This started four days ago, cropping up all over Twitter in that mushroomy fashion, as if it had rained. The Supreme Leader of Iran, Ayatollah Ali Khameini, had used “his own website” to issue a fatwa barring men and women from chatting together online, “given the immorality that often applies to this.” The story got retweeted by real human rights activists, like Suzanne Nossel, head of the PEN American Center:
And by fake ones, like Ben Weinthal, paid to propagandize for an Iran war by the so-called Foundation for Defense of Democracies:
Robert Spencer, the highly profit-making one-man Islamophobic road show, seized on it:
And for some reason, the story seems to have been a big hit in Indonesia, where perhaps it allowed believers in a notoriously syncretic Islam to laugh at those crazy Iranians:
Here’s my question, though: Is this true? Because there doesn’t seem to be any evidence that it is.
First off, some definitions are in order. For many Americans and Europeans, “fatwa” carries implications of draconian bloodthirstiness, largely because the only one they’ve heard of was the Ayatollah Khomeini’s death decree against Salman Rushdie in 1988. In fact, a fatwa can be about anything. It means any interpretation of Islamic jurisprudence issued by a qualified scholar, usually in response to a believer’s question. Twelver Shi’ism — the branch of Shi’ism that derives legitimacy from a line of twelve imams who succeeded the Prophet, and is the prevailing faith in Iran — has a much more defined and rigorous clerical hierarchy than almost any other strain of Islam. Even the highest clerics are kept on their toes answering regular questions from their lay followers, in part because just this busywork vindicates their scholarly relevance. You can compare this to Roman Catholicism, which similarly has survived for centuries owing to its intense pastoral involvement in its believers’ lives, and the authoritarian structure underpinning that engagement. The Internet age only encourages all this. Almost any major cleric has a website with a Q & A section, a running Dear Abby column advising the faithful on the do-and-don’t minutiae of their daily lives. The subjects run from Banking, holidays for, and Inheritance, cognatic cousins and, to Secretions, bodily, disposal of, and Weddings, music at. And everything in between.
Ayatollah Khameini has two websites: one in his capacity as Supreme Leader (www.leader.ir) and another (farsi.khamenei.ir), which I hesitate to call “personal” — it carries no suggestion of a private life — centering rather more on his religious and cultural activities; it might resemble a campaign website, if the man ever had to run for anything. Each contains its own section of fatawa. I spent two nights online with an Iranian friend, going over these websites in some detail, concentrating on the main, Farsi pages but with some attention to the English sections as well. We found nothing resembling the fatwa against men and women chatting. An Iran expert who had searched for it as well confirmed her inability to find it. As several people have observed, there is no legal ban on men and women conversing face-to-face in Iran; long-distance chats seem comparatively antiseptic.
I’m not saying for a certainty the fatwa isn’t there — the websites are ill-organized, and we didn’t visit absolutely every crevice. But if anyone has seen the fatwa with their own eyes, I’d like to hear about it, because I don’t see any trace that it ever existed. So far, it sounds like a fraud.
(That Khameini or his subordinates posted it, then took it down in embarrassment after it hit the news, is unlikely. The Islamic Republic is resistant to embarrassment. If the second-highest execution rate in the world — probably the highest per capita — doesn’t bring a tinge of shame to its cheeks, nothing would.)
Where did this story come from?
Its origins should have been enough to raise scepticism from the start — at least, to make journalists turn to Khameini’s actual websites to try to find the text, as I did. So far as I can see, it comes from two sources, each with a reputation for misrepresentation and bias. The first, apparently, was the website of the National Council of Resistance of Iran. The NCRI is a political mouthpiece for the Mojahedin e-Khalq (MeK, the People’s Mojahedin), an exile organization with the attributes of a cult that demands absolute loyalty from its members, enforces allegiance to its semi-deified leaders, and stands accused of extensive human rights abuses. The MeK and NCRI have long specialized in disseminating sensational fictions about Iran that capture public attention and create a propaganda storm. In 2005, the NCRI played a major role in spreading unsubstantiated rumors of “gay executions” in Iran to a gullible Peter Tatchell and others. They’ve been a recurrent source of alarmist rumor about Iran’s nuclear program, serving sometimes as a proxy and puppet for both the US and Israel to get their own versions out — but, as Patrick Cockburn writes about the “strange, highly disciplined, cult-like organisation,”
The problem with the US-Iranian proxy war is that neither side quite controls their own proxies to the degree the other side imagines. It is all very well working through surrogates to retain deniability, but these have their own interests and may, in addition, be incompetent, corrupt or simply crazed.
The NCRI published an article about the alleged fatwa on its website on January 7 — the posted time is 13:45. (The NCRI’s website is apparently hosted in Michigan, in the US, but its clock seems to be set to the time of the NCRI’s Paris headquarters.)
Next to come, it seems, was Al Arabiya, the giant Saudi news channel, which posted a story about the alleged fatwa on its English site at an unlisted time on January 7, and on its Arabic site at 21:02 GMT (that would be about eight hours and fifteen minutes after the NCRI story, if all the times are correct). It doesn’t mention the NCRI version, but my guess is that’s its source.
Al Arabiya has its own reliability problems. Members of the Saudi royal family launched jt in 2004 to compete with Qatari-owned Al Jazeera for the hearts and minds of the Arab audience. Despite all the petro-funding it’s had only limited success — it comes in second to Al Jazeera even among Saudi viewers — but it’s becoming to the American right wing what the earnest Jimmy Olsens of Qatar are to certain US lefties: a convenient confirmer of prejudices. The insecure Saudi regime is deeply nervous about both the Muslim Brotherhood and Iran; their fears reinforce the US neocons’ own. Al Arabiya, for instance, bore partial responsibility for a trumped-up story in 2012 that Egypt’s Brotherhood planned to legalize necrophilia. It also helped spread viral tales this summer that the Brotherhood was sponsoring “sexual jihad” in both Tunisia and Egypt: recruiting young women to provide erotic encouragement to warriors in Syria or even in the streets of Cairo. These stories were almost wholly imaginary. But they still circulate on extremist American websites like Frontpagemag.com.
In other words, you’ve got two culprits with a record of making things up. By the evening of January 7, the right-wing Jerusalem Post carried the story, in a short piece by Ariel Ben Solomon, citing Al Arabiya. This outlet is one of the loudest drummers, in Israel or outside, for war against Iran. Ben Solomon serves as “Middle East Correspondent for the Jerusalem Post, covering regional developments and Israeli Arab issues” — at the Post, Israeli Arab issues a) can’t be covered by Israeli Arabs b) because they’re “Middle East,” that is foreign, issues. Thank you, Avigdor Liberman. This past autumn, snooping down those “regional developments,” Ben Solomon bought into mistranslated initial reports that Kuwait’s proposed gender-identity screening was a “ban on homosexuals”; that suggests the limits of his Arabic research capacity. The Jerusalem Post was probably the story’s conduit to US and UK media.
Later on January 7, the story made Fox News (without attribution to other media sources), which means hitting the big time: “The latest religious edict from Iran’s supreme leader takes aim at the Islamic Republic’s lonely hearts.” By the next day it was on Breitbart.com, that guardian of truth and the American way: “This latest fatwa from Khamenei makes clear that Rouhani is merely the smiling theater mask of a stern, forever frowning dictatorship guided exclusively by Khamenei’s hand.” Breitbart at least suggested they had checked somewhere and failed to find the fatwa:
The Supreme Leader often answers questions from the public on his website, Khamenei.ir, though the English-language side of the site currently has no new announcements.
Thus we learn that Breitbart a) has no access to any Farsi speakers anywhere in the world; b) won’t be deterred from publishing by the total lack of evidence. What a surprise.
Only Time ever expressed some doubts about the invisible fatwa, asking “Did Iran’s Supreme Leader, Ali Khamenei, just ban online chatting between unrelated men and women?”
Both the Jerusalem Post and the exiled opposition group People’s Mojahedin Organization of Iran website — not exactly unbiased sources on Iranian affairs — say he has. … But a religious ruling does not an official ban make. Fatwas, or religious opinions disseminated by clerics, are not binding. So while Khamenei might discourage his followers from online chatting, for fear that it might lead to flirtation, or worse, he is not likely to order Iran’s religious police to start patrolling chat rooms and looking over texter’s [sic] shoulders.
Three points stand out about all of this.
1) Prove it. As I say: maybe there is a Khameini anti-chat fatwa lurking out there. I can’t be positive there isn’t, and indeed I’d be happy to know this isn’t all a viral fantasy. But the burden is on the people who wrote and Tweeted about it, to prove it. Nobody except Time seems even to have tried seriously checking on the fatwa‘s existence before clicking “publish.” Surely it’s time for them to start looking.
2) If the fatwa exists, there are more important things. Really. Time raises the interesting question whether such a mandate would even be enforceable. The answer is perhaps a little more complicated than they suggest. When the Islamic Republic of Iran decided thirty years ago to embody its law in a criminal code, it took a step radically at odds with the history of Islamic jurisprudence, which is cumulative, common-law-like, and ill-disposed to codification. A settled, finalized corpus of law is a different beast to the traditional compilation of interpretations; it can no longer be altered simply by the opinions of a scholar. The parliamentary decision and the court ruling displaced the fatwa as the fount of legislation. (Asghar Shirazi has addressed these dilemmas brilliantly in his superb work on Iran’s constitution.)
Offsetting this, Ayatollah Khomeini carried enormous prestige both as a recognized scholar and a revolutionary politician. Khomeini’s personal fatwas had a charisma that could to some extent supersede the criminal code. However, Ayatollah Khameini, plucked from the middle ranks of the clerisy to serve as Supreme Leader, has no such mojo, and his fatwas are correspondingly less final. This is not to say Iran is a rule-of-law government these days, a Rechtsstaat; it’s not. Anything Khameini writes carries some weight. That doesn’t mean it’s legally enforceable, though, as opposed to just advice to the perplexed.
Khameini also issues fatawa on masturbation (in case you were wondering, it’s bad, but pardonable if done with medical approval), but even the feared basij have not made a priority of hunting down wankers. If he did put out a fatwa about chat, it would matter whether it appeared on his Supreme Leader website, or his less official one. It would matter whether instructions to the religious police accompanied it — and there’s absolutely no indication of any such thing. Even if the fatwa exists, absent something turning it into a legal order, it’s simply moral exhortation. And how broad can its public impact be if it’s so hard to track down?
I don’t think the fatwa’s real, in which case you have to ask: why invent imaginary offenses for a government that’s committed ample real ones? Why spin fantasies about hijabi women dragged from Internet cafes when the execution rate keeps rising? It seems just a convenient propaganda gesture for the moment, to keep up pressure on Iran while other news stories are in abeyance. But even if the fatwa‘s real, why focus on it? There are plenty of other things as repressive on Khameini’s websites: for instance, his opinions on what might constitute pornography (look out for, but don’t look at, photos of Western women in fashion magazines), or the rules for satellite dishes.
Instead of decrying a purely notional ban on intersex chatting, why not talk about the irregular but intrusive restrictions Iran actually imposes on Internet users? Why not criticize how messaging and information-sharing services like WeChat, Viber, and Instagram have all been blocked by hardliners in recent weeks — apparently against the objections of Hassan Rouhani’s ministry of culture? And if you want to hone in on sexual privacy, how about the police raid on a party organized by “Satanic” homosexuals in Kermanshah last October, when the basij arrested and prosecuted some 80 men? In the West, there’s been at least as much Twitter and mainstream media attention to this chat-centered non-story as to that documented, brutally abusive incident.
3) We like victims, don’t we? Here’s the thing. If you want to talk about the truth, as opposed to easy news stories, it’s complicated. Complicated because you have to recognize that people — the people you want to imagine as helpless victims waiting breathless on your intervention — have capacity and street smarts, and are more than victims, and fight back.
If you want to deal with Iran’s Internet restrictions, you have to come to terms with the fact that Iranians still use the Internet, including the banned websites, and find all kinds of creative ways to get information in and out. We wouldn’t even know about the scope of the Internet filtering if folks weren’t poking and prodding out ways around it. If you want to address the Kermanshah case and the abuses against LGBT people, you have to face the fact not just that there was a crackdown, but that there was and is a community, which exists in a complicated dialectic between visibility and concealment, and felt sufficiently sure of itself to hold a party. Life isn’t just the unremitting pressure of repression; it’s myriad daily acts of solidarity and resistance. People carve out spaces where, against the odds, they try to feel safe and celebrate their safety; sometimes these turn profoundly unsafe; that doesn’t mean their solidarities dissipate or their connections shatter, but rather that they’ll keep looking for new places to connect and struggle. The community of “gay” and “trans” people wasn’t broken in Kermanshah. In fact, it did a remarkably effective job of documenting the arrests and getting news to the outside world, ensuring that the accused had help, and staying linked and alert after the disaster. There are other parties going on, elsewhere in Iran.
This is not a popular tale to tell, particularly among the right-wing pseudo-press — Fox and Breitbart, the Daily Mail and the Foundation for Defusing Democracies — who picked up the chat narrative. Which is why they won’t tell it. They’d rather see Iranians as either uranium-grubbing monsters bent on global domination, or helpless victims of totalitarian power too incapacitated even to get their hands on a pair of jeans. Hearing about others’ agency annoys us, because it deflates our own dreams of sovereign, saving, all-encompassing power.
But that imagined power, our power, is repressive too. What counts is how resistance confronts repressive authority; and you can’t arbitrarily lop off either side of that story. Underneath the fatwas, the facts — and people’s everyday dreams and acts — persist. Underneath the paving stones, the beach.
UPDATE: On the existing, labyrinthine filtering-and-banning Internet policies in Iran, as well as how Iranians get around them, here is a fascinating piece by Ali Reza Eshraghi.
