Saturday, 6 February 2016

The cultural appropriation Google and million others are going to make on Feb 8

Let me make it quick and clear, that is to say it is the Chinese New Year. 

On Feb 8th, nearly two billion Asians will celebrate their traditional spring festival, welcoming a new year according to their lunar calendar. And guess what, millions of Korean, Vietnamese, Singaporean and Japanese are supposed to be thankful when people wish them a good … Chinese New Year (!) 

For most non-Chinese Asian living broad, it is their usual if not daily experience to be greeted “Ni hao”, to be assumed Chinese without even asked, or worse, to be wished a Happy Chinese New Year. If some dare to claim they are not Chinese, people often brush it off: “Oh dear, you guys look the same anyway” — a comment supposed to be understood as cute. Some others get offended, completely oblivious to the fact that they had offended others in the first place: “I’m giving you a blessing! Be thankful! You are supposed to appreciate it”.

Most Asian are natural at hiding their emotion by a physical facial shield: a smile. It takes a cultural expert or a very well-traveled person to decode the meaning of each smile. So, terribly offended as they are, what they give the offender is a gentle smile, while their stomach churn with annoyance, anger or disgust.

Every February my Japanese friend Masako received a handful of festive postcards from various business partners and colleagues. Some of them are completely ignorant of the complex history between the two countries or the ongoing territory dispute, and temporarily re-branded her identity as Chinese. Once, she had enough of it and silently stepped out of a potential trade deal. 

For two other Vietnamese friends of mine, being wished a happy Chinese New Year is like getting salt rubbed on a fresh would. Some of their family members were killed in the 1978 war with the Chinese, and another 19 year old cousin is now serving as an infantry in one of the disputed islands in the South China Sea. 

Yet, some people may argue that the lunisolar calendar was created by the Chinese, so all countries who celebrate lunar new year should just swallow the hard truth. However, many cultures in the world used lunisolar calendar such as the Hebrew, Hindu, Kurdish, Germanic, pre-Islamic Arabia, or the ancient Hellenic, Coligny, Babylonian. Lunisolar calendar has been developed, evolved, used, changed and adapted by many great cultures, including the Chinese, with their oldest calendar dated 4000 years ago. The cyclic turn of 12 animal signs based on the old Sino-Turkish system is still being debated among scholars on which was earlier: the Turkish 12 animal calendar or the Chinese one. Many sinologists think it is of Turkish origin, and the Chinese borrowed it at later stage. Great as they are, the Chinese did not single-handedly create lunisolar calendar, but have a unique calculation method that influences many other Asian communities in the moment of celebrating new season. 

The same counts for solar calendar, which was firstly used by the Egyptian, and then developed into Hellenistic and Julian, and finally Gregorian calendar. Still, we do not raise the glass and say: “Happy Egyptian/or Hellenistic/ or Roman new year”, do we? Re-branding the lunar new year as the Chinese new year is akin to forcing the majority of the world to celebrate Roman new year every January 1st. 

Ironically, there is no such term as Chinese New Year. Even the Chinese themselves call it the Spring Festival or Lunar New Year. The new name started with the Chinese communities oversea and has been promoted to strengthen the Chinese cultural soft power worldwide. By claiming and taking away the shared cultural asset of many other Asian ethnicities, the name is a new product, a by-product, and an inappropriate product of globalization.

The Korean, Vietnamese and many Asian communities celebrate their new year by saying: “Happy Lunar new year”. For foreigners with good intention, it is wise to remember that good intention does not justify ignorance. It is unfair to turn a shared cultural tradition into the property of a majority and influential population, hence, stripping the more marginalized cultures of their own right of heritage.
In the end, it is not about who created what, but also about respect in a world so diverse. It is simply incomprehensible to wish a non-Chinese person a happy Chinese new year. Strictly speaking, it is not even entirely correct to give such a greeting to a Chinese since the Chinese alone don’t monopolize the celebration of the Lunisolar or Lunar new year. The non-Chinese Asians share the calendar, but do not borrow the Chinese tradition. Similarly, a great part of the world share the Gregorian calendar, but do not borrow new year's traditions from each other. 

If any of us still don't get the picture, imagine every year you would receive greeting cards of Happy Roman new year, the fireworks in your country will celebrate Happy Roman new year, and you will hug and kiss your loved ones will genuine blessing for a happy Roman new year. Don't feel quite right, do you? 

Kudo to Obama, NY mayor, Huffpost, SBS Australia and many other European media who ran that headline in 2015 and start to acknowledge their diverse readers, clients and audience, that not all Asian looking face are Chinese. Thumb down to many metropolitant cities (including my home town Amsterdam who is so proud of its international poplation) but not so inclusive in its thinking by boasting a big Chinese new year event and therefore exclude and offende its many other inhabiants. Shame for Google who is so wellknown for diversity policies, but in 2015 was not culturally competent enough to feel the obvious blunder. Can’t blame, it’s just an engine!
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(Đăng laị status facebook năm 2013)

Thật không gì khó chiụ băǹg mỗi dịp Tết ̣đến là laị bị chúc năm mới TRUNG QUỐC vui vẻ. 

Nhiều bạn lý luận lịch âm dương -lunisolar- do người Trung Quốc sáng tạo ra nên nói ăn Tết Tàu là đúng rồi. Lý do này sai. Âm lịch không do người Trung Quốc sáng tạo ra. Các hệ thống lịch lunisolar hoặc lunar (tức là âm lịch hoàn toàn) được dùng trong nhiều nền văn hóa cổ khác nhau. Hệ thống 12 con giáp cũng đang được tranh luận là bắt đầu từ lịch của người Thổ và sau đó người TQ mượn lại để phát triển cao hơn. Kết luận tạm thời là lịch âm-dương cổ có từ rất lâu, và mỗi nền văn minh lớn cũng như mỗi nền văn hóa nhỏ lại dựa vào đó để phát triển, thay đổi cho phù hợp.

Người TQ có thể không sáng tạo ra lịch âm dương, nhưng có nền văn hóa mạnh nên CÁCH TÍNH lịch của họ ảnh hưởng đến cách tính lịch của nhiều nước châu Á khác. Suy ra, người Việt và nhiều nền văn hóa châu Á đón năm mới theo lịch âm có CÁCH TÍNH ảnh hưởng từ TQ, chứ chưa chắc đã phải lịch của TQ. 

Những nền văn hóa/tôn giáo lớn khởi đầu một tập tục văn hóa, sau đó tập tục văn hóa đó vượt biên giới quốc gia, được phổ cập ra các vùng rộng lớn hơn là điều rất bình thường. Chúng ta cảm ơn những nền văn hóa/ văn minh/tôn giáo đó, ghi nhận sự đóng góp cho nhân loại. Khi đã vượt ra ngoài ranh giới quốc gia thì nó đã trở thành tài-sản-văn-hóa-chung. Ai ai khi sử dụng cũng có nghĩa vụ trân trọng ghi nhận nguồn gốc của tài sản văn hóa đó, nhưng không nhất nhất phải chèn tên của nền văn minh/tôn giáo gốc/nguyên thủy vào mỗi dịp tập tục văn hóa đó được thực hiện. Vi vậy, se rat vo duyen khi nói với người Nhật, người Việt, người Hàn, Mông Cổ và hàng trăm nhánh cộng đồng khác là "chúng mày ăn tết Trung Quốc vui vẻ nhé". 

