Saudi Arabia Isn’t Having a Feminist Revolution
When it comes to women’s rights, Saudi Arabia takes baby steps to a whole new level of infancy. (In utero steps? Spermy steps?) Sure, the King Khalid Charitable Foundation launched the country’s first ever anti-domestic-violence ad last month, but women are still unable to defend themselves against those same domestic-violence cases in court. In 2013.
One other huge breakthrough that I’m sure would have Susan B. Anthony setting off streamers in her grave is new legislation that allows women to ride bicycles. Granted, they still have to be supervised by men—but bicycles! Think of the endless freedoms that come with finally being able to cycle around Riyadh, a city not built with cyclists in mind whatsoever!
Oh, also, girls in private schools are now allowed to play sports, but girls in state schools still can’t. So, much like in other parts of the world, the amount of rights a person gets depends entirely on their wealth.
Despite these forward-thinking changes, Saudi Arabia was still ranked 131 out of 134 countries for gender parity in the 2012 World Economic Forum Global Gender Gap Report. So recent, optimistic reports of Saudi Arabia going through a “feminist revolution” seem a little off the mark.
I spoke to Nouf Alhimiary, a 20-year-old photographer from Jeddah, about the challenges she faced when trying to put on an art exhibition about Saudi women in a country where basically every minutely inflammatory art piece gets banned from public display.
VICE: Hey, Nouf. How come you were only allowed to display half of your exhibition?
Nouf Alhimiary:You know that thing where you take a picture of your outfit every day and post it on Instagram or Twitter? I thought it was interesting that a lot my Saudi friends do that when they’re out of the country, but can’t do it here because they have to wear the exact same thing every day: the abaya. I wanted to create a parody of that by photographing women wearing the same thing in different places. I wanted to call it What She Wore/ What She Wore Underneath. The plan was to take pictures of all these women in the abaya, take pictures of whatever they were wearing underneath, and then display both pictures together.
But you weren’t allowed to do that?
The curator for the Mostly Visible show told me I couldn’t do it because the government would have rejected it. In Saudi Arabia, the government has to look at every art project that’s going to be exhibited to decide whether or not it can be displayed. The curator told me that if I included pictures of women outside their houses not wearing the abaya, they wouldn’t display it.
So what did you do?
I settled for What She Wore, which I actually like because it makes you ask, “Why do all these women look like they’re wearing a uniform?” But even though I only displayed pictures of women in the abaya, a lot of people at the exhibition came up to me and asked, “Why are you trying to change women?”
Is Burma’s Government Involved in Ethnic Cleansing?
The last couple of weeks have been filled with mixed news for the Burmese government. On the bright side, the European Union decided to permanently lift sanctions against the country and deeper trade ties with the United States were announced—both moves likely to result in more foreign investment and lucrative business deals. Shortly after, President Thein Sein received a peace prize from a prominent NGO for his role in promoting internal reforms.
However, on the negative side, state agencies were accused of complicity in ethnic cleansing and crimes against humanity. Two things that don’t really sound that worthy of a peace prize and raise serious questions about the ethics of the West’s increasingly cozy relationship with Burma.
These allegations are outlined in a new report by Human Rights Watch (HRW) in connection with two outbreaks of violence last year. In these attacks, the ethnic Rohingya Muslim community and other Burmese Muslims were attacked by government forces and mobs of local Buddhists. The violence, which took place in Burma’s western Rakhine state last June and October, left scores dead and more than100,000 displaced, most of whom have been crammed into IDP (internally displaced person) camps.
After recently returning from the site of last year’s violence myself, the new report makes for essential reading. It documents many allegations that fit exactly with the testimony of witnesses I’d met around Sittwe, the capital of the afflicted region. It also cites evidence of open support from local political parties and religious groups for targeted attacks on the Rohingya minority—some calling directly for ethnic cleansing.
The report also mentions another incident, one in which 18 half-naked dead bodies were dumped by security forces in a Rohingya displacement camp. Subsequently, the police ordered local residents to bury the dead in a mass grave.
Locals who saw the body pile before it was buried took photographs, which I managed to obtain. The images, most of which are too graphic to display without some kind of censorship, show corpses with a series of horrific wounds to their heads and bodies; in one case a man’s face is sliced almost into three parts. Another photo shows a dead child with a bloodied head lying next to a body bag crowded with maggots. Others have their hands attached to objects that they’d presumably been tied to while being executed.
