Nov 20 2014

Reflections from the Republic


by Sara Masry

Sara Masry moved to Tehran this September to pursue her Master’s degree in Iranian studies. After a couple of months there, she reflects on her experience in her new host country and on the social, cultural and political relations of the region.

The Middle East has long been undergoing a period in which inter-governmental relations are becoming ever-more strained from above, while less critical thinking is employed from below. As tensions between various states are reaching pinnacle after pinnacle, it has become more common for people across the region to take national politics as a benchmark for how to perceive and in turn, treat those of different backgrounds, leading to a great deal of bigotry, chauvinism and generalisation towards entire populations. As politics and diplomacy in the Middle East may leave us wanting for some time, it is worthwhile and even vital for the region’s residents to start considering matters in a more constructive way, from the ground up.

IMG_3282It is undeniable that while such views may not be shared by all, there is a fair deal of stereotyping and generalisation originating from certain governments and individuals in the Arab world towards the people of Iran and those of the Shi’a faith. The sources of this harmful phenomenon may vary among different groups, but they are doubtlessly buttressed by the sour relations between governments in the region and that of Iran. Common stereotypes may and do indeed exist on the other side, however that is an issue for the Iranian people to consider. Having been privy to such dangerous, divisive modes of thoughts from compatriots and others in the region, I believe it is extremely necessary to give adequate attention to this issue, which threatens to drive ever-larger wedges between the peoples of the Middle East. For that purpose, instead of focusing on the negative stereotypes attributed to the country and its people, this piece will present a brief outline of my experiences as a student living in the Islamic Republic so far, specifically the positive socio-cultural aspects.

The first point, which was clear from the moment I arrived, is the overwhelming sense of community evident in the country. From my experiences and observations, people in Iran not only see it as a duty to help others, but are grateful for the opportunity to be a constructive addition to one another’s day. Although there exist clear class divides, as in most other countries, this does not supersede the kind and generous spirit with which Iranians generally conduct their overall relations towards each other. This is not just the case for those of their own nationality: as a foreigner, I’ve been made to feel completely at home, able to settle in with incredible ease despite being in a different environment. This is first and foremost due to the good nature of the locals and the abundant help and generosity I’ve received, ranging from my neighbours to complete strangers on the street going out of their way to make sure I don’t get lost.

While prior to my travel many expressed concern that I would be subject to prejudiced attitudes due to my Saudi heritage given the history and nature of regional politics, this has in no way been the case; on the contrary, I’ve been welcomed with interest and sincere kindness by Iranians from all walks of life. Moreover, I’ve found the local culture to be a diverse and tolerant one, which doesn’t impose any ideal or value at the expense of others. Although there is an arguably monolithic view of Iran in the rhetoric of countless international media and official sources, its population encompasses radically different social groups co-existing seamlessly. This strong sense of community among the people of Iran, regardless of social, religious or economic background, is something to be coveted. Continue reading

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Nov 10 2014

Ahmad: Narrative of a Tunisian Salafist

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An Exploratory View of a Field Visit to Study Salafist Youth in Tunisia

Dr Aitemad Muhanna-Matar, Research Fellow at the MEC, is currently leading on a research project looking at salafist youth in Tunisia. Below is the story of Ahmad, a 30-year-old construction engineer. Ahmad is also a salafist preacher, well known in his hometown of Sfax. Aitemad met Ahmad during her first field visit to Tunisia and presents below his story. A full version of Ahmad’s narrative can be downloaded here. We will soon be sharing more narratives of other young salafist men and women.


For my first pilot field visit to Tunisia in April 2014, I did not expect to conduct in-depth interviews with Salafist youth, assuming it would require strenuous efforts to develop trust, especially with the harsh security measures taken against Tunisian salafi jihadist groups. Surprisingly, I found myself welcomed by a considerable number of salafist community-based organisations, and by a large number of individual salafists, men and women, none of them mentioning support or belonging to Salafist jihadist groups. This could have been for security reasons or otherwise. I interviewed around 15 young men and three young women, all actively volunteering with civil society organisations established after the Tunisian uprising.

