In the years leading up to the uprising that ousted authoritarian Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak from power, it was commonplace to hear outside observers and Egyptians alike blame the so-called apathy of Egyptians for the absence of revolt. Widely held views that Egyptians preferred to spend their time sipping tea at coffee shops, or watching television serials, or depending on the state for everything were immediately quashed in January and February 2011, when millions of Egyptians rose up in an effort to take down the regime that had oppressed them for decades.
I became captivated by the languages, culture and history of the Middle East and North Africa during a college semester abroad in Morocco in 1995. Morocco was the center of the world for me for years thereafter … until I had an unexpected opportunity to visit Palestine.I studied at Birzeit University in the West Bank from January to June 2000 and never looked back. In the years that followed, I returned to Palestine nearly every chance I got. Three months into the second intifada, I conducted interviews with about two dozen Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza Strip. These were published in 2003 as the book Occupied Voices: Stories of Everyday Life from the Second Intifada.
Writing in blog space has a peculiar intimacy: Your uncensored thoughts are online for all to read, and the friends who comment on your posts are anonymous strangers. This “public privacy” has attracted many Egyptian women to write in the blog genre. Indeed, the blog gained a reputation in Egypt as a women’s genre as early as 2006, when three blogs by women were turned into bestselling books by the Shorouk press.
Since 2006, I have spent time in a number of Arab cities examining youth-generated media – that which were made famous in connection with protests in Tunisia, Egypt and elsewhere in the Arab world. Youth-generated media refer to the communicative ways in which young people actively challenge the social, political and cultural spheres of power with the intense excitement of a social movement. From vibrant graffiti, protest songs and placard writings to tweets and Facebook campaigns, youth are exercising their communication rights across the Middle East and North Africa.
The “First Freedom”
In the United States, religious freedom is described as the “first freedom,” a fundamental human right and a sine qua non of modern democratic politics, if not of civilization itself. Americans, we are told, invented and perfected religious freedom.
When it comes to the development of modern Islamic reform in the 20th century, there is something of a blind spot in historical scholarship. While few would deny the rise in influence of Saudi emirs and their religious scholars within reformist circles from the 1920s onward, little is known about the details of the relationship between leading Islamic activists, especially Egyptians, and the newly created Saudi state. Historians have noted how Egypt-based reformers put their skills, reputations and even their printing presses at the service of the Saudis, thereby appearing to be more or less in line with the understanding of Islam that prevailed in Najd.
Khalīl al-Khūrī begins the introduction to his novel, Wayy, Idhan Lastu bi Afranjī [Alas, then I Am Not a Foreigner], by telling the reader about beginnings:Readers of books, ever since the craft of writing was established, have been sentenced with the punishment of also reading introductions. And if we are to embark upon this art, it is not appropriate for us to stray from the path of our honorable authors. So we must therefore present an introduction here, and struggle to understand what … the pen has brought us to write. It is for the reader to burn it or tear it up if it does not suit his mood.1
There is something about culture that comes alive in its circulation. 1 Whatever the private pleasures of reading a novel or watching a film – and whatever amount of solitude the artist occupied while he or she was creating the work of art – the interaction of reader or viewer with the creative work is inherently social.Anyone reading the words of another is put, however briefly, in a social interaction with their author – and, by extension, in a social relationship with others who also engage those words.
The 2011 revolts in North Africa and the Middle East, known by the not-so-inclusive moniker “Arab Spring,” brought together Tunisian and Libyan Imazighen (Berbers) in the borderlands of southeastern Tunisia and Western Libya. Whereas some Tunisians and Libyans had long moved through this borderland for trade, work or family visits, others had little direct familiarity with their co-ethnics until the Libyan Civil War, when hundreds of thousands of Libyans took refuge in this region of Tunisia – as many as 10,000 per day at the peak of the crisis.
The incorporation of references to Islam and Islamic law in modern constitutions is now a well-recognized phenomenon. More than twenty nations provide that Islam is the religion of the state (which I call the Islamic “establishment clause”), slightly fewer declare that the Islamic Sharia or its principles are a source or even the main source of legislation (which I call the “source of law clause”), even fewer declare that the nation is an “Islamic state” (which I call the “Islamic state clause”), and some make explicit the idea that laws that conflict with Sharia, however that may be interpreted, are invalid (which I call the “repugnancy clause”)1