Elevate Difference

The Media Relations Department of Hizbollah Wishes You a Happy Birthday: Unexpected Encounters in the Changing Middle East

The brash leather-clad sex columnist who hosts her own television show, The Biography of Love, is:

a) a Parisian whose show airs in France b) an American whose show airs in the U.S. c) a Kuwaiti whose show is broadcast throughout the Middle East

The surprising answer is C. But sex educator Fawzia Dorai is only one of the unexpected and colorful agents of Middle Eastern change profiled in The Media Relations Department of Hizbollah Wishes You A Happy Birthday. A Middle East correspondent for the New York Times, MacFarquhar grew up in Libya, the son of an American oil company employee. With both an insider’s and an outsider’s perspective, MacFarquehar has crafted a rare work. Traveling from Iran to Morocco and points in between, he interviews activists, celebrities, renegades and politicians about the region’s potential for change. The answers are as astonishing as finding the words “Hizbollah” and “Happy Birthday” in the same sentence.

Westerners tend to view the Middle East monolithically, as a vast expanse of violence and extremism. But, as MacFarquhar illustrates, the region consists of competing philosophies and contradictions. For every cleric who believes that politics should serve Islam, there is another who would twist Islam to serve politics. For every activist who would cement society into strict adherence to Islamic law, there is another who believes that Islamic ideals of justice and dignity are more consistent with an open society. The United States’ missteps, MacFarquhar believes, result from failing to recognize the nuanced difference between Western-style democracy and the ways in which Islam’s humanistic values could be used to advance tolerance and pluralism.

Don’t just take MacFarquhar’s word for it. The people he profiles make these points in their own riveting ways. Fawzia Dorai cites ancient Islamic texts on sexuality in support of her frank talks to the public. A Lebanese television chef rockets to stardom by blending American and Middle Eastern cuisine. A Bahraini journalist refuses to bow to censors who hate her bold calls for reform. The book is full of such innovators, stunning in their courage: poets, professors, singers, farmers.

The odds are daunting, as a discussion of fatwas makes clear. Fatwas are clerical rulings and range from pronouncements about jihad (clerics disagree whether the concept condones violence) to decisions banning dogs (which prompt black market dog sales). The clergy is as diverse as the population it serves. Some are fundamentalist, others more liberal. Some are better trained. Some have political agendas.

To add to the complexity, fatwas are not always binding. A layman who doesn’t like a fatwa can look for one that’s more favorable. Sometimes this is a good thing. One woman’s imam ruled that she could unveil at work, but only if she suckled her male colleague, making him her surrogate child. (The ensuing outrage resulted in the fatwa’s reversal.) The proliferation of competing decrees hampers reform by preventing clear definitions of what an Islamic society should look like.

Women activists figure prominently. To MacFarquhar, their status is not simply about gender politics, but about how it reflects on society as a whole. A government using religion as an instrument of oppression affects women in kind. A more pluralistic regime, such as Lebanon’s, offers all citizens more freedom. Bahrain, a mixed bag of tolerance and fundamentalism, allows women to drive, but only if fully veiled. As long as tools of change such as freedom of speech and assembly are discouraged, egalitarianism remains elusive.

MacFarquhar seamlessly blends his knowledge of Middle Eastern history, religion, politics, and culture in The Media Relations Department of Hizbollah Wishes You A Happy Birthday. The experience feels like spending time with a very smart and connected buddy who has pulled you aside to share secrets, insights and anecdotes that you won’t hear anywhere else.

Written by: T. Tamara Weinstein, August 31st 2009

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