Wednesday, July 21, 2010

Last night I went to a concert by the Russian-Jewish-American singer and songwriter Regina Spektor. I was probably the oldest person there, but I was delightful to see so many grey heads among a bunch of teenage fans – a tribute to the range of Regina's writing. It wasn't as great a concert as it might have been: Regina seemed distracted and almost unfriendly throughout; but at the end she revealed that her cellist had died earlier in the tour and that she found it hard to perform with her usual grins and chats with the audience. He'd drowned by accident on the 6th of July (this was the 20th).

Well, that was my evening. I don't know why, but when I looked round the magnificent auditorium, it struck me that there weren't any visibly Muslim women there. Thinking of the same concert hall, one of the finest and most welcoming in Europe, I realized I hadn't seen anyone wearing hijab at the Patti Smith gig I'd been at not long before, or the tango orchestra just after that, or even at the not very good concert of Iranian music I'd attended in a different hall. I've never seen any at an opera performance, or plain old classical music concert.

Now, this may all be quite misleading. After all, I don't go to that many concerts or to many different venues, so it could all be happening elsewhere. But here's the problem: I shop in town once a week, on Friday. 'Town' is Newcastle upon Tyne, which is a small city in the North East of England. Newcastle doesn't have a large Muslim population compared with places like Birmingham or Bradford, yet on a Friday afternoon I will see dozens of Muslim women in hijab of some sort. Two weeks ago, I counted sixty-four. Some wear the niqab, others look pretty in coloured headscarves and tight jeans or even a short skirt and stockings. I wouldn't expect the niqabi types to turn up at a Regina Spektor concert, but why not a teenager who doesn't look as if religion is the first thing she thinks of when she wakes up in the morning.

Am I being reasonable in wondering where these young women are? Well, yes, I think so. Although they are fairly visible in the main shopping mall, in shops, and even in the Costa's Coffee café my wife and I frequent, they aren't noticeable at cultural events. Does this matter? I think it does. When I carried out my research on Muslim schools, I found on several school websites a prohibition on pupils taking part in music, dance, even gym and games. In one case, a boy was criticized for wanting to play cricket for Pakistan, since cricket is one of the most disgusting things anyone can waste his time in. In several other cases, I read that playing chess is forbidden, because he who plays chess, it is as if he has dipped his hand in blood.

Why does this matter, and how is it related to Israel? First of all, I deplore the fact that very few Muslim girls will become ballet dancers, or boys and girls with talent for music ever come to develop that talent, or children who might become great cricketers or footballers or gymnasts or swimmers or divers, ever aspire to take part in the Olympics. This abstention from most forms of popular or elevated culture takes a ghastly toll on young Muslims, both men and women, but particularly women. This self-deprivation is inspired as much as anything by a doctrine known as al-wala' wa'l-bara', which translates roughly to 'Loyalty and Enmity': loyalty to Islam and enmity to everything that is not Islam. Strict Muslims should not make friends with non-Muslims. Muslim women may never marry non-Muslims. A Muslim should not give a Christian workmate a Christmas card or a Jewish boss a Rosh Hashana card. Nor should he attend a Christmas party. Because to do any of these things would be to imitate the unbelievers, the kuffar, and put the Muslim on a par with corrupt and evil non-Muslims.

In the early days of the Yishuv, the original Jewish community in Palestine, relations between Arabs and Jews were not altogether bad. From the 1920s or so, inspired in part by men like Hajj Amin al-Husseini, that began to change, and much of that change was due to the attitude, based on the al-wala' wa'l-bara' doctrine, that the two communities could not and should not live together. The 1948 onslaught against the newly-created Jewish state was frequently defined in these terms. In his recent book, 1948, historian Benny Morris shows that the invasion of Israel was understood as a jihad. It is still regarded that way today. Underlying the Arab rejection of a two-state solution and the demand for a single state, is a belief that Muslims can only live with Jews or Christians when the latter are decidedly in the minority and are under Muslim control.

Israel is one of the most culturally developed countries in the world. Most Jews found it easy, not simply to integrate into Western society, but many became important figures in just about every field of human enterprise, including the arts. Some Muslims have done the same in traditional modes like Persian classical music or calligraphy, others in Western art forms like literature. But overall, the Muslim contribution has not been on the scale one might expect from a world population of 1.6 billion. In Israel, there have been excellent projects to bring Muslims and Jews together through art and other means, notably Daniel Barenboim's West-Eastern Divan, a musical group. But Muslim antipathy to the arts (apart from architecture and calligraphy) limits the work that can be done, since young Muslims often have to get through three barriers, first that antipathy, second issues around al-wala' wa'l-bara', and thirdly the huge resistance to Israel, Jews, and Zionism.

