Ahmed al-Tayeb has good intentions, but it will prove futile.

On 22 February, Sheikh Ahmed al-Tayeb, of Cairo’s prestigious al-Azhar university (Egypt’s leading centre of Islamic scholarship) denounced misinterpretation of the Quran as a justification for violence, as per the BBC.

This is a positive gesture, and may begin to assuage the doubts of the veritable legion of commenters that demand that the so-called ‘moderate’ Muslims apologise every time an act of terror is committed. The question that remains, however, is to ask whether this is actually a meaningful statement, or whether it is merely an ideological standpoint that will make very little difference in real world terms.

Unfortunately, I fear it will be the latter.

The problem is the following. Sheikh al-Tayeb claims that people are misinterpreting the religion’s Holy Book and thus using it to justify violence. This is all very well and good as an opinion, but that is all that it can ever be. Despite his prominence as a cleric, al-Tayeb can never be the defining voice of Islam, nor force his own interpretation upon others.

The Quran, as with the Bible and countless other religious texts, as you might expect from a tome written before equality or human rights had begun developing as ideas, contains episodes of violence, episodes that can fairly easily be manipulated to aid the cause of dissenting voices. And who’s to say that they are wrong? Who’s to say that the most unpopular and violent explanation is not the correct interpretation of the texts? Unsavoury, but a possibility. There is not, and can never be, an ultimate authority on the text, because God, or Allah, or Yahweh, or whatever author of whichever Holy Book you believe in has never made himself known and clarified the textual ambiguities.

Islam itself, as hinted at by the latter parts of the report on Sheikh al-Tayeb’s speech, sees itself as a ‘nation’ in a way that no other religion does since talk of ‘Christendom’ ended in the 20th century. Islam is a religion that wants to politicise and disseminate its own views, and whether that is by violence or by dialogue remains very much in the eyes of the interpreter. Ibn Khaldun, a prominent medieval Islamic philosopher certainly believed this, writing “in the Muslim community, the holy war is a religious duty, because of the universalism of the Muslim mission and (the obligation to) convert everybody to Islam either by persuasion or by force” (via the Berkeley center). There have been enough justifications for violence over the years that it is now useless to pretend that they do not exist.

The point is it is hardly the first time that a celebrated Muslim scholar has spoken out about the importance of distancing Islam from violence. Both Afifi al-Akiti and Muhammad Tahir-ul-Qadri have in the past issued fatwas claiming the lack of a religious basis for violence of any kind. These haven’t worked, as shown by the rise of ISIL and Boko Haram, so why should Sheikh al-Tayeb’s voice make the slightest bit of difference?

The problem is mainly a political one, with insurgents linking religion to their political aims and then using it to retrospectively justify their actions, as well as to attract others to their cause. Whether this is a misinterpretation of the texts or not is open to debate, but it is hardly the first time we have heard the argument that it is. It is impossible to keep textual interpretation uniform, and as such there will always be some loophole available to justify heinous acts. Let us not forget that the Bible was used to justify slavery and racial discrimination for hundreds of years.

Al-Tayeb’s assertion is a welcome one in principle, but ultimately will prove to be an insignificant one. It is the nature of the beast that it is impossible to control how people define their own interpretation of religion, and it will always be possible for young dissidents to fall in with the wrong crowd and be regaled with tales of a religiously justified war, and that will be difficult to change unless some form of unified position on Islam can be made available, which seems highly unlikely at this stage, particularly given the ongoing dispute between Sunni and Shia factions that has been raging for centuries.

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Boko Haram lose Baga, what next?

Baga, a key Nigerian town on the border of Chad, Niger, and Cameroon, has been retaken from Islamist splinter group Boko Haram this weekend, according to Reuters.

This marks a significant step in the conflict against the group, but is it enough for the Nigerian government to begin to claim victory in the war? There have recently been major military offensives in many parts of the country, as the general election has been delayed six weeks in order to concentrate more firmly on the scourge that has swept Nigeria over the last few years.

Sadly, however, we only need look at history to know that, whilst useful, this victory may not be enough to break the group permanently.

First, let us look at the story of the group itself. Founded in 2002, Boko Haram (translated roughly meaning Western Education is Forbidden), has swiftly become one of the most high-profile anti-state groups in Africa, and perhaps even the world. In 2014, they claimed world headlines and inspired the #bringbackourgirls campaign, after the kidnapping of 276 schoolgirls to make a political point.

More recently, in early January of 2015, their own assault on Baga resulted in huge massacres, with estimates ranging between 150 and 2000 people dead.

All of this points to a highly organised military organisation with political motives, one that picks its targets carefully and has a highly organised chain of command. It seems unlikely, then, that the simple recapture of Baga will result in the capitulation of the group. Hundreds of militants are considered to have died in the resulting attack, but this may well only have the counter-intuitive effect of making the group all the more elusive.

