" politicians and opposition parties – they're mostly no-hopers – but I would definitely put feminists, gay men, lesbians and bloggers very high on my list”.

Why? Because “In these highly stratified societies, people are discriminated for and against largely according to accidents of birth: by gender, by family, by tribe, by sect. Women, as the largest disadvantaged group, can play a major role in overcoming this and helping smaller disadvantaged groups to do the same. Once the equality principle is accepted for women it becomes easier to apply it to others. Contrary to popular opinion, most human rights abuses in the Arab countries are perpetrated by society rather than regimes. Yes, ordinary people are oppressed by their rulers, but they are also participants themselves in a system of oppression that includes systematic denial of rights on a grand scale”.

An explanation which infuriates the Angry Arab (As’ad Abu Khalil’s blog title) who denounces a “pathetic” analysis, “an insult to the people of the region.” (see his comment here, and Whitaker’s answer there.

Whatever opinion you choose, it is worth to note that discussion, for once, is not limited to the classical topics but embraces unusual topics.

Indeed, a bit like As’ad Abu Khalil’s blog, which focuses, as mentionned in the subtitle, on “politics, war, the Middle East, Arabic poetry, and art”!

As usual, here is the link to the more developed post in French.