Adding Fuel To UAE’s Rising Costs? – An Expat View

[This article first appeared in Arabian Gazette on August 1 2015]

As new fuel prices in the UAE take effect from today, the expat view on rising costs resurfaces with a fresh context

UAE Fuel price rise adds to cost of living

This post first appeared as my article for Arabian Gazette. Click here for the original version

The United Arab Emirates recently lifted fuel subsidies, thereby deregulating its price and pegging them to the global level. Owing to the country’s cautious approach towards limited resources and its federal budget, the revision in policy has won the backing of credit rating agencies for the environment and economy alike. The revision in fuel prices will take effect from today at pumps across the UAE.

RELATED: Finally, UAE to end fuel subsidies

The low and controlled UAE fuel price had made us expats, especially Non-Resident Indians, the centre of jokes such as “you own an oil well in the backyard, don’t you?” Compared to my fellow countrymen who switch the ignition off at traffic lights and take to the streets at marginal increase in fuel price, we lead a cushioned life insulated from the vagaries of a bustling economy and a ‘full tank with fuller purse’. Or did we?

As an Indian growing up in the UAE with stories of struggle and dreams – some fulfilled and others falling short – this discourse is for the modestly salaried expat – a term I often use to depict a large, if not the largest portion of the 80% non-citizen population of the country fondly called home.

RELATED: UAE Fuel Subsidy Reform gets a thumbs up from Moody’s

Offsetting low fuel price

To argue that expats have reaped riches through controlled petrol prices is an extremely simplified one. In a YouGov survey conducted for The National newspaper in early 2015, around half of expats considered leaving the UAE due to high living costs.

According to the research –

When asked if they would consider moving away from the UAE because of the cost of living, 17 per cent said definitely yes while a further 33 percent said probably yes. Only 21 percent said no, while the rest were unsure.

According to the research manager  –

The majority of expatriates consider money and saving for the future as an important factor in moving to UAE. But the rising costs of living are increasingly holding them back from safeguarding the financial security they have been looking for, which makes moving out of the UAE a serious alternative.

Relief from paying extra for the fuel never obviated the stress caused by exorbitant amounts paid for house rent, utility bills and school fees, and the better part of a modestly salaried expat’s life is a testament to this.

Eking out a living vs living a life

“The cost of living in the area is increasing drastically which isn’t helpful at all.  Life’s becoming quite tough in the UAE generally … people are just surviving these days”

This was the response of a British expat to Gulf News on fuel deregulation. In the life of expats, some of the grave and at times humorous family ‘strategies’ feature a regular stream of cost-saving instructions from parents and similar talks from relatives in gatherings. In the metro rides too, conversations between my countrymen often drift into morose discussions of struggling with a low paying job and the ever-rising expenses. Reflecting on our lives in this country that has otherwise been a splendid host makes me question: have we really succeeded in living a life, or are we just eking out an existence? In a bid to prepare for the next bill, have we settled with mediocrity and the mundane instead of striving for a more fulfilling experience?

To their credit, the financial acumen of the expat generation that first set foot in the UAE laid the foundations for the ones to come. The country’s rapid advancement brought with it new opportunities for the expats, who – instead of splurging on short-lived pleasures – shared the fruits with their people here and back home. Their decision to stay on and serve the country without a real stake provided us with a safe environment – something our home-country provides in little supply. Though navigating through the deeper questions of identity and excellence is an individual challenge – and that deserves a commentary of its own – the opportunity cost paid by the community to live here is little if anything at all.

Counting the real cost

The cost of fuel subsidies does not just dent the federal budgets, but also contributes to negative externalities in the economy and the environment. Ms. Pranita Lele, a teacher of Economics and a resident of UAE for 12 years, says that all good economic policies are never populist policies.

Commenting on the new policy –

There will certainly be an effect on the budget but the impact can be controlled wisely.  Subsidies are never a long run solution for any good economy.  Petrol subsidies had to be removed sometime or the other, so this decision is not shocking at all. There will be long-term positive environmental impact and sustainable development is of paramount importance. Scarce resources have to be protected.

Mohit Purswani, a recent Engineering undergraduate whose father started off as a textile worker in Dubai in 1990, is already preparing to factor in budget tweaks in his first ever job. He sees in the new policy two opportunities that should drive the efforts of the government and its subjects –

I take public transport to work and I wouldn’t say it’s adequately prepared for the potential increase in commuters, especially during peak hours and in areas like Al Nahda where roads are clogged severely. Increased use of metro combined with efficient bus routes should play a key role in the post-deregulation times. One may also have fuel economy as one of their checkboxes when buying a car, which wasn’t of much importance in the UAE so far.
With this in mind, a nuanced criticism of this policy will be traversing a difficult path considering that benefits outweigh costs. A worthy attempt to tackle costs strongly in the UAE lies in a sector that pays immediate dividends and cannot be short-changed or substituted to cut corners.

Education – fuel for the mind

report by Emirates 24|7  shows that UAE is the most expensive for high school.

