The West Loves the Story of Iran’s Jailed ‘Happy’ Dancers For All the Wrong Reasons

An interesting take on the FreeHappyIranians story. This was written by senior editor for islawmix, Sana Saeed.

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When there’s slow movement on the hashtag battlefield, you can always count on a story about Muslim women and headscarves to pick up the pace.

On May 7, in her Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty column, Golnaz Esfandiari highlighted a Facebook page started by Iranian political journalist (in exile), Masih Alinejad, now called “My Stealthy Freedom.” The page features images of various Iranian women defying the national law that dictates women be covered with a headscarf at all times in public.

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The story, which has the necessary ingredients of a Western media fantasy, picked up in the English press immediately. Hell, even George Takei shared the story, expressing his awe at “[some] very brave women in Iran … doing something extraordinary on Facebook.” The story is still popping up online, and the Facebook group itself now boasts over 315,000 followers — an incredible increase from its initial few hundred, then few thousand, followers over the course of less than two weeks.

And just this week, attention was turned to Iran once more in the name of freedom of expression.

A group of young, trendy, Iranians (including three women without their headscarves) were arrested for “indecency” after creating a video of themselves dancing to Pharrell’s hit song, “Happy.” This story, too, garnered the attention of social media crusaders when news of the arrest broke. The group has now been released.

 

 

Iranian laws governing public morality and the possible punishments undoubtedly have a detrimental effect on the citizenry. For women, especially, to be publicly engaging in defiance of laws that limit their expressions of self — as really anywhere — is a risk and feat worth acknowledging.

But there’s a self-centered quality of our appetite for these stories. We are uncomfortably selective in our interest in which human rights stories from Iran get our attention.

There’s a reason why the “My Stealthy Freedom” page has been lauded as a “silent revolution,” and stories of life under the country’s crippling sanctions are underreported: These stories reinforce a warped narrative of Iran that is all too familiar in the West.

In response to the kind of coverage this story has received, editors of AJAM Media Collective, Shima Houshyar and Behzad Sarmadi pointed out the trouble with the seductive, oversimplified narrative evident through these stories:

These articles produce simplistic generalizations for the sake of provocative and yet easily digestible reading. They do so by: treating women’s bodily surfaces as a measure of societal progress and morality; romanticizing the notion of resistance; and eliding the significance of class and consumer culture in everyday urban life.

Houshyar and Sarmadi also point out that a western audience has a tendency to “romanticize resistance,” which only offers solidarity if its “own values and ideals seems apparent in the resistance.”

In short, these stories aren’t told with the intention of understanding — they’re told for the sake of consumption.

 

Images Credit: YouTube and facebook.

That means that the voices that really matter here — Iranian women that actually live with enforced dress codes — are lost in the coverage.

According to Houshyar and Sarmadi, “There is a significant internal conversation and a long history of engagement with the headscarf that is never part of any external conversation on the headscarf in Iran or on Iranian women.”

And that internal conversation, about mandatory veiling, is one that should not be dismissed or ignored. As Alinejad noted in an e-mail correspondence with PolicyMic, “[by] the time the international publicity came, [the Facebook page] had already become established in Iranian circles … with no publicity at all I was getting more than 50 photos a day.”

And in a similar vein, the story of the Iranians arrested for making a “Happy” video is a part of a wider conversation on censorship and dissent, or as Houshyar pointed out about the unfolding story on Wednesday:

But these nuances were lost in the online chorus of outrage. That’s because our envisioning of Iran and Iranians has been and remains limited to the sorts of issues that redeem our own beliefs and visions of ‘freedom’. The issues and stories that indict us of any complacency and wrongdoing are ignored or justified. When Iranians are the denied the apparent basic human right to make a Pharrell video, we are maddened and disappointed. When Iranians are unable to access basic medical supplies as a result of our sanctions, we don’t even know.

There is a space for solidarity and support that does not situate the external conversation and perspective as the dominant conversation and perspective; that does not create a hierarchy of rights and freedoms. Unfortunately, we still have not quite learned how to find it.

Sana Saeed is the Senior Editor for islawmix, a project incubated at the Berkman Center for Internet and Society dedicated to bringing clarity to discussions and portrayals of Islamic law in US news. She is also a researcher at the Islamophobia …
Article credit: PolicyMic
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Sad in Saudi

Syrians in Saudi Arabia encounter numerous social barriers but the financial reward of emigrating there can be tempting. 

