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Mid-East Junction


A monthly look into the different political, social and cultural events affecting the region.






A monthly look into the different political, social and cultural events affecting the region.




Why Female Genital Mutilation must end

The practice of Female Genital Mutilation, FGM, is so deeply ingrained in some cultures that it has only recently been brought into question. But what are its origins? Where is it practiced? And why does it need to stop? This month's edition of Mid-East Junction looks into Female Genital Mutilation, through its history and impact on women, telling the stories of two victims who explain why the practice must be brought to an end. You can read more here. *two pieces of music provided by Adam Daudrich* Click the 'play' button to listen or subscribe to the podcast by searching for 'rfi mid east junction'.


What Tunisian olive oil and its history means to the Middle East

The rising star in the world of olive oil, or liquid gold to some, is not found in Europe but in North Africa in the small and often overlooked country of Tunisia. Here olive trees are intertwined with its culture and history for thousands of years. Production in Tunisia is considered to be the second most important in the world. It is also one of the most underrated country's compared to the big names like Italy, Greece, Spain, Palestine, Israel, Syria and Jordan. But how did the olive tree wind up in Tunisia? Find out in this month's edition of Mid-East Junction that takes us to a very overlooked powerhouse in the olive oil market. Click the 'play' button to listen or subscribe to the podcast by searching for 'rfi mid east junction'. You can also read more about it here.


Capturing Mosul's liberation through a lens

In October 2016, Iraqi Special Forces launched an operation to take back Mosul and parts of Iraq from the Islamic State armed group. Since 2014 they had subjected the Iraqi people to their extreme and harsh interpretation of islam. But the operation to liberate them proved equally dangerous as those caught in the middle of the fighting had no where to go. One photographer met those caught in the cross fire and told their stories through his camera lens in this edition of Mid-East Junction. Click here to read the full article or press the 'play' button above to listen or subscribe to the podcast by searching 'RFI Mid-East Junction'


The lasting legacy of Ayotollah Khomeni 30 years after his death

Iran is again in the headlines in an increasingly tense spat with the US and a number of other western countries. This is nothing new, however. The Islamic Republic of Iran has been involved in almost continuous diplomatic rows since its creation in 1979. Sayyid Ruhollah Mūsavi Khomeini drove the revolution of 1979 that drastically changed the country. Better known in the west as Ayotollah Khomeni, he put an end to the corrupt constitutional monarchy of the Shah and created a theocracy that promised a better life for every Iranian. June of this year marked 30 years since his death. What legacy did he leave? We find out more in this edition of Mid-East Junction as we meet one man's journey from the streets of Tehran in support of Khomeini to the streets of Paris in fear of Khomeini. (Read more about the legacy of Khomeini) Click here to read the full article, otherwise click the 'play' button above to listen or subscribe to the podcast by searching 'RFI Mid-East Junction'


How women's football has evolved inside and outside the Middle East

Even though no Middle Eastern countries qualified for this year's Women’s World Cup , the sport is alive and growing across the region. In this edition of Mid-East Junction, we meet Honey Thaljieh, the woman behind the first women's national Palestinian team. Click here to read the full article, or click the 'play' button above to listen or subscribe to the podcast by searching 'RFI Mid-East Junction'


Where vegans have been leading the way for centuries

In this month's Mid-East Junction, we delve into the culinary delights across the region that have been miles ahead of the vegan trend for decades, even centuries in some cases. Click here to read the article. Click the 'play' button above to listen or subscribe to the podcast by searching 'RFI Mid-East Junction'


Oud for thought

In this month’s podcast, we’re going to take a break from politics. And social anxiety. And uprisings and laws. Because the Middle East doesn’t just make headlines. It also has a sensitive musical soul. And this side to the region often comes out in the musical instrument the oud. Or the oriental lute. Find out all about it in this month's podcast of Mid-East Junction or read about it here. Click the 'play' button above to listen or look for 'rfi mideast junction' in your favourite podcast platform to subscribe, so you'll never miss another episode.


