Arab Societies: Reflections 1–3
#1: A Donut Hole Inside a Donut Hole : Homogeneity, Heterogeneity, Barakat, Developtalism Ethos & Modernization Theory.
The more I thought about this past week’s reading in the grand scheme of things, the more questions I had. It’s engrossing to read how fragmented and interconnected the Arab world’s past and, frankly — unknown history haunts its present issues now. From its ideal form of governing conflicting with specific highlighted beliefs of Islam to the region’s physical geography, the Arab world is a donut hole inside a donut hole. For instance, in Barakat’s explanation of Arab societies, he categorizes nations on a homogeneity — attributed as relatively similar — and heterogeneity — notably unalike — spectrum. Egypt and Tunisia unanimously agree on religious beliefs and therefore coexist more harmoniously than their counterparts — Lebanon and Sudan.
An approach like the process of conflict accommodation assimilation to subside conflict, regulating practices like that in Lebanon and Sudan can help both nations remain powerful. Considering the nation’s focus on discouraging national movements that try upholding a national identity, though, the success rate proves unlikely. Creating a discriminatory political system, consisting of various religious, ultimately lead to stratified and rigid socioeconomic disparities in Lebanon. Similarly, Sudan, conflicted, fragmented, and generally loosely accountable, also faced social cleavages and political rivalries.
Personally, this is where I first notice the significant role religion began to play in politics. It’s challenging, to form a political governing system without including a nation’s social and therefore religious aspects and motivations. Even more so, despite that “certain cultural attitudes to power and government deeply rooted in Islam tradition (…) tend to discourage resistance to incumbent government” (Bakarat, 22), further demands a critical yet careful approach when examining their history. It’s paradoxical and misleading to think Islam’s beliefs and core principles often translate to extremist group’s oversimplified practice of magnified interpretation.
And so that’s why I referenced a donut hole inside a donut hole. From my incredibly limited and surface level understanding of the Arab world, it’s a twisted web, filled with codependency’s (patriarchal and authoritarian relationships), and different successive geographies (the gulf, Zagros Mountains, Central Africa, etc.). Coupled with a fast-changing modern political landscape, and clashes between groups of people and boiling political revolutions and movement solidify themselves as facts of history.
Even more so, internalizing fallacy perceptions of the Arab world from an external view, creates another hole in the donut. At this point, it’s difficult deciphering how the Arab world came to this point in history if the subject, culturally, in a sense brainwashed to think of themselves otherwise. There are additional concepts and ideas that I’m interested in further understanding. For the most part though, Belvin’s writing on changing ideologies and modernization theory, third wordlist and the wildfire want for developtalism ethos piqued my interest the most. Specifically, how religion and politics essentially mixed in the name of economic prosperity where trusted Ulama’s — translators of Islam — concluded that “whoever does not work to advance the economy strays from Islam” (Belvin, 233). At the same time, this growing common ideology (developtalism) was backed for the sake of oil production, “protective” unions (e.g France in Syria) and other questionably politically driven agendas. Apologies for the inconclusive stream of thoughts. It surely was a reflective assignment, indeed.
#2: Different Time, Different Place — A Loose Comparison: Egypt Feminism, Nassef, Sha’rawi, Ahmed, & Hijabi
I tried recording a documentary of my hijabi friend a few years ago. She wore a multitude of hats, including _______. It was the first time; I encountered anecdotal knowledge about Muslims and the often-normalized dangerous behavior preyed upon them. She confided of how complete strangers in the bus accused her of hiding a bomb in her hijabi, how people ignorantly shouted “Allahu Akbar” every time she walked down the halls, and how teachers questioned her experiences as a Muslim every time the subject of Islam or the Middle East came up.
I say this because Malak Hifni Nassef’s stance on the subject of woman unveiling reminded me of this friend. She, too, believed the hijabi neither makes nor breaks what a “true” Muslim stands for. Along with the other feminists mentioned in the reading — Huda Sha’raw, Doria Shafik, Nawal ElSaadawi, and Alifa Rifaat — Nassef influenced the inevitable feminism movement rising in the Middle East. They’re considered feminism because they challenged the status quo and took actions to eliminate arguably sexist practices that were in place.
In regard to Malak Hifni Nassef, for instance, she became one of the first women to regularly contribute to the papers. It’s not particularly a challenge on a political scale, but it certainly influenced how people viewed women at the time. Even more so, feminism in the Middle East wasn’t a monolithic perspective by any means. Two “strains” of feminism coexisted — those who drew a consensus from a Westernize framework like unveiling — and those “searched a way to articulate female subjectivity and affirmation within a native, vernacular, Islamic discourse” (7). As explained in the reading, the majority of the population leaned more to a Westernized approach in practicing feminism, while a mere minority supported what Nassef really reiterated throughout her literary work again and again.
It’s argued that Nassef’s ideology didn’t gain popularity partially due to her unforeseen death to the Spanish flu at 32. Regardless, her explanations and challenges offered an ideology that’s worth exploring further. On the other hand, Huda Sha’rawi founded the Egyptian Feminist Movement (EFU) that tried really changing things for women on a political scale. In other words, the union, mobilized and gathered people to remove structural barriers. However, with minimal success, the union was able to increase the minimum age of marriage for women to 16. Since, WAFD questionably focused on men’s suffrage, the EFU evidently accomplished very little.