If we split it country-wise, private schools in the UAE are most expensive, with fees ranging from an average of $6,000 [Dh22,038] for Indian schools to $13,797 [Dh50,676] for British schools.

Previous studies highlight that most parents are unhappy about the fees that schools charge and some maintain that it is becoming difficult for them to keep up with the annual fee hikes.

Tagged with extra tuition fees, cost of books and other co-curricular activities, a child’s time in school alone chips off the elusive savings in large chunks.

Khalid Al Ameri, an Emirati social columnist and commentator, wrote this passionate piece on supporting the interests of the country for a better cause at some cost of our own. Just a day later, he authored a strongly worded article rightly questioning the motives of private educators in the country.

Schools owners and business leaders might think it is simply parents complaining and being tight on their expenses, but in reality it is the children who pay the ultimate price. They either have to settle for a sub par education, parents who are constantly stressed with ever growing costs that are yet to see a limit, or even being home schooled and never getting to experience life as a real student, making lifelong friends, supporting their school’s sports team, and being part of a wider community.

Exploitative practises in the education & knowledge sector can unite people of all spending power. Higher fuel costs may keep some cars off the road for the better, but higher tuition fees keep students off quality education – and that’s a grim thought to deal with. As expats grappling with the challenge of rising costs, our objections can be directed towards that which blatantly flouts moral fairness in transactions.

Education remains crucial for a healthy society and does not take a backseat in priority, be it that of the hosts or the home country. Urgency requires that stronger regulation for curtailing school fees be implemented so that it helps parents decide which school & curriculum the child will be a part of. Finally, an easier and economical access to good education is not an exclusive issue, but one that resonates with the local hosts and will garner their support too.

In the light of new developments, it’s possible that more expats may sweat it out in public transport to accommodate the valid needs of the host country. But in an effort to reap business rewards, let schools not forget that the ones who readily paid with sweat for the country may not always afford to pay with money.

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The Closet Eater – On Ramadan Rules for Non-Muslims

I once heard the story of an Imam who was invited for lunch by a Non-Muslim. The Imam accepted the offer and gorged on the feast which included a stream of savoury & confectionary delights. While he was washing down the cake with water, it struck him – he had forgotten that it was the month of Ramadan and he was fasting. Had the feast invalidated the fast? The resounding opinion is a “no.”

This story is often used to explain that fasting is not about merely abstaining from food and drink. In a state of forgetfulness, your spiritual commitment to fast takes precedence over even large quantities of food consumed. In Islamic countries populated with an expatriate mix, the central message of Ramadan – i.e. the spiritual and not gastronomical – should form the centre of all cultural education.

At times, our over-reliance on protectionist rules tends to nudge the discussion in the wrong direction. Some strict rules governing conduct in Ramadan – undoubtedly to protect sentiments and make fasting convenient – may lead many to believe that not eating & drinking is the be all and end all of the holy month. Rather than being a month of reflection for people of all faiths, we risk making the Non-Muslims anxious over their eating habits.

The 'other side' of Ramadan. It's common to find make-shift veil arrangements to separate eating areas during the holy month

The ‘other side’ of Ramadan – it is common to find make-shift veil arrangements to separate eating areas during the holy month

A less pampered Ramadan is important as people observing the fast become more mobile than ever – traveling on business trips or residing in a non-Islamic country for other, long-term purposes like education. We may not always have the luxury of people, encouraged by the law or without it, covering their sandwich for the fear of offending us. At some point in our lives, fasting may span more than 18 hours in a country where our friends & colleagues would be discussing where to have their 4th meal of the day.

Moreover, attempts at ‘avoiding offence’ sometimes offend our intellect. I spotted this at a local McDonald’s outlet, and I doubt if I would have really taken note of this little eatery had it not been for this clumsy barrier. I don’t know how it benefits my state of fasting, if anything, it makes me chuckle.

IMG_20150629_151817

IMG_20150629_151804

You also hear of the odd instance when someone’s upset with the spirit of Ramadan not being observed, as this letter to the 7Days newspaper suggests. The letter shows that the conception of Ramadan is ill-understood by some and restricted to the physical manifestations of food and water. Threads that discuss the “Do’s & Dont’s in Ramadan” are usually lopsided towards the cautionary don’ts. Instead of people inquiring about the month and asking questions that can be retained a lifetime, people are busy making sure you’re taste-buds are not tempted before dusk…for 30 days.

And if it’s important to state it bluntly – nope, nobody in the state of fasting would keel over and die if he/she spotted someone eating or drinking. (Unless I saw you eating vanilla ice-cream, in which case It’ll be difficult to recover from the shock at your choice of flavour.)

This month for us is a battle against the fleeting temptations of our body. It’s a month to recognize that while others are being asked to abstain from eating in front of us, we binge-eat our hearts out without caring for the unfortunate who’s life is stuck in the darkness of dusk. (Sometimes, we eat our way to the hospital!) It’s a call to hear the grumbling of our stomach and feed the hungry of this world, and try to introduce at least a glimmer of dawn in their lives. It’s not a month of McDonald’s as much as McCare & McEmpathy.

