Category Archives: Islam

My heart’s with Ethan

 Chris Jordan, Cell Phones, 2007 (courtesy:

Ethan Zuckerman remains my No. 1 favourite blogger of all times, and given how much I struggle to update GlobaLab at least 2-3 times a week, while trying to work and retain a decent social life, I am in awe at his amazing prolificacy.

A quick browse at his last few entries would be enough to feed an average person’s brain for 6 months. Over the last few days, he’s been busy reporting from the PopTech conference, which he describes as “the annual three-day gathering of scientists, inventors, geeks, philosophers and thinkers in coastal Maine“. The event is a catwalk for amazing projects and ideas that are truly transforming the world. If you haven’t followed the event, you can read Ethan’s posts on some of the most interesting presentations, including (but there are more):

It took me good part of the day to read them all, and there are many more celebrity bloggers who reported from the event, including BoingBoing, Next Billion, and a few (but not many) non-English speaking bloggers.

If this isn’t enough for you, check out Ethan’s earlier post about a new initiative to fight counterfeit pharmaceuticals in Ghana (hopefully soon the whole of Africa), mPedigree, which will use mobile phones to track drugs from their original producers all the way to the pharmacy shelves, allowing each buyer in the chain to ensure that they’re dealing with a legitimate product. Or check out the entry in which he takes a good shot at unravelling the complex situation in Somalia, in response to the Onion’s eye-opening video Situation in Nigeria Seems Pretty Complex, a must see for all Africanists:

In The Know: Situation In Nigeria Seems Pretty Complex

What can I say? Ethan, you are my personal hero!!!

Alliance of Civilisations report published

The St. Bartholomew's Day Massacre - François Dubois

Building on the efforts of the Dialogue Among Civilizations, a panel of 20 cultural leaders under the banner of the UN released today a final report outlining a set of recommendations that they believe will help bridge the West-Muslim divide. The report sketches the crucial dilemmas of our globalized era – the rising inequality, the unavoidable inter-connectivity, the diffused complexity that is generating mutual suspicion – which it sees as the root problem of many misunderstandings and prejudices between the Western and Muslim worlds. The report is the first major attempt to create a framework for policy-makers worldwide to address the difficult issue of cultural and religious integration, and for this it should be welcomed and praised. But, like all mega-projects, especially sponsored by the UN, when observed more closely it reveals some crucial limitations.

Behind the grand statements advocating mutual tolerance and respect, the report fails to highlight (and therefore address) some more divisive questions. In its Guiding Principles, for example, it reiterates the central role that the 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights should play in any attempt to bridge said divide, without recognizing the fact that framing the rights discourse in individual (as opposed to collective) terms is itself perceived by many civilization as a manifestation of Western cultural dominance. Moreover, how is a multilateral framework of justice meant to be implemented when countries like the US, China, Japan, Russia, Egypt and Israel (to name but a few of the key ones) refuse to endorse the International Criminal Court?

While reassuring us that all world religions are peaceful and just, the report warns us that

[…] in democratic societies, when groups sharing a history of discrimination or victimization make claims for equal rights and political participation, they may be addressed peacefully through, for example, affirmative action. In political systems which offer no channel for grievances to be heard, political and militant groups often emerge, advocating the use of violence to achieve redress. [page 6]

The two controvertial counter-questions to this statement would be:

  1. Why are certain groups seemingly more prone to violence, while others are not, despite both living in the same socio-political environment?
  2. Which political system should people turn to when they perceive their problems as originating from global economic and social structures?

In fact, in its commendable attempt to defuse tensions and promote mutual understanding, the report doesn’t really help us understand the tragedies of 9/11 and 7/7.

Underlying the entire report is the fact that religious identity is reasserting its role in international politics and this – it appears – is not so bad after all. The return to religious values and principles is described as a response to the attack on cultural identities perpetrated by globalization over the last few decades. The historical precedents of these resurgences are seemingly dismissed. If anything, however, history teaches us that – whether or not manipulated by people with particular interests – religious differences in shared social spaces have a tendency to be more divisive than any other cultural difference.

