Monthly Archives: October 2011

Shahira Amin responds to Herb Simons

{Below is Shahira Amin’s e-mail response to Herb Simons. He and I  have been in contact with her about the interview with Gilad Shalit. I reprint it here with Shahira’s permission. The post following this one establishes some context.} Don Ellis


Dear herbert,
  I apologize for the late reply but i have been bombarded with emails from angry Israelis and from Egyptians who were upset because they said “I made a hero out of Shalit. ” I would like to explain:When i met Shalit i found he looked terribly tired and malnourished. he was thinner than pictures i had seen of him and pale. His voice was weak and he seemed to have difficulty concentrating but was in high spirits telling me he was excited about going home and seeing his family.
 My intentions were as follows: I felt that at this time of high anti israeli sentiment in egypt and the arab world (especially after the killing of the egyptian border guards ) it was important to try and diffuse tensions by showing  arab viewers that people on BOTH sides were paying the price for this conflict. I felt it would earn Shalit the compassion he deserves. Many in Egypt are outraged that i gave him this platform saying I made a hero out of him.  I wish other journalists in our region would reach out to “the other”. Only then can there be peace. Without dialogue and communication we shall always have a barrier between us and the HATRED AND mistrust will grow.
My other motive was to have Shalit speak to the world as many people were concerned about him. I met him AFTER he had been released and he had had a medical checkup by the Red Cross and he had already communicated with his family to let them know of his release and that he would be home shortly. Only then did i enter the room . I spoke with him for a few moments asking him if he would like to tell the world of his ordeal. Had he refused, i would NOT have pressed him .  If there was any coersion behind the scenes, I am not aware of it. All i know is that an egyptian security official said that the interview was simply an Egyptian request not a condition for his release . He had already been released and the Hamas troops had left the area. The only remaining one was the Hamas soldier ( a member of the Ezzeldine el Qassam Brigade) filiming our interview.  I asked everyone including him to leave the room before starting as I said their presence were making us both nervous.
My voice can be Heard on the tape in arabic (as the interview was broadcast unedited)  telling the translator i would skip some questions because Shalit was clearly tired and we do not want to wear him out. In the middle of the intv. i stopped and offered Shalit a drink of water and a packet of biscuits. I then asked if he would be more comfortable to speak to me in Hebrew and he said yes . We had originally started off in English.
I truely regret that my motives were misunderstood . I also am angered by some of the comments in the israeli press about the questions i asked.. i asked how he was , if he had anticipated his release, how he’d received the news  of his release after all these years in captivity  and what he had missed most while in captivity. I also asked how he had been treated and about his future plans.But I also had to ask why he thought previous mediation efforts had failed and why he thought this one had succeeded. THat is not a propaganda question at all . I just felt that egyptian authorities had managed to secure a deal and deserved to be commended for their effort while mubarak had only made promises and never delivered. Finally i had to ask about palestinians still in israeli jails..NOT all of them have israeli blood on their hands…those who do should remain imprisoned.
 arrangements for the interview were coordinated between Hamas and the Egyptian military security. I was not aware that Israel had not been informed nor did I know that Israeli governemnt had said there would be a media ban on Shalit’s case for ten days after his release.
Shalit answered honestly and courageously. He was not afraid that he might be put back behind bars because he had already been released. He said he would be happy if all Palestinians injails would be set free as long as they promise not to commit acts of violence against his country. He also said that he feels the mediation succeeded this time because Egypt’s relations with both Hamas and israel were better now than they were under mubarak.
I hope this helps you understand and if you can, please spread the message that I am all for peace. I was raised abroad and always had Israeli friends in my class growing up as a kid so i feel no contempt for jews and israelis. All my stories have been about promoting peace and tolerance. Thank you for taking the time to write to me and for giving me a chance to explain.



Gilad Shalit Interview and Journalistic Standards

Gilad Shalit was abducted on June 25, 2006 by militants near the Gaza border who had ambushed an Israeli army post. Hamas and an umbrella group called the Popular Resistance Committees took credit for the capture of the Israeli soldier Gilad Shalit. Shalit was held for five years and only once in 2009 did Hamas release a video of the pale and gaunt looking soldier holding a newspaper as proof that he was alive.

