Friday, November 21, 2008

Of Social Contracts

Back. I've been busy, travelling.

Remember that book from Poli-Sci 101 ? Jean-Jacques Rousseau ? I received the special issue of Al Ahram on Social Contract... Here's an article that I recommend, about Egypt and Sharia law, and below the comment I sent, titled "Yes, We Can".

On another forum I've had lots of reactions to this comment. A surprising number of people mistake secularism with the absence of religion, rather than a way to treat all religions equally. I'll follow up on that. Any lawyers ?


Yes, We Can !

I was interested by your article "The absent woman" on Sharia and civil law in Egypt. 

In the same article you talk about social contract and about Sharia. You make the point that the rank of women as second-class citizen in the civil law stems from a misinterpretation of the Sharia, and you make call for a new, more "modern" interpretation of Sharia. I am sure that none of your assumptions were commanded by political correctness rather than sincere beliefs, therefore I'd like to go further and ask a question.

Do you have a social contract with Sharia ? Should every citizen have one ? The concept of social contract involves, at least symbolically, that every citizen agrees to some form of contract, and that is clearly materialized in a democracy, where citizens make the law and therefore willingly submit to it. But citizens didn't write the Sharia, God did.

As you said, the current interpretation of Sharia may contradict the very constitution it's embedded in. In fact it does contradict even higher laws: the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, binding all member States of the United Nations, including Egypt. Which is why some members, including Egypt, decided to re-write it, or write their own Declaration of Human Rights, no more "universal", but suitably the "Cairo Declaration of Human Rights" according to Sharia, or Human rights in Islam. There is no universality any more for the member states of the Organization of the Islamic Conference who signed this text.

They were bothered by a certain number of universal rights, especially articles 16 and 18, for instance, so... they changed them:
Article 16 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (1948)
Men and women of full age, without any limitation due to race, nationality or religion, have the right to marry and to found a family. They are entitled to equal rights as to marriage, during marriage and at its dissolution.

Marriage shall be entered into only with the free and full consent of the intending spouses.
The Islamic conference's declaration, in turn, gives men and women the "right to marriage" regardless of their race, colour or nationality, but of course not religion. That is not subject to interpretation. Whichever way you turn that rule, marriage is strictly regulated by Sharia.

Same for Article 18: "Everyone has the right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion; this right includes freedom to change his religion or belief". Of course, no muslim country can accept that, because apostasy is a crime, according to Sharia, and freedom of conscience does not exist.

The preamble of the Cairo declaration states that "All men are equal in terms of basic human dignity", whereas the Universal Declaration said "rights", Article 6 of the Cairo declaration states that women are guaranteed equal dignity, in contrast to the Universal declaration which offers equal rights. These are just a few examples of the differences between the two Declarations.

As you can see, your observations on women being "less equal than others" could also apply to non-muslims. That is inevitable, since Sharia is stated as a source of the law: one religion above the others.

Therefore, the inevitable conclusion if one wants equal rights among all citizens is that civil law and Sharia cannot live in the same text, nor be enforced by the same entity, however liberal the interpretation. The State has to choose one or the other to be consistent. Sharia is an individual choice, guided by faith, not to be forced unto the people by means of a civil code.

There are moderate muslims who live perfectly happy in Western societies, they live according to their faith, and according to a law that grants rather more equal rights than in Egypt. Why is that possible in the West ? Because it happens in open societies where religion and State are separated clearly.

It appears that your assumption that "Religion is an ally to equal citizenhip" is a vastly overstated one, or wishful thinking. I appreciate your call on scholars to bring an interpretation more suitable to the times. But what if, in their vast majority, they think the current interpretation should not be changed ? And you still submit the fate of the people to those unelected scholars. Which ones have the authority ?

I liked your attack on a so-called "Eastern Identity", for I can hear the criticism of a secularist model in the Middle East: "our Eastern identity is not ready for this. We have to keep our Sharia as a law, because our people want it and it's part of our identity." Is it ? Surely, Christians could have said the same when the Church and the State were separated in the West, and they did. But change happened, enforced by political courage. What is and what is not "Eastern Identity" ? Is it really religion ? What about minorities then ? 

