Tunisia

Wake up, reporters: Some Muslims are calling for a boycott of their faith’s holiest festival

Wake up, reporters: Some Muslims are calling for a boycott of their faith’s holiest festival

Each adult believer in Islam is required to make the Hajj (pilgrimage) to the Prophet Muhammad’s holy city of Mecca at least once in a lifetime, unless unable physically or financially.

Some believers repeat this unique experience. The media usually relegate the annual ritual to news features, but this year’s event August 9- 14 is laden with spot news significance.

That’s because ongoing tensions in the Muslim world have produced a campaign to boycott the current Hajj — a nearly unimaginable break with tradition that has received scant coverage in the West. Western reporters should pursue reactions to this in their regions with Muslim sources and agencies that cater to pilgrims. How many believers have postponed Hajj visits till future years after things calm down?

The boycotters are protesting the devoutly Sunni host nation of Saudi Arabia and its ruler since 2017, Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman (“MBS”). The particular grievances are the Saudis’ prosecution of Yemen’s vicious civil war, ongoing hostilities with Iran and toward Islam’s minority Shia branch, and human rights violations, including the murder of a regime critic, The Washington Post ‘s Jamal Khashoggi.

An anti-Saudi analysis at foreignpolicy.com by Ahmed Twaij of Iraq’s Sanad for Peacebuilding notes that in April Grand Mufti Sadiq al-Ghariani, Libya’s chief Sunni authority, declared that making a repeat Hajj visit or the Umrah (voluntary pilgrimage to Mecca at other times of the year) is “an act of sin rather than a good deed.”

In June, a senior official with Tunisia’s Union of Imams joined boycott calls, saying Saudi income from Hajj visits “is used to kill and displace people,” as in Yemen, instead of helping the world’s impoverished Muslims. Twaij reports that “Sunni clerics around the world have also called for a boycott,” whereas past enmity toward the Saudi regime has come largely from Shia Muslims.

Most remarkable of all was a fatwa last August from Qatar’s Yusuf al-Qaradawi, who is very influential among Mideast Sunnis through his Al Jazeera TV appearances and Internet postings. His words could be interpreted as undercutting even the obligatory once-in-a-lifetime Hajj: “Seeing Muslims feeding the hungry, treating the sick and sheltering the homeless are better viewed by Allah than spending money on the Hajj and Umrah every year.”

Some of this campaign could be payback for the recent years when Saudi Arabia barred believers from Qatar and Iran from joining the pilgrimage, or helped repress a Shia uprising in Bahrain.

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News media take heed: Tunisia, not Saudi Arabia, is where Arab Muslim women are truly advancing

News media take heed: Tunisia, not Saudi Arabia, is where Arab Muslim women are truly advancing

So the Saudi monarchy has indicated it will allow the kingdom’s women to drive. And the international media has mostly applauded (with notable exceptions) what elsewhere around the globe has long been a given.

As “Weekend Update” co-host Michael Che joked on “Saturday Night Live,” Saudi Arabia’s announcement barely beat out allowing vehicles to drive themselves.

Understand that I'm not dismissing the Saudi decision as entirely meaningless, because it's not. For now, however, it amounts to little more than a Band-Aid. I'll say more about this below.

But first, let's take a look at what's been happening in Tunisia, where the news about Muslim women has received less coverage than the Saudi story — even though its of potentially far greater significance for women in the Arab Muslim world.

Events in Tunisia sparked the 2011 Arab Spring, which largely failed elsewhere — disastrously so in Syria and Yemen — but did succeed in Tunisia. What’s happening there now led one New York Times op-ed writer to wonder optimistically whether a second Arab Spring focused on women’s rights just might be in the wind.

If so, let’s hope it ends far better than the first one.

The latest bit of underplayed Tunisian news is the North African nation’s decision to allow its Muslim women to legally marry non-Muslim men without the grooms having to convert to Islam ahead of the wedding.

That's huge in the Arab world because it speaks to the core of Islam’s self-understanding, whereas the Saudi driving story is more about local cultural and political arrangements.

Here’s how the BBC covered the story. The following graphs get to the meat of the issue.

Many Tunisians see the removal of the marriage restriction as another landmark in guaranteeing women's freedom in the country.

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Muslim women: Do their good stories get less news coverage than the bad ones?

Muslim women: Do their good stories get less news coverage than the bad ones?

If you're a sentient being, you're undoubtedly aware of the situation facing women living in patriarchal Muslim-majority nations. Likewise, you've also surely read your fair share of yarns such as this New York Times piece from 2015, headlined, “Women in Tunisia Tell of Decades of Police Cruelty, Violence and Rape.”

Or this 2016 survey story, from U.S. News & WorldReport, that placed eight Muslim nations among the 10 worst when measuring gender equality. Or this one from 2015, produced by Al-Jazeera English, on the situation facing women in Afghanistan.

Such stories of women's status and treatment in Muslim nations are a staple of Western journalistic coverage of the Islamic world. When done fairly and placed in their appropriate cultural context  -- without allowing that context to serve as an excuse — these stories are important and should be told.

But I'm wondering why stories detailing legal advances for women in Muslim nations seem not to receive equally strong play in mainstream Western news media?

Sure, such changes tend to strike Westerners as merely incremental and long overdue, which tends to dull their news value in the minds of some reporters and editors. Nor are such steps as life-altering as more difficult to achieve grass-root cultural changes, meaning how ordinary people actually live and treat each other no matter what the law says.

Still, legal changes, as aspirational as they may be, set precedents that can promote real change down the road. As such, they deserve wide media attention.

Two stories on this sort caught my eye last week -- though apparently not the eyes of many others in the world of elite Western media.

The first, reported here by Al Jazeera-English, told of how the Jordanian parliament has moved toward ending the ability of rapists to escape prosecution by marrying their victims, a time-honored loophole that persists in parts of the Muslim world.

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Tunisia bucks the Islamist narrative. Why can't journalists tell its story more broadly?

Tunisia bucks the Islamist narrative. Why can't journalists tell its story more broadly?

The Arab Spring has been an unmitigated disaster, right? Sure it has, because isn't that the primary message you've learned from wherever you get your news?

Well, yes, that's mostly true. Egypt, Yemen, Libya, Bahrain, the Arab Middle East in general; they've all gone from bad to worse. And because that which bleeds leads, media coverage of the series of national uprisings known collectively as the Arab Spring has focused by a wide margin on the news of disaster.

(Journalists take note: Try to avoid premature optimism when coming up with catch phrase-labels, particularly if you're dealing with the Middle East.)

But, in fact, the Arab Spring has not been across the board bad news. There's also Tunisia, where it all started more than five years ago, but which gets far less American media attention because, by regional standards, the violence there has been relatively-- and I emphasize "relatively" -- light.

Tunisia is often cited -- and properly so, from a liberal Western standpoint -- as the Arab Spring's lone success story.

Here's the top of a New York Times piece that lays out the Tunisian reality.

TUNIS -- The leader of Tunisia’s main Islamic political party was re-elected on Monday, winning endorsement for his effort to move the party away from its Islamist roots and stay in tune with the country’s five-year-old democratic revolution.

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Are Salafis the most orthodox among Muslims?

The New York Times published a riveting piece about Salafism in Tunisia. From the beginning, the reader is transported to Kairouan:

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Economist offers rare insights into Salafists

I have a friend who once worked for Time (actually, several people fit under that umbrella) who once made a very interesting observation about the state of foreign news in that newsweekly, which was once famous for its excellent, sweeping coverage of world affairs.

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