Lịch dương Gregorian là kết quả của sự phát triển từng bước từ lịch dương Ai Cập cổ, rồi đến Hy Lạp cổ, rồi đến La Mã cổ. Gần như cả thế giới bây giờ đón năm mới theo lịch Gregorian, nhưng KHÔNG AI nói với nhau: Happy Egyptian/Greece/Roman new year cả. Điều tương tự có thể nhìn thấy ở ngày lễ Valentine, ngày của Mẹ, ngày của Cha... Không ai chúc người yêu của mình "Chúc em yêu một Valentine La Mã/Thiên Chúa hạnh phúc", hay chúc mẹ của mình: "Chúc mẹ kính yêu một ngày của Mẹ kiểu Mỹ thật đầm ấm". Sự chia sẻ về cách tính thời khắc năm mới không có nghiã là sự VAY MƯỢN về truyền thống ̣đón chào năm mợ́. Gần như cả thế giới chia sẻ cách tính thời khắc năm mới cuả lịch dương, nhưng không dân tộc nào vay mượn truyền thống ̣đón năm mới của nhau cả. 

Người TQ ở đại lục vẫn nói là ăn tết ÂM LỊCH. Người TQ ở nước ngoài nói là ăn Tết Chinese để quảng bá quyền lực văn hóa của mình. Người nước ngoài nói Happy Chinese New Year với tất cả dân châu Á đơn giản là do ảnh hưởng của quyền lực mềm từ văn hóa ấy. Họ không hiểu được rằng bên cạnh sự CHẤP NHẬN văn hóa (người Á đón tết có nguồn gốc từ cách tính lịch lunisolar của người Tàu), thì còn cần có sự NHẠY CẢM văn hóa nữa (sẽ rất chối tai khi chúc một người Việt/Nhật/Hàn ăn tết TQ vui vẻ). Hai vấn đề này (chấp nhận ảnh hưởng văn hóa và / nhạy cảm văn hóa) rất quan trọng, không chỉ riêng chuyện Tết, nhất là trong một môi trường đa văn hóa, đa sắc tộc
.
Các tập đoàn truyền thông lớn và đặc biệt là các công ty có người châu Á làm việc hoặc khách hàng là người Á bắt đầu nhận thức ra được điều này và chỉnh sửa những lời chúc Tết của mình để thể hiện sự tôn trọng. Obama cũng chúc Happy Lunar New Year chứ không phải Happy CNY. Một cách đương nhiên, không ai thích thú gì khi người nước ngoài cứ thấy da vàng mũi tẹt thì cho là dân Tàu, hoặc bản thân là người Việt, Nhật, Hàn, Đài Loan mà cứ đầu năm là nhận được thiệp và email bị/được chúc ăn tết TQ sung sướng, dù tất cả có thể dùng chung một hệ thống lịch đại với thời khắc năm mới theo cách-tính của người TQ. 

Sự khó chịu này áp dụng chủ yếu với những người Á sống ở nước ngoài. Tôi va bạn bè người Á mỗi lần tết đến là hậm hực, hầu hết đều cố gắng ý nhị giải thích (Thanks, but no thanks! I am Korean/ or Vietnamese/ or Japanese), một số khó tính hơn thì thậm chí không thèm làm khách hàng của công ty đó nữa. Sự thiếu nhạy cảm văn hóa trong môi trường đa sắc tộc là nguyên nhân của một phần lớn các thất bại về kinh tế là vì vậy.

Tuy nhiên, một số người Việt hẳn hoi mà nói mình ăn Tết Chinese thì là do tự ti văn hóa. Tôi chỉ nói riêng về Songkran (từ chữ Sanskrit saṅkrānti) thuộc cổ Ấn Độ (lịch dương cổ Hindi). Năm nước khác nhau (Cambodia/ Lao/ Sri Lanka/ Thái/ Myanmar) cùng ăn tết theo Songkran nhưng không nước nào tự ti văn hóa đến độ nói là tao ăn tết Ấn Độ cả, và cũng chẳng có thằng tây nào bị ảnh hưởng của quyền lực mềm Ấn Độ đến mức chúc dân của 5 quốc gia vẫn còn (hơi hơi) nghèo nghèo hèn hèn ấy là chúng mày ăn tết Ấn Độ vui vẻ nhá. Nói ra khéo cái bọn vẫn còn tý teo nghèo hèn ấy nó đánh cho mẻ trán, chứ không phải như mấy bạn Đại Việt lại còn hớn hở, chắc có ý khoe tao nói được tiếng Anh nên cứ oang oang "Ối ăn tết Chai Nít Sờ thật là happy". Nẫu.

Wednesday, 14 October 2015

Can Egyptians unite around their ancient history?

Published on Your Middle East

It needs no argument to conclude that ancient Egypt boasts of a glorious civilization. In modern times, when Egypt as the first Arab country began to produce Arabic-language movies during the 1920s, the country instantly became Hollywood of the Middle East, shaping the trends and influencing contemporary Arab culture. Nasser – the undisputed leader of Arab nationalism – was both an Egyptian hero and an Arab leader. His immense charisma and the ecstasy of Egypt leading united Arabs against foreign oppressors practically made everything Egyptian desirable.
But is Egypt still the lighthouse of the Middle East? 

In 1967, amidst a conflict between Syria and Israel, Nasser rushed to support Syria. The Six-Day War was such a devastating failure that it effectively dragged the whole nation through a painfully long psychological trauma. Nasser lost his shine, the Arab nationalism lost the momentum to the point of no return, and the status of Egypt crumbled down to that of a third-world country.

The 1970s continued with more bad news for Egypt’s longstanding domination of Arabic-language culture and mass media. The oil-rich Gulf realized the significance of soft power and started to pump money into movie and TV industries. Once dubbed “Paris on the Nile”, the worldly city of Cairo has lost its glamour, slowly replacing its vibrant air of creative and modern energy with suffocating crowds and impoverished slumps. Cairo’s old Opera House has been replaced by a multi-storey parking block. 

Beyond the cultural scene, in the Gulf, Egypt has changed from an emblem of national economy to a source of cheap migrant workers. It is no longer the political gravity of the region, giving that role to the Gulf, which played the powerful hands behind the Arab Spring. From a country with influential movements of Arab nationalism and Arab-Israeli conciliation, Egypt is now the birthplace of modern Islamic militancy. It is decidedly a third-world country with 33% of its women being illiterate, 40% of the population living below the poverty line, with a high unemployment rate (26% in 2015). There is a strong sense of confusion and resentment among the young population as they strongly link the reality with national defeat and loss of dignity. They lack a role model, an honest and mutually accepted narrative of the history, and a reason to be proud. An Egyptian student told me: “The past makes me proud, the present pulls me down, and the future points me into nowhere.”

So here is the question: Is it true, that Egypt was important? And that neighboring people still relate and care about Egypt not because Egypt would change anything in their life but simply because they fear they would be the next Egypt?

