Sunday, August 30, 2009

Snacks for Thought: August 31, 2009

Snacks for thought presents thought provoking news, analysis and debates from around cyberspace.

  1. Do private schools ultimately harm a society's educational system?
  2. Three possible scenarios for global geopolitics after the economic crisis.
  3. China's not-so-subtle message to India.
  4. The dark side of Dubai.
  5. Israeli saber-rattling against Iran and its history of unilateral military actions.

Wednesday, August 26, 2009

Friday, August 21, 2009

Knowledge and its discontents in the Islamic World

Al Jazeera's Arabic language satellite feed featured an interesting debate the other day. A talk show, called al-Itijah al-Mouaakes (Cross Current), features opposite and competing arguments to issues of interest to Arabs and the Middle Eastern region in general. The theme of this particular show was 'public sex education' - a controversial topic in the culturally and religiously conservative region.

The point that struck me was not the debate on the topic itself (although interesting to be sure), but how fast the conversation shifted from whether public sex education was a good or bad thing, to a heated argument on the merits of the sources used to understand human sexuality in the first place.

The debaters were as far apart in their opinions as they were in their backgrounds and qualifications. One was a religious professor at Egypt's famed Al-Azhar University - widely regarded as the heart of Islamic learning in the world; the other a secular Egyptian intellectual and medical researcher.

The Islamic scholar argued that Islamic texts, traditions, and culture, provided ample answers to the modern problems and questions of human sexuality required to ensure the healthy, and above all, "moral" preservation of society. The secular researcher would have none of it, and fervently defended his position: secular knowledge has evolved in the past centuries to tackle complex issues and problems about the world we live in that traditional sources of knowledge could no longer adequately answer - sexology was a byproduct of this phenomenon and should be embraced, not rejected.

The show ended with both debaters no closer - and by all accounts, even farther - from reaching a concensus than when they had started. But what is the relevance of this story?

For me, the debate was reflective of the overall struggle for knowledge, and power, existing between two social groups in the Middle East. Claiming authoritative knowledge determines who does the research, for what aims, and how it is interpreted and ultimatelly applied. Secularists will continue to deny the legitimacy of many traditional sources of knowledge to answer modern problems of the social world we live in. Traditionalists will relentlessly accuse secular knowledge to be innaplicable to Islamic norms, values and social order at best, and as a cunning ploy by the West for internal domination of the Islamic world at worst.

add-on: some broad comparisons can be made with the Big-Bang vs. Creationism controversy that was raging in the American public education system.

Sunday, August 16, 2009

Slow on the blogging this month!!

This month has been really hectic with academic and professional engagements. Blogging will naturally be very sporadic and few-and-far between in the meantime.

Postings should pick up in September I hope.

Tuesday, August 4, 2009

China Cursed the Middle East

The legendary journalist and Middle East expert, Robert Fisk, asks a question that is surely on the minds of millions: why is the region finding it so difficult to shake off its melancholy and embrace the fruits of peace, economic development, and modernity?

Well Mr. fisk, I will tell you the answer, but you must promise to keep it between me, you, and the millions of internet users around the world.

The ills of the Middle East started when the Chinese cursed the region ions ago. Yes that's right. Confucius is probably behind the region's troubles. So much for Samuel Huntington's theory of an Islamic-Confucian civilizational alliance. The real fact of the matter is that the Chinese have always been jealous of Middle Easterners for some - still obscure - reason.

Many people have heard of the Chinese curse, "may you live in interesting times." But what is less known to most is the rest of it; "may you fall under the eyes of the authorities" and "may you find what you are looking for."

Do you see the connection yet? No? Allow me to explain.

"May you live in interesting times"

Well, this one is pretty self explanatory. What region of the world is more volatile, or 'interesting', than the Middle East today?

But believe me, from my frequent trips to the region, the majority of Middle Easterners would trade their 'interesting region' for the mellow, ordered, and predictable lives of a Swede, Norwegian or Swiss, any day.

"May you fall under the eyes of the authorities"

Contemporary Middle Easterners have grown up under the tender and big-brother watch (insert sarcasm here) of their respective governments for decades. As a matter of fact, these governments are so good at 'taking care' of the 'best interests' of their citizens that their citizens vote them into office year after year, decade after decade. But Middle Easterners probably wish the authorities could be a tad less concerned about them, and allow them to look after and think for themselves once in while.

"May you find what you are looking for"

Black Gold under the desert. Now that is something the Arabs never saw coming. The majority probably wish they still never had. The resource curse isn't just a fancy academic concept. Just ask Iraqis today. How you ever met a genie that grants infinite riches free of charge?

So the next time the world asks why the Middle East is hurting today, or why it can't seem to get its act together, the answer lies not in colonial Europe, Israeli expansionism, or radical Islam. The responsibility lies with those jealous and ill-wishing Chinese!