Profiles in Courage

Al-Mubahala This refers to the day Muhammad exchanged curses with the Christians of Najran and proclaimed his family (Ahl al-Bayt), his cousin and son-in-law Ali ibn Abi Talib and his wife Fatimah, Muhammad's daughter, as well as Hasan and Husain, their two sons. The conversation between Muhammad and the Christians began over a debate of the nature of Jesus. Muhammad recited a revelation which invites those who disagree with Muhammad to submit to an ordeal by oath where they ask God to destroy those whose statements are untrue. The Christians accepted the challenge and the two groups met the next morning. However, the Christians decided not to forgo the oath and opted to pay a tax instead. The illustration depicts the Prophet and his family meeting with the Christians, who are squeezed into the left-hand side of the page. From Al-Biruni's al-Athar al-Baqiya (Chronolgy of Ancient Nations, Ilkhanid 1307)

Al-Mubahala incident depicted in al-Biruni’s al-Athar al-Baqiya (Chronolgy of Ancient Nations, Ilkhanid 1307)

September 11, 2001 had been a turning point for almost all people in the world. As regards me, I remember filling packing cases after a hard work’s day in the preparation of a significant move: to the Middle East; my departure scheduled only some ten days later. I was about to join a brand new faculty at Kuwait University when I switched on the TV and saw, again and again, Manhattan’s Twin Towers hit by airplane, and hit again, then collapsing. Only thirty minutes later I had received the first telephone call from a friend who tried to convince me that Kuwait would be safe and I certainly would not change my stance.

Well, I didn’t lose my courage although none of my new and most curious colleagues did really expect me to come after 9/11. The new beginning was cumbersome but overall quite interesting. I met people from all over the world, a true international faculty. They had, though, very different profiles of courage. I learned to know rather anxious people who never really understood that Islam was a great cultural achievement and worth of being studied in detail. I met greedy people who were there for the money only. As usual in Academia, you always also meet people with highly problematic personalities, preventing any real collaboration.

The Kuwaitis were friendly and in essence very helpful. Some of my new colleagues from the West who had been there for some time complained, though, that they were snobby, considering themselves very special. Some allegedly even looked down on us, the western expats, coming for the money, the infidels.

As I settled, I became aware of a would-be colleague from the Ministry of Health who was somehow a relative of our Dean. Dr. I. presented himself as a VIP within Kuwait’s health system, a former MP, even a journalist; in fact a multitalented member of Kuwait’s closed society. He arduously tried to get into the faculty. When having been seconded, he quickly demanded giving lectures on topics he could hardly be considered to be an expert of. When finally appointed as assistant professor, he managed to serve in two independent departments.

The first Arabic word I learned in this context was wasta, or insider relationship, old boys’ network. Dr. I. represented wasta. Asking him a favor, one almost immediately got satisfied. He knew people and places. In his own private clinic he had employed numerous humble and subservient domestics. He could always count on their slavish obedience.

While his remote relative, the Dean, knew about Dr. I. but could not prevent him from joining the faculty, problems with him quickly emerged. Absurd criticism of expats led to early cessation of contracts. Then he attacked his Kuwaiti colleagues. There is a highly questionable rule at Kuwait University that a permanent appointment does not depend on scientific publications but rather on passing the American board examination or an equivalent qualification. Dr. I. had dozens of publications (which have to be considered worthless from a scientific point of view) and he was a specialist who had passed an equivalent board exam in Ireland. But some of his rivals among the Kuwaiti colleagues had not. If they were too close to his arch enemy, the Dean, he liked to question their qualifications. He usually involved the media and even the University President, who received dozens of letters of complaint.

On an especially revealing and even instructional occasion Dr. I. sent a pages-long email to the culprit, a very likeable young Kuwaiti colleague with certain talents as a University teacher, where he referred to a certain hadith which is well-known among adherents of Shi’a Islam: mubahala. He updated this email, in which he accused his colleague of lying about the assumed expiration of his part II board exam, on a daily basis and sent copies of it to the President’s office, the Ministry and all faculty members. He even sent copies to students.

Mubahala reminds the pious believer of an incident in 631 CE (9 AH) when a group of Arabic Christians argued with the Prophet Muhammad which of the two parties erred in their doctrine concerning the nature of Jesus. Muhammad, after likening Jesus’ miraculous birth to Adam’s creation, called the Christians to mubahala, or cursing, where each party should ask God to destroy the lying party and their families. He then covered himself and his family (Ahl al-Bayt), i.e., his daughter Fatima, her husband Ali and their two boys Hasan and Husayn with a cloak. The Christian envoy declined taking part in mubahala and chose instead to pay tribute.

As far as I know, I was the only western expat who recognized the tremendous impact of Dr. I.’s curse on our young Kuwaiti colleague. Muslims, who read through all the baseless accusations which were sent day after day to dozens of people, were deeply shocked. Mubahala is definitely exceeding the limits. Dr. I. did not fear any consequences for his ruthless defamation. But the young colleague eventually resigned and left the faculty for good.

Years later, I learned that Dr. I. is a pretty prominent liar himself. In 1990, Iraq’s dictator Saddam Hussein had invaded the tiny but oil-rich country in the corner of the Persian Gulf. A 15-year-old Kuwaiti nurse, who had only been introduced as Nayirah and who later turned out to be the Kuwaiti US ambassador’s daughter, testified to the Congressional Human Rights Caucus on October 10, 1990 that she herself had witnessed babies being taken out of incubators and being left on cold floors to die. The incubators were then taken to Baghdad. After the war, it became clear that another alleged witness, who had testified before the UN Security Council and the Congress that he had supervised the burial of 120 infants and personally buried 40 newborn babies who had died after taken from their incubators by Iraqi soldiers, had used false names and identities. This witness later revoked and admitted that he had never seen these atrocities. The alleged Dr. Issah Ibrahim was in fact our Dr. I., not a surgeon but rather a dentist. The notorious story is still remembered as the “incubator lie” which essentially served in motivating the World public to support America’s actions of throwing the Iraqi troops out of Kuwait in Operation Desert Storm. More information can be found in John R. MacArthur’s Second Front. Censorship and Propaganda in the 1991 Gulf War, University of California Press 1992, 2004.

A notorious liar is suffering from a habit. A Kuwaiti lawyer who I once had asked for some support in a libel case, in which Dr. I. was involved, was very hesitant to accept the job. “Is it about libel?” he asked me. “But that’s the way how we do it in this society.”

I recently got to know that Dr. I. has lost a lawsuit in court against his faculty chairman and has now sued the University President.

Note: Profiles in Courage is the title of the 1955 Pulitzer-Prize-winning bestseller by John F. Kennedy, which describes the integrity and bravery of eight US senators. It profiles moral courage of highly reputed men in the history of the Unites States. Despite overall enthusiastic reception the later 35th US president was quickly blamed that he was the only man who won a Pulitzer Prize for a book which had been ghostwritten for him. The book has actually been written by his speechwriter Ted Sorensen.

This entry was posted in Academics, Iraq, Islam, Kuwait, Kuwait University, Medicine and tagged , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

3 Responses to Profiles in Courage

  1. I was pretty young when Desert Storm happened, but I had family members that went over there and I have always admired they did that.

  2. Pingback: Twenty Years of War « Freelance

  3. Pingback: The Lost Decade « Freelance

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