Spence Green

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I work at Lilt. In addition to computers and languages, my interests include travel, running, and scuba diving. more...

Archive for the ‘UAE’ Category

Church and State, Part 1

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Bradford sent a helpful email last week in which he suggested that I attempt a more synthetic understanding of my experience here. He correctly observed that I have thus far reduced the environment to the “least common denominator.” While my method has been disorganized and informal, to an extent this judgement is correct. Maybe that’s why I’m such a perpetual drag! At any rate, given President Bush’s recent campaign to spread the idea of democracy throughout this region, I present here some disorganized notes on the tractability of such rhetoric. I have considered the import of Islam as a political force since my arrival, but have yet to articulate these observations. Note that I usually reserve armchair philosophy for my journal, so I am unsure of the quality of this little bit.

This experience has altered my opinion on the balance between church and state. This debate has grown insipid in America. One side rightly contends that the phrase “separation of church and state” did not appear until much later, and only then in Jefferson’s personal correspondence (around 1802, I believe). At the Constitution’s ratification, about 97% of the country professed faith in Christ, with Jews and a small smattering of other religions composing the rest. The Decalogue seems implicit in American law, hence its display in courthouses across the country. Some thus suggest that the American system drew inspiration from the Christian, namely Protestant, movement.

Others counter with an appeal to the non-establishment clause: “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof.” This ammendment resulted from perceived deficiencies in the English system, primarily the government’s abuse of the church. Statement’s like “In God We Trust” thus seem as approbation of a certain creed instead of a simple acknowledgement of a “higher power.” Further, a republican government empowers the populace to modify their government as they see fit. If a majority now desires to shed any acknowledgement of God, then it has that civil right. America is now engaged in such a project.

Now I have tended toward the latter side, for I believe, with Locke, that government finds its provenience and authority in man, and man locates his origin with God. It is quite impossible to separate religion and politics; the intersection points between the two compel the most incendiary debates. The true nature of religion–either a strictly psychological phenomenon or a legitimate force–seems irrelevant. The simple observation that it has existed in every culture, at every time, and in every place renders religion as a subject worthy of the utmost consideration, particularly in the political life.

The founding fathers rightly insisted on a system that balanced competing forces and ideas, one of which was religion. They recognized that liberty exacerbates dissension, for “liberty is to faction what air is to fire.” Liberty, it seems to me, has become the central idea of the West, politically, scientifically, and now morally. The system that was born during the abstract theorizing of the Enlightenment, found traction in America, moved (tragically) through France, and later throughout the Western world has become a sort of template for prosperity. If such a generalization seems permissable, then I further submit that the Middle East’s central idea is Islam, which makes little distinction between religion and the state: they are usually one. The Arab world must now decide how it will associate with the West and vice versa; the effects of such calculations are apparent in the newspaper.

My current opinion then is that the Western system is preferable to theocracy. Such an observation seems apparant in the West, but not here. Bradford encouraged me to see this place not as a foreigner, but as a indigenous citizen. I once heard Lamin Sanneh comment that the installation of a secular, republican system in the Middle East (namely Iraq) is a disastrous prescription. Without a popular mandate, he is correct. Arab governments are now grappling with whether such a mandate exists, but moreover whether it is permissable and benefical. As I thought more about these issues, I recalled The Federalist Nos. 9 and 10. A review of the argument made there is instructive.

Written by Spence

November 20th, 2005 at 11:50 am

Posted in UAE

Reading

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Please read this fine article about chemical weapons use in the Middle East. The account, while academic, provides a factual perspective on the events preceding the 2003 campaign. Note the importance of Saddam’s need to “save face” with his Arab peers. Nothing could be more characteristic of Arab men.

Written by Spence

November 11th, 2005 at 12:32 pm

Posted in UAE

Weekly Post

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Nothing remarkable has occurred over the past week, so I will examine several of the misbegotten conceptions that I’ve held during my first three months here. Many people studied abroad during college; I did not have or want that experience. I recall the attitudes, which ranged from the supercilious to the relieved, adopted by these peers returning from overseas. One person in particular remarked how mature he had become. At the time, I resented such nonsense. Remarkably, I have observed the development of similar notions in my own life here, much to my horror. Consistent with my penchant for theory and refutation, I list below several items of interest. Prior to returning home next month, I hope to have suitably adjusted my outlook.