THE TRANSFORMATION OF EGYPT'S IDENTITIES

After the New Kingdom (around 1000 BC), as Egypt fell under every invasion, Egyptians were reduced to the status of second citizens or outright slaves in their own land. Slowly, the essence of ancient Egyptian identity faded away, with its religion, language, and ethnicity being replaced by those of foreign rulers. As a result, the country was imposed with, and then adopted different identities. But there was one that remained a profound factor to which citizens embraced in order to connect with one another and with their motherland: beingEgyptian. This unifying identity was developed into a movement called Pharaonism during the colonial time in the 1920s-30s when Egypt needed an ideology as a base for the nationhood against Western colonizers. Egyptians were said to be inextricably connected by this unequalled past. Being Pharaonic is the most profound thing all Egyptians share, and thus the most significant factor to build up a foundation for unity.

Pharaonism disappeared from Egypt’s political discourse the moment Nasser became its first native leader after thousands of years being ruled by outsiders. However, the moment Egypt was born anew was also the moment it was renamed with a different identity, one that had been foreign, identified as from invaders, and even regarded as inferior to the natives: Arab. As Nasser envisioned Egypt as a leader of Arab nationalism, its official name became Arab Republic of Egypt, and its official flag suddenly has Saladin’s eagle on it as a symbol of Arab revolution. Ironically, Saladin is not an Arab. But to serve the propaganda of Arab nationalism, he was transformed from a Kurdish leader fighting the Christian crusades into an Arab leader fighting the Western invaders. Until today, Saladin’s eagle – a non-Arab icon – is the coat of arm on the flags of Egypt, Iraq, Yemen and (former) Libya as a unifying symbol. Putting the whole country under the charm of a foreign identity, for the sake of a greater future is an unbelievable feat. And only a legend like Nasser can make such a novel combination ring true: Egyptians, proud to be Arabs, loyal to a Kurd.

Not everyone was happy of course. Egyptologist Wassim Al-Sissy once moaned that Nasser’s revolution “erased the Egyptian character” and “created a nation of slaves”. Nevertheless, this identity was successfully promoted. The only condition was that it must revolve around the immense charisma of Nasser as the custodian of the Arab dream against Western colonizers and Middle Eastern monarchies. Since this Egyptian identity relied on the image of a mortal man, the moment Nasser failed was also the moment this identity was shattered to pieces.  

And then came the Islamism, an identity which was born in the same time as Pharaonism but only emerged strongly much later when the state failed miserably on domestic policies. This Islamist momentum became irresistible after September 11 when Muslims perceived themselves to be demonized by the West, when Islam appeared to be under attack, and the Middle East’s ruthless dictators were seen as the West’s puppets. Where the state failed to provide its citizens with decent life, failed to protect them from external assaults, and failed to give them an identity to be proud, Islamist organizations found a fruitful space, and religion became a means to shape one’s image, pride and dignity. “You are what you have to defend”, wrote author Shibley TelhamiFor many Egyptians, claiming Islamic identity is not about faith but about asserting the right to not become a carbon copy of the West, a challenging and defiant act in the face of what they perceive as Western assaults on their religion. In such a context, it is “especially difficult to separate religious identity from popular defiance”.

Advancing on that emotion, Egyptian Islamism brewed an Egyptian identity that is not only a radicalized version taken from the country’s previous invaders (the Muslims) but one that shamelessly rejects and condemns the country’s history, by calling the pharaohs “infidels”. When radical Salafi party Al-Noor won 20% of the votes in 2011, Egyptian Islamists campaigned to erase pre-Islamic history, even wanting to cover the pyramids with wax or destroying them outright, for they are considered idol worshiping. When pressed to talk more about Egypt and less about Islam, the former General Guide of the Muslim Brotherhood, Muhammad Akef, openly declared: “Tuz fi Misr” (to hell with Egypt), indicating that the interests of his country are secondary to Islam. Vandals placed an Islamic veil on the statue of Umm Kulthum and decapitated the statue of Taha Hussein – both are Egypt’s most significant cultural icons. In 2013 when Morsi was overthrown, a gang of his supporters retaliated by attacking the Malawi National museum, destroying and looting Egypt’s proudest treasures. All in all, the identity that Egyptian Islamists present is not only anti-Egyptian but also one that is devoid of any national context and heritage.

Moving from being predominantly a Pharaonic, an Arab, a Muslim, or an Islamist, this “Egypt’s identity crisis” has been addressed by Shibley Telhami as a choice of the “vehicle most able to deliver their key aspirations. They are at once Arab, Muslim, and (…) Egyptian (…). They will rally behind any of these identities when it is assaulted”.

In a social gathering, an Australian businesswoman shared her feeling: “I come from a country so young that we even have to preserve ugly 40-year-old buildings because they are ‘history’. If we had a man-made structure of 400 years old, we would go banana and name our country after it. If we had something as majestic as a 4000-year-old pyramid, we would make it a religion, put the thing on the flag, and force all babies to have ‘Pyramid’ as their middle name”. We all laughed, and one Egyptian later added: “Of course we are proud to have Pharaonic ancestors. But our corrupted despots do not make us ashamed in the name of Pharaonic descendants. They make us ashamed in the name of Muslims. And so Muslims have we become”.

So Shibley Telhami is right, that Egyptians take a certain identity because their dictators have represented themselves in the way that “looked nothing like who they (actually) are”. 

THE FORGOTTEN WELL OF INSPIRATION

However, it is baffling to see how the Pharaonic identity lost the “game” so easily. The pyramids still stand high, the Sphinx still guards the city, and the West’s obsession with ancient Egypt never fades away, but it is all a disconnected past. I often wonder why ancient Egypt is studied mostly by non-Egyptians. Egyptologist Wassim Al-Sissy told an interesting anecdote: “The English philosopher Francis Bacon, when asked how a backward Europe in the 16th century could progress, said that it needed to have a history, and since Europe didn’t quite seem to have one, they would need to borrow it from the Greco-Roman history. Shakespeare obviously did it, so 12 out of his 37 works are based on the Greco-Roman context. Things are different for Egyptians, for they have the most magnificent history, but people ‘despise it’”.

So can the shaky Egypt we are witnessing benefit from more genuine attachment with its undisputedly glorious and solid past? For example, to fight against the horrendous sexual assaults, what if instead of looking to the liberal West, Egyptians would search right inside their own history for a powerful inspiration? What if we point out that Egypt upheld the notion of gender equality thousands of years ago, before a single word was ever written in the Bible or Quran? Here is some stark contrast for comparison. While ancient Egypt didn’t even have a word that means “virgin”, the dignity of modern Egyptian women is based on avirginity test. While women of ancient Egypt could inherit, trade properties and run businesses, 82% of non-student female Egyptian youth nowadays are out the labor force, compared with only 13% of the males. While women of ancient Egypt enjoy monogamy marriage, 25% of modern Egyptian men take on a second wife within three years after their wedding. While many ordinary women in ancient Egypt could read and write, and while the Goddess of writing is the female scribe Seshat, 33.6% of modern Egyptian women now are illiterate. While there were female pharaohs and powerful vizier – the right hand of the king, in modern Egypt, the country welcomed its first female political leader in as late as 2014. The historian Herodotus (5th century BC) described that much of the manners and customs in ancient Egyptwas exactly the reverse of the common practices: “women frequent the markets and carry on trade, while the men remain at home and weave”, even “women make water (i.e. urinate) standing up and men sitting down”. In modern Egypt, 99% of the women have been sexually harassed, or 7 times every 200 meters they walk.

