How Not to Think of Lobbies in America

How does one think about a special interest group? Are they the ‘tail wagging the dog’? Or more realistically, just power-brokers who are go-in-betweens, managing perceptions, raising money and buying out influence, for those who they work? The answer is something in between. While I don’t agree that lobbies are all powerful, they do wield significant influence that cannot be denied. But they also operate within certain constraints, as Stephen Walt warns us in his article How not to think about the Israeli lobby. Recent failures of the Israeli lobby – including not being able to get the US into war in Syria – (until now) is an indication of its limited influence. It took nearly three years before the U.S. decided to intervene in Syria, and that too, only when ISIL is involved.

AIPACI spoke with a group of American students, quite recently, about ‘Israel Lobby and US Foreign policy’ a topic I am somewhat familiar with. Having researched this topic for over two years while at Syracuse University, I gave up and changed tracks. After a while, I was exhausted – both intellectually and emotionally at the developments (or lack thereof) in Palestine. It is a hard topic to research, especially if one is invested in some way – either intellectually or emotionally. As a bystander, I was not as invested in the topic, but morally; I felt (and still do) that all fair-minded people should intervene to end the Israeli occupation of Palestine, though the two state solution may not exactly be the way to go. “Israel is like a piece of cheese, with the holes for settlements. How will you ever divide that into two countries”, said one of my favorite professors on campus. I believed him and still do. Though I harbored faith in the two state solution at one point, I don’t think it is practically feasible, given current realities on ground.

The American students I spoke to were critical, skeptical but at the same time optimistic that there is a solution to the crisis. With the Israel lobby question in mind, I did not have to struggle too hard to convince them that those in ‘real’ power had to make hard choices, some wise decisions and come to some consensus on what the way forward is. And to put things in context, I was speaking with students in the ‘Bible Belt,’ and that fundamentalist Christians are more pro-Israel than many American Jews, as this poll by Pew Research shows. The status quo won’t work is something these students realize. Even the most ardent pro-Israeli student in the room realized that the obstacles to ‘peace’ are internal to the Israeli establishment and this discourse is aided by American support. Peter Beinart’s question of whether the ‘liberal Zionists’ ideals’ of a free and democratic Israel that uphold human rights, justice are dead, is worth asking.

In a recent Op-Ed in New York Times, Mairav Zonszein argues that there is a vilification campaign going on in Israel against those who dare speak out against the state.Zonszein says “The vilification of the few Israelis who don’t subscribe to right-wing doctrine is not new. Similar acts of incitement occurred before the assassination of Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin in 1995. But now they have multiplied, escalated and spread.” The discourse of ‘Us vs. them’ seems to have been incorporated by the Israeli establishment, very effectively and any dissent is labeled as anti-Semitism. The most recent ‘war in Gaza’ demonstrated this fact. Social media was abuzz with discussions, fights and arguments about whether Israel had the right to ‘defend’ itself against the rockets that Hamas fired.

The ‘winds of change’ are blowing, if recent developments are any indication. Peter Beinart, in his book The Crisis of Zionism argues that there the continued building of settlements in the West Bank imperil the very existence of Israel as a democratic Jewish state. Beinart says that the tradition of debate, open-dialogue that is inherent in Judaism is being hijacked by fundamentalist groups in Israel. While groups such as Americans for Peace Now, J-Street and dozens of others work to build up the ‘moderate’ voice that is liberal, accommodating of the Palestinian demands for recognition, the hawks seem to dominate the debate. These liberal groups are also growing in power and influence, if my discussion with the youngsters is any indication- and so is the public sentiment among American Jews- who are overwhelmingly liberal. On another note, Hamas just gave up control of Gaza to the Unity government a few days ago, according to news reports. As Rami Khouri reminds us, the challenge before us is whether the rival factions will unite. Further to this, I believe something more important than this is whether this unity will hold, and if Israel will recognize this unity. He calls this negligence to establish order within the ranks of PA and Hamas ‘ a criminal negligence’.

Finally, as Walt reminds us, it would help to remember that lobbies are special interests, that operate to achieve their ends. They may at times be the tail that wags the dog, but generally, as a rule; the dog is in control of the tail. Knowing this reality will help clarify any exaggerated claims – whether it is in the case of Israel or the NRA.



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Two models of Community Engagement – Co-optation or Exclusion?

Hamza Yusuf is arguably the most well-known American Muslim (after Muhammad Ali- the former heavyweight boxing champion) alive. As a spiritual leader, his influence goes beyond the Muslim community to the White House, and the Obama administration. He enjoys wide influence (and receives some criticism) but overall, he is a respected man, who is seen as representing Muslims in America, though some may argue on theological or other grounds about his positions on policy etc… On the other hand, Tariq Ramadhan, the Swiss Muslim scholar, who teaches at Oxford University is perhaps the most reviled Muslim intellectual in Europe. He has been called at various times: a Muslim brotherhood member, a terrorist sympathizer and worse. The treatment of these two leaders is emblematic – at least symbolically- of how the governments of these two regions treat Muslim leaders. While North America seems to have learnt to tolerate and even embrace its Muslim leaders, Europeans seem to not only shun, but actively cast a shadow of suspicion on its Muslim population and their leaders. What does this imply for leadership and prospects for Muslim engagement in both continents? I will try to address this question in this short piece.

