Alone, Asian, Atheist in the Middle East

The Arab Spring for many means they are free to veil and practice their way of life: Islam

Alone, Asian, Atheist in the Middle East

My Ten commandments in the Middle East

As an interculturalist and an academic, I became interested by the fact that up to 80% of the daily news covers Middle East although it represents less than 5% of the world’s population. In 2012, I set out to embark on an independent research, following the historical expansion of Islam, exactly from where it began, city by city, westward to Africa and eastward to Asia.

Alone, Asian, and atheist, there seems to be no connection between me and the Middle East. But those aspect creates balance: I come from the East, live in the West and want to learn about the Middle. Now half way through this odyssey, I have attached my heart to it and learned a great deal. To put it in a framework that some may recognize, I shall call these lessons the commandments gained from almost a year moving slowly but purposely in the region.

1. Thou Shalt Not Watch TV


  "Yes! Yes! Forever Dr Bashar Al-Assad"

“Yes! Yes! Forever Dr Bashar Al-Assad”

The first commandment I learned in Syria at the outset of the civil war. The rest of the world was assuming that Assad was massacring unarmed oppositions and burying activists alive.

Meanwhile, in Damascus, people openly displayed their support for him. The media has created an optical illusion: While the regime continues to enjoy considerable popular support, the whole world thinks the regime is in crisis.

Media has created a second life, a second reality. In our age of data overloaded, this second reality originates in true information, just not all of it. As a result, the world has become a vignette, a collection of competing details and interpretations, mistaken for big picture. We created our tool and in turn, the tool is shaping our identity, constructing reality, giving the illusion of deep understanding, and making our view dependent on it.

Ramadan, a known Islamic scholar, commented on the Arab Spring by saying that the media brings down the balance between individuals and groups. It empowers the mass but also creates super-empowered individuals and at the same time relieving these individuals from their personal responsibility. On top of that, in this information war, the way facts are reported is as important as the facts themselves. What Murrow said more than 50 years ago still rings true: “Media has become more about opinion and less about information, a race of trying to reach everyone by enlightening no one”. This helps to create a second life that is not only limited, distorted, but also manipulated.

Perhaps there is no such thing as reality, only the media!

2. Thy shalt stay thyself

   "totally covered up to experience the life in full burka."

“totally covered up to experience the life in full burka.”

The second commandment has to do with the most debated Islamic icon: the hijab. At the beginning of my trip, I often put a scarf on, even totally covered up to experience the life in full burka. This brought a mixed reaction: genuine effort to respect local culture, but also undesirable patronizing attitude, or even an offense simply because I am not a Muslim.

Finally, an Yemeni University teacher asked me to remove it: “Mai, If you go native, what room is left for the locals to show their acceptance of your own culture? Isn’t it true that respect should be two-way?”

In deed, going native can be a tricky idea, for it gives both negative and positive signals. When Western women joined the hijab day and covered their head to support Muslim women against social abuse, I wonder if they are aware that the veil is a piece of garment that has too many contradictory roles. It protects women from bad-intended men, but also protects men from too-attractive women. It shows a woman who is oppressed, but also a woman who is liberated from being a sex object. It demonstrates high social status, but at the same time can be associated with conservative working class. I support their anti-abuse campaign, but I would wish to steer totally away from the message that the veil is innocent. Because it is not. Instead, the campaign should have emphasized that it is wrong to focus on the veil itself for it indicates different things for different wearers, both negative and positive. And not just the veil but many other cultural practices.

I have learned that the Middle East is a world where there is one single Islam but a great diversity of interpretation and a plurality of cultures; a region shattered by treachery, mistrust, humiliation, and failure of relationships inside their own communities and with the outside world. Here, anything can be misread and anyone can be misled. All in all, a safe way to gain local’s respect and friendship is probably this one simple word: Honesty!

3. Thou shalt empower thy man

Poster in an Omani hospital: Men are portrayed as children's caretaker

Poster in an Omani hospital: Men are portrayed as children’s caretaker

After much effort, I finally convinced a local man to allow his wife to enter college. But alas, he also made it conditional: “She can graduate but she cannot work. A ship cannot have two captains”.

In many developing countries, men have lost their traditional authority under the legal pressure of gender equality and human rights. As their wives and daughters became educated and liberated, supported by systems from government, schools and NGOs, these men have been left behind in the process of emancipation, to deal with their new reduced status. While women have been trained to understand why they should hold half of the sky, it is assumed that men will automatically understand and accept the newly empowered women and just switch off the patriarchal button! Emancipation sits alongside emasculation. Therein lies the tension.

Fact is, men have lost the patriarchal authority in just a matter of a few decades. My grandfather could marry as many women as he wanted but the next generation sees my mother earning even more money than my father. Abrupt change, frustration, disempowerment are all manifested in increasing rate of domestic violence and street crimes.

In the Middle East, the rise of Islamism attracts even intellectual educated men because it restores their masculine dominance. Political Islam allows them to conceal their traditional machismo behind a thin veneer of sacredness and divine recognition. To a certain extent, the revival of Islamism towards the end of the Arab Spring is an indication of the revival of nothing more than masculinity. So message is: the men should be empowered for the women to have power.

