Is It a Muslim Ban?

One of the most contentious debates that is currently dominating American politics is whether President Trump’s Executive Order outlining a travel ban is really a Muslim ban in disguise. While the original ban has been halted by the court system, the question still remains. About a month ago, I listened to a lecture that debated this very subject. The lecture included distinguished professors from OU’s Religious Studies Department, and they gave their analysis of the ban, albeit from a religious perspective. One professor sought to determine if religion, specifically Christianity, could be used to validate the order. Another broke down the role religion plays in our government, as, even though there is a separation of church and state, religion remains a crucial part of our political system. Lastly, Dr. Kimball gave his interpretation on the question on everyone’s minds: is it really a Muslim ban? In his estimation, it was not necessarily a Muslim ban, but it had the potential to become one. Once “religion tests” entered the equation, this order could not be considered impartial to religion.

While this order originated in the United States, it had global consequences. Immigrants, tourists, and refugees were confused, delayed, and sometimes detained. The order even forbid migration from some specific countries indefinitely. The travel ban is an international issue, and it should not have been treated the way it was, without careful planning and care.

UPDATE: Recently, President Trump has come out with a new version of the travel ban. This one is slightly less extreme in nature, and Iraq is removed from the list of countries it affects. However, the Muslim Ban question is still up for debate.

The Yemeni Conundrum

Despite having taken multiple classes dealing with the Middle East, none of them have covered Yemen. I have been to a lecture or two on Yemen before, so I know some general things about the country and its civil war, but nothing in-depth. Professor Bahran, however, provided an easy to follow, concise look into the conflict. I appreciated how he started with Yemen’s history and tied its regionalism into the current war. As an outsider, I assumed the civil war was largely sectarian, since the Houthis have a religious bend. This lecture, though, introduced me to the regional divisions in the country. The North has traditionally held power while the South was relatively subjugated. When the previous Vice President Hadi was elected to the Presidency and the Houthis staged their coup, the country split between the North (relatively tribal groups who back the Houthis) and the South (more urban societies who support Hadi). However, the thing that I really took away from Professor Bahran’s lecture was the hopelessness of the situation. He continuously emphasized that the victims were the Yemeni people in general and, from what I have heard of the subject, it seems like everyone in Yemen has been affected in some way. He did a good job of explaining why the conflict was hopeless, though—both sides have substantial levels of corruption and, in some cases, there is overlap between them; warlords have tried to prolong the conflict to get richer; and the international community has no real stake in the country. Unfortunately, I have to agree with Professor Bahran’s analysis of the situation that the conflict will not end any time soon. From his lecture and the ones I have been to previously, it seems as though the world has forgotten about Yemen and is content to let it suffer on its own.

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Kyoto 1.22.17

My Dearest Friend,

My first semester here at Ritsumeikan has finally ended. The last of my tests have been taken and papers turned in. I now have two months to relax and explore Japan before my second semester begins.

This semester was difficult and full of new experiences for me. It has been my first time living abroad, my first time living for a significant period of time without access to a car, and my first long-term experience with a language barrier. I’ve met people from all over the world who speak every language I can imagine. They come from so many backgrounds and are working toward a myriad of futures. Honestly, it makes me feel small. I’ve seen and done so little compared to most of these people. I’m trying to learn Japanese as my second language, I’ve only been to three countries in the world, and I’m already in my twenties. I have friends here who worked abroad in high school. It makes me wonder how much I missed on account of being born in America.

Don’t get me wrong, I love America. I grew up there, and it’s my home. However, it’s not perfect. The rest of the world seems so far away and insignificant as a child in the US, but it’s not. The world is a vast and marvelous place and has much to teach us, both as individuals and as a country. Many of the issues that are tearing apart America have found various resolutions in other countries. Instead of fighting about what ifs, why don’t we look at the outcomes? As Americans, we like to look at the rest of the world as if it was still in the 18th century. We talk about freedom and our unique place in the world. Yes, we are still a great country wielding a lot of power. But where the rest of the world has seen great progress in the last 200 years, we keep looking back at “the glory days.” I love the foundation of our country and the ideals of our nation. But the world is not the same place as it was when we were founded, and it’s naïve to act like nothing has changed.