The Jews are everywhere; start with that. In fact, the fewer Jews there actually are in your vicinity, the more you have to deal with invisible Jews, who multiply in secret according to the quantity of people you dislike. (Adam Michnik put this very well in explaining how anti-Semitism sustains itself in Poland, absent Jews: “In other countries, they say, ‘That man is a Jew; he must be a scoundrel.’ Here they say, “That man is a scoundrel; he must be a Jew.’”) They particularly appreciate the modern airwaves, since it’s an ethereal medium where they can remain unseen, incorporeal as radiation; and there they carry on their characteristic Jewish activities, reading things and writing things and killing children. Then there are the Masons. On this subject I have no objectivity, since my great-grandfather was a Mason and I have the taint of Masonic blood. Sometimes in the middle of the night I wake up giving secret handshakes to various parts of my body. (Proof of corruption: it feels good.) The Jews and the Masons, I’m pretty sure, invented Islam, which combines two of their great devil passions, the Jewish lust for reading things and the Masonic lust for erecting pointless buildings. (The Swiss had the right idea: Take the Jews’ gold so they can no longer build minarets.) Out of the Muslims came monstrosities like the Shi’ites and the Baha’i, but the climax and ultimate tool of evil is the Muslim Brotherhood. They control the media, the Queen of England, and the President of the United States, and they are sexual perverts to boot. Their latest version of perversion is to stick their Jewish Masonic terrorist fingers up the anuses of cloth puppets, which, given that our brains are in our assholes these days, is a highly effective form of mind control.
It’s all true, even though different parts of it are true to different people. (In Egypt they probably won’t tell you the conspiracy invented all Islam – just the Muslim Brotherhood section. Oh, and the Shi’ites.) But the bit about the puppets? Gospel truth. To coin a phrase.
There are these two Egyptian dolls, which went viral on Youtube in recent years. Abla Fahita, a widow, spends all her time gossiping on the phone with her friends. (Loose lips sink ships!) She has a daughter, Karkoura, who’s always trying to make sense of the old lady’s babble. (Interpreter of the terrorists’ code!) Nobody quite knows who came up with them, they are pure fun, but they got so popular that this festive season Vodafone, the largest mobile company in Egypt, decided to use them in an online ad.
I’m ready for my closeup, Mr. DeMuslim: Abla Fahita’s star turn
Then all hell broke loose, starting with Ahmed Spider. Even the most arcane conspiracy theory seems inadequate to explain Ahmed Spider. I wrote about him once, a long time ago; he’s a willowy, rather fey figure who materialized even before the Revolution, also foisted on the wider world by YouTube and Facebook, where he posted his own videos full of hapless attempts at music-making as inept as Florence Foster Jenkins. After Mubarak fell, he started interspersing the songs with talk: talk about secret plots, the evil revolutionaries, the Masons, the enemies of Egypt. He wouldn’t have been imaginable in Cairo or anywhere else twenty years ago. It’s not just that proliferating new media render him possible; they transform his dreams. They’ve set atop the pathetic longing for fame the sudden feeling that you can make your own mini-stage and be, among your fellow dreamers, famous.
He might have stopped there. But the previous military junta (the one that ruled from the Revolution till the June 2012 elections) and the felool – the relicts of the old regime — took him up. He was convenient. He attacked the revolutionaries they feared. Spider was soon a fixture on the Al-Fara’een channel run by talking head Tawfik Okasha, a purveyor of paranoia often called Egypt’s own Glenn Beck. He became that distinctive disease of our time, a Media Personality, as potent and pointless as a local votive spirit, endlessly quotable to the exact degree that he has nothing to say.
A commercial with two puppets should really expect to incite his analysis; particularly when it intrudes on YouTube, his jealously personalized preserve. No sooner had Vodafone released the video than Ahmed Spider sprang up on Tahrir TV (the security services’ chosen channel) to engage in a withering exegesis. It’s like The DaVinci Code. No symbol escapes him:
- At the beginning of the commercial you see a cactus plant with Christmas decorations. That is a terrorist threat.
- There is a Christmas ball on the cactus. That is a bomb.
- The cactus has four arms, count them, clearly a form of the four-finger salute that’s been used by the Muslim Brotherhood since the July crackdown against them. (The military killed hundreds of Brotherhood supporters staging a sit-in at Rabaa al-Adawiya square; Rabaa means “fourth” in Arabic. You see the cunning of the Brotherhood. They even corrupt cardinal numbers.)
- There’s talk of using a sniffer dog to find an old, lost SIM card, and also something about cooking a Christmas turkey. This is all about terrorist attacks.
- Abla Fahita has a friend named “Mama Tutu.” Obviously that means the Muslim Brotherhood. She even says that Mama Tutu’s false teeth are freezing from the cold. Just like the government froze the Muslim Brotherhood’s assets.
It’s amazing the Brotherhood used such a flimsy code in the attempt to conceal its schemings. It was instantly evident even to somebody like Spider, who has no brain.
Ahmed Spider takes on the Puppet Plot
So many questions remain; for instance, who was the Brotherhood trying to address this way? Will the ad itself brainwash all Vodafone subscribers into suicide bombers? Or, if it’s a more recondite message meant to trigger participants in a specific plot, isn’t Spider actually helping the Brotherhood by publicizing it? The story just rolls on, though. Another channel hosted Abla Fahita herself to refute the allegations. Ahmed Spider called in to the show. A newspaper article reports that he “refused to directly address the puppet, saying, ‘This is an imaginary character and nobody knows who is behind it.'” Abla Fahita asked him, “Would it be fair to say that Ahmed Spider is a spy because there is the word ‘spy’ in ‘spider’?” But the state takes Spider seriously. Prosecutors summoned Vodafone representatives for an interrogation over the ad.
On Twitter and Facebook, a lot of Egyptians have been laughing themselves crazy over this. But there’s a grim hardness under the hilarity, a reminder of how little has changed in Egypt in three years. Only the fact that Abla Fahita is cloth and yarn makes it risible to think of her in official custody.
More seriously, Sarah Carr points out the basic horror of a state where puppets can be criminals while police have complete impunity:
Every country has its Glenn Beck type public figures, the difference in Egypt is that they are taken seriously where it suits the political ambitions of those at the reins and serves a useful purpose. Thus we have the Public Prosecutor accepting a complaint about a finger puppet while nobody has been charged for the deaths of nearly 1,000 people at Rab3a, because the current mood is almost fascistic in its reverence for the state and for state hegemony and for state opponents to be eliminated.
I have three small points to add.
a) Creeping conspiracies. Of course, paranoia — even about puppets — isn’t uniquely Egyptian; think Jerry Falwell accusing Tinky Winky. And while Sarah’s right that the Public Prosecutor’s eagerness to pursue this “crime” makes the whole mess distinctively awful, Cairo is not the only jurisdiction where conspiracy theories drive statecraft. In the US since 2009, more than two dozen states have considered legislation to ban “creeping shari’a” (why does only shari’a creep? Does canon law lope, or Halakha boldly ambulate?), on the theory that Islamic jurisprudence is on a quest for total global domination. Shari’a is a “threat to America,” says the Center for Security Policy, a wholly unmedicated neoconservative thinktank, in a report it calls “an exercise in competitive [sic] analysis.” These are rank fantasies bred of prejudice, delirium tremens, and a propensity for belief in burqa-wearing banshees that lurk under the bed; but in places like Oklahoma, where Holy Scripture and hangovers are both interpreted literally, such hallucinations become the stuff of law.
Actually, as I wrote last week, a little-reported side of all this is that many of Egypt’s presently prevalent conspiracy theories come from the United States. Much as US evangelicals have exported their homophobia to places like Uganda, the Tea Party and its ilk have packaged their prejudices for the Egyptian market.
For instance, after July’s coup, pro-military media replayed over and over claims by the absurd Texas Congressman Louie Gohmert that the Obama Administration had been giving financial aid to the Muslim Brotherhood. Gohmert accompanied fellow delusionist Michele Bachmann on a junket to Egypt in September, to disseminate their myths about the Brotherhood among the leadership directly. It’s not for nothing that Tawfik Okasha, a key local vehicle for these fantasies, is nicknamed the Egyptian Glenn Beck. The explosive mix of anti-Semitism and Islamophobia — the belief that all-powerful Jews promote Islamism — seems to ooze from the preverbal id of the Tea Party, free to express in Egypt some of the inarticulate hatreds that respectability in the US forbids. It’s interesting, then, that a pseudo-expert like Jeffrey Goldberg points repeatedly to anti-Semitism in Egypt, though it’s unlikely to claim any direct victims now (there’s only a infinitesimal minority of Jews in the country, and the prospect of conflict with Israel is extremely remote) but stays mum about its links to Islamophobic paranoia (which has already helped kill more than a thousand people since the coup). But what happens to Muslims doesn’t interest Goldberg. Neither does context.
b) Neoliberal narratives. For myself, I can spin conspiracies with the best of them, and I don’t think it accidental that the regime is dredging up this ludicrousness on Vodafone now. Vodafone is the giant among the country’s three mobile providers (ahead of Mobinil and Etisalat). The military government, however, is finalizing a long-disputed license for Telecom Egypt to enter the field as a fourth provider. No one really can comprehend why, since the market is saturated — almost anybody who can afford a mobile phone has one. Telecom Egypt, though, is the powerful, monopoly fixed-line telephone company. It’s 80% state-owned; presumably the government wants a cut of the profitable mobile business, which has been one of the few growth areas in an economy dominated by remittances and real-estate speculation. The other 20% of Telecom Egypt was privatized back in 2005, in the first major sell-off carried out by neoliberals under the direction of Mubarak’s son and would-be successor Gamal. It was the biggest IPO in the whole Middle East up to that time. Most of the shares almost certainly went to rich regime cronies, the felool who are now back full force under General Sisi. So both its own interests and those of its friends motivate the government to look with tender concern on Telecom Egypt’s success.
Vodafone can hardly be happy about this. (Telecom Egypt also owns 44% of Vodafone, making the competition extra intricate; presumably they want either to expand that share, or sell it back to their competitor at a hefty profit.) Could the whole contretemps be a small way for the state to remind Vodafone that there is no limit to the petty harassment they can inflict if the company causes problems?
c) Information overload. Back when blogs started multiplying like mushrooms, and even more when Facebook and Twitter first reared their heads, you heard a lot about “citizen journalism” and communications activism, about how this stuff was going to democratize the media and put information in everybody’s hands for free. Didn’t Twitter almost bring Ahmadinejad down? Wasn’t Facebook Mubarak’s fatal bane?
Well, no. Twitter and Facebook actually did nothing of the kind. And the new media haven’t quite worked as planned. Mainly they’ve just succeeded in driving the old media, particularly newspapers, out of business. Of course, media giants under the sway of capital aren’t going to investigate or expose all things impartially; but you need some capital — which blogs don’t have — to hire reporters and do any investigative journalism at all. Investigative reporting, drained of resources, is going the way of the Brontosaurus, the typewriter, and the LP. Meanwhile, any blog or new-style news source that does show a capacity to make some money gets bought up by the powers that be: like Egypt’s Tahrir TV, which started as a vehicle for scraggly revolutionaries and, purchased and repurchased, morphed into a megaphone for regime propaganda. So we know less and less about what goes on beneath the surface of things, while we know more and more about cats from Buzzfeed, 26 amazing celebrity nosejobs from Gawker, who Chris Brown beat up from Twitter, and photoshopped porn pics of your neighbor from Tumblr. Information proliferates, illumination fades.
Where the ether and the clouds are full of messages, life becomes largely a matter of decoding them, however meaningless they may seem. This is a ripe atmosphere for breeding paranoias. But it’s also an environment where one spends much more time worrying about images than realities, representations than facts. The media erase the message, the vessel is the only content you’ve got.
The Abla Fahita brouhaha reminded me unpleasantly of the end-of-year US tempest over Phil Robertson: the Biblically bearded patriarch of a clan on a redneck reality show, who offended millions by mouthing what he thought were Scriptural strictures about homosexuality in an interview. Of course, there was no possibility of hidden meanings in Robertson’s diatribe, and he didn’t need Ahmed Spider to decode him; he said what he said. Still, an ocean away, what struck me about his comments was their sheer unimportance: the misguided ramblings of a flash-in-the-frying-pan TV star were trivial compared to harsh new anti-LGBT laws readying in Nigeria or Uganda. (His patronizing plantation-style comments on race – “they were happy; no one was singing the blues” before that civil rights stuff started — caused much less outrage. There are probably many reasons, but this Tweet may at least suggest one:
The standard reason given for the excess furor against Robertson, when anybody felt the need to provide one, was the children, the children. LGBT youth in the US face acute levels of depression and suicide. But is that fact caused by Robertson’s representations? “I’m terrified for young, powerless gay people growing up in less enlightened places than New York City”– a little patronizing there yourself, Knickerbocker. “In these places, when people calling themselves Christians use fear and loathing of gays as an anti-sin tool, gays and lesbians become collateral damage. Sometimes they’re driven to suicide.” Or:
Can you? Really? I’d like to see that line before signing on. In my own experience, when kids leave their homes or their lives, it’s because of what’s happening in their homes or their lives: concrete brutality or lovelessness or abuse, not abstract comments on TV. And if an LGBT child has a parent who thinks like Phil Robertson, she has a bigger problem than can be solved simply by worrying about Phil Robertson.
The rage over the redneck is mostly in the realm of metaphor; he stands in for a host of tangible injustices and harms — family violence, ingrained prejudice, fundamentalism, patriarchal power — that he didn’t cause and can’t do much to alleviate, but tackling him provides a convenient alternative to thinking about those crises, which are fucking hard. It’s much easier to object to symbols than to realities, much easier to argue against a flat-screen representation than an intractable and material fact. This is not wholly different from Ahmed Spider’s almost innocent faith that the murderous unravelling of a country can somehow be understood and answered by deciphering a TV commercial. Both fight the wrong fight — too simple in the Robertson case, too stupid in Spider’s. Both put medium before message, the world we watch before the world we live in. The appeal of this is very much a disorder of our days, so saturated with chattery things said and seen that we can’t remember the actualities we were talking about. I’m not sorry for Phil Robertson, who probably does deserve the anger, even if it could be turned to better use. I’m sorry for Abla Fahita. But it seems a symptom of the syndrome that I’m sorrier for the one who isn’t real.
