Famous Australian cartoonist Micheal Leunig once imagined the world’s last drop of oil being used by a woman called Mavis Mary Ryan who drove her car to deliver a hot meal to an elderly and frail Muslim woman refugee. All along the road to the Muslim woman’s house, crowds gathered to applaud Mavis, and a 1000-voice choir celebrated the occasion. Walking home afterwards, Mavis felt happy that although all the world’s oil was now gone, vast reserves of love remained.
Today the contest for oil and gas dominates world politics, threatens human security, and further marginalizes the poor and the vulnerable.
In our grotesquely unequal world, Leunig’s cartoon reminds us that redemption is possible because compassion never goes out of style.
An oil-rich Arab State proved this point recently by hosting an unusual and historic meeting.
In December 2012, Kuwait’s Ministry of Awqaf & Islamic Affairs invited me to join eminent non-Arab Muslim scholars of Islamic history, philosophy, and cultural artefacts, and Arab Muslim scholars of Orientalism in several days of frank and intensive discussion on how to address global inequity head-on.
We scholars from Poland, Hungary, Russia, Canada, the USA, Korea, Austria, Germany, and Australia learnt that the Arab Muslim region routinely regards us as “Orientalists” – agents of imperialist governments diametrically opposed to Islam who contribute to the alienation and isolation of Arabs and Muslims from the rest of the world.
This came as a surprise. Afterall, academics are not the same as popularist authors or expert analysts employed by governments, “think tanks”’, and multinational corporations to provide geo-political data informed by the marketplace.
But then, archaeologists, historians, philologists, geographers, and well-educated adventurers historically have been de facto agents in the control of trade and resources so vital to “empire building”. And one of the legacies of this “Orientalist” project is an enduring generalized deprecation of Arabs and Islam.
Even in countries allied to “the West”, large sections of the population remain deeply suspicious and cautious of Western motivations and attributes. The popularity of the study of “Orientalism” in Arab and Islamic Universities thereby comes as no surprise.
Finally, we non-Arab/Muslim scholars agreed that current political contexts do inform the language and orientation of our work, and those from Kuwait, Saudi Arabia, Mauritania, Morocco, and Egypt acknowledged that ‘Orientalists’ are not all of one mind or motivation.
This level of agreement may seem meager, but its achievement in only 3 days augurs well. Individuals from different nations and of various creeds together created a Charter of Principles, in Arabic and English, that transforms Kuwait’s “Sela” (linkage) Project from theory into practice. This proves scholars’ capacity for cooperation towards creating balance in an unequal world.
As Leunig’s Mavis Ryan was a vehicle for compassion, so the ‘Sela’ Project can be a vehicle for intellectual inquiry towards a common good. What happens next could well be cause for celebration