The Rise of the Middle East’s Atheists

September 2012, Middle East:

A low-budget movie titled “The Innocence of Muslims” makes its way to the media of the region. The movie insults the prophet Mohammad and doesn’t pretend to do so innocently. The mayhem it caused became infamous, notably for the American embassy storming in Libya which made its way to the US presidential elections. Protests across the region turned bloody. Innocent people lost their lives because of cheap ten minute footage. And the image that some Muslims have been giving to Islam over the years was reinforced once again.

October 2012, Pakistan:

Malala Yousafzai, a fourteen year old girl, was shot in the head by Taliban individuals who feared her message. Malala’s message was not that of an uprising against the men who worked endlessly to make her life and the life of countless other girls like her a living hell. She was calling upon girls her age to seek an education, which most of us take for granted: the kind where we sit behind a desk and listen all day to teachers telling us things we believe we’ll never need. Her message did not sit well with the Taliban whose mission had been, in part, to eradicate education in the parts of the world where they are of influence. They had destroyed countless schools and forbade women from attending schools in their attempt to restore the days of 600AD.

October 2012, Facebook:

A Syrian woman named Dana Bakdounes posted a picture of herself on Facebook without the veil as part of a movement for the rights of women in the Middle East. (Check the picture here). The message Dana wrote, as part of her picture, said “I am with the uprising of women in the Arab world because for 20 years I was not allowed to feel the wind on my body… and on my hair.” The message rubbed some people the wrong way and a bunch of extremists took it upon them to silence Bakdounes, even on Facebook. So they mass reported her picture as offensive, prompting Facebook to remove it.

October 2012, Egypt:

In a post revolution Egypt where Islamists have been gaining power, two Copt boys, aged nine and ten, were arrested for defiling the Quran. Another Copt teacher was arrested after some students accused her of speaking badly of prophet Muhammad in class while another Copt is facing charges for material deemed offensive which he posted on his Facebook account. A veiled Muslim teacher also cut the hair of two girls in class who refused to wear the veil. She later explained that she had been “challenged.”

The Rise of Atheism:

The rise in religious extremism in the Middle East is touching all of its religions. Be it Christians who are worried about their fate and revert to their Bible in belief that it will somehow be their salvation. Or Jews whose reputation has become intermingled with zionism and borderline inseparable in the mind of many. However, I decided to only discuss Islam because the broader picture of the Middle East, in which there’s a tangible rise in Islamist Influence, is a canvas of Islam – as it is the region’s first and foremost leading religion, demographically.

The rise in extremism is attributed to many geopolitical reasons. It is also associated with a serious lack of understanding of religion from all involved, most notably the men of the robe who are doing more harm to their religions with their backward mentality than anyone else.

The Middle East has probably one of the world’s highest rates of religious people. And it’s simply because we were born this way. We are not allowed to choose what we want to be religiously. I was born into a Christian Maronite family. Therefore, I am a Christian Maronite. If fate had it differently and my parents were from another part of Lebanon, I may have been a follower of a different religion. And this applies to everyone. As we grow up, we are taught our religion and nothing else. Come Sunday morning, it was better for me to attend Mass. For others, they had better pray five times a day, fast during Ramadan and never eat pork or drink alcohol. During my early days at AUB, I was surprised to find that some Muslim people – obviously a minority – had absolutely no idea when Christmas was celebrated. On the other hand, I thought Achoura was a happy celebration. We rarely challenge our religious beliefs because we don’t feel the need to. Those beliefs enable us to blend in our societies and not get ostracized – at least in that regards. They enable us to connect to other people with whom we are able to identify not due to their mentality or thoughts but because of their religious beliefs. At a certain level, deep down, it’s always easier for a “Christian” to make “Christian” friends than to become friends with a “Muslim.” The reverse is also true.

Our narrow religious upbringing also limits us to the other religions present around us, especially in the region’s few relatively mixed countries. Egypt’s Muslims know very little about the Copts who were founders of their country. Lebanon’s Muslims know very little about its Christians. The opposite is also true. This lack of understanding, combined with an increased rooting in unchallenged belief, places the seed of conflict, which has been manifesting way too many times across the region.

