Mashrou’ Leila and Arab Culture

Music has always been deeply tied to a culture’s sense of identity, and it can simultaneously strengthen that identity and tear it down. A Middle Eastern group that seems to exemplify this sometimes contradictory nature of music is Mashrou’ Leila, a Lebanese band formed in 2008. The group has gained significant attention, mainly due to its openly gay singer Hamed Sinno and often controversial song topics, which range from corrupt government officials to homosexual relationships. In these songs, the group is able to reflect popular sentiments (such as anger and frustration at the government) and shine a light on overlooked or ignored issues (like the treatment of homosexual persons), often in the same album. They both reflect the culture and refract it, showing the pain and struggles as well as the beauty. One of their songs in particular, “For the Homeland,” highlights popular criticisms of the Lebanese government, although it can be applicable to many other governments in the Middle East. It includes lyrics such as “they quiet you with slogans about every plot” and “you sell your freedom,” emphasizing the coercive and oppressive nature of the state. The lyrics are highly critical of Arab governments, which makes sense since this song is from their 2013 album, their most recent after the Arab Spring.

However, Mashrou’ Leila’s songs focus on cultural topics as well, such as the treatment and experiences of homosexuals in the Middle East. Some of their songs, specifically “Shim el-Yasmine” and “Kalam,” deal explicitly with homosexuality, with lyrics like “I would have liked to keep you near me, introduce you to my family…be your housewife.” While many Arabic songs seem like they are being sung to men, since they are often conjugated in the male form, “Shim el-Yasmine” emphasizes this relationship, making it clear that it is one man singing to another man about their relationship.

As Mashrou’ Leila’s songs deal with controversial subjects, such homosexuality, many Arab countries have sought to censor them or limit their influence. Jordan was one such country, as they repeatedly gave the band permission to perform, and then banned the group. Additionally, Egypt allowed the band to host a concert, but after images appeared on social media showing rainbow flags in the crowd, the Egyptian police arrested seven individuals who attended the concert. Egypt’s musician union also denounced the concert and stated that it was considering banning the group from the country. The treatment of Mashrou’ Leila and individual’s reactions to their music can serve to reflect how Arab culture writ large views these issues. Music often reflects society, and Mashrou’ Leila helps hold a mirror to Arab culture in particular.

Image result for mashrou leila

The Cold War and Beyond?

This past week, I attended a lecture by Dr. John Fishel, a professor at the University of Oklahoma. Dr. Fishel’s talk was part of a three-part series that focused on the Cold War; part three was dedicated to “peacekeeping, the Islamist threat, North Korea, and the next peer competitor (China).” I found this lecture particularly interesting because Dr. Fishel was speaking from his own experience, or he was recounting the experiences of people he knew. For example, one of his former students was a leader when the United States was doing some peacekeeping work in Africa right after the end of the Cold War. He also told an entertaining anecdote about Jimmy Carter and Colin Powell chasing down Haitian General Cedras to discuss peace and work to avoid an American military invasion of Haiti. However, Dr. Fishel’s main point was that just because the Cold War ended, that did not mean that we were in a safer world. After the fall of the Soviet Union, Yugoslavia disintegrated and fought itself in several civil wars. Many other states fell to coups and dictatorships, with some resulting in bloody civil wars. Then September 11 happened, traumatizing the world. Not long after the United States began its war in Afghanistan which, at almost 17 years, is America’s longest war. The power politics and general climate of global fear did not end with the Cold War—it is still happening today.Image result for ou cold war and beyond

Ireland and Brexit

A few weeks ago I attended a lecture with the Consul General of Ireland to the Southwest region of the United States. He was speaking on Brexit and the challenges that Ireland is facing as a result. The border between the Republic of Ireland and Northern Ireland will be the only land border between the European Union and the United Kingdom. To complicate matters, this border has been extremely open for the past 20 years, ever since the Good Friday Accords brought peace to the region. The Irish and British economies are closely interwoven as well with many goods passing the border repeatedly throughout manufacture. Brexit has the capacity to greatly harm Ireland because of this interconnectivity.

Ireland is a small country and therefore a small market. Most of its GDP comes from trade and the bulk of that trade is with the UK, about $75 billion annually. Even as Brexit terms remain undecided, the value of the British pound is falling, increasing the price of Irish goods in the UK. Harsh terms of trade from the EU would make this problem worse for Ireland. Therefore, Ireland supports a soft Brexit, with relatively open borders and low if any tariffs. This would be the best case scenario for the Irish economy.