4. Thou shalt fear God

The Arab Spring for many means they are free to veil and practice their way of life: Islam

The Arab Spring for many means they are free to veil and practice their way of life: Islam

When I declared myself an atheist, the interrogation continued: “What kind of atheist? Christian atheist or Muslim atheist?”

In much of the Middle East, God is omnipresent. All definitions can be redefined and understood in Islamic terms: Islamic democracy, Islamic emancipation, Islamic freedom, even Islamic love and desire. Like no religion, Muslim has become a cultural identity that surpasses national and ethnic identity. Being a Muslim trumps other identities, and Islam as religion trumps national culture.

Why? A particular reason I learned in this trip is because in the Middle East, secularism was imposed, not chosen. Elsewhere, the separation of church and state was a battle fought and won by people and this led to religious freedom and equality.

In the Middle East, secularism was enforced by some leaders, not by separating religion and state but by placing religion under state control. Turkey and Tunisia for example banned headscarves in government offices and launched an assault on Islam.

My Tunisian friend was once stopped and harassed by the police because she covered her head: “Are you Al-Qaeda or what?”. Ironically, under secularism, Islam became a forbidden fruit for many Muslims in Islamic countries. The Arab Spring for many means they are free to practice veiling, their way of life: Islam.

The victory of Islamism is the backfire of forced secularism. It represents the revival of not just a religion but a culture, a way of life, one that has been under pressure. As the winner, now, Islamism aims at turning the forced secular order up side down, this time placing the state under religious control.

Nowhere in the world do we see this unique asset that both collective intelligence and common cultures rest upon one religion. This superlative synergy will always tie the Middle East with God, and Islam will always be a reference and inspiration for any system that will emerge in the region. Secularism the Western way? You can forget it!

5. Thou shalt turn around

Middle East! Turn around and look East! (Obey Middle East Mural-Shepard Fairey)

Middle East! Turn around and look East! (Obey Middle East Mural-Shepard Fairey)

The next commandment came to me as I experienced the prism through which Arabs see themselves: A love-hate relationship with the West.

Deep inside the choice to vote for Islamist parties lies a traumatized position of being politically cornered: They rejected dictatorship, rejected Western secularism, after which Political Islam is the only choice left. You will recall the Muslim Brotherhood who won with their slogan: “Quran is our constitution! Islam is the solution!”.

It was already pointed out by Edward Said, that the West has created an imaginary Orient so it can define itself on the other end of the dichotomy as the West versus the Rest, spelling out why the West has advanced and the Rest not. The Middle East has been trapped in this construct too, being lured into this deadly dichotomy of “West versus East” while the truth is: it stands in the middle with its own identity. With the decline of the Islamic golden age, the fall of the Ottoman empire, and the colonial retreat, the Middle East mistakenly branded itself as the East. It has a burning desire to confront, to compare, and to oppose the West, in turn, using the West as the benchmark against which to define itself. Simultaneously, it has been pulled into a vicious circle of frustration because it cannot celebrate itself. Eurocentrism is emphasized by its own victim for using the very same thinking construct.

The obsession with the West and the denial of its Middle stance has led to a situation of positioning itself on the East of the dichotomy, but Middle East has failed to look East. While busying itself comparing and opposing the West, it seems unaware of an Eastern repertoire from further Asia. Also coming out of a long colonial period and decline, but this region hasn’t adopted the mantra of “We don’t want dictators, we don’t want Western democracy, all that is left is political religion”. There is no political Confucianism, political Buddhism or political Shintoism. The choice made by many Asia nations is to build a national identity through cultural elements. Middle East! Turn around and look East!

6.  Thou shalt break free

A culture of victimization: "Muslims" are being oppressed in Vietnam

A culture of victimization: “Muslims” are being oppressed in Vietnam

This sixth commandment came with this picture, which I almost choked when it appeared on my facebook wall with thousands of shares, claiming that Muslims are being oppressed in Vietnam. And the number rolls on! Uncontrollably! Truth is: This is a picture taken by Larry Burrows from the Vietnam war which has nothing to do with Muslim or Islam.

With the war on terror, Muslims face discrimination and some can be quick to claim victim status. The problem is, Islamism exploits this vulnerable position and fuels the idea that the whole world is set against Islam.

Historically, Islamism was born out of the desire to free the Middle East from Western colonial domination. However, this approach also creates a culture of reaction, differentiation, and judgment. It casts itself as victim, creating a culture of accusation and mistrust in which whatever relates to the West would be viewed with suspicion.

Recent study shows that 80% of the people in Middle East believe that the US is the biggest threat and less than 10% believe that their intervention in the region is genuine. The mentality is dominated with a crippling notion that everything is a plot, a conspiracy, that all is controlled by dark forces, CIA, Israel, the imperialistic West. This paranoia is the worst form of colonialism because it is the most effective (Ramadan). For as long as this victimization culture persists, the Middle East will be the prisoner of suspicion, and can never be truly free.

