Sunday, July 17, 2005

What Options Do We Have?

Dr. Khaled Batarfi,

When the TV show “Who Wants to be a Millionaire” hit Arab TV screens it was enormously popular. A major reason, in my opinion, was the show gave options. For an Arab nation that has been deprived of the right to choose, it was refreshing and exciting.

As a child, I was taught to accept what is taught and given without protest. You eat what is on the table, dress like everyone else, go with the family where the elders choose to, study in the school you are put in. In class and mosque you don’t ask questions, except for clarification.

Teachers and preachers tell you exactly how it is, and you got to believe. The books are similar. They echo what you learn from media, education and religious institutions — the same message, different messengers. To succeed you learn to follow instructions, memorize texts, and stay “in line”.

At home and in social gatherings, kids listen and learn but are not allowed to speak up or argue. The wise ones are the silent, because “if talk is silver, silence is golden.”

Fathers, tribal sheikhs, teachers, preachers, and leaders don’t have to explain their instructions if they choose not to. “The sheikhs know better,” is another golden rule.

My father was an intellectual who gave me the right to think for myself, but I was careful not to embarrass him in public. When he was not around, I did ask hard questions.

When I went to British and American schools, the quality of being “maverick” worked well for me. Teachers appreciated my questioning nature and encouraged my independent thinking. Not so in some immigrant Arabic settings.

Elders in the small Arab community of Eugene, Oregon, were groomed in our culture before they immigrated to the West. They expected respect and obedience. Questions were allowed but they had to be “polite.” Rude questions implied you didn’t believe or subscribe to their school of thought or they were wrong or mistaken. What options do I have, then? I kept asking myself all my life, and especially these days.

We don’t choose what paths our countries are heading to, what doctrine our systems are based on, what curriculums we study, what “madhabs” we follow, and what fatwas we accept. Try going your own way and you are in for trouble. Conformity is holy, and those who don’t conform pay a price. They will be ostracized.

A writer called recently for a referendum on women driving. I told him that the majority has no right to deprive the rest of us of our human rights. Women may decide to cover their face because they subscribe to a certain school of thought or follow certain traditions. That’s their right. But when they try to impose it on others they infringe on their rights. The same can be said about working and studying in a mixed environment. There are people who believe they should be more conservative than others. We disagree on that, but respect their stand. What we don’t accept is for them to enforce their choice on us.

Many believe we don’t need to teach English in elementary schools. That’s up to them and their kids. But it drives me crazy when they demand that no other kids take such classes.

What options do I have if I could only go to schools that teach the “one and only,” made-for-all curriculum? Why only foreigners can go to locally based international schools? Why followers of other madhabs can only study in our schools, try in our courts, and read our books?

Why can’t I read what I wish to read? Why people who belong to certain ideologies decide for the rest of us what books are allowed, even in academic libraries? Why can’t followers of other faiths practice their religions without let or hindrance? Don’t we do the same in their countries?

What we need in the Arab world is more choices, freedoms, and options. After decades of progress in education, the Arab nation is mature enough to decide for itself. Women and minorities can and should be allowed the basic human right of choosing what suit them, as long as it doesn’t contradict the standard rules of Islam as agreed by the Islamic Fiqh Council.

Without the freedom to choose we can never have the motives, space and environment for creativity.

Without creativity we will never be strong, independent and leading. In a deadly competitive world based on science and technology that’s a death sentence

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