Saturday, December 29, 2007

The Way we Live

Tuesday, 25 December 2007
By Sabria S Jawhar

Every time I step into the lecture hall at Newcastle University, I offer silent thanks to Allah and then to my family for their support and encouragement while I pursue my education. There are many Saudi women like me who, despite being away from home, are seeking out a future and their own identity not only to make themselves better persons but also to make Saudi Arabia a better country. As a rule, Saudi society frowns on giving women this kind of freedom. Society says it must protect its women from temptation, but doesn't apply the same rule for men.
Society says that our freedoms must be restricted to keep families intact but it exempts men from these restrictions.
Islam is clear about our equal but separate rights. It's clear about divorce, education, inheritance and a host of other rights. But somewhere down the line they have been conveniently lost to favor a minority who make the rules for us according to their own viewpoint.
As a society, we ignore the impact that these arbitrary rules had on women.
The tragedy that befell the Qatif girl put a spotlight on this problem. We all agree that our society doesn't allow mingling of men and women. But her punishment of six months in prison and 200 lashes appears to be too harsh and does not match the crime after she was gang-raped.
King Abdullah, Custodian of the Two Holy Mosques, in his wisdom, pardoned the Qatif girl when the judicial system showed no compassion. The case of the Qatif girl is only a symptom of a much larger problem. The pressures on young women is almost unbearable.
It was reported last month that a 2006 study conducted by King Saud University researcher Salwa Al-Khatib found that 96 of 100 suicide attempts recorded by the hospital were committed by women. She added that the hospital receives on average 11 suicide-attempt cases by women each month.
Suicide is strictly forbidden in Islam. It is sinful that death by suicide is not recorded as a suicide but "misuse of medicine."
What could drive such a high number of women to take their own lives? Let's face it. We live a restricted lifestyle - our social life, where we go and with whom we are, our decision to go to college and even how many children we have are closely watched and guarded.
Maha Hamad, 23-year-old, recently told the British news agency Reuters that she attempted suicide two years ago.
"I was desperate back then because of family problems," she said. "My mother got divorced and I had to stay with her while my two older brothers stayed with my father. I faced too much pressure from my mother in everything I do. It was impossible for me to live my life without her dictating to me what to do and what not to do."
The rules that we live by appear to have been created to set women up to fail and are enforced in such a way that they can easily get themselves into trouble on the slightest pretence that what they do is wrong.
In Jeddah, I have seen a lot of women who live alone without talking to any man in their daily lives simply because this is taboo. When a woman is alone in a car with a driver, when a woman talks to a man who repairs something in her family's apartment or talking to a man who sells lingerie, does it become a crime? Should a woman receive 200 lashes for supervising two Pakistani workmen who are installing a ceiling lamp in her apartment?
The point I am trying to drive at is that it's impossible to survive in any society without mingling, especially in cases where there is no man in the family or, if there is, the man is abusive or irresponsible.
It's almost impossible to get around in a city without using a car. We haven't talked about these issues for a long time so much so that we simply accept them without questions.
How many times have I heard, "Well, this is Saudi Arabia." We all laugh and go about our business. But the pressure to get through the days with so much restrictions is sometimes difficult to comprehend by anyone other than a Saudi woman.
In the past two years, I've noticed a slight change in how women conduct themselves in public that gives me hope. Many young women are coming of age and sometimes go to coffee shops in groups or in pairs. They have fun and exchange conversation in a respectful way that, I bet, harms no one.
These bold, unafraid girls have the support of their families. They are given the right to choose their careers and the lifestyle they desire for themselves within the framework of Islam. They seek to deviate from old traditions that have added nothing to the development of our society.
I see Saudi society loosening the shackles of some arbitrary rules I have lived through as a teenager and young woman. And I am glad to see this development.
Maybe the case of the Qatif girl or the study of suicides by women have helped point out that we need to evaluate the restrictions placed on us, women.
Prince Saud Al-Faisal told a journalist from a British television last month that women in Saudi Arabia will drive cars when Saudi society is ready. Prince Saud has taken a bold step when he said he believes women should be allowed to drive.
By Saudi society, he means families, and I am thankful that my family recognizes my value and gives me the independence I am entitled to.
But if we are going to wait for all families to recognize the right of their wives, daughters and sisters, we will be waiting for a long time. We need a few more people like Prince Saud to give us a gentle push.

