What does the failed Christmas bomber Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab have in common with the fictional TV character Chandler from Friends? An apparently flippant connection, perhaps: each went to Yemen in a state of deep emotional turmoil. But what better way to consider the social, political and economic development the world has gone through in the past decade than by comparing and contrasting the demands of western liberals on the one hand, and extremist fundamentalists on the other?
@body arnhem:One group stands for freedom, the other stands for oppression. But is there a genuine contrast between them, as the "War on Terror" would have us believe, or are they merely two sides of the same coin? The past decade might be remembered for liberals exporting all sorts of freedom, regardless of how freedom is defined. It might be defined as an ideology that needs to be exported on the back of a tank, to give people the right to choose their government. Or it might be a credit crunch after a decade of easy loans, to give people more spending choices. Or it might be defined by Facebook, giving you the choice to connect with whom, and when, you please; time is no longer a constraint (either the time difference, or the lack of time). Where there is freedom there is always choice.
Afghanistan was the first battlefield in the "War on Terror". The extremist Taliban were replaced by a democratic government. Women were given the choice to remove their burqas, and beauty schools were set up. So women could remove the extremists' facemask (the burqa) and adopt the liberal facemask (make-up). But then, some might choose to adopt the traditional/religious/extremist facemask to avoid the burden of the modern liberal one. In that case, is the extremist facemask not liberating? Each is a form of disguise, but which one allows your pores to breathe freely is debatable. So maybe which disguise allows for more freedom of movement is debatable too.
Since the Taliban were ousted, the Afghans' favourite game has become popular again. Buzkashi is a traditional Central Asian sport, similar to polo in that the players are on horseback, but instead of whacking a ball with a mallet they have to pick up the headless carcass of a goat or a calf and carry it free of the other players. The Taliban considered the game inhumane and immoral, and banned it. But now it's back, and the government-sponsored federation even hopes to include it in the Olympics. The game is quite violent and animal-rights activists detest it. So would you consider supporting such a sport as freedom?
But then, in the past decade war has become a sport of sorts. How else can one view the activities of the private security company Blackwater (or Xe Services, as we must now learn to call them)? Men paid to fight in a game called freedom. This war for liberation has added to the confusion over identity, values and faith. We are expected to be on one side or the other, but what happens when liberals and extremists concur? When religious authorities in Egypt justify building a wall to block the Gaza-Egyptian border on the ground of security, the same excuse that Israel uses to justify the West Bank wall, does that make those religious authorities liberal? Or does it make Israel (the only democracy in the Middle East, as we are continually being told) extremist?
Maybe liberals are becoming extremists and extremists are becoming liberals. Religious authorities in Saudi Arabia - rarely viewed as liberal - praised the inauguration of the King Abudullah University, giving their blessing to a mixed-sex educational establishment that posts photos of uncovered female lecturers on its website. But only eight years ago being uncovered may have cost several young girls their lives, when the Saudi "religious police" were accused of preventing those not wearing headscarves from fleeing their burning school in Mecca.
Imagine one of the 14 girls who was burnt to death that day looking down on Earth at the end of this decade: how would she react to the values of the King Abdullah University? "If the school had caught fire at the end of the decade instead of the beginning, would I still be alive?" This confusion between what we call religiosity and faith is not helped by the so-called structured liberal sanity of the world we live in. Civilisation requires structure, and to be modern we need to be free, but isn't freedom all about not having structures? So does freedom facilitate civilisation, or just confusion?
Religion and faith are supposed to provide a coping mechanism to deal with the confusion that we live in. But as religious authorities are caught up in this labyrinth of values, and the coping mechanism becomes the source of confusion, how are we supposed to cope? When everything is confusing, how can we be faithful? You start feeling uneasy and it becomes difficult to breathe as you begin to doubt everything you were told.
But then maybe this religious confusion will allow us to deny our sins on judgment day: not guilty by reason of chaotic insanity. This "War on Terror" has the whole world confused; for all the sense it makes they might just as well have called it Star Wars. And in this past decade of confusion, definitions have become distorted. With two masks, two games, two walls and two schools, I am not sure where we stand. Maybe we need to go to Yemen to figure it out.
Hissa al Dhaheri is a sociologist and cultural researcher