Now, this may sound arbitrary and senseless but Nassef’s and Sha’rawi’s differing approaches but ultimately “no substantive differences between their goals” (17), it reminded me a lot of W.E.B Dubious and Booker T. Washington back in the states. To contextualize a bit, both Dubious and Washington focused on how to uplift black Americans. Surely, they’re complexities and context that I won’t dive into for the sake of the loose comparison. On the surface, Nassef and Washington questioned Sha’rawi’s and Dubois’ approach in unveiling and trusting a top to bottom process in trying to eliminate oppression for their groups. While Sha’rawi and Dubois optimized on the loopholes within the structure and persistently challenged the system. Either way, both complex relationships curated their approaches and ideologies to help advance, intellectually and politically, Egyptian women and black Americans. This begs whether it’s possible that two kinds of molds can simultaneously fit to come to a solution. And without compromise, that is.
Unlike Sha’rawi’ who like much of Egypt quickly latched onto a reactive response to uplift women, Nassef turned to her own supposed “supporters” and questioned their integrity and the savior ism of men, noting that “even men have a say everything a woman is granted or encouraged to do — to veil or not to veil, to educate or not to educate — generally drawing an outline of what kinds of opinions women should have” (15). Nassef brings into light a simple yet vital point. Feminism should be about “allowing them to decide for themselves” (14).
#3: Double Bind: A Violent Cycle of Misunderstanding & Resentment (The Battle of Algiers, Gelvin, French Imperialism on Algeria, FLN & Revolution)
I don’t particularly know how accurate The Battle of Algiers proves to be. Thankfully though, I did read Gelvin’s take on Imperialism in Algeria before watching the film. I think this helped established the correlations I made. At the beginning of the film, the FLO was shown to organize and execute detailed missions. The shootings, stabbings, and ultimately massacres repeated throughout the film is a means to liberate Algeria from French control.
During this time period, Algerians were outraged with how France begun to overshadow Algeria’s state of sovereignty. So much so that, prominent figures within the FLO, tested “loyal” individuals. This was shown with Ali, who fired an empty gun at a policeman to prove his commitment. And it’s then, arguably, exhibited as a motif of sorts, in that more and more extremists cause destruction in the name of the movement.
Additionally, the film depicts how the resistance against France affected people on different levels. We didn’t simply see the operations practiced on a political level, but if anything, we’re given an insider’s look of how an average Algerian revolted. There’s a specific moment where a group of empowered Algerians march down the streets demanding independence. All the while, a little boy raced to Ali, warning him of the supposed command to kill the Algerians if they proceed further.
Soon after, a handful of women, who I assume are Algerian Muslims, chop off their hair, hesitantly apply makeup, and change their wardrobe to appear as French woman. We later see them easily but tensely pass through the different checkpoints set by Frenchmen. Initially, their change in appearance confused me. Hijabi Muslims also passed by checkpoints just as easily. However, soon after the women arrive in what I presume as a French populated location, they carry homemade bombs and “accidently” leave their handbags in public spaces. What makes this moment even more unsettling is how the film maker cuts to shots of babies, flamboyant dances, awkward adolescents, and mindless conversations at the mall. It highlights both the differences of Algerian and French life and momentum that was inevitably building up to these tragic attacks.
Unfortunately, according to the film, only then did France take Algeria seriously. And even then, it was out of revenge as opposed to identifying Algeria’s core reason for resistance. If both players view one another as an enemy, and fight fire with fire, chaos is doomed to happen. As expected, France took Algeria’s violent backlash as a sign to constrain and increase their militaristic measures. Halfway through the film, the French general, questionably teaches his soldiers on how to identify, and eliminate Algerian terrorists. As one can assume, in doing so, drawing the line to differentiate innocent lives from ill- intended ones, blur.
Algeria continued to resist. With the support of Algerians, the FLN claimed an 8 day strike. The narrator claimed that “the colonialists insist that the FLN only represent a minority” when in fact France constructed a perception of Algeria, based on hand selected and possibly fragmented truths of Algeria. Listening to Ali’s conversation on the rooftop, I begin to associate Ali with a breathing example of what a revolution fueled by “bear arms” looks like in human form. Based on Gelvin’s reading, we understand that France’s failed settler-plantation colony on Algeria, triggered other countries to revolt their own battles with violence as well. Malcolm X even nods to Algeria’s revolution when addressing the race issue in America. However, we also watch as Algerians kill, suffer, lie, steal, and sacrifice for something bigger than themselves, all at a chance to break free from France.
It seems like a double bind situation in which ironically, resulted in no result. At the end neither party earned what they reached for. Instead, Algeria was left in pieces, culturally and politically, and France, with now personal experience of the Middle East, later utilized their knowledge against Lebanon and Syria, and survived. Algeria deals with a national identity crisis while France is more power hungry than before. An eye for an eye, or in this case an entire colony for the cost of a large power imbalance and cultural shift.