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vendredi 30 janvier 2015

A Eureka Moment?

Today, I ran across an interesting piece by Jamal Elias, who is a professor of Religious Studies at Penn. The whole thing is a worth a read, and he makes a lot of good points. But aside from the current controversy, two of the points raised it made me consider something in a completely new light.

The first is this:
Almost invariably, the rich were the sole possessors of these rare, expensive books and, as is often the case, the rules of the palace differed from those of the street. For this reason, the art and book collections of the elite probably had little influence on the religious practices of the majority, and most surviving Islamic talismans and relics in mass circulation don’t depict Muhammad or other religious figures.
And this is the second:
Such groups are always publicly opposed to any and all forms of visual representation of Muhammad – just as they are to many other aspects of Muslim life, such as visiting shrines, religious music and dance and female participation in public life.
The point about elites being different is pretty much self explanatory, and there is often disapproval of the antics of the rich. It was only when juxtaposed with visiting shrines, which, in my understanding is a popular, folkloric practice, that I had the breakthrough; is Salafism a middle-class phenomenon?

Much has been written about the growth of the middle class and Victorian morality. And part of what drove the growth of the middle class was the Industrial Revolution, which caused migration to urban areas, and therefore dislocation for the newly arrived, formerly rural populations.

For instance, in The Making of Victorian Values: Decency and Dissent in Britain: 1789-1837, Ben Wilson argues that the new focus on morality was in part fueled by fear of losing economic status through the consequences of improper behavior. Unsurprisingly, he also mentions the influence of charismatic preachers.

Since the Second World War, and with the accompanying wave of independence, rural to urban migration has been widespread in much of the Muslim world. And despite widespread unemployment, there has been a rise in the standard of living, and in the expectations of the population. Additionally, post-independence governments have increased educational opportunities in ways that echo similar developments in 19th Century Europe.

These kind of comparisons should always be taken with a grain of salt, especially since they might neglect other, equally important factors. Nevertheless, I think this is an interesting prism through which to view social developments in the contemporary greater Middle East.

lundi 15 décembre 2014

What does Justice Mean?

When I taught in France, we did a lesson on holidays, and I told my students about Kwanzaa. They were confused by a holiday that was neither national nor religious, but cultural. I explained that part of the idea behind Kwanzaa was for African-Americans to celebrate their African heritage, which had been suppressed by their experience of slavery and oppression. One of my students was really stuck.

"Mademoiselle," he asked, "How did slavery just end? Weren't the black people angry? Did any of them try to seek revenge?"

It was a pretty heavy-hitting question from an 8-year-old. And I wasn't sure how to answer. What I said was that slavery may have ended on paper, but the mistreatment of  back people didn't just go away and that that wound of oppression was still fresh and not scarred over. That was a heavy answer for a class full of 8-year-olds.

Race relations and discrimination are heavy topics. That's probably part of why people deny the issues or avoid real discussions. Although denial and avoidance are themselves manifestations of privilege; people of color can't take a break from being themselves and the daily struggle of existence.

Denial is evident when people try to find fault with victims, like Eric Garner or Michael Brown, and search for any excuse that will deflect from the fact that they were killed. Because I am female, it made me think of the criticism and victim-blaming that come up when a rape victim comes forward.

Being female helps open my mind to the experience of people of color. It doesn't make me fully understand them, because the experiences are not the same. That's the problem with taking #BlackLivesMatter and trying to turn it into #AllLivesMatter. All lives do matter, but black people, specifically, are hurting. Black people's voices need to be heard.

I consider myself to be very lucky in having many friends who are active and principled. I see them sharing useful articles and photos from protests on Facebook. I admire their commitment. Some of my friend are white, some are black, some are mixed, or Asian, or Hispanic, or Arab. It's important for all of us to come together, to hear what black people are saying, to try and understand what is going on, and to work to create a better, more equitable society.

I think it's helpful to pass along something a friend shared. People get very hung up when privilege enters the discussion. They protest loudly that they are not bad people, don't have bad intentions. That's missing the point on what privilege means. It doesn't mean you are bad person, deliberately, intentionally hurting people who are different from yourself. What it does mean is that a system exists; a system that privileges some people while it disadvantages others. What that means, is that while laws are supposed to apply equally to everyone in theory, their application in practice is unjust. 