Thanks to Tarek Mostafa and Ahmad Awadalla for illuminating discussions of Ahmed Spider in days past.
Jeffrey Goldberg is one of those Beltway experts whose main area of expertise is his audience. For a while he was actually The Atlantic’s advice columnist. However brusque his manner (“What’s your problem?”, his column was called) he grasped the essence of Dear Abbyism: people want to be told to do what they already want to do. On the geopolitical scale, his famously arcane influence with high reaches of the American and Israeli governments (New York magazine described him as the “official therapist” of that fraught relationship, half Oedipal, half Albee) stems, similarly, from a talent for feeding each exactly what it longs to hear. He’s also an expert on the greater Middle East, meaning on what other people think about it. When so ostentatious a quest for insight comes back only with the carcass of a cliché or two, it feels a bit as though the Royal Hunt set off to shoot down chickens in a barnyard. But who wouldn’t prefer a safe Kentucky-fried dinner to a confrontation in a mapless thicket with the uncategorized, the indeterminate, the unknown?
This week, Goldberg is teaching us about Egypt. His column for Bloomberg analyses an interview on Egyptian TV:
And the winner of the annual “Most Convoluted Conspiracy Theory to Emerge from the Egyptian Fever Swamp” prize is the writer Amr Ammar, who alleged earlier this month on Tahrir TV that talk-show host Jon Stewart, working in tandem with former U.S. National Security Adviser Zbigniew Brzezinski, is asserting dominion over Egypt on behalf of the Jews. …
The gist is that, earlier this year, Stewart appeared as a gesture of support on the TV show of now-censored satirist Bassem Youssef, and made a joke about being a homeless Jew wandering the sands. Goldberg goes on:
Ammar … in the course of arguing that Youssef is undermining Egypt (a common charge among revanchists), alleged that Youssef has learned theories of mass social control from Brzezinski, who is the source of Jon Stewart’s “ideology.”
Never much on the rails to begin with, Ammar then goes decisively off: “If you recall, when Jon Stewart visited here in Egypt, he was a guest on Bassem Youssef’s show. Note what Jon Stewart said as a joke. He said: ‘I am sorry I am late. I wandered in the desert, but now I’ve found my homeland.’ That’s what he said word for word — a Jew who wandered in the desert, but, thank God, found his homeland. This man says, in the heart of Egypt and on an Egyptian media outlet, that Egypt belongs to them, that it is his homeland.”
It requires no surplus of reason to agree that this is disgustingly looney. But Goldberg has an Important Point to make, not about a particular exemplar of lunacy but about the whole land of Egypt:
The proclivity of so many Egyptians to embrace conspiracy theories — anti-Semitic or otherwise — suggests an inability to grapple with the world as it actually is. An inability to grapple with the world as it actually is an obvious impediment to economic growth and political development.
So now we know why Egypt is poor and miserable: they’re uniquely out of touch with reality. Let’s unpack this.
1) You might think from Goldberg’s piece that Amr Ammar is some kind of important writer, and that like the greats – Dickens, Mahfouz, Dan Brown – he gives voice to dreams that well upward from the collective imagination. The truth is, no. No one I know had ever heard of him. It turns out he’s a retired army colonel, whose just-published book (Civilian Occupation: Secrets of January 25 and the American Marines) is a whole compendium of craziness, arguing that the 2011 revolution was a “complex international conspiracy against our country” by the Zionists and the CIA and everybody else. A review in the state newspaper al-Ahram lists some of the “thousands of agents and spies who tried to rape the honor of our country”:
We have been through that story with the names of its stars and its proceedings: Freedom House and Otpor [the Serbian resistance movement] and CANVAS [the Center for Applied Nonviolent Action and Strategies] and the National Association for Change [a liberal group headed by Mohamed El Baradei] and April 6 [one of the main youth revolutionary groups] and Bernard Levy and Jared Cohen, and Wael Ghoneim and Ahmed Salah [prominent revolutionary spokespeople] and Mohamed El Baradei, Hamas and Pepsi and Esraa Abdel Fattah [an April 6 co-founder] and Huma Abedin [Hillary Clinton's aide, accused by Michele Bachmann of being a Muslim Brotherhood operative, and through her marriage to Anthony Wiener obviously serving as the main link between Zionists and radical Islam] and Brzezinski and George Soros and Amr Khaled [influential television preacher] and Hisham Kassem [newspaper publisher] …
Don’t fuck with me, farbrekhers: In secret footage taken at a Pepsi board meeting, Joan Crawford addresses the Elders of Zion.
And so on. Pepsi is the crowning touch. Goldberg barely scratched the surface of the madness. In fact (and typically) Goldberg’s whole column lazily relies on a “transcript” of Amr Ammar’s interview by the US-based Middle East Media Research Institute (MEMRI), which always translates the worst stuff coming out of the region for Western consumption. But it’s not actually a transcript. As you can see by clicking the link, MEMRI offers up only five short passages from Ammar’s interview — basically, five Arabic sentences, about thirty seconds’ worth. The whole program, available on YouTube in two parcels, took an hour. I’d hate to inflict more of this stuff on anyone; but a real reporter, unlike Goldberg, might have wanted to go to the source and hear what else Ammar raved about, before devoting a whole column to it.
Amr Ammar interview, al-Tahrir TV, December 10, 2013, part 1
2) However little Goldberg listened to the interview, he’s right: it’s anti-Semitic and loathsome. But Goldberg has repeatedly reiterated his own theory of Egyptian anti-Semitism: that it’s a popular phenomenon deep-rooted in the country’s life and “deeply damaged culture.” “Egypt has never been notably philo-Semitic (just ask Moses),” he wrote in 2012. In the past, at least, he was intent on distinguishing this from Iran, where “the Iranian leadership is wildly anti-Semitic, but … I’ve never personally felt the hatred of Jews on the popular level.” In Egypt, though, “the virus has spread widely.”
Today it’s entirely acceptable among the educated and creative classes there to demonize Jews and voice the most despicable anti- Semitic conspiracy theories. Careerists know that even fleeting associations with Jews and Israelis could spell professional trouble.
(Note the elision of any difference between Jews and Israeli citizens.) Goldberg has always been reluctant to saddle the Egyptian state, as opposed to Egyptian “culture,” with responsibility for anti-Semitism. It’s because he generally likes the Egyptian state, at least in its military-run incarnations. Even under the Muslim Brotherhood, in fact, the state was pliable from his perspective — keeping its cold peace with Israel, and cooperating to police the fractious Sinai. As far back as 2001, he preferred blaming Egypt’s “press and the imams” for prejudice, to blaming friends.
Gleefully citing Amr Ammar, however, doesn’t actually back this up. An ex-officer, the guy comes out of the military establishment. His book’s been praised in al-Ahram, the state’s flagship paper and now a forum for junta propaganda. His interview was on Tahrir TV, founded in 2011 as a voice for revolutionaries but now, after several changes of ownership, “a mouthpiece for the intelligence and police” (in Ursula Lindsey’s words). The el-Sisi regime has been busily spinning horrifically inventive conspiracy theories almost from the moment it seized power, stories in which Zionists, Americans, Islamists, and Masons link up with human rights organizations and long-haired demonstrators to bring the state down. It might seem far-fetched to posit that Netanyahu and Hamas, Brzezinski and the Muslim Brotherhood, would join hands to demolish Egypt; but you’d be surprised. In fact, Huma Abedin and Anthony Weiner married specifically in order to conquer Cairo for Mossad and al-Qaeda after the honeymoon. And vilifying Bassem Youssef as a tool of national enemies is not a hobby for “revanchists,” as Goldberg suggests. It’s Egyptian state policy.
Versions of this stuff have been going on for a long time. State-promoted anti-Semitism became a loud note of the Mubarak era’s waning years. I sat speechless in an Egyptian friend’s living room in November 2002 watching Horseman Without a Horse, a lavishly produced Ramadan soap opera that dramatized the Protocols of the Elders of Zion. A few months before that, the state-owned al-Akhbar, in an editorial, called the Holocaust a fraud; al-Ahram, which despite its propaganda uses still retained a claim to respectability, had repeated the blood libel (Christian children as ingredients in the matzah) two years earlier. These are only a few examples. Of course, Goldberg’s imams often spoke the language of anti-Semitism as well. But an individual preacher might reach only a few thousand souls; whereas a state production like Horseman infused tens of millions’ dreams.
Egypt is fertile ground for lots of conspiracy theories, not just anti-Semitic ones. Last night 15 died in a bombing of the Security Directorate — secret police headquarters — in the Delta city of Mansoura; and plenty of my friends believe the state itself did it. The thing is, they might be right. Official paranoia breeds ersatz versions; and who’s to say that a secret state might not sacrifice its own secret-keepers to keep the panic brewing? These are feelings familiar to anyone who’s lived under authoritarianism; survivors of Communist Eastern Europe or apartheid South Africa will recognize them. There really is a “deep state” in Egypt, a military-security establishment with vast economic and political power. The ostensible public sphere stands severed from the occult locations where decisions are made. The more constraints encircle knowledge of what’s going on, the fewer limits there are to speculation.
Where the more hateful and virulent versions of conspiracy theory, like anti-Semitism, are concerned, one standard diagnosis finds them nebulously linked to “social change”; economic or cultural transition, if too accelerated, feeds irrational explanations. A more complex account might be: conspiracy theories breed amid uneven social change, where some structures freeze in rigidity while others shift and bend. In Imperial Germany the economy was swiftly transformed, but the political system remained fixed, dominated by an ossified and indifferent landed class. Turkey’s entrepreneurial makeover in the last three decades was slow to shake the authority of the old secular and military elites. Western investment, Western aid, satellite dishes and the Internet have rendered Egypt unrecognizable since Sadat; but the same ruling powers that were, still are. New classes — whether salaried clerks in Cologne or Islamist small businessmen in Cairo — look for reasons why their influence is less than their numbers or resources demand. If power and its persistence are neither accountable nor explicable, it’s tempting to seek not just causes, but cabalistic agents: scapegoats.
Egypt’s political immobility under Mubarak, then, helped make a conspiratorial mindset attractive. The Parkinsonian rigidity of the regime despite three years of revolution can only deepen its heuristic appeal. But the monumental resilience of the military-security complex doesn’t just draw on its own inner resources. It’s due to forty years of unstinting support from the US; and that support has been a payback for the regime’s détente with Israel. Even Egyptians who never switched on Horseman Without a Horse know that. Egypt’s politics have gone through plenty of vicissitudes, but the treaty with Israel has stayed intensely unpopular throughout. It’s hated not because of anti-Semitism, and not just for itself, but because it’s both symbol and (financial and military) enabler of a government that can ram through pretty much any policy without even a curtsey to democratic consent. (That the semi-peace coincided with Sadat’s equally despised, equally authoritarian pursuit of poverty-producing neoliberal economic policies only confirmed its unpopularity.) Some of the most important moments in democratic dissent in Egypt have focused on opposition to Israel, and to the government’s ties to it. Many activists who led the 2011 revolution got their start a decade earlier protesting Mubarak’s acquiescence in Operation Defensive Shield and his failure to support the Palestinians, as well as his tacit endorsement of the US invasion of Iraq. Even more infuriating to the dissidents, WikiLeaks revealed that Omar Suleiman, Mubarak’s sinister security consigliere and chief torturer, was also his liaison to Tel Aviv. The old monster consulted on a hotline with the Israelis daily. Contemplating “Egyptian succession scenarios,” an Israeli diplomat said, “there is no question that Israel is most comfortable with the prospect of Omar Soliman.”
Intelligent Egyptians were eminently capable of concluding that Israel’s vested interest in Cairo’s “stability” meant complicity in repression. There was a conspiratorial element to this belief, but it wasn’t fantasy; it wasn’t Holocaust denial or the blood libel. It was perfectly consistent with the facts. The Egyptian regime’s ignition of anti-Semitism (which hit full throttle around the time Sharon took office) must be comprehended in this light. It was fantasy, but it distracted attention from the raw truth that the regime’s strength depended on its Israeli ties. It was a way of screaming, “Don’t look here: look over there!” The state knew how to cultivate conspiratorial thinking, and divert it to its own ends. The elaborate paranoias the generals promote today — the Jew-led US in league with the Masons and Qatar — serve the same purpose. The US isn’t about to give up on the Egyptian military; John Kerry has made it clear that he approves the coup, just not the methods. But a dash of rabid anti-Americanism spicing up the anti-Semitism keeps the Obamans on their toes. And it makes el-Sisi seem independent to his citizenry when, like his predecessors, he’s not.
Goldberg points anxiously to the “culture” of Egyptian anti-Semitism. He doesn’t want to talk about the politics of it. Talking politics would mean admitting that the regime spreads anti-Semitism, not just the “culture,” and it does so because it’s embarrassed by its own dependencies. Full democracy — including state transparency, accountability for past crimes, and smashing the military apparatus’ power — would be the remedy for Egypt’s inculcated political paranoias. A fully democratic state would almost certainly push for a different regional power structure. For that reason alone, Goldberg and the other “therapists” are unenthusiastic.
3) Goldberg is a reality therapist, all about pragmatism and responsibility and paying your doctor bills on time. His diagnosis of the Egyptian disease is “an inability to grapple with the world as it actually is,” this being “an obvious impediment to economic growth and political development.” He elaborated in 2012:
The revolution that overthrew the country’s dictator, Hosni Mubarak, held great promise, but it also exposed the enormous challenges facing Egyptian politics and culture. … As Walter Russell Mead [a Bard College professor] has written on his blog, countries “where vicious anti-Semitism is rife are almost always backward and poor.” They aren’t backward and poor because the Elders of Zion conspire against them. They’re backward and poor because, Mead argues, they lack the ability to “see the world clearly and discern cause and effect relations in complex social settings.”
