If you read my earlier article, Hopping through Arabian Airports, then you know how little I know I about Islam or the Arab world. That’s actually why I went to the United Arab Emirates. It was by invitation of a rich [compared to me] Arab who funded that trip. He is an unbeliever, an infidel illegal in that country. But that is his culture, and he wanted me to see it as he does, first-hand and unfiltered. So we planned the trip to coincide with the conference in India. Upon my return, he put me up in a very nice hotel overlooking downtown Dubai, and he showed me as much as he could in the week that I was there.
The invitation seemed suspicious to some folks I know. But I’ve met a few people like this -with the means and desire to connect with those who are like-minded. My host in this case had been talking with me online for more than a year. He said he was tired of listening to the several times daily prayers from the minarets. There is no atheist community in the UAE for obvious reasons. It’s illegal for an Arab not to believe in Islam. Westerners are welcome to buy alcohol and gamble, and live pretty much as they do in the west. The UAE is not like Saudi Arabia. There have even been public statements to the effect that atheists are welcome in Dubai -as long as they keep quiet about it. But Arabs have a double-standard where they can’t do any of that -ever. So the mall is a mix of European women in sexy dresses milling amongst hijabs and all black Arabian burqas.
They have a law there against insulting anyone, and especially against insulting religion. Americans who whine about political correctness have no perspective and don’t understand what free speech really means. It is not a violation of your free speech to be kicked out of someone’s house or blocked from their facebook for acting like an ass. Sure you can be fired from your company for shooting your mouth off like Donald Trump, for making racist or sexist comments and thus creating an uncomfortable work environment. If you can’t comport yourself in a civilized manner in the business world, then you’ll be removed from that environment for the common good. That is perfectly reasonable. But you won’t go to jail even for hate speech, not in the United States. In Dubai you will spend years in prison just for insulting someone. This is especially true if you insult either a race or a religion. It is considered an insult to religion simply to say that the Qur’an is wrong or that there is no God. Expressing your opinion there could get you locked up for a long time. That’s the difference between a country that has free speech and one that doesn’t.
If you’re an Arab, then it’s even worse, because you can be convicted of thought crime. You’ve got to beLEEVE and submit to Islam, and you’ll go to prison if you don’t. Don’t forget that the UAE is far and away the most progressive nation in the Arab world. Yet for all it’s splendor, Shariah Law still casts a shadow over state policies. They’ve tried to reduce that in Dubai. I talked to a cop there who said that Shariah is hardly implemented for anything anymore. But that some archaic laws can’t be challenged because they stem directly from the Qur’an, and sacred scripture cannot be questioned. So progress is at an impasse.
The first place we stopped to eat was Buffalo Wild Wings. The next morning, we went to a combination gourmet coffee house and Harley Davidson shop. Then we went to the world’s biggest mall, with the world’s biggest aquarium.
Dubai is really Americanized. Everyone speaks English, and I mean good English. Most of the signs are in English, and most of the stores are familiar chains. However they have shisha bars which are rare here. I found myself in a sidewalk cafe counting Lambourghinis as they passed by. We were eating Syrian food while my host smoked from a huge hookah.
I also got to go up the world’s tallest building. Last time I was in Vegas, we stayed in the Stratosphere. But where I was in Dubai was another forty stories higher than that.
This is also the only country I’ve been to with big American muscle cars. Last year, I saw a ’63 Chevy Impala convertible low-rider in Manchester England of all places, and a ’67 Camaro RS/SS in Røros Norway, where petrol was 14 kroners per litre. So those were the only American cars I saw anywhere. Not even a new Corvette in either Australia or Europe. Yet in Dubai, I saw lots of Mustangs, Chargers, Vettes, and Vipers. That’s probably because they made their money on oil and are therefore the only nation able to feed such gas guzzlers. My buddy also took me to a Victory and Indian motorcycle dealer. We share similar interests. Then we went down the highway to the biggest mosque in Abu Dhabi cruising in a huge 4×4 SUV while jamming to all manner of metal.
We drove over that man-made Palm Island, and saw the enormous indoor ski resort. There are so many impressive feats of engineering there. Then he took me to Sharjah and showed me the college, where there’s separate colleges for men and women, where they cannot mix, and where administrators complain that they have no campus life. Well duh. I wonder what you could do to fix that?
My first night there, he took me to a quiet shisha cafe in Ajman to meet a couple of his friends. They had never met an atheist other than him, and they were open to have that conversation. Now, I had seen that the bookstore carried Alice Robert’s book on human evolution as well as some of Dawkins’ and Hitchens’ books, although the God Delusion and God is Not Great are not allowed there. But it still means that it’s OK to talk about evolution. The mall even had a giant diplodocus. So they’re not officially anti-science. But the guys I was talking to were creationists, simply for lack of exposure I guess.
You gotta remember, I’m sitting at a table outside a hookah bar talking with two Arabs wearing dishdash and kufiya. They were very patient with me as I dismantled all the misinformation they’d been given regarding evolution. I told them that much of their human traits came from dysfunctional monkey genes. I told them that they were apes, and that faith was the most dishonest position it is possible to have, and I explained why. We simply didn’t have enough time for me to be polite about all of that, and I’m happy that they understood why I was being so direct.