Initially, Israel refused to negotiate but then used Egypt to broker talks with the involvement of a mediator. Israel and Hamas reached an agreement on October 11, 2011. Israel agreed to release over 1000 prisoners in exchange for Shalit. The ratio of 1000 Palestinian prisoners to 1 Israeli soldier seems high, but Israel sees itself as surrounded by enemies and as a militarized society who sends all of their sons and daughters to the military to protect the state. All Israelis can identify with the plight of Shalit, as can the Palestinians identify with their imprisoned family members. Consequently, Israel has a policy of leaving no soldier behind.

On the day of the exchange, Shalit was transferred to Egyptian mediators with Israeli representatives present. The Egyptians then transferred Shalit to Israel. But before Sgt. Shalit was fully returned to Israel and transferred to airbase Tel Nof  he was subjected to a television interview by the Egyptian journalist Shahira Amin. There was an outcry about this interview and some called it “abuse” and “continued torture.”

The appropriateness of this interview raises an interesting journalistic question. The Israelis have agreed to handle the story with sensitivity by keeping their distance from Shalit and avoiding photography and invasive questions in an effort to ease his transition. The Israelis have objected to the image of the bewildered and emaciated soldier in front of the camera. Did the interview meet any accepted journalistic criteria – newsworthiness, need to know, human interest, timeliness? Clearly, it did. No journalist would pass up the opportunity to interview Gilad. The story was newsworthy, timely, and met about every criteria of interest you could apply.


Then again, there is simply the issue of sensitivity and the circumstances surrounding the interview. The Israeli claim that the circumstances were ethically questionable and generally unfair to Shalit is certainly a defensible argument. A matter of moments before the interview he was in the hands of Hamas and under complete consertive control and there would be no reason to believe at the moment of the interview Gilad was suddenly liberated and free to speak his mind. We would not expect more from Shalit then we would expect from any captive prisoner saying what is necessary to stay alive.

Shahira  Amin’s interview with Shalit is available at: Shalit interview with Shahira Amin. Shalit spoke in Hebrew in response to questions posed in English which created some confusion. Amin has been roundly criticized for conducting the interview but claims that she received Gilad’s permission (as if it could be freely offered under such circumstances).

It is important to note that Shahira Amin is in Egyptian peace advocate and resigned her position as a broadcaster in protest of the coverage of Tarir Square. And even though the Egyptian press can be very hard on Israel, even at times blatantly unfair, there is nothing particularly unfair about the questions she asked Shalit.


Why was Gilad Shalit Released Now?

The curious might speculate about why
Gilad Shalit was released now. He was captured by Hamas in 2006 and has been
held for 5 years in Gaza. The prisoner exchange – one Israeli soldier for more
than 1000 Palestinian prisoners – has been a point of discussion for a long
time. Yes, there were disagreements about who should be released and what
should happen to them after release. Hamas wanted Marwan Barghouti (a brutal
terrorist) released but Israel refused. Other released prisoners were required
to leave the area and settle somewhere other than the West Bank or Gaza. Still,
why now?

The exchange is actually quite
significant and expected to reshape various relationships in the area not to
mention the image of Benjamin Netanyahu. Gilad Shalit had become quite a cause
célèbre in Israel. His parents and tens of thousands of Israeli citizens
petitioned the government to do something about his imprisonment and organized
a large and successful social movement around gaining the release of Gilad. I
can remember once being stuck in a particularly nasty traffic jam on the road
to Jerusalem because of a protest march designed to draw attention to the
plight of Shalit. But as the intensity of the support for Shalit increased, so
did his value to Hamas. The more Israel wanted him returned, the more it was
going to cost them. I suspect that Hamas bided its time until Gilad reached
maximum value. Perhaps the rising tide of support for Shalit’s release ended up
extending his stay in the Hamas jail – although it probably saved his life.

