How about positive developments in Islamic countries? Or, as SF is – at least in my book – supposed to do: imagine the near-unimaginable.
While the western world is still, unfortunately, in throes about ‘the war on terror’, I suspect that coercion and brute force in most cases work rather counterproductively, and that much more can be achieved through negotiations and open dialogue. And even then, it’s not necessarily a case of either (coercion) or (dialogue), but sometimes of either (outside pressure) and (internal dialogue).
Obviously, Islam and muslims have been getting a lot of bad press, and in many cases, such as the Taliban threatening to kill Pakistani schoolgirls, and a Saudi judge refusing to annull a marriage between a 47 year old man and an 8 year old girl, this is unfortunately correct.
However, the girl has now been granted a divorce. The request to anull the marriage was turned down twice, but finally overturned. Chalk one up for the forces of progress: even if it’s not clear if this was from international and human rights groups pressure, this is at least a small step forward.
Also, there are counter-movements. In reaction to the Saudi judge’s ruling, a Saudi Women’s Rights Group condemned the judge. The co-founder of the group (the Society of Defending Women’s Rights), Wajeha al-Huwaider, told CNN that achieving human rights in the kingdom means standing against those who want to “keep us backward and in the dark ages”. Also, in reaction to the Taliban’s threat to school girls in Pakistan, some people have set private schools in their homes to educate the girls.
So, behind the borders, screens and doors of many muslim countries a quiet revolution is taking place, while at the same time the image of Islam in western countries is slowly improving.
A few, almost semi-random, examples from the last couple of months, first of the former (better image of Islam in the West):
- This may already be a case of reality preceding fiction: cue to the recent article in the New York Times: Young Muslims Build a Subculture on an Underground Book (and Shaun Green’s apt review).
- Also, A Mosque Among the Stars — an anthology with stories that portray Islam or Muslim characters in a positive light — was released last November 14th (feel free to call me biased because I appear in there with my story “Cultural Clashes in Cádiz”: however, this story was originally published in the Amityville House of Pancakes, vol. 1 — which is not available anymore — back in 2004, so I’m definitely not jumping on any particular bandwagon).
And a few examples of the latter (a slow change in Islamic countries):
- Most importantly, an article in the Times: A Quiet Revolution Grows in Islam!
- In Indonesia, Imams are approving FaceBook – but no flirting! A few salient points: while FaceBook is haram (forbidden) when used for gossip and spreading lies, the clerics noted there were many upsides to FaceBook – which is more popular than Google and Yahoo in Indonesia – and other modern forms of communication: “It is easier for the young to become connected, erasing space and time constraints.” (Does almost sound like SF, right?) Also: “It makes it possible for young couples – before marriage – to get to know each other, and see if they are really well-suited.”
- In Dubai, the first major SF movie made in the Middle East is being produced: Xero Error directed by Ashraf Gohri.
- And yes, there are feminist movements in Islamic countries (mostly brought to my attention by this article in Dutch newspaper De Volkskrant, where a subtle differentiation is made between ‘muslim feminists’ = feministic females who happen to be muslims and ‘islamic feminists’ = feminists who are fully muslims *and* who see the idea of equal rights confirmed in the Quran). The impression I get is that there is not one, big feminist movement, but a lot of ‘islands of activity’ where women locally fight for their rights. For example, Musdah Mulia – professor in Qur’an studies, chairwoman of the Fatayat, an Indonesian mass organisation of muslim women – has devised a concept marriage law, based on the Sharia, in which a woman is fully equal to a man. In Morocco, the King has passed a progressive family law: the mudawana. Indeed, it’s the Islamic family laws – in which matters like marria, custody and inheritance are ruled – that feature big inequalities between men and women, and which are the focus of many feminist movements in muslim countries. Those laws are often referred to as ‘the sharia’s last bastion’, and they are under increasing attack;
- Apropos Morocco: ‘Also bearded men have affairs’ another Volkskrant article, in which the sexual mores in that Isalmic country are discussed. As one might expect, orthodox muslims have just as much desires as more enlightened muslims. However, the feel much more remorse. Last January, a movie called Amours Voilées (directed by Aziz Salmy, Muslimah Media Watch review of it here) premiered in Morocco, in which a woman is torn between Allah and a flesh-and-blood man, who is very attractive but also not interested in marriage. Fundamentalist muslims riled against the movie, while director Salmy hastens to add that the movie isn’t against (the use of) veils, or satirises Islam, but “is a reflection of our current society”. As the Muslimah Media Watch said about movies (in Islam countries) with pre-marital sex: “They’re a dime a dozen these days”.
