Back in the Middle East for a few months, I find myself astounded by the absence of the strong voices of Arab intellectuals.
The region that has given rise to the likes of Michel Aflaq, George Habash, Rached Al-Ghannouchi, Edward Said and numerous others has marginalised its intellectuals.
Arab visionaries have either been coopted by the exuberant funds allocated to sectarian propaganda, been silenced by fear of retribution, or are simply unable to articulate a collective vision that transcends their sects, religions or whatever political tribe they belong to.
This void created by the absence of Arab intellectuals (reduced to talking heads with few original ideas, and engaged in useless TV 'debates') has been filled by extremist voices tirelessly advocating a genocidal future for everyone.
It is no secret that Arabs and Muslims are by far the greatest victims of extremism.
Strange as this may sound, religious scholars seem more united in countering the voices that hijacked religion to promote their dark political agendas.
Yet despite repeated initiatives, cries of Muslim scholars who represent the majority of Muslims worldwide have garnered little media attention.
For example, in June 2016, nearly 100,000 Muslim clerics in Bangladesh signed a religious decree (Fatwa) condemning the militant group, Daesh.
Such Fatwas are quite common, and many thousands of Arab Muslim scholars have done the same.
Although hardly popular among Muslims in the Middle East, Asia, Africa and the rest of the world, somehow Daesh came to define Islam and all Muslims in the eyes of the West.
The debate in Western media and among academics remains futile, yet pervasive - while the Islamophobes are eager to reduce Islam to Daesh, others insist on conspiracy theories regarding the origins of the group.
Much time is wasted in this demoralising discussion.
The roots of extremism cannot be found in a religion that is credited with uplifting Europe from its Dark Ages to an era of rational philosophy and the ascendency of science.
Thanks to Muslim scientists during the Islamic Golden Age, Alchemy, mathematics, philosophy, physics and even agricultural methods were passed from the Arabs - Muslim, Christian, Jewish and Persian scholars - to medieval Europe beginning as early as the 12th Century and lasting for hundreds of years.
The developed Arab Muslim city states in Al-Andalus, Spain, was a major gate through which Muslim knowledge gushed into western Europe, affecting a continent then sustained by endless wars and superstitions.
Fortunes had indeed turned with the fall of Granada in 1492. Massacres of Arabs and Jews in Spain ensued, extending for hundreds of years. It was then that many Jews sought a safe haven in the Arab world, continuing a period of relatively peaceful co-existence that remained in place until the mid-20th Century.
While times had changed, the essence of Islam as a religion remained intact.
In the hands of scholars and intellectuals, Islam influenced much of the world. In the hands of Daesh 'scholars', Islam has become exploited, offering bloody fatwas and humiliating and enslaving women.
Islam has certainly not changed, but the 'intellectual' has.
Most of the answers we continue to seek about Daesh often yields little meaning simply because the questions are situated in American-Western priorities.
We insist on discussing Daesh as a question of Western security and refuse to contextualise the emergence of Daesh in US-Western interventions in Iraq, Syria, Libya and Yemen.
It seems that extremists (whether Daesh, al-Qaeda or others) are almost always linked to Western military 'areas of operations' in the Middle East. Extremism thrives in places in which strong central powers are lacking or have no political legitimacy and popular support, leaving the door wide-open for foreign interventionists.
Yemen had no strong central power for many years, neither did Somalia, nor recently, Libya and Mali. It was no surprise that these places are dual victims of extremists and interventionists.
Foreign interventionists often cite 'fighting extremism' to further justify their meddling in other countries' affairs, thus empowering extremists, who use interventions to acquire more recruits, funds and self-validation.
It is a vicious cycle that has occupied the Middle East since the US invasion of Iraq in 2003.
That relationship - between foreign interventions, ensued chaos, and extremism - is often missing in Western media discourses.
But here in the Arab world the challenge is somewhat different.
In recent years, the 'marketplace of ideas' has shrunk to the point that what remains is an alternative marketplace in which the 'intellectual' is bought and sold for a negotiable price.
It is quite common that an editor of a newspaper can use his publication to serve as a mouthpiece for a Middle Eastern party before he changes his loyalty to other competing parties.
