A Few Heresies in Honor of the Ramadan Season!

Ramadan. The most hedonistic time of the Muslim year. So, hedonistic, in fact, it might as well be called the Muslim Christmas or Hanukah. Indeed, human nature, when given the chance, tends to bastardize all rituals and observances meant to celebrate our loftier desires and yearnings. So be it. I really don’t have much problem with this particular human contradiction. I much rather the heterogeneity of individualized bastardization than the homogeneity of collective ritualistic observance.

But, and judging from the few made-for-Ramadan TV series that we can catch on cable (being unable to install a satellite dish in our apartment and follow the Ramadan scene more closely), this heterogeneity is rapidly becoming superficial, and is under serious threat of diminishing to the point of insignificance.

Year after year, TV series, especially Egyptian ones, become more and more infused with so much male chauvinist and traditional religious values that one has to seriously wonder if a systematic effort is not actually involved here. For while many complain with regard to the increasing explicitness of pop videos, in reality, pop videos can inspire more guilt in the soul of at a teenager who has been raised all his life on traditional values than they can inspire rebellion against said values. And now, we have TV series that increasingly consecrate traditional values, serving a purpose that is diametrically opposite to the one that was entrusted onto them by the secular Arab regimes in Egypt and Syria in particular, with many of the same actors and script writers, not to mention political leaders, still involved.

And while, this observation might hold more true with regard to Egyptian series than Syrian ones, which continue to betray some pronounced secular sympathies, the gap between the two artistic communities is rapidly closing, as is the gap between religious and nationalist currents in the country and the region. Being an Arab is becoming more and more synonymous with being a Muslim even in Christian Arab minds. As such, you either rebel against both, or you end up embracing both. No, this does not meant that Christians are converting to Islam, or that they will convert to Islam, people are never that mechanical in their reaction to things.

But many Christians are becoming as conservative and anti-secular, if not anti-western, as Muslims in the region, a fact evidenced by their current tendency to turn towards their religious leaders for inspiration and guidance rather than their political ones. Those Christians who cannot accept this state of affairs are emigrating in increasingly large numbers.

As to how this plays out in the artistic community, it is indeed quite interesting, and somewhat painful, to see how, in the hope of postponing the inevitable or softening the blow, or out of complete ignorance of what is actually at stake (which is more often the case, especially with regard to younger stars), Christian actors are choosing to praise the very values that will soon prove quite inimical to their basic rights as citizens. It is equally interesting and saddening to see how the same actors who have championed the more secular values at one point now seem to be advocating the more traditional and religious ones, perhaps by way of preparing themselves for the encounter with their maker.

Virtue has no secular side to it these days. Virtue is purely Islamic. The “father knows best” attitude of earlier shows, after all, we have always been a male chauvinist culture, is now being defended on Islamic grounds. In other words, father knows best, because he is following the word of God, Who, of course, Knows Best. Rebellion against the authority of the father is now more sacrilegious than it has ever been. Modern values of individualism and free expression are condemned as a priori wrong and evil. No argument in this regard takes place, the plot presupposes that they are wrong and, more importantly perhaps, that people know and accept that they are wrong. Indeed, plots are constructed in such a way that leaves the viewer no choice but to agree with the conclusion.

Women in these series, especially when independent and not so enthralled with their motherly duties, or with the “fact” that a woman’s calling is to be a “good” mother above all, are invariably portrayed as sluts.

No. These series are not some Islamic versions of Hollywood Christmas classics. Nor are they a celebration of traditional family values. They are a rejection of and a systematic attempt at demonizing modern values. Hollywood classics, for all their simplifications and occasional pitfalls, are quite humanist in nature, rather than purely Christian. There is no humanism involved here, but a missionary zeal that is no longer constrained to the religious channels.

No. contemporary Arab pop culture is not a liberating influence, but an instrument of mobilization that now not the only the nationalist regimes but also the religious currents are using to reject modernity and western influence.

34 thoughts on “A Few Heresies in Honor of the Ramadan Season!

  1. I have been observing your blog for sometime thinking you have something to offer to the Middle East and its people. I am disappointed. You now look more like a retrograde ungrateful outcast than the self described heretic you claim.

  2. You ask me why? It is simple. You crossed the line between heretic and outcast. Don’t you see the extreme bitterness of the tone of your article? Better adopt a different approach.