Wednesday, December 12, 2007

Crying for Justice

Wednesday, 12 December 2007
By Sabria S Jawhar

RECENTLY the London-based Arabic daily Al-Hayat, reported that a Saudi student in the United Kingdom was severely beaten by thugs and robbed of his mobile and cash. Muhammad Al-Hujilan, a student at the University of East Anglia (UEA) in Norwich reported that a dozen British youths attacked him and uttered racial expletives. He suffered a fractured nose and bruises all over his face.
He alleges the Norwich police did little about it. But a Norwich police spokesman said, "We're concerned there are reports of an increase in racist attacks at the UEA which are not reflected in reports made to police. Since the beginning of November we have had one racially aggravated assault at the UEA reported to us - the assault on Friday - which is under investigation by CID officers."
The incident alarmed the Saudi student community of almost 7,000 with many commenting on an online forum expressing fear and a sense of dread of who could be next.
The incident truly frightened me and I now think twice about taking a walk in my own neighborhood. Sometimes I feel as if my hijab is just a big sign that says "Kick Me!" when I'm out in public. Now I have more reasons to worry.
In another incident, my local newspaper reported the other day that a Nottingham law student, who appeared to be of Mideastern descent judging from the photograph, was visiting friends in Newcastle when he was attacked by a half-dozen or so men and had a portion of his ear chewed off.
This occurred within the walking distance of my bank and the stores where I shop.
As I mentioned before, I sometimes feel there is a big spotlight on Saudis - or any of the Muslim students, for that matter - as we go about our business in the United Kingdom.
The British press is full of immigration stories that are sensationalized to the point where even I am wary of newcomers.
What I find worrisome is that there has been no reaction from the British Government over this attack. What are they doing about it? If this attack was indeed motivated by ethnic or religious hatred than it is far more serious than the teddy bear teacher incident in Sudan in which the British citizen was jailed for several days for insulting religion.
Further, the Saudi Embassy has a duty towards Saudi students to notify them about the details of the attack. It should also take up the issue with the British Government and let the Saudi students know of the results thereof.
Did they or will they issue a statement? They hired a lawyer for Al-Hujilan, but their silence leaves the rest of the Saudi students in the dark.
While Al-Hujilan mentions racial slurs were made during the attack, the motive is unclear as to whether it was a crime of opportunity or racism.
Arab readers of the article presumed that the attack was motivated by nationality and bigotry. They went to great lengths to defend the Saudi's honor and to condemn the attack as if it was an assault on the Kingdom itself and our flag.
It's almost as if the Saudis have a persecution complex when it comes to criticism or attacks on us.
This young student could have been attacked because he was Saudi, but there has been no evidence to suggest it. Yet our first reaction is to conclude it could be the only reason. It reminds me of what Sigmund Freud once said: "Sometimes a cigar is just a cigar." Well, sometimes a beating is just a beating.
Equally worse than jumping to conclusions, is the irrational, partisanship that some Arabs have a tendency to play in which the thread of comments goes from lamenting the state of Saudi students in the UK and their persecution at the hands of thugs to one of elitism and nationalism. Here, the Saudi student is forgotten and comments fall into whose country is better. "Saudis are better than Libyans!" "Libyans are better than the Sudanese!" Jordanians are superior to the Syrians!" "Everybody is better than the Palestinians!"
Good grief, we can't even carry on rational, dignified conversation about living abroad and our normal fears that come with the experience.
We have to digress into discussion about nationalism, tribalism and about which is the better Muslim country. We didn't even think how to secure justice for this poor guy. We whine all day about how Western nations don't take our opinions seriously and, in fact, ignore much of what we have to offer. But sometimes I wonder that maybe we are just a little too self-destructive.
These comments posted online remind me of the new breed of Arab rap artists whose immature songs focus on heaping disrespect on people of other beliefs.
If anything, the Iraq war has demonstrated to the West the deep divisions between Sunnis and Shiites so they are attuned to our sometimes over-developed sense of national and tribal pride that gets in the way of some of the day-to-day issues that we live with. Like, for example, this Saudi student who was beaten and robbed. Remember him?