Then one of them asked me, “Have you tried Islam?”. These guys were no dummies; they’re respectable men. But that question struck me as cute. I tried to explain that it doesn’t work like that, that it’s not about adopting whichever beliefs make you happy; that it’s about what can be shown to be true or false. I said that the Qur’an is based on the Bible, and that we can prove that much of what the Bible says is wrong; that once the foundation falls that every house built on it falls with it. I told them Islam can’t be true, because nothing it is based on is true.
Then the conversation got a bit darker. They mistook me for a typical Texan, as if I associate Islam with terrorism. They assured me they’re as against ISIS as we are. They said “Who is Osama bin Laden? He doesn’t represent anyone.” Of course I get that. The truth or falsity of a religion doesn’t depend on anything any believer did. At the same time, I had to remember that I have never seen even one person in Texas dressed as both of them were. One had a formal kufiya and the other wore his as a Bedouin style turban. Otherwise they were in floor length shirt-like dresses. That if if these men were to walk together down any street in Texas, especially in a rural area, there would likely be trouble.
The next night we all met up in a public restaurant, and there were more of them this time. My host had advised his friends that they could ask me about science, but not to talk about religion. One of them however didn’t like the scientific explanation he got. So he told me that the Qur’an has all this modern knowledge that Muhammad couldn’t have known about. He was talking about embryology. This was the conversation I had already been part of between PZ Myers and Hamza Tzortzis in Ireland. So I noted how Mohammad borrowed from the work of Galen and other scholars known at that time, and that they even copied their mistakes, so that the Qur’an had the sequence of development wrong. I said that the Qur’an was wrong about embryology and also isostasy, and a couple other things too. Then my host hurried me out of the restaurant saying, “We gotta go”. Because you can’t say that the Qur’an is wrong. You certainly can’t blurt that out in public with a voice that carries. I knew that of course. I just couldn’t help myself. I really have to learn to be more tactful. But we were outta there and down the road in less than a minute.
The next night, I somehow found myself in some high rise apartment or hotel where a handful of Arabs were drinking liquor and playing Texas Hold’em Poker, according to the mat on the table. Again westerners can do that, but Arabian law discriminates against their own people, so that Arabs aren’t allowed to do anything. At one point, there was a knock on the door, and everyone froze as if they were all busted. I was the only one in the room who wasn’t an Arab and I was the only one who wasn’t gambling either. So I had to laugh. At least I wasn’t the one going to jail this time.
The next day, my last day in the UAE, my host took me out in the desert for some as yet undisclosed reason. Where we turned off the road, there were actually camels wandering around with nothing on. Apparently camels there are microchipped and lojacked so that they’re not stolen. Turns out my host was meeting all his buddies for the purpose of four-wheeling the dunes and barbecuing shishkabobs. This time there was no discussion of science or religion. Just shut up and enjoy the ride. They put me in an SUV with the guy who had asked whether I had tried Islam. This time he said with a smile, “You will eat some sand,” and off we went to catch some air. I put my window up only after I found myself buried in my seat. The dunes of the Arabian desert have no rocks in them at all, like we have in American deserts. So it didn’t matter how far sideways we leaned, the truck would not roll over. It just dug through the dune to right itself.
They asked me how this was different from America. I said it was pretty much the same as what rednecks do, except that there would be women, and beer, and the men wouldn’t be wearing dresses. Otherwise it’s pretty much the same.
My host told me that when he read my article on Arabic Airports that he thought it was very ignorant, and he explained precisely why. He was right. It was, and I’m happy to have this learning experience to improve my perspective. But he admitted that there was some truth to it too, particularly regarding how women are forced to conceal themselves in ways that certainly seem oppressive. I got to hear about that when we went out that night to a Scandinavian death metal concert.
This was the only time in my whole visit to the UAE where I had a chance to sit and talk with Arab women. They weren’t supposed to be there of course. They weren’t supposed to be wearing jeans and goth make-up, drinking alcohol and cavorting with men. But you know, people are people, and they want to share experiences. The two ladies that I talked with said that the only advantage to living in the UAE was that it wasn’t Saudi Arabia, because there they could never take off the burqa. At least in Dubai they could sneak off to a concert and try to blend in with the westerners. They were very frustrated and shared a number of stories about what they have to put up with that no one can do anything about, because it’s ingrained in the culture. Arab women aren’t allowed to do much of anything on their own.
One of these girls gave me a hug and said, “I always watch your videos!” Neither of them believed in God, but they can’t say that to anyone but me and a few trusted friends. One of them asked if I could get Richard Dawkins to come to Dubai. I told her Dawkins wouldn’t come to Dubai just to look around or go to a Death Metal concert. He wouldn’t come there because he wouldn’t be allowed to speak there. And that is a huge issue, when you’re not allowed to express reasonable ideas because reason is to some degree forbidden by law. There are a number of officials in Dubai who are very progressive, and want to make things better. Multiculturalism is helping a lot, but progress is still going to be slow, because of the religion that all Arab nations are based on.
I want to express my gratitude to my anonymous host, because this was a great experience for me, drinking from the fire hose as he fills me in on Arab culture over a week’s time. And I sincerely enjoyed Dubai. Maybe if I come back through there again, I won’t be such a jerk to his friends.