It all depends on who pays more.
Many once-promising intellectuals are now victims too, acting as mere mouthpieces.
There were times in which Arab intellectuals fought to articulate a unique narrative - a combination of nationalist, socialist and Islamic ideologies that had a tremendous impact on the Arab individual and collective.
Even if the offshoots were sometimes populist movements centred around an individual or a ruling party, the Arab intellectual movement that emerged during the anticolonial and postcolonial struggles remained relevant, vibrant and massively consequential.
The setback following the upheaval of the 2011 revolts, uprisings and civil wars, has led to massive polarisation. Many Arab intellectuals fled to the West, were imprisoned or opted to remain silent.
Pseudo-intellectuals, however, were readily co-opted, selling their allegiances to the highest bidder.
This intellectual vacuum allowed the likes of Daesh, al-Qaeda and others to fill the space with their agendas.
True, their agendas are dark and horrific, yet they are rational outcomes at a time when Arab societies subsist in despair when foreign interventions are afoot, and when no homegrown intellectual movement is available to offer Arab nations a roadmap towards a future free from tyranny and foreign occupation.
Even when Daesh is defeated on the ground, its ideology will not disappear; it will simply mutate, for Daesh is itself a mutation of various other extremist ideologies.
Neither the Westernized Arab intellectual nor the co-opted local one is capable of filling the empty space at the moment, leaving room for more chaos that can only by filled by opportunistic extremism.
This is not a discussion that can be instigated by Western universities or state-sponsored Arab media for these platforms will impose a self-serving narrative doomed to prejudice the outcomes.
It is fundamentally an Arab discussion that must be generated by free Arab thinkers - Muslim and Christians alike. It is the birth of that movement that will begin to imagine an alternative future for the region.
Seemingly wishful thinking? I think not. Without such intellectual renaissance, the Arabs will remain hostage to two choices: to remain lackeys to Western powers or hostage to self-serving regimes.
And both options are not options at all.
- Dr. Ramzy Baroud has been writing about the Middle East for over 20 years. He is an internationally-syndicated columnist, a media consultant, an author of several books and the founder of PalestineChronicle.com. His books include "Searching Jenin", "The Second Palestinian Intifada" and his latest "My Father Was a Freedom Fighter: Gaza's Untold Story". His website is www.ramzybaroud.net.
The challenges faced by the students of Solidarity for Palestinian Human Rights SPHR and the YestoBDS campaign at the University of British Columbia (UBC) in recent months serve as a template for what to expect from pro-Israel groups on campuses.
The ultimate end result was that the BDS referendum did not pass this year at UBC, although the students won an earlier landmark and (perhaps more significant) victory from the BC Supreme Court that dismissed a challenge to suppress the vote altogether.
Zionist groups have all now joined in the same chorus that the final vote count shows that BDS is "nefarious", "divisive" and "promotes hate".
I would suggest a different analysis, that the referendum results simply show us how much more ruthless, underhanded and aggressive the pro-Israel lobby have become around BDS, particularly at universities.
Israeli apologists constantly repeat the mantra that BDS creates a toxic and divisive environment on campus, but really, who is driving that toxicity?
After following the debates on both print and social media at UBC during the referendum, and personally witnessing the horrific verbal abuse (that could easily have escalated into physical abuse) and disruption from the "Jewish Defense League" at a BDS panel on April 3, I have come to the conclusion that part of the strategy by pro-Israel groups is to manufacture this "toxic" environment so that student unions will be hesitant to deal with the issue.
As SPHR-UBC noted in their statement following the vote, the court case and the delays in being able to campaign (especially for a volunteer student group in the final week of term) severely hindered their efficacy. They summed it this way:
"We started this campaign knowing the odds were against us: we only had a week to campaign, the delay was caused by a legal battle that had drained our efforts already, we had limited resources compared to our opposition, and we knew it would be hard.
"Regardless, we managed to start important conversations and the outcome of the vote shows that in better circumstances we could actually make it, and we commit to keep this conversation going on campus. It's a shame that so few students had the opportunity to be aware of the referendum due to the constraints of limited campaign time."