Most bizarrely, the report states as its first and foremost recommendation the resolution of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. While we can certainly all agree that this is long overdue, I am not very sure how this will address the problems of identity, poverty, inequality, cultural domination, etc. that have been blamed so far on globalization. If the root problem of the clash between the Western and Muslim worlds is the way globalization is connecting them in an uneven manner, why are the policy recommendations aimed at addressing this imbalance deemed of secondary importance, and outlined in very generalistic, even shallow terms – a renewed committment to multilateralism, respect for human rights, etc.?

Thankfully, part 2 devotes a lot of attention to the crucial issue of education, which should certainly be at the centre of any resolution and policy implementation. In particular, and rightly, the report stresses the importance of cross-cultural youth events and educational exchanges to prepare the future generations to a global world. It also makes important points on the issue of migration, which is certainly one of the most contentious and politicized, but usually also misinformed. Which obviously leads to the hot issue of the media and the need to balance freedom of speech with the need to limit the media’s irresponsible approach to many contentious issues.

Overall, a first step in the right direction.

Veiled truth

Veiled woman - Istanbul, Turkey

There has been much talk recently about women wearing veils in the West. Adding fuel to the debate was yesterday’s statement by Sheikh Taj el-Din al-Hilali – Australia’s most senior cleric – who said women who did not wear a hijab (head dress) were like “uncovered meat”, somewhat implying that if they get raped they are begging for it. This statement was particularly insensitive since Sydney was the scene six years ago of a series of gang rapes committed by a group of Lebanese Australians, who received long prison sentences.

The comment will certainly reignite the heated debate that took place in the last few weeks in the UK about the niqab, the full-body veil that only has a slot for the eyes. But it also will raise more questions about Muslim attitudes to women in general. Three articles are quite illuminating on this front. The first one, from Anne Applebaum on the Washington Post, brings our attention to the fact that fully-covered faces in the West are as culturally insensitive as miniskirts in Indonesia. It’s not just a matter of politeness, I would add. Hidden faces in the West are associated with bandits, robbers, kidnappers or at best actors (sic!), and in this moment of heightened tension between Muslim and non-Muslim communities in the West, what might be an act of piety can only come across as a provocation.

The second article, always on the Washington Post, is by Asra Q. Nomani, who points out a deeper – and more difficult – issue:

Western leaders, including British Prime Minister Tony Blair and Italian Prime Minister Romano Prodi, have recently focused on Muslim women’s veils as an obstacle to integration in the West. But to me, it is [verse] 4:34 [of the Koran] that poses the much deeper challenge of integration“.

The verse – “and (as to) those on whose part you fear desertion, admonish them and leave them alone in the sleeping-places and beat them” –  has been preached by some Muslim scholars as moral justification for “mild forms” of domestic violence in many Muslim homes. Clearly, this is not to say domestic violence is solely a Muslim problem, or that there aren’t similar verses in the Bible pointing to women’s inferior status or to the physical punishments they should receive in case of sinful behaviour. But clearly we have a problem when Muslim preachers are unquestioningly spreading these teachings, something that – to my knoweldge – other religious leaders are refraining from doing.

This comes in stark contrast to Yvonne Ridley’s account of How She Came to Love the Veil, also on the Washington Post (you can tell John had a hand in all this). While her feelings about how Islam offers a new route to female emancipation, with the veil offering a concrete means of creating a visual identity, might be true, her dismissal of male politician’s understanding of the issue (their arrogance [is] surpassed only by their ignorance) is simply misplaced.

It is worth remembering here that the problem is not the head-scarf (hijab), since there are plenty of examples of veiled women in the Western traditions, from nuns to brides. The problem is the face-veil (niqab). I can see how the niqab – allowing a woman to see without being seen – can be very empowering. But the niqab represents a real cultural clash between the Muslim world and the West, one which poses real difficulties to politicians trying to defuse the current tensions, and which cannot be simply dismissed as ignorance. A covered face is threatening in the West, be it of a man or of a woman, and what Ridley fails to understand is that the West, like other cultures around the world, has its taboos, prescriptions and social norms that have to be respected like in any other society. When I decided to get a tattoo, for example, I knew I’d never be allowed to enter a Japanese public bath, because tattoos in Japan are associated with criminality. I accept the (small) consequence of my decision. So should Muslim women who live in the West.

The debate, I am sure, will continue on a newspaper/TV set/website next to you…