That anti-Semitism was the property of poor and backward countries would have surprised Jews in rich France during the Dreyfus affair, or in technologically advanced Germany in the 1930s; or even in thriving, skinhead-infested Russia today. Certainly anti-Semitism — conspiracy addiction in general — is a cognitive failure. But is the inability to “see the world clearly and discern cause and effect” distinctive to fetid Egypt and its “damaged culture”?
Goldberg lives in the US now, and as a commentator with political pretensions, maybe he should check the polls. It isn’t just that surveys repeatedly show nearly 80% of Americans believe in angels. It isn’t even that 4% of citizens affirm that “shape-shifting reptilian people control our world by taking on human form and gaining political power to manipulate our societies,” with another 7% “not sure.” Absent a militant movement to throw the reptiles out, those credos won’t do much. Probably.
But what can you say when 20% of Republicans say Obama is the Antichrist? (18% of Americans overall, of course, think he’s a Muslim.) What about the 34% of Republicans and 35% of independents who believe in a global conspiracy to install a totalitarian superstate called the New World Order? These aren’t innocent illusions; they’re predicates for how folks vote and agitate. And what intervening angel will prevent the 37% of Americans who think global warming is a hoax from incinerating the rest of us with their delusions?
Plenty of analysts have held paranoia to be a deep-rooted characteristic of America’s political “culture”: see Richard Hofstadter. Rich and forward the US may be, but that doesn’t keep it from being fearful. More cogently, from the anti-immigrant frenzies of the 1920s through McCarthyism to the anti-Obamism of the present, conspiracy theories seem connected to uneven social change, to classes and identities terrified of being left out by economic or political transformation. But like anti-Semitism in Egypt, they’re easily manipulated and bought up by entrenched, existing power. The Koch Brothers, after all, paid for the Tea Party: the former’s method used the latter’s madness. And there’s plenty of media to promote these stories. Pat Robertson has a whole TV network to spread his ideas about how Satan, the Illuminati, the Freemasons, and the Council on Foreign Relations plot a one-world government through central banks. Broadcaster Glenn Beck, the Kanye of paranoia, beloved of the Tea Party, maps all kinds of conspiracies on his trademark chalkboard: University of Chicago law professor Cass Sunstein is planning genocide; Obama is an ally of Egypt’s blind Sheikh Omar Abdel-Rahman. Egypt, in fact, is something of a Glenn Beck fetish. One of his more intricate narratives had Obama, George Soros, and international Communism working together to launch the Egyptian revolution, in order to build a “Muslim caliphate” that for some reason would make them all happy.
Egypt, your caliphate is coming: Glenn Beck connects the dots, which look suspiciously like small brain lesions.
It comes full circle. Egypt’s popular, insane TV presenter Tawfik Okasha plagiarizes the Tea Party, raging about how Obama brought the Muslim Brotherhood to power, helped by Zionists and Masons. Not for nothing is he known as the Egyptian Glenn Beck. (If you don’t know Okasha, this brilliant parody Twitter account in English gives something of his mad flavor.)
In fact, there’s one key point Goldberg left out in his account of Amr Ammar, so hampered was he by MEMRI’s selective editing, so fixed on Egypt’s “damaged culture.” Many of Ammar’s conspiratorial fantasies didn’t spring from the “Egyptian fever swamp.” They come from the US.
The “fever swamp” is in DC, as much as the Nile Delta. It’s doubtful Ammar or anyone else in Sisi’s circles would even have heard of Huma Abedin if Michele Bachmann hadn’t been smearing her for years as a Muslim Brotherhood mole in the US government. The Islam-loathing Bachmann has become a serious and baleful influence on Egyptian politics, visiting the country twice since the coup to share her “witless ramblings” with the junta leaders; in Cairo, she even accused the Muslim Brotherhood of involvement in the September 11 attacks. George Soros as bête noire and fulcrum of the global conspiracy is an idea borrowed, of course, from plenty of Tea Party polemicists, Glenn Beck high among them. Ammar would hardly have thought to mention Zbigniew Brzezinski’s name — as hard to pronounce in Arabic as in English — but for the work of right-wing US paranoiacs, who have long fingered the dour Pole as an Illuminatus and inventor of the New World Order.
Indeed, much as right-wing evangelicals arguably exported their homophobia to Uganda, conspiratorial neocons and other conmen are shipping their Islamophobia to Egypt. What’s arising in Cairo is a peculiar blend of Islam(ist)-hatred and anti-Semitism, a weird worldview in which the Elders of Zion breach protocol to lend a hand to the Ikhwan. The key ideas come from outside. And the melding seems liberating for many Tea Party types like Bachmann. Egypt is a place where the latent anti-Semitism bred by Becks and Robertsons, by Christmas warriors and Confederate nostalgists — a sentiment confined to coded dog-whistles in the corseted US — can emerge and stretch its limbs and find its voice.
Goldberg is spot on that some people can’t “see the world clearly and discern cause and effect relations in complex social settings.” But they’re not all Egyptians. Some of them live right in his own town, and promote their paranoias in his neighborhood. One person, in fact, who has some trouble with cause and effect relations seems to be Goldberg. Therapy begins at home.
“Ahmed” is not his real name, and I’m afraid it’s not a very inventive substitute. As we sat trying to brainstorm a proper pseudonym for him, he told me he’s always wanted to be called “Ginger.” But he doesn’t look like a Ginger: he’s a dark and slightly stolid-looking figure in his 30s, conveying a composed center of gravity that probably stood him in good stead through everything he had to endure.
I talked to him the day after he’d been forcibly deported back to his native Egypt from Saudi Arabia. He spent more than two years imprisoned in Jeddah, for visiting a gay chatroom.
Here is his story.
I was working as a pharmacist in Saudi, in Jeddah. I worked in one hospital for four years, but then I transferred to another hospital because of a disagreement about the salary. When I changed to the second hospital there was a problem about the accommodation. In my first hospital I was living alone, I had my freedom. When I was transferred to the second hospital I was living with two other foreign guys who were straight, and they knew I was gay. They refused to have a gay with them, they forced me to leave the apartment. I handed in my resignation, came back to Egypt, stayed maybe three months, found a new contract for another hospital in Jeddah. I returned, and I enjoyed working in the third hospital.
In that place I think they realized that I was a gay, but they accepted me because I was doing my work, I wasn’t doing anything bad. There was another guy at the hospital, a doctor from East Asia, and everyone knew that he was a gay—he’d flirt very openly with guys he liked, saying “We can hang out together if you can teach me Arabic.”
There’s a lot of life, everything is available in Saudi. For gays there are parties. Makeup, men in dresses… everything you can imagine or you cannot imagine. But for sure it’s hidden. There were foreigners in the scene, but it was mostly Saudis. So many Saudis like gays. If they know that you are gay, they will like you. Not everyone is hating! Some of them are enjoying having sex!
So one night in 2011 – I was working night duty – I finished and came home to my flat. I had something to drink – I knew some guys who could get it for me. Then I got onto a public chatroom, and I started to search for people. A guy said, Can I know you? How old are you, how do you look?
I told him my A/S/L [age, sex, location] and my e-mail. I offered to show myself on the cam. At that time, I was wearing my hair up, wearing some lingerie and my makeup and stuff like that. I was looking cute.
He said, Can I come to you? You have a place. So he came to my home. He sat around with me, talking and joking. But we didn’t do anything. He said, We can meet again this evening. I have my own flat, and I don’t feel comfortable here. I knew some guys didn’t feel right in a stranger’s place, and I respected that.
The evening came, around 7 PM or so – I still remember it vividly. He called and told me, I gave you my word, and I’m not lying, I’m coming to you. He said, I have a gift for you.
Then he told me also to bring my things, lingerie and makeup and stuff like that. I trusted him.
I went down to the front of the building to meet him. Just after I got in his car, maybe after a few minutes, I found the government, the guys in the religious police [Gama’t al-Amr be al-Ma’arouf], opening the door of the car, putting the cuffs on me. Of course he knew my home, so they came back there and took everything, the lingerie, condoms, my laptop, which contains porno movies and some pictures of myself
Then I found myself in the police station.
I was in a horrible state, crying — I think I had a nervous breakdown. They accused me of being a shazz jenseyyan [sexual pervert]. Everything they asked, I told them yes. Was I taking a contraceptive pill for females [for hormones]? Yes. The lingerie is for you? Yes. You’re a shazz, you’re getting fucked, you feel deeply inside yourself that you are a girl. Yes. But I said, Even if I do feel something like that, it’s not hurting anyone.
I knew the law, because it’s a religious country — not just religious but it’s a country where you must be straight. I know what happened before in Egypt [the Cairo 52 case and the subsequent crackdown] and that was in Egypt – what about a country like Saudi Arabia? Each time I went out on a date, I had a fear that I would be arrested. I expected it. But I did not expect that I would stay in prison so long.
The police didn’t use any violence against me. It’s not a matter of violence, it’s a matter of the whole process being unfair. I wish they had treated me with violence, instead of leaving me in jail for two years.
The manager in the hospital visited me in the jail. He told me that because I’d confessed, I would be deported. To me this was something good: at least I would be free.
Instead, after a week, they summoned me from jail to the court. The judge was an awful judge, the worst. He told me, You are a sexual pervert. I didn’t know how to answer. I answered I have dressed and made myself up like that but I’m not having sex — I’m just showing off. He did not tell me or ask me anything after that.
That day, I was handcuffed to another guy from the same cell. He was also in a gay case, but his hearing was before another judge, so we were led together to my judge, then together to his judge. His judge was reading the case file, asking him about the details, what happened, what they were saying – telling him, If you want I will call the witnesses, but if they say it’s all true, the sentence will be double. If you want to confess now, I can help you. I was astonished. Why was no one investigating my case that way? Why didn’t I even have the right to make a defense?
Two or three weeks later, they told me the judge wanted to transfer my case to the higher court [al-Mahkama al-A’ama] and he was asking that court to give me the death sentence.
The higher court, which can impose the death sentence, only can do that in cases where two people are arrested together and they each say, yes, he did that with me. Or if you have previous convictions. Or if you are married – it’s much worse to be accused of homosexual acts if you are married. None of that was true of me.
I waited in jail for four months or five months, and nothing happened. After that I was summoned to interrogation again.
The person who questioned me is called an interrogator (al-mohaqqek), but he’s the same rank as a wakil niyaba (deputy prosecutor) here in Egypt. The question he asked over and over was whether I was married, or had ever been married. Finally he wrote on a paper that I had not, and I put my fingerprint, and he said, Your case belongs in the jurisdiction of the lower court.
I was so happy that day.
But I waited for another four months. My birthday passed. Another summons came from that interrogator again. I had a lawyer by now. (It had been really hard to find one; nobody my friends approached in Saudi would take the case, because it was so dirty. Finally I asked my father in Egypt to look for a lawyer there who could pull strings with Saudi colleagues to get them to represent me.) I got in touch with my lawyer and told him my case was back with the lower court.
But in two weeks he called me to say, no, it was still in the hands of the higher court. Then he told me that instead it had been referred back to the interrogator. And the interrogator summoned me again, and he went over every point in the case. The new point that they asked me about – it was only the second time it had come up —was about the pictures on the laptop. There was a photo of two guys having intercourse, but the photo was only of their bodies, no faces. One of them was actually me; but there was no way of proving that. In the police station they’d asked me about it, and I’d claimed it was photoshopped or something, that it wasn’t me. Now the interrogator asked about it again and I told him I had no idea who the men were — but he said, You already confessed to the police that it is you. I protested, I never said that! Where is my confession? But on that basis he transferred the case to the higher court again.
After maybe six weeks, they summoned me to the higher court. The lawyer was with me now, and the judge was very correct, asking me lots of questions. The only point I admitted was that I had some feminine clothes and I like sometimes to look like a girl, but only inside my home. But they kept insisting that I had sex. The only proof of this was that I had condoms. I admitted that I owned the condoms, and when I did that, they convicted me, saying it proved I was having sex in Saudi Arabia.
At least the request for the death penalty was refused. They sentenced me to three years and 300 lashes, to be delivered over six sessions, 50 lashes each.
In the end I spent two years in Braiman Prison in Jeddah, and I only went through three sessions of the lashes, 50 lashes each time. Finally I was released by a pardon of the king, a general amnesty. The homosexuality cases are included under these and the amnesties happen regularly, so that most people convicted in a homosexuality case don’t spend too long in the jail. There was a guy with us whose sentence was seven years and he got out after one year. I was unusual, I stayed more than two years. And after I was released, they deported me.
In prison, I understood that the purpose of the judge in the lower court, when he sent the case to the higher court, was just to keep me in jail for a long time waiting for the court decision, since I couldn’t be amnestied till I was convicted. He just wanted to prolong my jail time.
I spent those two years in Cell 18 in Braiman Prison. It is the special cell for people convicted for homosexual acts. There are a lot of men there. The day I arrived, there were maybe 50, 55, or 58 in the cell. But when I left there were 75. Most of them feel like girls – we call each other by feminine names. We were sleeping on mattresses on the floor.
A lot of them had been arrested on the Internet, I can’t count now how many. The chief of the cell was arrested over the Internet, through chat on Palringo. Some had been arrested on Hornet, someone on U4Bear, some on WhosHere — the religious police know all the apps and chatrooms. Some of them had got a phone call asking to meet, from someone they’d talked to before on WhatsApp, and that guy turned out to be police.
I actually enjoyed getting to know these guys in the prison. Some were Saudis but most were from [a nearby country]. From there they go to Saudi legally, some for regular work, some for prostitution. And those are making so much money. Maybe for fucking just one time they can rake in 300-500 Saudi riyals [$75-125 US]. The religious police were more concerned with targeting foreigners than Saudis. The foreigners don’t have complete rights in Saudi. It’s a kind of racism.
