Category: Identity

‘Religion — phase two’


The relation between religion and the media, in light of the problematic concept of freedom, was examined in Beit Mery, Lebanon, this week.

An exciting conference, in which I participated, addressed this complex triangle in a context of post-Arab Spring tensions.

Participants of various backgrounds and cultural references from many Arab countries presented their opinion on the subject. I represented the Royal Institute for Interfaith Studies.

As I am always interested in the theme of religious references and their role in the structures of different identity components, I was thrilled to see such diverse and complex identities gathered at the conference.

The hall in which it was held embraced Muslims and Christians, secular and spiritual people, conservatives and liberals, people from religious institutions and from civil society, in addition to all sorts of media representatives. Bloggers and social media activists were also present.

This varied mosaic added to the richness of the subjects discussed.

Points of views coming from hundreds of angles helped create a very active atmosphere of intellectual exchange. Elevated religious ideas, philosophical themes and humanistic trends were expounded at the same table, often with humour, fun and creativity.

The intelligent design of the sessions and their management met the expectations.

Indeed, tackling such an important subject as “freedom, journalism and religion” always requires a smart formula.

I was relieved to find out that it was not “just another conference”. The seriousness of the subject and the design produced a great environment, conducive to such intellectual exercise.

I always differentiate between religion as identity, and religion as representation. When religion is lived as an identity by its adherents, we need to look deep into emotions, mentalities and hidden forms of expression if we are addressing a serious issue. Yet, if a problem is related to a representation of religious affiliation, then a different approach is needed. In this case, it depends on the context it lives in.

This is often the situation of political parties that base their ideological discourse in religious conception and language. The conference in Beit Mery based its work on the latter embodiment of religious experience. Maybe it is a good idea for the organisers to think of another conference that tries examining the above-mentioned triangle with identity as its main flavour.

Though the conference discussed issues related to religious identities, its structure inclined to the representative mode of religions. It enriched the participants’ storage of religious-based images and shadows of images.

It was a great opportunity to map some of the crisis stimulating issues that reside deep in the conjunctions the freedom, journalism and religion combination.

I hope that the outcome, whether in publication shape or electronic format, will be an excellent foundation for what we might call “Religion — phase two”. Identity as concept and as a lived reality helps much in resolving many puzzles in the Middle East.

The writer is a media strategist, and an interfaith and intercultural specialist. He contributed this article to The Jordan Times.

Geography of Religious Borders



by Marwan Al Husayni


When writing about social issues in the Arab world, special focus needs to be placed on religion.

Religion has the strongest and most effective impact on the social fabric throughout the region. Many people identify themselves in a religious way, on the basis of their stand on certain religious beliefs.

One of the most apparent social trends nowadays in many Arab societies is the absence of what is perceived as “personal expressions of privacy”. This is due to the strong sense of collectivity, which religions and religious rituals maintain in the individual psyche and social life.

Though the global aim of religions is to spread human values among people at individual level, religious rituals are powerful factors for strengthening the sense of collective identities or illusions of identities.

The pressing collective identities force individuals to sacrifice their personal expressions of privacy, especially in times of high tensions and wars. One of the ways to address this problem is to question the relationship between religion and identity.

The questions that come to mind in this context have to do with what I call the social geography of religious borders: Is religion an identity? Is religion a component of identity? Is religion a source of identity?

One can understand the reasons behind the lack of privacy in the Arab social sphere if the differences among these three questions are looked at carefully.

It is more important to examine how various communities in the region locate themselves within the socio-geographic map of religions, their rituals and manifestations.

From experience in interfaith studies, I can say that a big majority of Arab groups believes that religion equals identity. In this case, religious borders match the borders of society itself.

Members of these groups live their lives and express their being in line with what they think is religion. For them, there is no such thing as “personal”. One is asked to live his or her daily life in accordance with a certain interpretation of religion and religious rituals and practices.

A good number, but not a majority, of social groups departs from this stand. Religion, for them, is only one component of identity. Still, it is a powerful component in their relations with others and to life in general.

Identity in this context is controlled by religion, which colours the other components. Personal manifestations have some space among this category, though it is restricted. In this case, religion occupies a big chunk of the map.

The third category perceives religion as a source of, among others, identity. It is a reference, a guidance tool.

In this case, religion does not control the personal. It becomes personal among other expressions of privacy. In other words, religion is a separate territory that has its special paths towards to the other territory called “individual”. Few in the Arab world belong to this category.

Another way to examine the place of religion in the Arab social life is to look at the illusions of personal fear and security among the different communities.

Some religious leaders instill fear in their followers in order to keep them inside their circle, i.e., collective identity. Such leaders embody religion itself for those followers, and thus they are the source of security.

This is a huge illusion that covers all the map of Arab social life.

Perhaps this gives a hint to why religious fatwas are famous in the region. People need to have a secure opinion from a representative of God regarding their lives. They do not want to decide by themselves. They sacrifice the personal for the sake of feeling secure. But at the same time, most people are sacrificing the meaning of their intelligent existence for illusions.

Religion and illusions of religion have a great control over social trends, problems, issues and dynamics in our part of the world. When religion is everything, then everything else is ignored. A very negative outcome of this reality is that we do not move forward but keep moving around the same old circles.

Such circular movement does not lead anywhere. It only keeps thickening the borders of religion to match the borders of fear itself.

It is when we give religion its normal size and photo by lace in our lives that we can move forward and live our personal intelligent existence.

This is not a call for abandoning religion or religious rituals. It is a mere reminder that life is very diverse and religion is one of its colours.

