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Democracy in Iran 12.VI.2009 11:54
Iran is a strange beast. Over the past weeks, it's seen expressions of political dissent that would be unthinkable in any of the various dictatorships - American-sponsored or otherwise - that dot the Arab world, including the one I'm writing from. On the other hand, it's not exactly a democracy either; hundreds upon hundreds of names were dismissed from the electoral rolls, and every candidate here has ties to the revolutionary establishment of the 1980s - except Ahmadinejad. On the one hand, Iran's Guardian Council issues edicts at whim, but on the other the Islamic Republic has a species of checks and balances, which have meant that never in its history has it really been able to speak in one voice, much as the three branches of the American government can rarely be said to do so. The elections aren't exactly free, but they aren't exactly undemocratic. In short, the Islamic Republic has an unelected government - but every few years, the people have the chance to elect an opposition.

In spite of the censorship and random jailings, of all the countries I've visited Iranians were freest with their political opinions - it would sometimes take me seconds for a taxi driver to tell me what he hates about the current government. Iran is, above all, a proud and cultured nation - its poets form a major part of the national psyche, and the Persian Empire is a source of pride, rather than being dismissed as an irrelevance of the jahiliyya, the 'time of ignorance' before the advent of Islam. Ahmadinejad's fiery rhetoric once tapped into this strong nationalistic current - as did Khomeini's thirty years ago - but now that he is seen as an embarrassment, the proud of the country are turning their backs on him.

Much like the recent Lebanese election, the Western media is viewing this one through a Western prism - as some sort of referendum of isolationism and Islamism vs. internationalism and secularism. One thing I never read about - and one that was extremely prominent during my visit to the country - was the rural/urban divide, for which one of the best parallels is the popularity of Thaksin Shinawatra in Thailand. Ahmadinejad has followed much the same path, positioning himself as a champion of poor against the corrupt urban elite which has been at or near the centres of power since the revolution. His religious views have little impact in the countryside, where most women wear the hijab anyway, and his alleged mismanagement of the economy hasn't negatively affected those who wer shut out from prosperity in the first place.

I was in Iran on al-Quds day - the last Friday of Ramadan, devoted by Imam Khomeini to the liberation of Jerusalem - and found myself caught in a demonstration of thousands in Isfahan's gorgeous Naksh-e-Jahan, shouting marg bar Amrika! marg bar Israil! - Death to America, Death to Israel. Except this was anything but an expression of the popular will; the government forced anyone in a union to attend or be fired, but I did speak to many genuine Ahmadinejad supporters there - invariably, it turned out, bused in from the countryside by the regime because the more educated, less conservative urbanites are embarrassed by such a spectacle. And, like many pluralistic societies, Iranian political opinion doesn't lend itself to easy categorisation; two girls we met were very conservative; they supported the Ayatollahs and criticised girls wearing bad hijab or holding their boyfriend's hands in public. But they didn't support Ahmadinejad - because when Iranians see him, they see what the rest of the word sees: that he's an embarrassing populist simpleton.

And in here comes another difference - in Yemen, no woman would ever spontaneously come up to a strange man to talk to him, let alone about Politics, and this holds true to a greater and lesser extent in the Arab world. Iran is famed as a bastion of women's oppression, and it is hardly innocent on the subject - volunteer militiamen go around on Thursday nights harassing and humiliating women behaving 'immodestly' (why Thursdays? Because while no one knows when the 12th Imam, awaited by all Shi'a since his occultation, will return to earth, it's known that it will be on a Friday, and the Islamic Republic neds to be ready). Nevertheless, women in Iran are more independent, better educated, and more politically active than in any Arab country I've visited; 60% of university graduates are women, their literacy is high, and they form an active part of the workforce. All it takes is to look at the attendance of either side's political rallies - men are the majority, but they don't overwhelm. And for all the talk of Iran's oppressive conservatism, there's no shortage of female Ahmadinejad supporters.

