Monday, January 23, 2012

Dubai's Global Village: From Arab Spring to unity

Decorated pavilions of Egypt, Syria, Iraq and Yemen at Global Village speak volumes

This is Tahrir Square, the epicentre of Egypt’s January 25 revolution. Er, not in Cairo but in Dubai. The Egypt Pavilion at the Global Village is a model of Tahrir Square, where the Arab Spring began, and the narrow streets of Khan El Khalili in the Islamic district of Cairo.

Near the entrance, two men dressed as King Tut made me smile. Working laboriously on ‘traditional’ Egyptian crafts, such as hieroglyphic bookmarks and greeting cards, they look up for a second and get back to serious work.

“When I’m in Cairo, I go to Tahrir Square every Friday and join the latest ‘millioneya’,” (the million man/woman march which seems to be an event on most Fridays) says Abel H, while his friend Ahmed nods. “It is unacceptable for me to be part of the silent majority. Being part of the silent majority in Egypt now labels you as being a member of the ‘couch party.’ You sit on the couch and you watch the latest millioneya on television, and the only political views you have are communicated to whoever happens to be sitting next to you, or to your cat,” he says, firmly and gets back to work.

Naturally you come across the predictable papyrus leaf prints, busts of Nefertiti, cat statues and the paraphernalia. A sensational discovery 89 years ago by archaeologist Howard Carter turned the unknown pharaoh Tutankhamun into an international superstar. For years, Tutankhamun, his treasures and his tomb have been touring the globe with an ambassador-like presence in each city he visits. He’s here, too.
You walk further and you hear a slight music playing ahead from an oud. The history of music would remain incomplete without a reference of Egyptian Oud. Mohammed at the stall recalls how his friend Tarek from Revolutionary Artists of Egypt had taken his oud along and played music after the turmoil had calmed down in Tahrir Square. “It was then that he brought his oud guitar and we sang political and revolutionary songs, which gave people hope and excitement in those times,” he beams.
You walk further down and you come across quilts and people buying cotton underwear! The quilted fabric called ‘Khayameya’ fabric, takes its name from a whole quarter in old Cairo called Khayameya, originating from Kheyma or tent in Arabic. The fabric is actually used to set up huge tents in streets to celebrate or gather for a marriage or someone’s death.
The tent is calledSewan in Egyptian Arabic. I made a mental note that if I ever visited Cairo again, I would track down Khayameya Street (The Alley of Tentmakers, south of Bab Zweila) and get one of these quilts. But it was right there in front of me so I decided not to wait any longer.
While walking out of the square, I noticed a young man in a bright red T-shirt that read ‘My new birthday is January 25th’ walking past. It reminded me of a shirt my friend had picked up for me from the (real) Tahrir Square which read ‘100 Percent Egyptian.’


When you step inside the pavilion, an ambience of a traditional Damascus courtyard house greets you, with the beautifully ornate shops resembling the Northern Damascus souk and homes. The pavilion is in the shape of a gate like the seventh Damascus gate.
The shops sell an assortment of traditional Syrian ware including abayas, crystal, antiques, traditional music instruments, wood work ‘Arabesk,’ herbs, traditional sweets, curtains, and the damascene table cloth symbolising the wealthy civilisation of the country.
Clank. Clink. Clank. The rhythmic clanking of his cymbals resonates distinctively through the thick noise of visitors bustling about. When a thirsty passerby stops him for erk sous, a cold liquorice juice, the vendor, in his baggy Turkish-style pants, thick cloth belt, little vest, and rubber boots, tilts his heavy ice-filled copper container and pours the brownish juice into a glass held way below his waist so as to foam up the liquid. Othman who’s being serving this drink in his hometown Homs says, “Homs is one place where the people just don’t give up, it has become so symbolic. It is such an extended city, with extensive suburbs, villages and surrounding areas taking part in the protests that it has been hard for the Syrian army to subdue all of that territory, as well as everywhere else,” he says, cautiously.
You can also experience the sounds of the religious folkloric band ‘Mawaly’ providing live entertainment, nearby.
The rows of knick-knack shops attractively displaying traditional antique Syrian items gives one a feeling of walking through an aisle selling heritage items in Souk al Hamidiyeh in Damascus. “People from Homs are renowned for their sense of humour and this has come out so strongly in the crisis says Abdallah, of the Arabesk furniture stall.
That is why in the Syrian revolution, Homs has become the capital that Damascus has not.


You get surrounded by Yemeni stuff here, and at the stalls charming and chatty Yemenis in their traditional garbs, including daggers, sell their local goods.
The prime attraction at this pavilion is the Yemeni honey. It’s pricey but tasty. And if you have even slight grey hair and are male, get raedy for a ‘honey viagra’!
Yemen’s uprising began much before protesters in Tunisia and Egypt took to the streets. But while the dictators in those countries were toppled, activists in Yemen have been repressed by a leadership that for years has manipulated tribes and exploited the country’s instability.
“Yemen is not like Tunisia, or Egypt, or Libya, or Syria,” says Mousa, a honey-vendor, “Yemen has a culture and society of its own that is still deeply rooted in its old norms. Modernity is prevailing in all the other countries, but in Yemen it is still crawling,” he adds handing out the honey with a smile, to add to the sweetness.


