Allah Is Great, Allah Is Different

The narrow view of current terrorism overlooks the fact that in the Arab world Islam manifests itself mainly as a cultural trend among Arab youth. For them, it stands for the search for meaning and the rejection of "the West" and the Arab states' official culture. By Alfred Hackensberger

photo: AP
Headcarf by Hana Sadiq, presented at a fasion show in Rome, 2003

​​A few months after September 11, 15-year-old Abdallah, who works in a grocery store in Tangiers, smirks as he shows his friends the smoking Twin Towers on his cell phone display.

In the West that would be a definite breach of taste; in Morocco it is shrugged off as adolescent fooling around. The graphic on his cell phone is merely meant to convey his "attitude", one that is confirmed on a daily basis by friends and television: against America, that is, for more justice in the world, in Palestine and at home. A trendy attitude which he shares with most of Morocco's youth – and not only them.

This attitude, however many-faceted and contradictory it may be, can be said to dominate the Islamic Arab world. It takes a religious turn with the embrace of Islam, in which many are investing their hopes after the decline of left-wing ideas and movements.

"Even my students who drive 40,000 dollar cars and wear skirts and high heels think it's cool to fast during Ramadan", says Amal Saad-Ghorayeb, a political scientist at the Lebanese-American University in Beirut.

Islam has become a trend

"That is a new fashion which would have been unthinkable just 15 years ago." Islam has become a trend, says the young scholar, attributing it to a crisis of identity, especially among the younger generation. "They are torn back and forth between their Muslim-Arab tradition and the Western lifestyle."

They cannot fully embrace the West, which has rejected and marginalized them ever since September 11. "To resolve the conflict, people follow all the Muslim rituals while retaining the Western aspects of life."

In the West, where the Muslim Arab world exists mainly in the form of bad news, the description of Islam as a trend may meet with incomprehension or even be interpreted as a trivialization of terrorism. However, this ignores the fact that the phenomenon of terrorism is generally an indicator of larger socially critical movements from which it has become separated.

In the seventies even well-behaved family men grew their hair out, mothers shortened their hems and the whole world wore bell bottoms. That had little to do with the "armed struggle" of the Red Brigades in Italy or the Red Army Faction in Germany. The Arab world today is no different. Terrorism is the action of a small if dangerous minority.

"All movements have a huge imitation factor as soon as they become more popular," says Nizar Hamzeh, professor of political science at the American University in Beirut. That functions no differently in the Arab world than in the West. "Yes, Islam has become a trend, that's one way of putting it."

Arab media as a parallel universe

Most Europeans visiting an Arab country for the first time are taken aback when they begin to zap through the Arab satellite programs. Al-Jazeera, the news station from Qatar, is familiar, but the rest is unknown territory.

"You find everything there you see on Western television, just in an Arab version," the German House DJ Hans Nieswandt found to his surprise while traveling the Middle East on an invitation from the Goethe Institute. "No end of music stations with really expensively produced videos. Like on MTV, just with a different alphabet," he adds.

The world of the Arab media is a parallel universe with its own game shows and talk shows, superstar competitions, children's programming, news stations and Islamic television preachers very much in the style of American televangelists: as global as it is local.

But apart from a few Hollywood movies, mainly Arab productions are seen on television and in the movie theaters, and Arab pop music dominates the music stations. Most TV shows are religiously correct family viewing. There is little sexual explicitness; in foreign films long kisses and nude scenes are cut out. The degree of rigor depends on the country.

Discussing dating, premarital sex and fashion

That is only the official culture, however. A counterpart to this public realm has developed in the Internet. There are countless Islamic websites, run by everything from radical fundamentalists to liberal reformists. They focus not only on issues of religious theory, but also on practical advice. In chat forums teenagers discuss "dating", premarital sex and fashion.

But on the Web you can also find "everything for the Islamic family". For the children there is a "Jihad sweatshirt" and a cap with the words "Property of Allah", for Dad there is the "extra comfortable, sweat-absorbing pilgrim's garment" and for the lady of the house a fashionable long black caftan with matching black veil.

Not to mention "Islamic" hair oils, beauty soaps, natural toothbrushes, perfumes, incense, jewelry, underwear, interactive editions of the Koran, prayer rugs and clocks and telephones which announce the times for prayer all around the world. And the website "Modest cloth for modest people" offers an apology for the fact that all the headscarves are sold out at the moment.

Wearing the headscarf as an act of liberation

Thirty years ago, the "hijab" headscarf was still a symbol of the counterculture in Cairo and Beirut – Western-oriented cities at that time – signalizing backwardness and the rejection of modernity. "Today it's a feminist statement", maintains Amal Saad-Ghorayeb, who describes herself as an agnostic. "The headscarf frees women from the dictates of fashion, ideals of beauty and men's advances."

Tayyibah Taylor, editor-in-chief of Azizah, a women's fashion magazine that is published in Chicago and targets American Muslim women, takes a similar view. "Women who uninhibitedly show their bodies use their sexual aura to get ahead.

In contrast, Muslim women who dress modestly count on their intellect and their spiritual power to achieve things." Accordingly, Azizah only shows women who keep under cover, self-confidently and quite naturally. Fashionably modern, of course.

This new self-awareness among Islamic women is also the reason why more and more television anchorwomen, like Khadija Bin Kana on al-Jazeera, suddenly appear in front of their audience of millions with a headscarf. And in supermarkets and travel agencies, whether in Beirut or in Cairo, more and more women are suddenly beginning to cover their heads.

Islam as an alternative to capitalism and socialism

This kind of shift in values did not happen overnight. In the 1970s Islam was identified with a "third path" between capitalism and socialism, as a new promise for a better, more just world.

"Of course Islam has spread tremendously over the past three decades," says Amal Saad-Ghorayeb, the young political scientist. "But interestingly enough, it is only in the past few years that Islamic views and opinions have achieved such a massive presence in the public sphere." This presence was made possible only by the "Arab media revolution" of the past three years.

"After September 11 the Arab world had a greater need for different, non-Western news," explains Ibrahim Mousawi of Hisbollah-nahen al-Manar TV, one of Lebanon's three most popular TV stations, with around ten million viewers.

"People just wanted to see the truth." Nowadays the respective "truths" of al-Manar, al-Jazeera and al-Arabia are broadcast around the world: images of the Israeli army or the USA, of dead civilians in Palestine and Iraq, of "resistance fighters and martyrs" or of the tortured prisoners in Abu Ghraib.

During the US invasion of Afghanistan that was a novelty. Today this news perspective is part of everyday life. As in Europe or the United States, the media are part of a cultural and political consensus whose norms and values they constantly reproduce.

"When will the West stop applying double standards?"

In private discussions and at official functions, the Arab world's debates keep revolving around the same questions.

When will the West finally stop applying double standards and propping up or toppling dictators as it sees fit? Why aren't the Palestinians seen as having the right to resist when women and children are killed on a daily basis by the Israeli occupiers? Are these dead worth less than the dead of Madrid or New York? Why aren't we perceived as human beings of equal stature, why are we reduced to Stone Age Islam and terrorist clichés?

These are questions which are often shrugged off as biased criticisms – not only in Washington. But in Beirut, Casablanca, Cairo and Damascus these points of view are taken for granted. All who are truly interested in peaceful dialogue must provide answers to these questions.

Alfred Hackensberger

Translation from German: Isabel Cole

First published in Die Tageszeitung on 17 July 2004