Saturday, 28 July 2007

Do we really need another Madrid Conference?

By Khaled Diab

US President George W Bush's call for an international peace conference later this year has rightly been met with greater scepticism than its predecessor, the 1991 Madrid Conference. Although his father seems to be an important role model, when Bush Snr invaded Iraq or called a peace conference he did both as a relatively respected member of the international community.

But is another international conference really what we need? Well, a good place to begin when deciding this is to cast our minds back 16 years and review the outcome of the first one. Owing to its massive symbolic value - the first ever gathering of Arab and Israeli leaders in a single forum - many remember it fondly today. But the actual concerete outcomes of the conference were almost non-existent and the proceedings were farcical.

"God was about the only personality who received a clean bill of health at the start of the Madrid peace conference," writes acclaimed British Middle East correspondent Robert Fisk in The Great War for Civilisation. "If clich├ęs could produce peace, the last shots would already have been fired in the Middle East."

Fisk, who attended the conference, saw his incredulity rise: "At times, it seemed as if degrees of suffering rather than legitimacy were supposed to deliver peace."

Describing the scene unfolding before him, he writes:

The 1st of November 1991 became Madrid's day of rage. The mullahs in Tehran, who that very week had organised their own 'day of rage' against the Middle East talks in Madrid, must have loved it. Saddam Hussein may have been tempted to uncork a magnum. For inside the banqueting hall of the Palacio Real, the last day of the first session of the peace conference was little more than a disgrace. Had I not been there, I would never have understood the nature of the venom the Arabs and Israelis displayed towards each other. It was not so much the mutal accusations of 'terrorism' that created so shameful a spectacle. It was not the extraordinary decision of the Israeli prime minister [Yitzhak Shamir] to stomp out after making the first speech because, he claimed, he wanted to return to Israel by the Sabbath. Nor was it the Syrian foreign minister's [Farouq al-Shara'a] decision to brandish an old British mandate poster of a young Jewish 'terrorist' called Yitzhak Shamir. It was because the Israelis and Arabs used the peace conference to talk about war.

The only person who seemed to have a sense of the purpose of the conference and tried to move ahead pragmatically was the head of the Palestinian delegation, Haidar Abdel-Shafie who, Fisk says, "emerged with credit, still pleading for an end to Jewish settlements, accepting Israel's need for security".

History repeating
Any 2007 peace conference looks set to repeat the worst errors of its 1991 predecessor - including the absence of a clear agenda and the exclusion of the most significant Palestinian faction (then Fatah/PLO, today Hamas) - without the redeeming grace of being a groundbreaking gathering which raised very genuine hopes of a resolution.

Writing in The Washington Post, Palestinian journalist Daoud Kuttab sounded a weary note: "I and many other Palestinians are much more sceptical now. Attending the Madrid conference felt essential, but the importance of summits has diminished as such forums have failed to produce results."

"The transcripts of conferences, peace initiatives, lofty speeches and UN agreements aimed at resolving the conflict could fill rooms," he noted.

Yossi Beilin, who was part of the Israeli delegation to the Madrid conference, said the time was not yet ripe for a peace conference. He suggested that the only point of holding one would be to bring together leaders who would otherwise not meet or to give an existing pact international backing.

"This conference does neither this nor that," he told Israel radio. This is particulalry the case, since Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert has so far evaded the Arab peace offer extended to him a few months ago.

"What we need, as suggested in the Arab peace initiative and a number of Palestinian-Israeli peace initiatives, is an agreed-upon final status - something like the 1967 borders - and the process to implement terms that will be agreed to by all parties. Otherwise, future summits will continue to fail," Kuttab concluded.

And for such final status negotiations to succeed at a peace conference would require something that few politicians seem committed to implementing: true popular involvement. Far more productive than an international conference would be a bilateral gathering - mediated by the international community - in which the Israeli and Palestinian government meet, as well as representatives of all factions on both sides, from the peace lobby to the settler community to the Islamists and Jewish fundamentalists, not to mention the Palestinian diaspora. This Madrid for the people should be followed up with a referendum to endorse its findings.

