’Islam is only place to turn’
Thursday, March 29,2007 00:00
By Mitch Potter, thestar
Disheartened by `democracy project,’ Arab Muslims seek new source of hope

For prominent Syrian career woman Luna Rajab, the moment of truth came last Ramadan at an evening social gathering of friends and colleagues.

Steeling herself to express outwardly what she had felt inside for many years, the 34-year-old architect stepped forward to reveal a decision that would earn the dismay of many of those closest to her, her mother and grandmother included.

Rajab’s favourite motto had always been "say it with actions, not with words." And on this night, she said it all by covering her hair with that most Islamic of accessories – the hijab.

Never before had she worn the head scarf. Never before had anyone in her social circle, or even her own family. Today, she won’t take it off. Rajab’s hijab is here to stay.

The most cutting comment that night came from one of her best friends, who stared, jaws agape, like a witness to religious lobotomy: "But Luna, I thought you were open-minded."

Rajab ruminates sadly on that comment three months later over a glass of mint lemonade with the Toronto Star. We are in the hidden courtyard of Jabri House, one of a handful of grand and glorious Damascene homes that Rajab has dedicated her life to saving as an architect specializing in historical preservation.

She knows the decision to wear hijab placed her out of step with many in her circle. But taken in the context of the larger Arab world, she says, it is her friends who are out of step. Which is okay by her. Rajab does not believe in forcing anyone on the question of hijab. In a free world, it is a personal choice, she says. Yet Rajab takes comfort in the fact that by just about any standard one might care to apply, Islam is on the rise again in the Middle East.

Politically, socially, culturally, the process of Islamification has been underway for decades, despite the repressive efforts of Arab regimes that see an existential threat in the steady rise of political Islam.

For many, the process is happening almost by default, as the era of secular Arab nationalism loses the last of its legitimacy, its promise all but exhausted by decades of rampant corruption and failure to deliver benefits to the region. If anything, the process has been accelerated by the attacks of 9/11, or more specifically, by the response to that dark and bloody day.

Lebanese sociologist Abdo Kahi describes the drift toward Islamic identity as anything but ideological. "Ideology has logic, but the return to Islam is happening as an idea without logic. It is happening by default, without discussion, as a matter of the heart. What all human beings share is the universal desire for hope, security, justice, values – and one day perhaps, real democracy.

"And if you look to the Middle East of the 1950s, ’60s and ’70s, there was some hope these things would be delivered. But the Arab leaderships failed utterly – they only enriched themselves. And the U.S. failed utterly, protecting those corrupt regimes and at the same time ignoring the need to forcefully find a solution for the Palestinian question, which remains an open wound," said Kahi.

United Nations researchers three years ago pinpointed the dimensions of unrest in the 2004 Arab Human Development Report. Arriving just as the rationale for the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq was rebranded from a hunt for weapons of mass destruction into a much larger scheme to implant Arab democracy, the UN’s words appeared to point the way forward.

"The Arab world finds itself at an historical crossroads," the report’s authors warned.

"Caught between oppression at home and violation from abroad, Arabs are increasingly excluded from determining their own future – freedom requires a system of good governance that rests upon effective popular representation and is accountable to the people, and that upholds the rule of law and ensures that an independent judiciary applies the law impartially."

But as a string of elections, some more democratic than others, hiccupped around the region, many Arab thinkers lost faith. What some describe as the "democracy hypocrisy" was laid bare one year ago with the surprise election of Hamas in Western-backed elections in the Palestinian territories.

Those who actually covered the campaign saw the Palestinian electorate embrace a deftly played Hamas election platform built as a war on corruption without so much as a mention of the word Israel.

Running under the banner of "Change and Reform," Islamic candidates tapped the Palestinian appetite for payback against the graft-addled Fatah movement that helped itself to decades of foreign aid under the late Yasser Arafat. Rather than a referendum of peace versus war, it was a contest of clean versus dirty. But the subtleties were lost on Israel and the international community. Shocked by the election of Hamas, the doors of engagement slammed shut.

Canada, at best a peripheral player in the international voices of Mideast mediation, was the first to announce a freeze on direct Palestinian aid, followed soon thereafter by the United States and European Union. The boycott effectively neutered the Hamas government even before it began.