A telling reality all over the Middle East is the existence of a line "Religion" in all ID papers and passports. What is the necessity for the State to record that information, if not to sort citizens and treat them differently in various situations ?

You mention that the responsible of the inequality between men and women is the patriarchal set of customs, rather than religion. But what if patriarchal rules were an inherent part of many major religions, including Islam ? It is a possibility that should not be ignored.

Some rules are not to be "re-interpreted", but simply erased, like of course were erased the practice of stoning or chopping hands. But, is it still Sharia, if it was expurgated from the most embarrassing passages ? Can one pick and choose ? Justice and common sense always run the risk of being overrun if they contradict the religion of a majority. Can religion be separated from State in the Middle East ? A lot of local friends say "this is the way things are around here, and no one can change it with a magic wand". The question is: do you want to change it ? Are Middle Eastern people fundamentally different from the western ? I beg to differ.

Someone whose middle name is Hussein recently said something very inspirational to all of us about change. Wherever we live, whichever society, whichever social contract or environment. Can we change it ? Can we change ourselves ? That gentleman responded: "Yes, we can."

Tuesday, July 22, 2008

A bullet in the leg

1. ANger. After seeing this Israeli soldier shoot a (rubber) bullet at point blank range in the leg of a blindfolded Palestinian held by another soldier. How can these Israeli soldiers not realize the shame they bring not only on their country but also on all Jews, when they have no right to speak for anyone else.

On the bright side, the video was shown by an anti-colonization, militant Israeli NGO. Those Israeli gave small video cameras to Palestinians to record every incident they could see in the street, and to be able to show it to the world.

The man who was shot recovered, and the one who shot the bullet was sent to prison. But only because there was this evidence.
2. Niqab. France has gone mad. It denied citizenship to a Moroccan woman because she was wearing the niqab. Everyone in France seemed happy about that: the right, the left, womens' organizations... They said it's a submissive practice that goes against the place of women in our society.

First, the French called it a Burqa (which is the "grilled" Afghan version). Second, they said she was practising her religion in an "extreme way" (although there's nothing in the Q'ran on niqabs). Third, this is a private matter. How you choose to dress should not affect your access to citizenship. What about people who have S&M practices and choose to walk in the street with a leash (I've seen some punks do that in London) ?

3. Run to see "Waltz with Bashir", the animated movie about the War in Lebanon. An israeli soldier tries to remember what happened to him when the Christian militias went into the camps of Sabra and Chatila to kill Palestinians. It's probably not going to show in Arab countries though, since it's made by an Israeli, although it's very critical of Israel.

The same happened to "The Band's visit" last year, a very nice Israeli movie about an Egyptian band coming to Israel to perform music at a Palestinian festival.

Sunday, June 15, 2008


1. I remember heroes in black and white, from a time in black and white. My grandfather's war, the second World War, was in black & white. There were not as many questions. Morals were simpler, people had simpler choices and it seems to me were more straightforward.
He'd always go back to those three years of fighting, as the most important of his life. Of course, whenever I asked him about it, my grandmother would go "oh, here we go agaaaaaain".

2. Time has taken her away. She was travelling last time I was in France, and I couldn't meet her. She died suddenly, while I'm here, away.

We always assume that we have time, when we really don't. We can't afford to postpone anything: seeing family, friends, our loved ones, when we are able to see them, because really no one knows what can happen next. It's very obvious, of course, but still we forget about it all the time: WE DON'T HAVE TIME. We forget until it's too late.

When life goes away, so go the laughters to come, and the ones you had are all that's left.

3. Se worried about me since you left. She asked questions.

I saw a recent picture of you, by coincidence, on the net. It was unexpected. And it did me good: I felt nothing. It made me realize I am probably not in love with you any more. There is just this longing of something valuable that was wasted away. Like I gave a part of me that is gone, and there's a hollow feeling there.

I still google your name sometimes, to check on you. All I need is to know that you're alright, that you're doing fine. The only form of love I have left for you: knowing that you're ok. And that is enough.

4. There's more life and love ahead, but it's hard to jump into the water again when you nearly drowned once. This week, I had a very real reminder that time is running from our fingers.