The power of radio during British-mandated Palestine

On 30 March 1936, the Palestinian Broadcasting Service hit the radio waves. The new service, referred to as PBS, catered to the growing population in British-mandated Palestine that included Palestinian Arabs, Palestinian Jews and the British. In this month's Mid-East Junction, we take a look at the short life of the PBS and the role it played in airing culture, news and social programmes aimed at all the three different audiences. Click on "Play" above. You can also subscribe to this podcast on your favourite podcast platform when you search for RFI Mid-East Junction. You can read more here.


Freedom at any cost: Saudi woman escapes to France

In this week's Mid-East Junction, we meet Julia*, a young woman who escaped her life and marriage by force in Saudi Arabia to find freedom in France. She, like hundreds of others of women caught in the oppressive male guardianship system in the kingdom, are choosing to risk everything for a life where a woman is respected and ultimately free to make her own decisions. *Her name has been changed for security reasons You can read more about it here


Retracing Bahrain's activism

On December 31st, Bahrain’s high court upheld a five year jail sentence against human rights activist Nabeel Rajab.His sentence was in response to posts he made on social media in February of 2018 accusing the government of torture and criticising Saudi Arabia’s air strikes in Yemen. Campaign groups around the world called his sentencing "political persecution” and “utterly outrageous". For a small country, however, his case is not exceptional. In this week's Mid-East Junction we take a look at Bahrain and look behind the headlines to get a better idea of what's happening in the tiny Gulf state. You can read more about it here


Egypt's arms fair boosts military's image as regional superpower

Earlier this week, Egypt’s President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi opened the country's first international security and defense expo. The event, which took place over three days, featured more than 350 contributors from 40 countries. By anyone's standards it was a big show, but does it really mean anything for Egypt? The short answer is yes. The reasons for this lies in its recent history. The glory days of modern Egypt In 1952, a revolution in Egypt overthrew the British-backed monarchy and pushed the last vestiges of foreign control out of the country. Those behind the bloodless coup called themselves the Free Officers Movement. The end result of the revolt was that Egypt, at long last, was once again ruled by Egyptians. These Egyptians, however, were the military and their new leader as of 1954 - after a moment of internal struggle - was Gamal Abdel Nasser. After the Suez Canal crisis, Nasser had successfully nationalized the Canal against efforts from the French, British and Israeli military. The victory boosted Egypt’s image as a military powerhouse. As the Cold War took hold, Egypt continued to expand its military arsenal, making it the Middle East’s most most powerful state in terms of armaments, Omar Lamrani, a senior military analyst at Stratfor, explains in his article Egypt Goes on an Arms Spending Spree. This was the golden age of Egypt’s military might. Not only was it known for its strength inside the country, but it was known for it outside the country too. However, with Egypt's defeat by Israel in the 1967 Six-Day War, the army’s reputation started to weaken. Following the end of the cold war, the creation of the Gulf Cooperation Council and Turkey’s reengagement with the region, Egypt began to lose its status. “So that role, regional role, that Egypt aspires to, as it has since the 1950s, has very much declined,” says Issandr al-Amrami, the project director for North Africa and the Middle East at the International Crisis Group. As a result of this decline, Al-Amrami explains that Egypt has begun revising its doctrine and part of that has been upgrading its military equipment and diversifying its procurement processes. Changes since 2011 Since Abdel Fattah al-Sisi took power in 2013 and then officially in 2014 following elections, the country’s percentage of arms imports jumped by 215 in the period 2013 to 2017 over the period 2008 to 2012. But if you look at Egypt’s total Gross Domestic Product (GDP) its military expenditure for the same period is, in fact, lower. Pieter Wezeman, the senior researcher in the Arms and Military expenditure programmes at the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (SIPRI) says this discrepancy is likely to stem from the fact that military expenditures reported by Egypt possibly excludes its arms procurement and that, as a result, the overall spending on military expenditures cited in the GDP figures may exclude its arms procurement tally overall. He adds that a “significant part of Egyptian arms procurement is financed with aid from the US, Saudi Arabia or the UAE (and others). This is probably not included in the government budget [either]." This boost in arms purchases has pushed Egypt to be the third largest importer in the world of such weapons and equipment after India and Saudi Arabia as of 2017. France is Egypt's biggest supplier. In fact, at the ribbon-cutting ceremony beside President Sisi on the first day of the expo was France’s Minister of the Armed Forces, Florence Parly . Arms transfers internationally Egypt's quest to revamp its military image is nothing new. In fact, a report on the trends in international arms transfers for 2017 by SIPRI states that the overall volume of international transfers of major weapons between 2013 to 2017 increased by 10 percent over the period of 2008 to 2012. In short, countries all around the world since the early 2000s have been increasing their arms spend. Holly Spencer, from the French organization...