Differing histories, divergent perceptions

Muslims in Europe and America are at opposite spectrums when it comes to many issues – level of education, where they stand in terms of per capita income, their personal histories. While American Muslims are- on an average- wealthier, better educated and tend to come from solidly middle class backgrounds, European Muslims are overwhelmingly from poorer backgrounds, lesser educated and seen as dependent on ‘welfare’ of the European system. While the backgrounds and histories of these groups of immigrants is very different, what makes American Muslims ( who are the most diverse racial and ethnic group in the country) unique is their internal diversity. According to a recent PEW Research study, American Muslims are the most diverse racial group in the U.S. This is not true of many Muslims in Europe. According to a recent article in The Economist, most immigrants to European countries tend to be from one or two dominant ethnic groups. The Turks in Germany, Moroccans in Spain etc. This makes it easy to stereotype them into a single category. The article mentions the assimilation of Muslims in the U.S, by pointing out that “The Islamic Boy Scouts had a stand, as did a Muslim liberal-arts college from California. People discussed how to erect mosques without infringing America’s arcane building regulations, or swapped business cards in the food court. The star turn was a Southern Baptist, Jimmy Carter (whose grandson is in the news, too: see page 42). The only overt hostility to Israel came from two Hasidic Jews in fur shtreimel hats, who had come from Brooklyn to announce their solidarity with the people of Gaza.”

Islamophobia is a growing phenomenon that has exacerbated in Europe and the U.S. after a few key incidents. In Europe, one can consider the Iranian Revolution, the Madrid train bombings in 2004 that killed almost 200 people, the Paris metro bombings earlier in 1995 and the recent London tube bombings as key turning points for the growth in ambivalence and negative attitudes towards Muslims, while in the U.S., September 11, 2001 stands out as the single paradigmatic event that changed everything for Muslims, argue Yvonne Haddad and Nazir Harb, in their paper Post-9/11 : Making Islam an American Religion. They argue that “When the government was trying to define the ‘enemy’ in the Global War on Terror, Muslims were placed under the microscope,” pointing to the institutionalized scrutiny that thousands of Muslims went through after 9/11 and that continues in some ways, even now.

The Economist article further says “America’s Muslims differ from Europe’s in both quantity and origin. The census does not ask about faith, but estimates put the number of Muslims in the country at around 1% of the population, compared with 4.5% in Britain and 5% in Germany. Moreover, American Islam is not dominated by a single sect or ethnicity. When the Pew Research Centre last tried to count, in 2011, it found Muslims from 77 countries in America. Most western European countries, by contrast, have one or two dominant groups—Algerians in France, Moroccans and Turks in Holland.” The article argues that mixing of religious traditions within Islam breeds tolerance – arguably true – in the case of U.S., while a dominance of one or two ethnicities does not promote it – as in the case of European countries.

In the U.S. the ‘Islamophobia industry’ has taken various forms, including attacks on the personal law that Muslims follow i.e., Shariah and positioning it as ‘medieval and barbaric’. There is a clear attempt to map Muslims as ‘moderate vs. extremists’ and cultivate the ‘moderate’ ones as being ‘loyal’ to the U.S. This false dichotomy and tactics to associate practice of Islam with violence and terrorism has been ongoing for a while and well-funded by extreme rightwing groups. The trend has been well documented by a Center for American Progress Report Fear Inc.

Coming back to the example of Tariq Ramadhan, who has argued for a nuanced understanding of violence and its role in our societies. As he argues in an Op-Ed in The Guardian, “The problem today is not one of “essential values”, but of the gap between these values and everyday social and political practice. Justice is applied variably depending on whether one is black, Asian or Muslim. Equal opportunity is often a myth. Young citizens from cultural and religious “minorities” run up against the wall of institutionalized racism. Rather than insisting that Muslims yield to a “duty to integrate”, society must shoulder its “duty of consistency”. It is up to British society to reconcile itself with its own self-professed values; it is up to politicians to practice what they preach.” For this, Ramadhan has been called a terrorist sympathizer, a Muslim brotherhood member and worse. If this is an indication of how the Europeans react to demands for reflection and critical thinking, then something is surely wrong. The problem in Europe seems to be one of excluding the Muslims and their leaders from public discourse. There have been some attempts by Muslim leaders in the US and Europe to amend some of stereotypes about them – the supposed anti-Semitism in some Muslim societies being the most egregious one- by visiting Auschwitz, as this newsitem shows. One must also remember that Jews, despite being a minority seem to be thriving, in an environment of Post WWII awareness of the horrors of Holocaust. Germany in particular is rather sensitive to any charges of ‘anti-semitism’ and this trend seems to be prevalent in Europe. There is no comparable movement to address Islamophobia, which seems to be growing by the day.  This is a welcome move as it would demonstrate, rather publicly that Muslims don’t have anything per se against the Jews. But such attempts seem to be few and far in-between and they could also be seen as reactionary, rather than proactively thought through.

As an example of the kind of discourse that French and (some) American media have created about him, see here, here. These are but two examples – a simple google search will demonstrate the amount of vitriol and negative propaganda against a leader, who is trying to showcase the diversity of opinion within the house of Islam in Europe. And mind you, he is a professor at Oxford University and an accomplished scholar. If such a scholar is reviled and guilt by association is used as a tool to link him with all forms of organizations, that are violent; it seems like there is a conscious attempt to delegitimize him as an individual and also as a leader of the community.

