Thursday, December 2, 2010

Changing the Conversation

All this frenzied sparring going on in the Middle East makes you think small. In the instant. Day by day, the better to catch an oblique, do or die nuance, a hidden turn in a one-way, face-down tumble. Miss a moment, a word, a gesture, and, God forbid, you might just be missing the purpose of it all. The temptation is to keep tabs, in the hope that the tally somehow will weave a story worth knowing.

But frankly, as needlepoint intricate as this book’s authors would like to think it is, there is nothing remotely subtle in the narrative. On its surface lives a certain kind of senselessness that is at once immovable and incapacitating. In the deep of it runs, like a violent undertow, that incessant matter of religion.

Politics here has become nothing more than a very heated argument between warring faiths and sects. Even among members of the same creed and tribe the race is on in the name of prostration and reverence.   

Islam, in the Middle East, is a brooding king harangued by too many squabbling princes. Ours feels like a march of folly, to borrow some from Barbara Tuchman, and irony is almost beside itself that none other than religion is actually leading the throngs.

Massacres in Iraqi churches; rumored simulations of a Hezbollah take over of Lebanon; unabashed and apparently daily conversations between AhmadiNejad and the hidden Mahdi; talk by the Egyptian Muslim Brothers’ Supreme Guide of “cleansing the system since we carry within us the pure water of the heavens;” women in Hamas’s Gaza being banned from smoking shisha in public cafes…These are just a sample from the latest entries in a years-long running account of puerile, sex-obsessed fatwas, pious rants and sectarian bloodletting.

In this way, the utterly silly has been conspiring with the downright unnerving in the behavior of decision makers from whose hands the lives of so many of us hang. And would that politics here were local and its devastating aftereffects pressure point precise. Would that we the people were mere innocent bystanders and victims without a single bone in this dogfight.

Words like secularism have become blasphemy, privacy in faith proof of heresy. Religion is now practically interchangeable with identity; it has become our highest attainment and our lowest common denominator.

If you are looking to lead and compete in politics nowadays, this is the only game in town. There are no independent forces here—at least none that our best public opinion polls can identify--that amount to anything more than a few brave voices whispering every once in a while from the sidelines, “Is it too much to ask?”

I suppose it hasn’t occurred to our leaders and fundamentalist gatekeepers, who are apoplectic about Israel’s reassuringly blunt Loyalty Oath--which makes allegiance to a Jewish Israel compulsory for non-Jewish aspirants to citizenship--that it made more sense to welcome Israel into the region’s Muslim fold rather than condemn it as an outcast.

After all, what could possibly be offensive to them about this new Israeli measure, which crows atop a growing pile of Israeli laws that scream of discrimination, when searching our own legal codes for examples of religious prejudice would be like picking one’s way through a cotton field in season.

What are we lamenting when we protest this latest show of Israeli bigotry? That they have finally officially come out in the open as one of us?

It seems almost beside the point, in the midst of all these deathly my God is better than yours rows, that people here are actually very hard at work at the business of living—and with barely a serious or sensible public policy in sight.

Water, electricity, a proper education, health, the need to create at least 50 million new jobs over the next 10 years if we are to stay put, rich estranged from poor, living galaxies apart…All beside the point. And we haven’t even broached the testier issues of transparency, the rule of law, women’s rights…

In Egypt, you can almost hear the sound of fragile dreams being crushed by a state and an Islamist opposition doing battle over everything that actually does not count.

And so it goes, with varying degrees of pain and embarrassment, in practically every other Middle Eastern destination.

In Bahrain, the few Sunnis battle way too many Shiites, cosmetic reforms going the way of the fight’s other casualties.

In Iraq, the goose that is threatening to lay a million golden eggs, sectarian wrangling has been turned into a fine, if hideous, art.

In Lebanon, close to four million people flail this way and that, like hapless crowds on a sinking deck. As the entire country flounders between clashing cults, the well off work, curse, travel and obsess about the tumult; the poor curse, scramble for crumbs of a living, fret and wait.