Tuesday, December 4, 2007

Teacher’s Trauma

Tuesday, 04 December 2007
By Sabria S Jawhar

A FRIEND of mine once asked me why when I'm walking down the street here in Newcastle that I nod hello to other Muslim women, wearing their hijabs, but are complete strangers. I said I didn't really know but that it's probably just an acknowledgment of solidarity as we try to navigate our way through a foreign country. When we are away from home, we feel a kinship with our brothers and sisters because deep down we somehow feel that all eyes are upon us. Fair or not, the reality is that somehow our actions dictate how Muslims are viewed in the Western World.
So nothing could be more painful for me than seeing the Sudanese arrest and convict British schoolteacher Gillian Gibbons for "insulting religion." Why? Because she allowed her 7-year-old students name the class teddy bear "Muhammad."
A large percentage of the Muslim men in the world are named Muhammad. I can imagine in a fit of anger what their wives, mothers and fathers call them. How they would abuse their name during a family argument. It's what people do. But this non-Muslim woman is the target of hate for something that wasn't even her fault.
If the Sudanese government felt that strongly about her alleged crime, then getting her on the first plane back to England would have been the answer.
But to make matters worse and hold Muslims to ridicule is having hundreds - or thousands, if the Western press is to be believed - of Sudanese in Khartoum demonstrate in the street shouting for her death. I'm sorry, these people are idiots. They hurt Islam. They make us look like blood-thirsty villains. They put a negative spotlight on Muslims abroad. Their actions are not constructive to creating dialogue between Muslims and non-Muslims.
I do not feel solidarity with the demonstrators, but anger, frustration and maybe even a little pity.
The good news is that the Sudanese president pardoned Gibbons and she is on her way back to Britain.
I suspect that he was caught unawares of just what a messy public relations disaster this incident turned out to be.
It's also good to see that British Muslim organizations condemned the arrest and conviction of Gibbons and that two members of the House of Lords, both Muslims, were alarmed enough to fly to Sudan at their own expense and negotiate for her release. These Muslims reflect the true attitude of most of us.
There's been discussions by Muslims in the United Kingdom to established "rules of conduct" list that could be issued as early as March.
One issue that may be listed is that honor killings should be publicly denounced as "un-Islamic."
I like the idea of becoming more vocal when people do bad things in the name of our religion. I like the idea that they are held accountable for their actions.
Whether I like it or not, I feel I have been put in a position of representing the Muslim community. Maybe I'm not seen as a Muslim to Westerners, although my hijab screams otherwise.
Whatever the case, my perception is I do represent my culture and religion and I act accordingly. I wish others would do the same.

Wednesday, November 28, 2007

What’s the Big Deal?

What’s the Big Deal?
Wednesday, 28 November 2007

The Bush-Maliki agreement for a potentially long-term US troop presence in Iraq has come under harsh criticism, and justifiably so. Where was the need of the deal, signed Monday, when Washington has nothing to negotiate with Baghdad, the obvious small guy in this pact.
The US should have realized that it will have to be in Iraq for the long haul as the Iraq invasion was not a picnic and certainly not a Nicaragua-style vacation. Skeptics also believe that the US meant to stay in Iraq for years in order to fry a much bigger fish than Saddam Hussein and his so-called weapons of mass destruction.
There's far too much under Iraq to pass up, the growing threat of Iran and the urgent need to protect Israel from Syria. Turkey's refusal to let the US use its territory as a springboard into Iraq was a clear sign that the US needed to look for other alternatives.
The Americans will stay in Iraq not just because they have to, but because they can. Dhafir Al-Ani, a Sunni lawmaker associated with the National Concord Front, the main Sunni political faction in the Iraqi parliament, summed it up best when he said that the agreement was signed between non-equal parties. Prime Minister Nuri Al-Maliki knows full well that he isn't in much of a position to negotiate, because he doesn't have a reliable security apparatus to keep the country away from militancy.
This is a very binding agreement. The Americans can leave if they want to, but won't. The Iraqis want the Americans to leave, but they can't let them leave. The only thing left to haggle over, then, is where in Iraq the US base(s) will be established?
Those calling for the US to set a timetable for the withdrawal of its forces from Iraq should realize that such a demand is simply pointless. They want a timetable in the hope that it will be measured in months rather than decades. But they fail to see the signs that this was never meant to happen.
This is all very counterproductive, even if it means lucrative chunks of business for the likes of Halliburton. The fact is that the Americans will never be welcome in Iraq for any length of time, not when they continue to act as if they own the country. Perhaps in a way, they do, now that they have made their deal with Maliki. Everything else is a matter of appearances, and the vicious cycle of violence - now in what might be a temporary lull - is set to go on for sometime to come.