A lot of focus in the debates has been about police. The state authority that the police represent can be problematic when large groups of people don't feel that it is legitimate. When people are angry about the actions of the police, it also doesn't mean that policemen are irredeemably bad, bloodthirsty racists. However, they are tools of a system that is disproportionately harsh towards people of color.

Something important to realize, for observers as well as the police, is a point in the guide my friend shared:

Do:  Help white people understand our “mutual interest” (ie what is our stake) with POC in overturning a racist, oppressive system.
Don’t: Tell white people that they are “helping,” “supporting,” etc. POC.

The continued oppression of people of color is something that damages our entire society. When our system holds people back, and prevents them for achieving their full potential, we will all eventually pay the price. There are, unfortunately, people who are actually dangerous and malicious in our society. And we also need to deal with our terrible gun violence problem. These problems feed off each other. But in order to deal with them, and for the police to fulfill their mission to "protect and serve," we need to establish a baseline of trust.

If our ears and our hearts are open, we should be hearing what black people are saying; that they can't breathe. That the problem is so bad, and so pressing, that it takes their breath away. Justice is recognizing that everyone deserves to be able to breathe.

samedi 27 septembre 2014

Change in Algeria through women's eyes

Anyone who is interested in Algeria or in women's issues in Arab World should take a look at this site. It's a collaboration between El Watan and TV5Monde and is well done. The women who are featured are a diverse group and situated throughout the country. It's important, in order to get a better picture of the stakes in Algeria, to hear perspectives from different age groups and social classes.

There were several of the portraits that were particularly enjoyable:  Maissa Bey in Sidi bel Abbes and  Abla Moulay in Tamanrasset. Having lived through many decades and witnessed the changes in Algeria themselves, their recollections were food for thought.

Abla Moulay is a farmer and lives a life that is almost like a glimmer of the past. She reflects on how work has changed in her lifetime and how although she carries on with her business, it is unlikely that young people will continue the tradition. And Maissa Bey, a writer, explains how attitudes changed when women began working in factories.

Their perspective on how society has changed in the face of economic pressures ties in with a theme I studied during the spring semester. I was lucky enough to take an Introduction to Cultural Anthropology class with Brian Spooner at the University of Pennsylvania. The main point was that culture increases in complexity with increased interaction (which is usually tied to increase in population).

Thus it is not at all surprising that culture in Algeria (and the rest of North Africa) should have changed a great deal in the second half of the 20th Century, as populations have increased around the globe.

Famed anthropologist  Germaine Tillion addressed some of these issues as they relate to gender in her work My Cousin, My Husband, where she investigates Mediterranean endogamy. One's personal feelings aside, she demonstrates that the system made sense in a society that placed great emphasis on land holdings and extended families lived in close proximity. When looking at the past (or at other cultures) we often forget the context, but she points out that in the past, when a woman married a cousin, he was most likely someone with whom she had grown up and whose mother she knew well. With the movement of populations, this set of circumstances no longer existed and when marriages attempted to consolidate land holdings, women were then more vulnerable to abuse from their in-laws.

Remaining within the anthropological framework, in the very fine book Asking and Listening by Paul Bohannan and Dirk van der Elst, makes the point that anthropologists do better work when they study two societies other than their own in comparison, because being part of a society makes it harder to evaluate.

I am not a fan of focusing on outward religious indicators like headcoverings or beards. It's overly simplistic and collapses complex phenomena. However, Maissa Bey's description of the pressure the female factory workers felt to wear headscarves is instructive. The key point here is that it was an adaptation to changing circumstances. As the pace of change has been accelerating, more adaptations may be needed and societies are not always well-equipped to handle them.

There are many changes taking place today all over the world, including in the US. However, it is hard to perceive them while they are happening to us. To better understand, I think it is useful to look at change in a historical perspective.

Before I go any further, I want to make a point. Saying that one society is more complex than another is not a value judgment. It also does not mean that the individuals that make up the society have more or less worth than members of another society.

Since complexity is defined in part by greater interaction, often through population growth, the growth of urban areas plays a key role. In this light, examining the Industrial Revolution may help us to understand how change effects culture and society.

As people flocked to cities, the numbers not only strained infrastructure but existing social patterns as well. While greater wealth was not evenly distributed, the growth of the middle class meant that a large group of people found themselves outside both peasant and elite structures. The rise of Victorian morality can be seen as a response to this vacuum.