1) “I’m having a unique experience” or “I am a different person because of this experience.”
Right. It’s easy to have a myopic view of an overseas experience. The magnitude of adjustments necessary to live even the most ordinary life seems to imply some measure of uniqueness. During the first few weeks here, I naively thought that no one else had trouble using the phone or sleeping through the call to prayer or buying fish at the store. As I met more people here, though, I realized that we all at one point dealt with these issues. As a corollary, I might add that the average Arab engages in the same sort of mundane activities as his American counterpart. Disregarding cultural and religious differences, Arabs go to work (usually), stand in line at the grocery store, and talk about the weather in uncomfortable situations. I have not met a person yet who has demonstrated anything but disdain for terrorism or Islamic extremism. One could claim a selection bias that would discredit such a statement and I suppose that I have no counterargument. I heard of more anti-Western, anti-capitalist demonstrations in D.C. last year than I have here, though.

The other perception seems inadequate as well. A person’s experiences significantly impact his life, but I am unconvinced that character changes in response to time or particular events. As an analogy, I think of the horrendous modifications certain people make to Honda Civics. They add ground effects, airbrushed paint schemes, and those irritating mufflers that sound like a tracheotomy patient. The end product, while ostensibly modified, remains an economy-class Japanese compact. Instead, I think that the prudent person assesses each experience and adjusts his approach according to the observed successes and failures. This practice is much like installing a better transmission in the same Civic. The car remains unashamedly itself, but with positive improvements.

2) Attention to perceived deficiencies in mother culture.
I wrote to a friend in September about “my disenchantment with contemporary American culture,” or some such affected nonsense. Later, I made a cursory list of pros and cons that I perceived in Emirati culture. After quickly listing a few positive observations, I exhausted my supply of compliments. When I turned to criticisms, I worked diligently for a long period. Consider a few of the points:

Pros

    Low crime rate.

  • Limited alcohol-related problems (DUI, public disturbance, even excessive consumption).
  • Stable family structures (although I have read that divorce rates are rising in the region)
  • Space for religious observance in the public realm (see the listing under “France” for why such a policy is prudent)

Cons

  • Draconian laws and sentencing that treats ethnic groups differently.
  • A tremendous wage gap.
  • A dictatorship (albeit a benevolent one) and the attendant absence of civic “rights” such as voting.
  • Limited freedom of the press. For example, Emirates Today recently ran a series on AIDS among Emirati nationals. The government subsequently suggested that they “tone it down.”
  • Polygamy and incest.
  • Gender inequity.

In comparison, Americans have many reasons to count their blessings.

3) Later, attention to perceived deficiencies with local culture.
Inevitably, dinner conversation among expatriates here turns to, “Hey, guess what this Arab did today!” Then we laugh about how they can’t drive, count to ten, or limit their spending. It’s helpful to remember how we would act, at one extreme, in a similar position of wealth or, at the other, lacked even a rudimentary education. No, the Pakistanis can’t drive. Yes, the Emiratis love conspicuous consumption. If I had a nickle for every Rolls Royce, Maserati, and Porsche that I’ve seen over the last few months, I’d buy a country.

4) A false sense of enlightenment.
This feeling follows closely behind (1). Paradoxically, it often seems as if those who know least act as if they know the most. For example, after my first Arabic lesson, I was astonished at my new skills. I didn’t even know how to say, “Where’s the john?” and I thought that I was Bernard Lewis or something. Subsequent lessons, which introduced verb conjugation, tenses, and, most dauntingly, Arabic script, tempered my self-aggrandizement. The forces at work in this region would require decades of sedulous inquiry to understand. If I display any sense of authority when I return home, somebody please comment on my vanity.

5) At last, I have something to talk about in conversations with strangers.
This is a particularly personal issue. Sports once gave me a sort-of fallback topic that I could introduce into a conversation with great effect. Somehow, the line “I’m an Electrical and Computer Engineer” doesn’t elicit the same response. In fact, it’s much like bragging about a physiological defect such as hemophilia. Now I often imagine my conversations over egg nog this Christmas and how astounded everyone will be to hear that I live in the ominous Middle East. Notice here the continuity of my character: I’m still don’t function well in large social settings, despite this “life-changing” experience (see 1 above). I’m simply exchanging one crutch for another when I should learn to walk without such support. Several people here have advised not to make unsolicited references to overseas experiences, a policy that has served them well. Only when a person demonstrates interest should I comment extensively. This seems like an appropriate compromise between tasteless gushing and elitist reticence.

Written by Spence

November 11th, 2005 at 12:22 pm

Posted in UAE