Salafism, for the interviewed, is a moral guide for Muslim men and women to emulate the Prophet Mohammad and his companions in their puritanical practice of Islam. The good salafist, for them, is one who acts as the successor of God on earth pursuing the model of al-salaf al-saleh (the pious forefathers, or predecessors), the first three generations of Muslims who experienced first-hand the rise of Islam. The interviewed young men and women refused to openly define themselves as salafists as portrayed in mainstream national and international media and academia: sculpturalist/reformist and salafist jihadists.For them, the labelling and categorisation of salafists are being used to fragment the Muslim community. Educated men, better equipped with Islamic knowledge in the Tunisian context, smartly define themselves as multazimeen (religiously committed Muslims), pursuing the ’aqeeda (creed) and the manhaj (method, praxis and way of life) of al salaf al-saleh.

However, both the researcher and the researched are well aware that such a utopic view of ‘the good salafist’ is more imagined than real. It needs further in-depth field work to contextualise and historicise the relationship between the imagined view and real practice of salafism. Nevertheless, a particular research participant aroused my attention, which encouraged me to share his narrative. Presenting the personal narrative of one research participant is not intended to include extensive analysis, or to offer generalisations. Rather, it is a methodological tool to showcase the importance of the narrative when exploring diverse personal experiences in relation to a particular research topic. Continue reading

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Nov 3 2014

Book Review – Cursed Victory: A History of Israel and the Occupied Territories

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By Dr Carly Beckerman-Boys

In this piece, Carly Beckerman-Boys reviews Ahron Bregman’s latest book Cursed Victory: A History of Israel and the Occupied Territories. Ahron Bregman is an Israeli academic and journalist based in King’s College London who has written extensively on the Arab-Israeli conflict.

CursedHistoryFollowing another brutal conflict between Israel and Hamas in which civilians bore the brunt of violence, Ahron Bregman’s weighty account of the ongoing occupation is a hard-hitting, topical read.

Cursed Victory: A History of Israel and the Occupied Territories takes readers on a gruelling journey through the West Bank, Jerusalem, Golan, Gaza, and Sinai between 1967 and 2007. Using a chronological structure, Bregman dissects the three pillars of Israeli occupation: military force, law, and ‘facts on the ground’. Each chapter draws on personal interviews to expose the politics and practices of Israeli occupation.

Bregman’s characteristic use of anonymous sources and Top Secret files lends the tome an air of investigative reporting. No stranger to controversy, the author served in the Israeli Defence Force in Lebanon before leaving Israel to protest against its treatment of Palestinians during the First Intifada. His work as an academic at King’s College London has involved consulting for two major BBC/PBS documentary series on the Arab-Israeli conflict, but Bregman is most famous for outing Ashraf Marwan – the deceased son-in-law to Gamal Abdel Nasser – as Israel’s man in Egypt during the 1973 War.

Drawing on this previous work and clandestine research style, Cursed Victory unfolds like a tragedy in three acts. Part One sets the scene and details the first decade of Israeli military rule. Most interestingly, this section highlights Moshe Dayan’s Machiavellian attempts to create an ‘invisible occupation’ that could render the Palestinians apathetic to Israeli governance. This was combined with ad hoc, bottom-up policies, such as the army’s surreptitious transferring of Palestinians into Jordan using buses marked ‘To Amman – Free of Charge’ before forcing travellers to sign declarations of voluntary emigration. Bregman traces how the Israeli attempt at ‘enlightened occupation’ quickly soured during these initial years.

Part Two of Cursed Victory, like many second acts, focuses on the rise of an erstwhile villain, after elections in 1977 brought Menachem Begin to power at the head of a Likud-led coalition for the first time in Israeli history. Much of the analysis Bregman offers – Begin’s tactical sidestepping around Palestinian autonomy, his scheming to retain the West Bank and events leading to the First Intifada – is not new, but these short chapters provide an accurate overview and entertaining plot device. Continue reading

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Oct 29 2014

The UK must fully recognise its special obligations towards Iraqi and Afghan refugees

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by James Souter

This piece was originally posted on the LSE British Politics and Policy Blog on Wednesday 29 October 2014.

Iraqi refugee children, Damascus, Syria, 2012. Wikimedia Commons

Iraqi refugee children, Damascus, Syria, 2012. Wikimedia Commons

When activists, politicians and commentators make a moral case for offering asylum to refugees in the UK, they very often do so in humanitarian terms, arguing that we bear a moral obligation to protect refugees from the awful situations they have fled. This humanitarian approach to asylum has been long-established, and is reflected in international law to which the UK has committed itself, such as the 1951 Refugee Convention. It is also morally compelling in its own right: asylum is indeed a vital way of saving lives and alleviating suffering.