Illustration by Ghalia Lababidi
Illustration by Ghalia Lababidi

Nothing could have prepared Mohammad Ghannam for what he witnessed at age 12. A drug dealer was beheaded in the courtyard of a mosque near his house in the Saudi Arabian capital of Riyadh. Ghannam, a 32-year-old Syrian who grew up in Saudi Arabia, said he could not sleep for days after the incident.

“Although executions are public, the Saudi authorities never inform people beforehand that a beheading will take place in the mosque. Since children in Saudi Arabia start going to mosques at age three, they often have to witness executions,” Ghannam explained. By the time he was 18, he said he had witnessed six beheadings, adding that they “become less shocking with time”.

Saudi Arabia is governed by a strict, Wahhabi interpretation of Sharia law and a conservative social code that prohibits interaction between the sexes. Thieves can have their hands cut off and adulterers can be stoned. Despite this stark reality, many young Syrian men move to the oil-rich country to save money to pay off the approximately SYP 300,000 (USD 6,500) fee for avoiding military service or to cope with the rising cost of living. Today, Saudi Arabia hosts 400,000 Syrian workers, thousands of whom are investors, he said.

With high unemployment back home, working in Saudi Arabia offers a better future for some young Syrians. Socially, however, life in Saudi Arabia can be stressful, Syrians living there told Syria Today.

“My job makes me financially comfortable, but, psychologically speaking, I am growing weary of it,” Moonzer al-Bitar, a Syrian who moved to Jeddah in 2007 to work for a medical company, said. The tradition of young Syrians travelling to Saudi Arabia for job opportunities goes back to the early 1930s, when oil was first discovered there. The country was developing rapidly and, with the lack of local expertise, it provided a job market for skilled workers from Syria, Lebanon, Palestine and Egypt – many of whom eventually settled there.

Strict upbringing
Ghannam’s family moved to Riyadh in 1979, when he was one month old. The severity of punishments there teaches obedience from a young age, according to Ghannam. Missing prayer can result in lashes to the feet or detention by the moral police. Approaching unrelated women in public can lead to three days in jail. Ghannam said that as a teenager, he never spoke to women outside his family.

“It was too risky,” he said.

Ghannam’s family moved back to Damascus in 2007. While today he leads a liberal life, he said his family still practices the conservative lifestyle they grew accustomed to back in Saudi Arabia.

Anoud Souhail, a Syrian English literature student at the University of Damascus who grew up in Saudi Arabia, said that Syrians in Saudi Arabia often assimilate to the local culture.

“Some Syrian families I know in Saudi Arabia reorganised their houses to have two sitting rooms – one for men and another for women,” Souhail said.

Limited outlets
Life in Saudi Arabia has some enjoyable aspects, too.

Syrians living in Saudi Arabia enjoyed access to modern technology and fashionable cars. Even today, Syrian expatriates often show off their high-tech purchases when they come from the Gulf to visit their relatives in Syria.

“I had my first computer when I was in fourth grade in Saudi. Back then, computers, mobiles and internet, among other things, were not available in Syria. I used to feel that Syria was way behind civilisation,” Ghannam said.

In addition to his access to gadgets, Ghannam had a few social activities in Saudia Arabia that brought him enjoyment. For example, he enjoyed attending hunting trips in the desert with his school.

“Saudi Arabians are experts at hunting,” Ghannam said. “We used to hunt for jerboas (a desert-dwelling rodent with long hind legs), dhubs (a type of spine-tailed lizards) and locusts.”

Entertainment possibilities remain otherwise limited in Saudi Arabia, according to Syrians living there. Bitar said foreign embassies sometimes organise cultural events worth attending. Other than that, segregated visits to the beach, cafés and restaurants are the only social outlets. Women’s activities are restricted to shopping and to visiting female friends in their homes and they are prohibited from taking public transportation.

“Most Saudi women have a car with a private driver to take them around,” Souhail said. “As for Syrian and other Arab families, they mostly moved to Saudi Arabia to save money and cannot afford such luxuries. With no car at hand, women can only take taxis in groups or accompanied by a male relative or family friend.”

Foreign discrimination
While at an official level, foreigners are treated as equal to Saudi Arabians, Souhail said foreign workers, including Syrians, feel discriminated against by the Saudi society.

“In general, Saudi people never fail to highlight that you, as a foreigner, are working for them and they treat you accordingly,” she said. “My teachers at school used to think I was Saudi because I come from the Mushawwah family which is also famous in Saudi Arabia. When they found out I was Syrian, they treated me differently and started giving me bad scores at school.”

Ghannam, however, pointed out that only poorer school children face discrimination.