Saudi Students Abroad and Challenges they Face

Tuesday, 27 November 2007
By Sabria S Jawhar

SINCE arriving in the United Kingdom two months ago for my studies at Newcastle University I have had the opportunity to meet many different people from around the world who have the same ambitions that I do: To get the most out of my Ph.D program and all that I can from British culture and return home to give my countrymen the benefit of what I have learned. In my circle of friends and colleagues I am fortunate to know the British, of course, but also Americans, Canadians, Colombians, Egyptians, Libyans, Kuwaitis, Bahrainis and a young woman from Luxembourg.
I am amazed and pleased with the number of Saudis on campus and in my own program. And as Saudis we are acutely aware of how we are portrayed in the media and perceived by our peers on campus.
Although all of our classmates, professors and university staff are polite and gracious, if not very friendly when talking to us, in a way we feel as if we occasionally have to explain ourselves.
The tragedy of the "Qatif Girl," the Saudis' anticipated role in the Israel-Palestinian peace conference this week at Annapolis and King Abdullah's visit to London earlier this month has put Saudi Arabia in the headlines quite a bit.
I took an informal sampling of Saudis on campus about their observation of Western perceptions and the West's perceptions of them as well. I found Saudis hopeful, encouraged and they consider their stay in this country a pleasure.
I also found an underlying sense of anxiety, mostly about how we are perceived by Western media. And that causes perhaps the most concern about my colleagues.
"The media move according to a perceived agenda to achieve their political goals regardless of the credibility of what they say," said Sultan Al-Amri, a student at Newcastle University and chairman of the Saudi Club and the Saudi Association of Newcastle.
"But, unfortunately, the Arabic media are still unable to portray the real picture to the West in order to correct their misconception."
It was particularly evident during King Abdullah's visit, which was marked by some discord over alleged human rights abuses, including Vince Cable, leader of the opposition party, the Liberal Democrats. Cable boycotted the visit claiming that Saudi Arabia's human rights record, specifically its death penalty laws, its anti-terrorism efforts and women's rights needed improvement.
Al-Amri observed the media coverage does not reflect British attitudes towards Saudis. He noted that Saudis have generally been free of stereotyping.
"The good and deeply rooted relationship between Saudi Arabia and the United Kingdom can never be reflected in a way better than having 7,000 Saudi students receiving their education at UK universities without any kind of harassment," Al-Amri said.
"They (the British government) have international experience in dealing with different people from different countries since the time of the Great British empire, which is reflected in the way British people deal with minorities among them."
Ali Al-Qahtani, a doctorate student at Northumbria University, said it saddens him that "Western countries look at Islam as if it's a religion of terror," and blames Western journalists. He said Muslim students need to educate non-Muslims.
"The media are the only window through which they can have an idea about Muslims and their culture," Al-Qanti said.
"However, those studying abroad have a role to play about changing the picture of Islam and Muslims by representing the true Islamic values."
Manal Al-Hakami, who is studying for her master's degree at Newcastle University, said the difference between reality and media perception is evident in the way the British government treats Arab and Muslim students. She noted the British government is quick and efficient in issuing visas for Saudi students.
"It's a reflection on the good relationship between the two countries in the way Saudis are dealt with by British government officials and university employees, as Saudis don't face discrimination or ill-treatment, even in the classroom."
Like Al-Qahtani, she wants to see Saudi students should increase their participation in social activities in a way that it best represents Islamic values.
Naif Al-Sharif, a doctorate student at Newcastle University, said he has seen some discrimination.
"Sometimes Saudi students face harassment from the British because they correlate between terrorism and Saudi people," he said. "However, not all of the people think about that, at least the people in the street don't."
While Saudi university students are concerned about the Kingdom's image abroad, their worries are somewhat closer to day-to-day living in the United Kingdom and whether King Abdullah can effect changes that would make living abroad more comfortable.
Al-Hakami said living on a students' allowance provided by the Saudi government is difficult at best. She said Arab students form other countries, such as Libya, Kuwait and Qatar, have a more generous living allowance.
"Saudis get the smallest allowance," she said, adding that the understaffed Saudi Cultural Attache's office in London makes it difficult to have student issues resolved.
"Some of the students have difficulties in communication with Saudi supervisors at the Cultural Attache's office because the number of office personnel is too low for the number of students," she said.
Zaid Al-Otaibi, a Saudi doctorate student at Newcastle, said there is an increase in the number of Saudis holding leading positions in both government and private industry who are graduates of British universities. Being a graduate of a British university he is a good motive for students who want to succeed as a professional.
"The UK is the best place where students can receive education away from the harassment that our Saudi compatriots face in other countries where politicians get easily confused every time a new political issue takes place," he said.

