Saturday, October 28, 2006

Religion 2

Because the UAE is in principle a theocratic state, the question of religion is a contentious one for anyone who doesn't happen to follow the one religion which receives state sanction--that, of course, being Islam. While one is free to practice his religion whatever it may be--in at least some form or other--he is not to proselytize any non-Islamic creed nor criticize Islam. There are accordingly churches, temples and shrines of various faiths and denominations, but they remain in large part hidden or disguised. In the six years that I have lived in the UAE I have never just happened upon a church or a temple, while every other day it seems I'll spot a mosque tucked away that I hadn't noticed before.

Fair enough. Islam is a very significant part of the UAE's heritage, just as say Christianity is for the US. Furthermore, Islam presupposes itself to be the ultimate authority in questions of morality and the law, without provision for a distinct secular code. (There is no give unto Caesar what is Ceasar's and give unto God what is his precept.) This is the reality that most are willing to accept here, whatever their religious conviction, and it is all the easier to do so as there is no pressure to adopt the officially sanctioned state religion or abandon one's own.

Is the UAE, perhaps, a secular Islamic state like Turkey, or a secular multi-relgious state like India?

No, it is neither. The state builds the mosques, pays salaries to the imams or prayer leaders, implements Islamic or Sharia law within its legal code and pays homage to any variety of Islamic traditions. It is clearly a non-secular, Islamic state. At the same time it differs dramatically from neighbors like Saudi Arabia or Iran in that it does not impose religion upon anyone--even as it welcomes a largely non-Islamic population of expatriate workers and tourists.

There is the reality of Islam that the non-Muslim must accept here. Likewise there are certain realities that the state itself must also conform to, which greatly influence the policies it implements with regard to issues of morality and religion.

It is like a juggling act--trying to honor one's Islamic traditions while keeping a large non-Islamic expat population and the hoards of tourists feeling largely free and unencumbered. What might seem contradictory or scandalous--like alcohol and other forms of liberalism--is this tension being played out.

I would argue that the government does a good job of walking the tight rope. It is no easy task to keep a devout Islamic population, expats of numerous faiths and tourists all relatively content with regard to the question of religion. Whether one talks about the state or an individual there is always a pronounced dualism when it comes to religion. That is the case in the UAE, as everywhere regardless of the predominant religious tradition. That seems to be the nature of the religious beast. At least in the UAE this form of dualism is a relatively benign one.
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If interested see further commentary at Religion, an earlier Word A Day post, and Religion, a more personal perspective.

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Tuesday, October 24, 2006


I found myself today in a debate of sorts. You might even have called it a clash of cultures. I have Eid to thank for it, the festive day following the supposed solemn days of Ramadan.

I had decided to pay a visit to an old friend who I had not seen in sometime. He is a devout Muslim. Although it was Eid that was not so much the impetus for my visit as opposed to it just seeming convenient, and I was in the mood.

My friend greeted me in his apartment with a collection of flatmates and their comrades. It was thus that the debate ensued. My hosts were all friendly gentlemen from Kerela and they engaged me in conversation that took on very much the character of an intense cultural exchange. I thoroughly enjoyed sharing my views on Bush, Iraq, Iran and, the most intense topic to surface, religion and Islam.

I suppose in accordance with their duty as Muslims, these men sought to enlighten me on the character and basis of the Islamic faith--as much as can be done in such an impromptu setting. Although I was, in a manner of speaking, not having any of it--that is, I have my own views to the contrary which make perfect sense in my own mind--I admired the valor of these gentlemen. Even more so I admired their courtesy to realize when enough was enough and the discussion moved on to a new topic.

If only cultures would always clash in such a congenial fashion. Clearly we were of different backgrounds, with different beliefs, values and lifestyles. But we shared a mutual respect and interest in one another's cultures. I, myself, had visited Kerala and the home of my old friend some years past. There was nothing more interesting to me than experiencing the diversity of the culture there--not only diverse in how it differed from my own, but also in how it manifested itself in the diverging Muslim, Hindu and Christian traditions which coexist there.

Back to the living room of my hosts, we continued to discuss a range of topics--some personal, some general and many with regard to life in the UAE. I explained at one point that one reason Islamic culture seemed distant and alien to me, even though I live within an Islamic and Arabic society, is that many of its key elements seem closed off to me. For example, as a non-Muslim I am not permitted to enter a mosque. Therefore in time I have learned to not only ignore the many mosques that dot the terrain but also other aspects of Islamic culture. It is there I know, but I also know that I am not really welcome within it, unless of course I convert--of which I intend to have no part!