“Syrians who could afford to study at private schools did not face this kind of discrimination,” he said. Nevertheless, even affluent Syrians never fully assimilate. “Saudis are very loyal to their community. If there is an argument, they always side with the Saudi against the foreigner, regardless of who was wrong.”

A policy issued in 1995 capped the number of foreign workers and also limited certain positions to Saudi Arabians.

“No matter how highly educated a Syrian is, he will never be promoted to a leading position in his company,” Souhail, the student in Damascus, asserted. But, she added, the high salaries mean she may return to Jeddah after graduating.

This article was published in Syria Today magazine.

Bridge of Time

The French mandate period left a lasting impression on Syria’s systems.

The Deir ez-Zor suspension bridge, built in 1927 by the French construction company Fougerolle.

The Deir ez-Zor suspension bridge, built in 1927 by the French construction company Fougerolle.

The highs and lows of the French mandate in Syria are immediately visible to any first-time visitor to Damascus.

The impressive, French-built National Museum – a first stop for any newcomer – highlights the period’s positive impact. Conversely, the domed roof of Souk Hamidiyeh was left punctured with its iconic bullet holes during the 1925 air raid combating a civilian revolt. The French response to the Syrian uprising killed 5,000 citizens and made Damascus, according to US professor and Middle East expert Michael Provence, the site of a dark legacy: the home of “the first civilian carpet bombing campaign ever”.

In addition to these and other visible vestiges of the period between 1920 and 1946 when France administered Syria through a mandate from the League of Nations, numerous intangible fingerprints touch Syrian education, law and culture.

More than 65 years since the French left Syria and the country became an independent Arab republic, the French legacy remains.

French-built apartment blocks in Damascus (top); buildings in Aleppo that were built either in the Late Ottoman period – when architecture began to be influenced by Italian and to a lesser-degree French styles – or during the French mandate (middle, bottom) photos by Adel Samara and Claire Duffett

French-built apartment blocks in Damascus (top); buildings in Aleppo that were built either in the Late Ottoman period – when architecture began to be influenced by Italian and to a lesser-degree French styles – or during the French mandate (middle, bottom) photos by Adel Samara and Claire Duffett

Educational impact

Every spring, secondary school students throughout Syria agonise over the Baccalauréat graduation examination that will determine their qualifications for attending university. During this time, newspapers print numerous stories about students committing suicide because of test anxiety.

Although after independence, the Syrian educational system was nationalised and the curriculum adapted from French into Arabic, certain trademark characteristics of education implemented by the French during the 1920s remain – most obviously the Baccalauréat.

“It remains a huge rite of passage – rightly or wrongly – that can define your entire future,” said Nadya Sbaiti, a professor of Modern Middle East at Smith College in the US. “That’s directly related to the French mandate for sure.”

Under the mandate, the Baccalauréat was implemented and eventually became the demanding ordeal that it remains today, after the French discovered that too many young Syrians were passing the test, Sbaiti explained. In order to reserve government and specialised professions – particularly medicine, law and finance – for French residents of Syria, the examination was made more difficult.

“The whole point was to prevent Syrians from going into these professions,” she said.

Today, the Baccalauréat has evolved, but it remains a high-profile filter that determines who can obtain an affordable education – with thousands more young people finishing secondary school annually than there are spots available at public universities.

Likewise, the French school in Damascus still provides lucky individuals with additional opportunities. While nationalised in 1967, it is an expensive, private-tuition institution to which only the most well-connected Syrian students have access.

“It’s definitely part of the elite culture,” said Randi Deguilhem, a France-based professor at the Institute for Research and Study on the Arab and Muslim Worlds. Wealthy Syrians and children of diplomats attend the school, she said, which is “a clear sign of socioeconomic status. It’s not just the knowledge [learned there] itself, it opens the door to economic opportunities.”

Villa Rose, a mansion in Aleppo built during the French mandate

Villa Rose, a mansion in Aleppo built during the French mandate

Legal tradition
Syria’s legal system – its foundations and some of its high-profile hallmarks – remain rooted in the country’s French background. Syrian law is derived from legislative statutes that follow the French civil law system.

French law first arrived in Syria long before the mandate period. In 1858, the Ottomans, who occupied Syria for 400 years through 1918, replaced its sharia-based legal system throughout its empire – as part of a push towards westernisation –with a criminal law system modelled on France’s, Farouk al-Basha, professor of law emeritus at the University of Damascus, explained.

Later, during the mandate, Syria also adopted France’s civil, commercial and administrative legal systems. While the changes made Syrian law clearer – going from complex sharia to straightforward statutes – according to Basha, a number of oft-criticised laws are derived from the French.