What encouraged me to write this article is a recent conversation with a (Non-Muslim) friend. He told me that Ramadan sometimes taxed his mind & body more than the regular months, especially because he delayed refreshing himself with water till he reached home after the long commute in his car. When I offered my commiserations, he brushed it away saying that not eating in front of us was the least he could offer as a respect to the spirit of Ramadan. With such high morals, I’m sure this friend, even without the enforcement of rules, would display the best manners to respect our holy month.

However, I also understand the the role of some measured stern policies when required. Perhaps maybe, just maybe, a monetary penalty may rectify a deliberate & persistent behaviour that flouts the norms and harmony of a culture.

In my humble opinion, it’s time we fasting Muslims reclaimed the true spirit of Ramadan and diverted the attention of our beloved Non-Muslim friends towards that which increases their respect for the religion. It’s time we spoke less of staying away from waffles and instead explained the wisdom behind the waffle-less hours. Gentle reminders to uphold the spirit and abide by the unwritten rules of good manners can ensure that people follow the spirit of the law instead of fretting over its letter.

Dubai in particular and the United Arab Emirates as a whole boasts a splendid array of cultures and mindsets. The month of Ramadan provides the best opportunity to sensitize Non-Muslims about the religion. With the ‘us vs them’ narrative besetting the region, UAE harbours a sense of harmonious belonging to a home and people that exhibit a healthy diversity.

It could also be the country where a Non-Muslim’s depth of understanding Ramadan rivals his/her Muslim counterparts, provided the understanding comes through gradual interaction and not enforced laws.

4 weird things that (apparently) invalidate the fast

Spending 3 important years of my life as a student in India gave me a new perspective on practicing my religion. There’s much that fills me with pride, and things that I believe are flash points for a burgeoning Muslim population in India.

While lies in the middle of the spectrum is humour. Many Muslims – and non-Muslims who have inquired about the traditions and rituals of Ramadan – gave away an innocent and naive understanding of the holy month. While I’m unaware of other societies harbouring similar beliefs, I rely on the consistency of my personal experience to cite India as a place where these things abound. It’s weird, but it’s hilarious!

Here are the top 4 (wrong) rulings that apparently invalidate your fast.

4 – pablo (2)

I know what you’re thinking. You’re trying to recollect all the moments you spent time with someone who was fasting, hoping he/she hadn’t followed this. I empathize with the intention here, but as long as you’re not deliberately trying to sneak in a few drops of water in, a cold shower is just that – refreshing!

3 –

pablo (3)

As a school kid, I saw a friend getting furious at other classmates spraying deodorant all over (yea, we got excited at the smallest things) citing that its fragrance would break his fast. This really infuriated me as it developed a wrong perception of Ramadan and ran this (mis)conception through a religious scholar. He confirmed that ‘smelling’ anything doesn’t affect the fast. I took a whiff of the ittar that the Imam was sporting[PS – Ramadan etiquette requires one to abstain from pronounced extravagance, like dousing oneself perfume and giving everyone a headache.]

2 –

pablo (5)

In an auto-rickshaw ride to the campus, my conversation with the driver drifted into Ramadan that had arrived the same week. The paraphernalia (spot for everything green and shiny) clearly suggested that he should ideally have been fasting. Explaining his reason of abstinence, he said, “Humare dhande mei gaali galoch bahut hoti hai. Toh Roza rakhne ka faayda nahi.” [In our line of business, using abusives and foul language is very common. Keeping the fast is of no use]

Quite funny, because fasting is about self-restraint and developing new habits. While using foul language is against the spirit of Ramadan, a religiously (punnn…) foul-mouthed person can use this month to overcome the hardness of his tongue.

1 – pablo (6)

This takes the cake (after Iftar). At first, I would be dumbstruck at the notion, after about 5 people asked me about this, I realised naivete related to Ramadan is viral. Saliva is a natural formation that lubricates the throat. And thanks to this, it actually allows us to complete our fast without invoking a Thar Desert feeling in our throat. I wonder if there’s anyone who reconciles fasting with this almost impossible requirement.

I’m sure these 4 things are but a mere snapshot of many more misconceptions. What only worries me is that these things can easily become excuses for ignoring the fast.

Have you come across other imaginative reasons that invalidate the fast in your culture? Share it with us in the comments below!

India’s Biggest Debt: Girl Education

Source: CNN.com

Source: CNN.com

In a country otherwise rife with discrimination and violence against women, and where the most popular currency dealt in is dowry, the CBSE result day is one marked with adulation for the girl student. Their consistent performance is like the greatest retaliation to society. They may have a tough time leaving home after the sun sets, but on every result day, I’m sure boys and their parents stay indoors after dawn staying that they’re celebrating with a house party. The reality is, they’re too shy celebrating their Munnu’s 65% while the Munni 2 roofs away – who was the center of their scorn for not getting married at the belated age of 17, schooled their Munnu with a 94%, in Science…Physics, Chemistry & Biology, while Munnu was happy with Botany without maths. He scored a full 34 marks out 100 in the Botany paper, with some tuition classes of course from the village nearby.