What happens if you always perceive everything as red or white only?

The writer is media strategist, and interfaith and intercultural specialist. He contributed this article to The Jordan Times.

Religion in “Detained” Privacy Zones

Marwan al-Husayni *

Many questions related to religions keep revolving in my mind whenever I think of the link between the sacred and the non-sacred in a social context. One of these questions has to do with culture and the social representation of individual.

In our part of the world, religion, among other components of personal identity, is not considered a personal matter. The privacy zone which is supposed to limit the access to one’s private spaces by others is vulnerable in this regard. This is a strong aspect of our Eastern culture.

It is true sometimes that the collective controls the individualistic dimension of this culture, but this does not mean that it is justifiable. Many reasons stand behind the fact that individuality has weak presence in our societies. Certain individualistic behaviors which are connected to religion are dissolved in social pots. This is why many social spaces in the Arab World have more focus on rituals.

When thinking of religions in a social context, I usually ask myself: is religion an inherited structure or an acquired behavior? Is it an effect or an experience? An action or a reaction? A text or a context? I am not talking about religion as a set of teachings and guidelines. I am not even talking about it as a spiritual practice. What I am more concerned about is how we, as individuals, perceive religion on a personal level. How can religion become a total personal stand?

Privacy is not a popular word in our culture. It is also not a popular feeling. It belongs to the components of individual identity which is dissolved in social pots. Any personal instance of religious practice is often derived from the wider collective practice.

Religion is not a personal property in the Middle East. It is a property which is managed by society, state or political groups. The collective social management of religion is a mainstream in the Arab countries. Sharp examples of state management of religion are Saudi Arabia and Israel. Egypt and Lebanon are examples of political management of religions.

While writing this article, I knew about Vivian Hannah Salameh; A Jordanian Christian who is said to have been dismissed from her job after refusing to cover her head. She served for 25 years in one of the Jordanian banks before it was seized by another bank. The new administration dismissed her on the basis that she refused to wear the new uniform which includes a head cover. Reading the comments on this incident on Facebook, I came across incidents of women who were forced to leave their jobs because they wear a head cover.

Whatever were the policies of banks or companies in these cases, it is obvious that collective hegemony suppressed personal identities. These identities refused to lose part of their individual markers and melt down in social or corporate pots.

One of the recurrent words in the Jordanian media lately was the word “detained”. It was used in contexts of fighting corruption and managing the processes of reform in Jordan. When it comes to the relation between the individual and religion in our region, you cannot find the word “privacy” in the social dictionary. It is “detained” for complicated reasons.

* Media Strategist, Interfaith and Intercultural specialist

Islamophobic questions raised by Muslims

by Marwan Al Husayni | Apr 10,2012 | 22:42

“Islamophobia” is a term that came into common use after the September 11, 2001, attacks in the United States. It refers to the hatred and fear of Islam and Muslims in certain Western contexts.

This is history now. Current affairs in the Middle East and the Arab region are leading to a new aspect of the fear of Islam. Muslims themselves are becoming Islamophobic.

The chaotic and complex nature of change is one reason. Other reasons are the over-politicising of the peoples’ movements and the high cost of human conflicts.

Modified versions of political Islam with a touch of democracy and constitutional flavours are not accepted by everybody as eligible substitutes for totalitarian regimes. But the rise of oppressed Islamic parties to the power in Arab countries is apparently supported by the United States.

This new US coalition with Arab Islamists is not expected to address the real issues concerning the citizens of the region in a healthy way.

One such issue is freedoms. The drastic changes that are taking place in the Middle East are magnifying the hopes and fears of the peoples.

Are the new Islamist regimes or governments expected to meet the hopes or add to the fears? Are the Islamists ready to change and walk down the paths of citizenship, civil liberties, women’s rights and respect for political, social and religious diversity?

While many analysts perceive the Arab world as a religiously conservative place and its people generally want to see an important role for Islam in public life, new feelings are making themselves felt.

The winds of the Arab Spring are bringing seeds of more hatred to the region. In the past, hidden conflicts dominated the political status quo, especially when it had to do with a dialectical relation with the regimes. Now it is all public, after mobilised citizens broke down many barriers of fear.

Still, there is one fear to deal with by the individuals. In the social sphere, most Arab Muslims do not differentiate between Islam and Islamists.

“Those who pray and go to the mosques are better than me” was an often-heard justification for rationalising the support for Islamists by many individuals. A Koranic verse, a hadith or a fatwa by a certain sheikh would be an accepted answer to any big problem or crisis. This is not applicable when managing a country.

The Islamists are not the leaders of the “Arab Spring”, yet they are rising to the power. Many analysts and commentators refer to the “social fabric” and “historical reasons” when explaining this illogical, but understandable, outcome.

But living in the past while building future is a losing game. The tools for change and power are totally different. Issues like economic reform, development, poverty, unemployment, social justice, freedom of speech and religious diversity need a new set of thinking.

Questions which were once popular in Islamophobic Western circles are likely to have a strong presence in the Middle East: Is Islam compatible with democracy? Is Islam compatible with freedoms? Is Islam compatible with women’s issues? Is Islam compatible with modernity?

The list is too long.

Islamists are rising to power in Tunisia, Egypt and Libya. They have louder voices in other countries, like Jordan, Morocco and Syria. Many Muslims are already asking: Are Islamists compatible with power?

The writer is media strategist, and interfaith and intercultural specialist. He contributed this article to The Jordan Times.