Sinful Arab neglect
HAYAT ALVI-AZIZ, THE JERUSALEM POST Mar. 31, 2005
If you ride the "women only" car of the Cairo subway, you're likely to witness a remarkable phenomenon. Someone will stand up and start preaching Islam.
She may be a girl as young as 12 years old, or a young adult, or middle-aged. The preachers may vary in age, but have some traits in common: they wear the Islamic head scarf, recite verses from the Koran, and they're loud. Most of the captive audience responds positively, even chanting the prayers they are asked to repeat.
What is the preachers' message to the masses? They emphasize the importance of obeying the commands of Allah, performing the five daily prayers and wearing the hijab, or head scarf.
Similarly, Cairo taxis, shops, homes, offices and even some medical labs have recitations of the Koran blaring in their audio speakers. The sheikhs in the local mosques shout and scream into the loudspeakers during Friday sermons, scaring people with warnings about the evil deeds that will land them in Hell.
There is no talk about the daily things in life that affect us. The sermons do not speak of providing better health care, cleaning up the environment, eradicating illiteracy, improving living standards or contributing to the progress and development of society.
No, these challenges are not discussed or preached, even though all have bearing within Islam. The silence regarding pervasive human problems itself represents a crisis of denial in Islamic societies in the Middle East, South Asia and even in the West. The preoccupations are mainly with worship, dress codes, "moral" principles, gender segregation and yes, condemning the US and Israel.
The silence and denial are all the more striking in light of recent comparative data. Countries are now ranked according to a human development index (HDI) measuring three broad categories: knowledge, health, and living standards. These are quantified, in turn, by examining education and literacy for knowledge; life expectancy for health; and GDP per capita in US dollars for living standards.
A GLANCE at the HDI factors does not give room for pride in the Muslim world. In Pakistan, for example life expectancy is 63 years and GDP per capita is $2,100. Literacy rates are alarming: only 59.8% for males; and for females, a shocking 30.6%.
Egypt and Morocco, with life expectancies just 70 years, and GDP per capita of $4,000, fare somewhat better. Literacy rates remain dismal: for men, respectively, 68.3 % and 64.1 %, and for women only 46.9 % and 39.4 % In Norway, by contrast, life expectancy is 79 years; GDP per capita $37,800; and 100% total literacy.
It does not have to be this way. Even within the Islamic world, we can point to Malaysia as a progressive model, with life expectancy reaching 72 years, male and female literacy at 92% and 85%, and 2003 GDP per capita estimated at $9,000.
Undoubtedly, there is a direct correlation between education and knowledge, good health and human development. The Islamic societies lag far behind. Even Malaysia, which fares better than most Islamic societies, still needs stronger efforts to converge with advanced economies.
When we look ahead at how to bridge the gap, we see two types of looming obstacles: political and religious.
Politically, most of the regimes in the Islamic world are authoritarian, undemocratic and lack legitimacy. These governments must divert public attention from the human development gap to other more unworldly matters. This is especially the case in the Arab/Muslim Middle East.
On the religious side, the establishment clearly prefers to keep the masses obedient and faithful. This allows the male-dominated religious institutions to maintain the status quo and their authority.
In the broad public perspective, religion provides security in these confusing and troubling times. The impact of globalization has precipitated a serious identity crisis for many traditional, especially Islamic societies.
Preserving one's traditional identity and heritage has meant rediscovering religious practices and beliefs. This does not mean that Islam is incompatible with modernity. But the current trends in the way in which Islam is applied indicate resurgence of unwavering orthodoxy, conservatism and in some cases fundamentalism.
For example, by April 2004 France had expelled five Muslim clerics who were spreading radical Islamic teachings. In one case, Abdelkader Bouziane was deported "for advocating wife beating, stoning, and other medieval Islamic views at odds with the principles of the modern French state," as reported in the International Herald Tribune.
The American news program 60 Minutes also reported that "in the projects, the fundamentalist voices are growing stronger. They are now targeting the disaffected youth in the ghettos. Many of the mosques there are filled with fundamentalist preaching."
In Europe, the US and Canada, one of the main problems that governments face is the importation of Islamic clerics from traditional, ultra-conservative societies in the developing world, to work at mosques in the western Islamic communities. Usually, these men have almost no exposure to Western culture, values and principles. They find the liberal lifestyles in Western societies to be repulsive and contradictory to Islam.
Another religious obstacle to promoting human development awareness and activism in Islamic societies is the Islamists' preoccupation with the Hereafter. From the sheikhs yelling out sermons to the subway preachers, all have one underlying message: This world does not matter; it's the next life you should be worried about. The salvation of your soul is the ultimate goal, for which you should work and struggle during your lifetime on earth.
For Muslims, this entails observing the five pillars of Islam: faith in one God, Allah; performing the five daily prayers; fasting during Ramadan; performing the pilgrimage (haj) to Mecca; and paying the annual alms-tax (zakat).
To this list, some might add wearing the Islamic dress, especially the hijab for women, and arguably the concept of jihad, which refers to an inner struggle to improve oneself. Jihad can also mean "holy war," which has been grossly exploited.
If these are the only goals that Islamic societies try to achieve, the critical role of education will be ignored, and severe underdevelopment will persist. Without comprehensive literacy as a foundation of a knowledge-based society, there can be no significant progress in human development.
The regimes of Muslim countries hope that keeping their people ignorant will prevent them from being held accountable for their failures in human development. Such deliberate neglect should itself be considered a sin.
The writer is an assistant professor of political science specializing in Middle East politics and Islamic studies at the American University in Cairo.