Why defining security in Israel is such a challenge

Over the weekend of 11 November, tensions between the Gaza strip and Israel peaked once again, when the Israeli Defense Forces, the IDF, led a botched raid in Gaza. It was the first known time the IDF had set foot in Gaza since the war of 2014. This has raised questions within Israel about the challenges faced by its defence forces. News of the incursion was met by rocket fire from Gaza towards Israel. And that in turn was met by Israeli fire. The IDF later said the operation "was not intended to kill or abduct terrorists but to strengthen Israeli Security". The clash that resulted from the blown operation killed seven Palestinian militants, including a local Hamas military commander, as well as an Israeli army officer. A ceasefire was brokered by Egypt on 13 November. In response to the truce, Israel’s Defense Minister, Avigdor Lieberman resigned, saying such an agreement was "capitulating to terror". "I think it is crazy, that in 2018 our only option about the Gaza strip is to fight with them with less or more ammunition…” says Nadav Weiman, a former IDF soldier and advocacy directory of Breaking the Silence, a group that is set on ending what it sees as the ongoing military occupation of Palestinians through questionable tactics and operations. But Gilad Segal doesn’t agree. He’s also a former IDF soldier but reservist now, and a member of an organization called My Truth that works to undo perceived biases in the media and outside of Israel on the role and work of the IDF. "What happened that eventually led to the [resignation] of the security minister […] we believe that it's something that comes from weakness in Israel to solve the situation which leads eventually to a lot of political pressure on the minister who's a political figure" says Segal. He adds that as a member of the coalition, the minister was likely unable to push through certain actions, adding "the margin of operation is very limited, for Israel, in order to solve the issue in Gaza." Military Occupation? But what is this issue in Gaza? Of course everyone knows about the fighting between the Gaza strip and Israel. As mentioned earlier, tensions exploded in a full-on war back in 2014. When the Islamist movement Hamas took control of Gaza in 2007, both Egypt and Israel quickly moved to impose a blockade of its land, air and sea space. Hamas is considered a terrorist group by certain countries such as the United States and the European Union. To many, including Weiman, this constitutes as an ongoing military occupation of Gaza. “I think if most people around the world would close their eyes and I would tell them occupation […] they would think about soldiers standing at a checkpoint checking IDs.” But this notion runs deeper than mere checkpoints he adds."If you want to control five million Palestinians that don't want your control on them, you have to do it forcefully. And the Israeli security plan, we can say, is that all of the Palestinians should be with their heads down at all times, this is how it is easier for us to control them, this is how they won't resist us, this is how we will bring security to Israel.” The very term of ‘occupation’ however, is not very clear. "It [occupation] is a misleading term" says Segal. “There is no occupation not in the legal sense, not in the figure of speech sense. No occupation of Gaza. Israel doesn't occupy Gaza. You can argue that Israel occupies the West Bank. Not the case in Gaza. In 2005, we withdrew to the very last centimeter, we don't control even one bit of sand" he adds. Already we see that the very term of occupation is debatable. And if that is not widely recognized across the country than how does one continue to support the actions of one of the regions, if not the most powerful militaries? Directives from the top When Gazans began their Great March of Return on March 30th this year, actions taken by the IDF were already criticized by human rights groups. According to the Office of the...


