Thursday, September 07, 2006

If You've Seen One A-rab...

Earlier this year, my wife and I decided that it was time to think about moving. Having lived in Southwest Virginia for a few years now, we're ready for something new. More to the point, we are concerned about our daughter's education and socialization. The schools in my area aren't too good, and the fact that she doesn't have any relatives nearby means that she'll have a very small dating pool when the time comes (The fact that we have become able to view incest in such a clear-eyed way is prima facie evidence that we need to leave).

Anyway, one of the first places we looked was Dubai. We both like to travel, and want to expose our daughter to as much of the world as possible. There are a lot of jobs available to westerners in Dubai, and its strong economy and friendly atmosphere made it very attractive. My friend, Omar, lives there, and was able to give me a pretty clear-eyed analysis of the region. Finally, Dubai is attempting to pursue a middle course, wedding Western-style liberalism to Islamic tradition. Given the problems in the Arab world, this seems to be a pretty amazing goal, and one that we wanted to get involved with. We started to look further into options over there.

When I'm considering a radical change, I tend to ask my three personal advisors for their thoughts. These include my Aunt, my Godmother, and one of my former graduate professors. I called or e-mailed all three to get their feedback. My Aunt and Godmother were quick to tell me that it sounded like a good thing to look into, and that it was about time to leave the state (apparently, they were also worried about my daughter's dating pool). Both had heard good things about Dubai; my aunt, in fact, had friends who lived there.

My former professor e-mailed about a week later. She seemed surprised that I was considering moving to a Muslim country, and questioned my decision to consider moving my family to "a place that so overtly detests females."

Because of a family trip, I was able to take a week off to think about my response. I wanted to tread carefully, as this was a good friend and a trusted advisor, not to mention one of the people who had taught me how to think critically. When I came back, I sent her a chatty e-mail about my trip. At the end of the note, I wrote that I was surprised by her letter, and that "I decided to hold off on responding until I had some time to consider my reaction. I decided that I really wanted to know what you were thinking, as that was a startlingly illiberal and patently racist remark."

While I admit that my response was a little harsh, it was also true, and I've started getting a little uncomfortable with couching my thoughts in pretty, easily-digestible words. Perhaps I was also thinking of my friend Omar. At any rate, she fired back the next day: "Any group that practices female circumcision will get my similarly 'racist' reaction, regardless of how much money they'd be willing to pay you. But sexism and female mutilation must not bother you as much as it does me."

Ouch! My first impulse, given my respect for this professor, was to check my facts. However, a quick search of the internet confirmed my earlier understanding--female circumcision is a sub-Saharan phenomenon. To the extent that it exists in Dubai, it is a function of the Sub-Saharan "guest workers" who move there. The same thing, by the way, is true of the United States.

Anyway, I told her about the whole female circumcision thing, and went on to discuss Dubai's supposed sexism. While Dubai's attitude toward women is not as liberal as that of the United States, it is downright radical in the Muslim world. More to the point, my former professor had absorbed an attitude that has become increasingly common in the years since September 11th, 2001. She believed, as do many supposed liberals, that all Arabs are the same, that they all hate women, and that they all are bent on destroying the United States. I guess that I might have the same thoughts if I didn't know a lot of Arabs However, I have Omar, an Arab friend with a fairly liberal family; in fact, his parents maintain a home in the DC area so his sister can go to college. For that matter, my friend Randa's father moved his family from Saudi Arabia to the U.S. so she could get a college education. Having met Randa's parents and siblings, I've realized that Arabs, and their attitudes toward women, are a lot more complex than many Americans are willing to admit. Randa and Omar's families remind me of the loving, if overprotective, families that I grew up with. They want the best for their daughters. Or, to quote JFK, that famous liberal, president, and tenth-degree grand dragon in the Player's club for men, "Our most basic common link is that we all inhabit this planet. We all breathe the same air. We all cherish our children's future. And we are all mortal."

Damn, that man had some good speechwriters!

While my little discussion with my professor was going on, the United States Congress was raising a fuss about George II's decision to put Dubai in charge of America's ports. Their complaint (couched in less-offensive terms) was that Dubai is an Arab country, Arabs are terrorists, so it follows that Dubai is a country of terrorists. Thus, by putting Dubai in charge of the ports, Georgie was giving Al Qaeda the key to our back door (in a non-gay kind of way). Now this is the sort of, well, "illiberal, patently racist" argument that I'd expect of Bush's core group. However, it was made by the Democrats, led by Hilary Clinton.

While I've probably had more interaction with Muslims than the average American, my experience pales in comparison with Senator Clinton's. Consequently, I'm pretty sure that she knows that the stereotypes she was mining for political capital are sweeping, wildly inaccurate, and cruel. However, she used them to gain a a couple of popularity points, which leads me to a few questions about the state of American liberalism. Maybe I'm a pollyanna, but I've always thought that American liberalism was promulgated on the notion that we shouldn't indulge stereotypes, and that we always try to consider the individual person (or country).

Or, as I wrote to my professor, "This attitude that all Muslims are the same, that they all subscribe to the fundamentalism and repressiveness of the Taliban, is troubling. If liberals are no longer willing to consider differences in a culture, then I wonder what actually separates them from the ultra-conservatives."


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