Wednesday, 20 January 2010

Singaporean Chinese, Beijingers, Hainanese – one and the same?

"I believe Muslims in South-east Asia in general are peace-loving ... it is probably due to an influx of ... radicals from the Arab countries that our region has become filled with Middle Eastern style philosophy and low tolerance ..."
kennyticks2010 (as quoted by the Straits Times, January 11, 2010)
I am not an Arab. Nor am I a South-east Asian by birth. But I was disturbed when I read the above statement.
There may be some truth in the comment. But if an Arab passed the following remark, it will also contain some truth.
"Singaporeans are an insulated and nannied people, living in a bubble environment, who have limited street smarts when dealing with the real world [outside Singapore]. Without the government holding their hand and telling them what to do Singaporeans are hopelessly lost."
Both statements demonstrate a degree of ignorance divorced from ground realities. They are virtually insults.
Such beliefs perpetuate a stereotype which contains strands of the truth. Weave the strands together to examine the big picture and you see a much more complicated tapestry.

The Saint Simon Church in Aleppo, Syria is one of the oldest known church structures still in existence

The Arab world is not homogenous.
A country like Syria is worlds apart from a Gulf state like Saudi Arabia. Then throw in North African Arab nations like Morocco and Tunisia into the mix. Let's not forget the Sudanese – are they Arabs? Well, they do speak Arabic. What about the Lebanese?
Take a flight from Dubai to Jeddah; are you in cities which have the same world vision. Then hop on a plane and travel to Cairo. Travel north from Cairo to Amman. While in Jordan drive across to Israel – are the Israelis Arabs? Maybe just the 30% who speak Arabic as their mother tongue.
I think you get the point. Culture plays a significant role in defining religious traditions. Arab culture and religion should not be equated with Saudi Wahabi Islam.
There is more to the Arab world than face veils and Islam. Like any geography of the world, the Arabs have their share of culture. In fact, the transmission of arts and knowledge via the Arab land of Andalusia played a key role in the European Renaissance.

The Court of the Lions at the Alhambra Palace in Granada. A part of Spain's Moorish legacy

Ok, that's history. Talk about today as that is more relevant.
Define the Arab world as any geography where Arabic is widely spoken and travel around. Take the journeys I described above and note the varying cultural practices and religious traditions.
Soak in the history of Damascus, the oldest continually inhabited urban area in the world. Enjoy the nightlife of Beirut. Examine the engineering wonders in Dubai. Marvel at the Pyramids in Egypt. See the Roman ruins in Jordan. Drink Algerian wine in the Casbah. Be daring and visit a topless beach in Tunisia. View the exhibits at the Islamic Arts Museum in Doha.
Try to get permission to enter Saudi Arabia. Once in, locate the grave of their last few kings. It's impossible. Saudi kings are buried in unmarked graves in the desert. No mausoleum, no markings. Agree or disagree, the Saudis also have a culture.
I could go on.
But there is only one final thing to add. If you are a Christian and visit some of the many Churches in countries with significant indigenous Christian minorities (e.g. Egypt, Syria) feel free to use the word Allah to proclaim God.
The Arabs are fine with that.

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