This is because Ahmadinejad's support has many sources. In addition to the rural/urban divide, there's one issue that Western commentators consistently overlook: corruption. Outside of Ahmadinejad, most of the ruling elite have been part of the establishment since the Shah's downfall, and it was they who benefited from the economic opening under Rafsanjani in the 1990's. I know from life in Poland and Yemen that there are few things more repressive than the daily humiliations of a corrupt government; faced years ago with a slate of establishment candidates and one, Ahmadinejad, who was nothing if not honest, it's not that surprising that they voted for him, and that many will do so now. It's one of the major issues Palestinians mentioned when they said they supported Hamas, and it's definitely one of the reasons that the Muslim Brotherhood enjoys so much popularity over Mubarak's clique in Egypt. And Ahmadinejad is honest; he says what he means, even when what he means makes little to no sense or is outright offensive.

There's also an illusion that anyone who votes against Ahmadinejad is somehow pro-American, but the Republic isn't about to stop being Islamic, nor is it about to given up it's nuclear programme. Why? Because nuclear deterrent is seen as the only way to stop an American invasion. This often gets referred to as 'paranoid', but its anything but when you consider that the United States engineered a coup against a popular prime minister in 1953, put a brutal dictator in his place - for the incredible extent of this brutality, read Kapuscinski's excellent Shahanshah - supported Saddam Hussein in his invasion of Iran even while he openly used chemical weapons, shot down an Iranian passenger plane and then claimed it was a suicide bombing, and invaded its immediate neighbour on what can only be described as the flimsiest of pretexts and now has thousands of troops stationed just across the border. North Korea - a far greater danger to everyone than Iraq was - doesn't even get considered for 'military action' because it has nuclear weapons, which shows itself to be the only effective deterrent. Americans have short memories, and think that now that Bush is gone people should 'just trust them', but a part of the world where many major streets are named for past dates doesn't work that way.

The elections today aren't free - the government has denied Mousavi screen time, and tried to block the sites like Facebook that his supporters use - but they are far from the farces of Mubarak's Egypt. This kind of semi-democratic, pluralistic cacophony is, in fact, what Khomeini envisioned - with himself the arbiter between the various factions. In fact, it was only Khamenei who started using the Guardian Council to vet election candidates he didn't like. Just after the revolution, contrary to Western perceptions, the most Islamic faction was also the one that was the most democratic - they felt that the Islamic Republic's legitimacy naturally stemmed from the people who, if given the opportunity, would choose just such a government - much like the logic that drives Americans to believe that any genuinely free elections will choose an American-like society, and leaves the bewildered when it doesn't, as in Palestine. These pro-democratic radicals were, in fact, the Imam Khomeini's most fervent supporters, and Mir Hossein Mousavi was one of them; after their marginalisation by Khamenei after his accession, they re-emerged as the 'reformers', softening their religious policies but not losing their belief that democracy is the source of legitimacy. It is Mousavi that many, including myself, are hoping will win today's election, but even if he fails to, recent events in Iran should serve to dispel any simplistic charicatures about this complex and fascinating country.

Sana'a, Yemen Ye

On the Party of God 31.V.2009 13:43
Yesterday in the mid-afternoon, while at my teacher's house chewing qat, discussing politics and religion, everyone yelling over the others to be heard, as is the local custom. But at 6:30, the room fell silent: on the television, a man had taken the podium and was about to speak. His image, and his bearing, was hardly frightening - he looks like anyone's grandfather - but nevertheless, he is considered a leading terrorist by Europe and America, and a hero by many Arabs: Hassan Nasrallah, the leader of Lebanon's militia-cum-political party, Hezbollah. Behind him, the flags of the country and the party superimposed to display the two most enduring symbols of Lebanon: the cedar and the kalashnikov.

