Saturday, April 18, 2009

The perception and culture gap: can we help fill it?

I alluded in my previous posting to the fact that Muslims, by virtue of their diversity, should be a group that is difficult to generalize to, yet they seem nowadays as the main target for cultural generalization, mostly in a deeply negative way.

The numerous ethnicites, cultures and languages of Muslims all over the world, while contributing to diversity, undoubtedly compound the problem for sincere researchers who truly want to understand more about Muslims. Language barriers, in my opinion, are the most difficult barriers to break.

I find it appalling that native Arabic speakers have not made enough effort to communicate their own intellectual product to Westerners (to combat the malignant generalizations) nor even to other Muslims that do not speak Arabic. But I do understand that their most urgent battle is not the cultural image battle with the West, but the actual battle on the ground for the hearts and souls of their own people against forces that is dragging them to the dark ages, politically and religiously.

I became acutely aware of this problem as I recently delved more into Arabic language reading about modern religious thinking and literature in the Arab world. It is truly annoying that it is 100 time easier to find extreme conservative books and religious literature translated from Urdu into English and Arabic, than to find modern Arabic thinkers translated into English.

The largest collection of Arabic religious text translated into English is done under the auspices of Salafi institutions of the Saudi government. And when Saudi government is carrying the torch of translation from Arabic, the kind of books and ideology translated does not really represent the Arabic mainstream culture.

I cannot blame the Saudi government for using their resources to translate and spread the ideology they support, but I still feel sad that the more enlightened and modern religious thinkers and even non-religious Arab writers are invisible to the world, Western and Eastern.

Every now and then, a friend in the Arab world emails me a link to an article they like, and recently I came across a good one that I wanted to share by Alaa Al-Aswany. I could only share it with Arabic speakers in my circles. but I feel it is truly representative of more than the opinion of its one author, and could be expressing the views of a lot of people that live in Egypt and other parts of the Arab and Muslim world.

I wanted so much to share it that I translated it into English, and I hope it will give you some insight into the thought process of many Egyptians and Arabs.

My effort is not going put a dent in the problem of Western/Eastern perception gap caused by the West's cultural blindness to mainstream Arabic and non-Arabic moderate cultural and religious thought process, but I am not delusional enough to think I can solve that problem.

The article (or rather its translation in English) will appear in a post following this. I do not agree with some of the historic analysis the author applied particularly his turning a blind eye to the oppression and government control problems Egyptians faced before Sadat and at the time of Nasser (1952 - 1970), but I agree with the overall spirit of the article.

The author, Alaa Al-Aswani is one of the most famed modern novel writers in Arabic. He is also a political activist and has recently had an op-ed published in the NYT by the title Why the Muslim World Can’t Hear Obama (and his NYT profile is here). He is not a religious scholar or a cleric, but it is the thoughts that count, not the official titles.

I hope you would enjoy it.



  1. Thank you Khaled for the translation and the follow up. I agree, translation is the most effective way to break the barriers and enhance understanding. It is mutual and as I see no emphasis on translation of all views from the West to Arabic, I see a larger burden on us (who can claim fair understanding of both languages and cultures) since the West is clearly more open to the written word.

  2. I agree that the larger burden is on us, those who see the problems and have the tools to handle it (language and cultural understanding).
    But where to go from here? how is it possible to build a momentum to bridge the gap effectively?
    Individual efforts are present but we have no capability of coordinating it.
    Some of the ugly groups (like memri) have the resources and coordination effort to monitor and very selectively translate and present material to support their narrow and bleak perspective.
    I can envision a 'wikipedia-like' translation project to keep English speaking world (which includes the majority if Muslims) more aware of the positive, moderate, and in my opinion, more accurate, representation of Islam and middle east culture. I can continue to dream of such a project, but I learned to keep my expectations low.
    Also, the West is definitely more open to written word as you stated, but there is undoubtedly great acceptance of generalizations against certain groups more than others. We can debate the underlying factors in this inclinations towards bias, and lack of cultural exposure is a significant factor there, but it is not the only one. (BTW, the West is not unique in that respects - all societies some that to some extent.)
    The battle starts with improving the cultural 'communication and transfer', but it is unlikely to end there. It is a necessary step, but not sufficient.