Thursday, June 4, 2009

Time Travel

Today, President Obama made an historic speech at the University of Cairo. The first African American to be elected President of the United States would be enough to guarantee such claim, but it was much more than this; it was above all the audience's reaction to his words, even knowing full well they are a mere description of intent without any concrete steps mentioned. Intent, however, is very important. Telling people where you stand on issues to be discussed in the future gives them an idea of how to approach those issues and how they might expect the United States to approach them in concrete terms. Words of intent are the basis of diplomacy. Obama lived in Indonesia and has Muslims in his family so he knows Islam much better than any President before him, I dare say. That insight makes him special in the Middle East context, one that requires knowledge of the parties involved like perhaps no other. Israel and the Jewish people have a long and comprehensive connection to the United States and their plight is well understood, as is the background that supports it. It is time for the Muslim world to know that the plight of the Palestinians will be taken as seriously and in equal depth. That alone will do wonders, but it is not enough.

We need to once and for all realize that the Muslim world in itself is a paradox. To understand this statement, try using Christian World in a sentence in the same way. Despite all the modern world offers, from the Internet to sewage treatment to antibiotics, the Muslim World is for the most part stuck in time, centuries back. We can debate forever which reasons caused this discrepancy between Muslim countries (and plenty of other underdeveloped countries, independent of religion) and the more advanced countries (all democracies, most in the Northwestern quadrant of the planet). Yes, we are advanced. Advanced in the political system, the judicial system and the general social structure, from education and science to health care and justice. We are, of course, also more advanced militarily. Still, we are trying each day to improve every aspect of our society, making it more just and balanced and self-sustained. One would expect the Muslim World to do the same and only those clouded by prejudice will say there is no such thing as evolution and improvement in the Muslim World... However, we must remember that getting out of a plane in Cairo, Gaza or Islamabad coming from New York, Paris or Tokyo is like stepping out of a time capsule.

Europe has a better understanding of this reality because for Europeans the walk from obscurantism to progress, from religion to democracy, was a long and hard one. When the Muslims, by then mainly the Arabs, were at the top of their game and the brightest civilization on Earth, Western Europe was a mix of proto-Christians and barbarians, light years and many wars away from becoming a stable platform for development and social progress. The United States were born a democracy; Americans, for the most part, lack the understanding of how to become one. Like for so many centuries in Europe, the most part of the Muslim world has religion embedded in it's societies, in different levels of intensity but always present. It will take a very long time for Muslims to face religion the way most Christians now do, as a private belief separate from State. And even then, after this is achieved and it will, there is still the cultural heritage to overcome, the centuries of religious values and religious moral that are rooted in every day actions, sayings and traditions. It will take time and you certainly can't force these things to happen over night and most certainly not at the tip of a spear.

The future is unknown, as always. We should be careful, however, not to take our present status for granted and most of all, in particular when going through hard times, we must guard against returning to a religion based society - that is exactly what happened to the Arab civilization at it's zenith and a cause of stagnation and regression that still lasts. We should be careful not to reverse parts.


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