Girl child education is not just important for India, it’s also the only way our country can say sorry. India puts a price on women – 1) the opportunity cost in favours reserved for the boy in the family, and 2) the dowry a girl’s family is expected to pay. Dowry is many times an instant loan a father’s bank account is debited with when a girl is born.

If CBSE marks is your measurement for efficient use of resources, it’s very clear who’s using it optimally. For decades of under-performance of key infrastructure sectos, here’s a human capital that is displaying exemplary performance.

Education is a debt that we’ve withheld from paying back for far too long. Once paid off, assets will be created and liabilities settled. A well educated public is a well ruled one, a learned girl is a better understood one. It’s time India started understanding girls better, one class at a time.

Indian Education System’s New Minority – Boys

The recent declaration of 10th & 12 Central Board of Secondary Education (CBSE) results brought with it many things – adulation, celebration, and a phenomena I’ve been noticing since years before it was my turn to take these exams: girls outperforming boys.

There’s another observation – students have been doing exceedingly well….in pushing the cut-off rates for undergraduate universities higher. As scores across the board jump several points, it nudges forward the minimum percentage score that qualifies one for a prestigious university seat in India. Take this bizarre event in 2011, for instance, when the first cut-off list for some Delhi University (DU) colleges didn’t have a qualifying percentage,  rather it was a benchmark that Indian parents compare their children with – 100%.

This situation got many people worried, including those who trembled at the thought of not getting a college seat while warming the political one.

The Test Today

A combination of both observations stated above presents a queer situation today. Results being lopsided in favour of girls and the overall scores being on the higher side has not just pushed the cut-off rates, the rates are split at different levels for boys and girls. For a B.Com course in Christ University, the cutoffs are 87% for boys and 91% for girls for Karnataka students. Being from a state outside Karnataka comes with a premium, with cut-offs at 93% and 96% for boys and girls. In both cases, girls are winning…and losing at the same time.

It’s possible that this situation is not new, but I would certainly not have come across this cocktail observation without this post from teacher of Economics at my alma mater, and in many ways a mentor –

Pranita

Market Forces At Play

Ms. Pranita’s objection is fair, and we’ll return shortly to understand her strong views. The reason for the different cut-off points, on the other hand, can be discerned from an area this teacher excels in – Economics.  It is indeed the high scores and limited University seats that have created this acute condition. There’s a visible inflationary trend in marks – commensurate with a demand for good university education, but not enough intake capacity at the universities. The marks push the demand for the admission seats, whereby the supplier (read university) demands a higher percentage (read price) for the same. Since girls score higher than boys, the board has set a stricter limit for girls which, as we can observe above, is a good 3-4 percentage points higher.

(Sometimes the capacity limits are flouted. Over-capacity forces teachers to improvise, for instance by holding lectures in auditoriums & seminar halls, leading to stress on resources and infrastructure. )

This trend begs a question- are the rising scores a result a hard-work endured by students, or is it the CBSE boards’ testament to grant a better sense of achievement amongst the youth? Either way, what would frustrate an educationist like Ms. Pranita is not this dichotomy as much as the discriminatory limits for girls & boys. If these marks are the sole measurement for admission, why should there be a differential whereby boys are cushioned against an unfavourable result? In Ms. Pranita’s own probing words –

Why abolish merit-based admission policy (with the discriminatory cut-off levels)? Every year, the competition is getting tougher for the girls .. fault lies with the system which has not provided enough capacity.

Indeed, the fault does lie with the system, and the tougher competition for girls she talks of transcends mere numbers. A girl’s road to higher education in India is rife with potholes of prejudiced challenges – right from money, societal pressure, “belated” marriage concerns and many others that boys are seldom subject to. The last thing we need is limiting more girls from entering higher education because, well, they’re just too good. Girls don’t need this compliment (if I can dare speak for them, that is). They’re flattered, but no thanks.

Going The Minority Way

This situation has given rise to Indian education system’s latest minority in the form of boys. The issue of minorities in education brings the imagery of heated debates around “unfair advantages” associated with quotas. Indeed, we wouldn’t want the young men of our country to tread the way of a marginalised community that needs a helping hand. Their very access to a classroom, teachers and the exam room is an endowment that should be exploited to their advantage. For girls, basic access to education is far from an endowment, it’s an arduous journey in which they seem to be giving the boys a run for their dowry…err…I mean money. If anyone, it would be the girls who’d deserve a special treatment to salvage society’s timeless flagrant traditions & practices. But while girls are obviating the need for any ‘special treatment’ that comes with its own set of counter-productive results, the present normal is best shaped by championing equality.

Remarks For The Education Board

If the selection is rigorously merit-based, then let the selected be cream of the crop irrespective of their gender. If the diligence of a 96%er girl comes to fruition, the 95%er should not be denied the same fate merely to fill in more masculinity in the classroom. A level playing field would mean that boys are not just pitted against their laziness, distractions and lack of concern for academic excellence, but against the consistent lead of girls too.

