Category: Intercultural

‘Religion — phase two’


The relation between religion and the media, in light of the problematic concept of freedom, was examined in Beit Mery, Lebanon, this week.

An exciting conference, in which I participated, addressed this complex triangle in a context of post-Arab Spring tensions.

Participants of various backgrounds and cultural references from many Arab countries presented their opinion on the subject. I represented the Royal Institute for Interfaith Studies.

As I am always interested in the theme of religious references and their role in the structures of different identity components, I was thrilled to see such diverse and complex identities gathered at the conference.

The hall in which it was held embraced Muslims and Christians, secular and spiritual people, conservatives and liberals, people from religious institutions and from civil society, in addition to all sorts of media representatives. Bloggers and social media activists were also present.

This varied mosaic added to the richness of the subjects discussed.

Points of views coming from hundreds of angles helped create a very active atmosphere of intellectual exchange. Elevated religious ideas, philosophical themes and humanistic trends were expounded at the same table, often with humour, fun and creativity.

The intelligent design of the sessions and their management met the expectations.

Indeed, tackling such an important subject as “freedom, journalism and religion” always requires a smart formula.

I was relieved to find out that it was not “just another conference”. The seriousness of the subject and the design produced a great environment, conducive to such intellectual exercise.

I always differentiate between religion as identity, and religion as representation. When religion is lived as an identity by its adherents, we need to look deep into emotions, mentalities and hidden forms of expression if we are addressing a serious issue. Yet, if a problem is related to a representation of religious affiliation, then a different approach is needed. In this case, it depends on the context it lives in.

This is often the situation of political parties that base their ideological discourse in religious conception and language. The conference in Beit Mery based its work on the latter embodiment of religious experience. Maybe it is a good idea for the organisers to think of another conference that tries examining the above-mentioned triangle with identity as its main flavour.

Though the conference discussed issues related to religious identities, its structure inclined to the representative mode of religions. It enriched the participants’ storage of religious-based images and shadows of images.

It was a great opportunity to map some of the crisis stimulating issues that reside deep in the conjunctions the freedom, journalism and religion combination.

I hope that the outcome, whether in publication shape or electronic format, will be an excellent foundation for what we might call “Religion — phase two”. Identity as concept and as a lived reality helps much in resolving many puzzles in the Middle East.

The writer is a media strategist, and an interfaith and intercultural specialist. He contributed this article to The Jordan Times.


Geography of Religious Borders



by Marwan Al Husayni


When writing about social issues in the Arab world, special focus needs to be placed on religion.

Religion has the strongest and most effective impact on the social fabric throughout the region. Many people identify themselves in a religious way, on the basis of their stand on certain religious beliefs.

One of the most apparent social trends nowadays in many Arab societies is the absence of what is perceived as “personal expressions of privacy”. This is due to the strong sense of collectivity, which religions and religious rituals maintain in the individual psyche and social life.

Though the global aim of religions is to spread human values among people at individual level, religious rituals are powerful factors for strengthening the sense of collective identities or illusions of identities.

The pressing collective identities force individuals to sacrifice their personal expressions of privacy, especially in times of high tensions and wars. One of the ways to address this problem is to question the relationship between religion and identity.

The questions that come to mind in this context have to do with what I call the social geography of religious borders: Is religion an identity? Is religion a component of identity? Is religion a source of identity?

One can understand the reasons behind the lack of privacy in the Arab social sphere if the differences among these three questions are looked at carefully.

It is more important to examine how various communities in the region locate themselves within the socio-geographic map of religions, their rituals and manifestations.

From experience in interfaith studies, I can say that a big majority of Arab groups believes that religion equals identity. In this case, religious borders match the borders of society itself.

Members of these groups live their lives and express their being in line with what they think is religion. For them, there is no such thing as “personal”. One is asked to live his or her daily life in accordance with a certain interpretation of religion and religious rituals and practices.

A good number, but not a majority, of social groups departs from this stand. Religion, for them, is only one component of identity. Still, it is a powerful component in their relations with others and to life in general.

Identity in this context is controlled by religion, which colours the other components. Personal manifestations have some space among this category, though it is restricted. In this case, religion occupies a big chunk of the map.