However, religion is but one side of the coin. For with the rise of the Islamists on one side, I believe that the region’s atheist numbers are increasing dramatically, albeit most of them are probably closeted, and they are fueled by the exact same events that are getting people to become more religious, coupled with an increase of education across the board. What people turning increasingly religious see as a threat to their belief, others do not see it as such. What some increasingly religious people do to defend their beliefs, others see as a violation of freedom. What some increasingly religious people feel related to, others want to detach from it. The religious behavior that makes some religious people proud causes others to be the opposite. The picture that some extremists deem offensive, others see as a manifestation of free thought. The children seen as defiling Islam by some, others see as children being children. The girl infecting the minds of other girls with poison, which some (obviously very, very few) believe, others see as a complete violation of every single human sanctity.

One part decides to cling further to what they know because of such events. Others decide to look at alternative, which might fit better with how they see the world, away from a notion of faith that has become alien to them. After all, all they’re seeing of faith is repeated incidences of things they do not remotely agree with, despite that being as remote from what religions call for.

Religious people will call it a lack of understanding and narrow-mindedness for someone to turn atheist. They will never be convinced how someone who was born and raised on certain teachings can ditch them entirely and move towards thoughts that they find revolting. What they don’t get is that the same rhetoric they use applies in similar fashion to atheists who are moving away from teachings that they find revolting and forced upon them throughout their years.

Of course, this does not apply to all religious people as some practice their religion in silence, without letting everyone know when they’re praying and when they’re offended. But this silent majority is not the one that gives an impression. Out of a crowd of millions, the person who changes perceptions is that whose voice is heard the most. And in a time of religious insecurity, in a region of political insecurity, the voices heard the most are those of people that rub a whole lot of other people the wrong way.

Regardless of where you stand regarding the two sides of the religion-atheism coin, the image being painted is the following: religion is the bread of the poor. Atheism is the butter of the “educated.” However, the only one thing that I believe is of absolute necessity is that the Middle East needs more atheists.

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The Voice is Coming To The Middle East: The Voice Arabia

I spotted the following poster while walking in Gemmayzé yesterday.

Yes! Another talent show imported to the region for insatiable crazed fans.

The Voice, originally a Dutch TV show, was taken up by the US and then many other countries followed suite. Now it’s the Middle East’s turn.

Because between Star Academy, Arab Idol, Arabs Got Talent and many other talent shows that I haven’t heard of, we still have a shortage.

The concept of the TV show from what I gathered is the following: it starts with blind auditions whereby candidates sing to judges who have their backs turned to them. If only one of the judges likes a candidate, he would choose for this candidate to be on his or her team. So each judge builds a team and then the teams go head to head against each other while people vote, obviously.

I have mentioned The Voice on my blog before when I spoke about a Lebanese contestant on the French version of the show. He ended up losing around the quarter finals.

Will you be watching this? Because I surely don’t have time for it.

Censorship in Lebanon: Not Exemplary in the Middle East?

The Samir Kassir Foundation recently shared this study that they conducted regarding various forms of censorship in the region. It’s an  interesting read. You can get the PDF here.

What’s interesting to note about the study is that cases of censorship in Lebanon are not among the region’s best. But fear not, it’s not the state that’s actually doing all the censorship.

In Lebanon, two phenomena raised concerns among defenders of liberty. First, the physical assaults on journalists by non-state actors, whether members of political parties, demonstrators, or a new category of activists commonly called “the inhabitants” (Al-Ahali) of some delicate regions. All sides of the Lebanese political spectrum were responsible for such acts.

In fact, in the facts & figures part of the study, a graph showing attacks on journalists in each country of the study had the following results:

The low number in Syria is not to be interpreted positively, as the study conductors noted. The attacks, when they’ve taken place, were brutal, as others graphs of the study show: Syria has the highest rate of violence against intellectuals and journalists.