  3. Aha, I see your point now, and it is indeed legitimate. But the heretic is always an outcast of sorts really, he is often pushed in that direction whether he likes it or not. As for the occasional bitterness in some of my posts, that’s hardly something that one can avoid all the time. Still, it is not preventing me from engaging in work that is meant to make a difference, regardless and in spite of the odds, especially through my involvement in the Tharwa Community and other Tharwa-related projects, that will continue to unfold in the next few months. I express my bitterness in words, so that my actions continue to be more guided by a more lofty (I hope) sentiment.

  4. You’re passing judgment on a subject that you yourself said don’t have enough information to critic (since you don’t have a satellite). Not mention your wide range generalization on how television/art is reinforcing sectarian and anti-western feelings. While completely ignoring the most important factor behind this attitude; the totally shitty western policy toward the Middle East.While you’re probably right about some of these shows, especially the commercial Egyptian series. I am hearing fantastic reviews about some Syrian ones. Especiallyعلى طول الأيام playing on Dubai TV which I am told has some groundbreaking social discourse, at least my mom says so 😉

  5. hi, your posts are a delight to my mind. I am experiencing this example head on while living in Egyptin the middle of this ideological brainwashing.Its becoming a struggle to be secular & arab. Its anathema. Its damning to see how backward and how past oriented they want us to go, think & become. Worst of all no one questions. Please continue & thank you.

  6. Very true observation Ammarthe arab series are trying to impose a culture of their own , and even brainwash the society with banal and false values of “good” and “evil” based on religeon and traditionsthe contradiction between this and between the explicitness of the pob videos is what i call the schezophrenia of the arabic media and of the modern arab personalityNot to mention the contradiction between the luxurios palaces and villas that are used in those series mainly in the egyption ones , and between the very poor miserable reality…but thats what everyone here is doing living in fantasies and illusions rather than sticking to reality…another shcezophrenia…and its very true that its getting more religeous year after year and at least in egypt the actresses who decided to put veil were very much praised and embraced by the media HALLELUJAH SHE’S PUTTING A VEIL!! and its so sad to see how our national idenitity , both christians and moslems , is vanishing and religeon is taking over!!

  7. Indeed, IC, but I am not passing judgment only on the basis of this Ramadan season, or even on the basis of an observer from outside. For as you know, I am in a position that allows me to be quite privy as to some of the internal behind the scene debates on what has been allowed in series, what has been censored, and why. I also made a point of saying that my arguments apply to Egyptian series more than to Syrian ones. But I also said that the gap is closing. Let’s not forget that just a few years ago, there was indeed a spate of Egyptian series that did break certain taboos, but then, lo and behold, they disappeared, and the same actors (and even writers) championed a whole different, even opposite, set of issues and viewpoints. My fear is that this could be happening in Syria as well, that what we are seeing at this stage is the last flowering of secular social criticism, while the politics of the regime and its continuing appeasement of Islamist groups might actually pave the way for a reenactment of the Egyptian scenario in our midst. The lure for the regime here is the necessity of attracting national support for its defiant stances vis-à-vis the international community. In an increasingly conservative and radicalized environment, we can easily see how nationalism can pave and is paving the way to Islamism, as the twain become interchangeable.

  8. Also, IC, the best thing I can do to change the “the totally shitty western policy toward the Middle East,” is to change the totally shitty Arab policy vis-à-vis Arabs, whether we are talking about regimes vis-à-vis the populace, or the attitude of certain segments of the populations vis-à-vis other segments.

  9. I was not trying to “defend” the Arab side god forbid. On the contrary, the arab view is much “shittier” than the western one. All I was asking for is a bit more criticism of the latter. Spreading the love, so to speak.

  10. Ishtar, virtue, piety, honesty and religiosity form one singular whole in the minds of many people these days. A secular person is a priori condemned as a drunken, drug-abusing, corrupt and dishonest individual, while the good and virtuous person is always portrayed as religious. Little or no room is left for something in between, for the possibility of being honest and secular at the same time. This is a very serious issue with much dire implications for our future. IC, I understand your point, but I just don’t want to lose my focus, which is to correct what we can on the inside. There will time to spread the “love” when we can really make a difference, and not just whine, not that I am necessarily implying that you are whining, but you know, there are so many others that do. I just don’t want to fall into that trap. It’s tempting.