No one knew of anyone who had been executed [for homosexual conduct]. People would talk about one case that had happened a long time ago. One guy, an Egyptian in our cell, gave me some details; but I don’t know if he was telling the truth. He said these guys were arrested at a party. They stayed in in jail for maybe two or three years without even getting a sentence, and they could tell they would stay more and more. That guy told me that they were having sex in front of everybody in the cell, prisoners and officers, and they were even singing at the time of prayer. [The authorities] told them it’s not right to do that, you have to stop. And you are in jail, so there must be some kind of repentance.
They refused to stop. So their case was transferred to the higher court. And the guy heard they were executed. This, he said, was maybe two decades ago. He told me he had been arrested once in Saudi maybe ten years back, and heard about this from other prisoners as something that had happened five or ten years before that. But I don’t believe everything he said.
Since then, though, because executions were getting bad publicity in the media, they stopped the death penalty for most cases of homosexuality – only for rape of a child, a boy, a man, something like that. In cases like mine, they just hold the sentence over you as a threat, to scare you; but it’s not actually going to happen.
But it’s not easy to look at a paper in jail and read that the judge is demanding that you be put to death. It’s difficult. It scares you. It still scares me.
No one cares where I am. My family gave up hope years ago. Lost soul that I am, this isn’t about me.
No, a much bigger family just shoved its black sheep in the closet. The World Congress of Families, brave defender of the ever-vulnerable Vladimir Putin, has put out a press release about its latest activities in Russia.
Pro-family leaders from ten countries met in Moscow (October 15-16) to plan World Congress of Families VIII, a celebration of the natural family, which will take place in Moscow, September 10-12, 2014. Members of the International Planning Committee for WCF VIII that attended the Moscow meeting included: Ignacio Arsuaga (HazteOir, Spain), Brian Brown (National Organization for Marriage, U.S.), Benjamin Bull (Alliance Defending Freedom, U.S.), Allan Carlson, Lawrence Jacobs and Don Feder (The Howard Center for Family, Religion and Society and World Congress of Families, U.S.), Silvio Dalla Valle (Association for the Defense of Christian Values, Italy), Shelly Locke (Power of Mothers, U.S.), Bob McKoskrie (Family First, New Zealand), Tom Minnery (Focus on The Family, U.S.) Justin Murff (Christian Broadcasting Network, U.S.), Austin Ruse (Catholic Family & Human Rights Institute, U.S.), Steven Smoot (Family First Foundation, U.S.), Christopher Carmouche (GrassTopsUSA), Christine Vollmer (Latin American Alliance for the Family, Venezuela), Peter Westmore (Australian Family Association), Srdjan Nogo (Dveri, Serbia), Vincente Segu (Incluyendo Mexico), Fabrice Sorlin (France) and Jack Hanick (formerly with FOX News, U.S.). [I've added links for the convenience of anyone wondering who these people are.]
But one name is missing. Scott Lively, the Holocaust-rewriting, murder-promoting pastor who helped foist Uganda’s “Anti-Homosexuality Bill” upon the world, said on his own blog that he was in Russia for the same meeting. He even had pictures.
I am writing to you from Moscow (Russia, not Idaho) where I am on a one-week mission to bolster the Russian pro-family movement. … On the 15th and 16th I participated in the planning meeting for the World Congress of Families VIII, which will take place September 2014 here in Moscow. … We dealt with logistics on the 15th and then on the 16th we visited the conference facilities.
Why doesn’t the WCF mention Lively as one of their leading planners? Could it be that he’s a little too notorious even for them? They’re happy to name Serbia’s Dveri, a fascist organization. They proudly tout Fabrice Sorlin, a French authoritarian thug whose extremist group, Dies Irae, draws inspiration from the neo-Nazi, genocidal tract The Turner Diaries. But Lively alone is a bit beyond the pale.
Treating him this way is very un-Christian. The prodigal son in the Bible got a fatted calf, after all, which in the first century was at least the equivalent of a press release. Perhaps the WCF needs some public reminders of who their loving children really are.
There are other notable things about that list of planners. Look how Northern, how Western, how Americo-European it is. Only two representatives hail from the vast Catholic and Evangelical expanses of Latin America; nobody from Africa; and nobody from a majority-Muslim country. (By contrast, the WCF’s 2007 and 2009 organizing committees included a Pakistani group, and the former contained a Kenyan one.) Perhaps the language of demographic decline the WCF took up in recent years (with its overtones of white people must breed before the brown hordes overrun them) has yet to find an audience there.
Most striking, though, is how all these US ex-Cold Warriors met in Moscow like cardinals of the Church to organize what will basically be a large-scale worship service for the cult of Putin. It’ll be flush with Russian government support: “A special WCF Parliamentary Forum was discussed with Yelena Mizulina,” the chief sponsor of the “anti-propaganda” bill.
This Parliamentary Forum will be held at the Russian Duma on September 10, 2014. In support of this Parliamentary Forum, Luca Volonte and the Novae Terrae Foundation have pledged their sponsorship and support to help bring pro-family MP’s from Europe and around the world to Moscow for WCF 2014.
(A pity that Putin’s defense of traditional values couldn’t salvage his own marriage, recently undone by insidious Western decadence.)
To the WCF, Russia’s government is no ordinary dictatorship: it now stands in the vanguard of Christianity. They look forward to a Godly gathering “in the Kremlin, once the citadel of Soviet power, and in a rebuilt cathedral, on the site of one the communists destroyed during one of their anti-God crusades.”
In the Soviet-era, faith and family were special targets of communist hegemony and socialist persecution. World Congress of Families VIII in Moscow next year will represent the triumph of the natural family and faith over its great enemy of the 20th Century.
That’s the voice of Cold War victory, as well as cold-shower Victorianism. But Scott Lively’s analysis is both more imaginative and more precise — which perhaps is why they don’t put him in the press release. He knows that Focus on the Family, the National Organization for Marriage, and the rest aren’t there to celebrate their own successes but to acknowledge Russian sponsorship, Russian power. “The Americans and the Soviets both won and both lost the Cold War,” Lively writes with admirable evenhandedness.
[T]he Americans broke the Soviet system through economic strategies and tactics. But before they collapsed, the Soviets poisoned the United States with Cultural Marxism, promoting moral degeneracy and family breakdown through so-called “progressive“ ideology. Today, post-Soviet Russia is re-emerging as a Christian nation, while the United States is becoming a “Gay Soviet Union.” What a strange turn of events.
The more they hang around with Putin, the more Brown and Lively and the other fellow travellers will learn the old, straight Soviet Union hasn’t vanished. Dissidents murdered, detainees tortured, demonstrators beaten and jailed: but a little bit of Gulag is a small price for keeping birth control away.
PS. The WCF is also furthering Russia’s interests in the near abroad, and taking its key fascists along. They write: “Prior to the Moscow meeting, [Aleksei] Komov [head of the WCF's Russian satellite group] and WCF Communications Director Don Feder, along with Srdjan Nogo of the Serbian group Dveri (WCF’s newest Partner) and French pro-marriage activist Fabrice Sorlin, were in Kiev, Ukraine for meetings with key leaders of Ukrainian parents rights groups and members of the Rada (parliament) and a press conference on strengthening the nation’s pro-family laws.” Perhaps Sorlin led some discussions of his favored text The Turner Diaries, which advocates using “chemical, biological, and radiological” weapons to exterminate the entire population of Asia. Once Ukraine’s pro-procreation laws are in place, this would furnish plenty of lebensraum.
There’s thunder out there, and not just on the Right, telling us the Cold War is back. Tensions between the US and Russia have ascended, over Edward Snowden and Syria. A new poll shows that a bare majority of Americans thinks of Russia as “non-friendly/enemy,” the first time it’s fallen so low in this century. And of course there are the gays. Will “divisions over sexual orientation” be “the new Berlin Wall”? Indeed, by sponsoring a resolution on “traditional values” at the UN Human Rights Council, Putin seems to be bidding for leadership of an unwieldy coalition of conservative countries — the Islamic bloc, sub-Saharan African states, right-wing Catholic regimes in Latin America – that has opposed women’s rights and sexual rights for more than fifteen years, usually without great-power support.
A lot of people, particularly pundits, need a Cold War. It lends focus to their energies and cohesion to their loathings, without calling on their minuscule reserves of courage like a hot one would. The years since 1989 have been a nostalgic and leaderless lurch from enemy to enemy, searching for one with size and staying power enough to infuse meaning into the vacant days: first, Saddam Hussein, then radical Islam, then Saddam Hussein again briefly, then back to radical Islam, with occasional forays into demonizing Serbia (too small to be powerful and frightening) and China (too non-white for same). Only in the last few years has Russia re-emerged as Old Reliable, perhaps dating from John McCain’s history-making 2008 cry: “Today we are all Georgians.” True, nobody remembers the Georgians now, but the principle’s the same. Today we are all Russian gays. Crowded, this back room.
I don’t think there will be a new Cold War – Russia is big, but it’s not what it used to be – and I don’t think homosexuality will be a Checkpoint Charlie, though the analogies are tempting. (Will the gays organize a Berlin airlift to ferry sex to their starved brethren under repressive rule? What about the Bay of Bears invasion?) But with Moscow emerging as a patron, the side that’s been fighting a culture war against women and against sexuality has a bit more weight in international arenas than before; maybe that will translate into more boldness at home as well. (Russia, however, is not prone to backing up its verbal support for homophobic governments by ladling on bilaterial aid. China, which is comparatively indifferent to sex, is the big funder.) Similarly, there’s no question that the Obama administration’s loud support of LGBT rights abroad – with an eye to domestic voters — has given a don’t-tread-on-me, militaristic tone to the way US gays approach international issues. The big dog is barking for progressivism and freedom, and we can puff our chests out and piss on lampposts to assert our pride. So as one blogger puts it,
25 years ago a lot of countries got away with a lot of antigay crap because we weren’t powerful enough to stop the bigotry and the hatred that led so many of us to attempt suicide. That doesn’t give Russia the right to keep abusing us today – as if they somehow missed out their chance to dehumanize us somehow, and now want a shot at it. We finally have the power to stand up to bullies and we will.
Barry Goldwater couldn’t have said it better.
All the same, if this Cold War is being waged over cultural values, we need to remember that the old Cold War was too. It was, in fact, the first real culture war, not just between two countries but between two ideologies – capitalism and Communism – each measuring success not merely in military terms but in changing lifeways and attracting populations by their blandishments. (Fascism employed propaganda to cement loyalty in peoples under its direct rule, but it was never a universalist ideology, too absorbed in national and racial myths to refashion itself for transnational audiences.)
What’s interesting is that the cultural alignments in the 40-year US vs. Russia showdown were very different from those today: in fact, about 180 degrees so.
These days, Russia claims to speak for countries that see themselves on the cultural defensive, fighting a rear-guard effort to preserve “traditional values” like family, religion, and cohesive community. Back then, it was the capitalist countries, and the US in its capacity as Head Capitalist, who sold themselves that way. The values rhetoric, the defense of patriarchy, the invocations of moral absolutes that are used against so many human rights movements today – all these are pretty much what the US was saying at home and abroad half a century ago.
When I was a small-town boy at the height of the old Cold War, every pulpit, politician, and TV screen seemed to warn that Communism was after us, the way we lived here and now. It would dissolve the family, destroy religion, crush morality, and abolish traditional community: all the things that small-town boys in Gambia or Belarus nowadays hear are the goals of homosexuality and feminism and Hillary Clinton. The visions were terrifying; the thought that some commissar out there had Radford, Virginia (pop. 10,000, an All-American City) in his sights was extraordinarily vivid. Moreover, even comic books spread the dire message – and for a six-year-old in 1968, comic books were way more reliable than members of Congress. The iconic images of threats to a way of life say more than all the speeches I could quote.
Treasure Chest, a Catholic-oriented comic, was widely distributed for years in secular schools as well. It featured a running series series on the Red threat, “This Godless Communism.” (Catholic leaders were heirs to a long history of anti-Communist agitation in the name of social values – and they were also, most likely, familiar with Fascist propaganda, like the poster up at top.) This one, from 1961, featured an introduction and cameo by J. Edgar Hoover. After the Communists take over the US, the first thing we learn is that they’re feminists.
We need “to be on our guard, to re-affirm the truths we once learned and now teach, to keep our children free from Communism.” But Communism targets the transmission of tradition. Even in places without tradition, like Canada.
The result of this treason, of course, is a school like this (the pedagogue looked, even if she didn’t exactly sound, like my first-grade teacher):
Here, in a 1948 comic about Soviet America, a son tells the secret police about Mom’s hidden “religious junk.” When they raid the home in consequence, disappointed Dad is alarmingly happy to hand Biff over to them as well: “You’ve got his soul — now take his body too.” I could see my father saying the same thing.
And, of course, all this flows from a cosmopolitan conspiracy against American morals and values. Even in 1948, the Catholic comics were decrying a “culture of death” — in this one, Communists boasted about their success in spreading it:
It’s easy, maybe cheap, to laugh. I always find that, to us in the US, our Cold War propaganda is funny in a way that other endeavors in the field (even the trumped-up, hysterical atrocity stories of the First World War) aren’t. Mainly the reason is that it’s less about them than about us. Precisely because it’s a culture war, and because we believed we were losing, the focus is incessantly on the “way of life” we’re supposed to be defending. More than almost any other propaganda, it serves up images of our imagined everyday happiness as the object of the enemy’s resentful demolition urges. But that way of life, airbrushed to absurdity then, seems utterly unreal now. It isn’t even menacing in its repressive gender roles, its airtight whiteness. You can’t take it seriously – it’s all camp, and you can recuperate it for a nostalgic chuckle as easily as Leave it to Beaver.
