Rant Number 484 12 April 2012
‘The mosques are closed? It does not matter because we can have girl friends.’ Such was the bemusing logic of a Tunisian youth I met in Sousse, in the Ben Ali era. The Muezzin’s voice called the faithful to Salat ok but the dictator had made sure most mosques were shut. Instead, Tunisian boys had access to that supreme boon, the summum bonum of Western culture, the girl friend. Holding the tender hand of a sweet female companion, cunning Ben Ali calculated, could be counted on to divert hotheads from dangerous subversive pursuits. Forestalling a revolution, that was the idea.
Did Mohammed Bouazizi, the 26-year-old who unleashed the Arab Spring by burning himself alive, have a girl friend? I haven’t a clue but, if he did, love for his sweetheart failed to deter him. That perhaps chiefest of all icon of Western modernity, the girl friend, showed his limitations. Horribile dictu, a girl friend is not enough. Girls matter to Muslim boys but to some there are things that appear to matter more – like justice, freedom, faith and, indeed, in poor Bouazizi’s case, a job.
Uncontroversial, thus far. But the plot thickens. Tahar Ben Jelloun writes in L’Espresso, the Italian liberal mag, that at the entrance to some Moroccan towns Islamist activists have begun to check the marital status of couples. They want to know if they are married, they demand evidence. A girl friend, presumably, would be a no-no. ‘It is like an ugly horror movie’ Jelloun affirms. Telling simile. It says a lot about the user. Come to think of it, this morning at a certain gathering on the Middle East a journalist also mentioned religion ‘raising its ugly head’. Why is it that believers in a faith which is not mere bromide like, say, Anglicanism, should always be portrayed as harbingers of untold nastiness and horrors? You do not hear climate change activists, Greenpeace, animal or human rights militants regularly tarred with the mischief and abuses their militancy often entails. They snoop, interfere and even threaten. Yet they are overwhelmingly portrayed as moral and meritorious. Why always pick on people of faith, I naively ask?
‘Do you have a girl friend?’ The silly question has become so de riguer that even the priest has succumbed to it occasionally. So I was happily surprised once when a nice Kuwaiti youth replied: ‘Look, Father, I am a Muslim. A seyyed. A descendant of the Prophet Muhammad. I am a serious person. I think about the glorious heroes of Islam, not about girls. One day I will marry and have children. My mother will choose the right girl for me to marry. Until then I will not have a girl friend, as boys of my age have in England. I am different from them. And I want to stay so.’
That youth, by the way, has now become one of the major leaders of the Kuwaiti opposition. I trust he also got married but whatever the Emir of Kuwait, a steadfast lapdog of the West, might have tried by way of counterrevolutionary hedonistic distractions has not deterred the boy from his commitments: good lad!
Either the revolution or a girl friend? A bit too stark. The choice will vary according to ideology and culture. Maybe you can have both. The Left used to scorn monogamous, bourgeois relationships. It preferred free love. Marx, Lenin and Trotsky had regular partners, though some philandering was tolerated. Still, far left militants are notoriously promiscuous. So much so that even coppers’ narks sometimes baulk at mixing with them. Irishman Gerry Healy, defunct leader of the Workers Revolutionary Party, was so predatory that he had to promise to abstain from enjoying female members of the party. Not so ‘free’ love, perhaps. But the Marxist-Leninist-Trotskist revolution copped out just the same, copulation or not copulation.
Islam, however, is nowise comparable to a secular ideology. Whatever the actual behaviour of an individual Muslim, the five schools of Muslims law or madhaib, do not countenance sexual relations outside marriage. Such things are haram, strictly sinful and forbidden. Not so far out as you think – traditional Christianity (yes, it existed once) teaches the same. You could of course argue that having a girl friend (or boy friend – do adjust the gender as appropriate) does not necessarily lead to fornication. Theoretically, yes, of course. In practice...no way. Having indulged in girl friends, alas, during my turbulent youth, I do know what I am talking about. You just have to take my word for it. And, if you are honest, consider your own experience. Girl friends and fornication are two sides of the same coin.
The Arab Spring is beginning to worry the West, sure. Opinion formers and moulders were all agog at it, initially. Free elections, parliaments, democracy, being nice to Israel, women’s rights – a dream. Time for reality check. Islamists in Egypt are harassing sellers of booze. Near a Moroccan town, Jelloun relates, the zealots stop men suspected of wanting to approach prostitutes. All this is chickenfeed. The threat to the girl friend is the biggest worry. All right, I cannot quite go along with the guys who question the identity of the female you are with. (Here in London it might take a bit too long.) In a Doha shopping Mall I unthinkingly gave a parting peck on the cheek of a very respectable female friend I was with – my blood froze! Would she (or I) be deported as a person of easy morals? That would be going too far. Nonetheless, a religion without a public morality, clear teaching about right and wrong, is a joke. Bible and Qur’an spell those out. You don’t like it? Think again, it is all the priest can say.
Girl friends. How counterrevolutionary are they, if at all? Al Maut ila assahiba! Will that be the new battle cry for the militants? Or will Hillary Clinton and all she represents manage to spread girl friends all over the Arab world, like delicious jams?
Revd Frank Julian Gelli