Note: what follows is *not* the typical focus of this blog. I try to avoid combustible topics like politics and religion. If you’re not interested in hearing my budding thoughts about Sunnis vs. Shiites, monarchies vs. authoritarian governments and the U.S.’s utterly failed policy in Iraq, then don’t read on…
I feel compelled to write, however. It would be inauthentic (in blog parlance) if I failed to mention how powerfully I was affected by my first exposure to Islamic culture and practice, and to the realities of daily life in the Middle East on our recent trip to Egypt and Jordan.
I’ve put off publishing this entry for several days because I wanted to get it just right (thanks to Chris Heuer for nailing that topic) and sound highly knowledgeable. But that ain’t gonna happen. I’m already busy producing several Webinars and working on a half-day CEO Bloggers workshop. (And uh I’m available for other engagements if you’re reading this and wondering ‘Is she too busy?’ The answer is ‘Not yet.’)
So what did I learn about Islam and the Middle East?
That it’s enormously complicated. That religion pervades almost every facet of life in countries like Egypt and Jordan (the two countries I visited). Hypocrisy and corruption are commonplace. Many Muslims smoke and drink, which is prohibited. Everyone, it seemed, was on the take.
That some women wear the veil and some don’t. For some it’s a fad; for others a strict religious conviction. And many shades in between. This appears to be as contentious an issue as it is in the UK and the US.
That while Sunnis are generally regarded as practicing a more moderate form of Islam, and Shiites are seen as the more fundamentalist branch, there are many shades of gray. (More radical Sunnis, less radical Shiites, etc.)
That the various factions hate each other with a passion. And in a way that can only be described as racial.
That Saddam Hussein (as evil as he was) was, as a Sunni, a stabilizing influence in Iraq.
That allegiance to tribe is as important as allegiance to country. Our Jordanian guide, Sufyan, explained this in fascinating detail.
That some names identify you as a Sunni (Sufyan, for example). And others as a Shiite. While some names (Mohammed, I think) are neutral.
That the term “Arabs” and the “Middle East” are meaningless. The Middle East is (obviously) made up of a number of uniquely different countries and cultures and economies. Jordanians generally disdain Egptians, for example. Egypt is a much poorer country. It’s more or less in a shambles (Mubarek has been in office too long) with extremely high unemployment, illiteracy, etc.
Many Egyptians emigrate (on visas; they can’t get permanent residency) to Jordan to work in construction jobs. Jordan is a more progressive country even though it’s ruled by a king. (King Abdullah II appears to be very well liked.) Jordan looks and feels more organized, cleaner, more prosperous.
All this should have been obvious to me before but it wasn’t. Now I’m reading the newspapers with much greater attention. Trying to digest – and evaluate – what I’m reading with fresh eyes.
BTW, both our guides (in Egypt and Jordan) were Sunni. I wouldn’t describe either as highly religious but the cultural implications of being a Muslim clearly informed their thinking.
I’m hoping to find a course I can take in Comparative Religions or Middle Eastern Studies. If you know of an online resource, let me know.
Thanks for letting me riff a bit on a topic that is so important… but outside the focus of this blog. And if you think I’ve gotten something completely wrong, feel free to correct me.