Mohammad Al-Ubaydli’s blog

Microtrends on Muslims

Posted in Books, People / organisations, Society by Dr Mohammad Al-Ubaydli on January 28, 2008

The first book I ever bought for my Kindle is “Microtrends” by Mark Penn. It is the perfect book for commuting because each of its chapters is a few pages long and is a self-contained microtrend about some aspect of American society. It makes for perfect information snacks but I must admit that I have almost missed my train stop a couple of times because I just wanted to sit down and read the next chapter.

What is fascinating is just how diverse this shows American society to be. “Cougars” and “Internet Marrieds”, “Stained Glass Ceiling Breakers” and “Pro-Semites”, “Southpaws Unbound” and “Hard of Hearers”, “Late-Breaking Gays” and “Dutiful Sons”, the book makes you want to “ask around or watch people on a busy street corner for a few minutes, and you will spot them soon enough”.

But for this post, I wanted to discuss the “Moderate Muslims” chapter. I read this at the time that Bush visited Bahrain and the other Gulf states. On the train, as I read my Kindle, I could see the front page of the “Express“, the local free daily, with photographs of (very cute) Israeli children waving Israeli and American flags. On page seven, however, was some masked gunman with a burning American flag. I am not sure what he was thinking (was he thinking?) but it was clear to me who I would prefer to discuss the Middle East peace process with. So it is no surprise that:

Almost half of Americans have a negative view of Islam. When asked to rate their views of all major religions, only Scientology ranks lower.

The book was written before Tom Cruise’s latest Scientology gem, so the Muslims may well have inched further ahead, but it is still a bad place to be. What is interesting, given the project I am currently working on, is that:

If one knows a Muslim personally, one’s views are moderated – but only a little more than one-third of Americans do know a Muslim personally.

Here is why knowing a Muslim makes a difference:

Nearly half (46 percent) of Americans believe that Islam encourages violence more than other religions – up from the 35 percent who felt that way six months after the 2001 attacks. More than half of Americans say Muslims are not respectful of wormen. Forty-four percent say Muslims are too extreme in their religious beliefs. Twenty-two percent say they wouldn’t want a Muslim living next door.

But if you look at an actual demographic portrait of Muslims in America, there’s quite a contrasting picture.

Americans think Muslims are violent? An overwhelming 81 percent of American Muslims support gun control, compared to barely half of Americans who do. Muslims are religiously extreme? Twenty-five percent of Muslims say they attend religious services on a weekly basis – virtually identical to the 26 percent of Americans overall who say they don’t.[…]

In fact, if I were to describe for you a cohort of Americans who got married at a rate of 70 percent, registered to vote at a rate of 82 percent, were college-educated at a rate of 59 percent, and were on average making more than $50,000 a year – what group would you guess they were?

Because that’s the average Muslim in America. Young, family-oriented, well educated, prosperous, and politically active.

What I want to do is to help ordinary Americans get to know these ordinary Muslims and their values.

The geek shall inherit the earth

Posted in Books, History, People / organisations by Dr Mohammad Al-Ubaydli on January 28, 2008

Another character from “Justinian’s Flea” is Anthemius, one of the two architects who built the extraordinary Hagia Sophia. The building was one of the reasons for his wealth and thus in Constantinople he lived amongst notable neigbours like Zeno, a famous orator. Apparently the two quarreled over something, Zeno sued and won. Anthemius was a geek, however, and so “he took his revenge like a proper engineer, first simulating an earthquake with a steam line that he surreptitiously ran into Zeno’s apartment, then exploding noisemakers to mimic the sound of a thunderstorm”. What really made me laugh was his next trick:

[E]mploying a pivoting parabolic reflector to shine light at all hours into Zeno’s sleeping chamber. When Zeno asked Justinian to intervene, the emperor decline to punish his architect, writing that even he “cannot intervene against Zeus the Thunderer and Poseidon the Earth-Shaker”.

The world’s first Laffer Curve?

Posted in Books, History, People / organisations by Dr Mohammad Al-Ubaydli on January 28, 2008

For my birthday this weekend my wife gave me a voucher for my Kindle. This gave me a blissful weekend reading “Justinian’s Flea: Plague, Empire, and the Birth of Europe“. It is full of charming anecdotes about characters from antiquity, including emperor Anastasius:

In what is almost certainly the first documented exercise of what would come to be called trickle-down economics, Anastasius abolished a wide range of taxes that fell heavily on the empire’s most productive classes, its craftsmen and merchants. The emperor had argued, it turns out correctly, that a prosperous merchant would pay even more in fees that the treasury lost in taxes. Thus, despite three major wars, and several revolts by subjects opposing the emperor’s Monophysitism, the treasury at Anastasius’s death was richer by 320,000 pounds of gold than it had been at his accession.

