Wednesday, September 23, 2009

Irreconcilable Differences?

The respective timings of the two Al Jazeera English reports were so close that they appeared side-by-side in the RSS feed to Google Reader. The earlier story concerned the latest video from al-Qaeda:

Ayman al-Zawahiri, al-Qaeda's second man in charge, has warned the US administration that it will be defeated at the hands of the Muslim world.

In a new video released on Tuesday, al-Zawahiri said the government of Barack Obama, the US president, would be brought down by the Mujahid youths of the Muslim Umma (nation).

"God willing, your end will be at the hands of the Muslim nation, so that the world and history will be free of your crimes and lies," he said.

As far as I can tell from subsequent details, the concept of Umma is one that transcends the secular concept of nationhood and the boundaries imposed by that concept, which, in turn, serve as a foundation for the members of the United Nations. In spirit it may thus bear at least a family resemblance to the Communist International and its mission of "the complete abolition of the State" (at least to the extent that "the State" was a bourgeois invention). In other words the idea of the Umma is one of globalization through faith in Islam, as opposed to Tom Friedman's version of globalization, which is based on faith in capitalism.

The second Al Jazeera English story concerns a faith that differs from Islam as much as from Friedman-style globalization:

Saudi Arabia has set up a new research university, a multibillion dollar co-educational venture built on the promise of scientific freedom.

The King Abdullah University of Science and Technology (KAUST) - complete with state-of-the-art laboratories, the world's 14th fastest supercomputer, and one of the biggest endowments worldwide - is scheduled to officially open on Wednesday.

The inaugural ceremony is to be headed by its namesake, King Abdullah bin Abdulaziz Al-Saud, as well as several world leaders, dignitaries and officials.

The campus is built along the Red Sea coast about 80km north of the commercial centre of Jeddah.

Saudi officials have envisaged the postgraduate institution as a crucial part of the kingdom's plans to transform itself into a global scientific hub - the latest effort in the Gulf region to diversify its economic base.

As one reads the details, one realizes that KAUST will be an island (gilded cage?) for the scientific culture of Enlightenment thinking (itself yet another species of faith), surrounded by, as the article puts it "the most religiously strict country in the Middle East." The contrast of extremes is, to say the least, chilling, leading me to wonder when al-Qaeda will decide that KAUST is as much a menace to its ideals as the United States is, particularly in light of some of the ways in which normative practices within KAUST will defy fundamentalist Muslim thinking:

But the new university will not require women to wear veils or cover their faces, and they will be able to mix freely with men.

They will also be allowed to drive, a taboo in a country where women must literally take a back seat to their male drivers.

I am reminded of the quotation from Lin Yutang that inspired the title of Evelyn Waugh's novel Put Out More Flags:

A man getting drunk at a farewell party should strike a musical tone, in order to strengthen his spirit … and a drunk military man should order gallons and put out more flags in order to increase his military splendour.

I doubt that any serious scientist would like to be compared to "a drunk military man;" but what is KAUST if not an effort to put out another flag claiming Enlightenment territory, while fundamentalist Muslims put out flags for their Umma and globalization capitalists continue to salute flags they believe are firmly in place? The world is being torn apart by three (if not more) factions of drunk military men, none of which seem to grasp just how much damage they can cause (or perhaps they place a higher value on their convictions than on an assessment of the consequences of that damage).

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