Female and atheist in Saudi Arabia

Saudi Arabia, the birthplace of Islam, remains one of the most conservative and rigid countries, particularly for women, and for anyone who goes against Islam. Rana Ahmad knows all too well those constraints as she fled her home country after declaring herself an atheist and after having endured the hardships of a woman under the strict control of her family and government. Although the country appears to be going through reforms at the behest of the Crown Prince Mohamed Bin Salman, such as allowing women to drive, these reforms have seen female activists imprisoned, often threatened with the death penalty, and none have tackled the root problem of the country: the Guardianship system. This is the system that forces every woman to seek permission from a husband, brother, father or other close male family member to do simple tasks such as travel, go to school or go to work. Ahmad says such efforts by the Crown Prince are simply “propaganda”, and only give the appearance of change. After fleeing Saudi Arabia, Ahmad claimed asylum in Europe and now lives in Germany, where she is studying physics; a topic that she laughs has become her new religion as it offers pure data on cause and effect, unlike most religions including Islam. Childhood Growing up in the Kingdom, Ahmad says she had a happy childhood. She rode her bike freely, felt the wind in her hair, bickered with her siblings and thought nothing more of the future. That was until the day her grandfather came and took her bike away. She was then told to start covering her hair with a scarf and to act like a woman, not a child. “Even if I am 14 years I looked around me but I felt my body was still young, why do I have to cover it?” she says as she remembers the moment. From that point on, her life began to change. While she struggled with the changes imposed upon her, Ahmad says she wanted to be “a good Muslim girl and accept what my family said to me” and didn’t resist. Finally she was married off at age 19. Marriage Ahmad says during this time, she went through the motions of being a married woman, but questioned her role. She eventually fell into a depression that led her down a path of more self-reflection and questions about her religion and her need for freedom. In an effort to answer these questions, she began to spend more and more time on the internet where she discovered philosophy and atheism. It was also during this time that her husband turned abusive and she eventually sought a divorce; a move that often taints the reputation of a woman in such a conservative society. Following her divorce, Ahmad says it became even harder for her to do much as she was under the strict surveillance of her family. Eventually they allowed her to start working. On the side, she continued her research into atheism, often with a heavy heart as she began to realise that the religion of her childhood was not for her. Atheist Republic A photo taken by Ahmad at Mecca, in front the Ka’bah during the annual pilgrimage shows a sign stating ‘Atheist Republic'. At that point Ahmad says while she was supposed to be enjoying herself at the event with her mother, she realised she could no longer play the role of a good Muslim girl and a girl who knew she was now atheist. She had put into motion a plan to leave the country without telling anyone. And after two to three years, she managed to flee, leaving behind her family, her friends, and the only life she had ever known. Book Her escape to Europe and her story are told in her first book entitled ‘Ici les femmes ne rêvent pas’, which translates into ‘Here, women do not dream’. Arriving to Paris for her first book event, Ahmad smiles, while sipping a glass of wine, dressed in western clothing. She explains how in addition to writing her book, she has started an organization with other activists in Germany to help refugees arriving who have left their country of origin because they are atheist or formerly Muslim. “When I arrived to...