Should this situation warrant a more thorough analysis, which I believe it does, the questions should delve deeper into the very essence of CBSE grading system. Where does the education system go with such arbitrary marking system? Flare points are in the exponential increase in the scores without a proportionate increase in well-resourced institutes. A glut in good scorers and a lack of accommodating institutes is an embarrassment for a country that prides on the Visva-Bharatis of yesteryears and the IITs of today.

The question that should arise after viewing the results, in the minds of boys and girls alike, should not only be “what next?” but also, “how far?”

.

 

Ramadan Campaign Watch: #SplashHeartOfGold

The holy month of Ramadan will begin on the 17th or 18th of June in the United Arab Emirates this year. Celebrated as a time of religious reflection and spiritual rejuvenation, Muslims abstain from food and drink from dawn to dusk.

While corporate activities do slow down owing to shorter work timings and the lethargy that kicks in after the initial hours, the only trend witnessed in commercial activity would be the increasing one. There’s a visible surge in shoppers who buy and stock up food and beverages that would otherwise not make it to the kart in months out of Ramadan. (Rooh Afza is my favourite example)

What would be wrong to assume, however, is that marketing and brand communications activities observe a fast too, avoiding any campaign that has the potential of staying relevant in the 4 special weeks. Brands that do not wish to merely see off Ramadan usually churn out that one big idea months in advance.

A notable example is Du’s #30DaysOfSharing campaign last Ramadan. Social Media users were encouraged to send in their precious moments which made Ramadan special.  Every post composed using the hashtag #30DaysofSharing had Du donate Dhs10 to its annual Iftar tables initiative, from which Iftar meals were distributed to the less fortunate. The results & reach of the campaign is shown in the short video below –

With enormous potential comes cultural and religious sensitivities attached to a campaign. There’s no margin for frivolity, and any attempt of merely trying to fit in with the spirit of a festival can lead to sharp criticism – both from passive observers and the religiously inclined. Finding the right space of creativity for a ritual guided by religious beliefs and practices poses an interesting challenge too. How does a brand go beyond the obvious leads of hunger and thirst, and place itself in an area respected & lauded by the people?

The ‘Heart of Gold’ Campaign by Splash

Splash – part of renowned Landmark Group based out of UAE – is one of the Middle East’s largest fashion retail outlets.  In just about a month from Ramadan, out of complete randomness, I chanced upon Splash’s sponsored tweet inviting people to participate in their Ramadan campaign.

The campaign uses the App medium for participation and aims to celebrate the human spirit of giving. Splash will be honouring 30 ‘unsung heroes’ throughout the month of Ramadan, which means a hero thanked and celebrated for a unique contribution each day of the holy month. In their own description in the App –

At Splash, the cause of humanity is one that’s always been close to our own heart. We believe there are numerous people out there, people from every walk of life, who espouse the cause of humanity in their own unique way without expecting anything in return. People whom you may have seen, known or heard of who strive to improve the lives of their fellow beings around them.

Splash ‘Heart of Gold’ has been instituted not only in the true spirit of giving during the holy month of Ramadan, but also as a tribute to these unsung heroes who devote their time, money and effort selflessly to the cause of humanity.

Points of Impression

As a retail outlet that decks up wardrobes with fashionable clothes and accessories, being relevant to Ramadan would certainly have been a challenge. The brand is not a consumable food item that can make it to the table during suhoor, nor is it a restaurant that people can flock to for iftar. They deal in products that are often displayed on lifeless mannequins,  and yet here they are hoping to acknowledge the goodness in selfless giving.

By indulging in this campaign,  in my humble opinion, Splash goes beyond the mundane obvious. It has identified a key element that is actively promoted in Ramadan – charitable behaviour towards society. By rewarding this act of righteousness, Splash will garner the respect of the public at large and those particularly involved in charity work.

The Clothes Connection

To talk purely of Splash’s main product offering, clothes come nowhere close to hunger and thirst – 2 things commonly (and sometimes narrowly) associated with the month. However, they’ve always been an important contraption in contributing to charity. Be it donating clothes to the poor or in areas afflicted with a calamity, the product association with the core of the campaign is not amiss.

In addition, people frequent clothes and accessories retail outlets to shop for Eid al-Fitr. This brings Splash another challenge of integrating their online efforts with their store customers, and to familiarize them with the campaign.

The #SplashHeartOfGold widget, Source: Splash Website

Democratizing the Nomination Choice

According the campaign, nominations will be sought from whosoever wishes to name their choice. Anyone can access the App, write the details of his/her nominee and justify the nomination in a 1000 words. The 30 winners will be chosen by a jury from the brand. The opportunity to nominate serves several benefits – the pool of nominees would be extensive and diverse (in nationality and sector of humanitarian work), and would encourage people to spot a potential nominee in someone who could be casually generous in expending social services.

[It would be nice though if Splash spelled out this jury and make this a more transparent affair. Knowing who selects the final winners would bring more credibility to the activity]

PR Potential

A campaign of this scale and philosophy can be expected to make its mark in media too. The print media in UAE has seldom held back from recognizing Good Samaritans in society, especially in highlighting stories that reflect honesty and nobility in their day-to-day dealings. The story behind each of the 30 nominees would certainly make for an interesting read.

