The amount of wealth in the Middle East is quite visible, and when it comes to individual wealth, it is more evident than practically anywhere in the world. It translates into a disproportionate number of people driving Hummers, smoking expensive cigars, having the largest aquarium, the largest shopping mall, the most expensive hotel, the tallest this, the longest that.
It is not without reason that Arabs are often associated with extravagance and bad taste. I once visited a house in Lebanon where the toilets feature faucets made of gold. Yet with so much wealth transformed into visible signs of itself, not much of it has been used to fight poverty, illiteracy and disease. In a study yet to be published, the Arab world is said to have at least 22% of its population living on less than a dollar a day. If we include the population living on less than $2, the percentage doubles. I myself come from Brazil, a country where poverty is a national shame, and where hunger is indefensible amidst so many gifts of nature — which brings me to a story about Ayrton Senna, the Brazilian Formula One driver.
Ayrton Senna was the perfect icon: beautiful, rich, successful, his whole persona helped advertise and sell many luxury goods and other products. Many in Brazil wanted to be Ayrton Senna, or possess something endorsed by him. Yes, humans emulate. His participation in ads raised the sale of many products, showing the power of mimetism, or the urge to imitate and thus be associated with.
But when Senna died in a tragic accident, Brazilians found out something else about him that until then few people knew: Senna was a philanthropist. A large chunk of his money was donated to fight poverty, promote education, help orphans. After his death, his sister decided to continue his silent work and created the Ayrton Senna Foundation. With visibility, and fanfare, the foundation grew exponentially and now helps many more people than when Senna was alive. That is what brings me to the following statement: Senna could have been an inspiration not only for the consumption of expensive watches, he could have made people emulate him in his goodness.
But there is a certain taboo about advertising one’s goodness. And in the Middle East people like to cite the hadith that says that the right hand should give while the left should not know it. The Koran, however, does not condemn publicity of one’s contributions. It encourages charity and alms giving several times, and only once does it say that giving in silence is better (“If you give alms openly, it is well, and if you hide it and give it to the poor, it is better for you”).
Yet, human beings are vain by nature. And by that same nature they like to emulate those they look up to. Why should one be proud of a gold watch, an expensive car, a luxury brand pair of shoes, and not of one’s goodness? Haven’t we by mistake inverted our values? Why is it that people seem to feel no qualms about showing off signs of wealth, amidst so many needy people, and at the same time keep mute about goodness? If Prophet Muhammad condemned showing off, even goodness, what would he have said about showing off money and extravagance?
I say give, and tell. Give the example. Inspire. Let us have the Ayrton Sennas make people want to be like them in everything — not only the gold watches, but in their kindness. Let the women who want to have Angelina Jolie’s lips and shoes imitate her in her generosity (Jolie is said to donate 1/3 of her money to charity. She had considered joining the UN as a refugee officer but realised she would help much more by just continuing to work in the movie industry and donating part of her money to the causes she believes in). Publicising charity is as inspiring as advertising one’s favourite brands, so why should we fail to do one while not hesitating in doing the other?
It is for that reason that I particularly praise Sheikh Mohammed Bin Rashid Al Maktoum and his campaign Dubai Cares. Instead of just fasting during the day, and compensating the hunger at night, Sheikh Mohammed Bin Rashid Al Maktoum had another of his ambitious ideas, this time helping poor children get an education. With TV ads that would compare the price of an expensive bag and how many kids could study with that amount of money, the campaign raised almost half a billion dollars which were at the end matched by Sheikh Al Maktoum, totalling just short of a billion.
Now that is a competition the world would love to see: who gives more. Giving, along with its publicity, is very inspiring. After Bill Gates donated $25.9 billion to charity, Warren Buffet, not to be outdone, beat Gates by pledging the donation of $37 billion.
Rochefoucauld was right when he said that “Virtue would not go to such lengths if vanity did not keep her company.” Knowing that humans are vain, and that in the age of spectacle exhibitionism is inevitable, we could only wish that the things that make us vain and proud also make the world a better place.
Paula schmitt is Middle East corrispondent for RFI and Rolling Stone Brazil