My Arabic is far from perfect, so for a political speech like this, my comprehension is at around 60%, but it was nevertheless fascinating to watch. Nasrallah is a tremendous speaker, able to achieve the gravitas of a statesman, the passion of a preacher and, by switching from Classical Arabic to the local dialect, the relatability of the common man - the last a quality shared by the likes of Gemal Abdul Nasser, but perfected in the down-home malapropisms of George W. Bush, the degree to which these were accidental remaining a matter of debate. The speech had none of the turgid rhetoric and theology so common among Islamists - witness Ahmadinejad's unwatchable diatribe at the UN - but then, he wasn't speaking to his party, but to the country as a whole, hoping to bring his party into the government and appeal to the nation as a whole - the Christian minority excepted of course.

What's most interesting is the way Hezbollah now positions itself - not as a terrorist organisation, or even as an insurgency, but as the natural (and only) defense of Lebanon against a hostile enemy which has, it must be admitted, invaded once or twice in the past. The Lebanese army is helpless in the face of the superior technology and funding of the Israeli Defence Forces, whose leadership definitely believes that the best Defence is a good Offence, and yet Hezbollah managed to push them out of Lebanon three years ago, winning it many supporters across the Arab world. For Nasrallah, Hezbollah is willing to defend the people against their enemies - he harked back to Lebanon's resistance to the Ottoman Turks repeatedly - while the government is either unwilling or too in thrall to the United States to do so. In a typical moment, he asked 'what would happen if the prime minister went to Iran and asked for weapons?' But of course, he won't - America would never allow it. But this allows Nasrallah to claim a conciliatory stance - Hezbollah would gladly integrate itself into the national army if that army were genuinely willing or able to defend the nation. Needless to say, the situation isn't likely to come up.

As I watched him on the screen, I could also see his younger self in a picture hanging over the television. It's difficult to overstate the popularity Nasrallah and Hezbollah enjoy in the Arab world, especially since the 2006 war. And, far from being confined to the more conservative elements of society, it's quite widespread. Now obviously, part of the appeal is the victory in the 2006 Lebanon war, but here's another element that Western commentators often overlook - honesty. One big reason Nasrallah is popular is because, unlike the vast majority of politicians in the region, he actually says what he believes. This particular factor can be seen behind many elections that are often cited as proof of the 'radicalisation' of Middle Eastern politics - the Hamas vs. Fatah is projected as being between pro-peace and pro-violence factions, whereas most people refuse to vote for Fatah because it is corrupt and domestically ineffective, supported far more by foreign governments than Palestinians. Similarly, in the 2004 elections, Iranians faced a choice between a bevy of establishment candidates and one unknown quantity who was, if nothing else, honest - Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. His election was in many ways a protest against a corrupt establishment, and if nothing else can be said for him, he practices what he preaches, appalling though it may be. Lest this seem like an Arab or Muslim problem, witness Netanyahu's shock that Obama's saying 'the United States wants a halt on settlements' meant 'the United States wants a halt on settlements.'

One hypocrisy that's always annoyed me about Western and Israeli commentary is that the definition of 'terrorism' seems to be 'anything Muslims who don't like us happen to do.' Yes, Hezbollah has engaged in terrorism - the prolonged kidnapping of Western hostages can hardly be called anything else - but the targeting of Israeli military installations is not. When Hezbollah kidnapped Israeli soldiers, the statement wasn't that 'Israel expects them to be treated in accordance with the Geneva Conventions on Prisoners of War', but rather took the same tone as an attack on a shopping centre might. Similarly, the famous suicide bombings on the US Marine and French Paratrooper barracks were military attacks - I've never understood why suicide bombing is somehow so 'reprehensible' in the est; I guess it's one of those tokens that separates Them from Us. Though there's clearly a continuum between those two Hezbollah bombers, the young men who marched proudly into minefields during the Iran-Iraq war, and the Charge of the Light Brigade. Such wanton loss of life is a tragedy - but it isn't qualitatively different when they do it than when we do. Hezbollah remains the only organisation in Lebanon that has carried out extensive attacks against military targets widely perceived to be acting against the state - which, of course, in no way excuses its past attacks on civilian ones.