Peeling back the layers of Yemen's civil war

For nearly four years now, the civil war in Yemen has raged with no end in sight. Civilians have fallen victim to the fighting with some 15,000 killed or injured, while a humanitarian crisis spreads and threatens to claim more lives. Yemen, is located on the southern tip of the Arabian peninsula. It has often sat in the shadow of its eccentric and rich neighbour Saudi Arabia. Unlike its other regional neighbours, Yemen does not have a monarchy , says Adam Baron, a visiting fellow at the European Council on Foreign Relations and International Security Programme fellow at the journal New America. “Yemen stands out on the Arabian Peninsula for a lot of reasons. [It’s the] only country that's not a member of the GCC (Gulf Cooperation Council). [It’s the] only one widely underdeveloped. [It’s the] only one that is a republic rather than some form of a monarchy.” He adds that southern Yemen was once the “only Marxist country in the entire Arabian peninsula” which highlights the different route Yemen took from its neighbours. But does that difference help explain the fighting in today’s Yemen? Shi’a Vs.Sunni Muslims? Many refer to today’s conflict as sectarian fighting between Shi’a and Sunni Muslims. That simple division, however, does not cut across all the different layers that are at play, says Nadwa Al-Dawsari, the Yemen country director with the Center for Civilians and Conflict. “The yemen conflict has two aspects: the first aspect is the power-struggle among the traditional northern political elites and their patronage” says al-Dawsari. “The other layer of the conflict-- which is deeper-- is the historic grievances that Yemenis hold against these political elite. Unfortunately most of the analysis focus only on the power-struggle aspect among the political elite that's the conflict between Hadi's government and the Houthis, or Salah and the Houthis, or Salah and his former allies...and so this conflict is very, very complex.” She adds that one must not forget the “southern dimension” to this conflict which has been “ignored in almost all the interventions that the international community make to try and resolve the conflict, not just now but since the 2011.” In addition to the north/south divide, the sectarian division and the power struggle amongst the political elite, the other element that needs to be considered is its neighbor, Saudi Arabia. Baron points out that Riyadh “has always wielded outsize[d] influence over Yemen, Saudi Arabia has always done what it can to make sure that it [Yemen] has a government in Yemen that is not combattive towards the Saudis whether that's through financial carrots or sticks, political influence and etc.”


Escape from Aleppo: one man's journey

From Aleppo to Paris. A freelance journalist who posted a video of the evacuation of the Syrian city as Bashar al-Assad's forces took control of it recounts his journey from a war zone to the French capital. In December 2016 the government of Syria’s Bashar al-Assad agreed to a mass evacuation of Aleppo city, which had been under siege for months. The Free Syrian Army and other opposition groups were effectively squeezed out and the United Nations requested that remaining civilians and opposition fighters be allowed to leave. Before the official evacuation, freelance journalist Salah Alashkar posted from his Twitter feed a video of him with Aleppo in ruins behind him. In it he appealed for help for the city's residents, subjected to daily air raids at the hands of Syria’s allies, Russia and Iran. “You have to act now, please” he urged viewers. But nothing changed. A few days later he posted a video of the evacuation. In it he says: "We asked to live in a free and democratic country," the young, blond-haired journalist says, while watching people getting ready to leave. "In a country that is free for everyone. We asked for a free Syria. We asked to remove al-Assad. We don’t want Syria in Assad’s way. We want free Syria. No one supported us or even helped us. And as you can see we are being kicked out of our city. Out of Syria. I will go out of Aleppo …. I will go out of Syria, I don’t want to. I don’t want to leave. Then the camera turns sideways and one assumes Alashkar has left with the others. Fighting Assad Salah Alashkar is not his real name. He was born Karim Serjia, the name he used when he went to study banking at the University in Aleppo. But in 2011, when the first protests in Dar’aa were violently put down, he adopted the new name and joined the opposition fighting to rid Syria of Bashar al-Assad. “They are one family, Assad's family,” he explains in a café in Paris, the city he eventually came to after leaving Syria for Turkey. “They take everything we have …. in Syria you can't speak against all subjects. If you want to talk or [write] about wrong things Assad's family [has done]…you will die or you will [spend] all your life in a prison.” The protests in Dar’aa were violently put down by Assad's forces. Schoolchildren who wrote graffiti calling for freedom and criticising Assad’s family, were reported by a security worker to officials, then arrested and tortured. The photo of 13-year-old Hamza al-Khateeb, who was tortured to death while in custody, eventually became the poster of the revolution. Wanting to take part in the revolt, Alashkar ("the blond one" in Arabic) left the world of banking and, along with his friends, started a production group “to show the people the revolution”. He hit the streets as a reporter. Ten days in jail In mid-2011 his life took a major turn, one he still hasn’t recovered from. While he was filming a protest on 17 August, “one security [worker] with Assad regime catch me”. Alashkar remained in prison for 10 days. When speaking about those days in prison, Alashkar says he doesn’t want to go into the details. "Horrible things” went on, he says. His family eventually paid a huge sum of money to have him released. “After that I can’t go back to my family house … every day I sleep in a new place. I go to my neighbours, my friends, sometimes I got to another city to sleep.” Because his name was now known to Assad’s forces, he would have been watched and probably rearrested if he went home, so Alashkar began his journey of working and living anywhere and everywhere to report on what was happening and to stay alive. Aleppo divided Eventually Aleppo city was split into two: the east under the Free Syrian Army opposition militias and the west under Assad’s forces. Alashkar’s family remained in the west and he continued to live in the east. “I don’t have [the] choice to come back to my family,” he explains, adding that he chose to continue fighting “to support the...