Not long ago, a Muslim woman, Rima Fakih, was elected Miss America. A lot of Muslims thought it was the best thing to happen in a long while, and they were right. The more Rima Fakihs on the Muslim side and the fewer Yusuf al-Qaradhawis the better for everyone. The misery men of the Islamic clergy bring nothing but misery, with their total inability to understand the world around them.

This was a major factor in what went wrong after Israel's founding. The main five Arab states that invaded Israel after the declaration of independence were either members of the UN or in line to receive its recognition. Egypt, Iraq, Lebanon, and Syria were all UN members states, while Transjordan had been created by the League of Nations and would join the UN in 1955 as Jordan. The shame of the invasions lies precisely in the refusal of those Arab states to recognize the authority of a body to whose principles and authority they subscribed. The United Nations was the best expression at that time of a new world order that was brought into being following the Second World War, and membership brought with it both benefits and responsibilities. This was the way countries worked together, the way they obtained their legitimacy in the world community. But many of the Arab states (and others later) wanted to have it two ways: they belonged to the UN and used it as a platform for their speeches and accusations, but they also belonged to the Arab League, a body brought into existence a few months before the UN. When Israel was established by the UN, the Arab League turned its back on it and announced a war intended to destroy both new UN member states. The result of that selfish decision has been catastrophic for both the Israelis and the Palestinians. When I think of the good that would have come of cooperation, I want to weep. A more vibrant Israel, a prosperous Palestine, and no violent deaths on either side, young men and young women becoming singers and dancers and artists and writers and actors, not suicide bombers, not hate-filled monsters who love death more than life, who throw away their own lives and the lives of all those other young people who have died so innocently and so undeservedly down the long years of conflict.

And why? Because of al-wala' wa'l-bara', because Hajj Amin al-Husseini had been chairman of the Palestinian Higher Committee and he loved Nazis and hated Jews, because the Arab League states only pretended to want a new order and really wanted things to stay the way they had been for generation upon generation, and because the UN states were mostly kuffar, and integration into the international community, true integration was unthinkable, because Muslim women won't get into bed with non-Muslim men (unless they want to have their throats cut), and Muslim men will get into bed with Jews and Christians (and never Hindus or Buddhists or Baha'is), but if there are babies they will be brought up as Muslims, because faith and hope only travel in one direction, and the wives must convert too, because love changes nothing and everything, because going to a concert doesn't kill you, and swimming in a swimsuit in a swimming pool doesn't kill you, and playing cricket for Pakistan won't kill you, and all of these innocent, life-affirming things have been banned or denatured until all the beauty is gone, and the longing for beauty too. I want to see a pretty young Muslim woman in a bikini on a beach and to feel desire for her, because that is one of the affirmations of life and beauty. I want this pretty young woman to meet a Jewish man and love him and marry him, and for nobody to turn up at their door with a gun or a knife to kill them. I want a world without niqabs and burqas that make beauty seem like something sick, something to be hidden, because the flesh is corrupt and the body is vile and if a man sees so much as a woman's thumb he will be driven to unfathomable depths of liquid desire, and he will rape her, and she will deserve to be stoned because she let him see her thumb. As a man, I believe a woman's face, the face of a pretty, a beautiful woman, is the loveliest thing there is. I want to see a Muslim woman high up on a diving board at the Olympics, soaring through the air with perfect elegance and grace. If her body is beautiful, that's part of the perfection. A burkini would make her and the sport absurd. I want to see a Muslim woman in the orchestra at my next concert. I have a video of the Algerian singer, Souad Massi singing in French in concert with Marc Lavoine in Paris. She could pass as French, but when she sings in Arabic she's Algerian. The only way she will die will be because her enemies have finally got to her. But if they kill her, they kill themselves in part.

The more that Muslims break from the narrow, bigoted, and maladjusted clerics who try to enforce the principles of al-wala' wa'l-bala', the closer we will be to the day when common sense takes over. Under the Meiji emperor, Japan adopted the principle of Japanese spirit with Western know-how, and the Japanese took full advantage of it. It's time for some Islamic reformer to step up to the plate and start the ball rolling towards integration.


Ami Vider said...

Hi Denis, what a wonderful article. It seems that you are knowledgeable and caring with respect to Israel's culture. I write a blog about life in Israel. From a Tel Aviv perspective: What I would add to your observations is the diversity of culture, specially Jewish culture, in Israel. In Tel Aviv you will not see orthodox Jews in museums, concerts and movie theaters. Not because they feel uncomfortable, because they do not consume "modern culture" as the secular Jews. You also do not see garbed Muslims of any form in secular Jewish events in northern Israel. I say to each his own, but in reality there is a huge cultural difference between conservative (orthodox) and others. On the other hand, go to a Jewish orthodox concert and you will see plenty of MEN clapping and dancing to modern orthodox Jewish music. There are a few concerts by women to women, but this is a very small part of cultural life. I guess it would take a few articles on my blog to explain / observe this phenomena. Again see my blog:

Anonymous said...


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-Ben Gladstone