Many Arab analysts, secular and otherwise, shake their heads at what they see as the shortsightedness of the decision to cut Hamas off at the knees.

"The Bush administration sees all Islamists as radicals and all radicals as terrorists and thus they all need to be eliminated. But this attempt to corner Hamas – clearly has backfired," said Ahmad Moussalli, a political scientist at the American University of Beirut.

"It sent a message to the entire Arab world that the promise of democracy is false. And it handed a gift to political Islam by keeping it outside the halls of power, thereby giving them an even greater aura of sanctity."

Lebanese sociologist Kahi said Arab disappointment is underscored today by the evident backtracking of the Bush administration, which has ceased to even speak the word democracy as it works to rally authoritarian Sunni Muslim leaderships to help contain the political disintegration of Iraq.

"Arab Muslims today see the George Bush project of democracy in the Middle East crashing to a halt," said Kahi. "The only results they can see are McDonald’s, Madonna and bombs. There is nothing real in it for them. The only place left to turn is Islam."

Blanket rejection also feeds radicalism, said Moussalli, as the pole of political Islam wavers between moderation and radicalism. "The more venues are closed, the more moderates get forced to the margins. The radicals are a much smaller force than the moderates, but without a political future some people will resort to military activities to change what they consider to be an evil reality."

Joost Hiltermann, Middle East team leader of the independent policy think-tank the International Crisis Group, predicts that sooner or later the West will need to find a way to engage political Islam.

"The West ought to at least contemplate it because you can’t just keep this stuff bottled up and continue to support repressive regimes. It won’t work," he said.

"It is a simple question of historical experience. The era of Arab nationalism, of secular ideology, is about to die because it has proved itself capable of delivering nothing but repression, corruption and illiteracy," he said.

"There are only two ways for the West to contend with this. Either give a comparatively moderate Islamic group like the Muslim Brotherhood a chance to live up to their promises by having a chance to govern. Or conversely, they can undermine the Muslim Brotherhood by actually forcing the ruling governments in the Arab world to clean up their act by fighting corruption, governing properly and actually offering some freedoms to their people."


Back at Jabri House in Damascus, Luna Rajab laughs, realizing that two hours have flown by. She never intended to talk so much about so private a matter. Foremost, she says, wearing hijab is "something very personal, between me and God."


But there is more to it than that, far more. Rajab says the hijab is a statement born of frustration with how the Arab world has lost its moral compass. But it is a statement intended also for Westerners, many of whom she feels have far too easily allowed themselves to direct the anger over 9/11 at Islam itself, rather than the terrorists who claimed to act in its name.

But the overarching reason for wearing hijab, said Rajab, is to be a role model for other young Muslim women.

"I want to send the message that I am a professional and well-educated woman – I speak languages (French, English, Arabic), I am open-minded and I am respected in my field – and I also happen to be an observant Muslim woman. I engage fully in modern society, I love science, I read voraciously and there is absolutely no contradiction in being all these things and a good Muslim woman."

The conversation turns to the mutual friend who introduced us – a Syrian journalist, also Muslim, who was forced to give up an opportunity to work with a major foreign news organization some years ago by her eldest brother, a religious conservative. At issue was the brother’s fear his sister would be exposed to foreign men. And he was so distraught at the prospect that he barged into the agency’s Damascus office and demanded they retract their offer.

"Yes, in our family we educate our women," he snarled. "But when they grow up their job is to chop carrots."

Rajab nods knowingly at the anecdote. She knows also the journalist in question eventually went ahead and took the job in defiance of her brother.

"These attitudes exist, but they have nothing to do with the real Islam. Here in the Arab world there is a tendency to blame outsiders for all our problems. But to take this attitude is to admit you are powerless to change things," said Rajab.

"Well, I want to be a part of the change. If we study the era of the Prophet Muhammad we know women were strong participants in society. And then somewhere along the way we fell into decline, poverty, neglect and deterioration. Islamic values were scrambled and mixed up with tribal and traditional social habits. And out of this came men who want to lock away their women in the name of Islam."

So she will count herself among those working toward "redefining the basis of real Islam. I want to help set our compass back to where it belongs.

"The important thing now is that we open our minds, read more, strive for knowledge. And in the end, there can be a renaissance of the open, inclusive, peaceful, science-loving Islam that appeals to me so much."

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