Voices from the Arab press: Understanding issues through the other's eyes

A weekly selection of opinions and analyses from the Arab media around the world.

 SHI’ITE WORSHIPERS beat their chests during the Ashura festival in Qatif, Saudi Arabia. Ashura, which falls on the 10th day of the Islamic month of Muharram, commemorates the death of Imam Hussein, grandson of Prophet Mohammad, who was killed in the 7th-century battle of Kerbala.  (photo credit: Zaki Ghawas/Reuters)
SHI’ITE WORSHIPERS beat their chests during the Ashura festival in Qatif, Saudi Arabia. Ashura, which falls on the 10th day of the Islamic month of Muharram, commemorates the death of Imam Hussein, grandson of Prophet Mohammad, who was killed in the 7th-century battle of Kerbala.
(photo credit: Zaki Ghawas/Reuters)

Understanding issues through the other’s eyes

An-Nahar, Lebanon, June 2

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A close friend who currently works for the Saudi government recently recounted an interesting memory to me. He told me how, when he studied abroad in the US, he attended a fascinating lecture about the Nakhawila, a community of indigenous Shi’ites from Medina that historians know very little about. The lecture was delivered by a German professor visiting from the University of Heidelberg. 

What caught my friend’s attention was the fact that a German professor could be an expert in the lives, culture and history of such a small and remote group of people. His presentation was so vivid and analytical, that he spoke as if he were one of them – or, at the very least, as if he were a Saudi who lived among them. The German professor was not the only one who attracted my friend’s attention. There was another visiting professor who came from the University of Haifa who spoke with such incredible knowledge about the first Saudi state. 

What unites these two professors are several traits. First, their specialization in a unique topic. Second, their passion for science and academic inquiry. And third, their ability to study a subject without prejudice. Unfortunately, if we take a look at the Arab world, we’ll quickly discover that the number of research centers devoted to the study of delicate, rare, and highly specialized social and historical phenomena are very limited. They can probably be counted on one hand. 

A SWEET jump at the 1st Free Roller Skate Rally, held at the Middle East’s largest open ski track, in Port Said, Egypt, May 27. (credit: Amr Abdallah Dalsh/Reuters)A SWEET jump at the 1st Free Roller Skate Rally, held at the Middle East’s largest open ski track, in Port Said, Egypt, May 27. (credit: Amr Abdallah Dalsh/Reuters)

One of the most pressing issues of our time, both intellectually and politically, is the issue of Shi’ism. Not as an Islamic sect, but rather as a social lever, from which various intellectual and political currents were born. Indeed, Shi’ism is integral to most of the events currently unfolding in Iraq, Iran, Lebanon, Syria, Yemen and the Arab Gulf. The matter is not limited to the regime of the Islamic Republic of Iran, the theory of Guardianship of the Jurist, or the role of the Revolutionary Guards. Rather, it is important to understand the underlying foundations and discourse that fuels these phenomena so they can be properly understood. 

Instead of looking at them from afar, we must look at them from within. For example, an intimate understanding of the religious and cultural ideologies fueling the Iranian regime will make it possible to deal with it far more effectively, and perhaps even to curb its interference in other parts of the region. The late King Fahd bin Abdulaziz al-Saud often advised those traveling on diplomatic missions to always put themselves in their interlocutor’s shoes and imagine the response they would get to their question. 

The independent, unbiased, analytical and non-emotional way of thinking – that which is capable of collecting small details and assembling the big picture – is what we are desperately lacking in our society at the present. The scarcity in research centers and think tanks specializing in Iranian and Shi’ite affairs will make it hard for us to keep up with the sweeping changes unfolding in the Arab world. We’re already lagging behind – but better late than never. – Hassan Mustafa

Looking forward to a bright future

Akhbar el-Yom, Egypt, June 2

In May 2015, a group of 159 pro-Muslim Brotherhood clerics from across the Arab and Muslim world published the “Al-Kinana Call,” in which they accused the Egyptian government of being “criminal and murderous” and declared religious war on the Egyptian people. The signatories issued religious verdicts permitting the killing of innocent Egyptian civilians in the name of their goal of restoring Muhammad Morsi back to the presidency. 

This criminal gang was no different from the thugs of ISIS, the Houthis, and al-Qaida. They came from countries such as Pakistan, Libya and Afghanistan – all of which have been ravaged by religious wars. These thugs wanted the fate of Egyptian women to be just like the fate of women found in their own failed societies. They were consumed by jealousy and bitterness after witnessing the bustling streets of Cairo come back to life, unlike their own destroyed capitals that have been wrecked by their wars. 

