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Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 26 September 2018

From spiritual harmony to the women's movement, new narratives will emerge in 2018

Next year might throw up new norms enshrining a basic level of dignity, writes Rashmee Roshan Lall

Volunteers at the East London Mosque pack food donated by people of all faiths to feed the homeless in London, UK. Reuters
Volunteers at the East London Mosque pack food donated by people of all faiths to feed the homeless in London, UK. Reuters

“Last year’s words belong to last year’s language,” wrote TS Eliot in the final poem of the set called Four Quartets. “And next year’s words await another voice.”

The new year will, as it always does, bring out other voices. But will they be heard over the loud, angry cries of 2017? Is 2018 going to be a re-run of the previous year or will it speak rather differently using new language?

That the coming year will test-drive some brand new ideas is a given. For instance, the world’s most advanced self-driving car will go on sale, finally making the autonomous vehicle a physical reality for consumers. And the concept of luxury might be remodelled to fit our digitally distracted times, with device-free periods becoming the ultimate indulgence.

But there are three other hopeful signs of more significant change.

First, Christmas this year has been marked by an unusual surge in attempts to promote greater harmony between Christians and Muslims in the West.

In the last weeks of the dying year, British Muslims, for instance, started to muse publicly on the perception of Jesus within their faith. He was an important prophet in Islam, they stressed, adding that Mary also has a singular place in the Quran. That tallies with the UAE's Crown Prince, Sheikh Mohammed bin Zayed, recently changing the name of an Abu Dhabi mosque to Mary Mother of Jesus mosque to send out a message of spiritual harmony. And contrary to far-right political parties’ false claims of Muslim hostility to Christmas, more heartwarming stories of amity were unearthed, not least from The Crescent, Britain’s first Muslim newspaper. Back in the 1880s, reported The Crescent, Victorian Muslims celebrated Christmas with quiet enthusiasm, thus immersing themselves in other parts of the British community.

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Meanwhile, a British cross-party parliamentary group published a report detailing Muslim charitable efforts around the UK, especially at Christmas. The resulting hashtag, #AVeryMerryMuslimChristmas, provoked a lot of attention and some derision, but it was at least a novel and persuasive way of addressing Islamophobia in the West.

Individually, each of these attempts to build bridges between Christians and Muslims might seem trifling, especially in the context of some of the hate-filled discourse in Europe and the United States, but it is a good start for Britain, which has Europe’s third-largest Muslim population. And it could provide a different perspective in the debate over the Christian character of Christmas.

The second hopeful trend for 2018 could be the evolving women’s movement. The so-called Weinstein effect, or the wave of US-centred sexual harassment accusations against famous men, is likely to mutate. Already, there are lookalike, low-strength attempts to replicate it in countries such as India and Kenya. But it is possible that it might become less imitative and more relevant to disparate geographies. Now that Hollywood has ripped off the veil of shame shrouding sexual abuse, the discussion is becoming bolder in other locations, not least India. In Delhi, for instance, there is increasing soul-searching about female objectification and how best to address gender violence. If 2017 made it possible to speak up against workplace norms that entrench sexism and tolerate sexual harassment, 2018 might be the year the rebellion throws up new norms for different specificities – institutions, professions, cultures – all of them enshrining a basic level of dignity for women.

The new year is likely to be significant for women in other ways too. Saudi Arabia will get its first foreign female envoy and Saudi women will formally get behind the wheel. The UK will become one of the world’s first countries to require public, private and voluntary sector entities with more than 250 employees to declare a gender pay gap, if any.

Finally, 2018 is likely to see new ways of telling the story of our times. This has to happen. After a turbulent 2017, there will be a need to rethink satire, cartooning, comedy and dystopian fiction as well, for this is an age of absurdism in the White House and irredentist illiberalism in parts of Europe, India, Israel, Myanmar and elsewhere. That the US, Poland, Hungary, Czech Republic, Austria, Israel, India and Myanmar all have democratically elected governments suggests the ballot box per se cannot prevent the slide towards majoritarianism.

Tellingly, most of the elections scheduled for 2018 are unlikely to be game-changers or advance progressive causes, such as inclusive growth and good governance. In Egypt, Russia, Hungary, Italy and Pakistan, the electoral verdicts of 2018 are likely to be more of the same. But three elections, all of them in the Americas – Mexico, Brazil and the US midterms – might force a moderate change, of course.

The new year, then, might well throw up new ways of exploring and explaining the reality of democracies behaving badly.

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