There is good news for Ireland as well though. The country has seen massive economic gains since its entry into the EU, and 80% of the Irish population favors remaining in the bloc, even after Brexit. To help cement its future growth, Ireland has been expanding its diplomatic presence abroad by opening new consulates and doubling personnel in many of their existing locations. Ireland has long been a small country in the shadow of the UK and the rest of Europe. However, they’ve begun making a name for themselves. Ireland is ready to take a place on the world stage, even vying for one of the nonpermanent seats on the UN Security Council for the upcoming rotation.

I really enjoyed this lecture because I know far less about Ireland than I would like. The downside to focusing my attention on a specific region is that I fall behind on the affairs of the rest of the world. I, like much of the world, was loosely following Brexit when the polls were open and it was current news. However, since the negotiations have been unproductive for so long, I fell out of touch with the issue. I enjoyed hearing this new perspective and getting an update on the events since Brexit was decided upon. All in all, it was another wonderfully informative event here at OU.

Teachers vs Oklahoma Government

Photo courtesy of KWCH12

For the past nine school days, teachers across Oklahoma have been at the state capitol protesting for higher wages and more funding for education. The marches are being orchestrated mostly by the Oklahoma Education Association(OEA). It is easy to see the distinction between the key messages of each opposing group when reading the news originating from either side. The message from the teachers and concerned citizens is clear: it is time for Oklahoma to prioritize education. The response from the state, however, is not as clear.

POLITICO details the general key messages from the teachers quite well. The teachers are asking not only for higher wages, but a dramatic increase in education funding, funding that has been slashed more than any other state in the last decade. In the recent days of the strike, teachers have shifted the focus more towards increasing general funding.

The stark contrast in key messages becomes clear when reading a FOX25 News article which details how the teacher walk-out is supposedly costing the state “thousands” every day. These costs are later detailed to be janitorial and maintenance costs of the capitol grounds, and an estimate for cost for security which the Oklahoma Department of Public Safety refused to endorse. These responses follow the theme of ad hominid attacks the state has had in response to the walk-out, as Gov. Mary Fallin had earlier equated the teachers to teenagers wanting a new car.

The teachers and citizens have had the more effective message, having remained mostly uniformed and peaceful. Supporters of the movement have stormed social media, used creative forms of striking, and argued with logic. The state has been silent, or too quick to attack.

If I were a public relations agent for the side of the teachers, I would suggest that they more heavily emphasize that the walk-out is more about increasing funding for their students than wanting raises. While Oklahoma teachers are certainly underpaid, the funding per-student in Oklahoma has dropped more than 20% in the last six years.

Chart courtesy of OKPolicy.Org

In an event which captures the eyes of the nation, the last response a government entity ought to have for its people is one of mockery. The state ought to accept responsibility for the lack of funding, rather than making excuses and attempting to flip the situation.

 

 

It Might Be Too Good To Be True

Social Media Sites Can Facilitate the Spread of False Information– Image courtesy of NPR

We live in a time when the President of the United States can instantly deliver a message to almost 50 million viewers using Twitter, news agencies race each other to see who can break news faster, regardless of the validity, and false claims can go viral and wreak havoc in a matter of minutes. This haphazardness of news and information has led to an era in which it is some how not that strange for public leaders to be arguing about the subjectivity of facts.

This is why it was a relief to read about a team of astronomers from Arizona State University and MIT which spent two years double-checking data which would indicate a huge scientific discovery. It was shocking to me that the team’s immediate reaction was not excitement, but skepticism.

Skepticism, in my opinion, ought to be anyone’s first reaction to news, especially news which is surprising or currently breaking. Because of platforms like social media, where information is reproduced and spread at lightning-fast rates, a dangerous climate has formed of click-bait articles and misleading titles. It has even recently been discovered that on Twitter, false news spreads faster than true news.

Because of this, it is paramount to the success of the modern public relations professional to fact-check and research before relaying information to the public. Ironically, in this day and age, the back lash for being exposed for spreading false information tends to be extremely harsh.

As the team of researchers proved with its extensive fact-checking, true news can still be exciting. When thinking ahead to how I might ensure my client is informative as well as entertaining, there are a few strategies that come to mind. One of them is to lower the frequency of news, as conserving news releases may preserve the luster and excitement of the news itself. Furthermore, there are tactics that I can adopt such as using info graphics and social media tools to remain compelling.