Hezbollah has been tremendously successful not because it preaches violence but because it, in large part, promises what people want and comes through on those promises. In a country whose southern regions suffered more than a decade of occupation, it is widely seen as having beat back the occupiers, when the Army proved hopelessly unlikely to do so. In a country where memories of the Sabra and Shatila resonate as does Nanking for the Chinese or KatyƄ for the Poles, they were the only ones who could claim a victory against the perpetrators. And in a country in which many, especially in the Shi'a and Palestinian underclasses, see themselves as besieged on all sides, with Joe Biden and Hillary Clinton making ridiculous statements that amounted to 'don't vote for Hezbollah because we said so,' and Der Spiegel accusing Hezbollah of having a hand in Rafiq Hariri's murder, Hezbollah claims the common, honouring the 'martyr' Hariri despite having been anything but a supporter during his lifetime. In a country with a stark division between the rich and a poor, and a history of violence seen in few modern states, it is hardly a wonder many people turn to the Party of God, the kalashnikov proudly on its black-and-yellow flag, as their bulwark against a hostile world.

Sana'a, Yemen Ye

The life and death of words 20.V.2009 14:29
Many people - from Sapir and Whorf, to Orwell, to Wittgenstein - have argued that the language we use determines the way we perceive reality; to quote the Austrain philosopher, 'the limits of my language are the limits of my world.' In reality, however, neither the prescriptivist view of a pure, ideal language, nor the more common view of language as a natural phenomenon changing like the tide, are really accurate. Language is, instead, best viewed as an evolutionary phenomenon. Evolution - just, supposedly, a theory - is one of the most powerful available to us for understanding the world. Its force extends far beyond its traditional domain of biology - any phenomenon that exhibits heredity is best viewed evolutionary, and one of the most important of these is human culture passed, with some mutations, from parents to their children. Our view of language tends to be static and permanent, but it is evolving, and not just in the sense of 'changing incrementally' - it is subject to a whole host of evolutionary pressures external to the language itself. Yet not one of the books I've read on linguistics mentions evolution at all - and this, I think, is a mistake.

Take the fate of the word 'niggard,' meaning, roughly, miserly or cheap. Unfortunately, it also sounds very similar to a word that's no longer acceptable in polite society. Even though it's a fairly high-status word only likely to be used among people with good vocabularies, it's simply too dangerous to take the risk, as Sen. Congressional aide Dave Howard found out in 1999, when was barraged by criticism and hate mail for using it. The word, for all intents and purposes, is dead in the English language, because whatever semantic need it may have filled, it has been brutally superceded by the need for political correctness - and, to an extent, the ignorance of the public. Just as the pressure on elephant's tusks to become longer has been brutally reversed by the ivory trade - they are now shorter and shorter in each generation - so 'niggard' has been driven, very swiftly, into existence. The pressure is sometimes purely phonetic - in this way, the word 'immanent' has been driven out of the spoken language, because English vowel reduction has made it too hard to distinguish from the (slightly) more common 'imminent'. There were simply too many synonyms - 'inherent', 'quintessential' - and its use was too rare to make survival possible.

Sometimes, though, the source of the pressure isn't trivial, but is driven by a genuine change in the society's ontology - broadly, the kinds of things it needs to describe. This is evident not only in uncontroversial words such as 'webpage' and 'internet' that are needed to describe concepts that simply weren't important decades ago, but also in that bugbear of prescriptivists, political correctness. Take, for example, the singular 'they', as in 'would everyone please make sure they have their luggage?' To be honest, although I probably ranted against it in high school English classes, I've made my peace with this: it reflects a genuine change in the way society perceives itself, namely, that context rarely suffices to determine the gender. In ages past, you'd pretty much know whether a woman or man was talked about based on, say, their profession, but now - with the exception of a few careers, such as CEOs or serial killers - either gender is likely enough to participate in them to need generic reference. English - because only a single word indicates gender - makes the pressure to preserve gender reference quite low, so the singular 'they' has made steady progress. This isn't to say all the proposals introduced by political correctness reflect our movement to a more equal society - I hope never to hear an absurdity like 'herstory' in conversation, and I'm fairly confident I never will. The point is, there was a gap between how we perceived the world and how we described it and something, in this case a reuse of the plural particle for the singular, came in to fill it. In a similar way, 'you guys' has become the third person plural pronoun to alleviate the evolutionary disfavoured ambiguity of 'you' that evolved out of medieval politeness.

