Geography and demographics: The basics

16 Apr

I see two frequent lacks in the common knowledge base of many of my fellow Americans.  I myself was (and still am, though to a lesser extent) guilty of them, and have thus participated in the perpetuation of the ignorance.  However, the correction of these very fixable errors is a simple task.  Below I attempt to aid in this correction through discussion and a couple of interactive games.

First, a lack of basic geographical knowledge of the Middle East is rampant.  In speaking with many of my friends (fellow undergraduates at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor, MI, USA, a well-regarded academic institution) I found that while many of them could name over 75% of nations considered to be in the Middle East, when asked to apply this knowledge to a map, they were very limited in accurately placing the names to the shapes and geographical relations.  This lack of geographical understanding, though seemingly trivial, actually produces a significant amount of ideological work by abstracting the Middle Eastern world, limiting a representation of diversity between nations and peoples in the region that from approaching reality.  Ideology is a comprehensive set of beliefs and ideas that operates through our unconscious consent.  Ideological work is defined by James Lull as the winning and securing of hegemony over time.  The ideological work produced by this ignorance is in its abstraction of the geographic region, which is a perpetuation of the Eurocentric idea that the Middle East is the playing field where our battles are fought, our blames placed, and our hegemony secured.  To allow people to gain a better geographic awareness of the Middle East, I have created a game on Sporcle (http://www.sporcle.com).  Try it, pass or fail, and let me know what you think about its effectiveness, your own ability, and other ways that a basic geographic knowledge of the Middle East can be disseminated.

http://www.sporcle.com/games/devinmriley/geography_of_the_middle_east

A second basic issue that is widespread throughout my own social network (and can be seen anywhere at any scale) is the conflation of Arabs and Muslims.  This conflation is the existence of a monolithic representation (lumping distinct groups into categories, generalizing in an inappropriate way), particularly in the Western world, which fails to acknowledge the distinctness of the Arab ethnicity and the Islamic faith.  To challenge this representation, try the following Sporcle quiz:

http://www.sporcle.com/games/devinmriley/top-10-muslim-countries-by-population

How many were you able to get?  If you tried them both you may have realized that the overlap consisted of only three countries (Pakistan, Turkey, and Iran), and not one of these three countries is an Arab nation! In fact, while it is true the vast majority of Arabs are Muslim, only approximately 20% of Muslims are Arabs, and the vast majority of Muslims reside in South-East Asia (Indonesia, Bangladesh, India, etc.).   A quote from The Telegraph lends an insight to the relationship of the distribution of Muslims between other nations as well, stating: Germany has more Muslims than Lebanon, China has more Muslims than Syria, Russia has more Muslims than Jordan and Libya combined, and Ethiopia has nearly as many Muslims as Afghanistan.  The conflation of Muslims and Arabs is clearly a false representation and simplifies the true beauty of the world’s diversity.

Hopefully these games have been informative and illustrated some simple, fixable issues that have implications for the complex web of day-to-day interactions, scaled all the way to international relations, and have proposed some simple, elementary methods for resolution of these issues.

Devin Riley

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Arab women active in mitigation of climate change

16 Apr

Enhanced social justice and environmental preservation are frequently linked in the Middle East, a fact that is only recently being acknowledged, at least in mainstream Western culture. As those who often suffer the most from social injustices and environmental degradation in their nations (research reports from around the world confirm that the majority of those affected by climate-related disasters in developing economies have been women http://allafrica.com/stories/200911191053.html), Arab women have long been involved in social protests and are now raising their voices to promote and work towards climate change mitigation in the Middle East. For the most part, this is being done on small scales. Rafi’a Abdul Hamid, a Bedoiun woman from Jordan, was selected by elders in her village to attend a class at Barefoot College in India to learn about solar engineering so she could bring the knowledge back to her village. “We’ve been taught about solar energy and solar panels and how to generate light,” Hamid said. “Hopefully when we return we will be able to teach others everything we learned here in India to improve our village.”

Barefoot College itself is a slightly larger scale example of women working to promote climate change adaptations while improving their plights. It is a non-governmental organization that helps women from poor rural communities become more sustainable. It launched its solar power course for women in 2005 and already more than 150 grandmothers in the Middle East have been trained and together solar electrified over 10,000 homes in more than 100 villages, ultimately saving 1.5 million liters of kerosene.