It Was Probably the Internet, Not Chechnya, That Radicalized the Boston Bombers
The Tsarnaev brothers are the first Chechens to have been implicated in alleged jihadist attacks on US soil. But the more we learn about Dzhokar and Tamerlan, the blurrier their motives become. Why would these two seemingly well-integrated young men indiscriminately kill citizens of the country that welcomed them with open arms? What has America done to Chechnya? And is the horror we witnessed in Boston the beginning of a frightening new trend—an amalgamation of foreign and domestic terrorism into a bouillabaisse of confused and largely undefined hate?
While we’ll still be searching for more information about the Tsarnaev brothers and what motivated them for months—if not years—to come, their roots in Chechnya and the history of that country are a good place to start.
In the early 19th century, Chechnya resisted Russian attempts to occupy their small mountainous motherland, nearly 1,000 miles south of Moscow. The fight intensified when the region was assimilated into the Soviet Union. To quell rebellion in the 1940s, Stalin forcibly relocated the entire Chechen population to remote areas of Central Asia, repopulating the mountains with ethnic Russians. Some 200,000 people, one-third of the Chechen population, lost their lives to this process, called Operation Lentil.
A family takes an afternoon walk amid the rubble and burned-out apartment blocks destroyed during the fighting between Russian forces and Chechen rebels.
While Islam remains a central part of Chechen identity, religion didn’t play a major role in the nationalist struggle until recently. In the mid-90s, following the collapse of the Soviet Union, Chechens again attempted to wrestle their independence from Moscow. Volunteer fighters, preachers, and NGOs espousing Wahhabism (an Arab Gulf version of ultraconservative Islam) flocked to the region to fight against Russia and instill Chechens with their radical views. A Chechen administrator explained at the time, “They [the Wahhabis] went to the market, and they paid with dollars. There was no power here; there was disorder everywhere, and their influence was very strong. The poor Chechen people were already suffering so much, and our young guys simply couldn’t think. They were ready to accept any ideas.”
Burma’s Rohingya Ghettos Broke My Heart
Sittwe, the capital of Burma’s restive Rakhine state, is a town divided. Or, put more accurately, segregated, thanks to the majority Buddhist Rakhine people developing a passion for beating, raping, murdering, and setting fire to members of the local Muslim Rohingya minority. As it stands, the Rohingya have been ghettoized into a series of internally displaced-person (IDP) camps just outside of Sittwe.
Things have been this way since last June, when the region witnessed a massive outbreak of sectarian violence following the alleged rape and murder of a Rakhine woman and a revenge attack that killed ten Muslims. From there, things escalated dramatically. Countless houses have been razed, and large numbers from both communities displaced. However, only the Rohingya suffered from systematic persecution by government security forces—again, involving rape and murder—in the aftermath. Further violence elsewhere in the state during October pushed the total number of IDPs over the 100,000 mark, almost all of them from the Rohingya community.
Such persecution for the Muslim minority is nothing new—they have been subjected to marginalization and violence within Burma for decades, mostly at the hands of the former ruling junta. Almost all have been effectively stateless since a citizenship law was passed in 1982, which effectively classified the group as foreigners, despite their presence in the country for centuries. Many NGOs have characterized the law and its consequences as part of a long-standing campaign to pressure the Rohingya into leaving Burma.
The situation for the minority, described by the UN as one of the world’s most vulnerable, is undeniably rough. Yet not everyone sees them as victims. During a visit to one of Sittwe’s many Buddhist monasteries, a resident cenobitic monk told me, “All the problems here are the fault of the kalar.” (Kalar being a racist term for the Rohingya). “They want to take over all of Rakhine state,” he insisted. They were “terrorists” and the Rakhine people could not be made to live with them or violence would break out once again, he asserted.
A day later, visiting the Rohingya IDP camps, I had the opportunity to gain a very different perspective. I sat in on an art-therapy session hosted by a visiting humanitarian volunteer, in which children were encouraged to draw their memories of last year’s violence using colored pens and paper. Many of their drawings depicted members of the Burmese government’s Hlun Tin paramilitary outfit shooting at people outside of burning homes. One child, explaining what she drew in a particularly affecting piece, mentioned calmly that she had seen the severed head of a mentally disabled boy she once knew lying by the bank of a river. Another said that she saw a Rakhine man smash a woman’s skull in until some of her brains spilled out.
New Atheism’s Nasty Streak of Islamophobia
I’m an atheist, and it’s never been a big deal for me.
