Wednesday, January 16, 2008

Nations and leaders

Egypt is clearly in the doghouse for the White House on Bush's now concluded Middle East trip, as evidenced by President Mubarak only being given a brief stopover visit in the resort town of Sharm al-Sheikh, as opposed to the cavorting with the Gulf elites that had taken place earlier in the trip. This is what happens when, like Egypt, you're a non-oil exporter that locks up bloggers, as opposed to say, Saudi Arabia, an oil exporter that locks up bloggers.

Anyway, for all its faults, there is a little interesting thing about Egypt in the photograph. Note that the images come from Egypt's classical (and pre-Islamic) period. One fact that was lost in the furore over the Danish cartoons is that, strictly speaking, Islamic thinking has concerns about the making of any human image, not just that of Muhammad. Because there is a risk of idolatry: the images can become a distraction from God. Go into a mosque and look for images of any person -- you won't find one.

The risk of idolatry is particularly severe when one person other than God is being elevated above all others. Now take a look at the reception photographs from nearly every Arab Bush stop during his visit. Ramallah. Kuwait. UAE. Saudi Arabia. There's always a corporeal leader above the dignitaries. The only exceptions are Bahrain and Egypt (where the image is classical and not political) -- the two countries given the least time on the Bush trip.

Not that Bush will put much thought into it, but among the many reasons for the Muslim world's alienation with him is the effort that the US allocates to leaders as opposed to people, all of whom are equally worthy. The countries that have been around long enough to have more secure identities have less time for leadership cults -- and so are less interesting to the American version thereof.

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