Further, as Talal Asad argues in his essay “Muslims as a ‘religious minority’ in Europe”, the very identity of Europe is built so as to exclude those who are not ‘European enough’, ethnic Muslims from other countries, for instance. This situation is exacerbated by a history of conflict between Europe and the East – Ottoman Empire for instance, that conquered a part of the continent. Despite the geographic proximity, Bosnia is not ‘one among the European nations’ though it is in Europe, it is not entirely European. The same holds true for Turkey’s attempts to enter the E.U. He quotes from a 1992 Time magazine article “ However it may be expressed, there is a feeling in Western Europe, rarely stated explicitly, that Muslims whose roots lie in Asia do not belong in the Western family, some of whose members spent centuries trying to drive the Turks out of a Europe they threatened to overwhelm. Turkish membership would dilute the E.C’s Europeanness”. This quote captures more than sufficiently the anxieties and the thinking that underlies the paranoia of ‘Muslims taking over Europe’. The current media representations about Muslims in Europe are not very helpful either, relying as they are on stereotypes of Muslims and fear mongering by even mainstream media about the immigrant threat etc.

American Muslim Leadership and co-optation by the establishment

‘Civil Religion’ is a framework that can help us understand how religion in general and Islam in particular has been coopted by the American state, to serve its purpose. Given the relatively high religiosity among people in the U.S. and a general tolerance of religious rhetoric, it is interesting to study how the ‘new religions’ have been accommodated in the American landscape. Before that, let us understand the notion of ‘civil religion’. Scholars such as Robert Bellah have pointed out that one can find a ‘civil religion’ in the U.S. that pervades our society, and it is more a cultural rather than a dogmatic view of religion (Bellah, 1967). Using the example of President John F Kennedy’s inauguration, where he used the word ‘God’ three times, Bellah asks: “Considering the separation of church and state, how is a president justified in using the word “God” at all? .”(p.1). The answer, he argues, is that the separation of church and state has not denied the political realm a religious dimension. There has been a strong trend of accommodating religious rhetoric in politics, Bellah further adds. He further defines Civic Religion as: “This public religious dimension is expressed in a set of beliefs, symbols, and rituals that I am calling American civil religion[i].” Bellah says that Kennedy’s whole address can be seen as an address that argues for man’s obligation to others, and that this obligation transcends any political affiliation or hierarchy.

I would argue that there is a conscious attempt on part of the American Muslim groups to reach out to the political establishment – especially since 9/11 – in an attempt to gain legitimacy. Several scholars have made this argument too and it is a testament to this efforts that religious leaders and organizations have access to the White House, sections of the Obama Administration and some Congressmen and Senators. In turn, there has also been a conscious effort on part of the state apparatus to work with and embrace some of the organizations, who seem to legitimize the actions of the state. Historically, there has been an antagonistic relationship with muslim groups – think Nation of Islam and others in the 1960s’. It was with the arrival of new immigrants in the 1970s onwards that this trend shifted and there was a conscious effort on part of the state apparatus to reach out to the Muslim groups and vice versa.

Presently, American Muslim organizations tend to include messaging about religious tolerance, equality in an attempt to address this ‘Civil religion’ in America. While some scholars and activists have denounced this as ‘appeasement’ by the establishment, one can argue that this forms a bulwark against demonizing the entire community and could function as an important lever for negotiating the fragile relationship of Muslims and the state apparatus.

Bellah, like others such as Robert Wuthnow (2005) points out that trend of mixing religious messaging in the public sphere can be understood in a sense to be a deeply American tradition, an obligation of carrying out God’s will on earth. This, manifest destiny, he argues, was the spirit that motivated those who founded America and it has been present since. Bellah is right in examining this aspect of a strong sense of civic religion in the U.S., but the changing demographics, religious landscape in the country presents a different picture of religion in the U.S. than one of a uniformly religious country. Demographic, socio-economic changes in the last four to five decades have complicated the religious landscape in the country and this has also in effect made the situation more complex. The inclusion of Muslims in America can be argued for – and has been argued – using this very notion of Civil religion, apart from the constitutionally mandated notion of religious freedom. This notion is also one that allows Muslims to practice their religion freely – and issues such as the headscarf etc. seem to be nonissues in the U.S. (for the most part, at least). There are rare occasions when it does become an issue, but mostly, American Muslims are able to carry on with their lives, with no major hindrance.

So while Muslim leaders on both continents are grappling with similar issues – one of stereotyping, Islamophobia and also growing youth unrest and perception that the law enforcement authorities are not treating them well, the reactions and approaches taken by each are different. One can argue- based on what I have also learnt this from conversations with a dear friend who is German, being originally from a Muslim country – that no matter how ‘European’ one is, it is never enough. This includes assimilation efforts in terms of acquiring the native language, following the social customs of the adopted country etc.

The American approach seems to be one of co-optation and working with the establishment to gain legitimacy, while in Europe, this doesn’t seem to be possible. In Europe, the minorities and their leaders don’t seem to be welcome in the public sphere, and the only position they seem to be offered is one of the ‘other’, with no agency or will to determine their future.