My belief—or lack of belief—might have been more important to me if I was from Saudi Arabia, or a small town in Alabama surrounded by Biblical literalists, or some other place where religion is the defining characteristic of civic life. But I grew up in Seattle, Washington, a city so liberal that I heard stories of cars with Bush/Cheney bumper stickers getting keyed. Practicing Christians who were outspoken about their faith had it rougher than I did. I don’t remember suffering any negative consequences for being an atheist, but I remember one day in high school when a smug atheist buddy and I semi-good-naturedly harassed a Christian classmate about her views on hell. It’s empowering and heady to imagine that you have cracked the code and know a truth that most people don’t, especially when you’re a teenaged boy and already prone to thinking there’s something special about you.
Like a lot of atheists, I read a bunch of books about atheism and the shortcomings of religion and smirked at the inconsistencies contained in the Bible and Christianity’s other texts. Stuff written by men—almost always men, almost always white men, not that that matters—about how wrong religion was and how right they were, how arguments for God could be shucked and tossed aside like ideas that the Earth was flat. I read Christopher Hitchens when he railed against the Catholic Church, Richard Dawkins when he dismissed religion as a worldwide force for evil, and Reddit, where posters turned the Hitch-Dawk philosophy into sound bites and graphics. I don’t know how many Christians or Muslims or Jews or Buddhists were convinced by books likeGod Is Not Great and The God Delusion and Sam Harris’s The End of Faith, but man, it feels great to read those books and acquire ammunition for arguments you imagine yourself having against believers. At least for me, those debates were entirely hypothetical, since no one ever bothered to try to persuade me to come to Jesus or Allah. But reading these “New Atheists,” helped me refine my thoughts about religion. I started out with an adolescent sense that God didn’t exist because duh, how stupid would that be? and developed a framework that supported my disbelief. I imagine a lot of atheists went through the same process, and no doubt Catholics who read Thomas Aquinas or C.S. Lewis get a similar buzz.
I was thinking about atheism and religion this week after reading a couple pieces about how the New Atheists had a nasty streak of Islamophobia in them—one in Salon by Nathan Lean and another in Al Jazeera by Murtaza Hussain. Both of them note that Dawkins and Harris, especially, have no problem saying publicly that Islam is a source of terrible evil and that it’s right and proper that the West go to war with Islam. Glenn Greenwald, as he is wont to do, expanded on this, noting that Harris’s opinions on Islam have led him to side with neocons, the nuts who protested the “9/11 mosque” that opened in lower Manhattan, and even claim once that “the people who speak most sensibly about the threat that Islam poses to Europe are actually fascists.” This led to a bunch of blogging and counter-blogging and all sorts of accusations of misquotation and blah blah blah.
Is Burma’s Anti-Muslim Violence Led By “Buddhist Neo-Nazis”?
When most Westerners think of Buddhism, they think of smiling men with potbellies and inspirational quotes from Phil Jackson. “Buddhist neo-Nazi” sounds like a contradiction in terms.
But in Burma, vicious anti-Muslim sentiment has been on the rise, and Buddhist extremists are responsible for attacking Muslims and burning down their houses and mosques, a state of affairs that was largely ignored until Anonymous launched a Twitter campaign to teach the world about the genocide against the Rohingya people, the officially stateless Muslims who many believe will be massacred if the world does not respond.
According to Dr. Muang Zarni, a Burmese human rights activist and research fellow at the London School of Economics, much of the blame for the current situation in Burma can be laid at the feet of the 969 group, which he describes as an neo-Nazi organization of hatemongers who are using Hitlerian tactics to “purify” the country by getting rid of the Muslims—it’s also, he says, one of the fastest-growing movements in the country.
I spoke to Dr. Zarni to find out more about what’s going on in Burma and how a Buddhist can be a “Nazi.”
VICE: Who are the 969, and what does the number mean?
Dr. Muang Zarni: The 969 leaders are Burmese men in monks’ robes. It’s a bit difficult to describe them as genuine monks because they are preaching a message of anti-Muslim hatred and Islamophobia that is completely incompatible with the Buddhist message of universal kindness. The 969 number stands for three things: the 9 stands for the special attributes of Buddha, the founder of the religion; the 6 stands for attributes of his teachings of dharma; and finally, the last 9 stands for special characteristics or attributes of the clergy.
