January 24th, 2010


The Qatar Living "cultural war" (a long-overdue synopsis)

While I was away from Qatar over the holidays, what one journalist has called a "national cultural war" broke out over an online post by a friend of mine.

On the evening of Qatar National Day, VCU professor Lisa Clayton posted a note on her Facebook page about the irresponsible things she'd seen drivers doing during the festivities. The note, which was sarcastic in tone, called attention to issues that many people have been complaining about, for example:
It took an ambulance 20 minutes to get through a single round-about with their lights flashing and sirens blasting, because these Qatari boys were so intent on showing off they blocked all traffic and couldn't hear the sirens with their music blasting. No problem if anyone died because the ambulance couldn't get to them; after all, it's more important to have a HUGE display for Qatar National Day!

Lisa also posted the note pseudonymously on Qatar Living, Qatar's most notable English-language online forum. It has since been deleted but for reference I reposted a cached version here.

Within a day, Lisa's post was the talk of the town. Her real identity was "outed" on Qatar Living by VCU students and alumnae who joined in order to post responses and attacks (including some with language I've never heard Qatari girls use). Two Facebook groups were started to respond: the first an explicitly anti-Lisa Clayton group (its name has since been changed) with over a thousand members; the second calling for Qatar Living to be shut down. A popular Qatari CMU professor posted a blog entry calling for tolerance of social critiques, but lambasting the expats' "condescending rhetoric," and in the comments she congratulated the students on their success in coming together to defend their culture.

By 21 Dec, the story was on the front page of the Peninsula. Qatar Living issued a semi-apology, deleted the thread and removed Lisa's account. Lisa issued apologies on the CMU professor's blog (saying, "I am destroyed by my own poor choice of words and my life here is over"), on the Facebook group against her, and on her own Facebook account, describing herself as "a destroyed woman who is afraid to leave her home and humiliated by being at the root of this terrible firestorm in my adopted home."


I was shocked that Lisa's words had the effect they did. Truly racist things are said on Qatar Living all the time, so why would this be the post to create an uproar? Part of the answer is that it was her own students who saw the post and took offense. I think part of it, too, may be that Lisa's words reinforced Qatari fears about what Westerners really think of them. I think that to a large extent Qataris and Westerners here, despite collaborating on a superficial level, still spend much of our time peering at each other over the wall of our cultural divide with some level of distrust and resentment. Stereotypes abound on both sides: Westerners are prone to characterize Qataris as indolent and spoiled, a nation of Paris Hiltons. Qataris are prone to characterize Westerners as second-rate mercenaries with no respect for Arab culture who come to Qatar merely to get overinflated salaries and job titles we're not talented enough to merit.

Of course, that stereotype doesn't fit Lisa, and it's not true of most of us in Education City. So it's disheartening to see that this stereotype is the most consistent theme of the Facebook group posts. More disheartening is that many of the Qataris writing these comments are Education City students. It's profoundly saddening to think that, even after years at one of the Ed City campuses, many students apparently think that their professors and uni staff only put up with them for the money. A CMU student wrote: "This shows how many unappreciative expats are walking amongst us in the streets, looking into our eyes, faking big smiles and pretending to be sooo fascinated with this amazing culture of ours." Is that how she sees us?

From my side of the cultural divide, it's shocking to realize how little our students share the values that, on the surface, we all seem to embrace. John Esposito sought to reassure Westerners that there is no clash of civilizations when he wrote after substantial polling that most Muslims value freedom of speech and other "Western" values as much as Westerners do. But what an American means by freedom of speech and what a Qatari means by freedom of speech are not necessarily the same thing. As the anti-Lisa Facebook group founder said, "guests in this country ... certainly have no right to offend us in any way." Over and over, I've been told: You have freedom of speech, but not the freedom to insult. You have freedom of speech in moderation. You have freedom of speech, but don't transgress the limits. From my perspective, "freedom of speech" is a meaningless phrase if it only encompasses the right to say inoffensive things.

The ruckus about Lisa's statement seems to have died down, but the exchanges I had on those Facebook groups have in some ways changed how I see Qatar. It was nice to think that by being here, by bringing an American institution to Qatar, we are building bridges between cultures and helping both sides to see each other as real people instead of stereotypes. So what does it mean when people who have spent years at these universities still look at each other with distrust and resentment?