If Islam is considered very progressive at the time it was born in the 7th century, in the sense that it allows women to inherit, divorce, run their own business and be equal with other three co-wives, then I would point feminist Egyptians to their own history and see for themselves that their Pharaonic civilization allowed all that and even more to happen 1,100 years before the concept of Islam even exist. 

Similar messages could be sent to the liberals. By calling Mubarak and Morsi “pharaoh”, and matching along protest banners of “kill the pharaoh” or “chase the pharaoh down to hell”, they unwittingly make this ancient title equivalent of “dictator”, and therefore must be overthrown. Morsi was called “pharaoh” when he granted himself unlimited power. When Mubarak and then Morsi appeared before court in iron enclosures, the press exploded: “Pharaoh in the cage”.

For a civilization of the antiquity, Egypt was “far more liberal than others” because it recognized merit and social mobility was strong. Liberal elements made the kingdom a powerhouse of ideas, science and arts. “Pre-dynastic chiefly elites operated in a politically liberal and consultative environment, where they redistributed surpluses to maintain social advantage and power within their communities”. Ancient Egypt law was codified through the concept of ma’at, allowing everyone, except slaves, to be equal under the law. The sense of identity in ancient Egypt was not based on ethnicity but culture, protecting foreigners from discrimination so long as they conformed to the Egyptian way of life. It is fair to say that ancient Egypt had its own liberal democratic and capitalist traditions, as these values are neither solely created by the West, nor a monopoly of the West.

However, ancient Egypt has now been dressed up as a period of despotism with the kings being symbols of oppression and dictatorship. The fact is, bad rulers were not tolerated and there were uprisings against unjust pharaohs. Even the pyramid itself is not a symbol of power but, as Rifaat Lakkousha wrote, “an oral social contract between the Pharaoh and the people, (…) based on a religious conviction (…) where obligations are shared: the Egyptians committed themselves to build the pyramid to help him go to Heaven, in return the Pharaoh is committed to open the gates of Heaven before all Egyptians”.

During the liberal period of Egypt in the 1920s–40s, Pharaoh was a symbol of the nation while oppression was associated with foreign influences. However, Egyptian liberalism dropped this narrative and adopted the Islamist discourse of Pharaonic despotism. Since they equalize Pharaohs with oppression, Egyptian liberals have to turn their back to ancient Egypt. This also means abandoning a great well of inspiration, pride and an authentic national identity. It’s a shame, since Egypt’s own history can unite all Egyptians without the dire need for a common enemy, or worse, a foreign populist ideology.

Egyptians need not to look anywhere else but inside themselves. The pyramids shouldn’t be just quaint but irrelevant relics, remnants of the ancient despots, or a source of national incomes. Author Raymond Ibrahim puts it frankly: “Egypt’s future begins when Egyptians see themselves as Egyptians—not Arabs, and certainly not Islamists. This is not to say that Egyptians should resurrect the pharaonic language, dress like Imhotep, and worship cats. Rather, (…) the Egyptian identity needs to be resurrected, thereby allowing all of the nation’s sons and daughters to work together for a better future—without the dead weight of foreign encumberments, namely Arabism or, worse, Islamism”.

Sources:
Tarek Osman, Egypt on the brink: From Nasser to Mubarak, (Yale University Press, 2013)

Shibley Telhami, The world through Arab eyes, (Basic Books, 2013)
Janet H Johnson, “Sex and marriage in ancient Egypt”, in Hommages a Fayza Haikal. ed. Nicolas Grimal, Amr Kamal, Cynthia May-Sheikholeslami (Institut Français D’Archeologie Orientale, Bibliotheque D’etude, 138, 2003)
Ian Shaw, Paul Nicholson, Dictionary of Ancient Egypt, (British Museum Press, 1995)

Thursday, 17 September 2015

Refugee crisis tests Islam’s fundamental tenet of Ummah
Published on Islamic Monthly 
German Chancellor Angela Merkel recently stated that the migrant crisis is testing European core values and that Europe is facing a humanitarian crisis that shows no sign of letting up. With Germany expecting to receive the most number of asylum applications this year — 800,000 — Merkel called on all European Union countries to show an equal willingness to help.
Strangely, in the Muslim world, there is a deafening silence from Syria’s neighbor: the Gulf region. The oil-rich countries have not offered asylum to their Muslim neighbors. Not only is the Gulf much richer than many EU countries still deep in the financial crisis, it is closer to Syria, shares the same language and, most importantly, the same religion that dictates a strong community (Ummah) of Muslims as a basic tenet. Yet, the Gulf has closed its doors, turned away from the tragedy, and assumed that giving some money to refugee camps is enough to show empathy.
Since 2011, the U.S. has given $4.3 billion to Syrian refugees, Kuwait $1.2 billion, Saudi Arabia $597 million and Qatar $244 million. Gulf countries can arrange to bring in a large number of expatriates that perhaps would double or triple their population, but have refused to make resettlement or employment an option for a single Syrian refugee.
The media and public are focusing on Europe in calling on it to open its doors to refugees and European leaders are tackling the question, but no such calls are being made of the Gulf’s responsibility, something activist Faisal Saeed Al Mutar calls “the racism of lower expectation.” Ignoring the responsibility of the Gulf means that we expect Europeans to be naturally kinder and more humane than people from the Gulf.
To assume that this difference is a default is demeaning and degrading for anyone from the Gulf countries. We should refuse to accept the assumption that all our friends and colleagues in the Gulf have less empathy, less of a human heart than those in Europe.
The refugee crisis is also testing how Muslim countries are genuinely practicing the true meaning of Ummah. Used by Prophet Muhammad in his Constitution of Medina, the term “Ummah” originally meant a community where people from all religions — regardless of whether one was a pagan, Jew, Christian or Muslim — can live peacefully together. Based on this definition alone, Europe has more potential to become a much better Ummah than the homeland of Islam.
With Iraq bordering Syria, the Gulf is much closer than Europe, which is months of walking, a sea of sharks and drowning away. If the Gulf continues to close its border to Syrian refugees, the countries are proving that they deserve the racism of lower expectation and fall behind Western countries in creating a true Ummah. Muslims and non-Muslims, wealthy Western countries and wealthy Gulf countries should show their humanity to this horrendous refugee crisis.
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Trong đạo Hồi, khái niệm Ummah vô cùng quan trọng. Khi Muhammad rời Mecca chạy tị nạn đến Medina, ông nhanh chóng chiếm được sự tôn trọng của cộng đồng dân cư ở đây, lúc đó là một thành phố đa sắc tộc gồm rất nhiều người Do Thái, Thiên Chúa, Pagan (đa thần giáo), và những tín đồ cải đạo đầu tiên của Hồi giáo. Họ bầu ông làm người lãnh đạo trong các cuộc đàm phán. Với tư cách là một người ngoài cuộc, Muhammad đã thể hiện sự công minh của mình khi thiết lập Hiến Pháp thành Medina, trong đó từ Ummah được dùng để chỉ một cộng đồng đa sắc tộc sống với nhau hoà bình, hữu nghị.
Từ Ummah sau đó bị bóp méo, và dần dần ý nghĩa của nó hoàn toàn thay đổi, không dùng để chỉ một cộng đồng đa sắc tộc chung sống tương trợ lẫn nhau nữa mà để chỉ bó hẹp trong cộng đồng Hồi giáo, gạt các tôn giáo khác ra ngoài định nghĩa. Medina, Mecca không còn là những thành phố tự trị của cộng đồng đa sắc tộc mà dưới quyền cai trị của chính quyền Ả Rập Saudi (vốn là một bộ tộc ở nơi khác đến đánh chiếm ở thế kỷ 19) hiện nay thậm chỉ chỉ cho phép người Hồi đặt chân vào.
Khái niệm Ummah chỉ là một trong vô vàn triết lý và khái niệm của Hồi giáo đã dần dần bị đổi thay theo dòng lịch sử. Tệ hơn nữa, Ummah còn bị các phần tủ cực đoan dùng như thể một lý tưởng đế quốc Hồi giáo toàn cầu (Islamism) với mục tiêu cải đạo và đặt cả thế giới dưới luật lệ Hồi giáo.
Nếu chúng ta quay trở về ý nghĩa nguyên bản của Ummah thì chúng ta có thể nhìn nhận cuộc khủng hoảng tị nạn hiện nay từ một góc độ rất khác. Trong khi rất nhiều nước châu Âu đau đầu với việc làm sao có thể tiếp nhận số nạn nhân chiến tranh khổng lồ thì những quốc gia giàu có vùng Vịnh đóng chặt cửa, từ chối không nhận bất cứ một nguời tị nạn nào. Những quốc gia này có thể phân phối công ăn việc làm cho một khối lượng người nước ngoài lớn gấp đôi, thậm chí gấp 10 lần số dân bản xứ, nhưng lại từ chối giúp đỡ chính những tín đồ cùng tôn giáo. Ả Rập Saudi sở hữu những chiếc lều hiện đại có cài đặt máy lạnh với sức chứa 3 triệu người, nhưng kiên quyết bỏ không. Lưu ý là toàn Syria có 4 triệu nguời chạy tị nạn. Hài hước hơn, Saudi còn tuyên bố rằng họ sẵn sàng giúp Đức (nhận 800.000 tị nạn năm nay) xây 200 thánh đường Hồi giáo - một cử chỉ thể hiện âm mưu truyền bá tôn giáo cực đoan dòng Wahhabism của Saudi hơn là một nghĩa cử giúp đỡ đồng loại. Xây thánh đường cho nạn nhân chiến tranh thì có khác gì đưa kinh thánh cho người chết đói?
Thật vô lý khi chúng ta kêu gào các quốc gia châu Âu giàu có phải khoan dung, phải độ lượng, trong khi mặc định chấp nhận các quốc gia vùng Vịnh giàu có gấp hàng chục hàng trăm lần nhưng lại có thái độ dửng dưng với nỗi đau của nguời vừa là hàng xóm, vừa là tín đồ cùng tôn giáo. Về nguyên tắc, đây là sự phân biệt chủng tộc, bởi chúng ta mặc định đã là Tây Âu thì đương nhiên là tốt hơn, tình người hơn các sắc dân khác.
Tôi không chấp nhận. Tôi phản đối việc phải chấp nhận rằng những người bạn, người đồng nghiệp của tôi ở vùng Vịnh là những kẻ không có nhiều tình thương và sự khoan dung bằng những nguời bạn và đồng nghiệp của tôi ở châu Âu. 
Nếu căn cứ vào ý nghĩa nguyên bản của Ummah, thì châu Âu đang trở thành một Ummah tốt đẹp hơn nhiều lần chính quê hương của Hồi giáo. 