Tuesday, November 20, 2007

Should OPEC Flex Political Muscle?

Tuesday, 20 November 2007
By Sabria S Jawhar

THE most telling thing about the OPEC summit this week in Riyadh was King Abdullah's gentle rebuff of Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez who had hoped to use oil as a political weapon against his enemies - namely the United States and other Western, fuel-hungry nations.
On Saturday Chavez suggested boldly that OPEC should become more political. "OPEC was born as a geopolitical force and not only as a technical or economic one in the ‘60s," Chavez said. "We should continue to strengthen OPEC, but beyond that, OPEC should set itself up as an active political agent."
He added that "if the United States was mad enough to attack Iran or aggress Venezuela again the price of a barrel of oil won't just reach $100 but even $200."
My heart tells me, "More power to you, friend. Give them what they deserve." But my head tells me, "Ouf, this could be a disaster of catastrophic proportions."
There's a good many people who would like nothing more than to dangle oil in front of the United States like a carrot to encourage good behavior. Their bullying tactics over the past six years have inflamed just about every Muslim from Indonesia to the United Kingdom. We feel helpless with this aggressive, unrelenting campaign against us.
But we can't let our emotions run away with us and we must look at the long-term consequences. And that would make an already angry lion even more angry and it just might tip things into a direction none of us want to go.
King Abdullah didn't have to think twice about the answer.
"Oil is an energy for building and prosperity; it shouldn't become a means of conflict," he said. "Those who want OPEC to become an organization of monopoly and exploitation ignore the truth."
He reminded OPEC leaders that "OPEC had always behaved moderately and wisely."
And with that appraisal others followed. Ibrahim Ibrahim, who represents Qatar Petroleum, credited Chavez with helping OPEC become stronger but he also said, "There is no need for OPEC to be a political force now. It just has to ensure that the oil market is stable."
President George Bush will be out of office in 14 months. Americans are already wearing buttons that simply read "01-20-09." In other words, dark days will end when another president is sworn in on that date. We must be patient. If we use our heads now, just maybe the Americans will use their heads as their presidential election comes. The same can be said for the push by Iran and Venezuela these past few days for OPEC to sever its connection to the US dollar. Several OPEC members are said to want to switch selling oil from US dollars to Euros.
Prince Saud Al-Faisal, Foreign Minister, disagreed and King Abdullah put the weakened dollar and its impact on oil consumption in perspective.
"The current price of oil, if we take into consideration inflation, is less than what it was in the early 1980s," he said.
The consequences of leaving the dollar for the Euro would not be beneficial to Saudi Arabia and other oil-producing countries in the long-run, because it would only further weaken the dollar and put the Bush administration in a more desperate situation.
I'm not suggesting that we adopt an appeasement policy with the United States just so they don't turn on us. But the region is in a precarious position at the moment and we can't make impulsive decisions based on our emotions that would further destabilize it.
With King Abdullah's moderate, if not calming, approach to these issues, he steered away two pressing issues that could lead oil-producing nations into disaster: using oil as a weapon and abandoning the dollar. At the same time, the King managed to turn the summit into another direction by announcing the Saudi government will donate $300 million to finance programs to explore solutions to global warming.
This is the long view of the world and certainly more sensible than leaving an unpredictable country like the United States high and dry. Yes, my heart says let them go through a little suffering, but the brain says patience is a virtue.

