By Justin DeWaele and Susie Kim
On Monday, Feb. 28 2011, a panel of six students and scholars appeared before a crowd of over 260 students and community members to discuss different aspects of the current sociopolitical movements occurring in North Africa and the Middle East. The event was part of an ongoing campus effort to encourage dialogue about these historic events.
Hosted by Prospect Journal of International Affairs, “Prospect Perspectives: Revolution in the Middle East and North Africa” was co-sponsored by Students for Civil Rights in Iran, Arab Student Union, Students for Justice in Palestine, Jewish Students Taking Action for Peace, Student Sustainability Collective, Model United Nations and the International Affairs Group.
History and Middle Eastern studies professor Hasan Kayali opened the discussion by giving a historical overview of revolutions in the Middle East and establishing the close relationship between present-day unrest and the Middle East’s colonial past. Distinguishing between the terms “revolution” and “movement,” Kayali argues that calling something a revolution as opposed to a movement assigns it a deterministic trajectory in which the trends and events leading up to it are clear and inevitable. He explained that such a progression, however, is rarely the case in history—especially in the Middle East, which is replete with revolutionary figures and movements. Kayali also tied the current unrest to the Middle East’s colonial past.
Ted Falk, a graduate student of Arab history, highlighted the economic factors that contributed to Egyptian dissent—unequal income growth despite huge increases in GDP, high food prices, rising cost of living and chronic unemployment. He expressed his concern that Egypt’s entrenched economic interests will remain in power, maintaining a system of inequality and resulting in a smooth but shallow revolution that fails to carry out the Egyptian people’s activism on a deep level. He also pointed out the United States’ role in empowering Egypt’s military structure with American technology and an annual $1.3 billion in military aid.
The third speaker of the evening was ethnic studies professor Roshanak Kheshti, who presented an academic paper on the role of women in the revolution. She pointed out that mainstream American media predominantly depicts male dissidents and often frames coverage through Islamaphobic and Orientalist tropes that depitct Arab women as passive. Kheshti refuted such discourses by arguing that the collective voices of dissident women are actively engaged in all of these uprisings.
Ramy Aziz, one of the first bloggers in the Egyptian blogging movement and a microbiology researcher at San Diego State University, continued the discussion by dispelling myths about Islamic groups such as the Muslim Brotherhood. Aziz argues that the Muslim Brotherhood is not the extremist group it is often portrayed as and that it will play an increasingly important part in Egypt’s future.
Nima Rasooli, a political science major and president and founder of the Students for Civil Rights in Iran group at UCSD, discussed the coming protests in Iran and the role that student activists have played in the movements so far.
Finally, Babak Rahimi, professor of Iranian and Islamic studies, closed the panel by discussing the networking and organizational potential of social media in contemporary uprisings. He also shared his own research that he conducted during the 2009 Irianian presidential elections.
Prospect interviewed Kheshti and Aziz to help readers gain a deeper understanding of their respective topics.
Interview with Roshanak Kheshti
PROSPECT: How are women participating in these revolutions and how does their participation differ in terms of time and space?
KHESHTI: As I mentioned in my talk, I think that every segment of the population seems to be represented. Women are participating, as are children and elderly people. If you are talking about Egypt versus Iran, it sounds as if the revolutionary context created more of an egalitarian place, but I don’t know for sure. Egypt is not something that I have a history of studying, but from what I’ve read, the revolutionary spaces like Tahir Square represent a place where gender policing is not taking place. The pragmatic need for all warm bodies necessitates the egalitarian nature.
PROSPECT: What are the problems feminizing the movements and deconstructing the movements in terms of gender?
KHESHTI: One of the problems is that there is no single movement that identifies itself as a gender-based movement. Because there are conflicting movements, it is very difficult from the outside to boil it down to one decision. That has historically been the mistake that has been made, especially from the perspective of the Global North [the 57 countries with high human development as reported by the United Nations] or the West, that there is a boiling down of everything to one perspective. And that is impossible to do for any kinds of movements towards gender equality or race. In that sense, I think we cannot identify any kind of coherent movement at this time.
PROSPECT: Do you think that the media is accurately portraying the participation of women in these revolutions? To what extent do the discourses surrounding the East-West, Islamic-Christian and exotic-civilized binaries still exist and inform our understanding of gender relations in the Middle East?
KHESHTI: Well, the media is so diffused when you’re talking about the Internet. I’m going to limit to mainstream U.S. press. No, they are not representing any of these issues in any matter that isn’t boiling it down to a black-and-white question. For example, I heard a report on NPR, and the report essentially boiled the demands of women down to equal rights in a secular democracy. That is not at all what I have discovered in my research, that you could ever boil it down to that. But that is the way mainstream U.S. press recognizes feminism in general, and that is the only way they can understand any demands for gender equality. I think that there is a lot of reduction and reframing the debate in terms of secular versus Islam, women versus men and that’s not the way I think that things are unfolding there right now.
PROSPECT: What can Western feminists learn from the women participating in these revolutions? What should they address first before portraying these women as oppressed and passive?
KHESHTI: At this point, because there are so many diasporic communities outside of the region, there are countless organizing efforts that are happening inside, outside and between. I don’t think that Western feminists or someone who identifies themself as a Western feminist are positioned in any privileged way compared to any other Westerner. What is their onus, as it is for any other person, is to understand the terms of the debate as they are being framed by those who are participating in them. There are many third world feminist organizations, transnational feminist organizations that are directly working with women who are struggling with gender and sexual rights in these regions. It seems like those are the entities that should be invited to have a conversation… I guess that if someone like Gloria Steinem wants to make a comment, she is in no way better positioned to make a comment on the role of women in this revolution than George Bush. By virtue of her being a woman, it does not make a bearing of her capacity to understand that context. I think the better approach would be to understand the transnational mobilization that is happening around the movement rather than to assume that there is any kind of equal or similar oppression.