What’s interesting about the results, however, is that 51 out of 55 attacks on journalists in Lebanon weren’t carried out by State authorities, but by non-state entities. Examples given are: Hariri supporters attacking journalists on the “Sunni Day of Anger” when Hariri’s government was toppled, as well as Hezbollah forces attacking journalists investigating their transgressions in Lassa and other villages in South Lebanon.

Another interesting fact to note is that the sector most affected by censorship in Lebanon was cinema with more than 10 movies being banned from being screened in Lebanon. Officials justified the decisions as a necessary precaution to preserve Lebanon’s relation with Syria and Iran and our civil peace. I think they were referring to the abysmal Beirut Hotel in one of those points.

For the non-state bans in Lebanon, one is regarding the LMFAO concert ban which happened due to some groups protesting the band’s anti-Christian feel in their song’s video. MEA has banned the newspaper Al Akhbar from being distributed on its flights. And last but not least, the infamous incident to hide Steven Spielberg’s name off the “Tintin” movie poster.

All in all, while Syria takes the cake when it comes to fighting liberties, the situation in Lebanon is not exactly peachy according to this study. Honestly, I didn’t think we had this bad compared to neighboring countries, which leads me to my conclusion.

What I think is a grave flaw in the conduction of this study is that such events in neighboring countries do not make headline news as they do over here, making our numbers seem inflated compared to them. Most of the transgressions that happen in them might be hidden or kept under the radar, making the situation seem much better than it is.

Either way, I’d take the results of this study with a grain of salt. While it is always an interesting read, I don’t think it’s correct nor is it a representative comparison between the countries of the region. Perhaps a look at the numbers of countries known for championing freedom is a clearer comparison. At least you’d know that being skeptical regarding their numbers is unfounded.

Sh*t Middle Eastern People Say…

There are two YouTube videos I recently stumbled on that parody people from the Middle East and they’re actually quite funny, so definitely check them out.

The one parodying girls:

“Free free Palestine!”

The one parodying guys:

“Bro, I want her to smell me in Palestine, bro!”

 

 

Lebanon in the 1960’s – The Golden Age

Almost all our parents tell us about the days when Lebanon was the golden country of the region. They tell us about the days when Beirut was called the Paris of the Middle East. They tell us about “Sahet Al Burj” (now Martyr’s Square in Downtown) and how lively it was.

We also heard stories about the train that used to run in Lebanon. I, for one, have a family member that worked as a train conductor back in the days.

But for all they are, these tales remain as they are – stories – of a long lost past that we try to make out pictures for in our mind.

How about a real-life video of Lebanon in the 1960’s? Well, there’s just the thing. And it’s a few minutes long, done by Harold Baim for the BBC. Bank Audi’s ad about the importance of the “lira” apparently took a scene straight out of this.

I, for one, had a sad smile as I watched this. It made me proud to know that my country was simply this awesome at one time. It also makes me really sad that it’ll be very difficult for us to get this back.

Women wore bikinis to the beach and didn’t care to be filmed. Jounieh’s bay actually has green spaces. Beirut’s skyline isn’t full of useless ugly high-rises. Perhaps the only place in the video that still looks pretty much the same is the gorgeous Lebanese North – mostly because it is one of the country’s most underdeveloped areas.

But who or what are we to blame? our go-to-for-blame sectarian political system? Absolutely not. We only have ourselves to blame: letting foreign armies into our land to govern us, not having any futuristic approach regarding civil planning, selling land to whoever and however, demolishing Beirut and turning into an identity-less concrete mess – even building inside cemeteries.

We may not be able to turn the clock. But at least you can stop the hurt before it runs deeper than it does today. Maybe it’s time to lessen the endless political bickering and focus on laws that help us preserve whatever identity we have left.

Former culture minister Salim Warde had a great initiative regarding this, one that got shoved into the depth of some bureaucratic drawer as his government toppled. This legislation is something we terribly need right now.

“Without roots and heritage there is no future,” Warde said. Perhaps by having tangible proof of ours, we can work towards saving our future.