While public relations professionals need to respond quickly, the truth is more important than a race for ‘shares’ and ‘likes’.

Nuclear War versus Diplomacy

Last week, a diverse group of OU students and faculty as well as members of the Norman community gathered for a lecture by Dr. Trita Parsi, one of America’s leading experts on the Middle East and particularly US-Iran relations. In an era increasingly defined by fake news and bigotry, Dr. Parsi brought a message of hope, describing how diplomacy had prevented a war and allowed two very different nations to reach a tentative peace. Having worked in Washington throughout this process, Dr. Parsi brought a behind-the-scenes view of this profound diplomatic victory. According to Dr. Parsi, the current political landscape in the Middle East, especially in regards to US-Arab relations, was not inevitable. Over the decades, there have been many opportunities for diplomacy to bridge gaps and forge strong and lasting connections between the Middle East and the West. However, these opportunities have been systematically misused or neglected, particularly by the United States. However, under President Obama, diplomacy won the day and nuclear war was averted. Dr. Parsi’s lecture aimed to explain how this unthinkable peaceful solution was attained.

After the Persian Gulf War ended, the Israelis and Iranians who had fought together against Iraqi power in the region turned against one another. Israel convinced the US to broaden its containment of Iraq to include Iran as well, devastating Iran. In attempts to be released from containment and recognized as a major power in the Middle East by the US, Iran began its nuclear program. After containment was broken by the US instigation of the Iraq War, Iran redoubled its efforts to gain recognition, while Israel took a hardline position against uranium enrichment in Iran. Knowing Iran could never accept such a deal, Israel hoped to force the US and Iran into armed conflict, which would shatter Iranian power and influence throughout the region. Meanwhile, the US had an impossible set of goals to achieve: prevent war, prevent nuclear development in Iran, prevent Israel from embroiling itself in war (which would require the US to also go to war), and prevent Iran from defining the new geopolitical order of the Middle East.

Presidents Bush and Obama originally pursued similar strategies of embargoes, sanctions, and cyberwarfare. President Obama even convinced the EU and other developed nations to partner with the US in the worst sanctions imposed on any country in history, causing Iranian GDP to contract by 25% in 3 years and devastating the national economy. In response, Iran did the only thing they could see to do—further expand the nuclear program until the US broke. US-Iranian relations had dissolved into a global game of chicken composed of nukes versus sanctions with the addition of the Israeli wildcard.

In early 2012, John Kerry approached President Obama to convince him that a secret negotiation channel was needed between the US and Iran to provide the possibility of a diplomatic solution, since the official channels were simply feelers to see if the other party was close to breaking. The country of Oman, long friends with both the US and Iran, volunteered to host these secret meetings, with the first taking place in July of 2012. After two years of tense negotiations, riddled with distrust on both sides, the Sultan of Oman carried the US deal to Tehran, where the Iranian government accepted the terms. Iran would be allowed to maintain a modest stockpile of low-enrichment uranium but would cease increased enrichment. In return, the US and its allies would lift the sanctions.

Unfortunately, this hopeful end has not been stable. President Trump has consistently threatened to break the deal with Iran and impose new sanctions. This uncertainty has prevented businesses from returning to Iran and stymied economic growth. At the same time, the President has offended many international allies, further eroding the US’s influence globally. Lastly, funding cuts to the state department have left many key embassies understaffed. South Korea, our main buffer against possible North Korean aggression, does not currently have a US ambassador. Such actions make future diplomatic negotiations by the US nearly impossible. The Iranian Nuclear Deal is precarious and ready to fall. Unfortunately it may only be a precursor to what is to come.

I really enjoyed Dr. Parsi’s lecture. His credentials working alongside both parties in the Iranian Nuclear Deal gave him a fascinating perspective. He also was able to flesh out the underlying motives of all parties involved. I had never really studied Iran and the nuclear deal before now, but I feel like I have a working understanding of the situation after the lecture. Yes, the US could have gotten a better deal. However, by the time the US was willing to engage with the Iranians, the nuclear program was much too far along for a better deal than what we got. Therefore, one of the key takeaways from this lecture was to start diplomacy early. If we had opened negotiations with Tehran when the Iranians first sought a diplomatic solution, Iran may not have had nuclear capabilities today. The second key takeaway is that America needs allies. The nuclear deal could not have been concluded without Oman, an Arab Muslim state that made an active effort to see diplomacy rule the day. We could not have negotiated on our own. Lastly, I think this situation serves as a reminder of the importance of empathy and perspective. Each party had its own needs and objectives. However, it is very possible that all three countries could have seen their objectives fulfilled years earlier if they had only been willing to honestly and transparently deal with one another. These three lessons are the most important in my opinion from the lecture and the US-Iran Nuclear Deal.