For instance, women under sharia had full citizenship. Only under the French were they stripped of full citizenship rights, Elizabeth Thompson, associate professor of history at the University of Virginia and chair of the workshop on Muslim societies, explained. Women became subjects of their husbands and fathers and lost the ability to pass down Syrian nationality to their children. The latter is a restriction that persists until today in Syria, but was dismissed by the French in 1965.

Furthermore, the law granting lenient sentences for ‘honour killings’ – when men murder their female relatives over alleged sexual impropriety – can be attributed to the French system, despite the phenomenon often being attributed to conservative, eastern beliefs and assumed to be part of sharia. France delineated a now-defunct law in its 1810 criminal code which refers to ‘crimes of passion’, absolving men of responsibility for murdering a female relative if he catches her in the act of adultery. Basha explained that, in contrast, sharia stipulates that four sheiks must simultaneously catch a woman in the act of adultery – a virtually impossible scenario.

The Syrian government also learned a few extra-judicial habits from the French, argued US professor Provence. Syria’s long-standing emergency law, which suspends the constitutional rights of certain individuals, is in part modeled on the permanent presence of marshal law under the French mandate, he argued.

“The big vestige of the French mandate are the intelligence services and marshal law,” he said. “The Syrian government learned disregard for [some aspects of] the rule of law from the French.”

Thompson, the associate professor of history, agreed that various governments in the region learned disregard for citizens’ rights from their former administrators, saying: “Nation-building during occupation is profoundly anti-democratic.”

Cultural heritage
More than education and law, French culture is perhaps the most visible – and positive – mandate legacy in Syria today. Throughout March, the embassy of France and other French-speaking countries hosted the Days of Francophonie: a series of films, lectures, exhibitions and concerts. The French Cultural Centre in Damascus and the French Institute for the Near East are two of the most active cultural centres in the region, said Eric Chevallier, French ambassador to Syria.

“More than events, we have long-term relationships on various key issues,” he added, including academic exchanges with more than 3,000 students and a project for the Louvre in Paris to help upgrade the Syrian National Museum.

In academia, a number of Syria’s most prominent thinkers learned from philosophies that originated in France, Ghassan al-Sayed, vice dean of the Higher Language Institute at the University of Damascus, said.

For instance, the French literary schools of existentialism, deconstructionism, and idealism all influenced numerous high-profile Syrian writers, including the poet Adonis, the deconstructionist Kamal Abu Deeb and the Christian existentialist George Salim.

“All the Syrian thinkers studied in French universities in Syria during the mandate,” Sayed said. During the post-independence 1950s and 1960s, they traveled frequently between Damascus and Paris, and eventually established Syrian-flavoured versions of French philosophies, Sayed said.

For instance, existentialism argues that man is free to make his own choices and must therefore be committed to those choices, he said. The Syrian existentialists – noting the importance of community in their country – extended this idea, arguing that the philosophy includes an inherent choice to be committed to one’s fellow citizens.

He explained: “They took the French concepts and adapted them, in order to acknowledge the Syrian reality.”

This article was written by Claire Duffett in Syria Today magazine. I helped reporting about French influence on Syria’s legal system.

Bottoms Up

Changing legislation is altering how alcohol is bought and consumed in Syria.

photos by Adel Samara

photos by Adel Samara

Assalamu Alaykum is not exactly how one expects to be greeted when walking into a liquor store. Yet, that is how Ayman Kaadan, owner of the Royal Stone alcohol shop in the Muslim-majority Barzeh neighbourhood greets his visitors.

Kaadan said he does not see any contradiction in being a Muslim who sells alcohol. However, liquor stores in Muslim areas were prohibited by Syrian law until July last year, when the law licensing alcohol shops was modified. Places where alcohol can be consumed, however – such as pubs and restaurants – are still illegal in Muslim-majority areas.

Modern alcohol legislation dates back more than 60 years. According to a law issued in 1952, pubs, restaurants and other locations where alcohol is consumed must be located in non-Muslim areas, 20 metres from police stations and government buildings and 100 metres from places of worship, schools, hospitals and cemeteries. A similar law used to govern liquor stores. Kaadan’s shop, which he opened in 2009, operated without a licence for two years.

According to employees at the governorate of Damascus, the growing demand for alcohol shops drove the Ministry of Local Administration to modify the law. The ministry issued a new law in July 2010, allowing liquor stores to open with the only restriction being that they be located 75 metres from places of worship and that shop owners do not allow customers to drink inside or in front of the store. When the new law was issued, Kaadan immediately applied. He was granted the licence late last year.

