I have happened to buy “The Economist” for my two-days-long layover in İstanbul to kill some spare time, and read an article titled The prince’s time machine, which is about the “shift from the Islamic to the Gregorian calendar” in Saudi Arabia. The article was so full of bias that I couldn’t resist myself but to write a response.
If you would like to read the whole article beforehand, The Economist published it on their website as well. Emphasis mine.
Hauling Saudi Arabia into the 21st century
The very first imagery that is created even before reading the article itself is of someone who is modernizing a country by dragging it into 21st century. Quite often, although as in this case not always, people who drag a whole country and the millions living in it are stigmatized as dictators -quite rightfully- and opponents of the (overloaded term) democracy. Although in the following first paragraph, the deputy crown prince of Saudi Arabia is called dynamic, a word which surely has lots of good connotations in western societies that is the target audience of The Economist. While reading the second paragraph of the article, beware how the word dynamic contrasts with the occidental understanding of the Orient, which can be summed up as static:
But puritans in Islam’s birthplace are wincing at their eviction from control first over public space, and now of time. Guardians of the Wahhabi rite, who seek to be guided by Muhammad’s every act, ask whether they are now being required to follow Jesus. A slippery slope, the clergy warn, to forgetting the fasting month of Ramadan altogether; the authorities are rewinding the clock to the jahiliyyah, or pre-Islamic age of ignorance. The judiciary, a clerical bastion, still defiantly insists on sentencing miscreants according to the old calendar.
Emphasises, I feel, are not enough to convey the tone of the paragraph, but nevertheless can help us to spot words and phrases that indicates stasis: “puritans”, “who seek to be guided by Muhammad’s every act”, “forgetting [the customs]”, “rewinding the clock”, “defiantly insisting [on something]” and so on. What follows afterwards is a subtle ridicule of those people. Take “puritans [who are] wincing at their eviction from control first over public space, and now of time” for instance; the verb “wincing” not only mocks them by turning their disapproval into an exaggerated image of dissatisfaction, but also humiliates them by portraying a gesture of pain, which implies weakness as they are “evicted from control”. The absurdity of being “evicted of time” is one of the finest instances of subtle mockery in the paragraph: it is as if those people are fighting against the time itself to seize the control it, or as if they are claiming the globe is flat; those people are merely in favour of a calendar that they have been using since generations. The article, instead of recognizing this simple fact, portrays them as bigots as if they are claiming that Gregorian calendar is a Western illusion and the Islamic calendar is the divine representation of time (and for many Muslims, regardless of their cultural background, Islamic calendar has a huge importance in determining the religious days).
The clerical unease has been matched by that of government employees. Under his transformation plan, the prince has already docked their perks and slashed pay. To add to their misery, they now complain they will have to work an extra 11 days each year. Yet another example, they gripe, of globalisation favouring rulers at the expense of the ruled.
Mockery keeps resonating throughout the third paragraph as well. In New Oxford American Dictionary “to gripe” is defined as “express a complaint of grumble about something, especially something trivial.” It is not only shocking that such a word can be used with such liberty about people, people whose perks are docked and pays are slashed for no apparent reason besides a “transformation of the country”, but also very inconsiderate (but after all the ridicule and mockery, I think it’s obvious that being considerate was not taken into consideration by the author).
A lunar calendar made sense when the moon was the simplest way of counting passing days. But for measuring years it is a poor approximation. It loses some 11 days a year, ensuring that Islamic holy days rotate round the seasons every 32 years. The Saudi administration, hopes one official, should now be more orderly and in step with the rest of the world. But having spent a lifetime learning dates from the year Muhammad fled from Mecca to establish the first Islamic state in Medina (622 in the Gregorian calendar), counting from Jesus’s birth is likely to leave many scratching their headscarves.
The article claims that lunar calendar is a poor approximation for measuring years, because “it loses some 11 days a year”. If the author spent 10 minutes on reading the Lunar calendar on Wikipedia, (s)he would have understood that a lunar year is by definition 354.367 days as it is “based on cycles of the lunar phases” (Wikipedia). Following the same logic, it makes perfect sense to claim that Gregorian calendar is a poor approximation for measuring (moon) years, because it gains some 11 days a year.
In the last paragraph, the article mentions some countries/nations who are still “wrestling with ancient calendars”, such as Iran, Kurdistan, Israel (Knesset). The author is kind enough to remark that “nor is it just Middle East that is out of sync with the times” (thanks for alleviation!) and gives Thailand and Japan as examples from Far East (at this point, one should have realized that all those countries from East are in fact counterexamples of the West). Despite all these (counter-)examples, the paragraph above celebrates the “shift from Islamic to the Gregorian calendar” in Saudi Arabia as the country becomes “in step with the rest of the world”, as if Saudi Arabia is alone in using a non-Gregorian calendar.
I could have written a lot more (such as about the featured caricature of the article: why the everyday Saudi on the right is depicted darker?), though it is better to cut it here.