You’ve described the 969 group as “Burma’s fastest-growing neo-Nazi ‘Buddhist’ nationalist movement.” What makes them neo-Nazis and why are they targeting Muslims?
I use the word neo-Nazi because their intent is genocidal in the sense that the Muslims of Burma—all of them, including the ethnically Burmese—are considered leeches in our society the way the Jews were considered leeches and bloodsuckers during the Third Reich when Nazism was taking root.
There is a parallel between what we saw in Nazi Germany and what we are seeing today in Burma. The 969 movement and its leading spokespersons call for attacking the Muslims of Burma—not just the Rohingyas in western Burma who were incorrectly framed as illegal migrants from Bangladesh, but all Muslims from Burma. Buddhist people who try to help Muslims or buy groceries from Muslim businesses are either beaten up or intimidated or ostracized by other Buddhists.
Also, the military is involved with this movement. At best, the military authorities are tolerating the message of hatred coming from the Buddhist preachers. At worst, and I believe this to be true, elements within the military leadership are passively backing this movement. Over the past 50 years since the military came to power, there has been a consistent pattern of the military leadership using proxy organizations within Burmese communities across the country to incite violence against targeted groups, be they dissidents, Chinese, or now, Muslims.
The Russian republic of Chechnya has been undergoing an Islamic revival. Having existed under Soviet rule for 70 years before getting caught up in a war with the Russian Federation that lasted almost two decades, the tiny state has turned to Islam in what looks to be an attempt to maintain some semblance of identity and drive a wedge between itself and the land of Putin. The Chechen government is building mosques in every village, prayer rooms in public schools, and enforcing a stricter Islamic dress code for both men and women. It might be miles away from Islamabad, but Chechnya’s gone Islamamad.
For young women in particular, this has led to a change in what they can expect to do with their lives. Smoking, for instance, is definitely a good reason to spend a night in jail, while premarital sex must seem less attractive when the president of your country has given his public approval to any family who feels like carrying out an honor killing.
Photographer Diana Markosian spent some time in the area getting to know a group of Muslim girls who grew up during the wars, chronicling their coming of age in a region that is rapidly redefining itself as an Islamic state.
See more photos
Facedown in Chitral: Where Pakistani Muslims Go to Secretly Party
Rudyard Kipling’s “The Man Who Would Be King” is a 19th-century tale of empire, madness, and idolatry centered around two roguish British soldiers who take a perilous journey into Kafiristan, a hostile mountain region populated by pagans who kill and rob anyone foolish enough to set foot in their domain. Kafiristan took its name from the Arabic word kafir, which translates as “nonbeliever” or “infidel.” The region stretches across portions of what is today Afghanistan and Pakistan. It’s not a nice place to live, but, as I discovered, it is a great place to party.
For nearly 70 years, up until 1896, the emir of Afghanistan offered bribes to the people of Kafiristan to discourage them from robbing outsiders and slinging their bodies off of mountains. The Kafirs took the money but refused to give up their marauding ways. Abdur Rahman Khan, nicknamed “The Iron Emir,” grew so incensed by this flagrant disrespect of his power that he sent troops into the Afghan-controlled portion of Kafiristan to discipline the local population. Kafirs were rounded up and given a stark choice: Islam or death. Naturally, most chose Islam, and the Afghan side of Kafiristan was soon known by the euphemism Nuristan, or “land of light.” These forced conversions and the change of moniker, however, did little to alter the nature of its people. In his 1958 book A Short Walk in the Hindu Kush, Eric Newby cataloged some common phrases in the Nuristani language at that time: “I saw a corpse in a field this morning”; “I have nine fingers; you have ten”; and “I have an intention to kill you.”
In the end, the Iron Emir was only sucessful in converting the population on the Afghan side. Across the Hindu Kush mountains, in Pakistan, a raucous pagan animism persisted. Today the descendents of these pagans live in what are known as the Kalash valleys: Bumboret, Birir, and Rumbur. They are the last animist tribe of Central Asia—a nature-worshipping island in a sea of Islam spreading out in all directions.
The Kalash people spurn Islamic law by drinking, taking drugs, and partying. For decades, pleasure-seeking Muslims have ventured to these valleys to get drunk on Kalash wine (which tastes like sherry) and the local moonshine known as tara (which tastes like schnapps). The drug of choice is opium brought in from Afghanistan or, more commonly, nazar, an opiate-based chewing tobacco, which oftentimes makes users sick and dizzy. Just like American kids who travel to Florida or Vegas to blow off some steam, devout Pakistanis periodically head up into the mountains for a taste of the debauched pagan life.