This distance we feel is partly due to what happened, throughout the capitalist West, since 1960. The vast economic growth of the postwar years, the Trentes Glorieuses, created fullblown consumer societies in western Europe and in parts of the US that had never seen them before. People could spend their way into niches where they could express dissident identities publicly and safely. Affluence relaxed social norms and helped women push for liberation from traditional roles. Economic power brought burgeoning demands for political rights. Leave it to Beaver was left behind, a relic. It grew harder and harder for the West to represent itself to itself as securely on the side of conservative social practices.
But the Cold War’s cultural as well as political battlefield shifted in the 60s and 70s, away from the capitalist heartland to the Third World. Increasingly, the conflict fought itself out in counterinsurgency campaigns and ideological struggles in all corners of Africa, Latin America, and Asia. “Traditional values” became an export commodity, essential to Western propaganda and Western politics there.
US government experts explained the temptations of Communism in the developing world by “the personal uncertainty generated by the jarring social transitions from tradition to modernity.” The best way to ensure satisfactory citizens, and stable and dependable governments, was to entrust development to a trustworthy force – preferably, the military would preside over modernization in countries prepping for “take-off.” A stern dictatorship of generals would also make sure that free trade, marketization, and a capitalist economy left as much as possible of patriarchal, hierarchical morals and social relations intact. US propaganda tools and talents would be ready to assist. The US treated family and religion as universal values of conservatism, regardless of what particular God you worshipped or within what family form you beat your wife. The more they eroded in the homeland, the more vital they appeared in foreign policy. As President Eisenhower famously said, free government “has no sense unless it is founded in a deeply-felt religious faith, and I don’t care what it is.”
The US’s pet dictatorships, from Lisbon to Saigon, all fostered bifurcated visions of the world: a rosy and pious traditional family at the center, requiring the exertion of appalling violence to protect it from corrosive horrors beyond. Jordán Bruno Genta, chief ideologue of military fascism in Argentina, urged the country to
Create a military state and a war policy to combat internal subversion; indoctrinate the military with a clear idea of its mission and with enthusiasm for this mission; mobilize the entire population for the counterrevolutionary war; free the nation from the power of international money; base everything in Christ, which means restore the natural hierarchies.
After the generals took power in Buenos Aires, school textbooks told kids that
for psychological and physical reasons, the male should be acknowledged as the authority … By her nature the woman represents kindness and love. Unless things are so, anarchy and dissatisfaction become a fact … To deny the father’s authority is to tear the family to pieces. The woman’s obedience to authority has a great educational influence on the family.
Abortion, free love, pornography, and divorce all exempified “the most recent Marxist strategy to conquer the West.” Propaganda, of course, had the police behind it; everything from feminism to Freudianism took on the look of leftist subversion. The regime murdered thousands who denied “the father’s authority,” or its own.
Similar propaganda sustained the Pinochet dictatorship in neighboring Chile.
This is a 1984 booklet on Marxism emitted by the junta. “Communism believes that the family has no reason to exist, so must be weakened to extinction.” The sad female on the right, dreaming of distraught infants, dreams in vain: “Woman is separated from family life, into work shifts in factories and militant political activity. It denies her duty as a mother and wife, and puts her children under the tutelage of the state.”
This was crude compared to other Pinochet productions. The Chilean dictatorship hewed to a comprehensive “cultural policy,” to promote “the defense, development and growth of the tradition and culture which is our own.” It also had excellent PR. It drew on the services not only of the CIA but of numerous American intellectuals and corporations who had the tyrant’s back. Its marketing emphasized continuity, stability, and belonging, with simple text and visuals and attractive typography. This 1979 promo is as warm and reassuring as an American ad for oatmeal.
“Chile’s glorious past is reborn with vigor in September” — the month of both Independence Day and the so-called Second Independence, when the thugs overthrew Allende. Family and continuity unite as cultural values, in a history represented by a list of safely right-wing national heroes. Then: “Chile Forever. All One.”
Those faux-kindly notes were struck in many places, even if fear was never far from the margins. Consider this collection of election posters for Italy’s Christian Democratic Party, which dominated the country for 50 years, and was a well-funded favorite of the CIA.
More overt are the oppositions in these posters from Thailand, which contrast misery and alienation in Communist China to traditional culture and the family.
“The Communist Party forcibly tears apart family members among the common people. The Kingdom of Thailand’s people live and work in peace and happiness.”
“The Communist Party fattens the public and deprives the private, not allowing the Chinese people enough property. The people of the Kingdom of Thailand live comfortably in abundance.” It’s like Norman Rockwell.
CIA propaganda invoked family and religion in counterinsurgency campaigns. A two-sided CIA leaflet from the Dominican Republic, invaded by the US in 1965, puts it succinctly:
The exact identity of the round object raining golden showers on the Virgin’s head remains, however, uncertain.
The CIA also drew heavily on imagery and rhetoric of family in South Vietnam. One of its key propaganda contributions to the war was the Chieu Hoi or “Open Arms” program, a multimillion-dollar fiasco designed to persuade Viet Cong guerrillas to surrender in exchange for amnesty. Nostalgia for the families they’d left behind was the main selling point, but it played into larger themes of traditionalism and security.
We cry for the dead
We are bitter because the Communists
Have destroyed our families.
When will mothers and children be reunited?
The leaflet’s obverse is less sentimental, though, promising deserters
200 (piasters) per month for errands. 15 piasters for each member of the family who stays at the government center. …
Two pairs of shirts and pants or 1000 piasters.
During the Chimurenga against white rule in Rhodesia, the racist government predictably allocated gender roles in the most traditional ways when appealing to the white community:
Its attempts to propagandize among blacks, however, showed “native” families the way whites wanted to see them, as unappealingly impotent. Men were absent, women defenseless, a vision perhaps unlikely to entrance the intended audience. Meanwhile, Communist bearers of deviant sex ravaged traditional ways of life, as not only rapists but carriers of venereal disease:
You have to wonder if this talk of infectious “mad dogs” had any influence on the later language of Robert Mugabe.
Perhaps the oddest artifact is this comic book, Grenada: Rescued from Rape and Slavery. A CIA front (“Victims of International Communist Emissaries,” or VOICE) distributed it on the island after the US invaded in 1983. In true Treasure Chest style, it shows Bill and Anna, a nuclear couple with the requisite two kids, who fear what the Communists will do to the Grenadan family: “Oh, Bill, I’m so afraid — afraid for ourselves and for our children. With more Cubans coming in more of our children will be forced into brainwashing!” The problem is, unlike the Treasure Chest clan, they’re black. Black families in the US had been suffering “benign neglect” for generations, so why do these guys expect you to drop everything? Bill and Anna seem virtuous, monogamous, and not part of the drug trade, though, so the helicopters come: “Yes, Anna, thank God! And thank God for President Reagan and our freedom-loving neighbors!”
What we see now is a remarkable reversal of all this old-time religion. It’s now consumerism that plays the role once taken by godless Communism, threatening all traditional ways of life. America is the great Satan; Obama stands in for Khrushchev in the imaginary comic book of our time; and the effectively neutered and de-radicalized Third World (now along with Russia) stands up for the good old values. In fact Putin sounds like, and with his taste for boorish nationalism and unapologetic intervention often acts like, Eisenhower or Reagan. How the whirligig of time brings round his revenges!
There was always a contradiction in the ideologies of capitalism, though, between the social values it dresses itself in — so often traditional, meant to hold society in place and ready for productive labor during rapid change — and the social processes it furthers, so often transformative. Everything solid melts into air; but we’re not supposed to notice, are meant to carry on with our assigned roles as always, the work, the weddings, the funerals. Marx knew how this happens, but most of the moderns don’t.
America and Europe in the last few decades have thrown away the sheep’s clothing. They’re not interested in tradition anymore, because it isn’t useful to them. They’re on the side of social transformation, as long as it’s in their favor: as long as it’s compatible with economic advantage, with keeping capital mobile and the workforce in the rest of the world low-wage. Meanwhile, the previously pliable regimes it helped establish around the planet, from Ben Bella’s jailers to Yeltsin’s heirs, are seizing the banner of tradition, as a symbolic way of defending themselves against — among other things — capital flows and forces that see their borders as irrelevant and their economies as fields for exploitation.
What hasn’t changed in sixty years (though the players’ slogans and some of their identities have) is that it’s about power. Caught in the middle, much as before, are ragtag, straggling bands of communities and social movements who reject the fake ideologies of tradition and belonging. They want more freedom; but they don’t want to buy another prefab ideology of being “freed,” or fight on somebody else’s side to get it — whether the somebody is Brezhnev or Obama. Third World feminists in the ’70s and Third World LGBT folk today are in approximately the same place, ground between visions of liberation or salvation that are unreal and oversimplified and exclude them. It’s not a comic book world, and the answers will not come easy.
In early 2001, Oprah Winfrey made a famous appearance at Madison Square Garden, for “V-Day,” Eve Ensler’s enormous, $1000-a-ticket benefit for feminism. What happened is etched in many memories (there were cheaper seats, too), but I’ll let Ms. Magazine describe. Oprah performed “Under the Burqa,” a kind of inverted “Over the Rainbow” about a foreign land:
a heart-wrenching, spine-tingling story written by Ensler to personify the daily terror and misery of women’s lives in Afghanistan under the Taliban’s harsh gender apartheid rule. Oprah Winfrey gave an “Oscar-winning” performance to the piece as she described women in Afghanistan crying out in pain with no one to hear or acknowledge their suffering, because in Afghanistan life for women under the brutal Taliban hardly exists. An Afghan woman wearing the all-inhibiting burqa appeared as vocal sounds of pain and agony filled Madison Square Garden.
The woman crept up behind Oprah over the stage. As the audience gasped over the misery-murmurs soundtrack, Oprah turned and lifted the burqa off her. Thundering cheers! The tableau of liberation was entrancing. It told us that freedom lay in the hands of Westerners to give; that we were the voices, the hands, the absent lives, of others; and that the gift would be easy, like Superwoman getting a phone-booth makeover – “the ‘hey presto’ transformation of suffering into strength with the flick of a hem,” as Noy Thrupkaew wrote. This was imperialism lite, no boots on the ground; all you needed was a celebrity and a portable article of clothing. Just over six months later we all would be at war, and while these lessons may not have been too useful for the travails ahead, they were remembered. Eleven days after the September 11 attacks, CNN aired a film on the burqa in Afghanistan; it became its most-watched documentary ever. Six weeks later, Laura Bush would assure the nation that “The fight against terrorism is also a fight for the rights and dignity of women.” If the fight turned out longer and harder than expected, still the image and ideal remained, an emancipation embodied in omnipresent Oprah and hence impossible to escape, through all the ravages of Fallujah and Bagram and Abu Ghraib. One of the sponsoring organizations for victorious “V-Day” was a group called Equality Now.
Equality Now, founded in 1992, is a US organization fighting to diffuse worldwide the waning impulses of absolutist Western feminism from forty years ago. It campaigns for reproductive rights but, even more militantly, against pornography and prostitution. It’s also been exceptionally good at publicity, particularly by recruiting that kind of American celebrity who believes their fame is an anointing – that they can use it to liberate the tired, the poor, the war-torn, and also the wrongly dressed and inappropriately employed. Julia Stiles! Joss Wheedon! Glenn Close and Oprah! Equality Now is at it again this week, with a campaign aimed at the drab and unexciting UN; no institution is intrinsically unsexy, and already the publicity machine is starting to roll. There’s a campaign page at Tina Brown’s Daily Beast, headlined “Call to Arms”; there are the endorsements from the famous and the only-slightly-faded. The aim is to roll back more than a decade of progress at the UN, and around the world, in safeguarding sex workers’ health and safety.
The campaign stems from a year-old letter that Equality Now organized to Helen Clark, the head of the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP). As Prime Minister of New Zealand, Clark oversaw the law reform that decriminalized sex work in her country in 2003. FInding her unreceptive to their solicitations, Equality Now called for public protest. They want you to write to UNDP, UNAIDS, the UN Population Fund (UNFPA), and UN Women, but the gist is simple: Damn the evidence. Get me rewrite!
[We] express great concern about two recent reports on efforts to prevent HIV within the commercial sex industry: the Global Commission on HIV and the Law report HIV and the Law: Risks, Rights and Health (“Global Commission Report”) released on 9 July 2012, and the UNDP, UNFPA and UNAIDS report Sex Work and the Law in Asia and the Pacific (“Asia Pacific Report”) released on 18 October 2012. … [W]e are deeply concerned with both reports’ incomplete and misleading information regarding the effects of decriminalizing prostitution and surrounding activities.
The two reports linked above are ground-breaking work. The former, by 14 distinguished jurists and experts including former Presidents of Botswana and Brazil, examines the role of the law in promoting or impeding effective responses to HIV/AIDS. The latter surveys 48 countries in the Asia / Pacific region, investigating how their legal regimes around sex work affect both health and human rights. Two aspects strike Equality Now as especially noxious.
ONE. The reports called on governments to “Decriminalise private and consensual adult sexual behaviours, including same-sex sexual acts and voluntary sex work” (Global Commission Report, p. 9). The Asia Pacific Report found that criminalization of “sex work or certain activities associated with sex work … increases vulnerability to HIV by fuelling stigma and discrimination, limiting access to HIV and sexual health services, condoms and harm reduction services, and adversely affecting the self esteem of sex workers and their ability to make informed choices about their health” (p. 1).
TWO. The reports called for a clear distinction, in policy, law, and public understanding, between sex work and sex trafficking, “which are not the same. The difference is that the former is consensual whereas the latter coercive.”
Criminal sanctions against human trafficking and commercial sexual exploitation of minors are essential—but the laws must clearly differentiate these activities from consensual adult sex work. (Global Commission Report, p. 29)
The Asia Pacific Report said laws that conflate “human trafficking and sex work and define sex work as ‘sexual exploitation’ contribute to vulnerability, generate stigma and create barriers to HIV service delivery”.