[i] Bellah Robert, Civil Religion,. Accessible at Accessed on Jan 29, 2013

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What can Islam offer to the World? Part 1

Most often, when journalists write about Islam, it is in connection with something negative. As Edward Said argued, many years ago in Orientalism, there is a tendency in the Western academia and media to focus on the stereotypes of Islam and the Muslim world, at the expense of the ‘reality’ that exists in the Muslim majority countries. At the same time, when groups such as ISIS and Al-Qaeda go about doing the most inhumane and barbaric acts in the name of Islam, it doesn’t help either. The ones bearing the brunt of these negative stereotypes are over a billion people – who for the most part – I would argue are not as blood thirsty, violent and bigoted as the media portrays them to be. In this vitiated and negative environment, where it is easy to blame everything on Islam and Muslims’ negative attitude towards progress, modernity; is it not necessary to step back and ask the question: What can Islam offer to the world? Not what it has offered, already, but what it can offer– in the here and now – and in the future. In this brief piece, I will focus on economic justice as one of the areas where Islam can offer some solutions.

social justice

Is a dispassionate debate possible and is it worth-while talking about the ‘benefits’ that the Islamic moral and economic system can bring about? While the debates about Islamic economics and its comparisons with the conventional economic system that is dominated by Neoliberal understandings is not possible in this short piece, I will focus specifically on the notion of economic resilience and community solidarity to bring home the thesis that I am proposing. In the context of the debates about inequality, poverty and violence, I am interested in finding out if Islamic systems of economics or social justice can offer some guidance to the world, at large?

            The question that I am interested in raising, and one that I heard in April, at the Association of American Geographers annual meeting is this : Can Islam offer anything to our world in the 21st century? And specifically, our economic world? This may offend some believers that is understandable. But for those who are not Muslim, the question of Islam’s relevance in today’s world is a very valid question. Especially, when there is an environment of extreme negative stereotyping of the faith – even those who are peaceful believers are forced to ask: What is going wrong? Are the political dynamics within Muslim majority countries so skewed that they cannot manage to live peacefully, or is something wrong with the cultural dynamics of these societies – following Samuel Huntington’s infamous ‘Clash of Civilizations’ hypothesis, that there is a perpetual tension between the ‘Muslim world’ and the rest of the world.

For those who are familiar with Islam’s glorious past, this question is not relevant; since Islam has already contributed much to current Science, Mathematics, Culture, Art, Music, Sports and every conceivable human enterprise. That is not the point. The point I am trying to raise is one of how Islam can continue to be a positive force in the world of 21st century. Given the popular and at times academic critiques of Islam as a ‘civilization’ that needs reform and one that needs to ‘catch up’ with the Western civilization, this question gains importance. I will borrow the concept that Dr. Jane Pollard, of the New Castle University used at the AAG presentation that she made: that of ‘Resilience’. She asked, and quite rightly, if the London’s financial district could learn something from the poor Somali refugees who inhabit the East side of London. These poor, displaced immigrants are hardly the paragons for financial literacy, but, she argued, their habits of philanthropy, supporting one another during times of distress, can teach us lessons in resilience. She shared results from her research that many of the 60 odd individuals that she interviewed give away about one third of their meagre salaries/earnings in tithing or charitable activities, often to help their relatives/friends who are in distress. This concept of resilience of poor individuals and communities can be applied to conceptualizing and building on how communities can survive and perhaps even thrive through trying times, harsh legal and other conditions, she argued.

            My question also gains salience in the context of growing globalization, growing heterogeneity as well as pluralism, around the world. What can Islam teach us about living amidst and with differences? For those who are not aware, Muslims are spread throughout the planet and in fact American Muslims are the most racially and ethnically diverse religious group in the U.S., according to research by the Pew Research group. Can Islam’s heterodoxy and pluralism be reinvigorated? Also, while pluralism within Islam is a fact in America, it may not be so evident in other countries, where there is more homogeneity and lack of diversity of opinion and tolerance.


Solidarity, community and faith

Using the notion of cosmopolitanism and cross-border territoriality, Pollard and her colleagues argue that “An alternative form of economic rationality is being constructed and practiced across diverse sociospatial contexts to produce what we term cosmopolitan financial geographies. Building from recent debates about territoriality, embeddedness, and relationality in economic geography, we respond to calls for a more complex treatment of agency, developing the concept of cosmopolitan legalities to capture the dynamic multiterritorial, relational governance of Islamic banking and finance (IBF) that melds Western and Islamic financial rules and practices through the embodied religious authority of Shari’a scholars.” This economic rationality is based on a global ethic of recognizing the Ummah or community of believers as one – irrespective of geographic boundaries. Taking a cue from her work, one can argue that globalization and flow of ideas, concepts and knowledge existed centuries before the term globalization emerged on the scene, with Western powers promoting it. Networks of knowledge and learning were already well established in the Muslim world, as I have written about, in my earlier post on Ibn Battuta, the peripatetic traveler. These networks were also, interestingly, networks of patronage, learning as well as charity. They formed an organic whole and the various parts of the Islamic system learnt, shared and benefited from the nodes of interaction that existed.


How can this exchange happen?

