Wednesday, June 08, 2005

In response to Hussein

Hussein, I LOVE YOUR LAST QUESTION!!! (refer to the comment section of the previous entry) Unfortunately though, I don't think there's a clear-cut answer. In the Middle East, there seems to be an obsession with controlling individual behavior. The dress code, the looks, the proper type of behavior, arranged marriages (or simply sanctioned vs. unsanctioned marriages), sexual abstinence, etc.... How are all of these rules enforced? It's the family, or the village, or religion, or, as in most cases, a combination of those elements. The good that comes out of this type of an arrangement is that you don't see the crazy crime and murder rates that you would see in most first world countries (never mind struggling third world countries).

I mean, look at Beirut! A city of around 2 million people, and yet the only reason you wouldn't go to certain areas is because of sectarian prejudices, or fear of a certain political group... not because you're scared you're gonna get stood up at gun-point and get all your valuables stolen. So maybe that partially explains why the average Lebanese and Arab guy/gal (usually older folk) really likes the kind of controls that he or she is subject too. I can't recall the number of times I've heard from family members how "chaotic" and "dangerous" the west is. Or how many times WOMEN in my family have told me that their female counterparts in the West are "too loose" or some other comment of that nature. Oh, and then there's also the competition between members of the different communities (and even families): we control ourselves better than they do... or, we're more united and cohesive than they are... or, why aren't we as united and cohesive as they are? etc.... This kind of thinking is almost second nature to us!

Two concepts or notions that suffer as a result of the way our societies are organized are:

1. individualism
2. universalism

Individual choice, personal initiative and adventurism is frowned upon and effectively quashed. If my uncle was an idiot, it really doesn't matter. I'm supposed to be obedient to him because he's older than me, and he's my father's brother. People over here in the States don't understand that, and sometimes look at the way I treat older people, and think I'm weird! What matters here (in the States) is your individual characteristics and accomplishments... society awards you accordingly by giving you a "rank" irrespective of your age. Even in organizations that employ mediocre individuals, a younger employee could, without hesitation, pillory an older employee who was ranked under him/her. Try doing that in Lebanon, or Egypt, or Saudi Arabia, or anywhere in the Middle East. Under those conditions, what is the incentive for an individual in the prime of his or her life to work extra hard, to be adventurous, to break with the norms and discover something new if society is dead set against that? Don't we all want to be held in esteem by our peers?

As for universalism, the only universal notion that exists in the region is "Islamic" universalism, which brings us full circle back into the same problem: extreme control of individuals and individual behavior, but not much more. I bet that most of the people who advocate this type of universalism are people with good intentions who want to try and increase control in the grand scheme of things in order to reduce wars between tribes and clans, and decrease the likelihood of chaos. However, good intentions isn't sufficient, and the reality is that these people don't know any better. Islam (especially the Sunni sect) DEPENDS on the family, the tribe, the state and other extraneous organizations and institutions as implementation mechanisms (hence the cozy relationship with ruling institutions since the very beginning of the religion). So, saying that you’re going to use Islam to reform the ruling mechanisms is like saying you’re going to teach yourself how to write without having any arms.

The Sunni sect has never had an autonomous, hierarchical institution that is similar to the Shi’a or Catholic clergy. In fact, if you look closely at some Sunni political entities, like the Muslim Brotherhood, they are, in essence, modern political parties, with modern organizational structures, which were borrowed mainly from the West. In short, every concrete aspect about these entities, except the abstract ideology and the requirements/controls imposed on its individual members is Western!

I can think of two other problems that exist with the prescription of “Islam” as a universal ideology would unite the different clans and create some sort of big-picture order.

1. “Islam” itself is divided. The killing in Iraq today is a reflection of a wider Sunni-Shi'i struggle that has been going on since the revolution in Iran. Even within the two sects, there are serious differences that are well known to all who study the region.

2. Islam as a “governing philosophy” is obsolete in today's world. I don't have any evidence to show for that statement, except the following: I find it highly unlikely that an ideology that was created in the 7th century AD would be suitable in today’s fast-paced world, where power is overwhelmingly based on economic growth and wealth. Furthermore, if we look at Iran, the only country that is ruled under the guidance of one form of Islamic governing philosophy, we see a country that is definitely failing to meet its potential.

So the question is: why don’t we all see the short comings of our societies and prescribe effective solutions? Frankly, I’m not too sure. However, I do agree with Hussein in the sense that societies are not static, and they do change over time. A good example is the organizational mechanism that the Muslim Brotherhood uses today, which was mentioned above. However, I’m pushed to ask that since most “Sunni Fundamentalist” groups such as the Muslim Brotherhood are, in essence, modern organizations that would (out of necessity) become even more modern if they were to rise to power, why don’t they just get rid of their Islamic “veil” and adopt modern clothing?

In my opinion, one big factor is oppression from the ruling elites. Opposition parties need an ideology that is able to rally the people to their side, and win over members. And what better ideology than religion? I believe it is too valuable a tool for those parties to dispose of, especially in a context where opposition movements are persecuted, and only highly motivated individuals would risk their necks to bring down the existing elite. For God’s sake, most of the rich/westernized Egyptians are probably not happy with the Mubarak regime, but why risk their comfort (and worse, their lives) to form or join an opposition party? Moreover, if you were a regular Egyptian, would you risk prison or torture and death for promoting the abstract ideals of liberalism or the intimate and “holy” values of Islam? I believe the answer is obvious.

So Hussein, I hope I’ve (at least, partially) answered your inquiry pertaining to the paradox that exists within Middle Eastern societies. This paradox, which you so eloquently articulated in your last question, seems to be the result of a combination of (1) the desire for personal comfort in the form of security and the predictability in life, which can be attained through adopting traditional behavior (2) not knowing better on behalf of the local (good intentioned) reformers who think that religion is not only their personal salvation, but their polity's salvation as well, and (3) brutal oppression which drives the counter-elite (who for all intents and purposes, might not even be religious) into the mosques for cover.


Doha said...

Raja, you delve into many profound issues. What struck me is the following and I would like to comment on it:

You criticize the "family" as one of the social/cultural institutions in our society that hinders individualism and you claim sarcastically that the west is "chaotic" and "dangerous".

I say that yes, the west is chaotic and dangerous, and you do justify that by highlighting the fact that we everyday in this place are afraid of being held at gun-point or being robbed.

On another level, I believe that the issue in our society is not family versus the individual, but rather extended family versus nuclear family. The primordial ties to the extended family is what hinders development. For instance, in my case, my extended family identifies itself as a community. But my parents decided to go for the nuclear family prototype (which is the trend more and more in Lebanon), breaking away from norms that hinder progress and stifle individualism but embracing the best of what family ties offer the individual. This is what truely distinguishes us from the West; I believe it more than ever since I came to this place. There is nothing wrong with traditions when they enrich your personality, morality, and character; there is something wrong with traditions when they teach us to hate, be prejudice, exclude, and not question.

reem said...

You touch on many issues- but I just wanted to pinpoint one thing. You say that you see Islam as obsolete in the sense of a 'governing philosophy' in tune with the economic pace of the 21st century. Well I've been reading a lot recently on investment practices in accord with Shari'a law. Apparently, such investments are booming, especially in countries like Indonesia or in the Gulf. Banks are now hiring specialists in Islamic law...I think this constitutes an interesting trend to follow up...

Also, it's funny how you answered Hussein's question in a different way than I did (see my comment on you previous post).

Anonymous said...


I came upon this article. Although it is a bit extreme, I thought it offers a different and rather amusing perspective to the question you are pondering.

Enjoy :)

Raja said...

thanks caline