Monday, 28 October 2013

My Ten commandments in the Middle East

In 2012, I spent most the year in Middle East for an independent research on Islam and the cultural landscape of MENA after the Arab Spring. My sabbatical brought me through the historical expansion path of Islam from where it began in Saudi Arabia, city by city, westward to Africa, eastward to Asia.

2012 marks a significant historical turning point in 13 different Islamic countries that I managed to get myself in and out, and surprisingly still remained in one piece. Three of these countries were without governments (Libya, Egypt, Yemen), one of them in the midst of a civil war (Syria), while protests and confusion characterize the daily life of the whole region.

The research has grown to become passion, and passion translates to expertise. I was recently invited to give a keynote at SIETAR congress in Tallinn. So thrilled to stand next to many prominent thinkers in the field and to share my perspectives with other interculturalists. What an amazing surprise just how great things turn out to be when your heart is at work.

To put it in a framework that some may recognize, my keynote is titled "My Ten commandments in the Middle East",  which are the lessons I gained from almost a year moving slowly but purposely in the region. I posted here the first one, and for those who are interested, please click to read my remark reprinted by Islamic Monthly for complete read. Note: a basic understanding is needed to distinguish the difference between Islam as a religion and Islamism as a political ideology (in this case, striking for universal Islamic caliphate)

Thou shalt not watch TV 

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

The first commandment I learned in Syria at the outset of the civil war. When I was there, 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!

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