Full refund within 30 days if you're not completely satisfied.
SPECIAL REPORT: VIOLENCE AND MURDER ESCALATE IN VENEZUELA – Pages 8 -9
AUGUST 2010 N o 1008
The Arab world’s cultural challenge
To many, the Arab world is just a place of conflict and lack of democracy. But what is really at play are ever-changing,
tacit alliances between three unequal forces: Islamists,
secular intellectuals and the regimes themselves
AYMAN EL-SEMARY – ‘Anxiety’ (2010)
Another fine mess in the Elysée
France has been stunned by revelations about political leaders on permanently friendly terms with businessmen and women, who fund the leaders and their election campaigns in return for substantial tax concessions. Even more astounding, apparently, is the idea that reducing tax on high incomes (down by almost €100bn in 10 years) turns out to be particularly good for high incomes, protected since 2006 by a specially devised “shield”. And more members of the government, and their families, are turning to business (rather than the trade union movement) for a career.
The Bettencourt scandal confirms what we already knew. Were the investigative journalists and the professional moralists asleep in April, when Florence Woerth, the wife of France’s labour minister, landed a managerial post with Hermès? Florence Woerth had been responsible – without anyone turning a hair – for managing the finances of Liliane Bettencourt, the third richest person in France. Eric Woerth (minister and her husband) said that it would be “very wrong for [him], as the minister responsible for equal opportunities, to stand in the way of [his] wife’s career”, which was pursued in parallel to his own (Agence France Presse, 21 April 2010). No one really suspected him of opposing his wife’s professional success but, equally, no one was bothered about the parallel between the activities of a wealthy woman’s financial manager, busy optimising tax opportunities in the Seychelles, and a minister of labour about to cut the pensions of the poor. This happened before the Bettencourt scandal broke. The relationship between money and power was exactly the same then as it is now, but, at the time, all was going well.
As to the impact of the Bettencourt scandal, the devil is in the details: they include an ambitious young civil servant in the ministry of employment taking advantage of an official visit to London to ask city financiers to fund his small group, Nouvel Oxygène; Mme Bettencourt paying income tax at 1-6% (1) – the shield is still in place; a top journalist getting an interview with the proprietor of L’Oréal on the television channel TF1 because, as she explained, she had met Mme Bettencourt when they dined with mutual friends, and they occasionally ran into each other at exhibitions.
If this scandal is to be a rerun of the story of Marie Antoinette’s necklace (2), with the current French oligarchy playing the principal roles, the denouement should at least end the to-ing and fro-ing between public and private sectors, and the cash deals with journalists for speaking at business conventions. All the sound and fury of the past month will have served no purpose, however, if the hope of cleaning up a postimperial mess ends with another Sarkozy in the Elysée. (Someone like the director general of the International Monetary Fund.) The rich would all get together at a grand restaurant to celebrate the victory of a pro-business socialist. And the whole process would start all over again.
Translated by Barbara Wilson
(1) See Thomas Piketty, “Liliane Bettencourt paie-t-elle des impôts?”, Libération, Paris, 13 July 2010. (2) See Robert Zaretsky, “Le roi Sarkozy”, Diplomatic Channels, Le Monde diplomatique English website, 13 July 2010; mondediplo.com/blogs/le-roi-sarkozy/. The necklace was presented by a cardinal to a woman claiming to be Marie-Antoinette. Although the queen had nothing to do with it, the scandal weakened the monarchy.
inside this issue Scapegoat on trial: will Omar Khadr’s fate be decided in Guantánamo? Page 3 The Tigers may be gone, but Sri Lanka still has plenty of problems Page 4 Political squabbles block Nepal’s democratic progress Page 6 Mining for gold in Colombia Page 7
Life in the French countryside: forced exile or chosen escape? Page 10 The Pakistani tribe that may be descended from Alexander the Great Page 12 New talent: learning to film West Bank protests at the Bi’lin fence Page 14 Mandela the demi-god Page 16
HICHAM BEN ABDALLAH EL ALAOUI
For the last two centuries, the ulema (Islamic scholars) have always been suspicious of modern forms of cultural production and expression, which carve out spaces that engage social subjects in ways of understanding their lives and their world that are implicitly autonomous from religion. For the most part, whatever the ulema said, artistic and cultural practices have operated in a sphere that constituted a continuum, even if certain activities (modern art and painting) were more westernised and consumed mainly in effendi (westernised bourgeois) ghettos.
Underlying this wary tolerance was a theological mode of thought (kalam) in which religion encompasses more than sharia: it accommodates a pluralist notion of society as a vast ensemble where culture develops alongside religion. In this conception, a wide array of profane literary and artistic activity (poetry, calligraphy, plastic arts, music) can be understood as being in continuity with religion. In this way, diversity and creativity have remained an integral and treasured part of our history.
Part of the grandeur of Islam was its ability to absorb a myriad of cultural influences. The Muslim world protected, studied and developed the great traditions of classical literature and philosophy. It was not a place for burning books, but for building libraries to preserve them. It was, for some time, the guardian of the founding documents of what became known as “western civilisation”. It understood that these were a part of the intellectual legacy of all mankind.
With the rise of Islamist movements, however, a new public norm took root, often characterised as Salafist, since it is based on a narrow version of a “return” to religious orthodoxy. This new social norm is, for the most part, implicit – an unofficial ethos or ideology, only rarely enforced by legal or administrative sanction. But it is even more powerful as a result. The authority and centrality of the new Salafist norm derives not from the power of a regime, but from the fact that an unapologetic Islam has installed itself at the heart of Arab identity; it has become the central signifier of resistance to westernisation and neo-colonialism.
In earlier decades, Arab nationalism fought off any such overbearing religiosity; today, “moderate” secular voices refrain from challenging it. They are caught in an identity trap, constantly limiting their discourse, in fear of being accused by religious conservatives or regimes of undermining Arab authenticity and independence – even Arab nationalism itself.
There was a striking example of this last summer, when a group of young Moroccans decided to break the Ramadan fast with a picnic in a public park. Along with the predictable reactions from religious quarters, the USFP, Morocco’s main social-democrat party, also demanded punishment for the fast-breakers. This leftwing “religiosity” was couched in nationalist terms: it was an insult to national culture, and a disruption of the consensus on Moroccan identity. The government charged the youths under a secular statute for an offence against “public order”, in a way that had never been done before. This simple challenge to the Salafist norm turned out to be too radical for all the politicians.
the cultural seen as pagan
The public space is increasingly dominated by a cultural norm based on elaborating a set of strict rules, a series of dos and don’ts, read off from a strict construction of religious texts. As religion is becoming a more dominant element of public ideology, it is contracting around Salafism, creating a context in which the cultural is now more easily perceived by believers as not just profane, but pagan. A capacious understanding of Islam as a partner with culture has been shrunk into a narrow version of sharia that excludes the cultural. The passages between the sacred spaces of religion and the secular discourses of profane culture are being barricaded.
This dynamic of Salafisation occurs even as people continue to consume a proliferation of profane and secular cultural products via television, videos, the internet and popular literature. It is easy to identify the “western” and global forces driving secular culture, and denounce it as “foreign”; but this would be to ignore the creativity with which Arabs have appropriated and transformed the contemporary means of cultural production.
Continued on page 2
Hicham Ben Abdallah El Alaoui is a board member of the Freeman Spogli Institute for International Studies; scholar at the Center on Democracy, Development and the Rule of Law, Stanford University; chairman of the board of the Center on Climate Change and the Challenge to Human Security, University of California; and advisor to Human Rights Watch