Do Great Leaders Make Good Managers?

Posted in People / organisations by Dr Mohammad Al-Ubaydli on January 28, 2008

A friend of mine sent me a link to what looks like a gold mine of papers. One of them is titled “Do Great Leaders Make Good Managers? Conversations in Organizational Studies ” and touches on a question that I have often wondered about in working with managers and leaders in different organizations. For leaders, “Bass specifies four basic components:”

  • Charisma: developing a vision, engendering pride, respect, and trust
  • Inspiration: motivating by creating high expectations, modeling appropriate behavior, and using symbols to focus others
  • Individualized consideration: giving personal attention to followers, giving them respect, and responsibility
  • Intellectual stimulation: continuing challenging followers with new ideas and approaches

By contrast:

Robert E. Quinn et al have proposed a “Managerial Competency Framework” that takes into consideration four key models of management: Rational, Internal Process, Human Relations, and Open Systems which are viewed as having mutually interdependent, but competing values.

The author hammers home the contrast:

while it is possible for a manager/leader to wear different hats and move back and forth along the above continuum, it is important to understand that great leaders cannot lead and manage (follow) at the same time. This is because of the highly complex nature of a leader’s “inner theatre.” It may however, be relatively easy for a good manager to also be a good follower. As a matter of fact, good managers often are deemed to be good followers. They are able to quite effectively carry out the roles of director, producer, monitor, and coordinator. What is not so clear is how effectively they can concurrently discharge the other roles, i.e. mentor, facilitator, innovator, visionary, motivator, and catalyst, which are so characteristic of great leaders.

I call this problem the “reverse Peter Principle”. The Peter Principle is a famous one stating that “In a hierarchy every employee tends to rise to his level of incompetence”. The reverse Peter Principle (you read it here first, folks), or perhaps the Al-Ubaydli Axiom, is that it is hard to get a good leader if they have to show competence as a manager first. In hierarchies employees rise up by showing their competence at each level. But because managerial jobs precede leadership ones, and because it is hard to be both a good manager and a good leader, it is unlikely that those who make it to top management would be good leadership material.

The only exception, in my belief, is the start-up. Very few people who start companies are good leaders – most are actually frustrated technicians – but a start-up is the one arena in which good leaders get the chance to be leaders without having to go through the filter of management ranks.

The rest of the article is well worth reading. For a start it tackles the unfortunate and common undervaluing of management in favour of leadership.

When our firm conducts workshops with managers, their mental association of “followers” often softens and even becomes more flattering when they come to the realization that to be a good manager, is to be a good follower. The new associations around followership tend to coalesce around words such as “implementer”, “cooperative”, “team player”, “learner” etc.

Further reading:

On The World’s Most Toxic Value System

Posted in History, Society by Dr Mohammad Al-Ubaydli on January 12, 2008

A good friend of mine from the USA sent me a link to a page titled The World’s Most Toxic Value System. The author has an interesting background, and the stories he has from the Arab world sound plausible to me and are great to read about as people usually only talk about them in private.

But the article is full of historical statements and interpretations that I disagree with, and they betray misunderstandings that I find common in the USA. All of which make me bristle against the author’s suggestion of introducing the word thar into the English language.

Let me start by saying that I agree with the author, and Ralph Peters that he quotes, that the following values are bad, that my own countrymen should get rid of them, and that I find these values more prevalent in the Arab world than I do in the West:

  1. Restrictions on the free flow of information.
  2. The subjugation of women.
  3. Inability to accept responsibility for individual or collective failure.
  4. The extended family or clan as the basic unit of social organization.
  5. Domination by a restrictive religion.
  6. A low valuation of education.
  7. Low prestige assigned to work.

But for the rest of this I wanted to focus on correct usage of the Arabic language properly. Here is a short glossary of, and rant about, misuses, starting with:

Thar, which the article suggests as the new name for the toxic value system for revenge that is only so virulent in Arabic and Islamic societies. First of all, it should be tha’r, not thar. The apostrophe should be pronounced like the u is in “unbelievable”. Otherwise, “thar” is closer to the word for the past participle of the verb to get angry.

Second, tha’r in Arabic means revenge, it does not mean “the most toxic revenge system in the world”. So let us not use an Arabic word to associate a concept in the English language with with a race or culture, which this article seems to want to.