Past wars have shown how effective guerrilla warfare can be. From Vietnam to Iraq and Afghanistan, there have been repeated examples of how a well-drilled organisation with established leadership can win against an established power. In Africa itself, the LRA (Lord’s Resistance Army) in Uganda serves as an interesting parallel as to how effective these tactics can be.

Boko Haram may have lost a significant chunk of their fighters, but they will never struggle to attract new followers to their cause. They can achieve this in a number of ways, but much of the disaffected youth of the country is likely to be attracted to the self-styled Islamic freedom fighting that the group offer, while kidnapping and brainwashing from a very young age in the manner of the LRA is another option.

The loss of Baga is a significant strategic blow to the group’s ambitions, but it is far too early to proclaim it as a victory. It may put the group on the back foot, but for now it is likely that they will use the time to replenish their numbers and plan their next move while maintaining their guerrilla strategy. Since the loss of the town, the group has already used a young girl to commit a suicide attack, as per The Guardian. This shows that, whilst they have lost the key town of Baga, it has merely caused an evolution in their tactics to an even more extreme length.

The key to the defeat of the group is to remove its leadership. Until then, they will remain, evolving in the shadows, waiting and planning their next attack, which will almost certainly be unexpected. The recapture of Baga, then, to use an old phrase, is a battle won, but certainly not a war.

This article was originally published on The News Hub – https://www.the-newshub.com/international/boko-haram-lose-baga

Unpicking The Formulaic: Why Linguistic Individualism Is Nothing To Be Ashamed Of

Ever since I was a kid I’ve been taught that there are some things you can’t say, some styles that don’t work in all but the most specific context. That there are certain formulae for language and its manipulation that mean experimentation is unwise. That there are definable grammatical criteria that make one piece of writing ‘correct’ while another is ‘wrong’.

This is all rubbish and to be summarily dismissed.

Experimentation with style and form is what makes the great writers what they are. Where would literature be if Joyce had been told by his editor that his stream of consciousness didn’t work and was too confusing? Or if Burroughs, Kerouac, and later Bukowski had decided to stick with the form of their predecessors that they so dramatically rebelled against? Change is what helps both language and literature remain interesting and being stuck in the past helps nobody.

Nowhere is this more obvious than in poetry. The poetic is perhaps the oldest literary art form that we have, with balladic epic dating back three millennia to the time of Homer. The poetic style that is ‘in vogue’ has changed thousands of times since then, across a variety of countries and languages, and modern poetry is almost unrecognisable when the two bookends are taken as representative.

It is only by analysing each tiny step in poetry’s journey that a fascinating narrative of the poetic begins to form and the contemporary cultural influence on art becomes visible. And that is art at its most engaging. As a fluid, living, evolving life form that reacts to its handlers as they try to carry it forward.

So the next time somebody tells you that your language is confusing, or that your grammar is incorrect, or whatever other critique of your storytelling idiosyncrasies, ask them to look at José Saramago, to read Joyce, or to seek out Palahnuik, and see if they find the same flaws in their work.

The point is this, the best authors have no mould, they take the mould of their predecessors, break it, pick up the pieces and create their own, there is no point trying to imitate your favourite author because chances are they’ve already done it better than you can, or ever could, so create your own journey, your own style and run with it, and always remember, anything unusual almost invariably seems crazy until it’s proven to be genius, and that’s when you know you’ve made it.

Why There Is No Reason To Celebrate Syriza’s Eurozone Deal

Late on Friday February 20th, European finance ministers emerged from what had appeared to be a problematic meeting with seemingly positive news. Greece had agreed to pay all of its debts, pending further conditions being met, and in turn been granted a delay to the deadline of those payments.

This superficially good news comes after a great deal of sabre rattling from both sides, with new Greek finance minister Yannis Varoufakis going as far as to tweet out a link to a blog post written by economist Phillippe Legrain stating ‘Greece should not give in to Germany’s bullying’. It is hardly the quiet, polite democracy to which we have grown accustomed.

Syriza has seemed a breath of fresh air to many Greek people since their election in January, but what does this deal actually mean? Certainly it is one step away from disaster for the EU, with fears of a Greek default shelved for at least another few months. The extension is currently four months long, but there will be further reviews in April and June to assess Greece’s progress.

Whilst a useful stopgap, however, it is hardly an ideal situation for anyone involved. Despite some claims that this is an ideal solution that has emerged from the talks, it is difficult to see that as any more than the usual political smoke and mirrors, as neither side will be entirely happy with the result.

First, let us remember that Greece wanted up to one third of their debt cancelled entirely. Indeed, that was one of the central policies upon which Syriza ran and were elected. An extension of their debt is hardly an ideal solution for the hard line anti-austerity party that they claim to be. With the agreed budget discipline that accompanies this extension, it is highly unlikely that Syriza will be able to meet their anti-austerity promises without upsetting the European Commission.

