Reading About Confucianism

This semester, I am co-moderating a reading group on The World’s Religions by Huston Smith. Like the name suggests, the book is an introduction to the world’s main religious traditions, and it includes chapters on Hinduism, Buddhism, Confucianism, Taoism, Judaism, Christianity, and Islam. The other moderator and I hoped that a discussion of this book would introduce students to other cultures and ideologies that they would not have otherwise interacted with. And, so far, it is going well! This week we read the chapter on Confucianism, and we had an interesting discussion about immigration and the role religion plays in it. As the book highlights, Confucian culture, which focuses on the collective, is very different from Western culture, which tends to focus on the individual. This fostered a debate about the difficulties immigrants face when trying to retain their own sense of cultural identity when they move to a new country.

At the end of the chapter, Smith includes an interesting claim about the future of Confucianism: that it will not survive in a Westernizing world. This statement created a furious debate about the validity of the “Clash of Civilizations” narrative and whether these two world views can coexist. All of the members ultimately agreed that globalization will not spell the end for Confucianism, although its emphasis on the collective might be in danger. In the end, this reading group is doing exactly what I hoped it would do—introduce the members to different ideas and world views that they may not have known much about.

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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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Interfaith Dialogue

A few weeks ago I was able to go to an interfaith dialogue panel, which a friend happened to be on. While this event was not necessarily international in nature, it dealt with understanding different religions and learning how to interact with cultures and ideas that may differ from your own, which is essential in the field of international relations. This specific panel was sponsored by the Religious Studies Student Association (RSSA) and featured a Protestant, a Hindu, a Buddhist, a Muslim, and an Atheist. It was fascinating to learn about each person’s world view and discover where they all intersected and diverged.

The panel began with them introducing themselves and giving a brief introduction to their respective traditions. Then they answered a few basic questions that were mostly there to familiarize the audience with the finer points of their beliefs. After that, the audience was able to ask the panel questions. I think one of the most interesting ones asked was about their religions’ view of social justice, which brought out an array of answers. Ultimately, the important conclusion they all reached was that their answers to this question were ideals, and that most people probably wouldn’t actually follow through on these professed beliefs. It really emphasized the fact that everyone views religion differently, and that to truly understand what someone really believes, you need to ask them.

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(Picture taken from Xaverian Missionaries USA)

Belly Dancing

Last year, I joined a belly dancing club through the Arabic Flagship, and this year I participated in it again. It’s a chance to learn more about Arab culture and do something I love—dance. I’ve danced for most of my life, but I stopped in high school and only picked up belly dancing in the spring of my Freshman year in college. In my opinion, dancing is a good outlet for all of the stress school causes, and it’s also a lot of fun to put on a hip scarf and hear it jingle around you. Last year we spent most of our time learning the basics of belly dancing and threw together a relatively simple dance number for the Arabic Flagship talent show. This year, though, all of the club’s members are veterans and we’ve graduated to harder combinations. The moves are more intricate and faster, which makes mastering them difficult. But, somehow, we seem to be managing.

A typical meeting this year consists of three parts: drills, dance one, and dance two. For the first fifteen minutes or so, we drill various steps, like hip circles, shimmies, and short combinations from one of our dances. Then we move on to our first dance, Ah w Nos, which is one of the dances we will present at the Arabic Flagships talent show. This dance does not fall into a particular belly dance style, but it is much faster and more complex than the one we performed last year. We spend about forty-five minutes reviewing the combinations, learning new ones, and running through the dance. After that, we move on to our second dance, done in the Khaleeji style. For me, this number is particularly difficult as Khaleeji is a new style for us and a lot of its movements are foreign. We usually spend about thirty minutes on this dance, reviewing, learning, and practicing. With the talent show only a few weeks away, hopefully we can get it all down!

Israel Reflections

It has been almost four months since I’ve left Israel, and I figured that this is the time for me to say anything about it that I might not have gotten to. Thinking back to my trip, it seems just like yesterday, but in a different lifetime. Staring out of the bus window at the rolling landscape, walking down the Mediterranean, standing in the place some believe Jesus was crucified, digging up history and holding it in my bare hands—can these really be my memories?

I often think back to Israel, not just to relive my memories, but also to make sure that I don’t lose anything. I never want to forget the feel of picking up pottery off the beach of the Mediterranean, the exhaustion of a day full of digging, or the simple excitement that I experienced each time I saw a word in Arabic and realized I could, if not understand it, at least read it. While I talked about some of these experiences in my pervious posts, I never considered my trip in the larger context of my life. This always becomes apparent to me in my Arab-Israeli Conflict course. Our readings often mention places I saw in Israel, from the cities to the historical sites, even to the kibbutzim that I stayed at! It puts me into a larger historical context and helped me realize the gravity of the locations I visited. But my trip also humanized the events in the class for me. I’ve stayed at kibbutzim, I know how they work and the lives the Israelis who live their lead. I’ve walked among the Palestinians in Jerusalem on their way to Friday prayers and seen their tumultuous existence (I might’ve been in close proximity to a demonstration or two). I witnessed the wall, a hulking, gray concrete mass that divides the country. I’ve seen the land that two peoples still fight over. It gives me a feeling of both helplessness and hope. But, most of all, it gives me knowledge and motivation. My trip to Israel validated my major change to International Security Studies and confirmed my want to work in the Middle East. It allowed me to reevaluate my life. It showed me that I was on the right track and, for that, I will always be in Israel’s debt.

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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