Netanyahu was under considerable pressure
to do something about Shalit. His parents requested audiences with Netanyahu
and poured their hearts out in the media. Netanyahu commands respect amongst
Israelis, and his morally unambiguous and fluent English serves him well in the
United States. But Netanyahu is also seen as harsh and conservative by many and
one who does not care sufficiently about the failure of government to help
people: to improve housing and job opportunities. Gaining Shalit’s release on
his watch gave Netanyahu a serious boost. I suspect that Netanyahu figured it
was time to accept as many Hamas demands as he could stomach. It is also true
that the continual protests demanding Shalit’s release were gnawing at Netanyahu
and diminishing the image and effectiveness of this government.

The “Arab Spring” and the
turmoil in the region also play a hand in this game. Turkey who helped broker
the deal is apparently closer to Hamas then we thought. Although Turkey has
been clearly distancing itself from Israel, its connection to Hamas is
surprising. However, Hamas’s political base in Syria is tenuous given the
protests and perhaps Hamas is looking to Turkey for future relations. The
future of the relationship between Egypt and Israel is cloudy. If the Muslim
brotherhood increases its power Egypt will certainly be less congenial. Perhaps
Netanyahu and his conservative government figured it had something to gain by
acting now.

Finally, Hamas gets to look like it
cares about all Palestinians. The tense relationship between Hamas and the
Palestinian Authority is real. Hamas flatly rejects the existence of Israel and
the Palestinian Authority tries to negotiate with Israel; Hamas disagreed with
the United Nations declaration of statehood move by the Palestinian Authority;
yet, the Palestinian Authority gained the admiration of many Palestinians by
standing up to the Security Council and rejecting the American request to
withdraw the application.

It turns out that this particular moment
in time, this particular confluence of events, created a perfect storm of
issues such that both sides thought it was in their best interest to negotiate.
And that is just what conflict management is all about.

Will Jihadist Islam Give Way to Democracy?

The prospect for democracy in the
Islamic world is currently an energized debate that has interesting political,
religious, and practical consequences. One perspective on the problem is most
represented by the noted political theorist Samuel Huntington. Huntington was
blunt about the fact that democracy was quite incompatible with the Muslim
world. He argued that the Muslim world lacks the preconditions for a transition
to democracy. His very popular book, The
Clash of Civilizations
, was at least indirectly informed by a pessimism
about democracy and Islam. Islam lacked, according to Huntington, key concepts
such as popular sovereignty, human rights, and market economies.

But the problem with this perspective is
that it is short term. Moreover, this sort of pessimism about democracy and
Islam is overly influenced by current conditions of fundamentalism, fueled by
Al Qaeda, or “Islamism.” In fact, there is another way to think about
the issue. If one simply makes a direct comparison between doctrinal issues in
Islamism and democracy, then Islam will not compare favorably. Islamism in its
current extreme form is antithetical to any idea of democracy. But it is
possible to take different theoretical perspective – one that involves a longer
view of history and looks more to social and economic conditions rather than
doctrinal principles. It is possible to argue that the actual content of Islam
is less important than the conditions that give rise to it.

Michael Walzer, the noted political
philosopher, makes a very interesting argument based on his book from the 1960s
on the origins of radical politics. Walzer argues that radicals (read modern-day
Jihadists) emerge during periods of social dislocation. When societies are confused
about how to organize themselves, when they are confronting change and
transitions that require new ways of thinking and behaving, is when conditions
are ripe for the emergence of radicals, especially those that seek purity and a
return to discipline and order. The radical ideology subsides when peace and
calm are restored.

Walzer points out that the road to
radicalism begins with an individual or group that views themselves as chosen;
this chosen group is characterized by certainty and confidence; their
relationship with the rest of the world is warlike and they turn toward their
internal cohesion with testimonies of formal commitment. The chosen band sees
itself as a saint and free to propose new political organizations. The saints, as
Walzer terms them, carry people through a time of change and offer a form of

The parallels with Islamic
fundamentalism are easy to recognize in terms of the revolutionary content of
jihadist ideology, its transformative message, and the social origins of its adherents.
If the analysis is correct and has any traction at all there should be in the
future an evolution away from jihadism. Other scholars have made the argument
that modern-day fundamentalists are a departure from Islamic historical and
political conditions. And over time the counter reaction to Islamism will be
what ushers in liberalizing influences. Finally, if it is true that social
conditions are more important than the content of ideology, then perhaps
political theorists and social scientists can figure out ways to nudge history

Islam Is Vertical, Democracy Is Horizontal: Can They Be Reconciled?