When I left America to come to Japan, I didn’t know much about the rest of the world. I thought I did, but I was wrong. I still know very little, but I know some things. And the biggest thing I’ve learned is that while the US has an incredibly strong military, we are not the only important players in the world. We don’t know everything, and in a lot of areas, we’re falling behind our peers. So instead of arguing about the precise meaning of a centuries old document, can we agree to open our eyes and start doing something? I’ve met so many people here who would not go to America if you paid them, not with the way our country functions right now. And I can’t really blame them. But it is my country, and I won’t abandon it, not if I can help it.

My friend, please try to learn something from my experiences here. I know it’s hard to see clearly from inside, but try. We have to do something, and we can’t all get up and spend a year abroad. All we can do is try to bring that global awareness back with us in our suitcases and share it. I miss you dearly. Hopefully I’ll see you soon.

Sincerely,

Kestrel

The Other Side of Brexit

Brexit has come to be one of the most debated events of the year, although I’m sure our recent election will soon overpass it. Because of its global significance, and the shear shock that it happened in the first place, OU has hosted several talks centering on the causes and results of Britain’s rejection of the European Union. I have attended two of these talks, but the most recent was one by Sir Roger Scruton. He is a conservative British intellectual who discussed why it might be a good thing that Britain left the EU. While I am of the opinion that Britain should have stayed, I never really heard the opposing view. Most of the coverage I’ve heard blames the outcome on ignorance, fantastical political promises, and xenophobia. Who hasn’t seen the news report that the top internet search in the UK after the vote was “what is the EU”? Because of these reasons, it was refreshing to listen to Sir Scruton’s side. He mostly cites the want of a British identity as the reason for Brexit. In the globalizing world where nation-states seem to be disappearing, the British people wanted something tangible to hold on to—they wanted their sovereignty back and the illusion of control. He also laid out the treaty that founded the EU and focused on the “elitist” nature of it. The EU, he said, was made up of a European elite of burnt-out politicians that wanted to retain power. These politicians were then free to pass laws that the EU member states were forced to accept and push through their respective legislative bodies. According to Sir Scruton, most of the laws passed by Parliament are simply rubber-stamps for EU policies. I can understand his reasons and they are not illegitimate or something to write-off. However, it was in the Q and A session at the end of his talk that made me question some of his views. He was, of course, asked about immigration and some of his statements regarding this hot-button issue bothered me. He made gross oversimplifications of Muslim societies, saying that the women in the room would not want to live in a Muslim country on account of, among other things, polygamy and lack of rights. He also made a connection between immigration and welfare countries, stating that people moved to these states because of the benefits they might receive from the government. While I cannot say that this is not true for some, I would connect immigration to more developed countries. In most cases, I believe immigrants are looking for economic opportunities and more stable lives for their families, reasons that do not exclusively prescribe a welfare state. Over all though, I believe Sir Scruton’s talk was enlightening in regards to the pro-leaving side of Brexit.

 

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Unity and Politics

Last week, OU hosted its first Unity Symposium. It was an event put on by various student groups that sought to promote renewed understanding and acceptance of peoples with different backgrounds and beliefs. I’m going to be honest, I am currently writing this about a week removed from the event and just a few days after the 2016 Presidential Election. From my vantage point right now, it seems that Unity Symposiums are needed now more than ever, and I’m sad that not a lot of people were able to attend. The symposium consisted of talks from people of differing backgrounds—Muslims, veterans, conservatives, African Americans, undocumented immigrants, and members of the LGBTQ community, just to name a few. It was a chance to come together and hear their side, and then ask them questions about their experiences or anything you did not understand about them. It humanized “The Other,” something that I think our country sorely needs in this moment. After the horrifying rhetoric of this election, the people of this country are more divided and aware of their differences than ever. Some people seem to think that Trump’s win gives them the right to demean others and hold themselves above anyone who thinks differently than them, and that is just not right. America is a country built on diversity, and it should accept and celebrate that diversity. Do the words on the Statue of Liberty not say “Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free”? Does it not ask other countries to “Send these, the homeless, tempest-tossed to me”? Once, our nation called out to those who were hopeless and hurt, but now it seems we have locked our doors and forgotten what it truly means to be an American. To be an American is to stand up for our neighbor, for those who are different than us, for those who are hurt and afraid. We should be the safe haven of the world, a place to seek refuge and acceptance. We should not be ruled by fear and irrationality. We are stronger than that. We are better than that. In light of the current political events, we need to be more accepting and understanding than ever. We need more events like the Unity Symposium, because we are stronger together—and no one should tell you differently.

