Cultural Change in the Arab Gulf;
Natural Progression or Imperialist Plot?
by Neil McBeath
In the summer of 2011, Masi Noor, the Senior Lecturer in Social Psychology at Canterbury Christchurch University, referred to the events of the Arab Spring, saying “We in the West have been guilty of homogenizing the whole region. We need to understand that they are all very different countries with diverse cultures, histories and needs, which until now we have not listened to, either due to ignorance or expedience.” (Noor 2011; 11-12)
The truth of the first part of that statement ought to be self-evident to anyone who has worked in the Arab World for any length of time, but Noor’s use of the terms “ignorance or expedience” raises questions. I would suggest that even scholars may have a tendency to employ general, shorthand terms when more detailed analysis may be required. What, for example, does Noor himself intend by “the West”? In the Arab Gulf, “the West” almost automatically refers to the USA and Britain, or Britain and the USA, depending on which country one is in. In Tunisia and Algeria, by contrast, “the West” usually refers to France, and in Morocco, the term could be used of France, or even Spain which maintains its enclaves of Ceuta and Melilla on the Mediterranean Coast.
House (2009) claims that there have been two traditional views of culture. The first is the humanistic view, capturing “the ‘cultural heritage’ as a model of refinement and an exclusive collection of a community’s masterpieces in literature, fine arts, music etc” (House, 2009; 109). This view places value on “high” and exclusive culture, which is frequently the product of wealth and leisure. It disregards everything else. Put simply, the architecture of the palace and the mosque are admired; the houses of their builders are ignored.
Then there is the anthropological concept of culture, focusing on how communities live their lives – “all those traditional, explicit and implicit designs that act as potential guides for group members’ behavioural patterns” (House, 2009; 109). In this approach, behaviour defines culture, and that behaviour can be sub-divided into behaviour deemed “inappropriate” or “appropriate” – that is, appropriate in the eyes of the community, according to social standing, age or gender.
House also, however, admits that “with the rise of post-modernist, cultural studies-inspired thinking, the whole notion of culture has come under attack.” (House, 2009; 110). In this post-modernist critique there is no such thing as “pure culture”, because stable social groups do not exist. The behaviour of individuals and external influences constantly destabilize groups, with the result that the concept of culture is little more than a shorthand term, the idealization of a concept that primarily serves to reduce the differences between people living in any one area. Hence, in Oman, little boys go to primary school wearing dishdashas, but under their dishdashas they as likely to be wearing the football strip of Barcelona or Real Madrid as they are of an Omani football club.
It is this same shorthand, or simplification, that leads to scholars like Denman to produce a paper with the title “Cultural Divide between Arab-Muslim students and Western Literature; Implication for the English Language Classroom” (Denman 2012). Denman was doing research on English literature and Arab-Muslim identity at the Sultan Qaboos University, but, going by the title, his paper appears to be based on the assumption that there is an Arab-Muslim identity to begin with, and some might argue that this is, again, “homogenizing.”
Certainly, most Arabs are Muslim, but most Muslims are not, in fact, Arabs. A pamphlet issued by the Islamic Information Centre of the Sultan Qaboos Grand Mosque points out that only 20% of Muslims are Arabs. The most populous Muslim nation is Indonesia. Then come Bangladesh and Pakistan. Even in India, the Muslim minority numbers 160 million, which is twice the population of Egypt, which is the largest Arab nation. And Egypt is only 90% Muslim.
Secondly, books like Beyond the Veil; Male-Female Dynamics in Muslim Society (Mernissi 1975), add to the confusion by implying that the cultural dynamics of a single Arab country are true of all Islamic societies. Mernissi’s study is an important example of how not to present research, and Saqi Books ought to have known better than to publish it under the present title.
Mernissi does indeed offer an investigation of gender relations in “Muslim Society”, if we read “Muslim society” as meaning a single society that happens to be Muslim. Her society of choice, however, is Morocco, which is both geographically at the extreme edge of the Arab World, and unusual in as much as it has a significant Berber minority. Mernissi’s informants, furthermore, were all women in late middle age, which means that they were born in the 1920s, at the time of the French/Spanish protectorates. In those days, and uniquely in Morocco, it was customary for pre-pubescent girls to become engaged, and go to live with their fiancés’ families. The formal marriage did not take place until the girl entered puberty, but even then, it meant that most brides were only 13 or, at the most, 14 years old.
When the Kingdom of Morocco became independent in 1956, the nationalist government raised the age of marriage to 18. It must be admitted that, in the remoter mountain villages of Morocco, teenage marriages still occur, but even in 1975 it was highly misleading to suggest that child marriage was the Moroccan norm, and that it was customary across the entire Muslim World.
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