The third category perceives religion as a source of, among others, identity. It is a reference, a guidance tool.

In this case, religion does not control the personal. It becomes personal among other expressions of privacy. In other words, religion is a separate territory that has its special paths towards to the other territory called “individual”. Few in the Arab world belong to this category.

Another way to examine the place of religion in the Arab social life is to look at the illusions of personal fear and security among the different communities.

Some religious leaders instill fear in their followers in order to keep them inside their circle, i.e., collective identity. Such leaders embody religion itself for those followers, and thus they are the source of security.

This is a huge illusion that covers all the map of Arab social life.

Perhaps this gives a hint to why religious fatwas are famous in the region. People need to have a secure opinion from a representative of God regarding their lives. They do not want to decide by themselves. They sacrifice the personal for the sake of feeling secure. But at the same time, most people are sacrificing the meaning of their intelligent existence for illusions.

Religion and illusions of religion have a great control over social trends, problems, issues and dynamics in our part of the world. When religion is everything, then everything else is ignored. A very negative outcome of this reality is that we do not move forward but keep moving around the same old circles.

Such circular movement does not lead anywhere. It only keeps thickening the borders of religion to match the borders of fear itself.

It is when we give religion its normal size and photo by lace in our lives that we can move forward and live our personal intelligent existence.

This is not a call for abandoning religion or religious rituals. It is a mere reminder that life is very diverse and religion is one of its colours.

What happens if you always perceive everything as red or white only?

The writer is media strategist, and interfaith and intercultural specialist. He contributed this article to The Jordan Times.

Personalization versus Personalization


Marwan al-Husayni *

Many Arab writers are forced to clarify themselves at the beginning of some pieces they write: “I must say that I am not defending this person”. “First, it is better to clarify that I am not attacking him”. “This is not to say that I am against the government”. “This is not a pro government article”.

What are the factors that make us, as writers, state such clarifications? What pushes us towards adding these words? What culture and what mentality? Is it fear of misinterpretation, misjudgment or misreading?

Sometimes I feel that our cultures in the Arab World are built only on two extremes: praise and satire. If I write about some errors of a certain person, then I am against him or her. If I mention some positive attitudes of another person, then I am totally pro.

Such interpretations by a majority of readers are the results of “personalization mentalities”. Most of them focus on persons not ideas. Objectivity is lost amid a thick fog of misreading or non-reading at all.

“Personalization” is often used nowadays to mean customizing web pages or applications according to the interests and needs of the individual to facilitate life in the Cyberspace. “Personalization” in our cultures means that the personal mood or stand controls everything else.

One of my previous articles gained a modest number of comments on one of the news websites. Most of the comments were about my photo which was posted with the article. The commenters thought it was a photo of the person whom I was talking about his art in order to explain my core idea. We both had our share of attack: I for praising his creativity, and he for being himself. Anyway, no one commented on the main ideas of the article.

As a result of such mentalities, most writers are judged, not discussed. In a social context, the “personalization” approach is also a mainstream. One is not praised for his or her skills, ideas, achievements, creativity or intelligence. It is personal connections, ties or moods that control the process of social classification.

This is why many writers feel it is necessary to clarify that they are not writing based on personal stands. They are sure that they will be misjudged and mislabeled by many readers who turn on the machines of personalization while reading. Is it a crisis of mistrust or a complexity of social, psychological and historical factors? Many analyses go beyond the mere fact of misinterpretation.

A culture that is based on strong sensations of praise and satire expects any writer to work within those two edges. Other edges are not allowed. Analysis is disregarded and misjudgment is activated. Thus, “personalization” becomes the main criteria for building any approach towards individuals.

Unlike “personalization” in the Cyberspace, “personalization” in the Arab social space does not facilitate life. Writing, as a social activity, is doomed right from the beginning. Creativity is also ruled by personalized narrow outlooks.

If one personalizes his writings to fit others personalized attitudes frames, then he is a powerful writer. If he goes for the hard task of objective thinking and analyzing, then he is ignored for “personal reasons”.