©Khaled Diab. Text and images.

Friday, 20 July 2007

Song for the deaf

I'm sick of hearing the same old tune about how Muslims are silent in their condemnation of terrorism. Time for a song.

Thursday, 19 July 2007

The plot sickens

Why is it that, no matter how hard I try, I cannot seem to be able to share the euphoria at the Blair-Peres-Bush makeover of recent weeks?

Perhaps it is because appointing ex-British prime minister Tony Blair as the Quartet's Middle East envoy is one way of making that foursome even more irrelevant than it already is. How can a man reviled as a warmonger in the Middle East and other parts of the world (even in his own country), whose handiwork in Iraq is still visible for all to see, become a credible peacemaker in the region he played a big role in destabilising?

One wit likened his appointment to making Harold Shipman minister for women and health.

Some will say that Blair played little more than a supporting role in Iraq and it was US President George W Bush who cried havoc and let slip this poodle of war. But would Blair perform any more effectively as a poodle of peace, especially since he only has a mandate to help Palestinians reform their institutions and economy?

Some draw solace from the fact that Bush is showing more interest in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and has called for an international conference at the end of this year. But this keener interest is only keener in Bushite terms. Besides, how can a president who can only see the Israeli side and whose answer to every international issue is war, war, war, be able to resolve one of the world's most intractable conflicts in the few months remaining to him?

Besides, as previous experience shows ,few US presidents are brave enough to address the tough issues related to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict with an election looming. It might be Bush's final term, but he would not want to put into peril the Republican candidate's chances, particularly if that candidate turns out to be Jeb Bush, or something!

Those clutching for straws point to the appointment of Shimon Peres as president. Some might think of him as Israel's 'elder statesman' but he is little more than its most dogged political survivor and comeback kid. Besides, he's new position carries no political weight and he has little political credit to push effectively for peace.

"I know that the president is not a governor, is not a judge, is not a lawmaker. But he is permitted to dream," Peres admitted in his inauguration.

And we're all dreaming if we think these three developments will make a shred of difference to the depressing situation on the ground. If I'm wrong, please pinch me!

A Christian jihad?

Many in the west fear the threat posed by political Islam. But there is a more ominous menace closer to home.

Friday, 13 July 2007

Sex and the medina

Khaled Diab
The time is ripe for a Middle Eastern sexual revolution and there are signs that a quiet one is in progress. But will young Arabs openly stand up for their right to get laid?

Arab societies are in desperate need of a sexual revolution. This idea may shock religious conservatives who believe that a righteous stance (moral erectitude, if you like) is the only thing standing between society and all-out anarchy, decadence and HIV/AIDS. But I believe that a love liberation is a great way to cure Arab society’s sexually transmitted dis-ease.

Every time I go back to visit Egypt, I’m struck by how much more conservative the country has grown in the mean time. Along with the increasingly overt religiosity has come American-style out-of-town mall culture and Muslim-style televangelism in the form of the apparently charismatic Amr Khaled.
In fact, the number of people I know wanting to make a decent Muslim out of me is so sobering that I sometimes find I need a drink as an antidote and we head off to one of the city’s fine watering holes.

On Cairo’s streets, the sexual, economic and political frustration is almost palatable. The discerning eye can pick out naked sexual desire pursuing young people like a lead shadow in the hot and sticky metropolis. With polite society being what it is, female desire cannot strut around as starkly as its male counterpart but must veil itself demurely in a telling fluttering of the eyes or seductive smile.

It is a tribute to Egypt’s power of social cohesion that, despite the pent-up rage of unemployment, sexual frustration and overcrowding, Cairo is still one of the safest cities on the planet.

But isn’t it about time that Egyptian youth cast off the shackles of restrictive tradition and idiotic, counterproductive attitudes?

I’ve always had trouble understanding why society views sex with such suspicion. Why is physical intimacy seen as so destructive? Perhaps the underlying reason is that, by controlling access to sexual gratification, the elders of society can better control the young.

