I walked into the Cinema Rif in Tangier, one of the oldest movie theaters in the city—restored recently by Yto Barrada, after many years of neglect—and turned into a chic rendez-vous address for Tangerians craving cultural experiences besides the ubiquitous fare of soccer games on television, weddings, lavish dinners, and endless musical festivals. The comeback of the Rif—now known as Cinemathèque de Tanger— has been the subject of a special exhibit at the Walker Art Center in Minneapolis. What I do like about Tangier is no matter how modern things become, something distinctively Moroccan perdures. I was looking at the movie poster in the photo above when a man sat right in front of me, as if intent of blocking my view. He was obviously just resting, but he gave me a splendid photo op.
The media is abuzz with news of ISIS, or the Islamic State, the Muslim thugs who have managed to terrorize the world with their well-publicized brutal murders of anyone who doesn’t look like them. The whole world has condemned them. Even the Grand Mufti of Saudi Arabia, Sheikh Abdul Aziz ibn Abdullah, described them, together with al Qaeda, as the main enemies of Islam, even though, as the French publication Libération wryly noted in an editorial, the Sheikh’s fatwa is not truly convincing, since his Salafist convictions are not that radically different from ISIS’s ideology.
It is somewhat fitting for Libération to produce a front page like the one above.The Islamic State is certainly a barbarian challenge to the United States, the first modern nation to separate religion from politics. Not long after its birth, the United States had to send battleships (not drones) to the Mediterranean to subdue state-sponsored corsairs who terrorized US ships pursuing trade in the region, explaining to emirs, beys, and sultans that their government has no religion.
The separation of religion and politics has become a fundamental tenet of modern life. It is a smart system that allows citizens to practice their faith without imposing it on others. Muslim-majority nations have yet to come to terms with this reality. Until they do, ISIS-type thugs will continue to appeal to mis-educated, frustrated, and confused young men—and some women.
There is no avoiding it. As I have said repeatedly, Islam need to be radically rethought and reformed.
When I am in the United States I never fail to notice signs of quintessentially American behavior. The first thing that struck me when I first landed in New York almost thirty-one years ago were bumper stickers on cars. That was American individualism on display, even though pasting bumpers on vehicles was also a bit of a mass phenomenon. The quest for unhindered individualism and the insistence on playing by the rules are two sides of the American coin of freedom, a currency that is nowhere as refined as it is in the land of Uncle Sam.
And so my fellow “Maineiacs” ride on, hard-working sober Yankees following in the footsteps of free-ranging cowboys and exuding the whiff of Texan defiance. Anne and Joe may be a retired duo whose only intent is to see a bit of the world, but their message is clear—they ain’t walking gently into the twilight of the long goodbye.
U.S. President Barack Obama reserved his August 16, 2014 weekly radio address to the topic of education.The issue of higher education is no less vexing than the super-charged topic of immigration. Both have to do with the American Dream. Even as American universities continue to stand out with their exceptional resources and productivity in the flashy Shanghai ranking of world universities, the debate in the United States is more about affordability. For families and students without enough cash to pay tuition and fees, access to higher education entails navigating a complex maze of discounts, grants, and loans, without any guarantees of profitable employment at the end of the journey. President Obama is seeking a solution to the access problem while wanting a rigorous education that challenges students. He may be opposed but he is absolutely right—without a good education that renews and revitalizes the American genius, the United States can’t coast indefinitely on the hard work of its pioneers.
This is the first audio recording I ever posted, so I am somewhat thrilled that a format exists for me to share it the same way I do videos. I gave an interview to the Chicago-based Radio lslam last Wednesday, August 13th, 2014, from my home in Tangier, Morocco. Due to the time difference, the date in Morocco was actually Thursday, August 14th, but no matter. The flow of global communications has yet to find a syntax to explain how a conversation can take place on different days.
In my last post, I complained about Arabs and Muslims being silent on the genocide of the Yazidis in Iraq. Today, while sitting on a plane in Rabat, Morocco, I read a harrowing account by Alissa J. Rubin, a New York Times journalist who was badly injured during an evacuation operation, about the courage of a veteran Iraqi Arab pilot who was so moved by the plight of the Yazidis that he made it his mission to escort as many of them as he could to safety. Helping the Yazidis avoid the terror of Islamic State assassins gave his life meaning. Ms. Rubin was on the helicopter that carried more than a full load of people and materials, but the helicopter was never able to gather enough power to lift and crashed in Kurdistan. Ms. Rubin was badly injured and dictated her story from an Istanbul hospital. Only one person died in the crash—the Iraqi general, seen below in a picture captured by New York Times photographer Adam Ferguson.