* Media Strategist, Interfaith and Intercultural specialist

Governments’ ‘fuel-centric’ policies

by Marwan Al Husayni | May 31,2012 | 22:42

Facebook is as popular in Jordan as it is everywhere. It is a leading forum through which popular moods and trends can be examined. Yet, it is not a deep-rooted part of the wider popular culture in the country, though it is a phenomenon. Twitter, YouTube, Google and other online social media have strong presence among a good number of Jordanians.

One of the secrets behind the popularity of social media is that they allow anyone easy and powerful connection through virtual reality. To move and to connect with others is a human need and a social energy. These media are a good tool to gauge public mood.

Another way to measure and control the public mood in Jordan is gas stations. Fuel is not only a source for energy; it is an inherent component of our daily life that enables us to move and connect.

Like social media, gas stations are popular and visited daily by large numbers of people. In Jordan they have a “governmental” flavour. Each new government starts with “fuel-centric” policies or measurements in an attempt to heal the country’s ailing economy. Each raise in the prices of fuel means less movement for the people. Less movement in this case means less social connectivity, which is anti-human.

It is an undisputed fact that man is a social being by nature. This is why our governments need to shift to human-centric policies and measurements in order to succeed in building a strong economy.

The Arabic word usually used in Jordan for “fuel” is “mahrooqat”. Mahrooqat literally means “burnt materials”. While the engines of cars and other vehicles burn these materials to run and make people move and connect fast in their daily engagements, social engines do not run on “burnt policies”. They need human- and public-based measurements to keep running.

It is not a matter of virtual reality versus real world that is implied in these lines. Governments in general are responsible for facilitating the movement of money, goods and people internally and across borders. It is their duty also to facilitate the movement of social and human factors. Obstructing that, whatever the reason, does not contribute positively to the long and hard processes of reform. Maintaining harmonious methods for operating social engines, on the contrary, adds to the well-being of people, economy and the state.

It is in the interest of the government to alleviate the economic pressure on the social components of the state.

Maybe I am theorising in this context or am not close enough to the mechanisms of running governmental engines in Jordan. But what is common sense in this respect is that any lack of strategic, well-researched and well-designed policies will worsen all kinds of economic, social and even political ailments.

Hard times do not need hard decisions, they need strategic thinking. Moving from “fuel-centric” to human-centric strategies is a first step, for any government, towards real and virtual movement and connectivity of human beings.

The writer is a media strategist, interfaith and intercultural specialist. He contributed this article to The Jordan Times.

السياسات الحكومية المحروقة

مروان الحسيني *

يحظى الفيسبوك بشعبية في الأردن كما في أي مكان آخر في العالم. وهو منبر مهم يمكن من خلاله قياس واختبار المزاج والتيارات الشعبية. ومع ذلك فهو ليس جزءاً متجذراً في الثقافة الشعبية الأوسع في البلد، رغم أن شعبيته تثير الدهشة. والتويتر واليوتيوب وغوغل ومحطات التواصل الاجتماعي الإلكتروني الأخرى ذات حضور قوي أيضاً بين عدد لا بأس به من الأردنيين.

وأحد الأسباب وراء شعبية مواقع التواصل الاجتماعي هو أنها تسمح لأي شخص بالتحرك والاتصال بسهولة وقوة في عالم الواقع الافتراضي. والحركة والاتصال مع الآخرين هما حاجة بشرية وطاقة اجتماعية.

أداة أخرى لقياس المزاج العام في الأردن والتحكم به هي محطات الوقود. فالوقود ليس مجرّد مصدر للطاقة. إنه جزء متأصل في حياتنا اليومية ويزوّدنا بالقوة على الحركة والتواصل.

ومثل محطات التواصل الاجتماعي، تحظى محطات الوقود بشعبية في كل مكان ويزورها يومياً عدد كبير جداً من البشر. لكنها في الأردن ذات نكهة حكومية. فكلّ حكومة جديدة تبدأ أعمالها بسياسات أو إجراءات ذات “مركزية وقودية” في محاولة لتحسين الاقتصاد المتعثر في البلاد.