  11. Culture is , in the final analysis, a reflection of religious beliefs. Based on the above, which is acceptable to the greater majority of social scietists, then one must expect the Arab culture to be essentially an Islamic one. This does not mean that there is no room for Christians or their religion but it simply implies that the Arab culture shares a set of values and beliefs that are derived from the Moslem story. I am reminded , in this regard, of the anidote that claims that Michel Aflak asked to be converted to Islam on his death bed because it finally dawned on him that being an Arab is ultimately being Moslem. Unfortunately the story that is propagated by most of the Ramadan TV programs is a story that needs to be retold because the sensibilities of the times have changed and thus there is a greater need for a more relevant interpretationthat is capable of dealing with the current challenges. Fundamentalism is totally disconnected with the issues that people face everyday and cannot contribute to a better understanding of what we are and what is our role in this age of modernity unless we develop the courage to modify the myth and retell the story.

  12. “I am necessarily implying that you are whining, but you know, there are so many others that do” Ammar, your “focus” approach is very counter productive … do you really believe that by not adding a few more words (like: “thanks to the Arab dictators and to the mistakes of American policy it he region”) then you are wasting too much of your time and losing focus?When you spend 10 more seconds to type those magic words (spreading the love to teh US and/or Israel) then so many more readers would allow themselves to be influenced by your balanced analysis and reasonable sounding ideas … instead, you seem to struggle when you try once a year to barely say anythinkg critical of Israel or the United States.Back to the topic, I actually agree with Ammar to some extent. I watched some episodes of both Souad Hosni and Abdul Halim Hafez’s life story and I was surprised how religious they made them look and sound like, same aplies to almost everyone wround them working in show business … I am not sure if in Egypt in the 50s and 60’s everyone was that religious. If you watch the original movies from the sixties, you will find that the actresses were much sexier (dressing and attitudes) .. this is the real Souad Hosni.

  13. Now that you have highlighted the quote, Alex, I see that I neglected an all too pivotal “not” in the sentence. I meant to tell IC that “I am NOT necessarily…” Thanks for giving me the oppotunity to clear that.

  14. You didn’t miss it ammar. The full line was “not that I am necessarily implying that you are whining, but you know,..”To be fair, I sometimes complain for the sake of just complaining. But I will leave it up to you guys to decide if this was one of those times. Though I see that Alex has echoed my view. That many bloggers use the excuse/reason of “focusing” to push their, sometimes narrow, point of view. But I feel that critiquing the Syrian/Arabic faults (which is definitely needed in abundance) loses its legitimacy when you ignore the key non-Arab players. Who, with all certainty, are not sitting on the sidelines picking their noses.

  15. Don’t be so sad.As a western man, I can say that more extremist and disconnected from the reality the TV series will be, more the people will be immunized.More they repeat the same baseless things, more they will remember the people as much these things are disconnected, and indeed false, from the reality.They are advertising a product, beer or Islam there is no difference. But the product will continue to sell only if it is good. If they sell a defective product, no amount of ads will be useful for long.Just now, arabs peoples (apart from Iraqis) are able to choose between two very defective products, one know and tested, the other know but untested.Lets they test the second products (islamism), so they can feel the taste. And more the taste it , more they will reject it in the future.

  16. I think you raise some important points because just a few days ago an article came out in the Qatari english daily highlighting the fact that several religious figures in Qatar are complaining about the U.S. universities opening in Doha’s Qatar Foundation, claiming that the universities will have a westernizing effect on the society. I found it ridiculous. It should not be a matter of U.S. university versus an Arabic University…it should be a matter of which university provides the better education. And yet they still go back to that issue?

  17. You wrote, “Modern values of individualism and free expression are condemned as a priori wrong and evil.” I wonder what your definition of modernity is.I find myself disagreeing with much of what you write about. Rather than your typical dismissing of Islamic concerns as atavistic, backward-thinking, ignorant, intolerant and anti-Western; I would argue that obviously, if you consider the Qur’an as true, this means that an individual Muslim must use his or her conscious rational thinking, his or her own conscience and use imaginative and sophisticated thinking about our history. I also tend to believe that human nature does not change, and that any principles of modernity that you consider so new and unusual are not really new at all.Also, I would not worry too much about the distinction you make between secular and religious values. Superficial religious behaviors which are not accompanied by characteristics such as humility, modesty, patience, forgiveness, tolerance and intellectual curiousity do not really fool people in the long run. Similarly, to say that there exist merely secular values which have no foundation in religious teachings is also unsatisfying. Even if a non-believer says that his universal moral values have no grounding in religion, a believer will attribute any moral values to the fact that every human being has been endowed by his Creator with a consciousness of morality (to paraphrase the American Declaration of Independence a little).

