Posted by POSCA
Part the Second
In the first part of this post Posca discussed the sources of stress and fracture at work in Islam that tend to be obvious enough to even make the evening news—the Authenticity Problem, the Sunni-Shi’ah War, and the Money Problem. But now he undertakes an examination of those “stress-fractures” that are far more subtle and, to Posca’s mind, far more exciting than the three already discussed.
Stress-Fracture #4: Traditional Democracy. Kuwaiti homes have a room set aside for the reception of guests or visitors. It is rectangular in shape, and against the walls is a special type of low-slung, bolster-type furniture you see nowhere else but in this room. Traditionally, the outside door of the room—called the “diwaniya”—is left unlocked as a (sincere) sign that visitors are always welcome.
But “diwaniya” also refers to regularly scheduled social gatherings given profound emphasis in Kuwaiti culture. Once a week, usually midweek, guests assemble at someone’s diwaniya for refreshment and conversation. Some diwaniyas are moveable—this week at Joe’s place, next week at Steve’s—but some diwaniyas (very serious diwaniyas) are always at the same place on the same night of the week. (Posca was invited to both types, but he prefers the fixed kind. The food is better.)
The diwaniya is significant because everyone knows the informal rules—you are here for free-ranging discussion, and what is said in the diwaniya stays in the diwaniya. On one occasion, Posca found himself rubbing butt cheeks with the host of a fixed diwaniya—a former official in the Kuwaiti government. This man is so important that he actually owns one of the famous “named” date palms in Kuwait—a tree whose fruit is so sweet that it achieves fame and is given a name to set it among the greatest of the date palms. On this night, green dates were shared with the guests, and all were grateful for the experience. Trust me, until you have eaten a green date from one of these trees, you have never eaten a date.
Among the guests at this diwaniya were some old school friends of the host (they had attended The American University in Cairo together) as well as an imam and a few others. The imam told us (with emphasis) that women must be treated with respect, and then the conversation got down to tin tacks, as they say. Tonight’s conversation had to do with a recent “comedy” show broadcast in the Middle East in which Ariel Sharon had performed various lewd acts with a Bush 43 puppet (or some such usual nonsense). Obviously, they wanted to know if the Americans were pissed off by this harsh treatment of the son of the great Booosh. Behind all such inquiries was the omnipresent but unspoken question, “Will you stand by us if the evil Sodamn Insane returns?” (Their insecurity was impossible to lay to rest.) Anyway, Posca told them that bad taste was one of the prices to be paid for freedom of speech. If you suppress the giving of offense, you suppress one of the greatest freedoms any man can enjoy. And this then became the discussion for the rest of the diwaniya until the imam repeated what he had said earlier, and everyone agreed that women should be respected.
But here’s the point: all over Kuwait these diwaniyas are being held once a week, and Kuwaiti citizens are having similar discussions. And although it is traditionally a male-only activity, women have started holding their own diwaniyas, and—horror-of-horrors—MIXED diwaniyas are rumored to exist. Given the amount of sexual repression being attempted in Kuwait, Posca believes the mixed diwaniyas will catch on big, with dancing and God knows what going on in the darker corners of the room.
There was a time in the United States when citizens would congregate in small-to-medium groups for the purpose of discussing topics of interest. Indeed, such meetings—in taverns, churches, and parlors—were the cornerstone of incipient American democracy. Indeed, when Posca was a kid (during the first Lincoln administration), such meetings were extolled as original American democracy: self-made, tough individuals debating the form of government most appropriate to themselves (see the old black-and-white film “The Man Who Shot Liberty Valence” to see how this process was nostalgically treated by Hollywood).
There is a rumor the diwaniya movement is taking hold elsewhere in the Gulf. And in each of those diwaniyas ideas are being discussed that may or may not be consistent with an all-embracing, all-controlling Islam.
Stress-Fracture #5: She. Posca undertakes the discussion of this topic with much trembling and trepidation, but here is the bottom line up front: at least in Kuwait, women are asserting themselves and are earning a place in society comparable to that held by Western women. This is no temporary phenomenon.
First, women in Kuwait now have the vote (and you know what that means—Obama will soon be the Emir). Seriously, their voices are now relevant, and they have a tendency to cut through and reject the spendthrift behavior of the past and emphasize education and social welfare programs.
Second, polygamy is a disappearing phenomenon. When Posca was in Kuwait the Crown Prince infamously had but one wife, and there was no doubt there would be but one wife in the Crown Prince’s household. Period. No young second or third wife would ever darken the threshold of the Crown Prince’s gargantuan palace. “She who must not be named” ran the show, and was the admitted terror of Kuwait society (not to mention the poor Crown Prince). Besides, polygamy is exhausting and expensive. A man is not permitted to play favorites, and if he has three wives, he is not even permitted to own a bed of his own.
Third, women have the choice of going Western or traditional in their dress. Imagine Princess Jasmine sporting French designer jeans and spike-heels on the streets of Kuwait City. Women use the choice of Western dress to make more than a fashion statement—they are telling the rest of Kuwait they are educated and prepared to even work outside the home, which more of them are doing every day.
Fourth, women can drive. Unfortunately, most Kuwaitis buy their driver’s licenses, so none of them drive very well for the first month or so. But Posca was actually flipped off by a Kuwaiti female in traditional garb after she cut him off at about 100 mph. You see, when they wear traditional garb, they don’t make eye contact; hence, they don’t turn their heads to the left or right to see what’s coming. But regardless of what they wear, women are mobile and are no longer locked within the walls of an estate, no matter how large or beautiful that estate may be.
Finally, women own something like 50% of the real property in the country, and thus they have a very real voice in the way the government allocates funds. Segregated universities? Can’t afford it. Common sense creeps in where orthodoxy once prevailed.
Put it all together, and the picture is bad for Islam. Are these women likely to return to the bad old days? Impossible. Go ahead, give one of them a good caning and see what happens. And the existence of these freedoms for women in Kuwait is already applying pressure across the Gulf region. The female underground in Arabia is very real, and the United States knows what’s cooking. How do we know? Posca forgets.
Stress-Fracture #6: Religious decentralization. In the United States, ministers and priests have identities based on their affiliation-in-good-standing with various well-defined religious constructs. In Islam, certain religion figures have identities based on what they have said and written over the years. There is no central religious collegium, and there hasn’t been one since the fall of the Ottoman Empire. There is no central religious leader—the Caliph—and until another Caliph comes to be, Islam will have a decentralized, fragmented controlling structure.
In Kuwait, for example, mosques tend to be built as Kuwaitis are nearing the end of their lives and want to do something to cement their relationship with the Almighty. It is pretty much up to them to decide who will be ensconced as the leader of the mosque they have built. Thus, they cast about for a graduate of one of the many Islamic schools that exist for the purpose of producing such leaders, and their choice is based on the reputation of the school, as well as their own religious inclinations. This is very different from the way Western churches operate, and there are hundreds of such mosques in the country. Over time, a bias based in personal preference must creep into the picture, and Islam itself is pushed in this or that direction without rhyme or reason.