And that is the problem for the Eurozone as a whole. Whilst fears of a Greek exit have momentarily been allayed, there is nothing to stop Syriza deciding that, realistically they don’t agree with the terms of the extension, leave the Eurozone, and print Drachma tomorrow. And this is why the deal is not really something to be celebrated.

For all Varoufakis’s aggressive talk, then, Syriza have lost face here, and that is a dangerous position for a party elected on very demagogic principles to find itself in. If Syriza cannot even deliver on their one major promise, it bodes ill for them as a party for the future. They are seen by some as the new face of politics, doing away with the pretension of the three-piece suits and getting back to basics, but they have so far failed to deliver on those promises, thus making all the talk of doing away with the old regime largely irrelevant.

The issue has been swept under the rug amidst nominal concessions from both sides. The hope is that it will help the Greek economy to start picking itself up, so that it can deal with its crippling debt better when payment day comes, but there is an even possibility that that will not happen at all, and we will be having the same discussion again in four months’ time. The Eurozone still faces two potential domino effects. Either they play hardball with Greece, and risk them leaving the Euro, potentially followed by other heavily indebted nations such as Italy and Spain, or, they give in to Syriza’s demands. The risk here is that countries like Italy and Spain then see this as an opportunity to ask for leniency on their debts, which could cause further instability and a weakening in the Euro as a dependable currency. These issues remain unsolved, albeit temporarily delayed.

This is why the Eurozone, and Germany in particular will remain nervous. They will know that Syriza will not want to lose face many more times, and so, if faced with the same situation in four months’ time, a different result may well occur. Either way, it is going to be a very interesting first half to the year, as neither Greece nor the EU can afford to be entirely confident of its position, and we may find ourselves here again sooner than we might hope.

This article was originally posted on the-newshub.com

Share your story: Why the murder of Özcegan Aslan proves there is still a long way to go.

How many more times is this going to happen before things start to change? Thankfully it isn’t now as prevalent in the UK but that doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t talk about it when it does happen abroad, so here I go.

For anyone not aware, a week ago today, a young woman named Özcegan Aslan was killed as she attempted to fight off a rapist in the province of Mersin in Turkey. She was the last person left on the bus on which she was travelling, and this despicable human being (he is lucky I deign to call him that) has taken this as an opportunity to rape, and then to kill, a young woman whose whole life lay ahead of her. And for what? Dominance? A feeling of power? Sexual satisfaction? None of these even begin to qualify as an excuse, let alone a viable reason.

Turkey has had a troubled history of gender equality, with it only really being tentatively approached in very recent memory. Their politicians send mixed signals about it, and often attempt to reinforce gender differences in their speeches. Thankfully, however, the country’s attitude appears to be shifting with the younger generation. There was a mass protest in Turkey last weekend, and people shared their many disturbing stories of abuse and times when they felt in danger.

This, this is why feminism remains so important. This is why getting caught up in arguments in the logistics of feminism is relatively trivial, and why caricaturing feminists as feminazis is beyond unhelpful. While people still see women as property that can still be taken as they please and women all over the world have to live in fear and take extra precautions to travel home with a companion, the movement has a long way to go. This is no longer the struggle of individual countries, but one that the world has to face up to, and quickly.

There is an ideological shift that must occur. Misogynists out there need to come to the realisation that no human should hold dominion over another’s life in this manner, whether that be their wife, their girlfriend, or a perfect stranger. We are all human and deserve to be treated with respect and dignity and seen as equals.

To those that treat others as inferior I say this. How dare you? You are nothing more than sexually repressed, amoral creatures with a superiority delusion. Nobody has the right to take what they please, when they please, and no, there is no debate about this, there is no situation where that is justifiable. To kill a young woman for daring to defend herself against the most brutal and vile attack shows nothing but moral destitution, and I hope you realise this and grieve for your actions for the rest of your life. It is nothing short of barbaric.

I hope not to be forced to write about this sort of thing ever again, but we must not let the suffering that some are put through by those morally bankrupt criminals pass us by.

Every survivor must be cherished, their recovery aided, and their examples used to show the world that, sadly, this is still a problem that needs to be addressed, and urgently at that. As long as women are not equal to men in even the simplest of ways, society cannot begin to move forward. This is, in my view, the most important basis of advanced society, the more equality between the sexes, the farther forward we can move as a species. Let’s get the basics right, and start with women not being seen as property, not an item that can be treated with disdain and tossed away. That’s when we can talk about specifics, but for now, can we just get that right?

Unfortunately, this has been a somewhat hurried reaction to a very serious topic, as I have been away from newspapers travelling around, but I just felt I had to get my thoughts out there. Obviously it is a gross simplification and an emotional response, but I hope you will forgive me for that. Please do feel free to share your opinions on the matter below if you are interested.