This shows that Islam – contrary to popular belief – is not a big, homogeneous block, but more – like for example Christianity – an overarching name for a wide variety of different beliefs. Also, like Christianity, it is developing and evolving (and before some of you say that Islam is nothing but backward and that Christianity has gone more with the times, let me remind you of how the Catholic Church has only began praising Galileo’s work 400 years after the fact [and I'm not sure if they have withdrawn their heresy verdict against Galileo, even if Pope John Paul called it a 'tragic error' in 1992], not to mention their stance on homosexuality).
Back in the Middle Ages, when Europe was still going through its Dark Ages, Islam was having its Golden Age, initialising an agricultural revolution and producing a number of technological breakthroughs (most prominently the invention of the crankshaft by al-Jazari) in agronomy, astronomy and meteorology, botany, and Earth sciences. Through their environmental philosophy they produced the earliest known treaties about environmental science, and through that developed innovative and early usages of hydropower, tidal power and wind power (although they were early adopters of, indeed, fossil fuels, as well). How about a near future story where Islam has its Renaissance, or even its (beginning) Age of Enlightenment?
Maybe this could take place in Iran?
Check this article out: Iran’s quiet revolution (from 2006, but still very current).
To emphasise the feminist angle, from the above linked article: “At twenty-four, she is a graduate student in engineering — not unusual given that 63 percent of Iranian university students are now women.”
Nor does Shirin Ebadi, a human rights lawyer and the most powerful woman in Iran. In 2003, she was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize, becoming Iran’s first-ever Nobel laureate and the only Muslim woman to receive the honour. “Change, she believes, must be internally generated, as has been the case in parts of the former Soviet Union.”
“For Shirin Ebadi and other pro-democracy dissidents, military action against Iran threatens to roll back the hard-won gains of recent years: change, they argue, must come from within, and the West should be engaging in constructive diplomacy, not threats of war.”
Or, to quote Shirin Ebadi:
“I never believe in foreign pressure,” she told me, her hair protruding from beneath a white scarf. “I believe in Iranian public opinion. Look at Iraq and look at Kazakhstan. In Iraq it was foreign pressure and in Kazakhstan it was people pressure, from the bottom up. How much have they hurt Iraq Yet with no casualties, the people in Kazakhstan won.”
In such a near future scenario, the best thing the West can do is keep an open dialogue, while simultaneously helping out with energy matters. Iran’s nuclear power program is eyed with great suspicion in the West, while it is a source of national pride in Iran. So an outright boycott against it would work counterproductively, especially as Iranians see this as the West holding a double standard: why are India, Pakistan and Israel allowed to have nuclear weapons, and Iran – which, unlike those three countries, has signed the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty – is not?
Also, The IAEA has yet to find any evidence of an Iranian nuclear weapons program, and even if Iran’s nuclear ambitions include acquiring the bomb, US intelligence suggests that such an achievement is likely ten years away. So why not imagine an approach where the West delivers solar energy systems to Iran – in order to reduce their reliance on oil, a nice ironic twist – along with technological aid for increased internet coverage throughout the country.
A quiet revolution needs power to grow, and free power from the Sun, and subtle power in the form of FaceBook and other modern forms of communication might just provide that extra push towards a change, a non-violent one. A change that brings people – moderate Muslims – to the fore, or people who sympathise with the Muslims Against Sharia blog. The kind of moderate muslims that are using modern technology to their advantage already.
As the article in De Volkskrant about (sexual) mores in Morocco mentioned (translated quote):
In the Christian world that has changed and it is inevitable that it also happens in the Muslim world. And sometimes you need to take a step back before you can move forward.
Which is what might be happening in Iran (and other Islamic countries) today: the tentative ‘step back’ before it moves forward?