In the same way, the pressure to conform to conservative social mores that Maissa Bey describes can be seen as a response to a new category of working women, whose presence was destabilizing to the established order. This is where Abla Moulay's portrait is interesting. In some ways, she represents a holdover from a different time. While she works, her work is within the framework of an established category, agriculture. 

But when examining women's work in the market economy, we often forget that before the Industrial Revolution, working for wages was very rare. Thus, gendered attitudes toward it are not reflective of some age old mentality, but are themselves and adaptation to a new situation.

The takeaway is that adaptation is something that happens, and it is not necessarily part of a plan or an agenda. Additionally, since change can be threatening, the adaptations to them often anchor themselves within a familiar framework, like religion. Understanding the (re)appearance of outward religious signs in North Africa (and elsewhere in the region) as part of a process of adaptation to increased cultural complexity is a useful step to making the phenomenon less "othered."

samedi 14 juin 2014

Thoughts on the situation in Iraq

Currently, pundits, politicians and the press are all worked up about the ISIS advance on Baghdad. However, it's important to see what is important to Iraq and what is important to US interests.

The first question is hard to answer because Iraq is so divided. And of course, "Iraq" is also a 20th century creation, conjured up by colonial powers and the Hashemite royal family. Perhaps it is not surprising that those divisions did not just disappear. Nevertheless, unrest in Iraq puts Iraqis at risk, whether they are the targets of reprisals, families who have fled, or women who are told not to leave their houses. The most important thing is for people to be safe. And yet, close behind safety is the need for justice and fair treatment.

This difficulty is clear in Iraq, and is also part of the problem in Syria; how do populations live together when they are riven by ethnic and sectarian divisions?

There are two keys to ensuring a workable modus vivendi: ensuring that the administration includes all groups, and providing fair treatment. Despite being a dictator, Saddam Hussein did not rely solely on members of his own group to fill the ranks. Additionally, the Baath party not only looked to a common identity that was applicable to many groups, but provided a power structure outside ethnic, tribal or religious affiliation. The current government is a Shiite-dominated outfit. This, compounded with the  exclusion of Baath party operatives, created a void that the Sunni jihadist groups have filled.

Proposals to divide Iraq often meet with skepticism or even outrage. And carving out independent fiefdom may be premature. However, a more federal structure might help to calm tensions and allow Iraqis to feel more invested in their local governments. Nationalism and it cousins are difficult creatures; on the one hand, people should be able to choose their leaders but, on the other hand, those leaders must serve the whole population, not only the majority. Reducing the scope from the national to the local level can help, to the extent that people may be better able to understand their common interests when they are right before their eyes.

Unfortunately, the Sunni-Shiite fault-line has deep roots. And that, in itself, is a reason for the US and the international community to be wary of intervention. It is not wise to take sides.

However, by the same token, it is not wise to continue the poor relations with Iran that have characterized the past 30 years. In that light, Afghanistan was a missed opportunity. A different response to the Taliban, one that focused on drug interdiction with a sidelight on the mistreatment of ethnic minorities, like the Hazara, could have paved the way for better relations and humanitarian cooperation with Iran.

Aside from these concerns, and the fear of spillover and exported terrorism, Iraq is not the US's backyard or responsibility. The invasion and occupation of Iraq was costly, with very little payoff, and there is no reason to believe a second act would be any different. Any decisions should be based on sober analysis, not on wounded pride or the desire to finish the job, simply because it was begun. Further, other countries, given the US's poor track record in the region, may not be eager to cooperate.

Finally, it is very difficult to look on and see suffering and chaos. However, that in itself is not a justification for action. Iraq has difficult issues to address, but Iraqis must be able to address them if they hope to advance and build a better future.

mardi 1 avril 2014

Thoughts about ideology and economy

Veteran jouralist Masood Farivar has an interesting opinion piece in the New York Times, reflecting on foreign fighters in  Syria. Farivar explains that the motives of foreign fights kept them apart from the Afghans fighting agains the Soviets.
Their foreign tongues, their strange garb and mien and, above all, their reasons for fighting kept them apart. Their novice’s clumsiness drew giggles; their religious dogmatism baffled us. And their suicidal embrace of martyrdom caused revulsion.
He then examines the motivations some fighters have, but while acknowledging they may be complex, he does not find them to pose a threat to the US. 

