White privilege is echoing oppressive dichotomies about Islam that lead to the discrimination and death of Middle Eastern people, and then instantly becoming the victim when you get death threats because of it.
In February 1982, Syria’s late president Hafez al-Assad ordered his army, under the direct supervision of his younger brother Rifaat, to destroy the town of Hama which had been a major source of opposition to the Ba’ath regime since the mid-1960s. Besieged by 12,000 troops, the fighting lasted for three weeks. Robert Fisk, in his book Pity the Nation, describes how civilians began fleeing the town just as tanks and troops started moving in. According to Amnesty International, the Syrian army bombed the old city from the air to allow infantry and tanks through the narrow streets. By night, they destroyed buildings and places of worship. There were also reports of the use of hydrogen cyanide by government forces. After these attacks, military and security personnel were dispatched to comb through the rubble for surviving insurgents and their sympathisers. Torture and mass executions were prevalent throughout. The total number of deaths has been estimated at between 10,000 and 40,000; the vast majority civilians. Rifaat boasted of killing 38,000 people. I visited Hama a few days after Ramadan in December 2001. All that remains of the old city is a wall, a chilling reminder that in the Syria of the Assads, treachery comes at a heavy price.
Hardline Muslim groups often portray the Ottoman empire as a magic template for a global caliphate. This is then used as a springboard for grandiose arguments that paint a caliphate as viable, and deem it as the only credible model of governance for the future. These arguments are based on a belief that the empire adhered to a single interpretation of sharia (Islamic law) for over 600 years, and – crucially – that its success was contingent on this.
But a paper by Ishtiaq Hussain, published by Faith Matters on Saturday displays a very different picture. Ottoman sultans, or caliphs, in the 18th and 19th centuries launched secular schools and promoted the education of women. The period of reformation known as the Tanzimat saw customary and religious laws being replaced in favour of secular European ones. More surprisingly, homosexuality was decriminalised in 1858 (long before many western states took their cue, and over a century before the American Psychiatric Association declassified it as a mental illness in 1973). Contrary to the claims of hardline groups, religious authorities approved many of these measures.