Ferguson Across Cultures

I wanted to write this a long time ago, but had too much work. Anyway:

In order to understand this post, take exactly 10 seconds to gloss over each of the articles here, here, here, and here. Assuming you’ve done that…

To anyone who’s unfortunate enough to be subjected to Egyptian TV for a substantial amount of time, it’s not hard (even a little fun, if you don’t have problems with blood pressure) to see the undisguisedly smug Egyptian anchors’ perspective on global events that they don’t really quite understand. And for them, the star of the season has without a doubt been the Ferguson unrest.

After the US Dept of State called out the Egyptian administration for mowing down protesters in more than one occasion, particularly the infamous Raba’a massacre, loyalists of the current Egyptian regime seem more than happy to be giving Obama a cynical smile and amusedly watch as the US fails to practice what it preaches.


Pictured: The collective consciousness of Egyptian loyalists.

Except (surprise!) it’s not really like that.

Egyptian media tends to look at the Ferguson unrest from a perspective that is so thoroughly Egyptian that the reporting ends up being skewed and highly unrepresentative of the actual situation.

The main thing that they tend to get wrong is the system of command and leadership in the US government. It’s automatically assumed that, like in Egypt and other third world countries, there is one guy who calls all the shots – a tradition that goes largely unquestioned in the mainstream of most Arab cultures, particularly in Egypt, and one that is (at least subconsciously) upheld even in the presence of laws and institutions put in place to deter it. Consequently, the lines between a nation and a state are often blurred, and everything remotely within the apparatus of government is condensed into the power of its leader.

However, in a state that is deeply rooted in the practice of democracy concepts such as decentralization, rule of law, and separation of powers are observed in all of the state’s actions – except in cases of corruption. Egyptian media doesn’t seem to think much about that, somehow lumping up the U.S. president, the police force in Ferguson, the U.S. Department of State, and to an extent American civil society in the same pack, holding them all responsible for the snafu that is the Ferguson unrest – which not only speaks of the level of professionalism of Egyptian media, but also implies tons about the crude nature of the Egyptian political environment.

I never thought too highly of Egyptian media, and I didn’t really think I could possibly hold them in lower regard than I already do. I was proven wrong. Their lack of concern about human life was something I’m accustomed to, and so was the nationalist posturing that accompanies every piece of news about pretty much any other part of the world. I guess just being reminded of how little hope Egypt has for a serious political reform (even though I’m kinda used to it by now) is as frustrating as it was the first time it hit me.

TV, the radio, newspapers, etc. is where most Egyptians look to confirm their biases, and that’s where they learn about new ideas and develop opinions about concepts they’re not yet familiar with. Media, basically, forms culture. And in Egypt it’s mostly controlled by, or aligned to, the new state. And it’s not like we have any serious alternative media either – most of the opposition to the state are Islamist conservatives, which leaves the Egyptian anti-authoritarian rally to a few satirists, bloggers (ohai) and columnists.

And, while it’s depressing to have to listen to the anchors’ opinions on the infallibility of the Father Knows Best state, it’s worse to know that this is what the collective mind of Egypt will look and think like, for the most part.


Humans of the Holy Land

It’s easy to get the facts mixed up in a topic like this. If you find errors in my narrative, please let me know (and attach a source).

The latest rage in social media in the past few weeks has been the escalation between Gaza and Israel. In this piece, I’m going to explain why it came together, why it was coming together, and why this madness needs to stop.


If you already know enough about what happened, scroll down.

It was just another normal week of Hamas firing toy rockets into the middle of nowhere in Israel, but on the night of June 12, something unusual happened: Three Israeli teenagers were kidnapped in the occupied territories. As per tradition, Israeli PM Netanyahu blamed Hamas without any evidence.

But this time, contrary to their tradition, Hamas denied responsibility.


You would have to look up a map if you’re not familiar with the topic, but I just gave you one instead.
Wikimedia Commons. 2007.

The next day, the IDF initiated Operation Brother’s Keeper in order to rescue the three boys. Villages and homes were raided at night by Israeli security, and the Israeli government was accused of stealing (“confiscating”) $3 million worth of property from Palestinian homes, businesses and charities. Israel maintained that the confiscations were only from sources that fund terrorism, but failed to back that up with evidence either.