  18. anonymous 12:32 pm”I would argue that obviously, if you consider the Qur’an as true, this means that an individual Muslim must use his or her conscious rational thinking, his or her own conscience and use imaginative and sophisticated thinking about our history.”Either you believe or you do not believe. If you allow yourself to ask some fundamental questions about your religion and start examining historical facts, you are not a true believer. There is no point in reasoning with a true believer. You will get nowhere. A true “believer” is guided by faith and his rationality justifies rather than questions his faith. If you study human history and social pshychology in a purely rational and scientific way you would most probably dismiss the Quran, the Bible, the Torah and all other religious “holy” books as interesting works of fiction which neverless promote social stability. Rational people say (and mostly can prove)that not only are these books based on wildly inacurate fragments of history but also the underlying stories and moral messages developed and reinterpreted over many centuries and used for social control by the ruling elite. We get into trouble when we mix and confuse logic and rationality with religious beliefs. It is like mixing oil with water. Ammar’s writings (to my mind) reflect both his deep religious experience and subsequent retreat towards a more humanist-based value system. Most of us inhabit that overlapping space between true belief and pure rationality. This means we could be forgiven for being less than puritan in our moral stands and philosophical positions and less than totally logical in our thoughts and arguments.

  19. Anonymous 12:32: “Superficial religious behaviors which are not accompanied by characteristics such as humility, modesty, patience, forgiveness, tolerance and intellectual curiousity do not really fool people in the long run”Actually, these behaviors do fool people more often and for far longer spans of time than we like to believe.Anonymous 12:32: “if you consider the Qur’an as true, this means that an individual Muslim must use his or her conscious rational thinking, his or her own conscience and use imaginative and sophisticated thinking about our history.”But, what if your conscious rational thinking led you to suspect the presupposed truthfulness of the Qur’an? Do you stop being virtuous then? I am not sure about you, but the majority of practicing Muslims I know will say yes, because virtue to them can only emanate from the Qur’an, not from any rational consideration of the problems of life and daily living. By attempting to advocate a more rational approach to things, you probably have more problems within your particular Muslim community than I ever would. After all, I long crossed over to the other side, but you insist on navigating from within. Don’t argue with me on the basis of your conclusion regarding faith and religiosity, my arguments are about the more popular versions that will prove equally problematic and unaccommodating for both you and me. Philip I: “This means we could be forgiven for being less than puritan in our moral stands and philosophical positions and less than totally logical in our thoughts and arguments.”Indeed.

  20. Reem, believe, if the Qatari sheikhs will have their way, they will not simply criticize the decision to establish American universities in Doha, but will seek to expunge all the humanities and social studies programs in existing Qatari universities. If this is not atavism, laced with xenophobia, I don’t know what is.

  21. Philip, I will replicate my approach to politics:I disagree with “Either you believe or you do not believe.”You can believe in the obvious basic messages and values, but you can accept the probable fact that some details, some stories, and some interpretations where man made, and they only reflected the opinions and conclusions of those who conveyed what they heard, probably after they unintentionally colored the original messages to their liking.For example, in christianity, I feel that “turn the other cheeck” is something that I trust was really attributed to Jesus, becaue it is so harmonious with the rest of the teachings of Christianity. Whereas some of the interpretations of some of the messengers such as “you can only be saved if you are a Christian” do not make sense to me and I do not believe in them. But that does not mean I reject everything else.

  22. IC, Alex, Ammar and others:As a Westerner I’m always amazed by Middle Eastern response to any crticism, whether it be politics, religion or culture – somehow the West is either to blame or is pointed out as being worse. While we in the West seem to do too much “navel gazing” it appears that in the Middle East few are willing to do so. Blaming the West as the cause of all its problems or pointing out that the West is worse, is not going to change things on the ground, so to speak. In fact by placing the blame at the feet of the West, the person making this claim is actually abdicating all of his/her responsibilty for the part they play in the reality of the Middle East today.