These are the lifeless landscapes you are sure to behold if you were standing and peering down.

Crouch and you begin to brush against the faint gusts of wind delicately working their way through them.

Over the last few years, NGOs, by the hundreds—literally—have been sprouting in Syria, Egypt, Iraq, Jordan…offering everything from balsam for the destitute to step-ups and beachheads for those who have the remotest readiness (and chance) to want out.

Everywhere you go, there is a loud buzz, growing louder still: entrepreneurship conferences in Dubai (I’ve just come back from a superb one), business incubators in Palestine, youth activism in Amman...
It feels as if civil society is awakening from a decades-long slumber to fill a void carved wide by cruel, old hands.

The private sector is not too far behind. Though still palpably dormant and happy to follow the state’s cue (and orders), you can see it, slow and shy, walking into arenas long abandoned by derelict governments.  

Corporate Social Responsibility is making an appearance on every other company’s website and advertising material. Social entrepreneurship is now our sexiest piece of jargon, an enticing presence in the parlance of the rich and powerful.

Charity has always had a nice pull in this part of the world, but it is becoming at once generous and bottom-line smart to offer the less fortunate a sustainable leg up.

And did you notice? Nary a mention of politics in these circles, except for a few daring bloggers giving officialdom a very mild case of the runs. 

Engagement is seeking different friends, since Democracy and her daughters (political parties, elections, protests, rallies…) have turned out to be pretty rough company.

As is typical of noise that begins as a restless stirring that promises to be a trend, it is almost impossible to tell where this is all going, what it signifies and how far it might reach. As usual, Western commentators have brought out their pens in celebration of the change that is coming. And, as usual, they’re way too excited by the hype.

Serious doers are being lumped with chatty ones, marketing gimmicks are being applauded as a thing of substance (remember that glossy ad campaign that became Lebanon’s Cedar Revolution?).  

The US wants a piece of whatever it is we are witnessing. Islamist movements 
are walking around with pensive faces and raised eyebrows. Traditional leftists are screaming that this is neoliberalism in disguise blurring sacred divides. Populists are furious that money is daring to exhibit a conscience with a plan. The state is looking for an angle…

Yes, I am exaggerating for effect…but not that much.

The hullabaloo aside, all that one can say in these very, very early hours with near certainty is that it would appear that an increasing number of very determined and visionary individuals are trying very hard to change the conversation.

That’s it for now.

For their sake, the urge is to mount the table and scream down at the nattering, heedless pundits: “Will you shut up for once and just listen!”


Dina H. Sherif said...

Amal, this is absolutely brilliant...As I was reading this blog it was as if i could hear you speak... and i totally agree with you..there are some who are determined to see change happen. It is unfortunate that everything now is defined according to religion and more unfortunate that many among us just won't own up to that. Love this blog ya amal. much food for thought.

atallah kuttab said...

Dear Amal
Brilliant and nice tweeding of topics with strong ending

Anonymous said...

Ya Amal inti fazee3a! You are a heavy-weight thinker and a superb expressionist (no such word..but you are that..)..your expression is just awesome! Main thing, though, is that you are a breath of fresh air..not afraid to not tow the line, willing to question our Arab rusted-up society and the mess it's in. 'The Conversation' is etched in rock and it's so difficult to change it..but you're trying! I have one thought, though,re Israel..ok, it's like us (in bigotry and hypocrysy) but it's not 'one of us'. Can't just accept it or welcome it. Zionizm is the the usurper, the terrorist invader who created an aberration and massacred/dis-possessed/dis-inherited the Palestinians. 'Unless-you're-Moslem-you-cannot-be-Saudi' does not justify 'Unless-you're-Jewish-you-cannot-be-Israeli'. Israel is an illegitimate entity. It must first give the Palestinians full citizenship, their rights to their land and their capital city..oh Amal I despair..there's no light at the end of the tunnel for Arabs. Arabs aren't even in a tunnel..they're in a closed dark box. See? I light a candle! Love, Nijad

Anonymous said...