The morning of hope wipes out the darkness of despair, now is the long-awaited daybreak.
Ahmad Shawqi (1868 – 1932) / Egyptian poet.
UPDATE: As I mentioned above, two weeks ago, “In such a near future scenario, the best thing the West can do is keep an open dialogue, while simultaneously helping out with energy matters.”
The open dialogue part is already happening: “Obama in Egypt Reaches Out to Muslim World“.
So here’s a thing to consider: had this been a short story with the above-mentioned scenario, then 50% of it would have been right, while the other 50% can be wrong. Did it then fail because it was half wrong, or succeed because it was half right? Should we only write a near future story if we’re 100% certain that we are right (which we’ll never be), or do we accept that we can be gloriously wrong (and get it right in parts)?
Has SF become so bleak that an anthology of optimistic, near future SF might as well be called ‘Dangerous Visions‘?
UPDATE 2: and things move faster than you think. The quiet revolution is turning into a very, very loud protest after election results in Iran many locals think are fradulent. More than a million protesters in the streets of Tehran. Reporters without Borders agree with them.
In a previous post I said that trying to predict the near future, sometimes you should be very bold, as things sometimes go faster than you think or suspect. This is such an example: in this very post my expectations for the willingness to change in Iran were too conservative: I felt it would take another decade or so. Not that I expect actual change in Iran to happen overnight (no matter how much I would like it), but I severely underestimated the willingness of a huge part of the Iranian people to change.
For which I apologise.
I wish the protesters all the best. And I wish I could do more, except send more money to Amnesty International and similar organisations.
Real democratic change in Iran won’t come from U.S. intervention, but from a broadening and deepening of the protest movement.
UPDATE 4 (several ones):
- Neda Agha-Soltan, one of the protesters illegally killed by the riot police, is becoming an icon for the democratic movement in Iran. As a side note: contrary to previous iconic images (the execution of a Vietcong prisoner in 1968, the lone, unarmed defiant man in front of a tank on Tiananmen Square in 1989), this one was taken by a cell phone, not by a professional photographer.
- Dispatches from the Iranian cyberfront: help to the democratic Iranian underground is already being supplied, both covert and not-so-covert.
- MPs snub Ahmadinejad party: 105 of Iran’s 290 MPs have snubbed an invitation to celebrate Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s election win, local press reports say.
UPDATE 5: While the Iran government tries to blame UK embassy staff of playing a ‘significant role’ in the post-election protests, ex-president Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani has demanded an honest investigation into the June 12 elections (via Dutch newspaper De Volkskrant,an English link when I see it).
UPDATE 6: And there it is, on CNN. Rafsanjani doubts Iranians ‘satisfied’ with elections aftermath. Almost simultaneously, on BBC: ‘Iran Clerics Defy Election Ruling.’ Interesting times, indeed.
UPDATE 7: Volkskrant (Dutch national newspaper) columnist Amanda Kluveld opines ‘Twitter Iran Free‘. She argues that this first ‘Twitter revolution’ is much more than just Twitterers colouring their avatar green (guilty! But I also wrote the above well before that):
- It launched several initiatives in the western world to help facilitate uncensored access to free media for the Iranian people,for example:
- I Proxy Iran: where Dutch professors, lecturers and students appeal to companies to reroute excess bandwidth of their computers and servers for the Iranian protesters;
- In the US, a group of ‘hacktivists’ around ICT advisor Austin Heap have developed software to bypass the Iranian censure filters;
- And Dispatches from the Iranian cyberfront (already mentioned in UPDATE 4 above), and probably more;
Therefore (to translate the last paragraph of the Dutch opinion piece):
“In the Twitter revolution democratic freedoms are being fought for with new weapons. We, the citizens of the free west will win this fight together with citizens living in a dictatorship. Pass the word, in every way possible. Through Twitter. And, of course, through mouth-to-mouth.
And that makes me feel just a little bit more optimistic!
UPDATE 8: Via the LA Times: “Iran’s Mir Houssein Moravi planning new political group“. No matter how much the current Iranian government tries to blame the protests on the West, those protest movements refuse to die down so far.