Nancy Afiouny: My Meow – Lebanon’s Lady Gaga/Britney Spears/Other Pop Trash Wannabe

It seems the concept of beauty queen wannabes, models, actresses, etc… wanting to become singers is still selling to some overly wealthy producer like hotcakes.

How about having a former beauty queen contestent, an actress and a model all together in one package? I’m sure the producer who paid for Nancy Afiouny’s foray into the singing world must have thought he hit a gold mine. And what’s more, this actress/beauty queen/model was willing to take it off in her music video in a region where the word conservative would be considered a gross understatement for its sociological description.

In all honesty, I have no problem in watching a video like this, as long as the music behind the video is actually decent enough. Who would mind something like this actually. Don’t start the whole feminist “women stereotyping, sexual image using, etc…” talk. If the women don’t want it, it doesn’t happen. But with horrible pronunciation, obvious Lady Gaga antiques and an atrocious song to top it all off, Nancy Afiouny is just horrid.

I’m not criticizing the overly suggestive music video. In fact, I think this uptight region needs more liberal arts to let it loose a little. After all, the Salafis and the Ikhwans are scoring major wins in Egypt’s recent elections. The Islamists have already won in Tunisia and Morocco. God knows they need to let loose a bit.

But when it comes to Lady Gaga, her music videos have always had – whether you like the song or not – something to back them up musically. Her music videos and music are definitely over the board but they work for her. Lady Gaga however doesn’t work as a costume for Nancy Afiouny – not even Britney Spears or any other pop star/trash for that matter.

Perhaps miss Afiouny is giving the world a gift for St. Barbra’s day this weekend. That kitty costume would sure get lots of horny Islamist men to go meow before they start shouting: “BLASPHEMY.”

As for my ears, they’re still bleeding. The stray cat outside is still meowing in pain.

Proceed at your own risk:

Christians, The Middle East and a Whole Lot of Hypocrisy

I am not a Christian who would like to think I am of a persecuted religion in the Middle East. In fact, I’d much rather think that the situation I’m in is a byproduct of the political situation of the region, more so than a simple manifestation of hate.

But simply put, that is not the case.

It’s very easy to look at the situation at hand and say: Oh, it’s not that bad. But it is.  Recently a Pew Poll (one of the most highly regarded research polls) showed that about half of the Egyptian population have negative views towards Christians. But no it can’t be the truth that in Egypt, where Arabism has sprung from, has sectarian problems and practices discriminatory policies. It just can’t be that sectarian hatred exists in a country with so called “revolutionary youth.” Or is it that we can’t accept that Arab youth can have discriminatory feelings and that discriminatory policies are carried out in their own backyards?

I am not an atheist. And even though I am definitely understanding and tolerant to all other religions, there comes a point where, upon seeing people getting killed for protesting against their church getting burned down, you start to boil inside.

And that’s what happened to me on Sunday evening as I watched Egyptian Copts get murdered on the banks of the Nile, after a peaceful protest against the governor of the Aswan province for issuing an order to tear down what they called a church.

Many people think their struggles extend only for a brief period in time, not knowing that the Coptic existence in modern day Egypt has become synonymous with persecution.

Do any of you know that Coptic schools were nationalized by Gamal Abdul Nasser and never given back to them? Imagine Armenians in Lebanon being forced to give up their schools and not being able to teach their language.  And for reference, the Coptic language is one of the oldest languages in the world.

Do any of you know that Copts are not allowed to build churches except by going through drawn out bureaucratic hoops, most of which end up failing? Contrast this with an Egyptian law that states having a Muslim house of prayer in your building exempts you from paying taxes on that building.

Do any of you know that Copts have witnessed many massacres at the hands of fundamentalists, most of which people outside their community have no idea about?

Do any of you know that in Egypt you must write your sect on your ID card, which can lead to discriminatory policies?

It’s very easy to look at the predicament of the Copts in Egypt and turn a blind eye. But turning a blind eye is no longer acceptable.