In our globally integrated and ‘embedded’ world, there are mechanisms for sharing of knowledge, insights and a genuine dialogue to occur, if parties are interested. This sort of exchange has been going on, at the level of nation-states, individuals, businesses and scholars. There are many scholars, who are working on comparative religion, sociology of knowledge, development studies and related disciplines that draw upon and build theories of knowledge, societal development and economic development that benefit all of mankind. As Abdullahi An’naim has argued in this short paper, Islamic concepts of zakat can be reimagined for addressing concerns of social justice. Issues of homelessness, poverty, extreme hunger and the like can be addressed through zakat and sadaqa, the religious norms of giving for Muslims throughout the world. In fact, Charity is the third ‘pillar’ of Islam and is fundamental to the practice of religion. With such a strong orientation towards social justice embedded in the faith and its practice, it may seem logical to see how Islamic economic and moral systems can be engaged in addressing some of the key problems before us. And this is precisely what thousands of NGOs, intellectuals and organizations are attempting, around the world.

As Lena Rethel has argued, if one were to look at purely the legitimacy aspects of Islamic finance, then there is no real difference between how Islamic finance tools are being built. They are just replacing the conventional tools, replicating one form of legitimacy with another, she says. This epistemological hegemony of legitimacy is counterproductive to producing a real alternative to the existing Neoliberal framework.

The key insight that Pollard’s research points to, is that we may perhaps have to focus more on microeconomics, looking at how small communities, individuals make decisions, rather than focusing solely on macroeconomic policies and programs. While there are lessons that macroeconomic planners may derive from these small scale projects, the key may be to look at the imbalances at the individual level and aim to build self-sustaining communities that are not as embedded in the current financial system.

Posted in Arab Philnathropy, Charity, Ethics, Middle East, Middle East peace, Morocco, philanthropy, Religion, Sociology, Sufism, United Nations, USA, War on terror | Leave a comment

Why argue against a $100 million campaign?

I don’t believe in kicking puppies. On the other hand, I believe that every worth cause, irrespective of geography, political affiliation should be supported. But when there is an egregious over-display of marketing tactics, brain-numbing imitation and exhortation to do acts of ‘charity’, I believe it is time to step back and question the premise on which the campaigns are based. The most recent meme of the ‘Ice Bucket challenge’ is a classic case of such a tactic. While it is great that ALS Foundation has raised some money through this – estimated at about $100 million, I believe that despite the phenomenal success, there are some serious issues with the campaign and its methodology. At the root of this campaign is a lot of narcissism and self-indulgence, which takes away from the actual aims of the campaign – to bring awareness about the disease and raise money.

            Firstly, the Ice Bucket challenge focuses on a , i.e., throwing water over oneself- and has become more important than awareness about the disease itself or even more than the primary purpose of why it was started, in the first place – to raise money. Agreed that the campaign has surpassed all expectations and raised about $100 mn, but the question remains: How much of the money raised will be used for pursuing research and development of the disease, hence actually impacting those effected by the disease, and how much is used up for other purposes – more marketing and publicity? Whilst the campaign’s success has already spawned similar imitations such as the Rice Bucket Challenge in India, the narcissism inherent in the campaign is actually a downer for many. The ‘challenge’ becomes more about the donor or the ‘challenger’ and less and less about the cause – ALS in this case- and the recipient or the disease that the campaign is trying to address. By taking away the discourse of the campaign from the disease and those who are suffering, and making it all about the participants, the Ice bucket challenge distracts from the real motivation for doing the act.

Secondly, there are limits to the amount of attention and celebrity endorsements that this campaign can garner. As this Op-Ed in the New York Times argues, celebrity branding of certain causes may not actually help it. Researchers Professor Dan Brockington, of The University of Manchester, Professor Spensor Henson, University of Sussex, and Dr Martin Scott, University of East Anglia, show this in their survey of over 1000 individuals in the United Kingdom (U.K). They show that over that 66% of those surveyed could not link any celebrity with a list of seven well-known charities and aid organizations (NGOs) the researchers mentioned. Further, they add :”Our survey found that while awareness of major NGOs brands was high, awareness of celebrity advocates for those brands was low,” they said in their article, published online in the International Journal of Cultural Studies. Marketing and Public Relations professionals often confuse brand visibility with brand loyalty and association. While many people would remember that Angelina Jolie does a lot for orphans around the world, the same number may not know that she is the UN’s global goodwill Ambassador. All celebrities who have supported the cause including Bill Gates, Justin Beiber and LeBron James seem to have contributed their bit to the cause. But how does one know if they did it more to promote themselves or the ‘cause’? While intentions cannot be measured and there is no foolproof way to figure out how much the celebrities actually do things for a cause and how much of their self-interest is involved; it is safe to say that celebrity endorsements are short-lived and people tend to forget, rather quickly. However, the ‘social’ aspect of this campaign has worked, and that is a valuable lesson for other charities to adopt – especially when it comes to fundraising techniques. Peer pressure in this case – to do good- may not be entirely wrong, after all.