There were also reports that the AMS Student Union did not send out an email to all students notifying them of the online BDS referendum, even though it was an official AMS referendum that had met all the necessary criteria and email notices had been sent 2 years prior during the first BDS vote.
Further, the AMS Code of Procedure specifically states on page 128 that for online voting:
"1. The Elections Committee shall ensure that all Active Members have an opportunity to vote and shall establish staffed information booths and take other measures to publicize the election or referendum so as to ensure that as many Active Members as possible do vote."
Clearly this did not happen as shown by the very low voter turnout; we have to ask why? Given the hectic nature of the last week of classes, and the imbalance in resources, this AMS lack of publicity may have been critical.
From the "Hillel student that went to court" to the Bnai Brith smear campaign to the JDL thuggery - the pro-Israel lobby groups were all on the same trajectory. Make the subject so contentious, so onerous, so costly that many students will not want to take it on.
And make sure that even if you can't convince people of the rightness of your position, the issue will be considered too "hot to handle". As Gilad Erdan, the Israeli Minister of Strategic Affairs, said over a year ago - "Soon every BDS activist will know that he will pay a price for this."
And given developments in the past few months, we take him at this word. If you're of Palestinian descent, the new travel ban means you might not be able to return to see your family if you are publicly active around BDS. Or the JDL will physically assault you, as happened in Washington DC to Kamal Nayfeh, who required 19 stitches for an eye injury. Or you will be falsely linked with alleged "terrorist" groups, and your photo spread across Zionist websites for simply wearing a symbolic Palestinian scarf, as happened at UBC.
We are deeply moved that in the face of such blatant and aggressive tactics, the students at UBC were not intimidated and carried on with their YestoBDS campaign. More than that, they pledged to continue the struggle by saying:
"We will keep standing up for human rights, even in the face of hateful misinformation and intimidation. We will keep giving space to the voices of Palestinians, in the name of freedom, justice and equality."
And this is the real victory for BDS - that despite facing the full force of what can only be called the "BDS busting" machine, these students stood their ground and insisted to speak up for Palestinian rights, and scored a precedent-setting legal decision in the BC Supreme Court at the same time.
- Marion Kawas is a long-time pro-Palestinian activist, a member of BDS Vancouver-Coast Salish and co-host of Voice of Palestine. She contributed this article to PalestineChronicle.com.
PCHR: Palestinian Prisoners' Suffering Mount in Israeli Jails
The Palestinian Center for Human Rights issued a release yesterday on the occasion of Palestinian Prisoner Day, which was marked this year with the launch of a mass hunger strike in Israeli jails to protest prisoners' worsening conditions.
PCHR noted that over 6,500 Palestinian and Arab prisoners are detained in the Israeli jails as of today and under cruel and inhumane conditions.
According to the organization, the conditions of prisoners have worsened liked never before with violations against prisoners on the increase.
"These prisoners are regularly subject to cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment, including torture; denial of family visitation; naked search; night raids; solitary confinement; medical negligence; denial of education under a decision issued by the Israeli Prison Service on 20 July 2011; applying the force-feeding law against prisoners on hunger strike; in addition to other violations falling within the Israeli policy against Palestinian prisoners," PCHR noted.
It further stated that, for this reason, Palestinian prisoners have resorted to their only choice: fighting with their empty stomachs to gain their basic rights.
"About 1,500 prisoners in a number of prisons and detention facilities has declared starting a hunger strike claiming a number of human demands, the most prominent of which are, inter alia, putting an end to the solitary confinement policy, offering medication to sick prisoners, constant communication with their families, ending arbitrary and degrading measures against female prisoners, receiving magazines and newspapers permanently and the right to education."
PCHR drew attention "to the increasing violations committed against the Palestinian prisoners and the poor conditions under which they live in view of the Israeli authorities' insistence to violate the rules of the international humanitarian law and principles of human rights to which Israel is a state party."
PCHR concluded by demanding an immediate intervention to end the plight of Palestinian political prisoners in Israeli jails and to bring Israel accountable for its crimes against them.