  23. Kevin: “Blaming the West as the cause of all its problems or pointing out that the West is worse, is not going to change things on the ground, so to speak.” Indeed, the West is a complicating factor rather than a cause. Alex: “I feel that ‘turn the other cheek” is something that I trust was really attributed to Jesus, because it is so harmonious with the rest of the teachings of Christianity.'” This is what faith is about, and yours seems to be guided by a desire to accept and accommodate the other. But this is not what rational consideration of the historical evidence might lead to. Still, turning the other cheek makes a lot of sense, regardless of its attribution to Jesus, or any other historical or mythical figures. This is probably why you don’t restrict salvation to Christians.

  24. KevinI like the way Ammar put it: the west is a complicating factor, not the cause.So we should discuss both, the cause (usually middle east in origin) and the complicating factor.Ammar, I feel that as long as I am not dropping everything in the holy book becuase I found a part that does not sound authentic, then I can still believe in the “good” parts which make up the majority of our holy books.

  25. Alex, I have no problem with holy books so long as they include the works of Ibn khaldoun, Ibn Rushd, Kant, Hume, Locke, Jared Diamond, Umberto Eco, Derrida, etc.

  26. this is one amazing discussion.I agree with Ammar that the west is a complicating factor and not the cause. A new moderate muslim school of thought needs to be established to rival the tribal wahabi fanaticism. If peace is struck between Syria and Israel, then Damascus could serve as a capital for a coexisting Islamic school and will replace the Azhar, something like the Vatican of the muslim world. Damascus has what it takes.I am working on a post with more details.

  27. A comment on the the relation between Islam and “arabism”“Pan-Arabism” in the political sense will always fall short of unifying people in the middle east. Geography will.Take Syria for example, Damascus and Aleppo have been important centers of Islam, and also for Arab literal culture for almost 14th centuries, however Syrian culture (in the geographical sense) stands strong.Indeed the Arab culture has a Muslim heart, in the same sense that the Syrian culture has a pre-Islamic and largely Christian soul. I think Syrians are equally affected by both, simply some happen to be Muslims and some happen to be Christians. This balance between the two cultures needs to be always maintained. I see nothing wrong in Christian syrians sharing the hopes of their Muslim brothers given that these hopes are not biased to one religion.Our hopes for the future should not be explicitly driven by religion, and if that is ever necessary it has to build on what is shared between the two religions.

  28. Indeed, Amr, I would lik to hear your comments and thoughts on this matter of Islam, identity and Arabism. You always have interesting things to say, and this is one topic that needs a lot of fresh ideas and minds.

  29. “A secular person is a priori condemned as a drunken, drug-abusing, corrupt and dishonest individual, while the good and virtuous person is always portrayed as religious… This is a very serious issue with much dire implications for our future.”Very True… This is actually one of the main problems in the middleast… This is why 7asan Nasralla (for example) is still alive and Gubran Twaini has been killed… No one wants to listen to logic or reason, they want leaders to talk about how they are guided by GOD… and not by common sense… There is no room for seculars in leadership in our countries… (This unfortunately is also somewhat true in the US, but not in Europe)It’s funny, i posted something about Ramadan on my blog too, and the subject is very similar to yours 🙂 (even though the content isn’t)

  30. I feel the need to comment on the first paragraph of this post. “This strategy did serve to humiliate the Soviets, no doubt about that, but it did also, well, help plant the seeds for 9/11.” To begin with it did more than humiliate the Soviets, it was an integral part of the circumstances that won the cold war. So the trade off so far is 4 to 5 thousand dead Americans so far from Islamist against an antogonist that had enough nukes to anihalate all life from the planet. MAD might have worked but the risks to everyone were catastropic.

  31. Indeed, Rancher, and considering the risks involved, the policies of brinkmanship are not always the wisest bet, and they should never be considered as though they are the only bet. But now that we are in the thick of it all, the US might just find itself relapsing on this very attitude. What I mean to say here is that the US should not deal with the regimes in the region from a position of perceived weakness, no matter what, as this is bound to encourage the various regimes to make more and more demands, most of which will not be legitimate, nor should they be so. If the US wants to get out of the current mess, it needs to mend fences with its allies, not its enemies. More on what I mean by this in my upcoming post.

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