Splash’s CSR in the past

This will not be the first time that Splash exhibits its relationship with societal responsibilities. Recently, the brand was recognized at the Princess Haya Awards for Special Education as an ‘Outstanding Institutional Supporter in Private Sector‘ for its work with students of Special Needs Future Development Center (SNF) in Dubai. I learnt from first hand account of a student & friend from SNF about his induction into the Splash workforce in one of the Splash stores, and being acknowledged by the management as ‘best employee of the month’. Such initiatives are a major boost for special education training centers as they search an inclusive environment for their students, especially adults of the working age,  to learn and thrive in.

Ms. Safia Bari, Director of SNF (left) with the CEO of Splash Fashions, Mr. Raza Beig ; [Source: SNF Facebook Page]

Ms. Safia Bari, Director of SNF (left) with the CEO of Splash Fashions, Mr. Raza Beig ; [Source: SNF Facebook Page]

It will be interesting to know how the #SplashHeartOfGold campaign pans out for the brand. If successful, Splash could well set an example for other brands to buck up and come out strong, or look on as the sun sets on their Ramadan activity.

Is there a Ramadan campaign that has caught your attention from this year or the past? Contribute by commenting below!

[To participate in the #SplashHeartOfGold campaign and nominate someone, click here.]

A Legacy in Life, as in Death

From Left - Deah, Yusor & Razan

From Left – Deah, Yusor & Razan

Many would argue that every life lost is worth mourning. I’d possibly lose the argument if I held a contrary position as a soul means something to someone at any given time.

The loss of 3 souls in the recent Chapel Hill Shootings, however, demonstrated to me how some losses entail more anguish and reactions than others. While the news is rife with savage killings of innocents at the hands of the beleaguered , this death compelled people to take note of a time before the brutal murder.

The three victims were young, American, and most importantly, they wished to live long, as Americans as much as Muslims. They carried their American and Muslim identity proudly on the same lively face, knew how to have a good time with their loved ones and showed that age’s no criteria when it comes to making a difference in society. They did not wear their Islamic identity up their sleeves and flaunt it when the world watched, rather their actions compelled the world to take note of this when they breathed their last.

In his early 20s, Deah Barakat tried to do for people who are mere spectacles for us on TV, and that’s only if they make it there. Deah was going to embark on a humanitarian trip to Turkey to help the refugees in Syria by using his expertise in Dental care, and was constantly involved in fundraising. He lost his new bride Yusor Abu-Salha who was on her way to join him in the same profession. Razan Abu-Salha, a competitive architect in the making, was laid to rest there where foundations of building stand – the ground.

Deah’s plea – possibly one that will resonate stronger after this death :

It was, perhaps one of the few times, that the death of 3 individuals dented not just the spirits of a community, but of the entire country. It was, perhaps for the very first time, that the funeral of 3 individuals of the Islamic faith was covered by the mainstream media. Some people reflect that the legacy of their lives is displayed through attendance at their burial service. Close to 5,500 paid their tributes at the funeral of the 3 slain Muslim student, an enviable turn out at a time when condolences can be shared on social media and text messages.

Death of 3, remembered by many

Death of 3, remembered by many

If their lives garnered little attention on their action and conduct,  their death has cast the spotlight on places where it matters the  most. It is as if their demise was an inevitable end to spark the spirit  in people to spot the flash points in society and work towards  mending them. Very few families can take pride in a death that  doesn’t go unnoticed. For the Barakat and Salha family, they enjoy  the support of 5,500 people, and the others who cried while the  family managed to hold back their tears. If in death is a reminder,  this is the greatest of them all.

Deah made some important observations before leaving :

A profound reflection on the incident and the 3 lives by an Islamic scholar and Imam in the West, Dr. Yasir Qadhi

Deah’s sister, Suzanne, musters up great courage for what is an emotional interview with CNN

 

A World Where The Prophet Is Sold On A Magazine

Today, more than 3 million people would be looking at Prophet Muhammad, and still be far away from seeing him.

Today, a publication popularised by the violence of few will be flooding the streets. The ink will be liberal as it goes over the glossy paper over and over again.

A turban, scrawny beard, fearsome eyes, funny nose and all the other typical characteristics apparently found in the desert. A man that many Muslims follow as a unique example will be inked to match the popular stereotype.

Today, our eyes will see what the the mind will not comprehend. The lips will utter words that are of a foreign language. Yet, the image would be purported to be of the one that united tribes scattered over the entire Arabian Peninsula.

Today, the world will watch with pride the resilience of heroes. Heroes with a fixation to offend a man they little understand. Heroes that will garner reactions reeking of villainous contempt.

Today, the Mohammads of Arabia, Asia, Europe and Africa will hear their names called out in vain, perhaps also with outright disrespect.

Today, eyes will be glued on the cover of a magazine that few cared about yesterday. Today, the readers will hear gunshots of yesterday while their eyes remain fixed on an ugly depiction.

Today, Muslims will wonder if they owe the world an apology. Alas, if that stopped the ink from flowing, I’d spend the rest of the night saying sorry.