            Finally, the Ice Bucket challenge represents a sort of ‘mimetic desire’, a concept that French philosopher Rene Girard has written about. This desire refers to an almost irrational desire to possess something that the ‘other’ has. And in effect, this irrationality guides much of consumer behavior. We want a fancy phone because our friend has one and it would be ‘desired’ by others, or a fancy car because it is desired by others. Although in the short-term the campaign has succeeded and it is a sign of the growing need of creativity and innovation in fund-raising, the long-term consequences of such tactics are likely to be negative. Among other things that can go wrong in the near future are donor fatigue, lack of genuine awareness of the disease and an almost mindless tendency to imitate others. These are not a good sign for a thoughtful campaign that address a very serious issue. At this level, the Ice Bucket Challenge falls short. Its success in raising money should not take away from the fact that it is based on a faulty, yet sexy premise – replacing the responsibility that is truly ours – to address a deadly disease- by an almost narcissistic drive to feel important and get a sense that we have done ‘something’, by doing something silly.

        Even though the Ice Bucket Challenge seems to about altruism, it also seems to be tapping into people’s narcissism and self-indulgence. This may be good for the ALF Foundation, but not good for philanthropy as a whole.This trend is indicating to donors and potential fund-raisers that the donor has to be ‘engaged’ in ways that could amount to ludicrous – just to get them to sign a check or donate money.

Posted in ARNOVA, Charity, Democracy, Education, Ethics | Leave a comment

Is the global chai shop out of currency?

I wrote this three days ago, at Jeddah Airport, waiting for the connecting flight to Chennai. Half awake and half asleep, I am conscious of the hundreds of people around me – possibly thousands, who are anxiously waiting to leave the Airport and reach their destination. I see a fleet of Saudi Arabian Aircraft waiting to be air bound outside, with just one thought – I want some coffee to wake me up. But the 27 Moroccan Dirhams in my pocket cannot save me from myself, in this particular situation.

Photo credit :

Photo credit :

                I went up to the local Traveler’s Corner restaurant in the waiting lounge and the South Asian man at the counter announces that Moroccan Dirhams are not acceptable currency, which means I have to go to the ATM located outside of the Duty Free Shop, that is about 500 yards away. Not sure of the ATM there and the effects of using my card on it – I resist. In the past few days, I have read far too many articles about card fraud and internet theft to actually walk into some random ATM and try transacting anything. I just want to have coffee, with my cash or the credit cards in my pocket – I have two of them. “No sir! Cash only,” announces the man. “But I have cash, here you go” I say, handing him the Dirhams”.

“Moroccan money, not acceptable sir”, he declares and I curse under my breath. A halal curse. I am in the holy land, after all. I consider using the ATM, but don’t want to risk losing my card or three dollars as service fee for getting four dollars out of the damn machine, I stop myself. This seems to be such a wasted effort. And I am not any wiser, post the struggle to inject some coffee into my sleep-deprived system. God! Grant me some coffee. This is the prayer escaping my lips right now.

                On another note, I think Tom Friedman and others like him, who extol the ‘flat world’ are so wrong. I wonder if they have tried having coffee or chai at this chai shop in Jeddah. Why, if this ‘flat, inter-connected world’ is a reality, am I struggling to use cash that I have , or cards that are sitting in my pocket – to buy something as simple as a coffee? Why are Moroccan Dirhams not acceptable currency – a Muslim currency in a Muslim world, when Dollars are welcome, while Dirhams are not. Is it the dollar’s hegemony, yet again? My brain is too tired to think about all of this. But I cannot resist. Reading all that macro-economic theories in class – years ago has had some side-effects. Those lectures from my former IMF economist professor come flashing back, in such moments.

May be their theories emerge from drinking too much coffee at JFK or Dulles Airports. Or the well connected and integrated Dubai or Qatar International airports. For some dose of ‘reality’ I think Friedman and his gang need to head over to Jeddah. More when I am awake. Right now, I am sedated with the smells of Oudh wafting through the air, the sounds of Qur’an recitation and blaring screens, announcing destinations around the world – all in Green, the Saudi national color. I am feeling slightly overwhelmed. A little bit of coffee would help, but I will have to wait. The global chai shop is out of currency, it seems.


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“There are over 50 words for Love in Arabic language, while English has only 12” – Dr. Fatima Mernissi

Scholars and intellectuals form a community – no matter where they live; their learning and seeking of truth unites them in a bond that is hard to break. This was the philosophy that Ibn Battuta lived by, and I put this to test recently. True to my old habit, I tried to read up as much as I could about the country I had always wanted to visit. While Lonely Planet satisfied my travel curiosity, I looked for something more substantial, in terms of intellectual rigor, so turned to Mernissi, a famous scholar from Morocco – who did not disappoint. Dr. Fatima Mernissi’s Islam and Democracy – Fear of the Modern world, is a classic in Islamic studies and offers an unparalleled insider’s perspective on Islam in the Muslim world. I then decided to write to her – on a whim- and did so, about three days ago, on arrival here in Rabat. For those who do not know her, Mernissi is one of the most important Islamic feminists alive today and is a trail blazer, who has contributed to understanding gender dynamics in the Islamic world.


            Not only did Mernissi invite me to meet her, but also recommended that I meet two of her friends/colleagues who are working on civil society issues in Morocco. I jumped at the chance and went to meet her, with Fabiola. The entire meeting with her lasted about three hours and spanned several topics. A gist of the same is offered here.