Iranian women go online to protest forced wearing of hijab

In Iran, it has been obligatory for women to wear a head scarf, or hijab, since 1983, in the wake of the 1979 revolution. Since then, women have been forced to wear the long, loose-fitting chador, and the hijab. To make sure the law is respected, morality police patrol the streets. But two major online movements are showing people -- inside and outside the country -- that Iranian women want to choose. The movements are known as #MyStealthyFreedom and #White Wednesdays. The women in the videos are not necessarily opposed to wearing the hijab, but they are opposed to being forced – by law – to wear it. And they are willing to risk everything for the right to choose. Birth of the movements Masih Alinejad, an Iranian journalist now living in exile in the United States, is the woman behind these two movements. In 2014, she had posted a photo of herself running down a street in London with her hair flying in the wind. Beneath the photo she wrote “every time when I run in a free country and I feel the wind in my hair, it reminds me of the time when my hair was like a hostage in the hands of the Iranian government”. That message connected with many Iranian women across the country. Soon Alinejad posted another photo of herself driving unveiled in Iran. This time she added the caption "I am a woman and I know there are many other women in Iran who do not believe in hijab [and] they have such pictures“. Soon enough “I was bombarded by pictures and videos from women inside Iran unveiling themselves, walking in the streets taking pictures of themselves in the streets, in front of police cars or in [the] seaside, or nature” explains Alinejad. And so the movement my Stealthy Freedom was born. To keep the momentum and the pressure on the Iranian government to end compulsory hijab, Alinejad says she decided to launch White Wednesdays last year on 24 May. White, because it’s the colour of peace. In this movement she asked the women to identify each other in public while taking off their white headscarves. Again, she got “many videos of women…..sometimes walking shoulder to shoulder with their husbands, their fathers, their boyfriends and saying no to compulsory hijab in public”. Punishable crime in Iran Not wearing a hijab in Iran is a punishable crime. Women risk ten months to two years in prison for being caught without being properly covered. Alinejad explains that from the young age of seven, girls are forced to wear the hijab. Without it, a girl will not be able to access school, to get a job, or just generally to live in the country, because at all times you are being monitored by the morality police. In short, she says “being a woman means that you live in a dangerous situation in Iran”. Obligation of the hijab In 1979, Iran deposed its Shah and established a theocracy. Since then, the laws of the country have been tied directly to Islamic law, or Sharia. It's the job of the top religious cleric, the Supreme Leader, to ensure the government’s interpretation of Islam is respected – particularly by women. But where did this obligation for women to cover their hair come from? Koran In Islam the main beliefs come directly from the Koran, the holy book. For Muslims, the word of god was dictated directly to the prophet Mohamed. Religious leaders point to its verses to explain why Muslims have to behave in a particular way. Merryl Wyn Davies is an Islamic scholar and former director of the Muslim Institute in London. She says that although there are eight references to the hijab in the Koran, none of them have anything to do with clothing or refer to terms that one would understand to be a hijab, a chador, or an abaya. The verse that many point to as a reference for the hijab is in chapter 24, verse 31 which calls upon women “to lower their gaze and be mindful of their chastity and to draw their head coverings over their bosoms”. But, stresses Davies, the passage actually begins in chapter 24 verse 30 where it calls upon men...