Friday, 11 September 2015

QUICK FACTS ON THE ASYLUM SEEKER CRISIS

Published on Islamic Monthly and Tiếng Việt on BBC

1. Why does Hungary prevent asylum seekers from going to Germany?


According to the European Union’s Dublin Regulation, asylum seekers are expected to register at the first EU country they reach. In this case, it is Hungary. The main disadvantage of this system is that it unfairly places a disproportionate amount of responsibility on frontline states like Greece and Italy. Greece has been overloaded with applications since hundreds of thousands of asylum seekers first arrived in the Greek Islands across the Mediterranean Sea. Germany has suspended the Dublin rule and will consider asylum cases passing through other EU countries. Finland has stopped sending people back to Greece. 

2. Why do refugees want to go to Germany?

Once asylum seekers have been registered, they will wait to receive a decision. According to Eurostat, the highest number of positive asylum decisions in 2014 was in Germany (48,000), then Sweden (33,000), Italy and France (each 21,000), the U.K. (14,000) and the Netherlands (13,000). These six countries made up 81% of the positive decisions that the EU issued that year. The likelihood of being granted refugee status in Germany is the main reason asylum seekers want to lodge their claims there.

Asylum seekers presently stuck at a Budapest train station say they consider Hungary to be similar to Serbia and Macedonia, “having a thin veneer of prosperity, but being fundamentally relatively poor and still developing. And Greece, though developed, is in economic crisis.”

With the advancement of Internet and social media, asylum seekers can research other important factors such as the quality of the refugee camps, the length of the process, the level of freedom, language and how empathetic locals are toward refugees.

3. What is the process?

To gain refugee status, asylum seekers must prove they are fleeing persecution and would face harm or even death if sent back to their country of origin. While waiting for the decision, which may take months or years, asylum seekers have the right to food, first aid and shelter in a reception center. Also, asylum seekers are supposed to be granted the right to work within nine months of arrival.

They may be granted refugee status on the first try (first instance) or, if denied, can appeal the decision. According to Eurostat, 45% of first-instance asylum decisions were positive. Nearly 104,000 people received refugee status in the EU last year, nearly 60,000 subsidiary protection status (do not qualify as refugees but will be protected) and more than 20,000 authorizations to stay for humanitarian reasons (do not qualify as refugees but will be taken care of). If an asylum seeker is denied, he/she is expected to make an arrangement to leave the country, or will be forced to do so on a return flight.

4. What about other countries?

More than 4 million people have fled Syria. According to the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees,  more than 1.9 million have gone to Turkey, more than 600,000 to Jordan and 1 million to Lebanon (one refugee for every four Lebanese).

In total, approximately 600.000 asylum seekers arrived in Europe in 2014 – a continent with the population of roughly 742 million, which makes a ratio of 1 refugee for every 1200 people. Although the number rises much higher this year, media is creating the idea that the refugee wave looks like a tsunami, while anti-refugee protests call them with "swarm", "virus", or "parasites", which is both untrue and inhumane.

According to UNHCR data, in the first seven months of 2015, there were 126,232 Syrian asylum seekers lodging applications in the EU: 39,254 in Germany, 38,002 in Serbia and Kosovo, and 10,847 in Hungary. There are also a large number of asylum seekers from Afghanistan (77,731), Iraq (61,463), Albania (33,767), Eritrea (21,631) and Pakistan (17,021).

The number of submitted applications does not correspond proportionally with the number of those granted refugee status. A table published by the Guardian shows that Bulgaria or Denmark are more likely to approve applications rather than Hungary or France, which explains why many asylum seekers do not want to register in Hungary or France.    

Neighboring oil-rich Gulf States have not taken any Syrian refugees. They are receiving increasing criticism from other countries and are being pressured to show more sympathy to their fellow Muslims. Officially, Syrians may apply for a work permit in the Gulf, but the process is expensive and many people believe that  unwritten restrictions make it difficult for Syrians to actually get a visa.