Unlicensed pubs
Since the law licensing liquor stores was modified, the number of new shops has increased. Other previously unlicensed shops also applied for licences, Ghassan Maamouri, director of the licensing unit at the governorate of Damascus told Syria Today.

The number of licensed pubs and restaurants serving alcohol, on the other hand, is decreasing, Abu George, the 50-something owner of a 70-year-old pub called Abu Gerorge’s, said. Abu George inherited the pub in Bab Sharqi from his father and grandfather.

“Many alcohol shops and pubs in my alley closed because their owners died and the family did not want to continue the business,” Abu George, who started working in the pub when he was seven, said. “The number of places of worship, schools and hospitals is steadily increasing. This is leaving little space for new, licensed pubs to replace the old ones.”

Because of the high public demand for pubs combined with the challenging licensing conditions, the number of unlicensed pubs is increasing, Somar Hazim, the owner of Beit Rose, a licensed alcohol-serving hotel in the old city, said. Hazim counted six unlicensed pubs near his hotel.

Maamouri from the licensing unit said that unlicensed places that sell or serve alcohol face penalties of SYP 500 (USD 11) and are given a two-week notice to apply for a licence. This penalty is repeated twice. If the owner still does not comply, his shop is closed. The governorate, however, could not provide statistics about the number of unlicensed alcohol selling and serving shops that have been recently closed down.

Hazim from Beit Rose hotel said that this system is not enough. He argued that strict monitoring is required. Kaadan from Royal Stone alcohol shop agreed.

“I didn’t have any trouble with the governorate for the first year-and-a-half when my shop was unlicensed. Unless neighbours file a complaint against the shop, the governorate does not know that the shop is unlicensed,” he said.

Hazim said that this is affecting his and other licensed, alcohol-serving establishments.

“Some restaurants serve alcohol undercover,” he said. “They don’t have to pay taxes so they can sell alcohol for cheaper prices than we do. It is spoiling our business.”

Customers at Abu George’s like 20-something Maher Samaan also complain that, with the lack of monitoring from the government, many unlicensed pubs mix local, low-quality alcohol with imported liquor, while illegal stores often sell smuggled, low-quality alcohol.

Anwar Hamoud, owner of liquor store in Dummar, argued that the unreasonably high taxes on alcohol – as high as 85 percent of the product price – encourages illegal sales, which harms business.

“[Unlicensed shops] can afford to sell for much cheaper than legal purchasers of alcohol can. This leads to great losses in the government treasury,” Hamoud said. “If taxes were reduced, it would no longer be worth it for smugglers to risk being caught.”

Abu George at his pub in Bab Sharqi

Abu George at his pub in Bab Sharqi

Segregating non-Muslims
Salina Abaza, a graphic designer in her twenties who enjoys going to pubs, said she believes that the law regarding pubs and other alcohol serving places should be modified. She said that restricting alcohol serving places to predominantly non-Muslim areas segregates the country’s non-Muslim community.

“Serving alcohol in only non-Muslim areas limits the places where Christians, for example, can hang out,” she said. “This segregates them from other Syrians.”

Tony Khouri, a 40-something trader and one of Abu George’s regulars, agreed.

“I like going out and having lunch with my wife and drinking a glass of wine, but I’m bored of the old city. I live and work here so it would be nice to hang out somewhere else,” he said. “The problem is there is only a handful of restaurants that serve alcohol outside old Damascus and their numbers are decreasing.”

Pub owners in Bab Sharqi also said they believe that restricting alcohol-serving places to predominantly non-Muslim areas is ridiculous, since most of their customers are Muslim.

“About 70 percent of my customers are Muslim,” Abu George said. “Even veiled women come and have a drink in my pub.”

This article was published in Syria Today magazine.

Trying to Fit in (Muslims in Denmark)

In 1971, Syrian writer Fahmy al-Majid moved to Denmark. Today, he is a published author, with several books and articles about Islam and Muslim integration in Denmark.

He now lives in a comfortable home in Copenhagen with his Danish wife. Inside, the décor is a mix of Bedouin tent carpets and IKEA-style Western furniture. On the walls hang a mixture of religious symbols, ranging from an adorned crescent to a smiling Buddha. Majid said he emphasises a variety of religions because he wanted his children to learn tolerance at an early age and be familiar with both their parents’ cultures.

“I’m Muslim and my wife is Christian,” Majid said. “All my children speak Arabic and are familiar with their origins. Religion and nationality have never been an issue in this house.”