18 days later, the three boys were found dead.  A day after they were buried, a Palestinian teenager was kidnapped and burned alive by Jewish extremists in revenge. This attack, however, was nowhere as widely condemned. On July 3, Israel launched 15 airstrikes onto Gaza directed at Hamas targets (15 injuries) in response to Hamas airstrikes into Sderot, a city adjacent to the northeastern edge of the Gaza strip. However, that did not keep Hamas from firing into random sidewalks (and occasionally community buildings) in Israel.

And on July 8, without a specific reason, Israel launched an air campaign on Gaza – Operation Mighty Cliff – Known in English as Protective Edge. In one day, Israel had hit 50 targets in the Gaza strip, and Hamas declared that every Israeli is a legitimate target. From this point, it was on.

On July 15, Egypt (oh hi) officially proposed a basic ceasefire to end the war and resume ordinary trade and movement to and from Gaza. This ceasefire was readily accepted by the Israeli cabinet, but rejected by Hamas who called the ceasefire “in its current form” tantamount to surrender. Hamas countered this offer with a proposal of its own, a 10-year peace deal which demands the release of prisoners re-arrested in Brother’s Keeper, and more power to the UN in the area among other things. Israel ignored this offer, but agreed to a UN-brokered 5-hour ceasefire the next day.

As of July 18,  268 Palestinians were killed, at least 72% of whom are confirmed civilians, and 2296 were wounded, in addition to thousands displaced by damage to their homes. On the other side, Israel had a total of 2 deaths (including one civilian) and 45 injuries, 28 of them civilian. Also, some buildings were fired on with varying degrees of damage. About 48 Palestinian children were killed by the Israeli attacks, some of whom went viral. Netanyahu simply waved off the civilian loss of life, stressing that “no international pressure will prevent Israel from continuing its operation in Gaza … The leaders of Hamas are hiding behind the citizens of Gaza, and they are responsible for all casualties.”

As of this posting, the IDF had just escalated the conflict into a ground operation while stressing the above excuse, and the war is still on with the same intensity.

Why they fight

If you have a broad understanding of this too, scroll down some more.

There is a reason why Hamas is known to Arabs as The Resistance.

Arabs consider the region of Palestine a land stolen from its inhabitants; the state and nation of Israel is consequently nothing more than an occupying power no matter how long or how well it can control the land. By this logic, more nationalistic Arabs believe that Israel and the Israelis must be expelled from the holy land at all costs to make room for the return of its original inhabitants, the Palestinians. The majority of Arabs support the rocket attacks on Israel, as a way to cause fear in Israel and encourage the Israelis to leave. On the other hand, Fatah, Hamas’s #1 domestic enemy which primarily controls the West Bank, is not popular with most Arabs because they are willing to settle for a Two-State solution, which implies abandoning the land.

From the Israeli point of view, the Land of Israel is a divine ancestral right to the Jews. The region of Palestine is considered the historical homeland of Jewish people, to which they have a right of return. Israel brilliantly exercises that right through existing, but complements it by building settlements – through private or state-sponsored endeavors – that usurp territory legally under Palestinian authority; a practice hotly debated between secular and religious circles in Israel. The story of how Jews came back to Palestine in the first place and the subsequent founding of the State of Israel is a long story for another day (and it’s one that you can look up).


Stop scrolling now. Now read.

Regardless of the triviality of casualties it caused, Hamas had no business shooting into Israel. Even though the kind of rockets used by Hamas are on average about as strong as party fireworks, they are hard to control and the kind of damage they do cannot be predicted (in fact, one of the rockets fired from Gaza killed electricity for 70,000 Gazans). Still, against all odds, Hamas refuses to accept a ceasefire and Gaza continues to be pounded.

But Israel’s response, while ostensibly to punish those responsible for the attacks and create a period of relative peace in the area, cannot be labeled anything less than collective punishment. In and of itself, the proportion of civilians killed or displaced by Israeli attacks screams “state-sponsored terrorism” under the guise of Israeli counter-terrorism. It takes a smarter man than the present-day me to accurately deconstruct Israel’s motivation for this, especially considering the cost of such an operation to the Israeli economy, but at the very least the basic principle of Cost efficiency comes into play. It’s in Israel’s interest to neutralize its enemies (read: Hamas) in Gaza, but targeted killings or real precision strikes would be too expensive. The go-between is shelling, which takes hundreds of lives.