The unwillingness or inability of people to recognise that people can freely decide to engage in sex work means that sex workers are often automatically labelled as victims of trafficking when they are not. Often sex workers are portrayed as passive victims who need to be saved. Assuming that all sex workers are trafficked denies the autonomy and agency of people who sell sex. (pp. 3, 15)
“We respectfully request that you re-examine the findings and recommendations included in these two reports,” Equality Now writes in civil UN-ese, meaning: Retract these conclusions, or else.
Equality Now is an eradicationist organization. They believe all sex work is exploitation, and hence “trafficking.” They want prostitution eliminated. To this end they’re trying to press the so-called “Swedish model” on the UN; they claim it “addresses demand by decriminalizing the person in prostitution and criminalizing the buyers and pimps.” This sits rather strangely with the headline they chose for their campaign, above: “Keeping Prostitution Illegal.” In fact, though, that is what the “Swedish model” is about. It decriminalizes the “person in prostitution” about as much as traffic laws decriminalize the person in speeding car. The brothel raids and the stings on johns trawl up sex workers, not just clients, in their nets; police pick out and pick up sex workers, photograph them, stamp stigma on their lives; and there’s always a battery of other policies and punishments — loitering and solicitation laws, civil forfeiture, seizing cars and homes, even taking children — that can be used to drive women out of sex work. Melissa Giri Grant notes,
A 2012 examination of prostitution-related felonies in Chicago … revealed that of 1,266 convictions during the past four years, 97 percent of the charges were made against sex workers [as opposed to clients and others], with a 68 percent increase between 2008 and 2011. This is during the same years that [eradicationist activists] lobbied for the Illinois Safe Children Act, meant to end the arrest of who the bill describes as “prostituted persons” and to instead target “traffickers” and buyers through wiretaps and stings. Since the Act’s passage in 2010, only three buyers have been charged with a felony. These feminist-supported, headline-grabbing stunts subject young women to the humiliation of jail, legal procedures, and tracking through various law enforcement databases, sometimes for the rest of their lives.
The Global Commission report charges the Swedish model with “Victimising the ‘victim.'”
The Global Network of Sex Work Projects (NSWP) has answered the claims Equality Now made in its letter; I won’t recap its arguments here, save to note that Equality Now repeatedly misrepresents and distorts the results of studies. (For example: Equality Now asserts a government report in New Zealand found “no great change” in sex workers’ access to health services, and use of safer sex, in the wake of of law reform. But the government report actually says something quite different — that effective, and sex-worker friendly, “HIV/AIDS prevention campaign that ran in the late 1980s” had already generated across-the-board improvements, hence the room for positive change was small. Meanwhile, a 2007 study by researchers at the University of Otago in Christchurch found that decriminalization had made sex workers more willing to choose and refuse clients, a right the reform law specifically guaranteed them — the numbers who felt they couldn’t do so fell from 63% in 1999 to only 38% in 2006. They were also readier to report abuses to police, and in general more empowered about the conditions of their work.)
I will make two points, though. One is that Equality Now cultivates a rhetoric of care built round the idea of “Listening to Survivors.” Listening is admirable; but in this case, it becomes an accusation against any and all opponents: those other people, the ones you’re listening to, aren’t real. Thus, one eradicationist cites a “survivor” approvingly:
To support decriminalising the sale of sex would be to support prostitution itself. … I believe if a prostitute or former prostitute wants to see prostitution legalised, it is because she is inured both to the wrong of it and to her own personal injury from it.
This is a moral rephrasing of the old Marxist claim of false consciousness: your class position, or in this case your sin, invalidates your voice and deafens my ears to your inauthentic pleas. Moreover, the audible “survivors” aren’t so audible in the end. They fade into placeholders for institutions that can, and will, speak on their behalf. The letter to Helen Clark bemoans that “If the drafters of the reports – in particular the Asia Pacific Report – had consulted with a broader range of stakeholders, including anti-trafficking and women’s rights organizations as well as trafficking survivors” — well, everything would have been different. In essence this means: Do nothing till you hear from me. In fact, the Global Commission on HIV and the Law held seven regional dialogues and reviewed 680 written submissions in its work. The Asia Pacific report draws on extensive consultations with advocacy groups, including sex worker groups, in the countries it analyzed. Integrating usually-unheard voices into the conversation is likely to rouse acute institutional anxieties; but you really can’t just claim those voices were never there.
Listen to Carmen, fools. And now can we just pretend these “reports” you published never happened?
The second point is that, while Equality Now talks the talk of protecting the helpless against exploitation, its concerns flow from a different point where morality and politics, respectability and power, meet. Ninety-seven organizations signed the letter to Helen Clark; but while most of them seem dressed in the appealing-looking garments of sober feminism, quite a few are wearing a burqa underneath. For instance, Ruhama, a powerful Irish “anti-trafficking” group, sounds awfully progressive, opposing prostitution because it’s so “deeply rooted in gender inequality and social marginalisation.” Ruhama, though, is a front. Behind it lurk several Catholic religious orders which, for decades, imposed forced labor and virtual slavery on “fallen women” in the notorious Magdalene Laundries. Moral rigor and a quest to recover political authority drive its campaigning, not indignation at the gendered injustice its parent groups enforced for years.
There’s a history behind this power quest. Anthropologist Laura Agustin argues that the earnest focus on “prostitution” as a social problem in Britain’s 19th century came with the emergence of middle-class women as a group who needed occupations, purpose, and identities. “Social critics and philanthropists constructed an identity for ‘the poor’ in general, and ‘prostitutes’ in particular, which necessitated intervention, at the same period when the same critics, in need of and desiring employment, designated themselves as peculiarly suited to intervene.”
Philanthropy came to be seen as an appropriate sphere of paid employment for middle-class women, who designated themselves as those authorised to care for a group of working-class women they designated prostitutes. Both groups were engaged in the search for livelihoods and a degree of independence during the development of industrial capitalism. In the new ‘prostitution’ discourse, both figures, the victim and the rescuer, belonged to a new vision of society in which good conduct was linked to bourgeois, domestic marriage and family.
What Agustin doesn’t say [in this article, I mean; see in the comments, below, for references to places where she's drawn out the implications!] is that this vision of “intervention” paralleled other interventions in the larger, political sphere: imperialism, militarism, the projection of British might, the growth of a governing class of males whose identities were built on intruding in other countries and morally recuperating other peoples. Deviant within and barbarian abroad were matching objects of colonial improvement.
Elizabeth Bernstein has pursued these ideas in a contemporary frame. She argues that “antitrafficking activism,” as practiced by both feminists and their faith-based allies, “has been fueled by a shared commitment to carceral paradigms of social, and in particular gender, justice … and to militarized humanitarianism as the preeminent mode of engagement by the state.” You fight the enemies of your version of liberation, at home and abroad. You need the big guns on your side; feminism turns to the State. The battle requires the government to flex its muscles, through its police under the streetlights of Chicago as much as through the soldier boys in the alleys of Kabul. It’s no coincidence that Equality Now defines its demand for protests to the UN as a “call to arms.” It’s no coincidence that eradicationist Gloria Steinem, touring India and pressed to explain why she refused to dialogue with sex worker activists, fell back on a strange anti-Blitzkrieg rhetoric: “The truth seems to be that the invasion of the human body by another person – whether empowered by money or violence or authority — is de-humanising in itself. … [P]rostitution is the only [job] that by definition crosses boundary of our skin and invades our most central sense of self.” Does she mean all prostitution is rape, or all penetrative sex is? Shouldn’t we defend against an invasion by any means necessary — police, armies, the full panoply of power? Indeed, isn’t the best defense maybe just invading something ourselves?
It’s no coincidence, either, that both the war-cry against uncivilized and misogynistic Muslim peoples and the clamor to crack down on sex trafficking met in the receptive embrace of the Bush administration. Bush is gone, of course. But the powerful impulses are both still there. And their common feature, the guilty secret of their involuntary incursions, is still there too. The objects of rescue, the victims of intervention, don’t get to lift the veil of their own volition, or speak for themselves.
The niqab is back in the news these days. Banned in France and Belgium, it now faces prohibition in part of Switzerland. It’s a hot topic in Britain, where a Liberal Democrat minister called for a “national debate” on whether the State needed to “protect” women from veilish wiles. One right-wing British blogger drew an analogy I found illuminating, like a white phosphorus flare. It’s all, in the end, about State power, whether embodied in laws or bombs:
While the two situations are not directly analogous, there are, nonetheless, noteworthy similarities between the objections made to humanitarian military intervention in foreign countries and the objections made to state intervention in the matter of the niqab. Concomitant similarities can be observed in the arguments in favour, which speak to a common impulse.
Opposition to a niqab ban is frequently undergirded by a suspicion of State power as irrational and indiscriminate as anti-War hostility to American power — in neither case is it conceded that power can be harnessed for benign, progressive or utilitarian ends. … The wisdom of intervention in either case may be disputed, but the motivating humanitarian impulse in both cases is the responsibility to protect and should be debated as such.
In other words, you must concede the principle that the State has an absolute right to intervene (“protect”) in either case; the only permitted argument is about the pros and cons of particular interventions. The females who choose to cover their faces, and the peoples who slave away in oppression while unable or unwilling to resist, are equally incapacitated children, whose very muteness demands a decision-making power located somewhere else. Confronted with a woman, “a proud Welsh and British citizen, a molecular geneticist by profession and an activist in my spare time,” who says, “I find the niqab liberating and dignifying; it gives me a sense of strength,” the man sees nothing but mind-forged manacles:
Coercion does not necessitate physical imprisonment, and religious authority exerts a particularly pernicious hold over those taught from birth to accept it without question.
The blogger elects to remain veiled in anonymity, so all I know is he’s one of the pro-war, Islam-fearing fans of the neocon website Harry’s Place, a type that’s done so much to damage British public life. In an interview with Norm Geras — co-author of the invading-things-is-fun Euston Manifesto — he declares that “I dislike any ostentatious displays of religious or political affiliation. Slogan-bearing badges and t-shirts, religiously observant haircuts, dress codes and iconography of any kind.” One senses further prohibitions down the pike. The sinister beauty of power is that it corrupts even before you have it; just the scent, the fantasy of it, intoxicates. And the same spirit that drives you to enthuse over stripping women of their veils, or herding them into Black Marias on a moonless evening, is the spirit that informs imperial dreams of imposing one-size Mao jackets on the unisex masses, toppling statues and towers, Rumsfelding it over subject peoples like a Roman titan. Your idealism? No vaccine against megalomanhood. Human rights activists are hardly immune to State-worship. The whiff of power deranges their brain cells no less than anybody’s.
And, as long as we’re talking about power: a colleague noticed something interesting over at the New School for Social Research. The Milano School of International Affairs, Management, and Urban Policy is offering a practicum for students to do research, in a project for Equality Now. “This project would analyze the legalization of prostitution and formation of sex workers’ rights groups. … Equality Now seeks to better understand the movement to legalize prostitution and form sex workers’ rights groups in order to refute arguments for legalization and lobby for adoption of the Nordic Model instead.” The students will:
Examine the history of sex workers’ rights groups in the following countries and answer the questions below: Netherlands, Germany, Australia, Venezuela, Brazil, Senegal, Ivory Coast, South Africa, Hong Kong, Indonesia, Nepal, India, Philippines and the United States (particularly in Nevada)
- What is the history of the formation of sex workers’ rights groups in these countries?
– Who are the groups, what are their funding sources, and where is the influence on their policies coming from (for example is a larger international NGO working with them)?
- Are the sex worker’s groups pushing for legalization in those countries where it is not already legalized? (Look only at India, Nepal, Philippines, US, South Africa)
- In those countries where it is not legalized, what are the local women’s rights groups in these countries saying about legalization? (Look only at India, Nepal, Philippines, US, South Africa)
“Please keep in mind that this is a confidential work product developed for Equality Now and not intended for distribution or publication.” OK, don’t put it on the website where a Google search can turn it up, then. Now, it’s obvious what this is: it’s what we call oppo research, trying to figure out what your foes (bad people “inured to the wrong” of prostitution) are doing. Many organizations dabble in this at one point or another, though they don’t usually call on students at a distinguished university to help. But this is where the power question comes in. I don’t like the tone of the questions — the funding sources, the suggestion of foreign influence. Most sex worker groups are poor and marginal. In countries where sex work “is not legalized,” the organizations’ very existence is often endangered. Even where sex work is at least partly legal, they’re still stigmatized as advocating immorality, and any number of contrived crimes from promoting public indecency to spreading pornography to running a brothel can provide excuses to shut them down, and even jail their members.
So what exactly is this information going to be used for? Has the professor (a good guy, I think, with a history of work on migration issues) who’s overseeing the practicum asked Equality Now? Has the New School put safeguards in place to make sure its students’ research will only be used for ethical purposes, and will not endanger the safety, human rights, or freedom of sex worker advocates and activists? The school is asking its students to monitor sex workers’ groups for an NGO that really doesn’t like them. And the school needs to be answerable for any consequences. The history of power politics around sex workers’ rights and freedoms is too acute and recent — and the possibility of even inadvertently endangering people is too strong — for an academic institution to pretend this is purely an academic question for very long.
NB. A comment (below) states that the Milano School is not part of the New School for Social Research but a parallel institution to it within the overall New School structure. Sorry for the confusion.
None of this will make sense.
You can’t make things make sense in Cairo these days. The curfew and the stir-craziness prevent it. If you speak Arabic, search for #اكتشافات_الحظر on Twitter; that’s “Curfew discoveries,” a new hashtag, for people to post all the things they’re learning from being housebound twelve-plus hours a day. Some discoveries indicate an observant, experimental mind: “The refrigerator shelf can fit up to 78 lemons, or 65 cucumbers stacked vertically, or 75 cucumbers stacked horizontally.” Or: “It takes six minutes and 40 seconds for the toilet tank to refill with water.” Other folk count the ceramic tiles on their kitchen floor, Tweet it, then re-count them. “Nobody can tickle himself” suggests, perhaps, a need to learn more about masturbation. But what can you make of “#CurfewDiscoveries: There are other people living in my house”?