Turn of events
Majid said he regrets that the same is not true throughout Denmark since the September 11 attacks on the US. After the event, Majid said he collected news reports on attacks on Muslims in Denmark and counted more than 70 incidents. When compared to the population of Denmark, this is a higher percentage than the attacks against Muslims in the US, he said.

Muslims in Denmark comprise about 4 percent of the country. The number of Syrians among them – or in the country’s Christian and other communities – totals 4,000 according to Christina Markus Lassen, Danish ambassador to Syria. Most arrived in the 1970s, in hope of better living conditions, and in the early 1980s and 1990s, seeking political asylum, Bilal Asaad, financial manager of the Scandinavian Waqf (an Islamic trust), said.
According to Naser Khader, a Syrian-Palestinian member of the Danish parliament, assaults on his community were exascerbated because it is small and insular.

“There are only 200,000 Muslims in Denmark, which has a population of 5m. Some Danes have never seen a Muslim,” Khader, who was the first Danish of Arab descent to join the parliament, explained. “They only see Muslims in the news. They see Muslim terrorists taking hostages and this causes Islamophobia.”

Latifa, a 26-year-old woman who wears the hijab and studied economics at university said she faced seclusion in both social and employment settings.

“Danes are open with you as long as you are not a practicing Muslim,” she said. “But if you are religious, as I am, then you feel excluded.”

A meeting held following September 11 by Hizb al-Tahrir (The Liberation Party) – an Islamic political organization that seeks to unite all Muslims in a caliphate whose Denmark branch was legally established in the Middle of the 1990s– to announce its support for Osama bin Laden only further strengthened the image of Muslims as terrorist. The group is considered radical and fringe and most Muslims take pains to distance themselves from it.

Propaganda against Islam
Majid said the Danish media helps to perpetuate misinformation and prejudice against the country’s Muslims. He said the press blames Muslim immigrants for economic problems and disproportionately covers extremist Islamic groups such as Hizb al-Tahrir, which openly supports Osama bin Laden.

Danish journalist and writer Kare Bluitgen disputed this claim, saying that the media distinguish between Muslim extremists and ordinary people.

“Most people say that’s ok. We know terrorists from Western Europe too. We used to have them, we have them. I don’t think the media is as bad as it’s common to say,” Bluitgen said. “You always find mistakes. I think in general they do a good job. You have to tell your audience that we are not talking about Muslims, we are talking about a very little minority inside the minority of Muslims in Denmark.”

According to Soren Espersen, a member of the right-wing Dansk Folkspartei and supporter of Denmark’s current conservative government, it is political Islam that he and his allies consider threatening, not all Muslims. But his party holds some of its own extreme views. It has called for a ban on all Arab satellite channels, which he claimed call for viewers to “hate the Western world”. It also voted to ban the niqab face veil in Denmark. Most extreme was his party’s proposal that Muslim immigrants be shown video footage of women’s bare breasts before allowing them into the country to make sure they are “moderate”.

Such prejudicial proposals have a deep effect on second-generation Muslim children, Asaad, the Waqf financial manager, said. “[Children] feel they are refused by the only society they know.”

To help the children better adapt, the organisation has created integration courses for 7- to 12-year-old children.

“Many Muslim immigrant children in Denmark feel torn and don’t know whether they are Danish, Syrian or Muslim,” He explained. “We are trying to help them work out that they are all three.”

Cartoon controversy
Any discussion about relations between Muslims and the wider Danish community must address the notorious cartoons depicting the Prophet Muhammad, published by Danish newspaper Jyllands-Posten in September 2005.

I interviewed Kare Bluitgen, whose failed search for an illustrator to draw the prophet for his children’s book The Koran and the Life of the Prophet Mohammad prompted the newspaper to publish the cartoons.

He said that Muslims in Denmark used peaceful demonstrations in the aftermath of the images’ publication. The event also prompted debate and better understanding of Islam, he added.

“The majority of Muslims were very calm,” Bluitgen said. “They just said don’t buy that stupid paper.”

Likewise, he added, other than some rogue politicians and journalists, average Danes are not prejudiced towards the country’s Muslim community. “”In Copenhagen every third of the pupils is Muslim. My daughter has almost only Muslim friends today. Daily life is different from politics,” he said.

Andreas Kamm, Secretary General of the Danish Refugee Council also believes people’s approach to Muslims is changing. “Statistics  show that the number of Muslims who feel discriminated against is going down,” Kamm said. “It is a private matter if you have one or another religion. If you have this kind of clothes or another kind of clothes. Who cares?  I would say 75 percent of the Danes do not care.”