Some truths are self-evident. I could go on for much longer on how the heartless terrorism of the IDF, or the childish lack of statecraft displayed by Hamas in their willingness to keep fighting at the peril of the people of Gaza. But you’re probably smart enough to figure that out by yourself (and this post is getting pretty long).

The most important call right now is the one to cease fire. Enough lives have been lost. Israel is fighting a political war; the threat of Hamas could have been largely mitigated if they were allowed legitimacy, a notion that has been promoted by the Palestinian Authority in the form of a unity government that would recognize Hamas as the ruling “party” in the Gaza strip. Instead, Gaza is under a constant blockade because Israel refuses to recognize the rule of an Islamist group over it.

This could be avoided. The missiles can be stopped. If Israel accepts the sovereignty of the Palestinian Authority over its land, if the encroachment into the West Bank is stopped, if the residents of Gaza are allowed to live a normal life, free from the shackles of the blockade and the constant fear of death or displacement, the hatred will subside, slowly but surely, and there will be room for understanding. I can guarantee you that our generation is going to die hating each other, but the next generation will be smarter.

And one day, maybe centuries from now, the humans of the holy land will live together without barriers. And the rest of the world will do the same.

Breakdown of the Arabics

Arabic is one of the most widely spoken languages in the world, with an estimated 290 million speakers across the board.

Except not really.

Arabic language is in reality more like a collective of languages, spoken in different ways in different parts of the Arab world. Like Germanic or Slavic languages, Arabic languages come in a variety of shapes and colors while retaining some core characteristics, such as sounding pretty much the same to foreigners.

ImageVarieties of Arabic in and around the middle east. Click for full size.

Historically (well, until 630 AD or so,) Arabic language and its mostly similar tribal dialects were limited to the Arabian peninsula, expanding and evolving within it. Non-Arabs in the middle east spoke their own indigenous languages; for example, North African Berber nomads spoke Berber languages. Until the Spread of Islam, that is, after which Arabic gradually replaced the indigenous language as the main language for governance and everyday life on the land, a process accelerated by Arabian (Bedouin) nomads migrating out of the Arabian peninsula and into North Africa, Mesopotamia and the Levant.

In non-Arabian areas ruled by Arabian chiefs, creoles of Arabic and the local language formed, creating what is today known as Arabic dialects, but like the relationship between Haitian Creole and French, distant dialects of Arabic are not very mutually intelligible. Having developed separately out of different combinations of languages, Arabic dialects have different vocabularies and accents (that are not necessarily mutually intelligible), each dialect effectively being a language in its own right. Some dialects are simple enough to be easily understood by non-native speakers, though (Egyptian and Levantine, for example), and geographically proximate dialects tend to have a lot in common.

The explanation for lumping such radically different creoles in the same pack is largely sociopolitical. Classical Arabic is a variety of Arabic that is no longer spoken at home but is understood by most educated Arabs (think Old English if it was taught in schools), and is the one used in writing the Qur’an, the Islamic holy scripture, back in the 7th century. The Qur’an played a great role in maintaining the status of Classical Arabic, which would have gone extinct if the Qur’an hadn’t existed. The study of Arabic language developed and became popular (even with non-Arabic speakers), and this preserved the status of Classical Arabic and contributed to its reputation with Arabs (or, speakers of Arabic creoles).

The other reason is Arab nationalism. As a response to colonial exploitation, Arabic peoples eventually came to see “Arabism” as a uniting banner (compare to this, or this). Needless to say, Arabic language rather than culture was the main uniting aspect. Pan-Arabism gained a respectable amount of traction in the 50s, becoming the state ideologue of quite a few Arab states, and eventually inspiring its “same but different” sister ideology: Pan-Islamism. Both are mainstream across the Arab world today, to varying levels across different communities.

All research credit goes to Wikipedia. Please let me know if there are any mistakes in this post.