Dangerous Proposal

Tuesday, 20 November 2007

The United States has a long track record of financing and waging proxy guerrilla wars in several parts of the world: arming and abetting the Contras rebels in Nicaragua, fomenting trouble in Vietnam, meddling in Somalia affairs, creating the Mujahideen force to fight the Soviets in Afghanistan and lately crafting an anti-Al-Qaeda force in Iraq's restive Anbar province. To add to the long list, Washington is now planning to start a US-supported tribal force in Pakistan's troubled tribal belt, according to a new and classified proposal awaiting Washington's approval. The idea is to arm tribal leaders against Al-Qaeda and Taleban militants and foreign fighters entrenched in the area, according to Monday's report in The New York Times.
Washington has long played the card of overtly and covertly supporting homegrown disenchantment in any rebellious movement. A case in point is that of Anbar where the US egged on and pampered the tribal Sunni Sheikhs to stand up against Al-Qaeda's daily dose of deaths through suicide attacks and kidnappings.
If the new proposal gets Washington's go-ahead, it will mark a significant shift in its strategy as it is likely to expand the presence of American military trainers in Pakistan and directly finance a separate tribal paramilitary force. The proposal also envisages paying huge amounts of money to militias that agree to fight Al-Qaeda and foreign militants in the tribal belt of Waziristan.
The latest proposal raises the question of whether any partnership to be forged by Pakistani troops can be made without a significant US military presence in Pakistan. And it is unclear whether enough support can be found among the tribes, some of which are known to be actively working with Pakistan's intelligence agency.
The Bush administration has used billions of dollars of aid and heavy political pressure to encourage Pakistani President Pervez Musharraf to carry out more aggressive military operations against militants in the tribal areas. But the sporadic military campaigns Pakistan has conducted there have had little success, resulting instead in heavy losses among Pakistani Army units and anger among local residents who have for decades been mostly independent from Islamabad's control.
The Mujahideen movement in Afghanistan, undisputed creation of the US, is largely instrumental in the formation of Al-Qaeda and its likes. The proposal to arm tribal leaders in the politically unstable northwest of Pakistan is fraught with dangers; it has the potential of spawning many more Al-Qaedas in the not so distant future.

The Agony of the ‘Qatif Girl’

Tuesday, 20 November 2007
By Suzan Zawawi
WITH cases such as "Qatif Girl's" rape case, judicial reform couldn't come at a better time.
Last week, the Qatif General Court re-sentenced the Saudi young woman dubbed by Saudi media as "Qatif Girl" to 180 lashes and a jail term, doubling her first sentence after being gang-raped 14 times within two hours by seven convicted men. The court found the girl guilty of being in the company of a non-relative male during her abduction at knifepoint, a year-and-a-half ago.
Apparently, the three judges presiding over the case didn't believe that being raped 14 times was sufficient punishment for the girl who attempted suicide after the rape.
Upon appealing to the courts against the first sentence of 90 lashes, "Qatif Girl" hoped that she would be able to gain back a fraction of her dignity that was lost that horrifying night.
But that didn't happen, the same judge who presided over in the first case, doubled her sentence along with the rapist.
If the girl's soul didn't die that night her innocence was surely violated last Wednesday.
"Qatif girl's dream of redeeming any of her self-respect through the judicial system was crushed in front of her own eyes.
Qatif court's message is loud and clear, girls and women who are raped could face punishment, and if they attempt to appeal they might face the same sentence as ‘Qatif Girl' and if you are a lawyer defending your client to the best of your ability, you might be thrown out of court, have your license confiscated and a ban from defending your client.
Judicial reform, which King Abdullah, Custodian of the Two Holy Mosques, called upon, couldn't come at a better time.
Not only are women, but men and children are also suffering from an un-codified system, leaving judges to rule on cases according to their own interpretation and understanding of Shariah law.
A case decided in one court might be adjudicated differently in a different court, according to the judge.
The second ruling on ‘Qatif Girl' couldn't come at a worse time as the world media is currently focusing on Saudi Arabia, the host of OPEC meeting.
The enormous efforts exerted by both Saudi women and the government in empowering Saudi women in all fields have been overshadowed by the court ruling.
Could the judge in Qatif be so oblivious to the outcome of such rulings, whether to the rape victim, other sexually abused women and Saudi Arabia's image abroad?