            The first thing that struck me about her was her enthusiasm and intellectual vitality, despite her advanced age – she was born in 1940. She had the curiosity of someone half her age and the depth of understanding and knowledge that only comes with age. On knowing my Indian and Arab heritage, we spoke about the ways in which the Indian subcontinent was connected to the Arab world, through trade, commerce and intellectual endeavors. The Indians played a key role in translating many of the classical Greek texts to Arabic during Andalusian era, circa 11-13 centuries A.D. I also learnt that there are over 50 words for love in Arabic, while there are only 12 in the English language. Some of them include Al Mahabba ( Affection), Achaghaf ( Infatuation), Al Kalaf ( fondness), Achaju ( Distress), Al huzn ( sadness), Al araq (sleeplessness), Al law’a (ardent love), Al huyam ( bewildering passion) among others. She also handed us a booklet of calligraphy that captures these 50 words, beautifully illustrated by the work of an artists Fatima Louardighi and Mohamed Bannour.

            Her love for Islam and the Arab, North African culture and heritage is evident in her work as well as her life. An avid reader, her apartment was full of books, paintings and handicrafts – all made locally. I did spot an elegant painting, of medieval India that decorated her living room.

            We spoke about the Arab spring and her ideas of the uprising were also somewhat eclectic. She seemed very optimistic about the uprisings and how they are creating a counter-movement to violent extremism. “The youth fighting in Syria and Iraq are misguided and manipulated. They must be reformed and given opportunities to integrate and not punished,” she added. While the Western media and some in the Arab world also paint a very negative image of what is going on, Mernissi seemed very optimistic.

            “The dream of forming a global cosmic village may have failed in the 1960s and 70s, but I am confident that it will take place again and Islam will be the factor responsible for it,” she added. In this perspective, the global digital technologies are playing a key role, she added further; pointing to the success of TV Anchors and musicians such as Amr Khaled, who are not only successful but also rich, thanks to their religiously attuned music and performances. She also spoke of the re-emergence of Adab, which could loosely translate as ‘respect’ or ‘way of dealing with others’. This has roots in 9th century Arab world, under the Abbasids, who expanded travel, ethical behavior and also the discipline of self-teaching. Caliph Al Mansur the second Abbasid ruler launched a huge translation project from Greek to Arabic and Sanskrit texts. In this way of thinking, the stranger was to be treated as an equal of oneself, she argues. In Jahiz’s book “The art of communication and demonstration” (Kitab al Bayan wa Tabyin) written in the 9th century, Adab – through treating the stranger as one’s equal was the key to learning, discovery and also empowering oneself.

            Sufism is key in transforming this idea of movement and regenerating oneself, Mernissi pointed out. The travels of Sufis to the far East not only spread Islam, but also aspects of culture, religion and sciences that were unknown to them. My own family’s heritage is one of travel – around the South Asian and Middle Eastern regions. Had my ancestors not traded and worked as mercenaries, I would not be here.

Quoting from her favorite Sufi scholar, Ibn Arabi, Mernissi said “The principle of the universe is movement…if it stops moving it will return to non-existence”. This seemed to sum up my travel agenda too. A befitting principle to follow in a globalized world of travelers and seekers.

Speaking of the ‘image’ problem that Islam and Muslims face, Mernissi pointed out that this needs to change. Much of the distortion of Image can be fought by looking critically at what we are being told. “For instance, look at what Picketty and other economists are telling us today. They are using the language of ethics and morals – the very essence of all religions. So, why is religion getting a bad name?”, she enquired.

Mernissi also took us on a short guided tour of the poor district in Rabat, the Yacoub Mansour neighborhood – where pirated CDs, jewelry made in China and other locally made handicrafts were sold – on the streets. It reminded me of the similarities with the bazaars in India or in Mexico. And all through the short trip, she kept asking the shopkeepers, “ Where do you think these two are from,” and for the most part, they kept saying “They look like they are from here”. It was reassuring to know that me and Fabiola actually blend in. The chaos on the streets, the noises and pets on the street reminded me of India and of what I have seen/read of Mexico. We were surely feeling at home and it was good to be reminded that we did come across as the next door neighbors. It seemed to be a great start to learning more about this fascinating country.

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Musings on Amtrak: Seth Meyers, Lynchburg and my travel disability

I am off to India by way of Morocco. This is a modest attempt at following one of my heroes – Ibn Battuta – a Moroccan traveler and scholar, who lived in the 14th century. Why is he my hero? for that you must watch this fascinating talk. In short, this scholar-traveler did about 73,000 kilometers on Camels and Ships– yes, you read that right, this was before the Steam engine was invented. And he lived in India for a good 12 years. I am following his footsteps, in a very modest way- though in reverse.


            I boarded the train to Washington D.C. this morning, from Philadelphia with three pieces of luggage, feeling a bit ‘disabled’ with my lack of ability to move freely. And yes, you guessed it right, I sat in the ‘disabled’ seats right in the front – with lots of legroom – ah, relief at last. I eyed my surroundings to make sure there weren’t another other ‘genuinely’ disabled folk. Thankfully there weren’t any. I did a double-take to make sure I wasn’t breaking rules. I hate breaking rules, when there is no need. If there is a genuine need, and I feel morally obliged to- I break them- with impunity. Nelson Mandela did, so did Gandhi. So, I must be in good company. Anyway I sat down, feeling a bit self-assured.

            A few minutes later, the moral inspector in me started poking me to get up and move back. ‘What if there are three disabled people at the next station’ said the little voice in my head. As I often do, I moved back. Just two seats behind. I couldn’t lift the heavy luggage I had to put it overhead, so just put it on the next seat and sat down, looking out of the window and thinking about my upcoming adventures. Not as frightful and risky as undertaken by Mr. Battuta, but exciting, nevertheless.