كل ارتفاع في أسعار الوقود يعني حركة أقل للناس. والحركة الأقل في هذه الحالة تعني تواصلاً وحراكاً اجتماعياً أقل، وهذا أمر مضاد للبشر. فالحقيقة التي لا خلاف حولها هي أن الإنسان كائن اجتماعي بطبيعته. ولهذا تحتاج حكوماتنا إلى التحوّل نحو إجراءات وسياسات ذات مركزية إنسانية إن أرادت أن تنجح في بناء اقتصاد قوي.

الكلمة العربية المُستخدمة عادةً في الأردن للإشارة إلى أنواع الوقود هي “المحروقات”. والمحروقات تعني حرفياً المواد التي تحترق. وبينما تقوم محركات السيارات والمركبات الأخرى بحرق هذه المواد لكي تعمل وتجعل الناس يتحركون ويتواصلون بسرعة في انشغالاتهم اليومية، إلا أن المحركات الاجتماعية لا تعمل بواسطة “السياسات المحروقة”. إنها تحتاج إجراءات إنسانية تستند إلى الصالح العام حتى تستمر في الحركة والدوران.

ليس الأمر متعلقاً بالواقع الافتراضي مقابل العالم الحقيقي كما قد يُفهم من هذه السطور. فالحكومات بشكل عام مسؤولة عن تسهيل حركة الأموال والبضائع والبشر، داخلياً وعبر الحدود. ويقع ضمن إطار مسؤولياتها أيضاً تسهيل حركة العوامل الإنسانية والاجتماعية. فعرقلة هذه العوامل، مهما كانت الأسباب، لا تساهم بشكل إيجابي في العمليات الطويلة والصعبة للإصلاح.

على العكس من ذلك، فإن استدامة أساليب متناغمة من أجل تشغيل المحركات الاجتماعية من قبل الحكومات يضيف إلى خير ورفاه الناس والاقتصاد والدولة. إنه من مصلحة الحكومة أن تخفف الضغط الاقتصادي عن المكونات الاجتماعية للدولة.

لربما أكون منظّرا في هذا السياق، أو أنني لست قريباً بما فيه الكفاية من آليات تشغيل المحرّكات الحكومية في الأردن. لكن المنطق البسيط والسليم في هذا الخصوص يقول أن عدم وجود سياسات استراتيجية مدروسة ومصممة بعناية سوف يفاقم من جميع أنواع العلل الاقتصادية والاجتماعية وحتى السياسية.

لا تحتاج الأوقات الصعبة إلى قرارات صعبة، وإنما تحتاج إلى قرارات استراتيجية. والتحوّل من الإجراءات الحكومية ذات “المركزية الوقودية” إلى الاستراتيجيات ذات “المركزية الإنسانية” هو خطوة أولى على طريق الخير والرفاه الإنساني الناتج عن الحركة والتواصل الاجتماعي الحقيقي والافتراضي.

* إعلامي وباحث في شؤون الأديان والثقافات

Religion in “Detained” Privacy Zones

Marwan al-Husayni *

Many questions related to religions keep revolving in my mind whenever I think of the link between the sacred and the non-sacred in a social context. One of these questions has to do with culture and the social representation of individual.

In our part of the world, religion, among other components of personal identity, is not considered a personal matter. The privacy zone which is supposed to limit the access to one’s private spaces by others is vulnerable in this regard. This is a strong aspect of our Eastern culture.

It is true sometimes that the collective controls the individualistic dimension of this culture, but this does not mean that it is justifiable. Many reasons stand behind the fact that individuality has weak presence in our societies. Certain individualistic behaviors which are connected to religion are dissolved in social pots. This is why many social spaces in the Arab World have more focus on rituals.

When thinking of religions in a social context, I usually ask myself: is religion an inherited structure or an acquired behavior? Is it an effect or an experience? An action or a reaction? A text or a context? I am not talking about religion as a set of teachings and guidelines. I am not even talking about it as a spiritual practice. What I am more concerned about is how we, as individuals, perceive religion on a personal level. How can religion become a total personal stand?

Privacy is not a popular word in our culture. It is also not a popular feeling. It belongs to the components of individual identity which is dissolved in social pots. Any personal instance of religious practice is often derived from the wider collective practice.

