Saturday, May 24, 2008

West/East dichotomy present in Cairo Hyatt controversy?

The recent decision by the owner of the Grand Hyatt hotel in Cairo, a hotel which enjoys five-star status, to cease immediately the sale of alcohol has infuriated many, the bogeyman of Saudi "radicalism" in an otherwise "moderate" Egyptian Muslim society has been invoked, seemingly by both Muslim and Non-Muslim commentators. What has been even more disturbing is that some of the responses to this decision has brought to light many of the illogical fallacies and outright racist and ethnocentric views that are held by many whenever it comes to Muslims, Islam, and specifically the desire to live in accordance to certain values of religious origin. Our prior article about Polygamy emphasized the hypocrisy of seizing children allegedly from Polygamous unions, while at the same time having no problems with the "hook-up" culture that leaves far more problems, social, emotional, STDS, burden on the American taxpayer's etc..

First, I should clarify that I have no problem with a Non-Muslim wanting to consume alcohol. This is their business. Many strands of Christian practice use Wine in their religious ceremonies to represent the blood of Christ, whom they believe died for mankind's sins. I am not in a position, especially in such a post as this, to address the legitimacy or lack of it with regards to their tradition. That is the job of their scholars and intellectuals. As a Muslims, I must remember what the Qur'an has taught in its own declaration of religious freedom when it has asserted that "There is no compulsion in religion..'' [Q 2:256]. Therefore, I cannot force my own religious choice on a reluctant population.

That being said, it should also be acknowledged that when in someone else's house, the wishes of the owner should be respected. If I ask my visitors to remove their shoes when they come to my house, then out of respect the visitors should. They should not even ask me for an explanation. They will do so because I have asked them to. The owner of the hotel, a Muslim, operating in a Muslim-majority nation, has decided to ban alcohol from his place of business. He chooses not to have that as part of his business. He should be commended for this action, as so many of us are driven by financial considerations alone, unwilling to act upon our better selves, the part of our soul that pushes us to what is right.

An example of the thinking pattern that I take very strong exception to is the following quote. I found it to be very racist and arrogant. I ask the reader if this makes sense to you:

"But critics say just as Muslims expect to be served Halal food on international flights, they should be prepared to respect the desires of their Western guests." []

I have been on international flights in the Muslim world many times, as well as in other regions. I have never asked for Halal meat. On flights in Muslim areas, it only makes sense that the airline would have available Halal meat, but to compare that to alcohol? Besides, if a Muslim does not wish to consume Non-Halal meat, he or she can easily eat fruits or seafood, etc.. that is available on the flight. Moreover, do "Western guests" consider Halal meats to be immoral? To be against their religious values? The Qur'an has clearly stated that alcohol is a distraction from spiritual pursuits, that it is harmful, and that it is actually a tool of Satan to bring forth inappropriate behavior [ Q 2:219, 5:90-91].

To compare Halal foods to alcohol is to also bring into question drugs such as crack cocaine, etc...! Should I serve my guests these simply because they may like it? Should I have such available in my home? It would be foolish for me to do this, because it is against my own values, the laws of my state and nation, and would bring many more problems to my doorstep. In other words, it is best for my own interests to keep these items at distance. That is exactly what the Cairo Hyatt has done.

The argument that it would harm the Egyptian tourist industry also seems illogical to me. Egypt is one big museum, with artifacts from many culture and civilizations. The reader already accepts this as an axiomatic truth. I need not provide evidence for this. Can not the tourist, if they really want alcohol, either wait for their trip to conclude or find their desired drink outside their hotel?

I wonder aloud here, in this brief post, if the Egyptians cited in the BBC article as having concerns about this recent move by the Cairo Hyatt have internalized a view that their values, influenced by Islam, are antiquated and useless, while those of fun-loving tourists are "civilized" and "modern"? I also wonder if the Non-Muslims on the international scene see themselves as the ultimate judges of what is right and wrong, if they have adopted, knowingly or otherwise, a paternalistic attitude towards the "third world"?

In any case, what has been shown is that even in business, there has to be morals, ethics, and standing for one's conscious, even if it hurts politically or financially. This does not naturally equate confrontation or conflict, but nonetheless it is my honest view that the owner, Sheikh 'Abdul 'Aziz Ibrahim bin Ibrahim, should be congratulated by all people of conscious, Muslim and non-Muslim. He should be seen as an example of standing up for what is right and true.
I also recommend reading this perspective


Jamilah said...

I find it sad that Egypt worries about hurting its tourist industry when most of what that industry entails is considered forbidden in Islam.

Shamsuddin Waheed said...

