B A L A N C E of C U L T U R E
Although this Saudi cleric's fatwa was suggested on a television interview several months ago, the mainstream public is now reeling about the idea of forcing female babies to wear full burkas as a deterrent from sexual abuse.
Sheikh Dauod's statement is in full accord with the sensibilities of societies that harbor deep gaps in gender equality--it's the victim who needs to prevent the wrongdoing. But where is any accountability for actual perpetrators? Females are traditionally not required to wear burkas until they reach puberty, so this idea clearly shows an inherently tunnel-visioned bias towards hiding the criminal actions of sick individuals. This reminds me of a popular sentiment in the protests following India's recent horrific gang rape that swept the world.
Furthermore, even if putting burkas on baby girls does somehow prevent sexual abuse, it does nothing for male children (just ask Cardinal Mahoney and his "holy" cohorts if a piece of cloth would have stopped their heinous actions).
Wearing burkas may be a cultural choice for many women, but this perennial cover-up of an established global "boys club" is ultimately a scary thing for both genders no matter where you live on the planet.
If timing is everything, then Russian President Vladimir Putin's three-year soft power initiative is right on schedule. The plan, which Putin ordered last July, involves the usual checklist for improving a nation's image abroad: building new (and modernizing currently existing) science and cultural centers, hosting youth festivals, and promoting the Russian language.
So back to the timing of this…last summer Putin began stressing the importance of soft power, lamenting that Russia's image abroad was "lopsided" and thus needed attention by government officials.
But did this frame of mind just pop out of nowhere? It's difficult not to notice that Putin's July appeal for aggressively pursuing soft power conveniently occurred within four months of the arrests of feminist punk band Pussy Riot for their "hooliganism"--a case that produced perhaps the biggest media frenzy surrounding Russia in years.
Putin has publicly discussed the subject of his country's image abroad in the past, but before states look to exercise soft power in order to counter unattractive domestic cases they might want to consider some self reflection.
Without acknowledging or dealing with the Russian Orthodox Church's exorbitant influence on not only Pussy Riot's criminal investigation but also their internal propaganda to their trusting citizens, Moscow's self-promotion of "youth," "culture," or even "science" abroad probably won't be received as very organic or even very trustworthy--at least not to most Western audiences who enjoy freedom of speech without a backlash from their local church, and so forth. According to polls by Levada Center, public opinion in Russia veered heavily with the Orthodoxy and even considered the global reactions to the arrests and harsh sentences as "unfair" and "hysterical."
Ironically, despite Moscow's good intentions, Pussy Riot is the real winner from this situation. There are very few speedier ways to reveal a progressive sensibility in an unlikely setting than by getting arrested and jail time for playing a punk song that challenges conservative society. In this case, the soft power of the "unlikely setting" will probably get a lot less traction than anticipated simply because Pussy Riot's philosophy is already the status quo in many parts of the world.
As China and India continue to escalate their separate efforts in exerting influence around South Asia by funding tangible infrastructure--roads, ports, dams, and even an airport in Nepal--the two potential superpowers also are using a "softer" approach to shape perceptions: Buddhism. Myanmar, Nepal and Sri Lanka are three key states in the region that all have deep cultural ties to Buddhism and thus are being courted by various "carrots" from both India and China. Some of these carrots include displays of ancient Buddhist relics, funding religious sites, and the sponsorships of international Buddhist conferences.
Not surprisingly one of these Buddhist conferences, India's Global Buddhist Congregation, became a thorny issue for Beijing in 2011. The reason? The congregation ended up casting the Dalai Lama as Buddhism's global leader, in a sense solidifying India's agency over the Buddhist tradition while indirectly criticizing China's policies on Tibet.
Beijing's response: they actually delayed a scheduled meeting with Indian officials on Sino-Indian border negotiations. This is just one example of how soft power is in no way confined to abstract intangibles such as culture.
Niall Ferguson wrote an interesting piece on power back in 2003 where he states, "But the trouble with soft power is that it's, well, soft." Unfortunately this is true only when soft power is regulated exclusively to the realm of cultural and commercial goods, such as Michael Jackson and Big Macs. Today, soft power can directly and indirectly influence things once considered the domain of hard power, such as regional containment--one only has to look at China's "strategic encirclement" of improving relations (whether it's through direct foreign investment or Confucius Institutes) with most of India's neighbors to see this.
Can we all agree that the concept of free elections is valid only if women of all classes are included the political process?
While the rapid development of Egypt's new political era unfurls this week, most media outlets are focused on how the country's first free presidential will affect the voters, or whether voters will choose a secular v. Islamic path. Certainly this week will be some sort of "moment of truth" for Egypt, but I can't help but wonder if the inherent gender bias ingrained in Islam society has left the women who helped oust Hosni Mubarak largely shut out of the political decision-making process since the revolution.
Despite small signs towards equality such as a recent women's rights conference in Cairo, many Egyptian women voters are rightfully concerned of a divisive class distinction in terms of this week's elections. The well-organized Muslim Brotherhood has some fearing that they are taking advantage of uneducated, lower-class Egyptian women by influencing their votes through religious and charity efforts. To counter this, the newly reinstated Egyptian Feminist Union is sending transport-less women by the busloads to voting booths in order to gain their checkmarks. Women seem to be valued as voters in a race, but not as equal citizens in a society.
Whether these women will actually vote for the Brotherhood's candidate Mohammed Morsi remains to be seen, as polls seem to largely be unreliable to date (as they often are even in the first world countries) and the Egyptian Feminist Union has yet to endorsed anybody (telling sign?).
I happened to find myself in the Middle East and East Africa region early last year when the Arab Spring first grabbed the media's spotlight. Since then, it seems to me that the main "war" going on in Islam societies is against their own women--and I'm certainly not alone in this, as Mona Eltahaway's recent article nearly blew up the internet and international affairs circles last month.