5. Why is Germany so generous?

Most of the Syrian refugees cannot speak the language, come from a very different culture, in many cases, are terribly traumatized and have limited financial capacity. They also need to be quickly employed, but their skills probably do not match with the labor market. Still, Germany doesn’t seem to mind: It is leading the chart and is expected to take 800,000 asylum seekers this year. One writer speculates that this relates to deep-rooted German psychology, as people are still shaken by the Nazis’ atrocities against the Jews. Syrians are the “new Jews.”

Germany is the most powerful and stable country in the EU, and has been a migrant economy since the mid-1960s. It is constantly in need of laborers, with up to 589,000 unfilled positions in July 2015.

6. Why are countries denying asylum seekers?

Apart from reasons listed above, there may be widespread Islamophobia in these countries, and government and public officials are concerned that radical or terrorist elements can infiltrate into their countries as asylum seekers.

7. What is the solution?

Accepting more asylum seekers may not be sustainable. Such a solution may encourage the now 30,000 human traffickers in Europe to continue to prey on the life and money of asylum seekers by not offering them sufficient safety or abandoning them halfway. It is also difficult and ethically controversial to draw a hardline between war refugees who flee death and economic refugees who flee poverty. With the Islamic State group increasingly becoming more of an inspiration, IS-motivated radicals can mix in with innocent refugees and eventually sabotage the safety of the host country.

What European countries can do is to impose a higher quota based on various factors, including the gross domestic product, unemployment rate, population, etc. We should call for the Gulf and developed countries in Asia, also Australia and New Zealand to share the burden. However, the ultimate solution for this crisis was best expressed by a 13-year-old Syrian boy told the press while he and hundreds of others were prevented from boarding a train from Hungary to Germany: “Stop the war! Just stop the war in Syria.”

Saturday, 22 August 2015

Flee to Europe if you can, but know the reality await


I'm gonna have a nightmare (and probably many more) after watching this morning's news. On the TV screen, Macedonian riot police pushed back hundreds of Syrian refugees trying to cross the border, using truncheons to beat the migrants back, including teargas. A tiny little boy was squeezed between the legs of the police. He was so tiny that he could actually escape if not for his mother/father hand to hold him back.
More than 4 millions of Syrian refugees are seeking a safe place, mainly in Turkey, Lebanon, Jordan and Iraqi Kurdistan, hundreds of thousands are risking their lives trying to reach Europe. Meanwhile, the oil-rich countries in the Gulf are taking ZERO refugees. So let me put this straight: You are interested in migrant workers only, aren't you? In the end, you can not keep the refugees' passports and throw them out of the country if they turn out to be a headache, is that correct?
(If I happen to sound angry. That is because I am).
For anyone who can spread this message around to other refugees. Flee to Europe if you can, but please keep in mind that the picture here is not as glossy as you may have heard, that is the refugees will be given a house, a car, and job and a smile to move on. Most of the destinations cities are overloaded with refugees and they have to fend for themselves, sometimes without basic food and water. The locals are getting irritated instead of a welcome you absolutely deserve. The support system has been broken down, and European governments have not been able to create a better solution for this humanitarian crisis.
It hurts horribly to say this, but please be prepared for the worst: you might have to jump from a frying pan into the fire. 
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Cuộc chiến ở Syria và nội chiến ở một số quốc gia Trung Đông đang tạo ra một thảm kịch tị nạn chưa từng có trong lịch sử. Hơn 4 triệu người Syria bỏ đất nước, hơn 10 triệu người Syria phải rời khỏi thành phố làng mạc quê hương. Gần 3,5 triệu số nguời tị nạn hiện đang ở Thổ, Jordan, Iraq và Lebanon, số còn lại cố gắng vượt biển hoặc bằng đường bộ vào Châu Âu. Số lượng người chết trên biển tới gần 4000 người. Mỗi ngày có hàng trăm người tị nạn trên những chiếc thuyền cao su gần như xẹp lép cập bến Hy Lạp và Ý. Ai cũng hồ hởi vì cuối cùng đã tới châu Âu. Ai cũng ngỡ sẽ được đón tiếp và tiếp tế chu đáo như hình ảnh của châu Âu từng có trên truyền thôn, có nhà, có việc làm và có tiền trợ cấp. Nhưng sự thật là hệ thống cứu trợ tỵ nạn ở châu Âu đang trở nên quá tải bởi số lượng nguời tị nạn ồ ạt, người dân bản địa cáu giận và xua đuổi những kẻ khốn cùng. 
Hôm qua, cảnh sát chống bạo động Macedonia dùng dùi cui và lựu đạn cay để đẩy lùi hàng trăm người tị nạn tìm cách vượt qua biên giới trên đường đến Tây Âu. Tấm ảnh này có lẽ sẽ là cơn ác mộng của tôi nhiều ngày tới: Một cậu bé nhỏ xíu tìm cách vượt qua hàng rào chắn của cảnh sát Macedonia. Cậu đã có thể lọt thỏm và thoát chạy, nhưng bị bàn tay của bố mẹ níu lại.
Chúng ta thua rồi. Tôi thua rồi. Gần một nửa lương hàng tháng đóng thuế nhưng không thể kịp thời khiến cho chính quyền các nước châu Âu thiết lập một hệ thống cứu trợ tỵ nạn nhân văn hơn, hiệu quả hơn, gấp rút hơn. Không gì khủng khiếp hơn khi nhìn thấy những nạn nhân của chiến tranh, thay vì được tiếp tế chu đáo thì lại bị cảnh sát dồn ngược trở lại phía bên kia của đau thương.
Và cuối cùng là câu hỏi dành cho các nước vùng Vịnh giàu nứt đố đổ vách, vùng đất thánh của Hồi giáo: Saudi, Bahrain, Tiểu vương quốc Ả Rập, Qatar. Họ không chấp nhận BẤT CỨ MỘT NGƯỜI SYRIA TỊ NẠN NÀO, kể từ khi cuộc chiến bùng nổ. Saudi thậm chí còn đánh bom ác liệt Yemen, đóng góp thêm hàng ngàn bước chân tị nạn thay vì dùng một hạt cát trong sa mạc tiền dầu lửa để đón nhận và cứu trợ người Hồi trên quê hương mình.

Sunday, 26 July 2015

When "less is more"

Drisana Levitzke-Gray (Photo: Mamamia Women network)

A few days ago, I attended an event in Sydney where the public met 4 Australians of the Year. All women, all impressive, and all inspiring. However, Drisana Levitzke-Gray stole my heart. The young woman was born in a family with deaf history, but she proudly refuses to see that as an impairment: "We do not lack an ability, we have a different way of experiencing life", "deaf is not a disability but a minority language". For her many others, disability is not a liability but an asset.
In Norway, this is not just a dream but a reality. 72% of employers in the health sector reported employing people with disabilities. Greater knowledge of health problems and disability provide employers in the health sector a more accurate and less prejudiced approach.
In the end, we are all handicap. We are beaten, saddened, failed, and hammered by the harshness of life. But hey, let's try to learn from Drisana Levitzke-Gray, that "happiness is a state of mind", and that "less is more".
Below a piece I wrote for a Vietnamese news on this thought.