Today, a man people try to emulate in actions is now emulating a mix of notions and perceptions on attire and expressions. A man people imagine through deeds and actions is living a life of nothingness on paper.

Today, the line of freedom will blur. Offence will overpower the offended, a thinker would be overpowered by a cartoonist. The one with empathy will be accused of not doing enough, the one with a few strokes of the brush will have done everything.

Today, a caricature would leave billions in bad taste, what is meant to leave the subject in a state of discomfit.

It won’t be a statesman laundering money, nor a banker dictatingthe government. The cover will depict a man who’s generosity could rival their appetite for offence.

Today will not be the first when the Prophet will be sold on a magazine. It may be the first when an angry crowd finds in it a response to violence. It’s the first, the work of which people will call its own. With hashtags thrown in to claim ownership, the cartoonist will be one and the endorsers many.

Today, homes will shelter a copy with this depiction. Guests will discuss the incident that got leaders to walk on the streets. From the cushions of their elitist offices to the boulevards of Paris. A rare exertion that deserved a great satire.

Today, more than 3 million will see a face  yet not see it.

Today, I fear for everyone who sees the ugly depiction of our Prophet. What would happen when there comes a day to see him and you search for a stereotypical caricature.

Imagine a day when you’re too embarrassed to admit the Prophet is in front of you.

Imagine a day when you’re too embarrassed to agree that he doesn’t look like the cover photo that did not offend you.

Imagine a day when you’re reluctant to see the Prophet, because this time it cannot be bought with a few cents and the emotions of a billion Muslims.

صلى الله عليه وآله وصحبه وسلم

(May God exalt and bring peace upon the Prophet, his family, and his companions)

Prophet(Blog)

Review 2014 : When Islam entered some awkward spaces

In the year that we’ve just bade farewell, Islam and Muslims around the world were tested with some disturbing trends. The lion’s share of this obstruction to a routine, peaceful life was contributed by the ISIL – the Islamic State of Iraq and Levant – a separatist group that continues to exercise crime and persecution as you read.

While this transnational occurrence got the debate flowing around its legitimate claims to Islam (read ‘political Islam’), some local and episodic incidences also dictated conversations throughout the year 2014.

Here are 4 incidences in 2014 that I believe took Islam in some awkward spheres of discussion, and my brief take on each of them

4 – In the name of “Allah”…if only a Muslim

In the month of June, 2014, Malaysia’s Muslim-majority country garnered attention and criticism for a contentious decision by the High Court. The ruling refused to overturn a ban on the use of the word ‘Allah’ by Christian communities for reference to ‘God’. Put in place in year 2007, the ban was instituted to avoid confusion amongst the two sister faiths, Islam and Christianity, and obviate the possibility of Muslims converting to Christianity with this common reference.

Image from - www.bbc.co.uk

What’s in a name? Image from – http://www.bbc.co.uk

There is no Islamic Law, at least one with a unanimous consensus, that limits the use of the word ‘Allah’ only by Muslims. Quite on the contrary, it’s a given historical observation that much of the pagans of Makkah used the word ‘Allah’. The Holy Qur’an too has no mention of Jews and Christians (categorised as Ahle-Kitab, People of the Book) being forbidden from using addressing God with this term. In the Book of Psalms, Jesus is recorded to have uttered the word ‘Elahi’ on the cross, the Aramaic pronunciation of the contested word.

My Take – Monopolizing the use of this word in Malaysia, against the reasons cited by the authorities, added more confusion to the social and religious ethos of the Southeast Asian country. This controversial ruling by the judiciary over linguistics and religious rights was widely seen a threat to integration of minority groups in the country. While people of all religions attempt to find common grounds, this divide dents the otherwise peaceful nation regarded as an otherwise exemplary Muslim state.

To watch a detailed discussion on this topic by The Stream on Al Jazeera, click here.

3 – Ready for Tawaf, but first, let’s take a…

Controversy is bound to make its way when the largest religious pilgrimage on a conservative soil meets the new age behaviour of producing visual content. In sharp contrast to a time when television sets and cameras were banned in Saudi Arabia, Hajj in 2014 was in news for reasons other than religion and record statistics. In focus were pilgrims taking pictures of themselves with a digital camera or mobile phone in the midst of the supreme religious environment one witnesses in Makkah.

Image from - www.naharnet.com

A perception of foreground and background. Image from – http://www.naharnet.com

Some clerics regarded this behaviour as disdainful and anathema to the spirit of rituals at Hajj that should be far removed from intentions of boasting.

Taking such selfies and videos defy the wish of our prophet. It is as though the only purpose of this trip is to take pictures and not worship.

-Assim Al-Hakeem, a Saudi based scholar who also has a large audience base on his social media pages

(Quoted from a BBC article)
Many pilgrims, on the other hand, argued that pictures make the pilgrimage special and memorable which can be preserved for posterity.

As this is my first pilgrimage, it is important for me to document all the events taking place around me. Wherever I go, I take pictures, especially since nowadays we have these little cameras… that offer a full view of the area.

– Ali, a pilgrim from Kuwait quoted to Saudi Gazette.