I don't know if the industry itself, especially in Egypt, deals in mostly "forbidden" things, but in any case I don't think tourism has to encompass anything Muslims see as immoral or against Islamic teachings.

Obviously, prostitution is illegal in the USA [with some exceptions in Las Vegas and I believe Atlantic city], and is seen rightly as an immoral activity. Yet, it is legal in some European locations. So, should the USA change its laws to suit the "more civilized" Europeans? Certainly not.

Why then, should muslim societies change their own ethics and morals?

I think Egypt's tourist industry will thrive even if they get rid of all of the things seen as vices in Islam.

Malaysia in recent years, on a related note, has been trying to establish "Islamic tourism", having people come to visit its Islamic sites.

Jamilah said...

I have an Egyptian friend, who told me once that he finds the tourists to be disruptive to Islamic society... He mentioned the half naked women in the streets, the drinking, the flirting going on, plus he made another interesting point. Giving tours of all of those ancient sites should be something that a Muslim thinks twice about... its glorifying the idol worship of the past.

Now this was all his opinion, but I found in interesting none the less.

Shamsuddin Waheed said...

That's an interesting perspective, one which had not really occurred to me. Where does Tourism end and idolatry [or its promotion] begin is an interesting question.

Let's evaluate it from another way. Countless places in the Qur'an tell us to recall the histories or fates of past people, of traveling to learn facts, and so forth. Would not seeing these things, even if in the capacity of a tourist, accomplish that?

That being said, I did the tourism thing in Egypt as well, and I can see where your friend is coming from.

Jamilah said...

I have another friend who is a tour guide and Egyptologist and of course he does not see it that way because its his lively hood, but he does mention how much it changes the society there to have lots of tourist around wearing what they want and doing what they want..

Shamsuddin Waheed said...

Well, there can be some rules set in place for the tourists. Egypt already has some rules, as do most nations.

There can be rules as to dress and alcoholic consumption, etc...

Actually, many Masjids in the world have signs outside regarding the appropriate dress and behavior.

Um Abbas said...

A brand new discussion forum to the topic of islam, islamic clothing, including questions and answers for muslim and non-muslims is being opened right now.
Help us to make this commnity nice and active!

Thank you and have a great day, Um Abbas

Grégoire said...

Thanks for another interesting article. You're one of my favorite internet thinkers.

I think that the most important point to consider is the fact that it is a "decision by the owner of the Grand Hyatt hotel in Cairo". If the Egyptian government had sent the police in to shut down the hotel bar, or if a local radical or criminal strongarmed the management into stopping the sale of booze, there might be some controversy. As it is, it was a business decision made by the person authorized to make such decisions...the owner. I imagine he might have had several considerations. Aside from religious motivations he's probably paying a lot less these days in liability insurance.

I've been to Egypt and I happen to know that alcohol is easily available there. So a tourist at the Hyatt will have to wander down to the corner to buy some booze and carry it back to his room. No big deal in my book.

I've been alcohol free since my college days, by choice (with a couple of new year's eve party exceptions over the past 10 years). Drinking is really overrated, and I have much more fun without it.

Shamsuddin Waheed said...

Thanks so much for the compliment. Your interests are very diverse, always having something intelligent to add to the discussion. It did not even occur to me that the owner may be thinking to save money on insurance, but that may be another reason the hotel ceased the sell of alcohol.

In Islam, we have the concept of 'Lawful earnings'. It is so important that the Hadeeth books relate that the Prophet Muhammad himself, upon whom be peace, used to supplicate to God, after the morning and sunset prayers "O Allah, I ask you for useful knowledge, and for a lawful, goodly provision..". The Owner of the Cairo Hyatt is member of the Saudi Royal family, and while certainly not every member of it is interested in Islamic ethics, in my mind it is likely that the owner simply had a change of heart and truly desired his earnings to be Islamically lawful.

I would say the concept of lawful earnings is so important, to the point that I personally know Muslims who are not practicing [i.e. in terms of daily prayer, etc..] yet they would hate to be involved in illegal businesses such as alcohol distribution, gambling, etc...

You are right about Egypt, the tourist can get alcohol if they really want, but if such a person cannot live without alcohol for a few days, that person needs serious help and to learn discipline.

Shamsuddin Waheed said...

As a consequence of banning alcohol, the hotel may lose it's five star status. I am attaching this article here in the comment, so the following are not my words.

Alcohol-less Egypt luxury hotel faces star drop

Cairo’s Grand Hyatt hotel will be dropped down to two stars if Saudi owner keeps ban on alcohol.

CAIRO - Egyptian authorities are threatening to strip Cairo's luxury Grand Hyatt hotel of its five-star status after the owner stopped serving alcohol in the name of Islam.