In addition to these relatively 'natural' process, there's the more insidious one railed against by Orwell in his famous Politics and the English Language: favouring the survival of certain terms by manipulating the influential pressure of the printed media, the most recent example of this is the abominable 'enhanced interrogation,' torture to any generation before the current news cycle. Its sadly successful creation was prompted by the Bush administration's desire to avoid the negative connotations of the word 'torture', as well as the Geneva Conventions. What's sad is that it probably couldn't have gained currency without some support in society - broadly speaking, the belief that there is a real difference when We do it than when They do it; We're the good guys, so it must have been somehow justified. This is far from a new phenomenon - Ambrose Bierce defined impiety as 'your irreverence for my diety' - and the fact is such words reflect prejudices in (in this case, American) society whether we want to believe they're there or not. As a matter of fact, many languages have a kind of division of synonyms to indicate how distantly we identify with the subject, as I read recently in a Stephen Pinker book: I'm slim, you're skinny, he's scrawny; I'm uninhibited, you're promiscuous, she's a slut.

Moreover, when such neologisms don't reflect a corresponding change in society, they tend to be overwhelmed by their previous meanings. Take the endless failed PC efforts to come up with new words for people with disabilities: 'crippled', 'invalid', 'disabled', 'handicapped', 'differently-abled', and whatever else they might have thought up recently. The reason for each new word is because the previous one, whatever it's PC origins, came to take on the meaning that reflected societal perceptions of disability as something negative, and no matter how many positive overtones you add, this will be inevitable, which is why, thankfully, language change by edict almost never works. Similarly, when a negative perception disappears, we often don't need the euphemism anymore, which is why 'African-American' hasn't survived - when we say 'black', we don't mean anything racist by it, even if previous generations did; the long shadow of racism, however, ensured the eclipse of well-meaning words such as 'coloured' or 'Negro', the former still extant in the NAACP.

Wittgenstein may have thought that the limit of his language were the limits of his world, but the fact is when there is a disagreement between the two, it's the latter that tends to change. The 'eskimo-words-for-snow' myth is well-debunked, but a more Inuktitut place words are a more instructive case. Instead of simple words like 'here' and 'there', it has much more precise ones like 'up there' and 'down here by me' - exactly the kind of concepts you'd need to communicate quickly when hunting in a landscape with few landmarks. The Sapir-Whorf hypothesis said a society's thought is shaped by the language it uses, but the opposite is at least equally true - our language reflects our society, and when society changes, words, or phrases, or syntactic structures that are no longer useful die out, and new ones are born to take their place. What's fascinating is how seemingly irrelevant and chaotic the process can be, as in the case of 'niggard'. Dawkins argued that there was probably no evolutionary theory of language case, but used such examples as certain sounds carry better in the Himalayas shaping Tibetan, which is almost certainly not relevant. But in the case of lexicon, and syntax and, sometimes, phonetics too, evolution remains the best tool we have to perceive this quintessential human phenomenon.

Sana'a, Yemen Ye

Happy is he who seizes your infants and dashes them against the rocks. 07.V.2009 14:15
'I'm glad I learned about Islam before I learned about Muslims.' These were the words of a European convert on his first journey to his new religion's homelands, and they expose a question that we often ignore, especially when dealing with the unfamiliar: what defines a religion, its precepts or the people who practise it? Out of what amounts to intellectual laziness, we gloss over the differences as if they don't matter or don't exist; people who claim that Islam is an 'inherently violent' religion point to the suras glorifying the slaughter of infidels and preaching jihad, and defenders of its record on, say, women's rights, point to those that protect women's property rights, and that state (quite categorically) that men and women are equal, and treating the latter with respect is a fundamental duty. The Bible, of course, contains such verses as well. The problem is this: reading these tells us nothing about the status of violence or women's rights among communities of that religion.