Read the full story here. It is a testament to the angelic side of our troubled humanity.
The United States has re-entered Iraq to fight ISIS, or the Islamic State, tout court. By doing so, the US is doing an enormous favor to the world community (especially the so-called Sunni Muslims who remain complicit by their indifference) by trying to stop the wholescale genocide of the Yazidis, an old religious and badly understood people with a hybrid religion who have made the northwestern part of the country their home since time immemorial. Now, the bearded Muslim terrorists are out to wipe them of the country, along with any Christian or minority they could find. A human cultural legacy is being erased and the world goes about its regular ways, as if nothing were at stake. I understand people are getting tired of the Middle East and its endless tragedies, but this is on a different scale. To witness genocidal acts and not do anything about them is deeply disturbing. The United States and President Obama need to be commended for getting back into Iraq to stop the atrocities—a legacy of decades-old botched policies in the region. And the raging madness of many Muslims.
In a rich Sunday edition, the New York Times Arts & Leisure section explores the ramifications of growing inequality on “middlebrow” culture,whose natural home has been the United States. The leveling powers of American democracy may have been an antidote to the lingering effects of feudalism in Europe, but European writers, such as Virginia Wolf, a self-described “highbrow,” would rather deal with the more authentic “lowbrows.” The middlebrows to her were nobodies. So strongly did people feel about these social categories that some went as far as drawing consumer and interest profiles to make it easier for people to identify their class (see illustration above).
Credit Illustration by R. Kikuo Johnson (New York Times)
The discussion of this subject was followed up in the Book Review section by insightful comments from the lyrical Indian writer Pankaj Mishra. Pankaj reminds us of the aristocratic disdain for commercial life with its shopkeeper mindset. In 1862, the Russian writer Alexander Herzen feared the superfluous “interests of the countinghouse and bourgeois prosperity” because they could turn the cultural glories of Europe into Chinese kitsch. He didn’t live long to witness the rise of popular culture, with its sound bites and devotion to perpetual entertainment, flashy smiles, and empty interiors. But we know from other Europeans what he might have thought or how he may have reacted.
By the time José Ortega y Gasset's La rebelión de las masas (The revolt of the masses) was first published as a book in 1930, people should have known that classical elitism had no future in “the age of mechanical reproduction,” to quote yet another astute observer, the ill-fated Walter Benjamin. Capitalism may generate extreme inequalities, but it produces for the masses.
In their meekness, exploited and struggling consumers somehow call the shots.
This well-illustrated pronouncement by the late Steve Jobs is distributed by the Martin Trust Center for MIT Entrepreneurship. The goal is quite simple—how to generate business and wealth from ideas that can be successfully commercialized. From my discussion today with Kyle Judah, the program director, I realized that such a process is not easy, and explains why a support system—from family to government—is indispensable for an entrepreneurship culture to take root. A person takes serious risks to become a successful entrepreneur, but he or she does so because the arduous and lonely work required could be rewarding in the end. If people live in communities of suspicion and mistrust, then not much can be achieved. Only a robust system of laws and rights could give people the confidence to embrace risk and invest in the future.
Kyle Judah at the Martin Trust Center
This explains why the determined quest by many Muslim nations to import an MIT-like model is not bound to succeed. The Israeli scholar Dan Diner reminded us in his book, Lost in the Sacred, that because Muslims are so hopelessly trapped in a divine order the very idea of modernity remains elusive to them. Muslims prefer applied science to basic research because the latter requires a culture of freedom and openness—qualities that, in varying degrees, are still lacking in their nations.
According to one Martin Trust Center brochure, by the end of 2006 MIT graduates had founded some 25,600 companies “employing 3.3 million people and generating annual world revenues of nearly $ 2 trillion.This group of companies, if its own nation, would be the 11th-largest economy in the world.”
Investing in research and funding risk in a culture of freedom and trust generate wealth and prosperity. A maniacal attachment to religion in a environment of poor education and research, on the other hand, has made of Muslims passive consumers of Western and Asian products. The only thing they have left is the illusion of spiritual superiority.
Only secular regimes that treat all beliefs and opinions the same will set Muslim-majority nations free.
Above is my letter to the editor of The Economist published in the July 26th-August 1st, 2014 print edition in response to a recent issue on the Arab world.