7. Thou shalt seek guidance

Freedom of thought can make on stray to radicalism

Freedom of thought can make on stray to radicalism

When my Dutch-born Moroccan student Layla expressed concern about wearing a headscarf, she went to a university counselor and was told to research its meaning. Then she could make an informed decision for herself.

Two years on, Layla has donned a black burka and convinced many others to veil themselves. She has become connected with Tunisian Islamist groups and in charge of spreading hundreds radical speeches from Middle Eastern imams through Youtube to global audience. She is an advocate for Sharia as an alternative legal system and her fiancé was in Syria fighting for Allah (not for Syria). On top of that, she also encourages Tunisian female friends to go on sex jihad in Syria by offering their body for sexually frustrated rebels.

It struck me hard to realize that the cause of Western radicalized Muslims is partly the consequence of Western values: Freedom of thought, independent learning, and self-determination. In fact, the freedom to think also means the freedom to be taken advantage of, as well as many other values we hold dear to: democracy, diversity, multiculturalism, equality and the right to free speech.

Radicalism as the consequence of corrupting these free, independent processes is far more profound than the sort of radicalism born from brainwashing in hardline mosques and Imams. Watching Layla using these freedoms to support radicalism, a critical question is posed for us all: How much freedom is free enough? How tolerable multiculturalism should be?

8.  Thy land shalt be named

Nation is a new concept in the Middle East

Nation is a new concept in the Middle East

Sectarianism is often seen as destructive in the Middle East, my experience tells me that tribalism can destabilize much more than religious fault lines.

Nation is a new concept in the Middle East, with many countries created only after WW1 and sill adjusting to the artificial boundaries that were imposed by the Western colonizers. People still think in terms of tribe with their heads stuck in the tribes and bodies in the state. Worse, the term al-dawlah (state) can refer to national leaders and thus be indirectly connected with ineffectiveness and corruption. People often see their autocratic, corrupted, puppet governments of the West being fused with the notion of nationality. The Arab Spring did not simply reject a regime but a rotten national political order created and connected with Western powers.

In the search for a national identity, many young people ended up swiftly on Islamic ground. Islam does not only replace national history but defines it, acting as a strong binding agent to the newly formed nations, lending moral and legal substance to the fragile national culture.

It is for good reason that both Arabism and Islamism are embraced in the region. An Arab/Muslim identity replaces that of the State when the State fails to provide any identity. In a recent study, 62% of the Middle Eastern people expected their governments to do what is good for either Muslims or Arabs, while only 31% thought the national policies should benefit their own country. Islamism with its global Islamic state kicks in, exploiting the lack of national belonging, manipulating the loyalties from tribal level to universal level, bypassing the national level.  Nation and national identity, more often than not, float like a mirage in the desert.

9.  Thy land shalt be named again

Reacting to the murder of Lee Rigby, an Islamist in Sydney said "He deserves it! He is a dog...I'm Australian...Australian governments they came to our country...rape our women in Afghanistan. Being an Australian comes third, fourth.  Islam...Allah comes first." found at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=3_t0fo46z04

Reacting to the murder of Lee Rigby, an Islamist in Sydney said “He deserves it! He is a dog…I’m Australian…Australian governments they came to our country…rape our women in Afghanistan. Being an Australian comes third, fourth. Islam…Allah comes first.” found at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=3_t0fo46z04

Back to my student Layla who became radical as the result of her independent search on Islam. She said one reason to don the face veil was because only when covered she can be recognized.

Here in her quote, so vivid is the failure of multiculturalism. Western minorities fail to be equally recognized, thus fail to integrate, and suffer from self-worth damage. Islamism takes advantage of these setbacks. As minorities are uprooted and seek for alternatives, disillusioned young Muslim with identity crisis fall in the welcoming arms of Islamist totalitarian and universal ideologies that aim to restructure the world. Islamism exploits the confusion for multiple identities, drives second generation Muslims to think of themselves as members of an Islamic state and universal Umma rather than their Western national loyalty. The Trojan horse is in.

10. Thou shalt acknowledge by new identity

A book edited by Abdulkader Sinno that looks at relations between Muslims and host countries

A book edited by Abdulkader Sinno that looks at relations between Muslims and host countries


No doubt the West is alarmed by Islamism and its threat to change its system from within by creating Islamic parallel societies in the very heart of its secularism. But Islamists aside, the West itself has changed. A great part of its population are the people it once labeled the East, Islam, the Orient or the Rest. The Other has become an integral part of the West. The dichotomy West vs. East has backfired, causing confusion.

Failing to recognize this awkward position, the West has tried to solve the problems by the same kind of thinking it used when it created them, that is painfully using the same old dichotomy of confrontation. Labeling part of its own existence the Other, it starts to build up a culture of fear, rejection and insecurity where democratic principles are undermined and security measurement has become a new God.

If the West fails to admit its new flesh and blood, it will never be able to distinguish its good new citizens from the radical groups fighting for hidden agenda in the name of “freedom for minorities”. No commandment can save them when the viruses creep out of the Trojan horse.

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