 

Professional Portrait

Taken in Oct. 2017, Lincoln, Oregon. Photographer: Sarah Smallwood

My name is Sarah Smallwood. I am a Norman, Oklahoma native currently attending college at the University of Oklahoma. I am pursuing a degree in public relations with a minor in environmental studies.

Being a junior in college, I have narrowed down my future goals to include working as a public relations agent for an organization working with the environment, either in marine conservation or outdoor gear and clothing. My hobbies include photography, video-gaming, and a multitude of outdoor activities.

My passion for the environment and conservation is what drives most of the fundamental decisions I make. I believe that climate change is simultaneously one of the largest threats to society, while also the most overlooked. I want to advance the cause of conservation and wildlife advocacy by managing the relationship between the public and wild-life related entities, whether that is a conservation firm or a clothing company which sells hiking and camping gear.

As a public relations major, I am expected to combine effective writing and communication skills with research and strategic thinking. In a world that increasingly relies on personal devices for sources of content, the area of design is becoming vital to public relations specialists. Currently, I am a novice to design and all that it entails, still learning how to use an advanced camera and editing tools.

I look forward to attempting to master various design tools and techniques, and learning how to apply these to my career goals.

International Event: “Producing Healthy Citizens” Lecture

Producing Healthy Citizens: The Politics of Women's Outdoor Exercise in IranOn Friday, October 6, guest lecturer Dr. Nazanin Shahrokni, an assistant professor from Syracuse University, presented a lecture entitled “Producing Healthy Citizens: The Politics of Women’s Outdoor Exercise in Iran” as part of the Iranian Studies Lecture Series. After a brief introduction by Dr. Manata Hashemi, an assistant professor in the Farzaneh Family Center, Dr. Shahrokni began her lecture, in which she demonstrated how the Iranian state has pivoted its discourse on women from objects of Islamic morality that the state must protect to citizens whose health is vital for the well-being of the nation. The lecture was engaging and informative throughout, although there were a few areas that I hope are further addressed in her upcoming book tentatively titled For Women Only: The State and Politics of Gender Segregation in Iran. 

Dr. Shahrokni began the lecture with an anecdote from 2010 when she met with a director from the Tehran municipality office, who lamented that the women-only parks designed to foster healthier women (and therefore better wives and mothers) became spaces that created feminists who nagged their husbands. The anecdote was attention-grabbing and introduced the topic of the lecture: the development and politics of gender-segregation in Iran. Honestly, I feel that the lecture should have had a title more along the lines of “Producing Healthy Citizens: The Shifting Politics of Gender-Segregation in Iran” because the lecture was on more than just women’s outdoor exercise and it might have attracted a bigger audience.

With the help of a PowerPoint and key graphics, Dr. Shahrokni presented her evidence chronologically, which was an effective way of presenting her position because it clearly demonstrated the shifting dialogue from the Iranian state regarding gender-segregation as well as women’s reactions to these women-only spaces. After a brief historical background of the Pahlavi Dynasty and the Islamic Republic of Iran, Dr. Shahrokni then compared in more detail the 1980s in Iran versus the 2000s. The graphic for this information was very strong because it showed how gender-segregation was originally framed in a narrative of Islamic morality and only later became framed in a narrative that women’s health is important because of their role as citizens of the state. Later in the lecture, there was another strong visual that showed the transition from the 1980s when women’s exercise was viewed as a problem to the 1990s when women were allowed to exercise in public but largely remained inside and up to the 2000s with the emergence of women-only parks as popular spaces for women of all ages to not only exercise outdoors but also organize politically and form bonds across class and social divides.

While the lecture convincingly demonstrated the implications of gender segregated spaces for women, it did not fully answer what the shifting gender segregation practices reflect about the Iranian state — which was one of the guiding questions of Dr. Shahrokni’s research. I believe that this question could have been more fully answered by discussing the future of women-only spaces as well as a more in-depth discussion about the consequences of the Ministry of Education’s report that directly linked wearing the veil with a decline in school girls’ health. Additionally, a discussion about similar segregation elsewhere in the region might have provided more context for the Iranian state’s decision and its implications.