Remembering Master Fard Muhammad
February 26 is Saviors’ Day, the birthday of the founder of the Nation of Islam. Master Fard Muhammad will probably never get his due for his contribution, for a few reasons: 1) after more than eight decades, white people still aren’t ready to be called devils; 2) Sunni Muslims might love the Sunni fruits of Fard’s tree (most famously Malcolm X, but hundreds of thousands more), but they don’t want to see the tree that produced them; 3) in all honesty, Fard might have spoken the truth, but he also dressed it up in stories that many will have a hard time taking seriously.
The biggest challenge to fully appreciating Master Fard Muhammad may be that he so effectively escaped history. For decades, no one had any idea where he had come from, and even if we can now trace his origin to a town called Shinka in Afghanistan, or possibly Pakistan, we still have no idea where he ended up after his disappearance in 1934. For the most part, our source on Master Fard Muhammad is his student, the Honorable Elijah Muhammad, for whom Fard was literally, physically God—not a “manifestation” or “incarnation” of God, but God. While working with the bare skeleton of biographical details and much more hagiography, it’s hard to make authoritative statements on Fard. But this is also part of the master teacher’s usefulness. In escaping history, Fard can become almost whatever people need him to be.
His public mission began in 1930, when he walked the poorest black neighborhoods of Detroit with an armful of silks, going door-to-door and trying to sell them to people with no money to spend. Even when he couldn’t make a sale, he regaled his customers with tales of the silk’s origin in what he called their “homeland,” a utopia across the ocean where people lived longer because they lived better—they had not been brainwashed by living in the Devil’s kingdom into eating the wrong foods and praying to a blue-eyed Jesus. People often invited Fard into their homes to tell them more about Africa. When he stayed for dinner, Fard always ate what he was offered, but then told his hosts that they should not eat such food, because people in their homeland did not eat it.
Islamophobes, Go to Sleep
When I agreed to write a column for VICE, I was granted this space, and I am responsible for what happens in this space. Today, I’m going to use this space to rub your racist and bigoted shit in your own faces.
By many scorecards, I’m not a legitimate Muslim. I have repeatedly violated the boundaries of appropriate behavior and belief. What’s worse, I have published accounts of these transgressions, and therefore risk misleading my sisters and brothers. I proudly associate with communities that are condemned as “heretical.” I write about contextualizing drugs within my practice of Islam. I attempted a William S. Burroughs-inspired cut-up project using the Qur’an. I’ve been called the godfather of Muslim punk rock, whatever that means. And ten years ago, I wrote about stink-palming Cat Stevens. I’m not trying to play the good Muslim/bad Muslim game here, but some of you might appreciate a pro-queer, pro-drug, stink-palming Muslim heretic. If you’re one of those people who squint when you look, and you have this uninformed view of “Islam” as universally, fundamentally rigid and oppressive, there’s a chance that I can challenge the uncompromising monolith that you imagine Islam to be. At the very least, I complicate the picture and make it harder for you to say that all Muslims think and act alike, right?
But it doesn’t really matter. Some of you see that my middle name’s Muhammad and automatically decide that I’m out to circumcise your daughters. The comments on my VICE columns have illustrated the same reality that I experienced while being detained and molested at the US/Canada border because of Shi’a literature in my trunk: Muslims are Muslims. Regardless of my own positions, every column draws comments like, “At least we don’t cut people’s heads off in a cave.” I’ve learned not to read the comments, because this is what you come up with:
“Islam is the armpit of the world. They treat women like dogs and cattle. They believe in honor killings of their own family and hate their enemies more than they love their kin – Fuck Islam and the camel it rode in on.”
“The notion that such an apocryphal and hateful cult such as Islam could solve anything much less racism is ludicrous.”
“Islam is a very destructive and backwards ideology. Just read their scriptures.”
“This book [the Qur’an] is dangerous to our survival and to human cooperation in general. This is why there are Muslim martyrs. This is why martyrs are ‘true Muslims.’ To say they are not is foolish.”
“How old was that kid that Muhammad slept with again?”
“Islam doesn’t work and hasn’t worked for a long time.”
“What kind of insane person (I’m guessing from America) converts to Islam?”
“Islam is not compatible with freedom…it is not a religion but is a political agenda with religious undertones.”
“What do you call an abortion clinic in Mecca? Crime fighters.”