Day 6 was a day of panels and lectures. We started out with a panel presentation on the UAE as the new Arab media hub. Panelists included Abeer Al-Najjar, an Assistant Professor of Communication at AUS, Mohammad Ayesh, a professor of media and communications at the University of Sharjah, and Mishaal Gergawi, an op-ed columnist for the Gulf News. The two professors were interesting and gave academic perspectives on the news media and the state of the news media in the Gulf region, but the op-ed columnist was fascinating. He’s young, provocative, and was willing to really call things as he saw them. Once he started speaking, the panel turned down a different path. Here are some of the things I picked up during the panel:
There is no “freedom of the press” in the UAE; the government can shut you down and even imprison you if they don’t like what you have to say. That has happened and Mishaal Gergawi mentioned about a dozen public intellectuals who have been banned from writing publicly because they have pushed for democracy in the UAE or said something else the government didn’t want to hear. Mishaal Gergawi also claimed that media companies are not independent from the government (though we learned the next day that some are pretty close), and that means they are often tools of propaganda for the government. Young people in the UAE are just as into social networks – including Twitter – as are young people in the West. Mishaal Gergawi also noted that there are strange double-standards in the Arab world. Because he writes for Gulf News, which is an English language daily, he can swear in English in his columns and no one cares. But if he swore in Arabic, it would cause problems. He also noted that he had run into the boundaries of what was acceptable to say, though he hasn’t been arrested or cut off. He also suggested that what needs to happen in the UAE is similar to what happened in the UK – royals (members of the royal family) need to be phased out of government positions. The reason he gave is that royals are basically off-limits – you can’t criticize them. Criticizing them can get you in serious trouble. But in a modern country, governments need to be criticized in order to address issues and concerns. This is a serious problem, then, in the UAE – you can’t criticize the government, and that results in the government being incompetent and unable to receive feedback on how it could improve. By phasing royals out of government positions, they could be replaced with civilians and bureaucrats, whom it is safe to criticize. The end result would be that the royals get to save face by not being criticized but also that Emiratis have a voice in their governance.
The afternoon lecture was on Islamic Law or Sharia by Gavin Picken, an Assistant Professor of Arabic at AUS. The lecture explained the different schools of jurispridence and the basis for Sharia in each of the schools. He also showed a map outlining which schools were popular where. Of particular interest was his explanation for the connection between Sharia Law and UAE law – basically, the UAE has a constitution and civil code (he didn’t explain how it was created, and neither does this Wikipedia article). The courts in the UAE rule based on the civil code and the constitution, but if there is something not outlined in one of those, then they use Sharia Law to arrive at judgments. The way he described Shariah law seemed to make sense (only in the “I get it now” sense, not in the “I want Sharia Law in Tampa” sense). Basically, Shariah Law is a way of reasoning about what people should do that draws upon various components of Islamic teaching. He also gave a hierarchy of over-riding responsibilities and objectives in Sharia Law and said they are in the order of greatest importance: protection of life, protection of religion, protection of wealth, protection of intelligence, and protection of honour. He failed to answer one of my questions when I asked about the Quran saying that you can kill unbelievers (Sura 4:89 and 91), which would seem to put “protection of religion” above “protection of life.” He really just didn’t answer the question, which was disappointing, but I think it’s because the answer doesn’t work with what he was saying. I also asked him about the punitive punishments that are occasionally mentioned in the Western media, like flogging, stoning, etc. He said that the punitive punishments you see in various parts of the Middle East, particularly in Saudi Arabia, are not “cultural” but are actually based in Islam. It was good to hear someone finally admit that as every time I ask a Muslim in the US about these punitive punishments, they say it is cultural and try to absolve Islam from any responsibility. However, Dr. Picken went on to claim that those punitive punishments are typically poor executions of Islamic law and that Islamic law doesn’t need to be punitive or mean and can be quite progressive. Basically he said that the judges issuing those punishments could choose to be less punitive and offer alternative punishments. But, in the end, the punitive punishments are derived from Sharia Law. I also asked about fatwas and he said that in Sunni Islam Muslims need not follow a fatwa; it isn’t binding. However, in Shia Islam, depending on your relation to the “mufti” who issued the fatwa you may have to follow it. He argued that the average Muslim doesn’t know Islamic Law like the muftis and experts in Islamic jurisprudence, so they turn to a mufti or expert. Whomever they turn to for guidance and advice is whose fatwas they should respect. Thus, the fatwa against Salman Rushdie really only applied to Shia Muslims from Iran and any others who followed that mufti. Overall, his description of Sharia Law seemed to be compelling, but he also admitted that it really only works when you have someone who is smart and progressive interpreting it. In other words, Islamic Law can be used by intolerant and cruel individuals as a way of justifying pretty terrible actions in the name of Islam. And if that is the case, I have to wonder how useful Sharia Law is at all, since it doesn’t prohibit horrible actions.
