Monday, September 24, 2012

The Damaging Effects of Homogenization

Many in the American public have been cringing at the mention of Islam since 1979. With the Tehran US embassy hostage crisis, the average American citizen was for the first time hearing about how "Islam hates America" on a daily basis through the media. In this particular situation, America was for once the "victim" in an international crisis. News channels began counting the days (from 1 to 444) that the Embassy employees were being held, and high rations of daily media coverage kept the American public intune with the hostage crisis in Iran. This was the first introduction of many of the American masses (not merely the educated) to Islam.

It can be argued that the average US citizen didn't have much of an opinion about Islam pre-Hostage crisis, which is definitley not the case today. The American perception of Islam only got worse after 9/11, and though we seemed to have a moment of light with the start of the Arab Spring, it continued to plummet down the drain following the recent anti-American protests in response to the "Innocence of Islam" film.

The Muslim population in the United States is significant at around 3 million, however it is a very small minority in the entire population that is well over 300 million. Muslims don't even make up one percent of the American population. With that being taken into consideration, it is safe to say that the average American citizen has not come into contact on an intimate level with many Muslims, if any; not within the United States and most definitely not overseas, considering only one-third of the American population even possess a passport.

Therefore opinions and perceptions of Islam in America are often not from experience, but mere speculation, leaving popular media to govern the American opinion of Islam. Media - as it is not an academic resource, is often politically motivated & searching to shock - has managed to homogenize Muslims into one group. Homogenization is an extremely dangerous manipulation tool. Upon the homogenization of a certain group of people it becomes extremely easy to demonize what they stand for, though in reality this usually differ greatly from one member of the group to the other.

The damage of homogenization of diverse peoples can be put into a larger perspective by looking from another aspect.  Some Muslims too have homogenized "The West" into one simplified, negative entity. The "Innocence of Islam" film clip was a perfect example of this. An independent film made by a small number of  individuals in the USA, was the necessary spark to set of a few Muslims on attacking US government buildings. There were even protests outside of German government buildings overseas in response to this film. "The West" has been so homogenized for a few that somehow there are those who act on the presumption that the German government represents a few low-budget film makers nobodies from California. Brilliant.

Do you see how this can be a damaging problem on both sides?

I have lived and grown up in some very diverse cultures of the West, The Middle East, Asia, Africa; and in Christianity & Islam. No two people that I have met have been the same. In the case of Islam, the societies that I've lived in all have a very different definition of the Same religion; from Senegal to Tunisia to Saudi Arabia you can find complete contradictions in both Islamic orthodoxy and orthoproxy.

In my own experience, I've noticed that culture tends to rule over religion (for those who practice it). God - although religions teach his spirit is constantly present - is naturally hard for humans to grasp. God as the creator, can be very difficult to relate to, difficult to understand, and difficult to see at work on Earth. Thus, it is human nature to try to understand God within our own human contexts - this often implies that we look and understand God through our own cultural lenses. In the case of Islam, this has led to many cultural practices being deemed Islamic, though they may not have any roots in the religion itself. Often it is the culture and traditions of Muslims that define Islam to onlookers, and not the religion itself.

Another part of the problem of the homogenization of Muslims comes from within the Muslim community itself. There exist large, influential and powerful groups within the community that have a serious inability to deal with diversity. Though, the Quran itself allows for it:
To each of you We prescribed a law and a method. Had God willed it, He would have made you one nation [united in religion], but [He intended] to test you in what He has given you; so race to [all that is] good. To God is your return all together, and He will [then] inform you concerning that over which you used to differ. (Quran 5:48)
The most simplest way to understand this passage, is that not all of us connect to or understand God in the same way, and that's actually how God intended it to be. We may have petty disagreements now, but the passage assures us He will bring us together and work out the issues one day in the future. Take into consideration as well, that this is not a verse addressed to only "the believers of Islam", it extends out to all humanity, and surely we are diverse in belief.

There are those in the Muslim community itself who - through sectarianism, excommunication (takfir) and with rigid interpretations and lack of understanding - would also like for the Muslim community to be homogenized into one simple definition. Many Clerics have merely created a bubble where the "righteous struggle" within Islam is preoccupied with the hair on a woman's head, whether or not she still has her hymen, and making sure men are being "manly enough". All the while serious human rights issues and injustices are being ignored, though this is strongly in contrast to the spirit of Islam.

Both Americans and Iraqis have had to sit and ponder the painful question: "Why are our innocent people being murdered for something they had nothing to do with?"
My answer: Tragic homogenization.

Tuesday, September 4, 2012

The House of Al Saud: In Over Its Head?

