21 May 2012

Egyptian Elections and Islamophobia

Egyptians will be going to the polls for the long-anticipated presidential elections on 23-24 May, with a runoff for the top two contenders scheduled for 16-17 June if no one achieves more than 50% of the vote. Some results are already coming in from Egyptian citizens living overseas. Partial results released on Friday, 18 May give the lead, with 26%, to Independent candidate Abdel Moneim Aboul Fotouh, a physician and former member of the Muslim Brotherhood (MB) who was noted for his advocacy of opening the organization up to more tolerance and diversity. In second place, so far, with 20% is Amr Moussa, a former foreign minister and ex-Secretary General of the League of Arab States who is running as a secularist. The MB’s conservative Islamist candidate, Mohamed Morsi, representing their Freedom and Justice Party, is in third place with these voters.

A Gallup poll conducted 8-15 April also found that support for the MB has been plummeting inside Egypt ahead of the presidential elections. The Freedom and Justice Party swept up roughly 40% of the seats in Parliament in the elections that were held between November 2011 and January 2012, while the Al-Nour Party, an alliance of ultraconservative Islamists, won the second largest share of the seats. However, as for the position of president, opinion polls have consistently shown that, although many may hold a favorable view of the MB, they are not trusted to be in the position of the nation’s leadership. The fact that they reneged on their initial declaration that they would not field a presidential candidate, with the excuse that they decided that the legislative process alone would not lead to the kinds of government reform that they are interested in, does not help their credibility. Also weighing against them is their having stacked the committee that is to write the country’s new constitution with their own party members, which is seen by many Egyptians as a political ploy that is not in service to the nation as a whole.  Disappointment due to their lack of legislative accomplishments in Parliament and their inability to stand up to the military council that still rules the country have also been driving the decline in their support.

So for all those who, ever since the spectacular downfall of Hosni Mubarak, have been freaking out about the rise of the MB in Egypt, the nation with the largest population in the Arab world, situated at the crossroads of regional commerce and culture, and very influential in world geopolitics: chill. The presidential elections do not look to bring “Islamist terrorists” to power.

Indeed, the fearmongering, the use of the word “Islamist” in a menacing tone, and the impression that the MB is intrinsically dedicated to the violent destruction of the Israeli state and the forceful imposition of Islam throughout the world is very troubling. Of course there are radical Islamists, just as there are radical Christians amongst us today such as the Norwegian mass murderer Anders Behring Breivik, the Swedish immigrant killer Peter Mangs, and the skinhead white supremacist group American Front, not to mention (but I will anyway) the original Nazis, the history of Christians having committed the genocide of indigenous peoples all over the world and their waging Holy Wars, etcetera, etcetera. There are also radical Jews, such as those Israelis who continue to build illegal settlements like crazy and the Israeli state, itself, attempting to starve away the Palestinian people by holding Gaza and the West Bank under a barbaric siege.

Sadly, it is because of fear of “other,” combined with the laziness of mind that accepts propaganda as fact, that Western views of Muslims are so negative. There is a war of perception going on in which such media outlets as Fox “News,” the National Review, the New Statesman, the American Spectator, the Weekly Standard, and ooooh soooo many others that are obviously biased (despite any denials) are twisting reality by only presenting “information” that paints all Muslims as anti-semites and extremist who hate the West.

But what’s worse is that even publications that are generally somewhat more left-leaning (i.e. they are actually more centrist because of the far-right tilt of the United States), such as the Washington Post and the New York Times, spread the vile anti-Arab propaganda that comes out of a little-known organization called, innocuously, the Middle East Media Research Institute (MEMRI), whose current slogan is “Bridging the Language Gap Between the Middle East and the West.” Unfortunately, their “translations” are regularly and usually unquestioningly quoted by major international news outlets.

The problem is this, from Wikipedia:
MEMRI's founding staff of seven included three who had formerly served in military intelligence in the Israeli Defense Forces (IDF).
and this:
The Board of directors and advisors of MEMRI includes Ehud Barak, Norman Podhoretz, Elie Wiesel, John Bolton, Nathan Sharansky, Elliott Abrams, Paul Bremer, Steve Emerson, Edgar Bronfman, Mort Zuckerman, Gen. Michael V. Hayden, Jeffrey Kaufman, Oliver "Buck" Revell, Robert Reilly.
and this:
Concerning this change in their ‘mission statement,’ Political Research Associates (PRA), which studies the US political right, notes that it occurred three weeks after the September 11 attacks, and considers MEMRI "was previously more forthcoming about its political orientation in its self-description and in staff profiles on its website." PRA considers that “MEMRI's slogan, ‘Bridging the Language Gap Between the Middle East and the West,’ does not convey the institute's stridently pro-Israel and anti-Arab political bias.” It further notes, that MEMRI's founders, Wurmser and Carmon, “are both hardline pro-Israel ideologues aligned with Israel's Likud party.”
and this:
Critics have accused MEMRI of producing inaccurate, unreliable translations with undue emphasis and selectivity in translating and disseminating the most extreme views from Arabic and Persian media, which portray the Arab and Muslim world in a negative light, while ignoring moderate views that are often found in the same media outlets. Other critics charge that while MEMRI does sometimes translate pro-US or pro-democracy voices in the regional media, it systematically leaves out intelligent criticism of Western-style democracy, US and Israeli policy and secularism.
Such critics include Brian Whitaker, Middle East editor for The Guardian, Juan Cole, Professor of Modern Middle East History at the University of Michigan, and Vincent Cannistraro, former head of the CIA’s counterintelligence unit, who is quoted as saying that they “are selective and act as propagandists for their political point of view, which is the extreme-right of Likud. They simply don't present the whole picture.”