But it's not just the scary past and present that shows the war on women in the region. The Egyptian parliament, Islamist-dominated, is discussing proposals that would cancel out any progress on gender equality that has occurred in the past +1 year: lowering the legal age of marriage for girls from 18 to 13, as well as revoking divorced mothers' custody of their children at earlier ages than before (of course, the boys' age is even younger than the girls').
It's so easy to recall the images of protesting Egyptian women on the streets of Cairo, seemingly finding their voice in a rather hostile environment. But these new proposals indicate concerning facts, such as how women take up less Parliamentary seats than before Mubarak's oust. While this is indeed an exciting time for Egypt, the division between men and women remains quite sharp, as do the positions of women who come from upper- and lower-classes of Egyptian society.
Germany-based Iranian rapper Shahin Najafi, now sometimes referred to as "the Salman Rushdie of music," (recall The Satanic Verses?) has a bounty on his head for "Naghi," his recent "blasphemous" song that Iranian clerics felt insults the Islamic religion. Though 31-year old Najafi is thousands of miles away, fatwas have been issued identifying him as an apostate--a label punishable by death under the nation's sharia law.
The founder of Shia-Online.ir, an Iranian religion website, is offering a $100,000 (£62,000) reward for whoever kills Najafi. Seriously.
The song chronicles the tumultuous events in Iran the past year. Najafi states to German broadcaster Deutsche Welle:
I thought there would be some ramifications. But I didn't think I would upset the regime that much. Now they are taking advantage of the situation and making it look like I was trying to criticise religion and put down believers. For me it is more of an excuse to talk about completely different things. I also criticise Iranian society in the song. It seems as though people are just concentrating on the word 'imam'.
Residing in Germany, Najafi almost certainly will have a less ultra-traditional stance on his lyrics. But the usage of "imam" ("Islamic spiritual leader") in the song insults these clerics just as easily as women who attend sports games or own pets. Not too many people or circumstances can satisfy the mindsets of these ultra-extremist types, especially in our time of rapid content-sharing and freedom of expression.
Just to put it into perspective, the last time North Carolina amended their constitution on marriage, it was to ban interracial marriage. Same religious tribe, just different times:
These folks somehow seem to believe they are voting on a social issue, rather than on people's personal lives. But I suppose this isn't the biggest surprise…after all, racism and homophobia often go hand-in-hand. Scary people. Thankfully, not all of the US is so full of hate!
[Update 2/22: The violence continues to escalate.]
As American celebrated a long three-day weekend for Presidents' Day, the US developed quite a messy PR problem in Afghanistan: 2,000 angry local Afghani demonstrators have gathered en masse at the American base, hurling stones and chanting anti-foreigner phrases. And this is all happening because of an extremely shortsighted and utterly stupid mistake made by some of our American troops.
Apparently some US soldiers improperly disposed copies of the Koran (or "Quran") by burning them and then tossing them in the trash. Why they did this is still vague. The local workers who regularly take care of the garbage discovered the remains and reported the findings to outside contacts.
Why would American soldiers screw themselves like this?!
Burning the Koran is an unmistakeable crime in not only Afghanistan but around the Muslim world. This concept isn't so hard to understand. What is difficult to grasp here is why these soldiers would even think this would be a safe thing to do regardless of the reasons behind doing so. Burning an American flag is not something these soldiers would probably like, so why would they choose to burn a holy book while stationed in a nation based upon that text? And how does this reflect upon the entire American presence in the Middle East? Not very positively, that is for sure.
Understandably, General John Allen, head of the International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) has quickly apologized: "When we learned of these actions, we immediately intervened and stopped them. The materials recovered will be properly handled by appropriate religious authorities. This was NOT intentional in any way."
Too bad the apology has done little to appease the local anger, which is shared among laborers to local Afghan Taliban to NATO's top general in Afghanistan. Surely our soldiers get some kind of cultural/educational training (advice at least?) before being stationed abroad, though whatever they do receive obviously isn't enough (and I've recently seen some footage of interactions between soldiers and local Afghans that would very clearly demonstrate this lacking). They can be against the Koran all they want, but burning a country's holy text within its borders is a weak and senseless act that only downgrades our already contentious and precarious occupation in the Middle East overall.
The political turmoil in Male, the capital of the Maldives, continues to escalate as Islamic extremists have enforced their "Taliban-style intolerance" not only on the streets of the city but also towards the various ancient 12th century Buddhist artifacts housed in the Maldives National Museum.
A senior museum representative stated that the history of the Maldives' Buddhist past has effectively been "erased," as the delicate coral and limestone objects have zero chance of being restored due to their brittle and age. Five men have since been arrested for this.
An interesting fact here: the Maldives National Museum was built and financed by the Chinese government and presented to the Maldives on July 10, 2010. Considering that this Indian Ocean paradise is now a premium destination choice for many newly-wealthy Chinese travelers -- and conveniently located just south of India, China's regional geopolitical sparring partner -- we can probably expect to see much more Chinese influence in Maldivian society in the the next decade.
The Maldives is clearly in a challenging phase of its current political and social existence. The recent coup of President Nasheed, the society's religious "soul searching" (to put it nicely), its frontline position in the battle of climate change, and its internationally-powerful tourism industry is a perfect storm of dynamic factors that will define the country's bumpy road ahead.
I just hope that its pre-Islamic past is not further deleted from history's documentation by modern day "radicals." So tragic.
A reader emailed this to me: simple logic and common sense you won't find in any parliament, congress, or religion.
This totally reminds me how social issues continue to be misused by political candidates as a way to relate to their naive voters, even though their opinions on these issues have absolutely zero relevance as to how they will actually function in their positions.