Özcegan Aslan, may you rest in peace, and we can only hope that your horrific suffering may help us raise awareness and thus create a better world. Possibly a naïve way of looking at it on my part, but I can only hope so as not to weep.

A Sleepwalking Dreamer: Why Mia Couto Should Be Top Of Your Reading List

You probably haven’t heard of Mia Couto. There’s no reason for you to have done, but this absolutely doesn’t mean you shouldn’t seek him out immediately. Couto is one of the better post-colonial authors that I have read, being born in Mozambique to Portuguese parents, and writing through a particularly troubled transition period in the country’s history. Last year he won the Neustadt prize for literature, and he is just starting to be recognised on an international stage, after having been an important author in the Lusophone world for a number of years.

Couto is in a unique position in that he was born and raised in a country that was attempting to make its way back into democracy. He lived through the revolution, the civil war and the ultimate peace that exists in Mozambique today, and he uses his mix of experiences to his utmost advantage in his literature.

Couto gives a view of Africa as experienced from within it. Of course, he cannot tap into the continent’s consciousness in the way that an author whose family has lived there for generations might be able to, but it is certainly no Conradian approach to the often-misrepresented continent. Couto exhibits both sides of the coin, and gives tremendously powerful accounts of a country that is struggling to define its own identity in times of change. Orality, the traditional method of storytelling in the country, plays a huge part in his novels, and is a subtle showing that perhaps the established ‘European’ way is not always the best way.

His best-known work is probably Sleepwalking Land, and it is one that exhibits his style almost perfectly for a new reader. Set just after the Civil War began, it is a novel of clashes; the old versus the new, the traditional versus the revolutionary, and the oral versus the written. One of Couto’s major themes is memory, and particularly the role of memory in the collective consciousness, in how society deals with traumatic events through manipulation of experiences. This novel is the perfect example of that, and a fantastic portrait of a country in turmoil.

Couto is perhaps best, however, as a short story writer, and Voices Made Night (Vozes Anoitecidas) is as interesting a collection of stories as you are going to find. It is heavily influenced by magical realism, as are many of his books, and is an excellent introduction to his work. If you speak Portuguese then of course it is better to read it in the original, but be warned that Couto has an interesting way of melding the African with the Portuguese and creating new words, so it may be tricky to understand even for a near-native speaker.

Couto, then, is well worth a read, and other recommendations include Under the Frangipani Tree and The Last Flight of the Flamingo. He is an author of growing global renown and an artist who represents a fascinating time period around the end of the colonial world, and how this affected the countries that had been occupied. His novels span decades of fascinating history that is perhaps not as studied as it should be, and as such is a great introduction to an absorbing continent that has not had enough of the positive attention that it deserves.

One To Think On: Should General Philosophy Replace Religious Teaching In Schools?

I have one very vivid memory of my religious education from school, and it is a less than happy one. There I was, an 11-year-old child with no artistic ability being forced to design the movie poster for the film version of The Good Samaritan. What a ridiculous waste of time for everyone involved.

This was the case simply because we had run out of things to talk about in the classroom. In that class we had heard the same stories so many times that it had become pointless to repeat them any more. Religious studies had become so saturated that between the ages of nine and fourteen, when I was finally allowed to drop it, we had covered the same material at least three times. My question is this. Would not this wasted time have been better served studying general philosophy rather than repeating religious parables?

This is a debate that has been taking place in Luxembourg recently, and one I believe should be taking place here. The primary value of religious studies in a multicultural society such as the one we live in is for general cultural and ethical education, so why limit ourselves to simply talking about the sacrosanct? Philosophy has shaped our society as much as anything in history, and is one of the reasons we debate and challenge truths that might otherwise be universally accepted.

Philosophy tends to have a shroud of ‘high academia’ around it, and that can be forbidding to learners who want a basic education in it. The Socratic mantra that the only true wisdom is to know you know nothing is not complex in and of itself, yet Socrates and Plato seem much more inapproachable than religious texts written around the same time. Furthermore, anyone that wants to study the Renaissance or the Enlightenment in any way, shape or form –as I did- requires at least a passable knowledge of philosophy, and this would eliminate the need for the difficult self-tutoring that is currently enforced.

This is why I would introduce ‘Ethics’ from a young age to encourage constructive thought and the development of a personal ethical philosophy based on informed choice, rather than spoon feeding religious parables that have no greater practical real world use than the other philosophies that might be taught. It is high time that as a society we put Plato, Aristotle, Paine and Spinoza on a par with Matthew, Mark, Luke and John, and school is the perfect place to do this. I would be fascinated to hear if other people have had similar experiences to mine, or if anyone else agrees that philosophy should be just as, if not more important, than a religious education.