Abortion and the modern "Arabs"

MuslimUSA 01Most conversations about globalization focus on economic issues and, clearly, that engine of modernization turns many other cultural wheels. But anyone who has studied mass media knows that images from other cultures -- especially advertisements and entertainment images -- have a profound impact on their own. A professor of mine once said that that two main messages carried by most ads are (1) you do not own this and (2) you do not look like this. I thought of that while reading a sobering Los Angeles Times piece by Borzou Daragahi, which ran under one of those giant headlines that tells you most of what you need to know: "Number of abortions rising in Middle East, experts say -- Changing social values and economic realities, along with demographic shifts, are among the reasons, observers in the Arab world say."

However, there is a problem right there in the headline, with the use of the term "Arab world."

The piece seems to use two words interchangeably -- "Arab" and "Muslim." However, there are Arabs who are not Muslims and, now that you mention it, the story also blurs the lines between terms such as "Arab" and "Lebanese." Meanwhile, there are a wide array of forces that are changing life in the Middle East and the wide variety of people, religious and secular, who live there.

Here is the crucial chunk of the LA Times story offering the typical blitz of statistics linked to modernization and globalization:

Despite legal and religious restrictions against abortion in much of the Arab world, changing social values and economic realities as well as demographic shifts have contributed to an apparent increase in the number of the procedures in the Middle East. ...

In most Middle East countries, the 15-to-24-year-old age group has grown to make up about a third of the population, but the percentage of early marriages is dropping. In Egypt, only 10% of 15-to-19-year-old females were married in 2003, down from 22% in 1976.

As young people wait longer to marry, they're increasingly engaging in premarital sex.

"I think abortions are going up for just for one reason: Sex is becoming more permissive," said Wissam Ghandour, a Lebanese obstetrician and scholar. "I assure you that the majority of girls getting married now are non-virgins and sexually active."

And right here, at this crucial point in the story, comes a key confusion in terms of culture and religion.

... Arab youths receive little in the way of birth control or sex education, say family planning experts in the Middle East, many of whom work discreetly to provide reproductive health services in conservative Muslim societies that hold women's maternal roles as sacrosanct.

"If access to contraceptives was widely and freely available, abortion wouldn't be necessary," said an official at a Western family planning organization in Yemen. She spoke on condition of anonymity for fear her organization would be targeted. Abortion, she said, is "a last resort."

Ignore, for a moment, the assumption that access to contraceptives automatically drives down abortion statistics, an assumption that would light up our comments pages for a month if we allowed it to be argued. So don't even go there. Please.

No, what interests me the most is that this section of the story again equates "Arab" and "Muslim." There are Christian Arabs left in this part of the world and they drift away from their traditions and teachings just as easily or, sadly, perhaps more easily than do the Muslims in these cultures.

The story gives us a short summary of the Muslim teachings on the issue of abortion -- or the views of the Muslims interviewed by the reporter, which is not quite the same thing -- but does not say a word about the views and beliefs of Christians in the Middle East.

This is especially interesting since the Christian Arabs have often served as a bridge -- for better or for worst -- to Europe and the values of the West. It's a crucial question: Who is performing these abortions and how do these individuals fit into the religious puzzle that is this region? What are the forces, in terms of culture, business and media, that are spreading this new permissiveness?

Islam is important, of course. Thus, we read:

According to most interpretations, Islam strictly forbids abortion after the fetus has reached 4 months, and allows it before then only in cases of violent rape or when birth poses an extreme threat to the physical or psychological health of the mother. Otherwise, abortion is tantamount to killing a living soul, a major sin in Islam, said Abdel Moati Bayoumi, a professor of the fundamentals of Islam at Cairo's Al Azhar University, the world's premier Muslim school of higher education.

"The rise of abortion and its acceptability in the Arab world reflects the decadence of societies in the region and how much people are drifting away from the teachings of Islam," he said in a telephone interview. "Abortion should not be taken lightly, because it involves killing a creature that belongs only to God."

Abortion is, of course, forbidden under the traditional forms of Christianity, Islam, Buddhism and most other traditional forms of the great world religions. This story is only about Islam and the Arabs. However, if failed to even cover all of the Arabs and the forces that are shaping their lives today. Thus, there is a hole in the reporting.

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