Further, the cartoon crisis helped increase employment from 47 percent to 70 percent among Danes of Muslim origin, Syrian-Danish MP Khader said.

“I know an employer who before the cartoons never hired Muslims. For him a Muslim equals trouble. But after the crisis he realised that Muslims here are democratic people who respect freedom,” Khader said. “After the cartoon crisis Danish people realized that there are different types of Muslims. Before the cartoon crisis they only knew one type, the extremist one.”

In Syria, however, the Danish and Norwegian embassies were burned down by angry protestors, and the governments of both countries condemned Syria for what they called “failing its international obligations” to stop the arsen. According to Espersen from the right-wing party, however, the Syrian government was “a great help” at the time of the crisis.

“The government in Syria was not engaged in the boycotting of Danish products as they were in Saudi Arabia, for example,” Espersen said. “They [the Syrians] realized this is something that the Danish government or the parliament can do nothing about. That was a very difficult task to explain to many governments in the Muslim world but never to Syria. They knew if our prime minister had said these cartoons are now forbidden he’d be finished.”

While Syria restored calm towards Denmark internally, Asaad from Waqf said that it should do more to change the view of Syria and Islam abroad.

“A country like Syria should direct its cultural office in the embassy to organise lectures to try to bring points-of-view closer to each other and explain why Muslims reacted this way,” Asaad said, referring to the burning of the embassies. “All Arab countries neglected their duty to change the stereotype of our countries as a big desert filled with terrorists. Denmark is the one that made a move to change its image and better understand Muslims.”

Today, Denmark and Syria collaborate mainly on environmental and humanitarian issues. Denmark provides important support for Iraqi and Palestinian refugees in Syria and the Danish Red Cross and Refugee Council are active throughout the country.

Though Majid said he feels second-generation immigrants from Muslim-majority countries such as Syria still face discrimination, he believes Denmark is his children’s home country.

“I’m Syrian and no matter how long I live in Denmark I’ll still be primarily Syrian and then Danish,” Majid said. “But my children were born in Denmark and they will always be Danish first and Syrian second.”

A shorter version of this article was published in Syria Today magazine.

Q&A: Andreas Kamm, Secretary General of the Danish Refugee Council

Secretary General of the Danish Refugee Council comments on the integration of Muslims in Denmark.

 
 

Andreas Kamm

 

Do you think it is harder for practicing Muslims to integrate into Danish society?

I am sad to say yes. Statistics, however, show that the number of Muslims who feel discriminated against is going down. Still, some Muslims say they feel that others have problems with them because of their religious beliefs and because they signal that they are Muslims.

How can Denmark change that?

I think that Danish politicians have a great responsibility. We need to work against creating a picture of the Muslim world as an enemy. Maybe 15 to 20 percent of the Danish people tend to say yes, [the Muslim World] is dangerous. So leadership from the politicians would be much welcome from our side.

What do you think of the right-wing Dansk Folkspartei’s call for a ban on the niqab face veil and all Arab satellite channels in Denmark which they claimed keeps Muslims’ focus on their own affairs and prevents them from integrating into Danish society?

It is counterproductive. You can not force people to change their minds from one day to the next. Why should they? It is a private matter if you have one or another religion. If you have this kind of clothes or another kind of clothes. Who cares?  I would say 75 percent of the Danes don not care.

Denmark has recently introduced a new immigration law with stricter requirements for would-be immigrants. What do you think of the changes?

Actually we do not like it because it is so restrictive trying to keep people out of Denmark. I think that there is a very negative rhetoric performed by some politicians in Denmark. Dansk Folkspartei, for example, has a very negative influence on the immigration process in Denmark. And the reason why the party is so negative is purely political. We are moving towards an election so they [the politicians] cook up a lot of strange things to prepare for the election.

Playing Halal (Islamization of Toys in Syria)

Since the ‘Islamic Barbie’ Fulla hit stores in 2003, a wave of Islamic toys has flooded the Syrian market. Is this a sign of rising conservatism or simply clever marketing?

Since she hit the market in 2003, the veiled Barbie doll Fulla has made international headlines. A product of the Dubai-based Syrian toy company New Boy, this best-seller was touted as Barbie’s ‘modest’ relative – a cousin who promotes Islamic virtues.

Fast-forward six years and Fulla no longer has to face the arduous task of setting the right example on her own. Today, the dark-haired Muslim icon competes in a growing market for Islamic toys, vying for a place among religious story books and interactive games which teach children how to pray. Islamised versions of best-selling American cartoons and Japanese anime also sell like hot cakes.