            The conductor came. He saw that I had placed my bag on the next seat and asked me to put it on top or ‘move to the front’ i.e., to the disabled seats. Bummer, I told him I couldn’t lift it easily so he asked me to move. So I did. Back to square one. My instincts were right. I was happy to be back to my former location. I should’ve let my initial inertia guide me. Anyway. Nothing lost. In the meanwhile, an older black lady was sitting on the adjacent seats – an Iraq war veteran, who had all sorts of paraphernalia on her. She seemed to want to take a nap, so I did not intrude her. Under normal circumstances, I would have at least said hello and made small talk. She seemed to be an older lady – about 60 or so, and came on a wheelchair, that was sitting right in front of her. The little voice in my head asked me ‘How will she get off’? Will she call the conductor, or do I need to help her get off? Also, how is it to travel as a disabled person? If just three pieces of luggage are making me so ‘disabled’ how the hell to really disabled people manage to get around? Tough luck indeed. God bless the disabled. And the veterans.

            I flipped open the Acela travel magazine with a Seth Meyers photo on the cover – sharp, well dressed, in all blue. I love blue- one of my favorite colors – so I went straight to the cover story on Mr.Meyers. I read with interest how he came to be the person he is. His ‘authenticity’ seems to be the ‘secret’ behind his humor. I suppose it is for most great comedians – Ali G, Charlie Chaplin and Muhammad Ali – though Ali was more of a boxer than a comedian. But I rank him highly as a comedian – more than others would. But that is me.Sorry to be so opinionated. I have been this was since I was four years old. My (late) mom told me so. As I am growing older, Iam trying to be less so, and be more open to other ideas. But I suppose we are all created a certain way. And we must live with who we are. I am trying my best to live with myself. Sometimes it can be hard, for the most part, I am an ok guy. Nice enough to others, but not to myself. I need to learn to be nice to myself. Take my luggage situation for instance.

            My current ‘luggage disability’ owes to a favor I am doing for a friend – whose 16 yr old son requested me to buy a certain electronic equipment – which I agreed to, without knowing how bulky it would be. My heart sank when the shipment came. I didn’t imagine I would have to lug this monstrosity all the way thousands of miles. Along with my luggage. Beat that. Being nice can be a bit hard at times and with my penchant for traveling light, this is the worst thing that could happen. But what to do, I have promised a 16 yr old kid – who I have never met – a gift and I have to keep up my word. So, here I am sitting, with three pieces of luggage, instead of two and feeling sort of sorry for myself. Perhaps I should stop moaning and get on with it. Like a true traveler.

                        I have also noticed that I suddenly become philosophical when I travel. My reservoir of profoundness seems to burst forth when I am on the move. Is it just me, or does it happen with others too? I need to ask a few dear friends about this- only if I remember to. Made a note of that in my journal. One thought that came to me is a hadith (saying of the Prophet Muhammad) that life should be lived as if we are travelers – in the sense that we are passing through life – and not getting too attached to people or places. I have tried to incorporate some of this in my life, but I guess attachment is a human weakness. Hard to completely be detached – as most religions in the world teach us – Hinduism has a very strong element of this detachment philosophy too. ‘World rejection’ is the word that Sociologists of religion use to describe this phenomenon.

            I flipped through my phone and noticed on Twitter that Anthony Bourdain said something thoughtful about the ongoing ‘War’ on Gaza. More like Israeli assault on the folk there. Four kids were killed, while playing on the beach and Israeli President Shimon Peres apologized this morning for this. What about the other 200 odd deaths? They were all ‘collateral damage’ I suppose. I am growing sick of the media coverage, the hatred and venom from people on social media. And the valiant efforts of some people trying to post pictures of Jews and Muslims hugging are also somewhat disingenuous. This is NOT a religious conflict, except that some ultra-orthodox Jews are making it a zero-sum game by insisting that God gave the land to them. I think this is about land – and should be viewed as such- and as good intentioned as these efforts are at showing that Jews and Muslims can break bread (and fasts) together, they don’t help much. They only dumb down the arguments and make the reader look stupid. But I guess in America one needs this level of discourse too. Most Americans can’t place Palestine/Israel on a map.

            Finally, there was an ad for Lynchburg, Virginia – a town close to where I live. Why doesn’t Lynchburg change its name? to something live Loveburg or something. I mean, the term ‘lynching’ apparently came after the practice of lynching that took place in the town – many ages ago- wouldn’t that be a good case for re-branding a town’s name? If that isn’t a good reason, I don’t know what is.

And yes, like Ibn Battuta, I intended to stop by Mecca for Umrah, but unfortunately that will have to wait. I need a visa, unlike Mr.Battuta, who traveled within the Islamic empire of his day, sans passport, visa or the hassles of security checks. In some ways we surely seem to have regressed, as a species. Freedom of movement is restricted these days. So is the freedom to really think for oneself. It takes a great effort and courage to speak one’s mind it seems. Too much censorship, self-censorship around us going on. Are we really free, as we imagine? Free to travel, think and live? As a former PR man, I am suspicious of all the branding and advertising of this ‘freedom’ we speak of. More on this later.

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