Culture & Society / Politics & Current Events

Urban Flavors: religion and urbanization in the Middle East

By Lela Robinson

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Art by Fauna  Mahootian

For those with sophisticated palettes, I recommend the urbanism.  Not an obvious choice, but if you’re an erudite progressive who enjoys the bitter taste of sophistication over the hearty flavors of reality, I can assure you, you would like nothing less. It’s on the side, under feminism and above Marxism. Don’t bother reading the description, or do exactly that and fake an understanding. Enticing, is it not? You can taste its exquisiteness even before it’s served to you on a silver platter. Just know that when your watering mouth takes the first anticipated taste, it will be the opposite of what you might have expected. For those with sophisticated palettes, I recommend the urbanism.  Not an obvious choice, but if you’re an erudite progressive who enjoys the bitter taste of sophistication over the hearty flavors of reality, I can assure you, you would like nothing less. It’s on the side, under feminism and above Marxism. Don’t bother reading the description, or do exactly that and fake an understanding. Enticing, is it not? You can taste its exquisiteness even before it’s served to you on a silver platter. Just know that when your watering mouth takes the first anticipated taste, it will be the opposite of what you might have expected.

The creamy richness of unconditional cosmopolitanism is spoiled by large curds of social inequality, neoliberalization, and privatization that consequently ruin its rich texture. All thanks to urbanism: sour and repulsive. Globalized, rapid, mismanaged, dirty. But is it always? Certainly, we’ve previously tasted the richness of cultural exchange, enlightenment, and beauty. Is it possible that only the most skilled cities can master the timing and techniques of successful urbanism? In its rawest state, urbanism is simply the movement of people from rural to urban areas: bland and relatively tasteless when taken out of context. Then, why is urbanism so frequently rife with issues of social inequality? The world is an urbanizing place, but what are the consequences? Do urban consumers understand the implications of urbanism, or are they merely appropriating the term and basking in the glory of its progression?

fIn the United States, we discuss urbanization over massive helpings of gentrification, racial tensions, and white privilege. Americans season other cities in similar ways, but globalization and neocolonialism are always the salt and pepper. But is salt and pepper even appropriate to incorporate in these conversations? Most times, it is easy to forget that our conversations don’t have the same meaning when translated to other languages, even though cities are individualized places with distinct histories and cultures. The notion that these are the only forces shaping urbanization is questionable. Aren’t internal urban social politics, most notably religion, a more influential factor than the external influences of globalization?

This question brings us to the Middle East, where religion is such a predominant aspect of life that it must also be considered in relation to urbanization. How have Middle Eastern cities interacted in this global economy, and to what extent? It is difficult to comprehend the gravity of religion in Middle Eastern countries, as it is not nearly infused in American society to the same extent. When studying religion, there is a tendency to hold it at arm’s length, fascinated by its ramifications yet lacking a true comprehension of its effects, which are only understood through practice.

Religion, as it exists in the United States, does not exert influence over urbanization. As a result, United States becomes an anomaly that avoids this otherwise central and dominating entity. A taboo subject. Religion, as perceived in the States, often assumes an intermediary role that is acknowledged and certainly exerts considerable influence over certain areas, but will never challenge the dominion of urban entities. In the Western context, religion and intellectualism do not see eye to eye. However, in the Middle East, religion cannot be neglected as it is in Western settings. Despite its diminutive role in our prominent cities, it is both unavoidable and integral to urbanization in that region.

Cairo, as a quintessential urbanizing city, shows exposure to the effects of globalization, the abundance of inequality, and the pitfalls of urban disarray. Historically, the construction and urbanization of Cairo are inseparable from religion. Cairo, especially Islamic Cairo, emphasizes its grandeur with the Islamic architecture of mosques, tombs, palaces, and minarets. Traces of religious influence in urbanizing areas of Cairo signal a true sense of representation. Therefore, religion—unlike in the United States—provides an indication of increased social participation on behalf of Cairo’s residents.

Currently, Cairo’s urbanization manifests itself in the informal settlements mushrooming across the city’s historic core and in the elite and spacious construction happening along the periphery. Informal settlements take on their own system of governance, as they do not acquire true representation in the state: an informal system of rule couched in the intricacies of culture. As Salwa Ismail wrote: “…these governance practices are grounded in existing social practices; therefore, in adopting and instituting them, Islamists weave themselves into the social fabric.” Since religion is the cornerstone of the social fabric, its influence on urban spaces remains vivid.

When religion is rejected, the evils of urbanization fill the void. Here, we see globalization’s influence on urbanization and the secularization of new urban areas. The state has embraced privatization and neoliberalism by accommodating private foreign investment to these new areas. Lack of representation and the disruption and reshaping of the city work to separate culture and religion from Cairo’s economic process. Yet religion is an emblem of participation in the city; therefore, it mitigates the repercussions of urbanization in terms of informal development and the planning of space.

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