How a group of artists based in Egypt tried to change society

Can art change society? It's not clear whether it can or not, but a group of artists in Egypt believed it could and set off to create such a vision hidden in the oasis governorate of Fayoum, just south of Cairo. Rfi's Anne-Marie Bissada has this report from the village of Tunis in the Fayoum. Just a two hour’s drive south of Cairo, away from the Nile, one comes across the governorate of Fayoum, an oasis in the middle of the desert. As Egypt modernized, Fayoum lagged behind and remained one of the poorer agricultural regions in the country. Even today, farmers tend to their fields using traditional, outdated, means and the pace of life remains slow. It’s also here where you’ll find the small village of Tunis –of a population of under 1000 -- nestled among the green landscape at a slight incline looking out to the lake. The village itself began to grow after a group of like-minded artists came to establish a kind of utopia away from the chaos of Cairo.


Israeli band Orphaned Land spreads message of peace across Middle East

Heavy metal music with a middle eastern twist is not common place, but since 1991, the pioneers of such a genre, the Israeli band Orphaned Land has been using its music to spread the message of peace and tolerance across the often tense Middle East. In this month's Mid-East Junction, RFI's Anne-Marie Bissada speaks with Chen Balbaus, the guitarist of the band, just before their show in Paris.


What lies behind Mosul Eye

"What happened after 2014 is another chapter of what happened to this city" say Omar Mohammed, when speaking about his home city of Mosul, the second largest city in Iraq. Mohammed was born in Mosul during some of the worst moments of the Iran-Iraq war in the 1980s. “I was born on 8 April, the Baath party was born on 7 April, and the fall of the regime was on 9 April. I turned 17 when I saw the [US] invasion ... 2014 changed everything in my country," he explains. Mohammed was in Mosul under the corrupt Iraqi army, after the US invasion and while the Islamic State (referred to as ISIS: Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham, pre-2014) was beginning to strengthen and grow. At the time they already had a foothold in Mosul: “We were used to seeing [car] bombs, weekly there were dead bodies in the street, people gett[ing] kidnapped, people paying taxes to the jihadists. The corruption among the security forces [was] something that was being normalised in the city for about 10 years. The city was terrorised I would say,” explains Mohammed. Even then, heading out to work was not an easy situation. “When I wake up and go out, the first thing I think about: am I going to die?” One story in particular - which is well known among Mosul residents - is about a businessman who refused to pay IS before they seized control of the city in 2014. So to send the man a message "they put a bomb in the car of his son on his wedding day", some time in 2011 or 2012. "After that they told him that if he was not going to pay he should prepare another grave for his other son." Although the Iraqi security forces were in Mosul until 2014, Mohammed points out that such threats were common. “If I get threatened by ISIS, I can’t go to the Iraqi security forces or to the police because they are corrupted and my name will go directly to ISIS and they will come to kill me. So we were blocked in the middle of this corruption and ISIS.” IS enters Mosul Although news of the newly-formed Islamic State armed group in nearby cities was known across Mosul, many chose to stay. In fact, when they arrived, even the Turkish consulate stayed while the former governor appeared in public telling people not to worry and that everything was ok, explains Mohammed. He adds that as the diplomatic staff didn’t leave, most people didn’t see the need to run away. Even after IS arrived in June of 2014, it didn't show its true colours. "At the very beginning, ISIS (Islamic State of Syria post-2014) wanted to give the people [the impression] that they were there to protect the city, to take the city from the control of the corrupted government. It was very misleading.The people didn’t understand,” adds Mohammed. But then in three weeks things had changed. “It’s like they pressed [a] button. Everything changed in two days." Mohammed remembers receiving a list of what was permitted and the consequences if people refused to obey. Public executions started, beheadings in the streets, arrests, lashes for not attending mosque, throwing LGBT people off buildings and stoning women on allegations of adultery - actions which took Mosul back to the Middle Ages, he says. Everyone was expected to attend public executions if they were being filmed. A crew of camera men would often repeat the scenes, explaining that a given camera angle or position was not good enough to take a decent shot. Mosul Eye launched The day IS arrived to take over the city, Mohammed says he was using his personal account to post everything. The attack came at 3:00 am on 6 June, an account of which he posted on his personal account as Omar. However, a friend who saw his post told him to be careful. Mohammed erased his personal profile and created an anonymous one called Mosul Eye. “It wasn’t just to share info with others, it was more telling the truth about what’s happening in the city” he explains, adding that the people of Mosul were in a black box. "They couldn’t get out and people couldn’t get in. If no...