Tuesday, 28 April 2015

Sex workers - On the Edge of the Ethic War

Below is a two-part article I wrote to advocate the decriminalization of sex work. It came as a pleasant surprise for me to find out that more than 70 countries, including very religious and conservative ones in Asia and Latin America have legalized prostitution. Sex work is work, and it should be be seen from a realistic angle of life. The profession has been here since time immemorial, and it is here to stay. Denial or defense simply is not sustainable, and frankly, a big fat lie to ourselves.

http://www.thanhniennews.com/commentaries/sex-worker-on-the-edge-of-the-ethic-war-42615.html

http://www.thanhniennews.com/commentaries/sex-worker-on-the-edge-of-the-ethic-war-part-2-42664.html

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Part 1-  VICTIM and VICTIMIZED

I’m writing this amid a current scandal in Vietnam which involves a celebrity being publicly exposed by some media to be a prostitute. Her pictures have gone viral, with as much personal information included as possible. “Whore”, “hooker” and many other degrading words have been used to hurdle shame and guilt upon the woman.

In Vietnam, although the law only imposes moderate punishment (a fine of from 5-25 US dollars) on prostitutes, sex workers are subjected to harsh social criticism. Even the terminology “sex worker” is virtually non-existent since very few would consider trading sex for money as work.
In this article of two parts, let's consider some arguments that have consistently been used to ban prostitution, commonly seen as a profession which is as old as the humanity itself. The questions we want to answer is: “Is prostitution inherently immoral and harmful? Should it be criminalized and punished?”.

1.    "Sex workers are exploited and and coerced to work by criminals, that is why it is harmful"
One of the main reasons why prostitution is considered harmful stems from the fact that in many cases, sex workers are coerced into becoming a prostitute. They are considered victims of the last choice, human trafficking, economic hardship, domestic abuse, or criminal organizations.

According to a statistics from the UN, 80% of border-crossing human trafficking are women and girls, most of them are consequently subjected to sexual abuse and forced to work in the sex industry. It has become common knowledge that many women who end up in the Red Light District of Amsterdam, were promised a career in dance and entertainment.

Some prostitutes are unaware victims of lover boys who target vulnerable teenagers, make them fall in love, then isolate them from families. The girl are slowly trapped in the vicious circle of manipulated relationship with a terrifying mixture of emotional terrorism, dependent love affair, and confusing perceptions of sex, love and money.

Needless to say, those who coerce others into prostitution also include their loved ones: parents who are desperate for money, partners who see their “better half” as “better” in term of financial support. In India, several villages such as Ingonia are known to survive and thrive on the profession. “Born into brothels” is an award-winning documentary in which children of Sonagachi were given a camera to capture their daily life in this red light district. Most female sex workers in this documentary were portrayed as indirect victims of poverty or domestic coercion.

Ironically, if we accept that sex workers are genuinely victims of coercion and crimes, and that is why sex work should be banned, then criminalizing sex work is nothing more than an unethical act to punish the victims one more time. Blaming the victims is obviously easier than finding the culprits, especially when the culprits are hidden behind the thin veneer of families, love, sacrifice, or a corrupted system. We cannot punish a malfunctioning economy that creates such a terrible poverty that consequently puts people in to a situation of having to choose trading sex for survival, can we?

However, if the causal link between coercion and victimhood is the reason why prostitution is harmful and should be banned, then frankly, this can be argued to be the case with most of professions on earth. To a certain extent, all of us are coerced into doing what we are doing, since none of us is 100% free to do what we individually want. Freedom is never absolute, and as members of a society, we all have to sacrifice, compromise, or adjust ourselves to suit the situation, hence, allowing ourselves to be coerced into doing something we genuinely would not want to do. From this point of view, we are all victims of societal pressure, at varying degrees.

At this point, “degree” should be the focal point of this argument. To what degree is coercion acceptable? This is not a question of a bi-polar spectrum where one extreme is right and the other is wrong. This is a question of one single scale with one single attribute of “suffering”, one end more acceptable and the other end less so. Our hypothesis then can be stated as: “If we can somehow make the degree of coercion in prostitution at least similar to other lawful professions, then sex work should be considered a lawful profession”.

This leads the discussion away from the unfair treatment of punishing the victims and focuses the solution on regulations and law enforcement, which is the basis of a civil society. By decriminalizing prostitution and imposing strict rules, victims will be able to avoid double punishment, leading to an escape that is safer and more sustainable than what they have had to endure.

Many studies have proved that criminalizing prostitution creates double incrimination. A study in Florida shows that 82% of the sex workers have been assaulted, and 68% have been raped. They fear to report to police since this can be used as evidence to make them committed another felony charge of working as sex workers. A 2002 Chicago based study found that 30% of exotic dancers and 24 % of street-based sex workers who had been raped identified a police officer as the rapist. Up to 17% of sex workers interviewed reported sexual harassment and abuse, including rape, by police. They had been forced to strip or engage in other sexual conduct while in police detention. Again, a victim is victimized one more time, ironically with a punishment exactly the same as their accused felony.

Further, while acknowledging that this argument of victimhood is valid, we also need to accept the fact that not all sex workers are coerced into prostitution. Many of them choose this profession voluntarily because it fits their life style and personality, or because it is economically efficient, without any pressure.

In the last few months, I have been part of a volunteer group helping to deliver tea and coffee to sex workers in the Red Light District of Amsterdam. I started the job with the idea that all these people are victims, and I could not be more wrong. While some of them are surely coerced into prostitution, there are many who choose to work here freely. Sex work is exactly that, work. And what well-intended people should do is to protect those who are forced to enter the industry, and support those who are the boss of their life, regardless of who they choose to be, as long as it is honest labor.
At this point, we have the second hypothesis regarding the argument of victimhood: “If we can be sure that sex workers choose their profession freely, then sex work should be considered a lawful profession”.

Feminism has been torn between these two viewpoints since the end of the 20th century. Half of the feminists believe that sex workers are victims, even to the point that they themselves are not aware of their victim status. Liberal Nordic countries such as Sweden and Norway fall into this categories, punishing the buyers and not the sex workers themselves. The other half of the feminists believe that sex workers are also people who choose this profession on their voluntarily basis. The Netherlands and Germany legalize prostitution with strong regulations, making a genuine effort to ensure that sex workers are protected against abuse and coercion (to a certain acceptable degree on par with other lawful professions, of course).

2.    "Prostitution is degrading, that is why it is harmful"  
Prostitution suffers from a strong social stigma as a degrading profession. Being moral or immoral is not the point here, but the way societies look at it. One should not choose to be a sex worker simply because it is a degrading job to do. We try to avoid this profession not because it is wrong, but because societies attach very limited amount of respect to it.

More often than not, those who adhere to this argument are often hypocritical without even knowing it. When the Vietnamese celebrity was exposed on the media, some shook their head in a combination of disgust and empathy: “Sex work is also work, nothing wrong with it. But I still find her disgusting and I curse her for wanting to do that job. Why? Because she knows people dislike it, and yet, she still does it”.

This double standard is deafening, yet so well disguised under the cover page of social conformity. In a nut shell, the job itself is honest labor, but one still should succumb to social stigma and avoid it. Even people who accept that prostitution is pure honest work also cannot escape the need to surrender and bow to the negative social perception and betray their own genuine point of view.

