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« "The Triplets of Belleville" | Main | More on Making Books »

January 24, 2004

Modernizing the Mideast

Dear Friedrich --

Dig this: some Saudi Grand Mufti or other has actually said, "Allowing women to mix with men is the root of every evil and catastrophe." And he said it not in private but at an international-finance get-together. The Financial Times reports here. These people do have trouble with the modern world, don't they?

Which reminds me of something that bugs me about media coverage of mideastern affairs. It seems to me that 'way too little is made of how, er, nonmodern these people are. Many Westerners seem to be under the impression that mideasterners can be talked to and bargained with as though, under the robes and behind the dark spectacles, they're just like us.

My impression is different. It's based on very little experience, admittedly. Still, a zillion years ago I spent a month with friends in Morocco; one of us was Moroccan, so we saw more of the real Morocco than most tourists at the time did. What most impressed me about our adventures was how really primitive the country was. Most of the population seemed to be living in the Dark Ages; I found it terrifying that they had access to any modern technology at all.

(Hey, did you ever read about New Zealand's Maori people? Ferocious inter-tribal fighters who, for centuries before Euros arrived, inflicted and survived feuds and raids on each other. But when the Euros arrived and the Maori suddenly had access to guns? Well, they just about wiped themselves out.)

I found it terrifying not just that some of these Moroccans had guns; I found it terrifying that so many of them had transistor radios. Who knew what they were making of what they were listening to? I was a kid at the time, but I still remember thinking: "It's going to take generations, and not decades, for these people to enter the modern world."

From the FT's story about the anti-woman Mufti, it sounds like progress is being made at about the rate I guessed it would be.



posted by Michael at January 24, 2004


"Allowing women to mix with men is the root of every evil and catastrophe."

I don't suppose he was advocating men making sure they stay at home and wear veils in public in order to make sure they don't cross paths with women as women go about their productive daily lives, huh? Nawww, I didn't think so.

A guy I know was stationed in Saudi Arabia during Gulf War One. He said, "Don't kid yourselves. The Saudis are much closer (in terms of behavior and beliefs) to the Taliban than to the U.S." I agree--the media does not clearly portray that element very regularly.

Posted by: annette on January 24, 2004 5:28 PM

I was under the impression that mixing women with men was the root of, er, human kind. Is the Grand Mufti suggesting that procreation is catastrophic and evil? Or am I missing the point?

Posted by: Friedrich von Blowhard on January 25, 2004 4:54 AM

If this statement is at all surprising to anyone, I urge you to spend an hour or two at

They collect and translate Arab media, the good stuff and the bad. There does seem to be a bit more introspection of late, but generations is a likely timeframe.

One of my favorites is Ambassador Welch and the Egyptian press:

Posted by: Alene on January 25, 2004 3:43 PM

While the musket wars did kill heaps of Maori, they did result, by the time significant numbers of Europeans started arriving, in the Europeans being surrounded by very well armed and experienced warriors, thus encouraging a degree of courtesy and lack of massacres that not many colonies can claim.

Yes, there were shonky land deals, and the aftermath of the Land Wars (the British lost nearly every battle but won the war due to the inability of the Maori to maintain a fighting force and that a number of Maori were on the Brit's side) involved a lot of land confiscations, but Maori getting their hands on muskets so early was not necessarily, in terms of total Maori dead, a particularly bad thing.

Posted by: Tracy on January 25, 2004 5:13 PM

Well, Hitler was a product of mixing men and women together.

Posted by: Maureen on January 26, 2004 12:55 AM

And Jesus wasn't! Okay, so how we've settled it. Men and women shouldn't mix. Men, clear the room - we have work to do.

Posted by: j.c. on January 26, 2004 10:37 AM

You can find me on the hammock out back ....

Posted by: Michael Blowhard on January 26, 2004 11:02 AM

Notice how men always assume someone will be looking for them...

Posted by: annette on January 26, 2004 11:36 AM

Without context (the linked article won't load), I cannot see the statement as anti-woman. It seems to be gender neutral. The relation between men and women IS the most complicated moral question for any society. Poetically, "every evil and catastrophe" (or most anyway) is the result of man-woman trouble.

Posted by: Thrasymachus on January 26, 2004 1:03 PM

My mother in law is Moroccan. I'll never forget the time we had an owl in our backyard, and I went to show it to my 1 year old boy. She FREAKED OUT that I was doing this - "the owl will steal his soul!".

Posted by: Todd Fletcher on January 26, 2004 1:22 PM

Over the past ten years, Morocco is rapidly developing a middle-class. Men and women in the cities mix well, go out on dates, and feel quite modern.

Related (Istanbul): women wear miniskirts in Tasksim Square now! Sohoesque bars are fairly common! What a difference twenty years makes.

(Much of the Arab world, though, is as you describe.)

Posted by: Bill Sebring on January 30, 2004 1:34 AM

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