One of the most illuminating moments of my recent trip came at my hotel in Cairo. A few of us and one of the hotel employees were discussing the status of women in Egypt, and the Egyptian declared that he would never, under any circumstances, allow his wife to work. He'd rather work three jobs, because for him to fail to be the provider for his household would be an ultimate shame. If she wanted to find a job, he'd stop her from doing so by any means necessary. Why? Because it's so written in the Qur'an - it is a man's, and only a man's, duty to provide: he would be a bad Muslim if he allowed her to work. However, there was a Pakistani woman staying there as well, on her way home from time spent working in Palestine, and she quickly contradicted him - 'it doesn't say that anywhere in the Qur'an.' It is in the Hadith then - the collection of direct accounts of the prophet's life that are the second important source of Muslim law. It was not there either, she insisted. This was the first time - but very much not the last - I heard a Muslim insist that the lives of most Muslims were incompatible with the teachings of Islam.

And the woman was right: famously, Muhammad's wife Khadijah owned her own business. Unlike most, if not all, religions of the time, the Muslim laws support a woman's right to hold property separate from that of her husband. The way one man explained it to me was this - women are actually better off in Islam, because a man has a duty to bring money and use it to support his family, but a woman taking a job can keep the money for herself. The upshot of this is still incompatible with women's rights, but it's not what we're used to hearing. The problem is, most Muslims aren't like Muhammad - they're like the Egyptian, and women living in their society consequently suffer greatly. Nor, as we would be inclined to expect, is the status of women proportional to the conventional symbols of 'female oppression', such as headscarves and veils - women in Iran, so famous for its religious laws, were more independent, more assertive, and better educated than in any Arab country, while Egypt, whose women are nominally free, is one of the most misogynistic places I've been to. This disconnect arises over a whole range of issues. Muhammad famously sheltered a Jew in his home, whereas the Arab world is beset by a very real anti-Semitism that sympathetic commentators often ignore. Similarly, many Westerners react in understandable horror at the treatment of animals especially dogs, in these countries - even though it is written that Muhammad said a woman who had let her cat starve would not go to paradise.

My personal favourite example, however, of disconnect between a religion and its foundational text comes from Christiani\ty. In Matthew 19:24, Jesus says that 'it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle, than for a rich man to enter into the kingdom of God,' a statement well in keeping with Jesus' broader philosophy, that it is incumbent for a man of wealth to distribute it to the poor. Of course, now that Christianity is no longer poor and repressed but the faith of the richest countries in the world, there are many people like Rush Limbaugh who may be Christians but have no intention of giving away much of their vast wealth, and in fact actively oppose it reaching poor people by railing against Obama's supposed tax hikes. Christianity has solved this problem by one of the most ridicuolous sleights-of-hand in religious history - by claiming that the 'eye of the needle' was a nickname for a gate entering Jerusalem, through which a camel could just barely fit. Now, there is absolutely no evidence for this, and its patently ludicrous on its face - ludicrous, that is, to anyone without a vested interest in finding a loophole out of the requirements of his own religion. Of course most Christians, like most Muslims, don't actually know the precepts of their religion - they take them to be the norms of the religious culture they grew up in. That's why the Egyptian man could claim so confidently that no good Muslim would allow his wife to hold a job, and why conservatives claim that liberals aren't real Christians for ignoring a variety of sex-related propositions - and liberals claim the converse for ignoring Jesus' fundamental message of tolerance.

Such cognitive dissonance is par for the course in religious life. Leviticus commands us to stone those wearing materials of mixed cloth (I'm wearing 40% cotton - bring it on, Christians!), as well as a whole host of other rules that AJ Jacobs found out in his Year of Living Biblically; the title of this post comes from Psalm 137. The recently popular idea of Islamic Banking is almost as ridiculous as the 'eye of the needle' trick - Islam prohibits charging interest, but loans would never be made with out it, so a few bits of legalese and the sin of usury is neatly avoided. No religion could be more specifically against violence than Buddhism, yet Sri Lanka's Buddhism even now are wreaking havoc on the majority-Hindu Tamils on its little island. Native American religions, as white liberal guilt has made famous, preached harmony with the natural environment - but many of these societies overexploited their environments, going extinct when there wasn't any other place to exploit. Hinduism may be the only religion to escape this charge - precisely because it is so amorphous and heterogenous that one would be hard pressed to figure out what its stated precepts are.

