Two solitudes

June 4, 2005

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Haven’t we learned anything since 9/11?

Are westerners — and I realize this is generalizing — really so obtuse when it comes to the Islamic world? So utterly clueless about even the ABCs of such a major people group and their cultures?

Granted, having lived in Yemen for most of the past few years, I have an inside view. There, I’ll never kiss my wife in public. In that pork-free zone, I won’t expect bacon with my eggs. I won’t show my legs, such as they are, by wearing shorts on the street.

I don’t expect most North Americans to recognize such cultural gaffes. But didn’t 9/11 reveal the dangerous gulf that exists between east and west? Didn’t it remind us that if we care about our future, not to mention our children’s, we need to better understand at least the basics about others in the human family?

Forgive my cynicism, but here’s some recent examples showing how far we haven’t come.

First, the botched Newsweek report alleging that U.S. interrogators flushed a Koran down a toilet to rattle prisoners in Guantanamo Bay. It likely contributed to 17 deaths in Afghan riots. It certainly sparked massive protests everywhere.

The lesson apparently not learned is how Muslims view the Koran. In brief, it has divine status, not analogous to how Christian’s view the Bible, but rather Christ himself. God in the toilet? You get the idea.

This doesn’t excuse any senseless violence that followed. But the problem with Newsweek was not only its poor sourcing, but that seasoned journalists were apparently oblivious of this basic Islamic tenet.

And so, according to the report’s author, Michael Isikoff, the item’s potential explosiveness was never discussed.

It’s indicative of certain western media which love their secular cloak. Too bad that such ignorance of religious values doesn’t serve anyone, not even that media itself.

Meanwhile, looking at the storm continuing around murdered Canadian-Iranian photojournalist Zahra Kazemi — as with former Canadian prisoners Bill Sampson and Maher Arar — Ottawa is showing its own inability to respond to cultural nuances.

For almost two years, while Iran has heaped lies upon nonsense, such as Kazemi “fell,” our government has simply “investigated.” Surely by now it’s discovered that in much of the Middle East, certainly in Iran, saving face and keeping honour is a daily routine that carries far more weight than telling the truth.

It’s a thorny lesson, but our government would do well to recognize it, and then speak its own lingo. Don’t just cut diplomatic ties, cut the hundreds of millions of dollars of grain, pulp, paper, oil and telecommunications gear it sends to Iran. Ban Persian rugs. Be straightforward. Teach Iran about Canada’s own values on things like life, and establish new ties on that ground.

Finally, still with foreign affairs, there’s the story of Mohammed, Fatima and Ramzy. They’re children of our former Yemeni landlord, and over the past few years, my wife Jean and I have grown to love the family.

So we’ve been working to get the kids a summer visit to Ontario. It’s an opportunity to give them a memorable experience seeing some of Canada’s highlights. Everything was in place: flight money, some costs generously waived, and the enthusiasm of the entire family.

Until some ignorant Canadian embassy official rejected our request for the kids’ travel visas. Didn’t leave his name. Didn’t try to ask us anything. Just gave the big N-O on the application because he stated he didn’t believe the children would ever return to Yemen.

Incredible. As we’re about to deliver our second child in Hamilton, we’re really not interested in keeping three extra kids from Yemen or anywhere else.

Thankfully, after Jean and I appealed, and travelled thousands of kilometres to the embassy, another Canadian official, clearer in thought, said regardless of what his colleagues may think, he’d give the green light. Apparently he understood the value of this cultural exchange and the importance of giving some young Yemenis a break.

We’re grateful. And something tells me that these adolescents will manage to grasp more about their world than certain other folks who have been born into better fortune, but who’d rather stay locked in their stuffy closets.

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June 4, 2005 • Posted in ,
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