We didn’t have any other plans this day with CIEE, but K. knew someone at the American University of Dubai (AUD) who formerly worked at his university and he had arranged dinner with her. He kindly invited me to tag along. We took the Metro to the AUD stop and met up with his former colleague, S. She had been in Dubai for just six months, but had a lot of interesting insights. First, while AUS is pretty respectable, AUD is a bit less so. It’s seen as a party school and the school for rich kids in Dubai, including the children of Sheikh Mohammad and other royals. Rules aren’t as strict as at AUS for students – they can hold hands and need not worry so much about appropriate dress. There are no “fashion and/or passion” police on campus. Also, AUD is a for-profit school owned and operated by a Lebanese business mogul. As a result, faculty are driven pretty hard. She also noted that, while you can buy alcohol at the hotels in Dubai, you can’t buy alcohol to take to your home unless you have a license to buy alcohol. She had just finished going through the process to apply for one. There are only a couple of stores in all of Dubai that legally sell alcohol to ex-patriots with licenses. She also noted that she paid extra for her maid to not live with her. Her apartment, which was provided by the university, included rooms for the maid, but she didn’t like the idea of a maid living with her. However, it actually costs more to not have a maid live with you because you then have to pay the maid’s living expenses. Oh, and maids can make as little as $125 per month in the UAE. That is the situation for Sudanese women, who are at the bottom of the hierarchy. The Philippines government, in an effort to protect it’s citizens, put a minimum salary that its citizens can be paid – 1,400 dirham, or about $385 per month.
We went to a rooftop night club with live music and alcohol at the Radisson. It had a nice view of the city but, unfortunately, I forgot to take a picture. Anyway, during our enjoyable conversation something interesting happened. It was dark and we needed light to look at the menus to order dinner. S. asked the waitress for a light. As the waitress went to find one, I pulled out my phone and used my flashlight app for us. When the waitress came back, she had the exact same thing – her phone with a flashlight app. When she arrived, I put mine down thinking it would just take a minute for us to order. But after a couple of minutes, I insisted that we use my phone rather than hers so she could leave and go get our drinks. The waitress resisted, but when I pulled mine out, she relented. As soon as she left, S. pointed out that I had, in fact, just violated the social order in the UAE. If you remember the deference issues I mentioned in my earlier posts, I had just breached the deference system by not letting the waitress stand there with her phone light on waiting for us to read the menus. S. pointed out that, in just six months she had grown so accustomed to the deferential relationships of poorer ex-patriots that she was fine letting our waitress stand and wait for us. By not letting her wait on us, I was the one disrupting the status hierarchy. Awkward.
I do have one picture to post with this entry. On the way to the hotel/night club where we had dinner, we had to cross a rather busy street. S., the professor at AUD, pointed out the marvelous urban planning in Dubai when we tried to cross the street – the crosswalk we were going to use didn’t take us to another sidewalk. It ended in a wall:
I actually took this picture a couple days later, but it is better than the ones I took that night. If you look closely you’ll see that the white stripes lead directly into a wall. There is no sidewalk on the other side of this crosswalk. S., who kindly pointed this out before K. and I walked into the wall, said that she hadn’t noticed the first time she tried to cross the street and had ended up walking into the wall. This is actually at the base of the Radisson where we had dinner. Welcome to Dubai!