Religion is not a personal property in the Middle East. It is a property which is managed by society, state or political groups. The collective social management of religion is a mainstream in the Arab countries. Sharp examples of state management of religion are Saudi Arabia and Israel. Egypt and Lebanon are examples of political management of religions.

While writing this article, I knew about Vivian Hannah Salameh; A Jordanian Christian who is said to have been dismissed from her job after refusing to cover her head. She served for 25 years in one of the Jordanian banks before it was seized by another bank. The new administration dismissed her on the basis that she refused to wear the new uniform which includes a head cover. Reading the comments on this incident on Facebook, I came across incidents of women who were forced to leave their jobs because they wear a head cover.

Whatever were the policies of banks or companies in these cases, it is obvious that collective hegemony suppressed personal identities. These identities refused to lose part of their individual markers and melt down in social or corporate pots.

One of the recurrent words in the Jordanian media lately was the word “detained”. It was used in contexts of fighting corruption and managing the processes of reform in Jordan. When it comes to the relation between the individual and religion in our region, you cannot find the word “privacy” in the social dictionary. It is “detained” for complicated reasons.

* Media Strategist, Interfaith and Intercultural specialist

Rethinking, rejection or reform?


by Marwan Al Husayni | May 14,2012 | 22:28

I had the privilege to be in contact with two of the world’s revolutionary professors and thinkers. Both are deceased now. Mohammed Arkoun died in September 2010, Kamal Salibi died in September 2011. Both were 82 when they left our world.

I knew more about Islam from Salibi, who was Christian, and more about Christianity from Arkoun, who was Muslim. I learned more about the mechanisms of critical thinking and objective writing from both.

While working closely with Salibi in Amman on many interfaith and intercultural projects, I read most of Arkoun’s books. I was taken by his lifetime intellectual project “Rethinking Islam”. I was introduced to almost all aspects of his intellectual pulse before I met him in 2007.

I assisted Salibi in writing his diaries, “A Bird on an Oak Tree”, and officially was the editor of the book. I also used to translate between Arabic and English for him in daily academic works. He left Amman at the end of December 2003. The connection between us resumed through e-mail and Facebook.

I am not writing this article to just say that I knew the two professors. They both were great teachers for me and I benefited much from them intellectually. But they belonged to what I call “isolated identity”.

They were intellectuals whose works were rejected by wider Arab and Muslim circles, and were politically attacked for their archaeological efforts in history, knowledge and thought. They excavated and uncovered new epistemological layers for better understanding the history of early Christianity and Islam. Still, they were condemned for ideological reasons.

“Isolated identities” in the Arab world means that scientific thinking leads to rejection, discrimination then isolation. Neither of these two men took the mainstream conceptions for granted. They scientifically defied deeply rooted realities and revolutionised the way of looking at histories of Christianity and Islam. Their works faced a long process of isolation and distortion.

The mindset of “rethinking” always faces the mechanisms of rejection in the Arab region. This is how I feel and live it.

Arkoun and Salibi are remembered on some occasions and in limited circles, although they invested their lives in huge intellectual projects that are of great importance to humanity. For both of them ideology and private agendas are killers of scientific and critical thinking.

Sometimes, Salibi and I would spend a whole day editing one paragraph of few lines. The next day he would cancel the whole paragraph because “someone might hear an echo of distant ideology in it”, he used to tell me.

“I do not want to enrage anyone because scientific and objective writing must be as pure as light.”

He believed a scientific idea should introduce itself.

Arkoun talked about “the strategy of rejection”, which is a result of “imprisoning mind by ideology”. For him, ideology is ignorance; when mind is imprisoned by ignorance, it uses rejection to extinguish enlightened thinking.

Sadness was the end result for the minds of both Salibi and Arkoun.

When I last saw him, Salibi was leaving for Beirut with sadness in his eyes. I saw the same in Arkoun’s eyes while he was talking about “those who insist not to listen”.

When ignorance becomes a mainstream manifestation, what is the best identity marker that intellectuals should magnify: rethinking, rejection or reform?

The writer is media strategist, interfaith and intercultural specialist. He contributed this article to The Jordan Times.