Brian Whitaker took MEMRI founder and president Yigal Carmon to task back in January 2003,  in an email debate that is definitely an interesting read.

Worst of all, though, are segments that are on Wikipedia, itself, that have been inserted by people with this agenda to promote the view that Islam is an inherently violent religion. For example, in researching this article, I came across some claims about the Muslim Brotherhood that seemed out of place in the article and not quite right. One such claim’s reference was a video clip from... you guessed it, MEMRI’s website, showing what is purportedly a recent rally where thousands of Egyptians are cheering and getting all riled up by what the speaker is saying. Of course, I would not know if the translation was accurate or not, nor what the context of the rally actually was. What it appears to be, though, is a frightening image reminiscent of Adolf Hitler speaking passionately before the German masses about cleansing away the Jews. Other troubling claims had references that lead to dead links or sites where the information was either not evident or not quite the same as what was being purported on Wikipedia.

If you think that I am being paranoid or overly dramatic about how Islamophobia is being spread by means of a concerted agenda, well, think again. The Center for American Progress has documented the case in a thorough report from August 2011 titled Fear, Inc. The Roots of the Islamophobia Network in America, which describes who the donors, the misinformation experts, the “grassroots organizations,” the religious right, the right-wing media enablers, and the political players are, making the connection between Anders Brievik and the hate-peddling bloggers and pundits in the United States that he cited in his manifesto as experts in Islam’s “war against the West.”

Here is an excerpt from this publication:

Why it matters

These attacks go right to the heart of two critically important national issues: the fabric and strength of our democracy and our national security. Our Constitution upholds freedom of religion for all Americans. Contending that some religions are not part of the promise of American freedoms established by our founders directly challenges who we are as a nation.

One of Al Qaeda’s greatest recruitment and propaganda tool is the assertion that the West is at war with Islam and Muslims—an argument that is strengthened every day by those who suggest all Muslims are terrorists and all those practicing Islam are jeopardizing U.S. security.

Perhaps the most difficult aspects of Islam for Westerners to understand and the easiest to twist around are the concepts of jihad and sharia law. The former has become a fearful term that is assumed to mean violent religious warfare, while the latter is often used to strike the fear into people’s hearts that religious laws such as those that demean women will become the law of the land in an Islamist nation. Neither of these impressions is correct, as Islam is as rich and complex as Christianity and Judaism, and the idea of “jihad” or “struggle” has many nuances. There is fundamentalism and there is liberalism and there is everything in between.  Heaven forbid anyone should believe that the United States, being a Christian nation (despite the supposed separation of church and state) would be perceived to be as one mind with the Koran-burning Florida pastor Terry Jones. It seems to be obvious, considering that there are over 1.5 billion Muslims in the world (that’s over 22% of the earth’s population), but sadly, it is a point that needs to be highlighted because of the strength of the Islamophobic agenda in the United States and beyond.

To circle this essay back to its beginning, the Egyptian elections, I will share a quote from a lovely essay that I somehow stumble upon titled Paradoxes of “religious freedom” in Egypt, about what it really means to be an “Islamic” state, what sharia law is historically all about, and how Egypt, as it writes its new constitution, can move beyond “the familiar and seemingly endless war between secularists and Islamists.” From the essay:

Ma'at, wearing the Feather of Truth
Pre-modern Muslim rulers enjoyed sharia legitimacy for their lawmaking on the premise that they served the public good, not because they were selecting and enforcing a preferred interpretation of scripture.
Finally, it is important to note that Egypt is already an Islamist nation, despite the outlawing of the Muslim Brotherhood as a political party. The Coptic Christian community and other religious minorities, including Shi’a Muslims, have long faced discrimination and, since the fall of the regime, have suffered some vicious attacks. This has been an chaotic time for Egypt. And so the world watches as Egypt finds its way forward toward what we can only hope will be the concepts personified by the Goddess Ma'at of truth, balance, law, order, and justice.

McClatchy News.  18 May 2012

The New York Times. Updated 4 May 2012

Southern Poverty Law Center – Hatewatch. 14 May 2012


The Guardian. 28 January 2003


Center for American Progress. August 2011

The Immanent Frame: Secularism, religion, and the public sphere. 16 April 2012

Berkley Center for Religion, Peace & World Affairs – Resources on Faith, Ethics, and Public Life

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Julie, I was just reading this today after watching the celebrations of the Cairo crowds with the election/military selection of Morzi.

Thank you for injecting some sanity and perspective into the discussion of the Muslim Brotherhood and Islamist parties in general. I do have worries that Egypt is still metastable, ready to fall to its next upheaval. Especially with the restrictions on Presidential power imposed by the Military. Yet that same, extra-constitutional, checks-and-balances may provide hope for moderation and maintaining the peace with Israel. Even if a cold peace, even if right now the situation deserves no better than a cold peace. We, the world, do not need another hot war. Nor even a smoldering one.

Great insights - be interested in what you think now.

Mark Mercer - fuzzwanderer.com, uruguayexpat.info

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