Censoring un-Islamic values

One such anime is the Japanese best-seller Dragon Ball Z, which has been edited and dubbed by Al-Zuhra, a Syrian sound recording studio. The original Japanese story revolves around seven mystical dragon balls which, when all brought together, summon the legendary dragon Shen Long. He grants the person who gathers the balls a wish and then disappears for a year, scattering the dragon balls across the world in the process. But while protagonists in the original version gather the luminous balls in order to get a boyfriend or live forever, in Al-Zuhra’s Islamised version their only wish is to build a school.

“The anime, or the Japanese style of animated cartoon, is known for its violent and sexually explicit content,” Iyad Hijizi, a technical supervisor at Al-Zuhra, said. “It’s not the kind of anime we want our children to see.”

As such, the company edits out any Japanese or American content that challenges Islamic values. The company does not have a budget to produce its own cartoons. Instead, it rewrites the plots to promote positive ideas such as strong family ties, education and honesty.

“We cut out all swear words, stills that show nudity, sexual acts or violence and parts that encourage smoking, drinking alcohol, living together before marriage or stealing,” Hijizi said.

Al-Zuhra also censors stereotypical views of Arabs in the foreign cartoons they work with.

“In some cartoons, Arabs are portrayed as primitive, evil people who eat with their hands and sell belly dancers,” Hijizi said. “We certainly don’t want to promote that.”

The rigour of Al-Zuhra’s editing standards varies, however, depending on the production company that commissions them.

“Companies from all over the Arab world commission Al-Zuhra to edit their cartoons,” Hijizi said. “Some of them are more conservative than others, but we avoid being too extreme.”

The company also “fights the Westernisation of Arab culture” by replacing foreign names with Arabic ones and swapping overseas locations with cities, towns and landmarks from the region. A team is also employed to dub the films into Modern Standard Arabic, instead of the colloquial dialects which are commonly used.

“We want the long hours children spend watching television not to be just entertaining, but also educational,” Hijizi said.

Not everyone’s a fan

The move to edit foreign cartoons is not appreciated by all. Aside from the question of international copyright, episodes can become a hotchpotch of incoherent images that have nothing to do with the story.

“In Dragon Ball Z they edited the plot to build a school, but you don’t see a school in the whole cartoon,” Muhammad Hamze, a Syrian cartoonist and animator who previously worked for Al-Zuhra, said. “This distracts children because what they see is different from what they hear.”

Hamze adds that the quality of the original Japanese animes is entirely lost after editing.

“I’m not against cartoons that reflect our Islamic culture and that children can relate to, but I’m against distorting such great animes,” he said. “If we want something Islamic, why not make it ourselves?”

By turning all names and locations into Arabic, others say the cultural value of foreign cartoons is lost.

“Through cartoons, children used to learn about different countries and cultures,” Diana el-Jeiroudi, co-founder of Proaction Film Company and director of Dolls: A Woman from Damascus, a film which explores Syrian women’s identity through the character of Fulla, said. “Arabising cartoons promotes insularity rather than Islam because it promotes one model of living, the Arabic one.”

Jeiroudi says that like Fulla, these cartoons are promoting an ideology rather than a set of religious values.
“There is a collective feeling among Arabs that they are under attack and can’t defend their identity,” she said. “These toys and cartoons are an attempt to defend and promote an ideology rather than Islam per se.”

Money talks

While the promotion of Islamic values is often touted by a new wave of children’s toys and entertainment brands, industry insiders say healthy profits are the main drivers behind the surge in products such as Fulla and the local variety of Dragon Ball Z.

“The editing of cartoons has nothing to do with Islamisation or education, it’s all about money,” Hamze said. “As Syrian cartoon companies don’t have the budgets to produce their own cartoons, they need a brand of their own that will attract viewers and what could be better than promoting Islamic cartoons with ‘safe’ content for children?”

It is also a lot cheaper to edit foreign cartoons than employ artists to develop local, culturally relevant material.

“Apart from the few production grants offered by the Secretariat of Damascus Arab Capital of Culture 2008 last year, there are no local funding opportunities,” Hamze said.

Orwa Nyrabia, co-founder of Proaction Film Company and co-producer of Dolls: A Woman from Damascus, said going Islamic simply makes good business sense. He points to the fact that Fulla was launched in Saudi Arabia only days after authorities banned Barbie for being “a symbol of decadence of the perverted West”.

“Saudi Arabia is the biggest purchasing power in the region and it only buys strictly Islamic products,” Nyrabia said. “It’s not a conspiracy or a plan to promote Islam, it’s just marketing.”

This article was published in Syria Today magazine