Naqa’a, an environmental enterprise set up by a small group of young Muslim women in Saudi Arabia was founded with the intention of spreading the environmentally sustainable messages of Islam to all Muslims. The organization targets especially young Arabians in preserving the planet. “We want to be a living example of how young people can be the drivers of change in a country like Saudi Arabia,” said Norah Magraby, one of the founders of Naqa’a. The group delivers environmental workshops in schools, are helping various companies in Saudi Arabia become more green, organizes environmental events in the city of Jeddeh and has implemented a recycling system at Dar Al-Hekma College. “Many Muslim scholars have addressed many verses from the Holy Qur’an and the Prophet PBUH statements that urge us all to save the earth, preserve our water resources and to reduce our general consumptions,” Norah points out. “We are really proud of our Islamic teachings and spreading it in the best way possible is one of our major goals.”

The number of Arabic women working for larger environmental organizations is also on the rise. Recently, Mashael bint Mohammed Saud Abdurrahman of the King Abdulaziz City for Science and Technology (KACST) in Saudi Arabia won the United Nations Water for Life Best Practice Award.  Earlier this year, in February, NASA appointed a Saudi woman, Majda Abduras, who has a doctorate degree in environmental studies and biotechnology as its first Arab woman researcher. Muhammad Ibrahim Al-Rashid, president of the NASA affiliate the Gulf American Foundation for Space, Technology and the Environment said that “it was the result of her continues work for the environment to solve its problems” that got Majda Abduras the job.

Devin Riley

Citations

http://www.greenprophet.com/2011/03/bedouin-women-solar-power/
http://www.greenprophet.com/2011/04/arab-women-eco-feminism/
http://www.greenprophet.com/2010/11/interview-with-naqaa/
http://arabnews.com/lifestyle/offbeat/article579671.ece

World Cup in Middle East? Qatar to be Exact

16 Apr

2022 is a decade away and probably not on the minds of most people. I personally don’t know where I’ll be living after the end of this month. Thinking that far ahead seems implausible to me. However, I know I’ll be doing at least one thing that year; watching the World Cup of soccer. I won’t be alone, billions of people will tune in the month of June/July to watch as 90 minutes of drama unfolds over computer screens, radios, televisions or whatever the preferred medium is in a decade. The host nation will treat the world to a month of its favorite sport. Bills will be enormous, but the profits will be too. The burden of hosting the world to a month of football is comparable to Atlas holding the world on his shoulders, and that burden will be held by Qatar.

Major sporting events are rarely if ever hosted in the Middle East. Both the Olympics and the World Cup have never been in the region. You have to look to Formula 1, professional golf, or tennis to find a major sporting event hosted here. In December 2010, 12 years before the event, Qatar won the bid to host football’s World Cup. But they did not receive this distinguished privilege with open arms from the global community. Before the bidding process had even started, accusations of corruption flogged the process. When the decision was made that Russia and Qatar would be hosting the 2018 and 2022 games respectively on December 2, 2010, those accusation caught fire. Any reason to forbade Qatar from hosting the games was applicable.

Aside from the accusation of bribery and corruption, the nation of Qatar and its ability to host was infantilized. By this I mean that the country as a whole was portrayed and baby like, needing assistance, and lacking the maturity to handle a world class sporting event. The claim has some roots in validity. The tiny country has never qualified for or played in a world cup, ever. Additionally, the country has very limited infrastructure which would support soccer games. There are very few stadiums which are large enough to host a World Cup match. The costs associated with hosting the event is estimated to be at least 138 billion British Pounds.

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While many would look at these and say those are damning aspects in regards to their bid, it presents Qatar with many opportunities as well. For one, the country now has a reason to invest in their stadiums and their team. From a stadium side, this could be the proving ground for all the world. Qatar will be building state of the art pitches and areas for fans to crowd around in. As Qatar will be an average of over 100 degrees in the summer, the new stadiums are planned to have a technology of the future, air conditioning. New hotels and infrastructure to house fans will also need to be constructed.

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This also present many opportunities for young athletes. Players who are only 10 years old now, may be playing for their country when the games roll around. Qatar has committed to investing in not only their academy team but in many countries around the world.