This is interesting to hear. There's been a lot of talk about the threat posed by returning fighters, while has struck me as overblown. Or, that it's the wrong way to look at the issue.

Farivar dismisses the idea of typing foreign fighters, yet it does have some utility.
In an attempt to understand the foreign fighters, some Western experts have crafted caricatures — the revenge-seeker, the status-seeker, the identity-seeker and so on — but the legion of fighters with varied and often overlapping motives defy easy stereotypes.
Certainly, real people will not fit nicely into one of these profiles, but understanding the issue through this lens offers some insight. In Anthropology, it is important to differentiate between individual change, often linked to the life cycle,  and larger, cultural change. So, we can observe that the phenomenon of men (and women) going abroad to fight for a cause is nothing new. A good example is the Spanish Civil War, which attracted soldiers worldwide. A similar comparison can also be made with the wave of leftist guerrilla violence throughout Europe in the 1970s and 80s (Baader-Meinhof, Brigate Rosse, Action Directe). Jihadist groups can be viewed as the current manifestation, not necessarily a unique or different threat.

My argument is that the problem is not young people in search of meaning, but conditions that allow the general population  to sympathize with them. Thus focusing on returning fighters, or even on the threat of lone wolves, is not a particularly useful endeavor. Instead, if states are genuinely interested in cutting down on violence, their best course of action is to right the wrongs that most concern their populations.

Looking at the above examples, one may notice that both coincide with periods of economic turmoil (the Great Depression, Oil Crisis/stagflation). I don't wish to reduce a complex situation to a numbers game, but as Bill Clinton famously said "It's the economy, stupid." Thus, when people suffer economically and concerned about inequality, this kind of movement seems more attractive. 

And here's why Farivar's article is relevant to this blog's theme. Many commentators have speculated on the mayhem that returning fighters could cause in the Maghreb countries. In Tunisia especially, where the population is less used to this kind of violence, tensions run high. But I maintain that the most serious problems in Tunisia are not religious or political, but economic. Similar arguments could be made relative to the inequalities in Morocco. I'm not sure if the same can be said for Algeria, and would welcome feedback.

lundi 13 janvier 2014

Cultural Preservation, Collaboration, ...Colonialism?

The New York Times ran a piece about the National Museum in Afghanistan. While your blogger whole-hardheartedly sympathizes with the conservators working so hard to put objects back together, the way the article was presented posed several problems.

The first was the harping on the role of the Taliban in destroying cultural property. The story of the Bamiyan Buddhas is well known, and the idea of destroying centuries old treasures turns the stomach, but focusing on the Taliban obscures and downplays other threats to cultural property. In fact, the article does detail some of the looting:
The looted objects have also been returning, as word has gotten around to customs agents worldwide about how to identify Afghan artifacts. In recent years, Interpol and Unesco have teamed up with governments around the world to interdict and return at least 857 objects — some of them priceless, like 4,000-year-old Bactrian princess figurines that had disappeared from the National Museum. Another 11,000 objects have been returned after being seized by the border authorities at Afghanistan’s own frontiers.
Of course, some of the people destroying certain objects may have been the very same people turning a profit on stolen goods. After all, the Taliban does not hesitate to profit from drug trafficking, even though using drugs is generally considered to be forbidden. Whoever is stealing from the Museum and other institutions, it is a threat that will remain, with or within the Taliban. 

The next troubling point was the emphasis placed on the team from the University of Chicago. Having worked on a museum collection-focused project that included Chicago, the issue is not their expertise or professionalism. Rather, the problem is minimizing the other international teams, and even more importantly, the Afghani professionals. For instance, why don't the French archeological  teams, who apparently did the majority of the work, deserve to be mentioned by name? 

Minimzing the contributions of the Afghani team is an even greater problem. Consider this man:
Afterward, people like Abdullah Hakimzada, a restorer who has spent the past 33 years working at the museum, were on hand to sweep up the fragments of the objects that the Taliban smashed — sorting many of them hurriedly into sacks and boxes that later would help the reassembly work.
Imagine spending more than three decades, almost all of it during wartime, working at something that requires great skill, concentration, and more than likely, great personal sacrifice. The others mentioned by name in the article (Mohammad Yahyeh Muhibzada and Omara Khan Masoudi) likely demonstrate similar commitment and Mr. Muhibzada (the archivist) probably has specialized training. The write-up seemed to overly exoticize the Afghan Museum and to paint its staff as colorful characters, rather than professionals. 