Wednesday, June 11, 2008

What's in a name

1. Barack Hussein Obama's being ridiculously attacked by Republicans for sharing his middle name with Saddam. Stephen Colbert made a hilarious remark that "Rodham" (Hillary Rodham Clinton) also sounds like "Saddam". Hey, here's the next joke for late shows and conspiracy theorists: has anyone noticed that his first name is also the surname of Israel's Defense minister and ex-prime minister, Ehud Barak ? Go figure.

2. On a more serious note, a couple  of days ago I was mentioning the soaring price of fuel triggering strikes in 2 businesses: trucking and fishing. The same scenario is now expanding geographically. UK truckers are joining the strikes. In Thailand and South Korea, truckers and fishermen strikes were violently repressed. More strikes on fuel prices in India and Hong Kong.
 Philippines are Malaysia are hit hard too. The images from all over the world start to look exactly the same. In Barcelona, the busiest city of Spain, there is a shortage in gas stations. No more fuel.

It's expanding to other industries too: the Lisbon airport is CLOSED due to fuel shortage. The capital of Portugal, a major European city ! Farmers in France started protesting too. Major car companies are reacting fast. Toyota in Japan is reducing its production of SUVs to switch to hybrids. Hummer in the USA are closing plants.

In Russia, Gazprom warned that the price of the barrel is going to hit 250 dollars (now 135).
That's only the beginning. Start buying shares of bicycle makers and running shoes !

Funny that no one in the US is protesting yet, while war is hindering normal production in the world's largest oil reserve: Iraq.

3. Another ressource that is being depleted: water. In the Middle East, especially. The authorities in Jordan have started to send the police against misuse of water, like washing your car or watering your garden during the day.

Dilemma under the sun

There's a big bright sun over Amman. And I have a fantastic roof. Sun + roof = sitting outside soaking it up, reading the newspaper. Not in the Middle East, not in Amman. I went up with my paper and sunglasses, debated whether I could take my shirt off at least through the cartoon section and let my skin photosynthesize that vitamin D and soak up natural anti-depressant.

I did. But after 5 minutes of sitting there with my shirt off, I just "felt" eyes over me. I noticed all the surrounding windows like as many dark eyes. Now, I don't know. Maybe it was my imagination. Maybe the curtains around were just moved by the wind... I just felt wrong. I put my shirt back on, cursing. And went downstairs, because what's the use ?

I have a dream, that one day in Jabal Weibda, man will be able to read his newspaper shirtless on his roof without feeling like he's in the nude on Broadway.

Tuesday, June 10, 2008

Of Bush and my grandmother... and stuff

1. I just saw George Bush on TV. I couldn't concentrate on what he was saying, because I just noticed how much he looks more and more like my grandmother. Seriously. It's disturbing.

2. It has begun. The moment when the price of oil has become so expensive that it threatens the profitability of businesses directly depending on it. In Portugal, Spain and France, truck drivers and Fishermen no longer make profits when they work, due to the price of gasoline. The strikes expand geographically, and it's probably going to expand to other sectors of the economy.

The current crisis is also affecting the price of food worldwide. In Bengl Desh, Ethiopia, Egypt, news are coming. In Europe, people are now being very careful trying to save money when they shop for food.

Maybe the strikes in Europe will eventually stop, after negociations to lower the taxes on oil. But this is just a temporary solution to a long-term problem: the finite nature of this planet's resources. Check out the Story of stuff, that I found on this Jordan blog. It explains really well the nature of the problem.

Saturday, June 7, 2008

The Only Middle Eastern Gay Pride Parade

Yesterday was the 10th Gay Pride parade, in Israel, to promote the rights of gays and lesbians. That's one thing for which Israel is actually more progressive than its neighbours. When will a Gay Pride event be organized in Palestine, Jordan, Syria, Lebanon or Egypt ?

Most governments in the region are very repressive (remember the Queen boat in Cairo). I suspect many Middle Eastern people even refuse to accept the existence of same-sex love.

Remember the hilarious statement of Mahmood Ahmadinejad stating that "there are no gays in Iran". From what I saw, Jordan and Lebanon are a bit more tolerant than Egypt. In Tel Aviv's Gay parade, the feminist group called "Black Laundry" also protest each year to promote Palestinian rights, a common sight in all progressive, left-wing demonstrations.