May 26, 2014

Auckland Writers Festival 2014: "A Question of Civilisations" with Jim Al-Khalili, Yasmine El Rashidi, and Reza Aslan

Guest post by Emma, Birkenhead Library.


“Nothing is black and white...”

…was the message from entertaining and engaging physicist Jim Al-Khalili; serious journalist and campaigner Yasmine El Rashidi; and scholar of religions (and interesting numbers man) Reza Aslan, at the “Question of Civilisations” discussion at the Auckland Writers Festival.

Jim Al-Khalili (Furnace Ltd)
Reza Aslan

Yasmine El Rashidi

Get these diverse people together, and what emerged was a very broad discussion. So much so, that at first I wondered if they would even be able to talk about the same thing. The panelists’ first comments were rather disparate. However as the discussion swirled, there arose interesting insights – all pieces in a puzzle that was the picture of this talk.

Why has Arabian scientific study not continued into the present? Al-Khalili is looking forward to a scientific Arab spring, but in the meantime, what is going on in the Arab/Middle Eastern world? This is a place that the media portrays as violent and full of religious extremists, but which once was at the forefront of world learning.

“Middle Easterners have very long memories.” (Aslan). All panelists saw the colonial experience as a major reason for both the loss of the canon of learning and in subsequently “rattling identity” (El Rashidi), making young people today determined to define themselves and their futures on their own terms. The sense of inferiority to the West is shifting and social media has assisted this process. I was surprised to hear how young this part of the world is: Aslan gave the numbers. Median age in Yemen is 18 years, in Syria it is 24. (Compare to the USA - 37, and NZ - 35). Lots of aspiration and determination are likely there, then.

People affected by colonialism in the relatively recent past react against it and resist the Christianising mission by becoming religious (Aslan), also, looking back to religion is one way to reclaim shaky identity (El Rashidi). Aslan also pointed out that Iran has never been colonised, and so people have a stronger identity there than in somewhere like Egypt.

While becoming strongly religious is one way to reject colonialism, it is not universal. Al-Khalili told of his father being shocked at the young women who choose to veil themselves in his presence. However, covering is not equal to powerlessness. El Rashidi gave examples of women running the show, dealing the stock market and taking care of the money in Kuwaiti families. The need to survive, she says, empowers women to take action. Nor is Islam equal to human rights abuses – remember that one third of the world's Moslems live in democratic or progressive nations. As the atheist Al-Khalili said, some things are just basically wrong, no matter what your culture.

The message from all panelists was, I think, that a more subtle and nuanced view is necessary to look at what makes people seek/reclaim a stronger identity. It differentiates between {religion and culture}, which is when people turn to religion as a means to express their cultural roots, and {religious nationalism} which is when religion governs politics.

The other message was of the harsh economic reality for many people in the region. El Rashidi lives in Egypt and had many first-hand accounts of economic necessity driving people’s choices and actions. She observed early in the discussion that the emphasis on extremism masks the economic struggle that drives people. Aslan thankfully picked up this point near the end of the session. People need foremost to survive, but also to have opportunities to pursue their aspirations. While some nations (The Gulf States) are now incredibly wealthy from oil revenue (as Al-Khalili says, “Why don’t they help out?”), others are struggling.

So, youth reclaiming/redefining identity amidst economic struggle…blurred, nuanced reality. The skill is to see through the commercial media storytelling, which often gives an unbalanced, sensationalist or stereo-typed view.

Nothing is black and white.

Ditulis Oleh : Karen Craig // 23:35
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