When the Copts were protesting on Sunday and they started getting killed for doing so, Arab news outlets portrayed them as terrorists. They were portrayed as low lives whose only cause of existence is to stir trouble, which is far from the case. As people who have been burned, killed, tortured… all for the sake of their religion, they sure have put up with a lot. But there’s just so much that a people can take.

And if you thought the portrayal of Al Arabiya and Al Jazeera was bad and thought it might be justified due to their overwhelming ignorance, why don’t we look at how those Copts were portrayed in their country’s state TV. The reporter compared them to the Israeli army and called upon Muslims to defend their country against “them.”

But who are “them”? Aren’t those Copts the reason those Muslims actually have a country to defend?

I don’t want to go into history. But there’s something that is quite simple and clear. Copts are the heart of Egypt. They are the founders of that nation. They are the people that gave Egypt its name and a direct link to its past. Copts are the Ancient Egyptians. That is a fact that cannot be debated.

Yasmine Rashidi, an Egyptian journalist, tweeted the following on Sunday: “Insulted for being Copt. I’m not, but with hair uncovered I’m a target. There is blatant persecution here. Never seen it in this way before.”

She may not have “seen it in this way before” but it was always there.

The problem, however, is not confined to Egypt.

Christians all around the region have been persecuted for a long time just because of their religion. And in the 21st century, is that really acceptable? Is it really also acceptable for everyone to act as if nothing was happening?

If we take a very quick glimpse at Iraq today, it’s very easy to see who is the greatest victim of the country’s current situation: the Christians.

Persecuted and decimated, only very few remain in their country today. The rest of them? Stranded in the land of nowhere, hoping to return to the country they cannot call home anymore.

It is also very easy to look at what many Syrian Christians consider as arguments to keep their political system the way it is and be “persuaded” into thinking it is really the best thing for Christians in the region.

But I respectfully, categorically, utterly and totally disagree.

 

It is strange though how so many people in the region are silent about such important issues like that of Christian persecution.  For many so called “leftists” and “activists” in the Arab world, and outside, the trend is to fight the big bad evil “West” which is seen as “Christian”, constantly stating it is they who oppress.  Yet many of them fail to bring up the Middle Eastern Christians’ plight because it is shows hypocrisy in their own cause: Arab society also carries out oppression.  “Leftists” and “activists” hold rallies in support of Palestinians, brandishing flags and slogans, yet when Iraqi Christians were driven from their homes “activists” remained silent.

When Copts watched their churches burned and their people massacred, why did they not cry out for them?  Why were there not huge rallies in support of these people demanding their equality?  Aren’t they suffering the same as Palestinians? Being driven from their homes and their places of worship being destroyed?

People cry and curse every time an Arab is treated poorly in the West, but when people in our own backyard have their houses destroyed or families killed we remain silent. In the West many shout in protest about their Arab identity, yet in the Arab world it is near blasphemy for Copts and other minorities to identify as the way they wish.  Western societies are not the only xenophobic or discriminatory societies in the world.

One thing, however, is clear. The ONLY source of protection for Christians in the Middle East – in any country of the Middle East – is political power. There is no way us sitting around waiting for some dictator to protect us, for some tyrant to give us mercy, is a good enough measure of self-preservation.

As a Lebanese Christian, I have seen what the Syrian regime has done to me. I have seen how its tanks ran over our men and women just because they defied it. I have seen how it killed everyone that spoke up against it. I remember how, with my most basic instincts I realized that having this foreign army in my land is wrong, and my parents telling me not to say so in front of anyone. I remember it as if it were yesterday.

And I also remember that it was us, Christians, who asked for their protection – not knowing that it would be the reason we are in our predicament today, not knowing that their greed in our land would take away of our political power and turn us into weaklings.

But the time to regain our political power is here. We cannot accept any politician who thinks that our best interest is with that of a tyrant just because that tyrant is of a minority. We, as Christians, cannot accept the status quo of things anymore because it is obviously not working.

The Copts in Egypt had their say on Sunday. It was bloody. But their word is out there. And it sure feels much better, I’m sure, than to bottle yet another burned church in like it’s nothing. The time to act is now.