What is Sufism and why does it bother some Muslims?

When a mosque in Egypt’s Sinai region was attacked by affiliates of the Islamic State armed group in November leaving over 300 people dead the attackers said they were targeting what they described as 'heretics of Islam', known to the wider world as Sufis.Who are the Sufis and why have they been singled-out by some other Muslims? The term ‘Sufi’, will, for many, conjur up images of poets like the Persian Jalāl ad-Dīn Muhammad Rūmī from the 13th century, or the Abū 'Abdillāh Muḥammad ibn 'Alī ibn Muḥammad ibn `Arabī from Andalusia in Spain from the 12th century, or even Turkey’s whirling dervishes. While poetry and dervishes can be part of different Sufi orders, at the heart of Sufism, is Islam, and its interaction with the prophet Mohammed. Sufis, however, have always differed because they have evolved and adapted their practice of Islam. According to Hamza Malik, a lecturer in Sufism at the department of the Near-and-Middle-East at SOAS, University of London, Sufism strarted to distinguish itself from mainstream Islam in the 1800s. Malik explains that those studying Sufism often sought something that didn’t resemble the strict interpretation of Islam, but instead included some elements closer to Christianity. Such differences become more apparent during the wave of colonization in the 19th century. It's at this point that Muslims began to question where they had gone wrong since they were losing control of their lands. "The answer generally lay in [the fact that] they had moved away from [the] original teachings of Islam” explains Malik. 21st century Sufis Getting a true number of practicing Sufis is hard to come by, since it depends on the order and how one defines a Sufi. In fact, many do not consider themselves Muslim. One article by Stephen Schwartz, a practicing Sufi himself, says out of the roughly 1.3 billion Muslims worldwide, five percent are Sufis. But much of the confusion in defining Sufis as Muslims stems from the fact that Sufism evolved differently than mainstream Islam. Malik explains that this willingness to look deeper into the “spiritual essence of Islam” rather than just its literal adherence to routine, is what attracted people. Different Sufi communities follow different Sufi orders. The orders are based on individual Sufis in history who inspired followers. Rabia and Hasan are two practicing Sufis who grew up in the United States as Presbyterian Christians, but later converted to Sufism. They practice the Sufism developed by Hazrat Inayat Khan, an Indian musician who worked in the early twentieth century. “He [Hazarat] was a court musician in India and was also a Sufi. This was [in] 1910, and he believed very strongly that Islam and Hinduism and [other religions] and Christianity were all facets of the same thing” explains Hasan. “They were all trying to reach something deeper. So he felt that you didn't have to be a Muslim, or a Hindu as such. You weren't being locked into one thing.” Not being locked into one thing is why Sufism was never about a religion, adds Rabia. “Sufism was never a religion. Islam is a religion.” Sufism and Islam But most specialists disagree and insist that Sufism comes from Islam and the Koran. Hisham Hellyer is a senior non-resident fellow at the Atlantic council and a professor at the Centre for advanced study of Islam, science and civilization in Malaysia. He says the two cannot be separated because he believes it's “historically not true”. He adds: “Very basic practice of all Sufis is to read the Koran and that's the Islamic revelation part par excellence and to imagine that is something that can be separated from Islam, I'm not sure how you can do that." But for hundreds of thousands of people around the world, Sufism has become a means of achieving a spirituality that is rooted in Islam, but that is not necessarily part of the religion. This ability of Sufis to draw in more followers by adapting the religion to the local culture is how it was able to...