In stories and books about the establishment of the Nation State of Saudi Arabia, King Abdul Aziz, the founder of the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia is romantically portrayed as the noble leader  who "united" the tribes of Arabia. "Unite" seems an odd word to teach the masses, as history has shown most who establish control of a region do it through scheming, betrayal, politics, and lots of blood. The man was a  great conquerer, he should be recognized as such. I do not wish to praise or condemn his character - however I cannot argue with the fact that he was a man willing to sweat and get his hands very very dirty to get the job done.  His time was a much different generation, living within the harsh desert climate of Arabia – pre-oil boom and pre-convienience; a time that many Saudis argue were much harder times; but times that they say where one could found more quality, morale, drive and ethics within the community.  

The Sudairi seven, his seven sons from wife Hassa Al-Sudairi have managed leadership of the Kingdom between themselves, however, many have passed on, and more are elderly and sickly, and their time on Earth is surely very limited. Their generation saw a different Saudi Arabia than the one we know today, and was still very much in contact with the previous generation (the one of their father) who was used to living in the harsher times in Saudi Arabia. The late King Faisal responded to American oil threats during the 1973 oil embargo with: “We can go back to the desert and live off of dates and camel milk, but what will you do without oil?” This response worked at the time, because King Faisal’s was also a generation who needed to know how to survive, how to get their hands dirty, and how to "control" a nation, much different than the ones to follow.

The “house of al Saud” has grown, and its youth are now very disconnected from the harsh Arabia of King Abdul Aziz. They are used to a hefty allowance, lavish lifestyles, with so many people around them sucking up that few have to deal with real conflict outside of their family circles and most don’t know how to deal with it; some murder, some get crazy drunk, some sniff cocaine, some get prostitutes, some get arrested, some give "good blow jobs"…but all no longer remember a Saudi Arabia without McDonalds, cars, money, Air Conditioning, and airplanes; and none of them had to get sweaty to have any of it. Theirs is a generation who may not be able to handle running the population of whom - I would argue - has greatly surpassed them.

 It used to be only the royals and major elites that could travel overseas to study. Only these elite few – already in control and to some extent free of many of the strict restrictions of Saudi society - got to taste the “freedom” taught in western schools and universities. Now a massive portion of Saudi students have been exposed to a world where leadership is not recognized by family name, and where ordinary people are encouraged to constantly question everything and think critically. This was once a message only the elites were exposed to, and with the King Abdullah scholarship, this door has been opened for a massive number of young Saudi men and women.

 The Ottoman Empire, Mohamed Ali’s Egypt, and the Qajar and Shahs of Iran all went through extensive reforms in their nations as they began to notice discontent– all plans included sending large number of students overseas to study – many of these students ended up being the very same students who would return to their countries to contribute to the fall of these regimes.

Saudis are being educated within the Kingdom and outside the kingdom. Even Saudis within the Kingdom have been exposed to large number of foreigners who have have been invited in to work. They have seen the difference in lifestyle, they have been exposed to different ideas through books, movies, TV, internet (Saudi Arabia in the last year was by a landslide the country that experienced the most growth on Twitter). All these technologies opening the outside world to Saudi (to some extent) are at each individuals access, allowing for each Saudi citizen to have a window to a different way of thinking and to form their own personal experience with the outside world, something that wasn’t possible for the majority of even the most previous generation.

The last generation tried for change, women tried to take to the streets in a driving protest in order to demand their rights and were met with brutality, Qatifis took to the streets around 30 years ago to demand rights and were met with brutality, prisoners piled into jails and were tortured for wanting simple reforms. They may have failed to reach their exact goals – but they definitley ignited a spark – and many of these people have had children. Their children live in a different time, and their children are trying once again for the change in Saudi Arabia.

Protests are happening in the Kingdom now – from Qatif the Shiite center to Qassim the center of Wahhabism. The two most opposite cities in Saudi Arabia are both experiencing a common discontent with the way things are.

The generation who could perhaps say “we will go back to living on dates in the desert and camel milk” is in its last days in leadership, and the power is to be eventually passed down to the next generation of royals. The majority of whom have been pampered and remain severly disconnected from reality…yet they are the ones who are to rule those educated and globally-connected Saudi youth?

Between rampant poverty in a nation rich with wealth, to backward bureaucracy that forces everyone to run in circles before they can get anything accomplished, corrupt clerics who have deviated so far from Islam that many Muslims refuse to recognize it, to serious social issues (rape, sexual harassment, workers rights, etc) that are not spoken of, a Shiite and female population who have been mistreated and misunderstood for generations, to large amounts of people who have been thrown in prison for speaking out or wanting simple freedoms, and an educated youth who are beginning to challenge themselves to dream for the impossible….

The House of Al Saud has all the symptoms to an inevitable fall.  When? I don’t know, but I think I’ll be alive to see it.