Saturday, 18 January 2014

Not what you would expect: Iran. Shi'ism and Fertility Treatment

In a provocatively titled article, 'The Islamic Republic of Baby-Making',  the online world affairs periodical Foreign Policy addresses an unexpected dimension of Shi'i Islamic thinking in Iran, centering around an issue that affects a large segment of the population in various Middle Eastern societies.

IVF Research Lab in Iran

IRAN, LIKE OTHER MIDDLE EASTERN COUNTRIES, has an extremely high infertility rate. More than 20 percent of Iranian couples cannot conceive, according to a study conducted by one of the country's leading fertility clinics, compared with the global rate of between 8 and 12 percent. Experts believe this is due to the prevalence of consanguineous marriages, or those between cousins. Male infertility is "the hidden story of the Middle East," says Marcia Inhorn, a Yale University medical anthropologist and a specialist on assisted reproduction in the region. Couple that with a shocking, multidecade decline in the average number of children born per woman, and it means that fertility treatment is needed in Iran more than ever.

Avicenna Centre for Reproductive Biotechnology
The attitudes of the Islamic Republic's clergy is not exactly what one would expect regarding such a delicate issue, which touches at the very core of relations between the sexes and, with that, also at the foundations of the social conservatism that can be considered the norm even among many progressive-minded Muslims.
while the world's attention has been focused on Iran's nuclear program, the country has been quietly working on a different sort of breakout capacity. The Islamic Republic -- governed by its strict mullahs, who've managed to botch progress in fields ranging from domestic manufacturing to airport construction -- has unexpectedly transformed itself into the fertility treatment capital of the Muslim Middle East. Iran now boasts more than 70 clinics nationwide, which attract childless couples, Sunni and Shiite alike, from throughout the region.
It is actually the centrality of the family which forms the impetus for this  acceptance of medical and scientific progress. It has also forced a return to the tenets of the faith and  to the principles underlying the Shari'a in order to advance drastic reinterpretations of relevant stipulations of Islamic doctrine and law: 
Although, to Westerners, Iran's Shiite clerics might appear reactionary, they are downright revolutionary when it comes to bioethics. In recent years, they have handed down fatwas allowing everything from stem-cell research to cloning.
...medical specialists set about finding a religious solution, seeking the support of sympathetic mujtahids(clerics qualified to read and interpret the Quran).The Shiite tradition of reinterpreting Islamic law was central to the clerics' willingness to go along -- in stark contrast to Sunni jurisprudence's focus on scholarly consensus and literal readings of the Quran, which has meant few fresh legal rulings on modern matters.
...Iranian clerics' willingness to issue innovative religious rulings coincided with a changing political and demographic climate that also spurred fertility treatments. In the wake of the 1979 revolution, the country embarked on a quest to boost population, but by the late 1980s and early 1990s, as Iran struggled to rebuild in the aftermath of its devastating war with Iraq 
However, there still is a catch:
IRAN'S LEGAL SYSTEM HAS YET TO CATCH UP with the implications of third-party fertility treatments. Under Iran's Islamic family law, babies born of sperm or egg donation fall into the legal category of adopted children and stepchildren, who are not permitted to inherit property from non-biological parents. Couples thus must find alternative ways to put aside assets to provide for these kids, and the rights and responsibilities of biological parents (the egg or sperm donors, who are meant to remain confidential but whose identities are sometimes disclosed in practice) remain unclear.
 To read the whole article click here

Friday, 10 January 2014

The danger of seeing the Middle East exclusively in 'religious' terms

Georges Corm
Lebanese economist and historian Georges Corm's latest book criticizes the essentialist and reductionist perceptions of the Arab and wider Muslim world held by my many Middle East of observers and policy-makers dealing with that region. In his Pour une Lecture Profane des Conflits, he reflects on the debilitating effects the 'Clash of Civilizations Thesis' has had as the ideological driving force behind the 'War on Terror'.

At present this is hindering an appropriate understanding of what is at stake since the seismic shifts that have changed the political landscape in the Arabic-speaking parts of the Muslim world, with regime changes in Tunisia, Egypt, and Libya, the troubled state of affairs in Iraq, the protracted civil war in Syria, and lingering unrest in countries such as Bahrain.

Because of the way these conflicts are reported and approached by outsiders dealing with the recalibration of policy-making or mediation in ongoing conflicts, the pervading view is:
that even after revolutions that were initially inspired by secular issues, the countries of the Arab world cannot shake off religion as the dominant force in politics. With its excessive political energies, political Islam remains the dominant power factor in the region.
Former Finance Minister Corm's book proposes a different way of looking at developments in the Middle East at the beginning of the second decade of the 21st century; turning the gaze away from the erroneous view that gives undue privilege to the religion factor.
In actual fact, he explains, the Arab world is concerned with very different issues: the just distribution of power and resources, a functioning state based on the rule of law and democratic participation. However, Corm elucidates, an adequate language has not yet been found for these concerns, or rather, it has not yet been able to make its voice heard over the dominant religious discourse.
Over the course of three or four decades, he writes, every significant political opposition in the Arab world has placed itself in the religious camp. That has left traces that cannot be erased from one day to the next.
Central to Corm's analysis is the destructive influence of reactionary Islamic ideologues fueled by Saudi oil money, who reject the in themselves laudable ideas that underlie the Enlightenment:
The motto "liberté, égalité, fraternité" (liberty, equality, fraternity) was once very closely observed when it came to distributing power and wealth. Who gets what, and in whose favour do the distribution mechanisms work? It is not long ago, writes Corm, that questions like these were a fundamental part of every political science degree in the West, but that is no longer the case.
Instead, these have been replaced by a focus on culture, a factor that underlies both Huntington's new model of global order and the in Corm's equally mistaken foregrounding of multiculturalism, which has attained the status of ideology, but which is also  'discreetly similar to religious fundamentalism'. According to one reviewer:
Corm's culture-based interpretation of the Western perception of the conflicts currently permeating the Near East is fascinating. The only question is whether it still holds true. After all, many people in the West have indeed learned to take a closer look, to take the demands of the first protesters seriously and at face value.
Many now also share Corm's assessment that Arab secularism has sacrificed its own good reputation. Nasser, Sadat and Mubarak in Egypt, Ben Ali in Tunisia, Saddam Hussein in Iraq, Assad Senior and Junior in Syria – all of them built up dictatorial regimes that trampled their citizens' rights underfoot and unleashed their secret services on all those who dared to question their rule and demand reform. And where words like democracy and the rule of law have not only lost all value but even have to serve as excuses for the crimes of allegedly progressive regimes, promising political ideals are turned on their heads.
Western observers and policy-makers should stop hiding the cynicism of their decades-long support for Arab autocrats  behind a facade of supposedly culturally sensitive explanations and boldly promote the reappreciation of democratic and humanitarian principles because of their normative validity.

To read the full article click here.

Below is a clip of a lengthy discussion with Corm on the situation in the Middle East: