The Death of Enlightenment

Kamal Al-Solaylee and family. (Globe & Mail / Kamal Al-Solaylee)

In Saturday’s Globe & Mail, Kamal Al-Solaylee weaves a doleful tale of his family’s regression from wealth and progressive enlightenment to soul-destroying darkness in the span of a single generation.  Mr. Al-Solayee’s young sisters once took joy in perusing Alexandria’s stores for bikinis, Beatles albums and other trappings of Western pop-culture; today their existence is markedly different.

The photo captures a moment of bourgeois life in the Middle East, before the region became associated in the Western collective psyche with exporting terror or the subjugation of women. It’s an image of a large and admittedly privileged family, led by enlightened, secular parents from southern Yemen.

…Yemen’s new notoriety doesn’t surprise me; what does is how all the warning signs went unnoticed for so long. I saw it in my own flesh and blood: An open-minded family defined by its love of arts and culture embraced hard-line interpretations of Islam and turned its back on social progress and intellectual freedom.

…I paid a visit to my family in the spring of 1992, my first in almost six years, and was shocked to see how just a few years changed us both so dramatically. There was a defeatist quality to their lives, while mine had hopes of a better future. My sisters seemed especially dispirited. Four of them worked for a living, but although their jobs gave them some economic independence, their lives remained limited. Beyond their commute to work, they rarely ventured anywhere other than grocery or clothing stores.

Returning again in the summer of 2001 – my first visit since I had moved to Canada in 1996 – I encountered a family that was a lot closer to the stereotype of regressive Muslim culture than I had ever known.

The veils were in full view. Everybody prayed five times a day. My brothers were unapologetically sexist in their dealings with their wives. Was this the same family that once took turns reading the great works of literature and subscribed to four newspapers daily, three in Arabic and one in English?

One of my brothers was actually suggesting that his eldest daughter need not go to university because education wouldn’t help her much as a housewife…

— Al-Solaylee, Kamal.  “From bikinis to burkas.” Globe & Mail, 9 January 2010. [Emphasis mine.]

Although Yemen has long been on a slow slide to anarchy, one of the many turning points Mr. Al-Solaylee highlights is the 1991 Gulf War.  In that conflict, the Republic of Yemen publicly supported Saddam Hussein’s invasion of Kuwait, and Saudi Arabia expelled hundreds of thousands of migrant Yemeni workers in retaliation.  The country was thus flooded with unemployed men who had been thoroughly immersed in the Saudis’ corrosive brand of austere, reactionary Islam.  And from there, the Republic of Yemen’s downward deck-angle accelerated.

Left and right sides of the political spectrum tend to disagree over whether it is poverty of opportunity or toxic ideology which is at the root of the issue; what Mr. Al-Solaylee’s story shows us is that the ideology can afflict the wealthy and comfortable just as easily.

The world has since realised that widespread hopelessness mixed with nihilist ideology can create a very toxic and potent brew; something of the same cocktail was effective in October of 1917, October of 1922, and March of 1933.  But while the West is at great pains to revitalise the economies and civil infrastructure of lands like Iraq and Afghanistan, the ideology has by and large gone unchecked.  In March of 2009, Afghanistan’s President Karzai still signed into law the repressive Shia Personal Status statute, which permits spousal rape and child marriage.  And the world’s foremost exporter of Wahhabi intolerance—Saudi Arabia—is still at it, with foreign workers comprising two-thirds of its total workforce and a staggering 95 percent of labour in the private sector.  It would seem that attacking poverty and hopelessness, while admirable, is not the sole (or even primary) solution.

If the world is to have any victory over Islamists, it will have to start tackling the central tenets of the ideology head-on.  To have fought the effects of Fascism or Communism for decades, without also exposing the cruel, humanity-denying theories at their cores would be nonsensical.  So it is with the war on Islamic radicalism.

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