Thankfully, the Egyptian army stood guard and protected our country against these attacks. Its men didn’t fragment or crumble. Indeed, had it not been for the steadfastness of our great army, these mercenaries would have occupied Egypt’s palaces and mosques, plundered its bounties and subjugated its women. But Egypt defied them and shattered their dreams of forming a caliphate. 

This month marks the nine-year anniversary of the demonstrations that brought down Morsi’s regime. It was a day in which Egypt entered a new age; one in which a dark black cloud was lifted from upon us. Bleak memories still haunt all of us: the use of force against protesters, our squares being occupied by thugs, the violence and bloodshed in our streets. Yet we, the Egyptian people, prevailed. We chose to look to the future. We managed to keep those evil forces away from our country and move forward as one. – Karam Gabr

If I were Israeli

Al-Qabas, Kuwait, June 3

I wrote an article a few months ago about the harassment and marginalization of Christian Palestinians, which has increased in frequency and ugliness in the past few years. Within Arab society, Palestinian Christians are often disregarded, belittled or disparaged. Then, just two weeks ago, Palestinian journalist Shireen Abu Akleh, a Jenin native and a correspondent for the Al-Jazeera media network since 1997, was struck by a treacherous Israeli bullet that took her life, while carrying out her duty. 

Abu Akleh was one of the most prominent journalists in the Arab world, a veteran reporter, and a prominent figure in the Arab media. She previously covered major Palestinian events, including the Second intifada, and had an important and vital role in analyzing Israeli policy. Her live reports on TV were of interest to many. Her murder sparked a storm of intense sympathy, which was accompanied by a strong wave of protests. 

The entire Arab world denounced the murder unanimously and Abu Akleh was celebrated as a martyr. Suddenly, however, everyone discovered Shireen’s full name and the fact that she was the daughter of Nasri Antoine Abu Akleh. Or, simply put, people understood that she was Christian. At once, public opinion throughout the Arab world changed – and the same people who had just announced her a martyr stripped her of that title. There were even those who asked to stop praying for her soul, since mercy can only be sought for a Muslim. 

A Kuwaiti cleric known for his extremist views issued a fatwa ruling that she was an infidel that should be shown no mercy. If I were Israeli, I wouldn’t have been able to find a better story or tragedy than that of Shireen Abu Akleh as an example that the Arab world doesn’t deserve any respect. If Abu Akleh’s own people show no sympathy for her death, then why should Israelis? 

The Arab nation lost an Arab woman who dedicated her life to the protection of her homeland. If the Arab people can’t describe that woman as a martyr, why should their enemies describe her as such? As an Israeli, I would genuinely ask myself: Is the Arab world trustworthy? If they reject a loyal daughter of their own, how would they ever come to accept us? – Ahmed Al-Sarraf 

 Syria’s proposed safe zone

Al-Itihad, UAE, June 1

The announcement of the establishment of a safe zone in Syria, to which several million displaced Syrians will return, raises concerns and mixed feelings among Syrians. They urgently need a safe territory to return to, after years of movement in search of safety. If such a safe zone is provided to them within their homeland, many of them will return to Syria without hesitation. 

However, there is genuine concern that this safe area will turn into a small statelet that motivates others to establish autonomous regions – thereby leading to further geographical, sectarian and ethnic division in Syria. The truth is that people have few hopes for a political resolution to the Syrian crisis following 11 years of suffering. Millions of Syrian refugees are likely to remain scattered around the world, living in tents and makeshift dwellings. 

A generation of hundreds of thousands of Syrian children and adolescents has grown up without schooling. Most of them have no future. While the fears of the refugees who are expected to return are centered around the safety mechanisms that would be implemented in order to protect them and provide them with basic necessities, international consensus has still not been reached. The US and the European Union must be the ultimate guarantors for this. 

It’s also worth remembering that this safe zone is only a local and temporary solution, designed primarily for Syrian refugees located in Turkey. Our fathers and grandfathers lived through an era in which Syria was divided under the French Mandate. Their silver lining was the fact that they were all united as one against a foreign enemy – an occupier – from whom they sought independence. They worked to build a unified country where all segments of society can peacefully coexist. 

However, the current situation differs dramatically. The future of Syria seems more dangerous than its present. Syrian society is deeply divided and fractured. Sadly, no one knows what the future will bring for this war-torn country.  – Riad Naasan Agha 

Translated by Asaf Zilberfarb