Not only is this argument subject to hypocrisy, social perception towards prostitution as a degrading job cannot rule out the fact that many other professions in our societies are also degrading and not socially desired. Not so many of us can loudly claim to be Jesus-like and give convincing evidence that we love everyone without a tiny bit of bias based on what job they do for a living. Some of us use degrading words to address housemaids, shoe-shine boys, scrap scavengers, or street porters…despite the fact that they are earning money honestly with their labor. If we do not criminalize these professions on the basis of socially undesirableness, why should we do that to prostitution?

Clearly, the discussion should be focused on how to change the stigmatized social perception of sex work, and not the moral nature of sex work itself. If we criminalize a profession simply because it is an unwanted profession by the society at large, then again, we are punishing and victimizing the victims who are already marginalized by the society. Worse, this punishment is purely based on our fear of being seen as sympathizers for the oppressed. If that is not hypocrisy, then I don’t know what is.

Again, the hypothesis that should be stated here is: “To an extent that we can promote social acceptance and empathy towards sex workers, then sex work should be able to be considered as lawful work”.

PART 2: SOCIAL MENACE or SOCIAL NEED?  

While some sex workers choose their job voluntarily, others can be victims, and hence, need not to be victimized one more time with punishment from the legal system. Obviously, other arguments used to support the ban on sex work do not always come from the sympathy with the victim status of sex workers. Quite a contrary, these arguments target them as the source of social menace, the cause of ethics decadence and the reason why humanity is morally ruined. In another words, sex workers are no where near the status of being victim, they are squarely and simply the culprit.  

3.    Is prostitution being harmful to marriage?
Of all the arguments, this is the weakest one, since it is often used by those who inherently lack of confidence in their sexual prowess, a lack of trust in their partner's fidelity, or ability to maintain a stable marriage, or : “I oppose sex workers because my partner can cheat on me, and our marriage will be destroyed”.

Obviously, this argument is faulty since the burden of guilt should be borne by the unfaithful partners, not the sex workers. The society is full of temptation: sex, power, money, beautiful jewelries, expensive cars, delicious food, and so on and so forth. Ethical people know exactly what they can obtain and what not. If fast food is generally needed but can be unhealthy if eaten too much, should we criminalize fast-food and shut them down, or should we control ourselves not eating too much?  Blaming fast food, or blaming sex worker is just another way to profess our weakness in self-control and regulation.

In another counter-argument, it has been proved that prostitution, if regulated well, can help to protect marriage. Single, inexperienced, or sexually frustrated people can safely find an escape without engaging in rapes or illicit affair with other people’s partners and hence, ruining an otherwise happy marriage.

In 2010, the Family Protection Society in Australia was forced to publicly apologize to Tasmanian sex workers for saying the industry is harmful to women and breaking up marriages. The message is clear, if you eat the forbidden fruit, you are the culprit, not the fruit. Evidence? We still eat apple until this day.

4.    Is  prostitution spreading STD to wider population? 
Of all the arguments, this is the one that has been proven wrong at the strongest level. Study after study has shown that once sex work is regulated and decriminalized, sex workers have a much lower percentage of STD infection, compared to the wider population. Since the institution of mandatory condoms in Nevada's brothels in 1988, not a single sex worker has contracted HIV. In one Australian study carried out in 1998, the prevalence of sexually transmitted bacterial infections was 80 times greater in 63 illegal street prostitutes than in 753 of their legal brothel counterparts.  In the early '90s the Thai government began working with brothel owners to enforce 100% condom use. Free condoms were given to brothels, and sex workers were told to insist on condoms. Establishments that allowed unprotected sex were shut down. As a result, condom use increased from 14% in 1989 to over 90% by 1994. Over the same period, the number of new STD cases among men treated at government clinics plummeted by over 90%. HIV infection rates among military recruits fell from 4% in 1993 to below 1.5% in 1997.

Understandably, criminalizing prostitution fuels the possibility of STD, as it is uncontrolled, workers unprotected, and in many cases, they are willing to succumb to customer’s requests of unprotected sex in order to reduce the time spent on the street, and hence escape the police’s attention. Since condoms can be used as evidence and a form of harassment during street arrests, fear of felony charges can discourage safe sex, and contribute to the vicious circle of victim, being victimized, and then making others victims of STD.

5.    Is sex an inappropriate commodity?
Very often, sex is regarded as a product that should not be put on par with other commodities since it is too intimate, too divine, or too vulgar. Let’s take this down one by one.

Sex is intimate. No doubt. But is sex more intimate than personal thought, than dirty, seedy, deep dark secrets and scandals that have been commercialized, manipulated, written and crazily advertised to fame-boost and make money for celebrities worldwide?

Have a look at some of the world’s famous biographies and you will know what I mean. From incest, rapes, sexual violence, cheating to sex tactics; from family hatred, friendship betrayal, unmasking of loved ones, to deepest personal fear and obsession…you name it. Are these less intimate than an ordinary intercourse?

Sex is divine. Well, maybe. To be precise, sex deserves that status only when it is combined with other wonderful emotion and relationship such as love. It is almost ridiculous to consider sex always a product of love and genuine feeling between two parties. In its pure nature, sex is reproduction, and its foremost function is to help reproduce. This applies to everything on earth, from plants, animals, to humans. Of course sex as a result of love is the ideal, but this world is not populated by idealists, it thrives by realists who know all too well that we as human beings cannot rely on love to survive. If this planet was dependent on love to exist, none of us would be here today.

Sex is vulgar. For some, that is probably true, especially those who believe that humanity has been dammed for the original sin. In the end, sex contributes to the aftermaths of Adam and Eva being thrown off the Eden, and sex is religiously described as having only the function of reproducing. Having a pleasure from sex is taboo, since sex is not meant to be enjoying, but purely a process to make children.

But hey, hello! Criminalizing some product because it is religiously considered only for one specific God-given purpose does not seem to fit the idea of secularism, and still, it does not justify the verdict of sex work being harmful in nature. Looking further beyond the tiny society we live in, many civilizations have honored sex as the source of life, and continue to do so. Sacred prostitution on the rivers of Tigris and Euphrates was practiced in the house of heaven where all women were ordered to give themselves to strange men once in their life time, taking their sacred money and refusing no one. In ancient Greece, Hetaera often enjoyed their high status more than other women. Phallus worshiping, religious sex, sacred marriage, and many other sexual rituals are still the cores of many belief in civilizations from East to West. Vietnam, Japan, Bhutan and many other conservative countries still have festivals that focus on the glory of sex, of yin-yang harmony and revered origin of life.

Finally, there is this argument of seeing the body as a temple of God, and hence not appropriate to sell, meaning to let the consumer have the absolute right over it, is faulty. However, the more precise term for prostitution is that sex workers rent a part of their body in a fixed period of time with well-defined restrictions. Nobody owns their body, and hence, it is not selling in its conventional meaning.
In short, prostitution should be seen from a realistic angle of life. The profession has been here since time immemorial, and it is here to stay. Denial or defense simply is not sustainable, and frankly, a big fat lie to ourselves. More than 70 countries have legalized it to varying degrees, including very conservative Muslim countries such as Bangladesh, Tunisia or strongly Catholic Mexico and many other in Latin America.

There should be no absolute urge to criminalize or venerate such a basic need as sex. To quote a comedian: "There is not much difference between going to a date and meeting a prostitute. In the former, you HOPE to get sex. In the latter, you are SURE to get sex".