Mountains of Prohibition

In January, I wrote about the Pakistani Taliban:

All that is worst in the human spirit, all that is savage and low and cruel, finds its expression in the Taliban. They are amoral and nihilistic fanatics who never create, only destroy – whether it be the Buddhas of Bamiyan, the girls’ schools in Swat, or the very lives of those who oppose them. To them, everything good in life is a sin, and existence is a narrow, cramped, twisted path between vast mountains of prohibition.

What I find striking is that this stark prohibitionist impulse turns up so often in desperately poor, uneducated and superstitious societies – places where people’s most urgent needs should be food and clean water, education, medicine, investment in infrastructure. Where the need is obvious, it would seem the response should also be obvious. Yet in so many of these societies, the governments turn their scarce resources to further restricting and limiting the lives of their citizens that are already so restricted by poverty and ignorance.

Take one of the most noteworthy examples, the Gaza Strip. Gaza is still suffering under an Israeli blockade; its infrastructure and health care system are in ruins from repeated wars, and 80% of the population lives below the poverty line, and dietary ailments like malnutrition and anemia are rampant. One would think that Hamas, which is in control of Gaza, would be bending all its efforts toward easing its people’s suffering and securing their access to the necessities of life. Instead, we see this:

The Islamic Hamas movement banned girls last month from riding behind men on motor scooters and forbade women from dancing at the opening of a folk museum. Girls in some public schools must wear headscarves and cloaks.

…The government’s Islamic Endowment Ministry has deployed Virtue Committee members to preach at public places to warn of the dangers of immodest dress, card playing and dating.

…The opening of the Palestinian Heritage Museum on Oct.7 was meant to include a rendition of the dabke, a line dance performed by girls and boys. Except that no girls were allowed.

Black-shirted men from Hamas carrying AK-47s appeared at the gates of the museum, on Gaza’s waterfront, said Jamal Salem, the curator. They said girls shouldn’t dance because it wasn’t religiously proper.

Saudi Arabia is not as destitute as Gaza, but has an extremely high unemployment rate and a single-product economy that’s bound to lead to economic disaster as their oil fields run dry and the world economy decarbonizes. But here, too, religious fanatics are steadfastly opposing any progress, even the very modest steps taken by the king, such as attempts to create mixed-gender universities where women are allowed to go unveiled and to drive on campus:

A backlash by clerics, led in public by Sheikh Saad Bin Naser al-Shatri, is slowing those efforts, though the king dismissed al-Shatri from the country’s top religious body last month.

…Just days after the Saudi monarch presided over a Sept. 23 inauguration ceremony for KAUST in which he called it a “beacon of tolerance,” al-Shatri said in a television interview that mixed-gender classes were “evil.”

Saudi clerics have also opposed the country’s nascent film industry – yes, Saudi Arabia has a film industry; a fairly astonishing fact, considering that movie theaters are still illegal there – and their influence has caused several local film festivals to shut down:

Waleed Osman, a 21-year-old Saudi film director, almost got arrested when he shot his award-winning movie “The Revenge” on the seafront corniche in the Red Sea port of Jeddah.

…Senior religious figures have condemned cinema as un-Islamic. Saudi Arabia’s Grand Mufti, Sheikh Abdul Aziz al-Sheikh, in March told students at King Saud University in Riyadh that musical and film performances were against Sharia, or Islamic law.

I find it hard to comprehend the mindset that sees the world as bristling with snares and traps, that sees every interaction in daily life as a sin to be shunned or a temptation to be avoided. If these medievalist clerics wanted only to close themselves off from the universe and spend their lives in a dark and narrow box of dogma, I’d say more power to them. But instead, they’ve turned their fear outward, into a positive loathing of everything that doesn’t conform to their ideas, and are trying to banish all unorthodoxy from the world. In the process, they’re crippling their own societies, keeping millions of people trapped in benighted and stagnant pools. In Gaza and in Saudi Arabia, as in many other places, we can see the sparks of human creativity struggling to escape. If there’s anything that gives me hope, it’s that so many other tyrannical societies that sought to repress their people ultimately collapsed to make way for something better.

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