Facing the Future United—Indonesia

While I was living in Japan, I discovered once again the extent of my ignorance of the rest of the world. Many of my friends were from countries I knew little if anything about. One of the most striking examples to me was Indonesia. Having met many students from Indonesia during my stay in Japan, I began to realize I knew nothing about their country despite its large population and relevance in ASEAN, a major economic bloc. I began to remedy this flaw even as I studied in Japan, taking a class devoted to ASEAN and its member countries. However, I still know far less than I feel I should about Indonesia along with the rest of the ASEAN states, so when I saw the opportunity to attend a lecture by Indonesian Consul General Nana Yuliana, I jumped at the chance.

The lecture, which took place earlier this week, was incredibly insightful. Dr. Yuliana has worked in a variety of diplomatic roles across the world, including as a member of the UN’s Economic Council, and is currently stationed at the Indonesian consulate in Houston, TX. Her lecture focused on Indonesian foreign policy, particularly as it relates to the US, as well as containing an overview of Indonesia and ASEAN in a global context. She explained the geography, the population demographics, and the post-colonial history of the country. After the dismantling of European colonies at the end of WWII, Indonesia was formed from a large archipelago of disparate cultures and peoples. With over 300 ethnic groups, over 700 languages actively spoken, and a large population of multiple major religious groups, the original and continued unity of Indonesia as a nation-state is a political marvel. Despite significant challenges to this unity, Indonesia, within the first decade of its existence, already turned its gaze outside its borders and sought to take an active role in international politics. In 1955 Indonesia hosted the Bandung Conference, a meeting of newly independent Asian and African states uniting against colonialism and neocolonialism. Since then, Indonesia has continued its active participation in several international organizations, particularly ASEAN and the UN, where Indonesia is a candidate as a non-permanent Security Council member for 2019-2020.

Like the rest of the world, Indonesia is facing a host of challenges in today’s political climate. With continued conflict in the South China Sea, the threat of North Korea, and worldwide fears of terrorism, Indonesia has much to concern itself with. More locally, Indonesia has expanded its efforts to accept refugees from the Rohingya crisis in Myanmar and is serving as a mediator between the Philippines and the Moro National Liberation Front. Through its efforts in Southeast Asia, the Indonesian government is working to promote human rights and democracy throughout the region.

At the same time, however, Indonesia is facing struggles within its own borders. Despite Dr. Yuliana’s praise of Indonesia’s 5% annual GDP growth, my friends from Indonesia have found that national GDP growth does not always translate into actual improved standards of living for the people of a country. Rising prices, stagnant wages, and large public works projects that so far have done very little good for the majority of the population make the realities of Indonesia’s growth much less promising. Careful management and informed economic policy are vital for the Indonesian government in the coming months and years in order to translate short-run growth into reinvestment and long-term sustainable development. Indonesia has come a long way since it invented itself out of the post-WWII ashes of the Dutch East Indies. However, the country still has much growing to do and needs a steady, future-minded hand to lead it up the treacherous path to a bright and secure future for all citizens.

Frozen Time

The past few weeks have rushed past me, occupying my time with midterms, my Fulbright application, and various events on campus. I have adjusted fairly easily to being back in the States, but some days I still am struck by the loss of the mountains on every horizon. In general though, I have been too busy to give much thought to the life I left in Japan. It is the mixed blessing of busyness.

Overall it has been a good semester. I have a class with my OU Cousin for the first time this semester, so she and I get to see each other regularly. I also had the privilege of attending OU’s International Prom with her and a few of my other friends, where we celebrated the international community here at OU. I am working to take full advantage of the many opportunities presented by the university to engage with the international community, including a daily international news update and the school-wide Teach In on the strengths and weaknesses of constitutions. Meanwhile I continue to be involved with the JCPenney Leadership Program, joining with other business students on campus to pursue professional development and the life-skills we will need after graduation.

Although many of my activities have not changed, my life at OU is changing whether I like it or not. My friends who I’ve studied alongside since we arrived here freshman year are searching for full-time employment. Most of them will be leaving me when this year ends. At the same time, with President Boren stepping down at the end of this year, the school itself is poised for change in the coming year. Life at OU as I have known it is changing. Like anyone else, I don’t care for change. If I could freeze these years and my friends and keep things the way they are, I would be very tempted to do so. However, I know that time flows on, with or without me. I will cherish these days that I have left with my friends while looking forward to new horizons and adventures. There is still much of the world left for me to see. I cannot fly if I remain here, frozen in time.