My Take – While there are norms of behaviour that should guide a person’s relationship with his or her religion, an innocent desire to capture a personal journey and pilgrimage should be welcomed with more mercy than what has been demonstrated. It is important to note that while regular selfies could focus on the foreground, #HajjSelfie largely attempts to project the environment of the subject. It is the Kabah and the teeming crowds that a Hujaaj seeks to showcase, rather than his presence at a religious site. In times when the gulf between ignorance and education can be bridged by sharing images over Social Media, the Hajj Selfie can be a powerful tool to enter into a conversation, rather than controversy.

A UAE based writer and communications specialist with the blog name ‘Alex of Arabia’ has written a more detailed analysis on this issue.

2 – A Raw Slap

Indian actress Gauhar Khan was slapped on the sets of a reality show Raw Star, where she played host. As bizarre as this incident of trespassing and assault sounds, the situation took an ugly turn when the coward perpetrator and his motive surfaced.

During the show, Akhil Malik, an Imam of no mosque and a scholar of not even the foundational Arabic alphabets, considered Gauhar Khan’s outfit as offensive to Islam.

Being a Muslim woman, she should not have worn such a short dress. Actresses are the face of society and they should not wear skirts and short clothes as they make youngsters get attracted to them sexually…if actresses stop wearing short clothes, crime will decrease and lead to a better society.

Mufti Google Shaykh Wikipedia Akhil Malik

Quotes taken from independent.co.uk

While Akhil Malik gave is 1.5 cents on Islamic morality and social security, this incident sparked a debate on the notions of modest dressing and the position of Islam in deciding a Muslim’s wardrobe. Out of nowhere, Islam was forced down a host’s throat by a dispirited nobody as the entire country watched a spectacle made of the religion.

My Take – Speaking out of common sense, a religious man that conforms to the ideals of Islam would never hear or even watch an entertainment show, leave alone attending one. When the boiling blood of youth and the despair of an idle mind see no outlet, it takes extreme measures to put across a poorly thought-out point. In all honesty, I have strong doubts about the sincerity of the man who charged at the host. When 10 seconds of fame is compared with misguided religious fervor, the former seems increasingly tempting. The scholars of Islam in India have a daunting task ahead of them. Islamic education, ethics, morals, behaviour and intellectual discourse cannot remain a subject taken at madrassas – at times themselves fraught with inefficiencies and education disconnected from mainstream society.

Ways will have to be carved to educate the Muslim youth of India, who finds himself lost in the abyss of Islamic teachings which usually begin and end at locally funded seminaries. There’s a constant demand to act in accordance with acceptable moderation, and an a professional and academic approach to Islamic education can temper a mind just when it’s needed the most.

Before more young Indian Muslims find themselves humiliating fellow-beings on reality TV shows, a greater reality will have to be addressed – that of their role in the eclectic social fabric of India.

1 – A Jihadi named Romeo

Looks like in every countdown, love emerges winner. This winner has infused in it a healthy dose of hatred.

This story received much traction in the second leg of 2014, owing to its place of origin which boasts the second largest Muslim population in the world – India.

In August 2014, a young girl from Meerut filed a police case for abduction, gang-rape and forced conversion by a group of Muslims. The revised version of the victim in October, however, changed the course of the story when the victim backtracked on her statement. According to her latest confession, she had in fact eloped on her own freewill with the accused.

The period between August and October witnessed a massive counter-reaction to the emergence of this case, mostly from the BJP and it’s heavily right-winged ilk. This incident, referencing to past stray cases involving love and conversion in South India, was termed as Love Jihad – a clever coinage covering two dangerous elements people easily fall to these days.

Some publishing houses did not shy away from expressing  the politics behind this love story.

Some publishing houses did not shy away from expressing the politics behind this love story.

The debate deconstructed the religion, right from its status in India, the political ramifications of the ill-fate incident, the institutions of Islamic studies (madrassas), scholars of religion (ulemas) and many other facets that were awkwardly stuffed into the realm of love and romance. Love Jihad was one of the top trending topics in India at the time. There were hacks for the average Hindu girl to avoid being lured by Muslim men, a move that suffered backlash as most of them refused to accept any of it. Their bodies, they quipped, was not another Babri Masjid open to be swayed by religious sentiments.

My Take – It’s common for Islam in India to be completely divorced from it’s intended role, as an entity that carries with it profound scriptures, deep theology, meaningful rituals and community practices. By centering the Islamic narrative solely around vote-bank politics, the flash-points of weak Muslim performance in India have been often ignored. Weak economic performance, dismal literacy rates, self-segregation and low-levels of quality employment are some of the issues that would benefit from attention and resources. If intermixing of religious communities gives rise to problematic trends, in this case to the likes of #LoveJihad, it should be dealt with methodically, with a fair opportunity given to the common Muslims to voice their opinions.

Love, if anything, should script stories, not awkward controversies.

Latest report of the case can be read on India Today.

Here’s hoping that the only difference 2015 brings is not a coward escape from controversial and awkward situations, but a much thoughtful and respectful response from the Muslim community around the world.