A sort of Sartrean madness has possessed the citizens, a nausea born of nerves and boredom. Tonight I went downtown for the first time in almost two weeks. The curfew has been moved from 7PM till 9 PM; still, at 6:45 half the shops on Talaat Harb were shuttered, the streets dully dark, and only a fraction of the usual throngs scudded along the sidewalks. Yet it didn’t feel quiet; panic pressed on the crowd — not just in me — like a held breath. People’s eyes kept flicking back over their shoulders, to see who might be after them. The strictures are devastating the economy. Even doctors report they’re losing money: “their patients are too scared to be out on the streets.” But the military seems unworried by fiscal consequences. One man-in-the-street told the AP that “The curfew is not for security reasons. It is purely to make people feel that the army is in charge, for psychological reasons.” And a website developer had his own analysis: General Sisi, the new Jefe Máximo, is “imposing the curfew to make us all sit at home and watch TV propaganda aimed to make us all love him and hate terrorists.”
The love is made of fear. Arrests continue, slowed to a dribble now that few real Ikhwan leaders remain at large. But the press keeps whipping up sectarian paranoia. Islamists horrifically burned churches ten days ago. Yet even tangible atrocities see the circle of guilt expanding. Yesterday’s headline in Al Ahram blared that the US Ambassador and the Muslim Brotherhood had joined “politicians, journalists, and businessmen” in a “new plot” to destabilize the State. The story pointed to “some liberal parties” as conspirators. Plainly the military doubts the lasting loyalty of its erstwhile liberal allies. Time to send a warning: they could be next.
Video by a group of fresh-faced young Egyptians trying to expose media lies and challenge public gullibility: the refrain, Khaleek Mesadaq, also the group’s name, means “Go ahead! Believe!” H/t Arabist.net
Stories proliferate of attacks on Western journalists, no doubt because Western journalists write about them. These are terrible: two reporters shot and killed, two Canadian filmmakers imprisoned for nearly a fortnight now. Meanwhile, TV propaganda spews out endless stories about how CNN is in the paws of al-Qaeda. No one has bothered me even once, but I feel beleaguered just from everybody’s warnings.The other night, having overstayed the curfew, I had to walk across one of the bridges to get home, and on its empty asphalt expanse, with no way out except the Nile, I felt utterly exposed and doomed: caught between wall and barbed wire, like Richard Burton at the end of The Spy Who Came In From the Cold. For me the city is cheap melodrama. For others, it’s turned tragic. So much of the hate targets the least protected strangers in the land, the refugees.
Between 250,000 and 300,000 Syrians have fled to Egypt since the civil war broke out. The myth now is that these refugees are all diehard militants for the Muslim Brotherhood. Morsi’s support for the Syrian opposition had been one sticking point, perhaps fatal, in his relations with the generals. Barely two weeks before his ouster, he spoke to an Islamist anti-Assad rally, and seemed to urge Egyptians to build a private army and join the Syrian struggle if their own military would not take part. The idea of privatizing their preserve of violence enraged the officers. Some later told the press that Morsi was beyond rescue from that moment on. Revenge came almost immediately after he fell. The military government tightened visa terms for Syrians, barred them from attending schools, and made “security checks” compulsory. The media stoked fears — not just State airwaves but even the private ONTV network, once known as a citadel of liberalism. Tawfiq Okasha, a TV host and owner of the lunatic Fara’een channel (he’s sometimes called the Egyptian Glenn Beck), turned crazed marbled eyeballs on the camera and told Syrians, “We know where you live.” He gave them 48 hours to stop “backing the Ikhwan,” or their homes would burn.
The junta started arresting refugees, almost at random. They picked them out of microbuses at the checkpoints that have sprouted around Cairo. They seized them on the streets. They knocked on doors in the night:
On July 25, the night before Egyptians took to the streets to support military chief Abdul Fattah al-Sisi’s “war on terror,” Qasim, who fled from Dara’a in southern Syria in early March of this year, [was] detained by Egypt’s Homeland Security forces. Along with his elderly father, he was taken from their home in [the Cairo quarter of ] Mesekeen Uthman by a security officer wearing civilian clothes. Qasim’s yellow card, which guarantees protection by the U.N. Refugee Agency, did nothing to help him. Waiting for them below their dilapidated apartment tower were five security cars and a troop of Homeland Security officers.
No one knows how many Syrians are detained without charge. The UN High Commission on Refugees says 160, but this reflects only those about whom police have deigned to tell them. Since hardly more than a third of Syrians in Cairo are registered with the UNHCR (the office’s snail-like lassitude means there’s little advantage in formalizing one’s status), this is probably a fraction of a figure rising to the hundreds or thousands. They face deportation back to a murderous war.
Then there are the Palestinians. Immediately after Morsi’s overthrow, the junta issued an order: to prevent people with Palestinian identity papers from boarding planes to Egypt. In most cases, these were Gazans trying to return to their besieged enclave, which can only be entered from the Egyptian side. In some cases, they were residents of Egypt. Probably thousands were stranded abroad.
The media hawked the notion that Palestinians were “terrorist” adherents of the Muslim Brotherhood. Electronic Intifada has collected moments from the fearfest. Three days after the coup, a well-travelled host on Al-Youm TV told about watching as an airline offloaded a stunned Palestinian passenger trying to get to Egypt. She felt warm, she said, because “the army and the police forces are wide awake and acting properly.” FIve days after the coup, a speaker on another channel claimed repeatedly that President Morsi was “of Palestinian origin.” Nine days after that, the “liberal” ONTV reported that Hamas had sent 3,000 fighters from Gaza into Egypt, to restore their man Morsi to power. Many Palestinians fear to leave their homes. Two days into the curfew, the Palestinian roommate of a friend of mine was thrown out by their landlord. The neighbors had complained at having a “terrorist” in the building.
There aren’t figures for how many Palestinian nationals now live in Egypt: hundreds of thousands, probably. They encapsulate much of the country’s modern history. When they came, in 1948 and then in waves over ensuing years, they first were hoisted onto the triumphal vehicle of Nasser’s Arab nationalism, promised a common identity as the culmination of a common struggle. Later, under Sadat and Mubarak, a narrower and US-funded Egyptian national identity excluded them — though it still exploited their cause whenever it needed the illusion of a larger, more invigorating purpose.
An hour or so north of Cairo, in the reedy dust of the Delta, is a settlement called Gezirat Fadel, or Fadel Island. It’s not a real island, just an enclave circled by a mud wall that secludes it imperfectly from history’s flow. Almost four thousand people live in poverty there, mostly descendants of one clan of Beersheba (Bir al-Saba’) Bedouins, Palestinian families who fled to Egypt in 1948. They had life easier before Sadat’s peace treaty with Israel in 1978. Before then, they shared the benefits of Nasser’s socialism equally with Egyptian citizens. After that, the President’s breach with the PLO meant they were relegated to foreigner status, and their rights to education, health care and other benefits similarly shrank. They have no amenities such as sewage systems. They settled in the village because it reminded them of the sprawling desert back at home; they’ve stayed because there is nowhere else to go. Theirs is the largest single community of Palestinians in rural Egypt. One official estimates, though, that 40,000 Palestinian nationals live scattered across that governorate alone.
I visited Gezirat Fadel briefly about ten years ago. I remember goats and garbage — scavenging plastic for recycling moors the residents loosely to the cash economy. I thought of it today because it reminded me of the history of Egypt as refuge, a place for strangers. That history has never been easy, but now xenophobia and lies make the refuge dangerous. Nobody in her right mind would flee to Egypt. I wonder what’s happening to the people on Fadel Island now. Has anybody noticed them?
I thought today also of Zeitoun, which is maybe halfway between Gezirat Fadel and the center of Cairo. I passed through Zeitoun one bored day this past spring. Once a village, it’s been sucked up, like a bird into a jet engine, by the metropolis. It’s a very Egyptian neighborhood, nothing distinctive except the Coptic church, a larger shrine than the shabby suburban mediocrity would seem to merit. In Christian legend, the Virgin Mary sheltered on its site, when the Holy Family fled to the Nile to escape Herod’s persecution. The flight into Egypt: one waystation in a history of refuge.
In 1968, though, Egypt turned its eyes toward Zeitoun. It was a year after the huge defeat of the Six Day War. FIghting and massive Israeli retaliation continued along the Suez Canal. Sectarian violence sprang up — Muslims burned a church in Luxor. Strange, then, that it was a Muslim garage mechanic in Zeitoun who first saw the apparition, a wavering band of light atop St. Mary’s Church, which he mistook for a woman about to jump to her death. A crowd gathered, and though the police tried to displace the suicide rumor with the story that it was a reflection from the streetlights, a certainty grew: the Virgin Mary had appeared above her shrine.
Mary is almost as important in Islam as in the several Christianities. (The Qur’an mentions her more often than the New Testament.) Over the next three years tens of thousands of people flocked to Zeitoun to see the apparition; Nasser himself showed up. And while the Coptic and later the Roman Catholic churches certified it as an official miracle, the glimmering light’s popularity crossed confessional divides. More Muslims than Christians made the pilgrimage. Even among Copts, the national scope of the celebration was transformative. One worshipper told Cynthia Nelson, an anthropologist:
The most beautiful thing to do is to go to Zeitoun and watch the people of all religions participating in Coptic prayers. Imagine, this is the first time in history the Copts could sing their hymns in the streets of Egypt among all the Muslims and shout aloud, “Umm el Mokhalass (Mother of the Savior).”
In 1973, Nelson wrote:
The Virgin was seen as a collective symbol for all Egyptians. … [she] symbolizes for the Egyptians — both Christian and Muslim alike — a succoring, protective mother, who has the power to banish chaos and restore the benign shape of the world. … [Thus] the apparition of the Virgin also symbolizes the conditions of modem pluralism in Egyptian society. By pluralism I mean a situation in which there is more than one worldview available to the members of society, a situation in which there is competition between worldviews.
Something lovely lingers about the Virgin’s appearance as unity in diversity. It reveals a deep capacity in society for finding ways to transcend difference, deeper than the daily violence. Still, it took a myth and miracle to do it. Turning that ecstasy back into reality is a harder matter.
If the Virgin really existed, though, she was no heavenly light. She was an ordinary woman, a Palestinian, one who herself migrated and became a stranger in Egypt. Could she have looked like this girl, the child of Palestinians from Gezirat Fadel?
There’s a minor tradition in English literature of imagining the Madonna as a very normal woman burdened, and repelled, by the unwanted responsibility God gave her of tending to the world’s salvation. The Victorian Walter Pater saw this in Botticelli’s Madonnas. The painter, Pater says, shows us not extraordinary beings, but ordinary persons, “saddened perpetually by the shadow upon them of the great things from which they shrink.” Pater grows eloquent in projecting how those women feel, forced by history into an inhuman greatness from which their human self recoils. How can we bear the demands of others’ dreams? I want to quote him at length, because it is one of the most beautiful passages in English prose.
It is this which gives to his Madonnas their unique expression and charm. He has worked out in them a distinct and peculiar type, definite enough in his own mind, for he has painted it over and over again … Hardly any collection of note is without one of these circular pictures, into which the attendant angels depress their heads so naively. Perhaps you have sometimes wondered why those peevish-looking Madonnas, conformed to no acknowledged or obvious type of beauty, attract you more and more, and often come back to you when the Sistine Madonna and the Virgins of Fra Angelico are forgotten.
At first, contrasting them with those, you may have thought that there was something in them mean or abject even, for the abstract lines of the face have little nobleness, and the colour is wan. For with Botticelli she too, though she holds in her hands the “Desire of all nations,” is one of those who are neither for Jehovah nor for His enemies; and her choice is on her face. The white light on it is cast up hard and cheerless from below, as when snow lies upon the ground, and the children look up with surprise at the strange whiteness of the ceiling. Her trouble is in the very caress of the mysterious child, whose gaze is always far from her, and who has already that sweet look of devotion which men have never been able altogether to love, and which still makes the born saint an object almost of suspicion to his earthly brethren. Once, indeed, he guides her hand to transcribe in a book the words of her exaltation, the Ave, and the Magnificat, and the Gaude Maria, and the young angels, glad to rouse her for a moment from her dejection, are eager to hold the inkhorn and to support the book. But the pen almost drops from her hand, and the high cold words have no meaning for her, and her true children are those others, among whom, in her rude home, the intolerable honour came to her, with that look of wistful inquiry on their irregular faces which you see in startled animals – gipsy children, such as those who, in Apennine villages, still hold out their long brown arms to beg of you, but on Sundays become enfants du choeur, with their thick black hair nicely combed, and fair white linen on their sunburnt throats.
William Butler Yeats read Pater, and wrote a poem, “The Mother of God,” about the fear the Virgin feels, as history and responsibility irradiate her body.
The threefold terror of love; a fallen flare
Through the hollow of an ear;
Wings beating about the room;
The terror of all terrors that I bore
The Heavens in my womb.
Had I not found content among the shows
Every common woman knows,
Chimney corner, garden walk,
Or rocky cistern where we tread the clothes
And gather all the talk?
What is this flesh I purchased with my pains,
This fallen star my milk sustains,
This love that makes my heart’s blood stop
Or strikes a sudden chill into my bones
And bids my hair stand up?
Maybe we can barely bear the stranger, and can hardly survive the moment when his presence is real to us, when it enters into our blood and bones and makes the heart halt in recognition. Maybe we have to imagine a saint or virgin, someone better than we could ever be, who can live the generosity we would like to feel but cannot stand to know.
But all of us are ordinary people. There is no saint to save us. There is no heavenly light to absolve us. And this is no myth. The strangers are Syrians and Palestinians, Christians and Muslims. While the propaganda blares, the truth happens. They are here, and now.