You may even walk past without noticing it. Sadly, the ‘cradle of civilisation’ pavilion is quite small and unassuming. But stop and look because it’s a real treasure house ‘a la Aladdin’s Cave,’ but full of artworks. This is the real deal: original oil paintings and other art forms, especially calligraphy come straight from Baghdad. Some of the art is sold directly from the artists. There are artists like Haider who make paintings the whole year just to display and sell it here. “I once sold a painting to an American marine telling him that the painting meant revival and renaissance and he bought it immediately,” he exclaims. “In actuality it was a painting of unrequited love, the story of Iraq is similar, isn’t it?” he questions with a lost look.
As you make your way out of the Global Village, you realise it’s not just about shopping for the unique handmade global items. The spirit of one world pervades the village. Even though gunfire reverberates in their homeland, these people are here as ambassadors of peace.

The rise of Islamists and Sharia-compliant realist governance

A pragmatic principle gains ground in Islamist politics

The results are final: Islamists have secured 75 per cent of the seats in Egypt's parliament. They will shape politics for at least five years to come, a chilling thought for many. But the reverse might also be true, not only in Egypt but in every country where Islamists are winning at the ballot box: politics will shape Islamism.

The rise of Islamists in the region has revived a pragmatic form of Islamic jurisprudence that has been neglected for centuries: "siyasa shariyyah", or Sharia-compliant realist governance, deals with politics, economics and law based on an overarching principle known as "maslaha", or public interest. In practice, siyasa shariyyah is often seen as in opposition to traditional jurisprudence.

But it is a school of thought that is gaining ground in different quarters. "Politics is mainly about maslaha," says Dr Salman Al Odah, one of Saudi Arabia's more prominent clerics. Dr Al Odah is in the process of preparing a study on the subject that deals with Sharia in the context of the Arab Spring.

Sheikh Mohammed Hassan, one of Egypt's top Salafi clerics, has used the principle of maslaha to justify the need to comply with the peace treaty with Israel. He maintains that it is not in Egypt's best interests to break the accords, citing the example of a 10-year truce Prophet Mohammed signed with Quraishi leaders when Muslims were weak. Although it was a deeply "unfair and humiliating" agreement, Sheikh Mohammed says, the Prophet adhered to the truce until it was eventually broken by the Meccans. Egypt's Salafi Al Nour party has recently held training courses for its members on siyasa shariyyah.

Ibrahim bin Omar Al Sakran, a Saudi intellectual, has been attacked by extremist Salafis after writing a treatise on siyasa shariyyah in which he argued that the Islamic political concept of "shura", or consultation, meant that all Muslims must be consulted - rather than a select group - bringing the idea of shura closer to a democratic system. He also argues that governments have contracts with the people that can be revoked just like any other contract if the terms are breached. Political engagement of the entire community, he says, falls within the national maslaha.

The significance is that these opinions come from moderate figures within the Salafi movement, who base their arguments on Sharia texts (the Quran and the Hadiths) and the views of Islam's early generations, making the ideas more credible in the eyes of other religious scholars.

Here in the UAE, the judiciary offers concrete examples of how the principle of siyasa shariyyah is applied. In 2010, Abu Dhabi's Court of Cassation set a legal precedent by ruling that a Muslim can be executed for the murder of a non-Muslim although the UAE hears cases under the Maliki school of jurisprudence - which stipulates the contrary. The lower courts found a Sudanese man guilty of stabbing to death a Christian woman from Ethiopia, and sentenced him to 15 years in prison.

The Public Prosecution appealed against the verdicts and demanded the case be tried under Hanafi teachings, the only Sunni school that calls for the death penalty if a Muslim kills a non-Muslim. Prosecutors said it was in the interest of the country to ensure equality for residents. The victim was a legitimate resident and therefore entitled to protection, security and sanctity for her "blood, honour and money", according to the prosecutor.

The case was then retried under the Hanafi school and the man was sentenced to death. As the cassation court's rulings are binding on local courts, all Abu Dhabi courts now have to treat Muslims and non-Muslims equally in criminal matters. Magistrates at the time cited the pragmatic principle of siyasa shariyyah.
"In Islamic jurisprudence, judges can announce that a person is sentenced to death in accordance with Sharia but should not be executed in consideration of politics," says Dr Ahmed Al Kubaisi, the head of Sharia studies at UAE University. "The interests of the nation precede the interests of the individual. Justice that safeguards the interests of the whole nation is preferable to that which safeguards the interests of the individual."

In another case, the federal Supreme Court ruled against a borrower who refused to pay interest that he owed on delayed loan repayments. The man claimed that interest was forbidden by Sharia and therefore he was not obliged to pay. Lower courts accepted his argument but the Supreme Court ruled the bank's right to charge interest was in line with both UAE secular laws and Sharia.

"As a general rule, interest, whether simple or compound, is prohibited by Sharia," the Supreme Court ruled. "But it has been made necessary for banks to accept simple interest. As long as the necessity persists, and until an economic alternative is established to replace the current banking system, interest is lawful."
The judges based their ruling on the Hadith: "A rich man's delay in payment is an injustice.

"In line with the Hadith, ordering the borrower to pay interest for late payments can be considered a sort of damages, which is compliant with both the UAE law and Sharia," the justices ruled.

Over the last century, Islamic scholastic tradition has been largely shaped by faqihs, or Sharia scholars, whose fatwas have been based purely on religious texts, even if the issues involve scientific fact or public interest. Siyasa shariyyah, on the other hand, requires judgements in light of the specific context and the general maslaha.

Across the region, the principle has gained momentum since Islamists rose in the political arena after the Arab Spring. It is not enough for a scholar to issue a maslaha-based opinion; the reasoning still must be based on a religious text. That is why siyasa shariyyah has such an imposing authority within Islamist thought. And it is why it may fundamentally reshape Islamic jurisprudence in public affairs.