Friday, October 18, 2013

Cats and Meerkats

      Yesterday, I attended a stimulating lecture by Rami Khouri, 
Director of the Issam Fares Institute for Public Policy and International Affairs at the American University of Beirut.  The talk was entitled:  "Has the Arab Spring Failed?  The Struggle for Democracy in the Middle East".* Khouri addressed many of the things that we've heard in the news about the troubles that Middle Eastern countries have faced as they have tried to establish democratic governments since the events of almost three years ago:  religion-state relationships, the role of women in government, national vs. regional authority, the role of the military, etc.
      What struck me most, however, was the "should-be-obvious-but-hasn't-been" point that these Arab nations (he mentioned Tunisia, Egypt, Yemen and Libya specifically) are trying to accomplish in a very short time what western democracies (such as the United States) took decades, or centuries, to do—and are being criticized for not succeeding.   The U.S., for example, fought for Independence in 1776, developed its Constitution over the next thirteen years, fought over slavery eighty years later, gave women the vote in 1920, and while granting African American males the vote in 1870, was still dealing with minority voting into the 1960's (let alone in the last few years!).  In short, Khouri intimated (to me, at least), we in the West cannot judge these recent efforts towards democracy from our current state of affairs:  we had to struggle, so we should not be surprised, or impatient, that others who do not have our history should have to struggle as well.
       This led me to (re-)consider the whole question of self-definition.  Defining who/what I am, or we are, always has some aspect of opposition to it.  In other words, "I am me, because I am not you!"  The Hebrew scriptures are full of efforts at self-definition. The Hebrews are exhorted over and over again not to be like the nations surrounding them; their notion of "chosen-ness" underlines that.  The same was true as early Christians had to define themselves, not only over against their Jewish forebears, but over against their Greco-Roman neighbors. Islamic laws forbad things within the Dar al-Islam (that is, within Islamic societies) that were permissible in other cultures.  All of these served their respective cultures, affirming their own self-identity over against their neighbors.
       Again, I believe this is to be a normal developmental process, whether among human individuals, or human cultures.  Where Khouri's talk hit me, however, was a realization that we often, in differentiating ourselves from others, tend to make the "other" somewhat lesser in stature; we have to build ourselves up by knocking others down a notch (or more).  Those who are not us are "barbarians" (and you know how they are!).  They may be indulged a bit, something like children who haven't reached the age of accountability, but they are really only deserving of a sidelong glance, not to be taken seriously.
       Something seems very wrong with that picture, I think.  It bespeaks a triumph of parochialism over hospitality -- hospitality being something at the root of most religious, and cultural, systems.  And, if that is so, we still have a lot to learn.  "One of these things might not be like the other", but is it any less worthy of our care or consideration?  Do not all of our traditions call us to something greater than the status quo in our thinking?  MIght we not learn to judge cats and meerkats on their own, respective, merits?


Chaplain Gary

*The lecture was hosted by DU's Center for Middle East Studies, located in the Joseph Korbel School of International Studies.

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