This view has been overly present in reporting about looting and museums, as reported in the NYT and elsewhere. It's easy to draw a parallel with the Timbuktu manuscripts. And it taps into an attitude toward cultural property that assumes the residents of the countries from which is comes are unable to appreciate its worth and need an outsider to do the work or make them realize its importance.

The reality is more complicated than that. From a strictly technical viewpoint, their training and materials may not measure up to the prevailing international standard. Many of these workers are acutely aware of this. And they are also aware of the threats to these treasured objects in dangerous situations. Refering to objects on tour in Europe, Mr. Hakimzada said, "I personally hope they never return. At least where they are now, we know they are safe.” 

And yet, they are equally aware of their importance. Mr Muhibzada's statement is clear: “Archaeological artifacts are our national identity. It’s our national responsibility to protect them so future generations will know who we are and who we were.”

The Western view of Afghanistan (and other current war zones, like Mali) is a reductive one, composed mostly of tribesmen, misery and lawlessness. Calling the Museum's collections "relics" plays into this idea. It assumes that the culture in museums is the only one worth saving. As I am lucky enough to work in a large university library, I am aware of the works of literature that Afghan authors have managed to publish over the past fifteen years. Thanks to Twitter, I know of many courageous people in Mali who are tremendously dedicated both to expanding education and to preserving cultural artifacts. 

Certainly, these countries suffer from poverty, war, and lack of educational and cultural resources. The people there do not need outsiders to point out these deficits. But they also don't need to be viewed as uncultured and backward. In the United States (or in France, where I have also lived) there may be a high level of official culture, but there are plenty of social problems as well. It's unfair and arrogant to adopt such a condescending attitude towards the cultural production and preservation happening elsewhere in the world.

Some of the other problems with the article are not speciic to the situation in Afghanistan, but are instead gripes with the way the media portrays museums and conservation. And let's pay attention to the term I used; restoration and conservation are not really the same thing. 

Since I have been working since my undergraduate days in related fields, I may be especially sensitive to how this work is described. And yet, insisting on employing the correct term is directly germane to the issues raised in this article. Conservators subscribe to a code of ethics, they do not put something in an object that was not there before, nor do they intentionally erase anything original. And they treat every object with the same respect, from priceless national treasures to family documents. And this outlook was clear from the comments made by the National Museum's staff.

Finally, it is important to address the idea of professional exchange and collaboration as it was portrayed in the article and more widely in the field. Differing levels of professional training exist around the globe. It is wonderful to be able to benefit from other practitioners' expertise and I know personally of wonderful collaborations that have taken place around the world. However, I am also aware of others that have gone less well. In order to be successful, it is imperative to approach the situation with the right attitude. An experienced practitioner can share his or her skills, but everyone brings something to the plate. The contribution of the Chicago and French teams is important, but the Afghan staff are not empty vessels.

This is something about which I have very strong feelings. I hope to see less of this hierarchical, one-directional understanding of Culture, and instead see a more inclusive view emerge. I believe that this change in attitude may also serve to diminish future destruction of cultural property, by breaking down unnecessary barriers and feelings of resentment from people who have felt slighted.

dimanche 10 novembre 2013

Taking a Break/Une petite pause

This blog has been silent for quite some time now, not because there is nothing to say, but in fact because there is too much. The events taking place in the Maghreb region (and in the Sahel) have led me to see that I am lacking some background information that would allow me (and many others) to understand current developments more completely. Therefore, I am embarking on a new adventure. Since I have recently gotten a new position at a university library, I have access to a wealth of works on every imaginable topic. I will choose and review those that are useful to readers who share my interests. Keep an eye out for some to be posted shortly and hopefully, readers can benefit from this resource.

Depuis un certain moment, ce blog reste muet -- non pas parce qu'il n'y a rien à dire, mais plutôt l'invers : les événements se succèdent un peu trop vite. L'actualité au maghreb (et au sahel) me fait découvrir des lacunes des connaissances du fond et du contexte. Alors, je me lance dans une nouvelle aventure. Ayant décrochée un poste dans unebibliothèque universitaire, j'ai accès à toute une panoplie des ouvrages, dont je choisirai les plus intéressants pour en faire de brèves critiques. Affaire à suivre et profitez-en!