Just how much democratic air the Arab Spring
ushers in remains to be seen. The large tent of Islam is beckoning its
followers from around the world to begin building the Islamic state.
Dictatorial rule such as that in Egypt has overshadowed religious activities
for many years, and questions about how to apply the principles of Islam to
society have gone unanswered. In some places the word “Islamist” is
being shunned for more inclusive language. In other places traditionalists are
trying to strictly apply Islamist ideas to the government – ideas such as
obligatory religious taxes, heavy censorship, and conservative treatment of
women. The future will grapple with the demands of the community versus the
demands of Islam, but the struggle will not be between Islam and secularism but
rather between more Islam and less Islam.

One way to pose the problem of religion
and the state is to clarify that religion is vertical with God at the top and
humans beneath. The relationship is one of the individual as the relatively passive
recipient of truth or orthodoxy. Democracy is horizontal where regardless of
race, religion, or creed there is an equality of rights and equal treatment
under the law. Problems arise when the horizontal and vertical axes get
confused or encroach on one another’s space such that the principles of the God
are applied to the horizontal relationships among equals in a society. In the
horizontal world of democracy and the secular state the moral foundation of
political authority rests with popular sovereignty. Democracy is degraded and
diminished when the moral foundation shifts to the vertical axis and relies on
a particularly authoritative God. This is why democracy theorists insist on the
separation of religion and state.

The two axes emerge from very different
conditions of governance. The horizontal liberal democratic process makes
decisions and comes to truth through contestatory discourse. The assumption is
that differences between people are given and problems are solved and reconciled
through the communication process, which regulates beliefs and attitudes. The
primary mode of managing differences is persuasion or the strength of the
better argument. Issues such as tolerance, pluralism, compromise,
inclusiveness, and argument are central to liberal democratic politics. The
vertical axis, on the other hand, backgrounds contestatory discourse and relies
more on proclamations from authority.

There are additional reasons why we
should work to influence liberal democratic processes and limit the power of
the Islamic state. These include the fact that religion is exclusionary and
sets up boundaries and distances between believers and nonbelievers. This
exacerbates the conditions for conflict. The horizontal democratic state, which
is based on membership in a political society rather than a religious one,
emphasizes more what people have in common than their differences. This shared
identity, this strain toward commonality is a well-established mark of low
conflict societies. After all, it could be the case that 100% of the women in society
cover their heads but of what value is this to even the most religious person
if the state is characterized by corruption and nothing works.

Additionally, religion undermines
democratic peace. It seeks to dissipate the differences between the axes and
move God to the center of debate. Still, it’s important to work toward perhaps
some compatibility between Islam and the liberal democratic state if for no
other reason than it is unavoidable. In fact, if there can be some democratic consensus
as to the role of religion in the state then the long-term prospects for the
political system are improved. In the case of Islam it is probably prudent to
recognize a few realities:

One, it may be possible to redefine what
it means to be secular. Nader Hashemi writing in, Islam, Secularism, and Liberal Democracy, explains that there is
not even really a word for “secularism” in classical Arabic, Farsi,
or Turkish that is synonymous with the English term. Hence the term is ripe for
expansion and semantic development.

Second, it is impossible to avoid Islam
because it is so central to the culture and hence liberal democracies cannot
avoid incorporating religious politics. True, religion and democracy are
typically considered antithetical but any intersections of commonality and
mutuality have not been explored. Christianity is typically invoked as a
positive force in the development of Western liberalism so perhaps the same can
be true of Islam the differences between Christianity and Islam

Finally, religion has a history in the
public sphere that has been underappreciated by democrats. Religion does not
have to be completely rejected or privatized but it does have to be properly
interpreted. All of these issues provide for the possibility of a healthy
incorporation of Islam into a democratic culture. And even though Western
democratic theorists would like to see the horizontal and vertical lines remain
counter to one another, it’s important that future Arab states making transitions
to democratic processes remain practical with respect to the role of religion.
Otherwise the entire structure is in jeopardy.

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