February 18, 2008

A Paradox of Pax Americana

Two articles in the NY Times in the past month on weddings, of all things, reveal an unintentional and difficult paradox of a cultural Pax Americana: 1) those exposed to a Western lifestyle via television and tourism increasingly want that lifestyle for themselves 2) the systemic poverty of many of these countries ensures that they are unlikely to achieve American living styles in the near future, if ever (resource constraints around the world present some pretty tough Malthusian scenarios if everyone were to be as gluttonous as us) 3) the desire to realize this unrealizable lifestyle undermines overall happiness and becomes a path to extremism in reaction against those who live as you cannot.

The most recent of the two articles is by Michael Slackman, appearing in today's NY Times

“Nobody cares about the people,” Mr. Sayyid said, slapping his hands against the air, echoing sentiment repeated in many interviews with young people across Egypt. “Nobody cares. What is holding me back is the system. Find a general with children and he will have an apartment for each of them. My government is only close to those close to the government.”
“Yes, I do think that Islam is the solution,” Mr. Sayyid said, quoting from the slogan of the Muslim Brotherhood, a banned but tolerated organization in Egypt that calls for imposing Shariah, or Islamic law, and wants a religious committee to oversee all matters of state. “These people, the Islamists, they would be better than the fake curtain, the illusion, in front of us now.”
Hamdi Taha, a professor of communications at Al Azhar University who runs a government-aligned charity that stages mass weddings for older low-income couples. “This is actually one of the things that could lead one to terrorism. They despair. They think maybe they get nothing in this world, but they will get something in the other life.”

In Egypt and in other countries, like Saudi Arabia, governments help finance mass weddings, because they are concerned about the destabilizing effect of so many men and women who can not afford to marry.


But marriage is so expensive now, the system is collapsing in many communities. Diane Singerman, a professor at American University, said that a 1999 survey found that marriage in Egypt cost about $6,000, 11 times annual household expenditures per capita. Five years later, a study found the price had jumped 25 percent more. In other words, a groom and his father in the poorest segment of society had to save their total income for eight years to afford a wedding, she reported.

The result is delayed marriages across the region. A generation ago, 63 percent of Middle Eastern men in their mid- to late 20s were married, according to recent study by the Wolfensohn Center for Development at the Brookings Institution and the Dubai School of Government. That figure has dropped to nearly 50 percent across the region, among the lowest rates of marriage in the developing world, the report said. In Iran, for example, 38 percent of the 25- to 29-year-old men are not married, one of the largest pools of unattached males in Iranian history. In Egypt, the average age at which men now marry is 31.

She was engaged to Mustafa, whose last name she will not disclose, for more than two years. The plan was for Mustafa and his family to take a year or two to construct and furnish an apartment. But Mustafa’s father had no money left after setting up two older sons, and the young man was unable to raise enough money to finish the construction. Ms. Ashour wanted to help, secretly, but she has been unable to find a paying job. When her mother told her to end the engagement, something snapped, and she sought solace in increasingly strict religious practice.

Listen to Mr. Sayid's complaint. The general's children each get an apartment. Ms. Ashour and Mustafa couldn't get an apartment, so they had to call off the wedding. Once, these would not have been obstacles. The individual household was rare. Now, it has become an obstacle to marriage (Kip has seen this trend among his own friends in the Middle East, whose parents married and lived with their parents but who themselves will not marry until they have their own home).

The second article appeared last month in the NY Times by Kirk Semple.

In Afghanistan, one of the poorest countries in the world, bridegrooms are expected to pay not only for their weddings, but also all the related expenses, including several huge prewedding parties and money for the bride’s family, a kind of reverse dowry.

Hamid, a midlevel bureaucrat in the Afghan government who supports his six-member family on a salary of $7,200 per year, said his bill was going to top $12,000. And by Afghan standards, that would be considered normal, or even a bargain."

Kip saw many of the young Afghans with whom he worked this past year spend ridiculous sums in weddings and, a related problem in a sexually repressive society, whoring.

The costs of these weddings (and sexcapades) leave these men in debt and vulnerable to exploitation. In the terrible case of one brave man with whom Kip worked, the money he had set aside for his wedding had to be used to ransom a brother.

If we are truly going to fight a long war against Islamist extremism, then these are the type of difficult issues with which we are going to have to grapple

We wish the world to be more like us. Much of the world wishes at least some aspects of our way of life. And herein lies the problem.

I would love to hear the candidates have to answer a question on developing and least developed world weddings and terrorism...then we could truly appreciate whether they have a holistic approach to the challenges of our age.