We ignore these problems, though, because, as the Onion reminds us, stereotypes are a real timesaver - we want nice, clear statements that we can generalise and then argue about, and Holy Books, because of their definitiveness, are the best places to provide this. 'Islam is an inherently violent religion' is one of the more popular Qur'an-defended assertions, and the only truth to it is one that applies equally to Christianity - these are proselytising religions, and among missionary arguments, 'convert or I'll kill you' is among the most powerful. Broadly, however, if you read only the Qur'an or the Bible, and then tried to predict what a society of its believers would look like, you wouldn't be close. Even if you got it right for the modern age, you'd be wrong for the situation a thousand years ago, when Islam was the centre of worldwide science and education, and Christianity had plunged Europe into what are justifiably known as the 'Dark Ages.' In our images of Islam as hostile to external thought, it is easy to forget that the only reason we retain knowledge of the Greek philosophers is because Christians captured their texts, in Arabic translation, during the reconquista of Spain - Christians had destoryed such pagan texts in Europe long ago. Now the situation is reversed - the Arab world has a far less educated populace, and the global centres of learning are uniformly in the Christian West, though some bits of Christianity are slipping into a shocking anti-intellectualism. The point is that none of these developments are based on an inherent 'pro-science' or 'anti-science' aspect in any of these religions.

Ultimately, I think, religion is more an expression of identity than an expression of truth - we may root our behavious in the Bible or the Qur'an, but we go on behaving in the same ways that everyone else in the world behaves. We pursue our desires and we protect our families; we love and we hate. More often than not, religion doesn't drive these behavious, but is rather a tool for rationalising them - that's why, as culture changed, parts of the Bible suddenly became 'metaphorical,' like the seven day account of creation, which was a perfectly reasonable thing to believe until the advent of modern science. So, except for a few fundamentalists, instead of making our beliefs fit our religion, we made our religion fit our beliefs - because these new 'beliefs' were actually knowledge rather than revealed truth. Of course, modern Western society has diverged so much from its roots that the only recourse among liberals has been to a sort of preceptless non-religion for which I have no respect; basically, anything in the Bible you don't like is 'metaphor' or 'irrelevant,' but you're still, somehow, a Christian. But that's okay - because the actions of these liberals, especially in areas such as tolerance of homosexuals or the support of the rights of women, are far more praiseworthy than the contrary stances in their holy books. Similarly, although the Qur'an has, by and large, an even more peaceful and tolerant message than the Bible does, the Arab world utterly fails to reflect such precepts, and is justly criticised for its lack of human rights and, ultimately, backwardness in social policy. When we talk about Islam, or Christianity, we often quote the Qur'an and the Bible - but then we fall into the same trap as so many sociologists, talking about who people say they are rather than who they actually are, which, ultimately, impedes any progress towards understanding these cultures.

Sana'a, Yemen Ye

Arabia Felix 02.IV.2009 10:07
I haven't updated in a while, I realise, but that's because I've been settling in - I've stopped travelling for a while and will be living in Sana'a, Yemen's capital, for the next few months, studying Arabic and (hopefully) making money at a job of some description. I fell in love with Sana'a the moment I saw it - it's probably the most beautiful city I've seen since Esfahan, with a gorgeous and distinctively styled old city almost entirely devoid of new buildings. Just strolling through its narrow streets is a joy, down every alleyway and around every corner an aesthetic pleasure - if there's nothing to do, it's perfectly pleasant to just go out and get lost. The minute I arrived, I hoped I'd be able to stay longer.