Tuesday, November 13, 2007

Narrow Worldview

Tuesday, 13 November 2007
By Sabria S Jawhar

WHENEVER I saw King Abdullah on television as he visited European heads of state I bubbled with pride that history was being made as we expanded our vision of tolerance and understanding in this time of crisis in the Mideast. And King Abdullah's humble nature and desire to reach out to the common Saudis was evident during his visit to the United Kingdom when he met with Saudi university students to listened to their concerns and experiences of living abroad.
But nothing could be more exciting than the King's visit to the Vatican to meet with Pope Benedict XVI.
It's the first time a Saudi king has visited the leader of the Catholic Church. The message exchanged by the two leaders was to encourage tolerance and demonstrate the strong ties between Islam and Christianity.
Much has been written in Saudi Arabia and in the West about the visit. Inevitably we are on the receiving end of lectures from Western journalists about our alleged lack of tolerance when it comes to visitors or workers in Saudi Arabia practicing their own faith.
To watch the BBC or read the New York Times one would think our country is a hotbed of religious intolerance and persecution.
After all, according to these models of Western journalistic integrity, non-Muslims are not permitted in the holy cities of Makkah and Madinah. If a Mormon family from Utah wants to visit the Grand Mosque in Makkah and have their photos taken with the pigeons while thousands of Saudis and expatriates perform Friday prayers in the background, well, what's wrong with that?
Well, plenty. It's called respect. What's equally troublesome is the hypocrisy of journalists and human rights advocates when discussing their brand of religious tolerance.
Let's look around. Non-Jews are not allowed to enter the Inner Temple in Jerusalem. An average curious Jew walking by the temple is also barred from entering it. It's only for religious leaders. St. Peter's at the Vatican, the spiritual home to the Pope, does not welcome non-believers of the Christian faith. And I don't see Muslims and Jews setting prayer mats and tiny altars inside the Vatican to practice their faith.
And some Hindu temples are off-limits to tourists. The Golden Temple in Amritsar, in the northern Indian state of Punjab, allows tourists only in the outer areas. The laws that apply to the Golden Temple are similar to the borders of Madinah, in which two borders, the religious borders and the geographical borders, are established.
Non-Muslims are allowed in parts of Madinah if they observe the religious borders.
When I hear these so-called advocates of religious freedoms cry out for tolerance in Saudi Arabia, I think of their selective memories and narrow view of the facts when it comes to the rest of the world.
This doesn't mean that there isn't room for criticism of Saudi Arabia. Certainly we need to think about how to be more forward looking when it comes to viewing non-Muslims. Regrettably there are religious zealots who take it upon themselves to harass, if not arrest, Christians praying in the privacy of their own homes. This is silly. What they do in the privacy of the their homes is their business. Not mine. And certainly not of the Mutawwas.
And we need to do a better job of making the distinction between the actions of a country and that country's religious faith.
In other words being an Israeli and being a Jew are two separate things. We can recognize the faith as part of our religion while still maintaining our strong opposition to the policies of a country that practices its own brand of state-sponsored terrorism.
But let's also consider the fact that some non-Muslims engaged in illegal activity, whether it's prostitution, selling alcohol or gambling, use the religious card all too often. If someone is arrested on suspicion of operating a prostitution ring, what better way than to tell one's embassy that he was really arrested for practicing his own religion. It's a lot easier to get out of jail claiming religious persecution than trying to explain why you are selling Indonesian maids for SR100 on any given night.
There is room for improvement, but let's not fool ourselves into thinking that this is a one-way street. If Saudi Arabia needs to be put under a microscope, let all countries be subject to the same scrutiny.