There are however several areas in which some controversy is deserved in regards to Qatar’s hosting of the event. Homosexuality is illegal in Qatar and might present a problem for host nation. Speculating 10 years in the future, this law might seem far past it’s shelf life for many countries competing in the games. The second is in regards to the nation of Israel. While it is impossible to determine whether or not the Israeli team with qualify, given their poor track record I would bet not, they can. That being said, Qatar does not recognize the nation of Israel. Therefore could they not compete in the games? The third area to be concerned about is the country’s fairly strict laws on alcohol. Alcohol is not illegal in Qatar, however the public consumption of it is. Drinking and the world cup go together like disappointment and anticipating a Chicago Cubs World Series. Hassan Abdulla al Thawadi, Qatar’s chief executive for the World Cup bid said that the rules will be a little different when the World Cup comes to town.

Right now it does not seem as if anything will stop Qatar from hosting the World Cup in 2022. That is a good thing. This is a rare opportunity for not only this country, but this region to be showcased in a positive light. The same negative things were written the past decade about the South Africa’s hosting of the World Cup in 2010. Spain’s victory capped off a month that went over smoothly and seamlessly. South Africa handled the world with the utmost hospitality and showcased itself as a formidable host. With the hosting of the World Cup, Qatar can do the same thing. This will give the tiny country a rare opportunity to showcase not only that country, but the entire region.  

Queen Rania’s Project

15 Apr

Rania Al Abdullah is the current Queen consort of Jordan, and has become a vocal proponent of many issues both on the domestic (Jordan) and international scale.  Queen Rania has used her position to advocate for various sectors of society in Jordan, focusing largely on the importance of education and the inherent right that each human being has to one.  Her mission statement on her website (http://www.queenrania.jo) states:

“Education = Opportunity.

The opportunity to work. The opportunity to escape poverty. The opportunity to live healthily. The opportunity to live confidently. The opportunity to hope.

I believe you deserve an education. 
Whoever you are. 
It’s your right.

You deserve the chance to make the most of this brief glimpse we call existence. To be all you can be. To help those dear to you. To re-imagine the parameters of possibility.

Because education is transformative.

It can rescue a girl from the burdens of adulthood: early marriage and premature pregnancy.
It can empower a woman to take control of her life: mind, body, and soul.
It can defeat disease and temper intolerance: a shield for both our health and our humanity.

Education is a Titan.

Whole communities and countries lifted from the quicksands of destitution to the plains of progress.

And the power of education lies not in the pages of textbooks, or the recital of facts and figures. 
It resides in the mind of a child who is taught how to think. How to learn. How to navigate the world, avoid whirlpools, climb mountains.

Education isn’t a line I’m spinning. 
It’s a lifeline that’s saving. 
Saving families. Saving futures.”

Queen Rania’s goals begin with the democratization of education, allowing all an equal opportunity to make the most out of the life they have been given.  What she knows and implies through her efforts is that cultural hegemony is the stiffest obstacle to the manifestation of this dream.  Hegemony is the exercise of cultural dominance which operates through the dynamics of force and consent (see our tagline!), where consent is developed through the creation of a common sense logic (Gramsci).  The issue with this dynamic is that the balance between force and consent, the creation of common sense, is determined by those in power and the power dynamic is difficult to approach as it is enforced through implied (economic, social, cultural, etc.) means as opposed to explicit (forceful, violence, military occupation, etc.) means (Foucault).  What Queen Rania has realized, I think, is that the democratization of education and opportunity (ends) cannot be achieved without the development of understanding, truthful knowledge, and tolerance (sub-ends) across cultural lines and that these changes arise in a bottom-up, rather than top down manner.  But what is the best method for initiating change from the bottom up?

Concurrent with the development of numerous social programs and philanthropic endeavors, she has started what I believe to be an effective campaign utilizing social media with the intent of bridging the gap of misunderstandings and misrepresentations of Muslims and Arabs.  Queen Rania was born in Kuwait to Palestinian parents, and has practiced Islam her entire life, and is thus very aware of the struggles occurring in the Arab world, the Muslim religion, and the overlap of these two categorizations.  Her technique for enabling and enacting change on the fronts of education, Arab and Muslim representations, and peace has been to become an active participant in utilizing social media, utilizing online media tools such as YouTube (http://www.youtube.com/user/QueenRania), Facebook (http://www.facebook.com/QueenRania), and Twitter (http://twitter.com/#!/queenrania), and encouraging involvement through her mediums in the global internet community.  She stated in an interview with TechCrunch in 2009 that the motive behind her methods is that “it’s about using social media for social change: creating a community of advocates who can use their voices on behalf of the voiceless, or leverage their talents, skills, knowledge, and resources to put more children into classrooms, or pressure their elected representatives to get global education top of the agenda.”  