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(Picture taken from First Friday Book Synopsis on WordPress)

The Conflict in Syria

OU recently hosted a talk by Dr. Joshua Landis on Syria, its future, and our involvement there. It was an OU Presidential event, with an introduction by the university’s president, David Boren. Since my area of interest is the Middle East, I of course had to go! Dr. Landis’ talk focused on the causes of the conflict in Syria, a murky subject that very few can wade through or even begin to understand. Luckily, Dr. Landis is one of the foremost experts on Syria and regularly consults various world governments on the subject. In his opinion, one of the main causes of the conflict is demographics. When the European powers drew their arbitrary boundaries after World War I, they put several groups of disparate peoples into one country. To make matters more complicated, they then gave power to the weaker, smaller groups, increasing the animosity felt in the newly created protectorates. Dr. Landis cited this conflict as the starting point of Syria’s troubles. The majority of Syrians follow Sunni Islam, but a fringe sect, the Alawites, controlled the government. This led to growing resentments that eventually culminated in the Syrian Civil War.

He likened the events in Syria to post-WWII Europe, with their “Great Sorting Out.” Essentially, after WWII several groups of people migrated (intentionally or forcefully) to countries where they constituted the majority. These movements turned Europe into the collection of nation-states that it is today. According to Dr. Landis, the Middle East might be witnessing its own “Sorting Out” today. Thanks to the civil war and various other conflicts in the region, there has been an unprecedented movement of peoples and changes in government. In Iraq, for example, the minority Sunni government under Saddam Hussein’s Baath party was replaced with Shi’ite members (the majority) after the United States invaded. With Bashar al-Assad’s refusal to step down from power and cede the government to the majority, Syria’s “Sorting Out” has taken a violent turn. In Dr. Landis’ view, it will be a long time before we hear much good news from Syria.

Arabic Flagship Round Table

At the beginning of the semester I was accepted into OU’s Arabic Flagship, which is a language intensive program funded by the State Department that aims to improve student’s Arabic skills and cultural awareness. As part of the requirements, I must attend a weekly round table that discusses a variety of topics, from studying abroad to Janbiyas (an Arabic dagger). One of my favorite topics, though, was the second presidential debate. Before the round table officially started, we received vocabulary sheets that listed words that would frequently come up in the debate. I assumed it would include words like “economy,” “foreign policy,” or “social programs.” Needless to say, I was mistaken. When I looked down at the sheet, I burst out laughing and looked to my friend, needing confirmation that what I held in my hand was real. Amongst the expected and benign words that any debate would include (“Republican Party,” “Democratic Party,” “campaign”) were terms that would have seemed out of place in any other election than the one that we are experiencing in 2016. It was impossible not to be drawn to them. It was like they were bolded and in 30-point font. Staring up at me were words like “sexually suggestive gestures,” “contempt,” and “disaster.” And, of course, the infamous “locker room talk.” If you were curious, in Arabic it would be “كلام خاص بين الرجال”, pronounced similar to “kalaam khaas ben ar-rajaal.” The room was filled with random snickers and congratulations to the student who compiled the list until it was time for the round table to start. We watched about thirty minutes of the debate in Arabic, and then broke into small groups to discuss what we watched. Various questions included, “Who won the debate and why?” and “Do you have any suggestions for the candidates?” Everyone in my group decided that Hilary Clinton won the debate, but that does not really matter. What was so amazing about this experience for me was that I could (attempt) to discuss my country’s politics in a language that was not my own. I was able to interact with people who did not even live in America, and get their perspective on our political situation. Despite the humor of the vocabulary sheet, this round table was serious and extremely important.

Arabic Flagship Program

The Yemen Civil War

A few days ago I was able to attend a talk by Dr. Waleed E. Mahdi and hosted by Dr. Joshua Landis that focused on Yemen and its ongoing civil war. Dr. Mahdi’s discussion began with a general overview of the conflict: its external and internal causes, the main players, and some of the cities that were in the crosshairs. Before this discussion, I personally did not know much about Yemen or its civil war. Most of the American media chooses instead to focus on Syria, and only really mentions Yemen when something really big happens—like Saudi Arabia accidentally bombing a funeral. So my knowledge on the subject was minimal at best, and his general introduction did a great job of filling in all the missing information. Basically, Yemen’s government started going downhill, fast. The Houthis, a fundamentalist group (one of their motto lines is “Death to America”) and the former president, began to consolidate power in the north, and slowly took over important cities, like Yemen’s capital, Sanaa. The important thing to note though, is that the Houthis are Shi’a, which explains why Iran decided to get involved in the conflict and support them. And when Iran is involved, Saudi Arabia invariably join in, too. So now the civil war has turned into another proxy war between Iran and Saudi Arabia, with the Yemen people caught in the middle.

