New York, London, Dubai, Paris, Milan, Tokyo, Shanghai. In one of these global cities, a person can be arrested for holding hands in public. Can you guess which one?
The answer is Dubai, the largest city in the United Arab Emirates (UAE) and the economic hub of the Middle East. Of its approximately 2.8 million inhabitants, 96 percent are foreign-born.
Described as a “crucible of non-Western modernity” by journalist Daniel Brook, the city has expanded profusely in the past decade alone, including the completion of the world’s tallest building, the Burj Khalifa, in 2009. Now, it’s the fourth most-visited tourist destination in the world, attracting mostly Europeans and other Westerners.
The problem is people get arrested for “crimes” that Westerners consider ridiculous, such as holding hands in public, cohabitation in a hotel room between a man and woman who are not married, trying to raise money for charity without a license, giving the middle finger to another person, and of course, drinking alcohol without a license (which only residents can attain).
The legal system in Dubai, based on a “hard-line interpretation of Shariah law,” poses these restrictions on visitors and foreigners living in the city (which, keep in mind, is 96 percent of the population).
The even bigger problem is that these laws are haphazardly enforced, dependant on whether you cross the wrong person at the wrong time. Bars sell liquor to everyone, hotels do not ask for marriage licenses, prostitutes liven up the nightlife.
Naturally, while reading about this in the New York Times, I found myself astounded. Prison time for flipping the bird? Can’t sleep in the same room as a male? Then I realized: wow, I am really am ignorant of the world.
Much like the prisoners in Dubai being shackled up for middle finger offences and offensive tweets, I see the world through a Western lense.
Being jailed for these things seem preposterous because I am accustomed to a different lifestyle. In America and Europe, we value our freedom of speech (mostly), our cohabitation and diverse sexuality, and booze. But, as we often forget, the Western world is not the only world.
There are other cultures and ways to live a life than the one we commonly abide by. But when confronted with this information, many turn to xenophobia or hatred, and pit themselves against an “other.”
Last weekend in Poland, over 60,000 Poles gathered and marched during their Independence Day, carrying signs with slogans like, “Islam = terror” and “White Europe of brotherly nations,” along with the Celtic Cross, a common white supremacist symbol.
Earlier in the week, in the Netherlands, an anti-Muslim group placed a cross soaked in pig’s blood on the construction site for a new mosque.
An alt-right group based in France has started a bootcamp for “patriots” who want to fight against what they call the “Great Replacement,” or the supposed takeover of Europe by Muslims.
These extremes are fostered by ignorance of other places and cultures, playing into world-wide stereotypes. A non-Western lifestyle is such a foreign concept that we fight against it with violence.
What we ought to do, instead of turning to phobias and hatred, is learn about other countries, peoples and ideas, and respect differences.
When people travel, they should be cognisant of the culture and customs they are visiting. Maybe it’s a novelty to them, but to the inhabitants, it’s their way of life.
The only issue I have with these Westerners being jailed is that arrests and punishments are doled out at random and the laws are not consistently enforced. That’s just shady justice. But lack of respect and knowledge pertaining to diverse cultures is not a “get-out-of-jail-free” card.