As an added bonus, this is one of the best places in the world to study Arabic, for a variety of reasons. For one, the dialect is closest to the standard Arabic used in the media - the dialects of Arabic being as far apart from on another as Harlem street slang is from Received Pronunciation. Moreover, not too many people speak English - and everyone's willing to patiently wait as you struggle your way through the most basic of sentences. The atmosphere here's wonderful too - the people have a dignity that I had sorely missed from Egypt onwards, and their willingness to help (and general lack of trying to cheat you) reminds me, more than anything else, of Iran. I haven't done much travelling yet, except for a weekend trip to some nearby cities, but that comes with the changeover from the constant-travelling lifestyle to a more stable one.

Things have really worked out pretty perfectly for me - I arrived here with nothing but the name of a single hotel and a vague hope that I could study Arabic despite the fact that I was completely out of money. I found a vague post on Lonely Planet about a language institute here that needed some website work and so here I am, doing a sort of work-study barter at the Saba Institute. The place is really great - it's new, the director, Dr.Hamoud, having started off on his own some one year ago - and it's got a really personal touch that schools in other places, from what I hear, lack, and since I rent a room from them as well my expenses are next to nil. Since they're completely flexible - and my courses are private - the first hour of each lesson consists of me ranting about my trip in semi-competent Arabic, but it actually really helps and is at least more interesting than the more typical la singe est sur la branche school of foreign language acquisition. It's a great place to study Arabic, and I'm really thrilled with the way things are going.

Yemen is a pretty distinct place from the rest of the Arab world. Every single BBC story about it concerns a terrorist attack on tourist, and contains the phrase, 'Yemen, one of the poorest countries outside Africa,' which I can't help but doubt is true. Here, conservative Islam is socially, rather than governmentally enforced - I'd say ninety percent of women here veil even their faces, which in a supposedly 'fundamentalist' country like Iran would have been seen as crazy, with even the most conservative women wearing the face-revealing chador. Women rarely walk with men here on the streets, and the division of the sexes is greater than I've seen in any other Islamic country - one man told me that even if he saw his wife on the street, he would pretend not to recognise here, for fear of gossip being spread on the street; any man coming into a building shouts his presence so that the woman can escape and not be seen. An interesting point however, is that one common perception - that such clothes rob women of their identity - is manifestly not true; any man can recognise his wife or sister a mile away.

It has to be admitted, though, that one of the things Yemen is famous for are terrorist attacks, of which there have been a spate in recent weeks. The majority of these are kidnappings which, unlike in places like Somalia or Iraq, are completely harmless - the captives are merely leverage in the tribes' battles against the central government, and are treated as guests afforded all the protection of tribal custom, and almost always released after a few days. There have been lethal terrorist attacks of late, targetting the Korean population, but these seem to relate to an oil contract recently signed by the government. All of this stirs into Western hysteria, though, because the president-for-life, Ali Abdullah Saleh, automatically labels any group as 'al-Qaida', because that's the surest way to keep American funds flowing in - and, conversely, any group would be happy for the label because of the prestige it gives, especially when recruiting. It's all ridiculous, but it also feeds a paranoia with the police - you need a permit to travel anywhere, because the tourist industry is one of the great hopes for this, the poorest of the peninsular states, but a major hassle for independent travellers like me, without the money to rent Land Rovers or fly. But such is life - in local parlance, hadhihi al-haya.

So, I'll be living here for the next few months - spending the next week or two looking for a job, insh'allah something in programming but, in a pinch, teaching English, the credit crunch and the burst of Bubble 2.0 having reduced the prospects of contracting over the net. This blog will probably become less of a travel blog and veer back into politics and philosophy, as I really miss writing about that - and there shouldn't be another break like the last month until I start travelling again. Meantime I hope all is well, and photos should keep coming up on facebook as time allows; life is pretty great for me here - I can't imagine a better lifestyle than travelling the world learning languages, which I'm genuinely passionate about in a way I wasn't about much of my life back in Canada.

Sana'a, Yemen Ye

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