It is her YouTube channel in particular that strikes me as an effective counter-hegemonic effort that allows people across the globe to get involved, share their opinions, and expand their understanding of peoples in other parts of the world.  She posts videos, often of herself speaking, that challenge stereotypes and dominant ideologies in relation to discourse on Arabs, Muslims, and the Middle Eastern world.  The channel includes appeals to humor, emotion, and logic that create effective media snippets for spreading awareness, tolerance, and understanding.

In this video, Dean Obeidallah, a Palestinian-American comedian, in efforts with Queen Rania’s YouTube project, speaks with other Arab Americans on the streets of New York to discuss some of the stereotypes they have come across, what that means to them, and what changes they would like to see (all of this in a humorous manner of course).  One of the more interesting things from this clip is the desire from each of the interviewees to bring light to the inventions that the Arab people have introduced to the world that are taken for granted on a day to day basis (from coffee to three course meals; I will expound on this in a later post).  This video utilizes an appeal to humor to shed light of Arab stereotypes, the relationship between Arabs and Islam, and the diversity that exists within the Arab-American community.

A common stereotype that we witness about Arab culture is the oppression of women, and though this has been challenged abundantly, the stereotype still persists, and this, I would imagine, is a particularly frustrating stereotype for Queen Rania, a self-described “mother, wife, boss, and humanitarian.”  Her multi-dimensional lifestyle is first and foremost a contradiction of the common stereotype, and she includes a section on her channel dedicated to increasing the dimensions in which we can understand and relate to Arab women in general.  The video below is a depiction of Arab women in action, exercising their abilities, and challenging the ‘oppression’ stereotypes that are all too pervasive.

This simple 90 second video does a lot to dispel the mass representation of Arab women, displaying them in professional roles from architecture, to CEO, to athlete.  This video, with just under 150,000 views, has reached people all over the globe, and the presence of such counter-hegemonic media (even though they are small) eventually begin to educate, interact, and produce more accurate meanings and representations of people and cultures.

What I think is strategic about Queen Rania’s approach to enacting social change is approaching it from the bottom-up.  The best way to change stereotypes and to challenge dominant ideologies, as evidenced by history, is to appeal to the youth, encourage and enable them to make change and create a better world.  And in a world where we see countless celebrities get behind causes for personal gain, nepotism, and exploitation, I believe that Queen Rania is doing it right, making a genuine effort, and producing media that will appeal to a younger generation to break down the suspicion, mistrust, and intolerance that has served to drive us, as global citizens, apart.

Devin Riley

Citations

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Queen_Rania_of_Jordan

http://techcrunch.com/2009/05/19/an-interview-with-queen-rania-of-jordan-on-how-twitter-can-help-change-the-world/

http://www.queenrania.jo/rania/vision

Antonio Gramsci, “The Prison Notebooks” (from AC 235 Theory Study Guide)

Michel Foucault, “Truth and Power” (from Power/Knowledge (New York: Pantheon Books, 1980).

Statement of Purpose

14 Apr

This site was created by Devin Riley, Rahul Ramachandran, Brett Leach, and Rayyan Sami in order to creatively express marginalized points of view and challenge the dominant hierarchy of power that is prevalent in modern media by posting on unorthodox news stories, circulating factual information, and challenging readers to consider their own perspectives, and how their perspectives influence the way they interact in the world around them.  We believe an important aspect of this blog is to present all the traditional non-trivial news stories (war, violence, death, etc.) coming from a less orthodox point of view, and, equally as important, present stories considered more ‘trivial’, day-to-day, and positive (small successes, heartwarming stories, etc.), particularly as they relate to the Arab and Muslim communities, to ensure that a plethora of views are included and that the ideological work being done by the summation of these views is a healthy distribution, rather than uniformly negative or biased.  We know that this is no simple task, and in many regards we may come up short, but we hope to present you with new perspectives, ideas, and inspiration to challenge your world-view and seek to update your own internalizations to be more complex, diverse, and, most importantly, accurate.  We thank you for visiting our site.

 

Sincerely,

Devin Riley

Brett Leach

Rayyan Sami

Rahul Ramachandran