You were right. I loved what you have writtne. Any real hope for us? Or do we keep pretending with our existential concerns? love. bh

Ramzi Jaber said...

Amal, you write very eloquently. an apt description of the current state of affairs in the Arab world.
(Middle East is a colonialist reference and should one day be dropped as a reference to this region)

Civic engagement, at all sectors of society, is paramount to alleviating conditions. It has to be in the fabric of society of and not stigmatized.

The term "activist" literally means being active in society, yet it has negative connotations of political protests. And that has been severely repressed in the region for obvious reasons.

It is important to highlight/showcase the true activists in the region, and connect them to resources, mentors, peers, knowledge, technology and the correct legal framework.

Ramzi Jaber said...

Amal, you write very eloquently. an apt description of the current state of affairs in the Arab world.
(Middle East is a colonialist reference and should one day be dropped as a reference to this region)

Civic engagement, at all sectors of society, is paramount to alleviating conditions. It has to be the fabric of society of and not stigmatized as it is right now.

The term "activist" literally means being active in society, yet it has almost-negative connotations of political protests. And that has been severely repressed in the region for obvious reasons.

It is important to highlight the true activists in the region, to celebrate them and connect them to resources, mentors, peers, knowledge, technology and the correct legal framework.

Thinking Fits said...

Agreed, Ramzi. This thing is still a baby, and perhaps a bit of quietude might help it evolve into something truly interesting and long lasting.

ashraf said...

Great post Amal! Would social activism and entrepreneurship thrive in such political and economic environment? If this so called “social activism”/”entrepreneurship movement” is not addressing the need for political reform and concentrating its activities in narrow (yet vital) corners that do not bother the regime, how will the Arab societies, heavily loaded with the weight of tribalism and religion, define their position in this century?

amal said...

The paradox in this is that social entrepreneurship is in a way a response to the unkind political environment. It is consciously "not interested" in politics and focused on social issues to circumvent the government's typical response to activism of a more pronounced political message.

But you right, the trend, if it matures, will have an impact on the politics, and I suppose this is when the story will turn from intriguing into thrilling--and trouble will not be far behind.
Too early in the day, though. We just have to watch and listen.

Fares Ghandour said...

Great title...

I totally agree on the CSR and social entrepreneurship part. But I think we are fiending the conclusion you give. The dimmest light at the end of the tunnel is deceiving us into thinking we are experiencing the light as though it is blinding.

I think it is a little far fetched to start complementing this new civil society. I am a believer in institutionalization, and without governmental development in tandem with civil society's, it will be but a temporary, if effective and deceivingly permanent, nudge.

I know you don't mention government and you are not denying the essence of their role, but I am just finding it hard to come up with an example where what we are dreaming of actually happened elsewhere in the past WITHOUT government.

I love the way you categorically give a voice to the rising civil society along side the "warring faiths" you mention at the beginning. You are absolutely right in doing so. Basically telling those who are looking this way "there you go, if you dont want to be involved in this deep entanglement you surely WONT see what we see (this rising civil society and private sector)". The arena is not sturdy and if you dont view it 3ala ad 7alo, like we say, you wont know it all. If you dont see it all you wont know it all.

you dont cease to amaze me!

Thinking Fits said...

Here's the paradox, Fares: government is absolutely pivotal to any serious effort at progress, and yet one of the main reasons for civil society's more assertive move into the social arena is a fundamental failure on the part of the government to perform--socially, economically and politically.

Moreover, the current narrative that gives vent only to two voices--the state and Islamism--has left all those opposed to both these forces completely silent. I suspect, much of what is going on under civic activism is an expression of this frustration.

Anonymous said...

Hey, I am checking this blog using the phone and this appears to be kind of odd. Thought you'd wish to know. This is a great write-up nevertheless, did not mess that up.

- David

Amal said...

Will check it out. Thanks