After this brief overview, Dr. Mahdi allowed the audience to ask questions. One of the most important, in my opinion, was a question about the humanitarian crisis that the conflict has ultimately caused. The statistics Dr. Mahdi pulled out were horrifying. Over three million people were internally displaced. Approximately 80% of the population is in need of humanitarian aid. People are starving. Most of Yemen’s food security is imported and, in the middle of a civil war, that food is not able to get to the people who need it. A lot of it cannot even get into the country!

Over all, this talk opened my eyes to the conflict in Yemen. I had no idea how horrible things truly were in their civil war. In light of this, I really wish the media would cover it more, so that more aid can be given to the country. At the end of the day, it does not really matter who is fighting who, but that there are real people involved and they are paying the real cost.

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Tragedies

These days the world seems increasingly frightening. You only have to turn on the news to be inundated with horror stories of violence and sorrow. Every day it seems a new tragedy strikes our world. It’s easy to wonder what happened. What caused this increase in pain? I’ve spoken to many young adults of my generation and heard them asking this and similar questions. Studying history has led me to an uneasy answer—it hasn’t increased. The world is no more messed up than it was in the past. In fact, many aspects of society have improved. Death rates have decreased and many victims now have legal recourse against assailants. For much of history, most victims of violent crimes had to suffer in silence. So what did change? Why does the world appear so much worse?

The short answer is technology. Through radio, television, and now internet, we see atrocities. We know the death tolls and the faces of the victims. We see the results, and we hear of these occurrences immediately. The other change is actually positive—we care more. Most ancient civilizations had at least one group of people they considered lesser, sometimes not even seeing them as human. This mindset led to the targeting of women, children, and minorities often with little to no societal or legal repercussion. Today, most people have a visceral reaction against such ideas. Thus, when a shooting or rape occurs and is reported, most people are upset and offended. This shows how far we’ve come.

The problem is the people who haven’t progressed with the rest of humanity. Some people still look at certain groups and deny their personhood. Does an individual renounce their humanity when they move to a new country or they choose someone to date? Of course they don’t. So it’s time to stop living in the Dark Ages. Murder is a crime. Rape is a crime. The victim is a person, so there is no excuse for the perpetrator. It doesn’t matter what boxes we can fit them into, we’re all humans. We live in the 21st century. Don’t let fear or hatred turn back the clock on society.

Israel and Palestine

(Picture from The Daily Conversation YouTube–Israel and Palestine Explained)

Today I got to attend a talk by Dr. Gershon Lewenthal about the Israeli/Palestinian conflict and how it has changed in the last year. He began the talk by bringing up Israel’s current political situation, since elections were held just a few months ago. A coalition was made with mostly right-wing or religious groups—but the government is extremely fragile. With only 61 seats, it is barely the majority needed to become a functioning government. Netanyahu, once again, is the Prime Minister, but this precarious government means he cannot take any hard stances that might isolate members of the coalition. The Israeli government is, in effect, limited to the wishes of the right-wing and religious parties. But what does this mean for the Palestinians? It means some of the extreme Jewish religious groups (such as the group who wish to rebuild the Temple on the Dome of the Rock) will be difficult to control and an end to the Jewish occupation of the Palestinian territories is unlikely. The recent actions of this government and its predecessor (again, a more right-leaning one) might help explain the recent outbreak of Palestinian violence. While it does not seem like another Intifada (the attacks show no planning nor do they have the larger society’s support), they are just as troubling because of the age of the attackers. The statistics provided by Dr. Lewenthal attribute most of the attacks to persons between the ages of twelve and twenty-six—mere children—with the majority performed by the eighteen to twenty-two block. In Dr. Lewenthal’s opinion, this might be because they were too young to remember the less-than-satisfactory results of the most recent Intifada. After the violence of the 2000s, most Palestinians came to accept that violent actions got them no where. In fact, it actually made life worse for them. More peaceful options proved more efficient for getting through to the Israelis, their government, and the international community at large. These children, though, do not remember this lesson. They are upset at the government’s inaction and have decided to take matters into their own hands. It is too early to assume what impact this recent violence might have on the ongoing conflict between the Israelis and the Palestinians, but it does not look like a peace will be reached any time soon.