Yet this humanitarian case for asylum, powerful though it may be, is incomplete as it stands. It pays no attention to the important question of who bears responsibility for causing refugee crises in the first place and, by effectively treating asylum as a response to other people’s problems, it seems to assume that we are not connected to the refugees we may go on to protect. A purely humanitarian approach to asylum also tends to frame asylum as a matter of charity rather than justice: that is, as something that it is good for us to do, but which is not required if what we see as more pressing domestic problems make themselves felt.

It is important to recognise that the UK is, in some cases, linked in very direct ways to the refugees whom we may or may not go on to offer asylum, and that our obligations towards them go beyond purely humanitarian imperatives. Some refugees have collaborated or served with British forces; others have been caused to flee in the first place by interventions and foreign policies in which the UK has been deeply involved; while others flee from countries with strong historical connections to the UK. Iraqi and Afghan refugees are among the refugee populations which are linked to the UK in these kinds of morally important ways. Continue reading

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Oct 28 2014

Islam and Social Media

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by Dr Mohammed Ibahrine

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Twitter profile of prominent Islamic preacher, Dr Mohammed Al-Arifi,

Just as in other regions, countries with a Muslim majority have witnessed a rapid diffusion and adoption of social media platforms such as Facebook, Twitter and YouTube in recent times. In the Arab World, Facebook is still the leading social networking website with 81,302,064 users. Twitter follows with 5,797,500 users (Arab Social Media Report, 2014). The Arab Region is only second to the USA when it comes to the number of daily YouTube views. With 90 Million video views per day, Saudi Arabia has the world highest number of YouTube views per Internet user (Arab news, 2014).

The popularity of social media platforms in the Arab World has led some scholars to expect its impact on religious life to rise. The common argument is that social media has the potential to change people’s religiosity and practices of piety. The impact of social media on religious behaviours of individuals and communities in environments characterised by conservatism and traditionalism, it is argued, will be more profound than in environments characterised by liberalism and openness.

Communicating and winning the hearts and minds of believers and non-believers through da’wa is a central commitment for many Muslims and Islamic leaders. Today, social media has become an invaluable means to pursue the path of da’wa and the dissemination of the Muslim thoughts. Only very few voices condemn the use of the new digital media as incompatible with Islamic practices. For instance, Abdul Aziz Al Shaikh, Grand Mufti in Saudi Arabia, advances a critical stance towards social media platforms such as Facebook and Twitter because, as he says, they disseminate lies and may destroy established relationships in the real world. In a similar line, religious authorities in some Islamic countries issued fatwas against the use of social media like Twitter, arguing for its incompatibility with shari’a because of trading accusations and promoting lies.

While some of the Islamic religious leaders advise their followers not to use social media platforms, the overwhelming majority of scholars and preachers capitalise on the effectiveness and efficiency of social media in engaging with the community of believers and enhance their fidelity and loyalty.

During the first generation of the Internet, there were some traditional websites like Islam Online that acted as a one stop-shop for religious information and comprehensive services to the Islamic ummah.

The mushrooming of digital platforms during the second era of the Internet led to a process of undermining the monopolistic nature of religious orthodoxies. For many, social media became an ideal platform, the new Mosque or madrasa, for the dissemination of the Islamic belief. These digital platforms led to the emergence of what some call “Facebook fatwas”. F-Fatwas introduced a new paradigm to the practice of religious instructions in the way they were formulated, issued, disseminated, received and acted upon. F-Fatwas sparked commentary and feedback among many sectors of Muslim societies, including religious authorities, Islamist intellectuals as well as young urban or secularised Muslims.

One type of Islamic use of social media platforms is proselytisation, which is widely popular amongst Islamic preachers. Mohammad Al-Arifi topped the list with nine million followers, second is Aid al-Qarni with seven million, followed by Ahammad al-Shugairi with six million (Twitter, 2014). Ironically enough, some deceased religious scholars have social media accounts in their names set up by their religious and intellectual followers in order to reach the younger generations. Continue reading

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