PROSPECT: How can Americans and Westerners in general challenge the dominant discourses that surround the bodies of women as oppressed, passive, etc.?
KHESHTI: [By] exposing themselves to critiques of these discourses, whether they be in the form of media, literature, nonfiction, blogs. At this point, there are decades and decades worth of scholarship on this topic. No one necessarily needs to be in front of the wheel. There is a great deal of research that has already been done. It is every individual’s responsibility to try to expose themselves to information that isn’t most familiar, that isn’t representing the issue in a way that makes them feel they already know what the issues are. There are many different ways, and I think that it is about being committed to seeking these questions and being the ultimate detective.
Interview with Ramy Aziz
PROSPECT: Do you think a government based on Islamic principles in Egypt, like those of the Muslim Brotherhood, would be a scourge to what the revolution is promoting—more open and responsive government?
AZIZ: No, I don’t think so. I think any government can be corrupt, whether they are religious or not. What the crowds mostly care about is getting rid of corruption. Mainly they want a non-corrupt regime, but many intellectuals are seeking a non-Islamic regime. It’s really hard to convince Egyptians that secular does not mean anti-religious, and that a secular government allows both religious and non-religious people to survive. For example, they will say that in an Islamic state, prostitution would not be allowed and in a secular state it would be allowed. This is a caricature example, but there is propaganda that Islamists use.
PROSPECT: Do you think then that Islam is a necessary element for political authority in Egypt to incorporate?
AZIZ: I personally don’t think so but I think the majority of Egyptians think so. A lot of the Muslims that are practicing think that Islam has to be a main part of any government, and Christians don’t agree with this of course. A lot of liberal Muslims don’t agree either. The voters, like in any society, don’t necessarily think in a rational way, they think emotionally.
PROSPECT: Has Western media sensationalized the part that Islam is playing in this uprising?
AZIZ: It plays a big part, but the Western media has dealt with it superficially. First of all, I just watch the mainstream media—ABC, CNN—and they are just focusing on the Muslim Brotherhood and are not talking very deeply about the other Islamic groups in Egypt that are more important in numbers. Many Muslims do not like the Muslim Brotherhood because they are too pragmatic and too political, but as a voting power they call themselves Islamists. Think about them as fundamentalist Christians in the U.S. who do not want a religious state but who always vote for any emotional issue with a religious background. So that’s the majority of Islamists in Egypt and these have not at all been dealt with in the Western media. I have only seen talks about the Muslim Brotherhood and if they will follow the Iranian regime or the Turkish model but I haven’t seen any real analysis of what’s on the ground.
PROSPECT: What has been the nature of Muslim-Christian relations in Egypt?
AZIZ: Since the ‘70s there have been tensions that are rising. Most of these tensions are related to one of three issues. [First,], whenever Christians build a church Muslims consider this an offensive movement or as a way to expand Christianity. Another source of tension is mixed marriages or religious conversion between Christians and Muslims. The third issue is about religious propaganda. In the ‘70s there was a wave of Islamic books that attacked Christianity, and Christians were not allowed to respond publicly. They responded via cassette tapes. But now that there is Internet and cable it has become a war that has really affected the middle class, who all have satellite TV. They watch Christian priests attacking Islam or a Muslim cleric attacking Christianity. This is a big source of tension as well. However on a daily basis people live together and work in the same places, so the tension has been restricted to these three issues.
PROSPECT: How has the Mubarak regime treated Christians?
AZIZ: The Mubarak regime apparently was saying that they support and protect Christian rights, but everyone knows that this was a lie. From one side they were telling Christians, ‘we are protecting you but you must always vote for us,’ and on the other hand they were inciting violence through the police and special agents. Most of the religious tensions were actually initiated by the secret police, especially in South Egypt where there are more Christians. I think the police have been controlling whether or not Christians can build churches. If some Christian community wants to build a church they will oppose them and say they have to get permission and then they tell the Muslim community to go defend their rights and to prevent the Christians from converting them to Christianity. There has been a lot of dirty politics played by the Mubarak regime. There is an unspoken limit to what rank a Christian can hold in the military and the government, and Christians are barred from being university presidents. It’s related to the military’s suspicion of Christian’s sympathy to the West—a typical fascist policy.
PROSPECT: If the Muslim Brothers gained more authority than they currently have, what would be at stake for Western powers?
AZIZ: Currently they don’t have any authority; they have some seats in Parliament as opposition and that is it. However, they have a lot of presence in the street. If they gain political authority, I don’t think they will be socialist, for example, because many of them are businessmen. They will adopt a very similar economic policy as the current regime—a little bit of social justice, but mainly a liberal economy. At the same time, they will have all kinds of propaganda against the West but they will end up striking deals with Western countries because it is in their interest. The worry is that they will make more ties with Saudi Arabia, which for me is the biggest evil. Saudi Arabia is the most corrupt regime, not Iran. They will certainly have more deals with Saudi Arabia because that is where the money is and that is where the Islamic center is. They may have laws like forbidding alcohol in public, but there won’t be a major political shift. Pessimists say they will impose some restrictions on non-Muslims, but I don’t believe so, because this would provoke the entire world. So they may enact some change with laws relating to Islamic identity but they would be very similar politically and economically to the current regime.
Photos by Christopher Higa and Alyssa Stocker-Keefe.