In the end the gentlemen informed me that Jumeirah Mosque in Dubai does have an open door policy of sorts. That I suppose, was a fitting nugget of information to pick up on a day of Eid.
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Monday, October 23, 2006


My word today in the UAE may seem a bit misplaced. What has a storm that occurred in the southern USA over a year ago got to do with life in the UAE today?

The connection is a metaphorical one which popped into my head today. In yesterday's Gulf News it was reported that a labor camp in Jebel Ali has been found to have 60 workers crammed into a single room. A shocking discovery, though one might not be too surprised on hearing it. The story brings to mind the words of one New Orleans resident, spoken in the midst of the Katrina debacle. It was from a middle-aged African-American woman camped out on the street outside the city's defamed Convention Center.

She said in a voice full of emotion which amplified her words all the more, "We don't live like this." Those words echoed in my mind then and they echo in my mind now. That simple statement seemed to speak so much.

It was an expression of anger toward a government and society that would allow her and the countless others on the streets of New Orleans to persist in such a state as though it were their natural habitat.

"We don't live like this" meant we are decent, respectable human beings. We are American citizens and resident in one of the most prosperous and egalitarian societies that history has known. We don't live out on the streets without even water to drink or food to eat. We aren't allowed to succumb to the ravages of nature when our society is equipped with the most advanced technologies.

That was Katrina and New Orleans, and the plight of an African-American in the USA. What concerns me now is Dubai, the UAE at large, and the plight of so many laborers, who are allowed--in deed forced--to live in such inhumane conditions.

A worker in that Jebel Ali camp commented to the press reporter, "We tried to take it in that room but we can't any longer. We feel cramped."

We feel cramped, an understatement which seems to echo with a resonance similar to the words of the New Orleans resident. Does anyone think that this is how these people live? Grown, young and middle-aged adult men, who work hard under hard conditions for 8, 10 or 12 hours a day. These men often sacrifice their personal ambitions to provide for families far away. There is incredible honor in this. These men deserve appreciation and respect. They are human beings, not domesticated cattle. They deserve a bit of space, a bit of privacy, and clean facilities for bathing and defecating.

Like those New Orleans residents abandoned on the streets after Katrina, these workers, essential to the city and country's very prosperity, deserve so much better. They don't and should not be allowed--or forced--to live like that.

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Sunday, October 22, 2006


Ramadan in the Muslim world is a holy month, an important religious observance, a time for family, for charity, etc.

Like other important religious traditions, however, it also carries its share of negative baggage. In the UAE that includes over-indulgence in eating and feasting--that is after the sun sets. It also seems to usher in a time for people to excuse themselves from working hard and taking care of life's other responsibilities. Students need not study, workers need not show up on time or do much of anything once in, or even stick around till closing time. Ironic, isn't it, that a time meant for personal sacrifice to strengthen the character becomes a time for being slothful and pampering oneself.

The same thing happens in Christian societies with Christmas. It is a time that should be characterized by giving and charity, but instead becomes a time when businesses expect to cash in big time and the minds of both children and adults become obsessed with what they are going to get. More money is lavished and wasted during Christmas time than any other time of year, all in honor of course of the humble birth of a shepherd child who presumably had hardly a roof over his head.

If I knew more about Hindu or other religious traditions I suspect I could point out the same contradictions. The more such traditions are promoted and hyped the more things tend to go wrong with them. Ramadan in the UAE is held up as a holy grail that all must take notice of, but such sanctity, I believe, opens up the observance to more abuse. The public, both the religious and non-religious, would probably be better served if there weren't Ramadan timings, Ramadan events and Ramadan sales, promotions, etc.

As one who is under no obligation to participate in the observance of Ramadan, I am not one to say how it should or should not be honored. Nonetheless, I see the negativity associated with it and feel that this is partly due to the over emphasis placed on its observance. Were it to be less hyped and less promoted, it might end up being a more meaningful and beneficial opportunity for individuals and society at large.

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This post comes after a long lapse. The Word A Day posts were perhaps becoming too crafted and thought-out to sustain. I hope readers will from this point on be able to bear with observations and comments that are perhaps a little more brash, if only for the sake of immediacy.

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