Last month, Abdel Aziz Ibrahim, a member of the Saudi royal family and owner of the coveted luxury property that sits on a tongue of land at the edge of the Nile, decided to get rid of all the alcohol in stock.

The sheikh ordered the 2,500 bottles of alcoholic beverages at the hotel to be flushed down the toilets, without providing any notice to the American hotel chain managing the property, Hyatt International.

"300,000 dollars went into the sewers after this decision which totally violates Egypt's hotel rules," said Fathi Nur, president of the Egyptian Hotel Association.

Ibrahim was not available for comment, but Hyatt International, whose headquarters are in Chicago, said the two parties were currently in talks to resolve the issue.

"There is no more alcohol, it was not our decision. We're negotiating now. Talks will last two or three weeks," Grand Hyatt spokeswoman Sally Khattab said.

For Nur, who met the Saudi sheikh last week, the situation is simple -- either the alcohol is put back as outlined in hotel regulations or the deal is off.

"July 2 has been set as the deadline. If he keeps it up, the hotel will be dropped down to two stars and its rates will reflect that," Nur said.

The decision to ban alcohol at such a popular destination has rocked Egypt's tourism industry, which handled 11.1 million tourists last year, employs 12 percent of the active population and accounts for 11.6 percent of the country's Gross National Product.

For Egyptian authorities, protective of the lucrative industry which brings in 20 percent of foreign currency receipts, the spread of Islamism must stop at the doorstep of touristic establishments.

Drinking alcohol is considered contrary to Islam but it is not banned by Egyptian law. So Egyptians who choose to can drink, although the percentage of Muslim drinkers is very small. Bars overwhelmingly cater to tourists.

"It's really booming, we're crossing our fingers," Tourism Minister Zoheir Garranah said of the sector but insisted: "We have laws which regulate this industry."

Hotel rules dictate that any hotel above two stars must serve alcohol. An owner is also not allowed to interfere in the running of affairs when there is a managing company.

"It's like imposing chicken on the menu," said Nur, who owns the prestigious Nile Hilton hotel in central Cairo.

"If he doesn't want to serve alcohol, it's his choice. If that doesn't comply with our regulations, he has to bear the consequences," said Garranah.

Gulf tourists have been flocking to Egypt since the Al-Qaeda attacks of September 11, 2001, finding themselves more comfortable in Cairo than Paris or London let alone the United States.

At least 400,000 tourists from Saudi Arabia hit the capital for some sun and fun, indifferent to the sale of alcohol, strictly banned at home.

A new breed of "Islamic hotels" has popped up in some Gulf countries, catering for the observant Muslim traveller, such as Dubai-based Taj Palace or the Tamani apartment hotels.

"It's not a bad idea, but I don't think there is a market for it in Egypt," said Nur. "There is no one left in the Hyatt restaurant at midday."

Whether cruising the Nile or lazing on the Red Sea's sandy beaches, Europeans who make up two-thirds of Egypt's tourists, including 1.5 million Russians, consume 80 percent of Egypt's wine.

For Sheikh Abdel Baqi of the Centre of Islamic Research at Cairo's Al-Azhar University, Sunni's Islam's main seat of learning, "the decision (to ban alcohol) is very good because at least it allows for the choice of an Islamic hotel.

"It must be encouraged," he said. "Alcohol lowers man to the level of animal."

Grégoire said...

Egyptian authorities are threatening to strip Cairo's luxury Grand Hyatt hotel of its five-star status after the owner stopped serving alcohol in the name of Islam.

This is so strange. Why does the Egyptian government care what a hotelier decides to sell or not to sell in the establishment which he owns?

When I go "home" to Cardston, St. George or Provo (all places I spent time in as a child) it's expected that I won't drink coffee or alcohol; or smoke cigars, in the homes of my observant Mormon friends and relatives. Many of the hotels in these towns enforce similar bans. That doesn't make their accommodations shabby. I can go out to a public house or tavern for those sorts of things, if they mean so much to me.

Shamsuddin Waheed said...

My experiences with Mormon practice and culture is very limited, but nonetheless your observations are correct, and perhaps, nay, apparently there is a bit of racism here involved. Why is it that when a Muslim seeks to take his or her religion seriously they are seen as "radical", yet when a Christian [or anyone else] does the same, it is seen as commendable and worthy of respect? Why should Muslims be punished for taking Islamic morals seriously?

Holly (Islam factor) said...

I like the style in which you potray the validity of your points. I really liked how you used common sense and the drug example to show what you meant. It is true so many of us expect things and often take for granted others.