If the religious brigades are to be believed, society’s stealthiest enemies have stockpiles of sex bombs which they use to incapacitate legions of unsuspecting youth. But it is sexual frustration that is a ticking time bomb, as people marry later and society comes under greater religious scrutiny.

At uni, I was baffled by those macho guys who gave themselves full sexual licence but branded any girl who would sleep with them ‘sluts’ and ‘whores’ and said they would never marry a girl like that. Why not? If it’s okay for you, why not for her? These were questions I found myself regularly ask to that sort of lad.

Why is virginity – particularly amongst women – such a coveted condition, not just in Muslim countries, but in all traditional settings? Is it the ultimate sign of youth? Purity? Innocence? Shouldn’t experience be its own reward, too?

A sexual devolution
This Arab ‘sexual devolution’ raises the interesting question of why it is that the secular societies of the Middle East which had about the same level of sexual freedom as the west in the 1950s and 1960s have regressed in subsequent decades. Part of the issue is economic. The western sexual revolution was a by-product of wealth and the increased financial independence of young people.

In Egypt and other Middle Eastern countries, most young people do not enjoy the same level of financial independence and often rely on their families for some support – which has made a distinctive youth culture less forthcoming. I’ve always believed that a crucial factor in my quest for personal emancipation was financial self-reliance – something I strove to achieve at an early age. If no one ‘owns’ you, no one can dictate your life.

After money, comes family. The majority of Arab youth – particularly women – are exceedingly reluctant to rebel against their families and the extended support network it provides. Many is the friend I’ve had who has kept certain fundamental aspects of their lives concealed from their loved ones or, worse, abandoned their dearest dreams to keep in line with their parents’ expectations.

At a more collective level is the issue of conflict and trauma. In Europe and the west, the value systems of the old world were buried under the rubble of Two World Wars. The ‘baby boomers’ of the post-WWII years grew up with an instinctive rejection of the staid values of their forebears – and they had the economic wealth to act on this and create a counterculture.

In 1967, while the West was mellowing out in its summer of love, the Arab world came face to face with the trauma of conclusive and humiliating military defeat. Although secularists continued to call the shots for the next few years, the trouncing had turned the tide and more and more people began to believe the Islamist claim that it was our moral transgressions which were behind our weakness.

In addition, Anwar al-Sadat, in a cynical attempt to sideline his political opponents started portraying himself as the ‘pious president’ and openly embraced the Islamists. This was a move he lived to regret, but the genie was out of the bottle and his attempts to force it back in through repression only backfired. Add to that, Gamal Abdel-Nasser’s earlier systematic persecution of the Muslim Brotherhood and the hundreds of thousands of expatriate Egyptians exposed to ultra-conservative Wahhabi Islam in the Gulf.

With discredited secularists who never recovered from 1967 and highly motivated and hardened religious conservatives determined to set the tone, society has drifted towards increasing conservatism over the last three decades.

All through this time, a sizeable minority counting in the millions have maintained and upheld liberal values. However, faced with the ire and unwavering conviction of the religious fanatics, many have been intimidated and go about their liberal lifestyles increasingly discretely.

But in Egypt and across the region there are growing signs that the young are restive. Islam has always been open to the recreational aspects of sex and a quiet, Islamic sexual revolution is occurring. Egypt has been hit by a tidal wave of urfi or informal marriages, often entered into between boyfriends and girlfriends to give their sexual relationships a sheen of legitimacy. There has also been the gradual emergence or re-emergence of temporary marriages. The Shia’a have mut’a, a time-limited marriage contract, and zawaj al-misyar (‘marriage in transit’) is emerging in some Sunni countries, including Saudi Arabia.

Of course, many of these mechanisms are an attempt to give outward social legitimacy to something people still, ultimately, regard as ‘wrong’. The next step is for society to drop the hypocritical devices and be honest about its sexuality.

©Khaled Diab.

Friday, 6 July 2007

Thursday, 5 July 2007

A history of violence

British-born 'jihadis' have been wreaking havoc at home and abroad for generations, lured by a heady mix of idealism, romance and rebellion.