Finally, the article itself reminds me of a charming book I am now reading, “Extraordinary Popular Delusions and the Madness of Crowds” by Charles Mackay. In particular, the chapter on dueling. The author of the article is a fan of chivalry, but to be honest one man’s chivalry is another man’s sexual jealousy. I had known that dueling was a problem that afflicted the leadership of Western countries for many years, costing them dearly in manpower. The Burr-Hamilton duel killed off Alexander Hamilton, my favourite founding father, and opponents of Andrew “Jacksonian Democracy” Jackson tried several times to kill him by insulting his wife to force him into duels. What is so interesting in the dueling chapter of the book is how he describes the evolution of this custom as a way of wresting power from the clergy, who have given us such judicial innovations as trial by water: if you drown you were innocent, if not, you are guilty, so must be executed.

Madrasa, which is assumed to mean nursery school for terrorists. It actually means school, which is why my parents named their school Al-Madrasa for Arts. What the Arab world needs is more madrasas, enough to teach all our children about arts and sciences, and how to speak English, as my parents learned in their own madrasas (i.e. schools) when they were young. A small minority of madrasas use a curiculum that is Qur’an-focused, which is bad, and a tiny minority are focused on misteaching from the Qur’an that the West should be attacked, which is very bad. But the solution is more funding for better madrasas.

Incidentally, education has a high value in Islam, even if many Muslims today are undereducated and poor. The first word that came to the Prophet Muhammad in the Qu’ran was “Read”, an order that all Muslims should learn how to read. The Prophet also introduced the custom of releasing a prisoner of war if the prisoner taught ten Muslims how to read – the customs of the times had been to release in exchange for money or prisoners from your own side. Most of the texts that Europeans read during their Renaissance were actually in Arabic, even the ones that were translations of ancient European texts, because Muslims had been busy translating the teachings of all other civilizations so that they could read and learn from them as good Muslims. And Al Azhar is the world’s first university, with studies beginning in 960 A.D.

Fatwa, which is assumed to mean a death sentenced from a Muslim leader. It actually means a religious ruling, a regular and common occurrence on by different leaders on many difference regular and common aspects of modern living.

Incidentally, I say different leaders because Islam has a long tradition of many leaders as opposed to the Pope in Christianity. Long before Martin Luther came up with the revolutionary idea that ordinary men should be able to read the Bible, and that they should make independent interpretations of its meaning, Islam asked of its followers that they learn to read Arabic, so that they can read the Qur’an. And making an independent interpretation of the Qur’an is called ijtihad, which brings me to…

Jihad, which is assumed to mean an attack on the West, Infidels, and Freedom. It actually comes from the verb “to expend effort” or to struggle. Think of it as you do the US War on Drugs, War on Cancer and War on Poverty. As far as Arabs and Muslim are concerned, the word for religious attack on a civilization by religious zealots is cusade, not jihad. The chapter on this topic in the book “Extraordinary Popular Delusions and the Madness of Crowds” is also well worth reading.

First Tuesday

Posted in History, People / organisations by Dr Mohammad Al-Ubaydli on January 12, 2008

Here is another reminder of how society changes over time. When I was in college, at the height of the dot-com boom in England, my dream was to attend a First Tuesday meeting. The company’s founders organized a meeting on the first Tuesday of every month in many major cities, starting with London. Attendees would get one of three badges identifying each person as an investor, an entrepreneur or a technologist, if I remember correctly (the Wikipedia article looks like it has been mutilated by company’s current PR department). The ideal was for conversations involving people with different colour badges.

I never got to attend any of those events as college lectures always got in the way and then the hospital work began. And then the crash came, and the current First Tuesday company is a shadow of its former self.

I remembered them yesterday because my brother, who regularly spends time browsing the Wikipedia, sent me this extract about Bethlem Royal Hospital, AKA Bedlam, used to have its own first Tuesday meetings:

Bethlem Royal Hospital became famous and infamous for the brutal ill-treatment meted out to the mentally ill. In 1675 Bedlam moved to new buildings in Moorfields designed by Robert Hooke, outside the City boundary. In the 18th century people used to go there to see the lunatics. For a penny one could peer into their cells, view the freaks of the “show of Bethlehem” and laugh at their antics, generally of a sexual nature or violent fights. Entry was free on the first Tuesday of the month. Visitors were permitted to bring long sticks with which to poke and enrage the inmates. In 1814, there were 96,000 such visits. The lunatics were first called “patients” in 1700, and “curable” and “incurable” wards were opened in 1725-34.

Funny how times change.