Tuesday, October 23, 2007

Myopic Worldview

Tuesday, 23 October 2007
By Sabria S Jawhar

BRITISH novelist Martin Amis has joined the growing ranks of Muslim bashers. It reinforces the belief of many Muslims that the West is all too willing to discard its long-cherished values for some simple low-down revenge.
For those of you who don't know Amis, let me explain. He's the darling of British fiction who holds a high place in literary circles and when not writing he's teaching British youth his own values. He is a professor at Manchester University. An interview that Amis gave 14 months ago has surfaced recently. In that interview he said he has the "urge to say the Muslim community will have to suffer until it gets its house in order. What sort of suffering? Not letting them travel. Deportation - further down the road. Curtailing of freedoms. Strip-searching people who look like they're from the Mideast or from Pakistan... Discriminatory stuff, until it hurts the whole community..."
Wow. He must hate all 1.6 billion of us.
I'm not sure how in Amis' view of the world that I did something that warrants a travel ban, being strip-searched and deported. But it must have been pretty bad.
Amis reflects the "hang ‘em at the airport" attitude, a phrase coined by a Los Angeles police chief in the early 1970s when hijackings were occurring on a weekly basis in the United States. His attitude reflects the curious belief among many Westerners: Who needs due process and the right to a fair trial when a good old-fashioned lynching will do the trick?
After his comments exposed him for the man he is, Amis went on British television to defend himself. His explanation of his Islamphobia were the key words of "urge to say." As long as he cloaked his comments in an "urge to say" all is well and good and why is everybody so upset? It's an urge, an impulse. He argues that we should not deny our emotions. It's perfectly acceptable to lash out at a group of people when a few nut cases blow up innocent people.
But it's a coward's response to believe that the average reader is dumb enough not to get the message. As if "urge to say" makes hate speech and denial of basic human rights somehow more acceptable.
Amis went on the Channel 4 News in the United Kingdom the other night in his attempt to explain that he was only speaking of an "urge" and wasn't really advocating mass deportations, strip-searches and the general persecution of Muslims worldwide. No, he wanted to make the distinction that he was talking about Islamists and not Islam. His problem in the interview was that he never explained what his interpretation of an Islamist is.
Being an Islamist is different things to different people. To Amis, an Islamist smells like a terrorist. I don't generally call myself an Islamist, but what if I did? To me, that sounds like a nationalist, a patriot, a student and advocate of Islam. I know many people who identify themselves as Islamists in direct response to Westerners trying to make it a dirty word. Why shouldn't we be Islamists? It's nothing to be ashamed of.
Amis vaguely went on to say that being an Islamist is an ideology within Islam and that he felt morally superior to Islamists. What that ideology is, I wouldn't have a clue and I got the impression from Amis he doesn't either. And the real terror comes from the fact that Amis is teaching British students his view of the world.
There are people like Amis all over the world and they are little better than some so-called Muslim clerics urging suicide bombers to attain martyrdom by killing innocents and the neo-conservatives in Washington who have ripped to shreds the US Constitution and Bill of Rights in the name of freedom and security.
What appalls me most is the willingness of a large group of people to abandon their values in the name of freedom and security. Or maybe it's to keep freedom and security for themselves and not share it with the rest of the world. The neo-conservatives are a tiny minority who don't reflect the goodness in the traditional Western values just as violent militants don't share the same values as the overwhelming majority of Muslims worldwide. But unfortunately, those with the loudest voices get the most attention.
There will always be people like Martin Amis who are willing to vent their need for revenge and be all-too-willing to sacrifice the things they hold so dear to them. And that is where I feel morally superior to people like him. I won't give up my Islamic values of peace and tolerance to respond to his hate.

Thursday, October 18, 2007

Half-Hearted Efforts

Thursday, 18 October 2007
By Sabria S Jawhar

DURING the past couple of weeks newspapers in the United Kingdom have been full of reports of the trial of Mohammed Hamid, who is accused of recruiting young Muslim men to bomb London's subways and encouraging them to become martyrs. I cringe every time I read these stories because it only further taints the good work of Muslims worldwide.
Lost in these sensational reports that often foment xenophobia among Britons are quiet efforts by Muslims and Christians alike during Eid to bring about peace and understanding between different faiths. I put an emphasis on "quiet." After all, it's been six years since 9/11 and Muslims, Christians and some Jews are still taking tentative steps towards establishing peace and fostering understanding. It's a cliche but so true that it bears repeating: Action speaks louder than words.
Last week, 138 Muslim scholars sent an open letter to Christian leaders calling for greater understanding between Muslims and Christians. The letter was sent to the Archbishop of Canterbury, Dr. Rowan Williams, and Pope Benedict. The Royal Aal Al-Bayt Institute for Islamic Thought in Jordan organized the letter campaign. I appreciate these efforts and wait to see what kind of response comes from Dr. Williams and the Pope.
The reality is that these kinds of efforts seem almost timid. I don't want to denigrate the good intentions of these Muslim scholars or what I expect would be a positive reply from Christian leaders. I hope that this opens broad dialogue that puts an end to suspicion and distrust and helps us find common ground in our faith in God.
But if there is ever a time for Muslims and Christians to be bolder in bridging the gap, it's now; during the Eid festivities and the upcoming Christmas holidays.
In the United States, Imams in many mosques open their doors once a month to people of other faiths to visit and learn about Islam. This should be a worldwide effort in which not only mosques are opened regularly to other faiths but our homes as well during Ramadan and Eid. By demonstrating to others firsthand the joy of Ramadan and Eid, non-Muslims will not only respect Islam and what the holidays mean to us but will not be hesitant to join us in celebration. Imagine the progress we can make if on our visits to local parks and playgrounds to spread out our feasts for Eid that our children invite their non-Muslim acquaintances to join them. A strong foundation for tolerance would be established and our children will not feel isolated during their holidays.
By the same token, in a society that is dominated by Muslims, we should demonstrate understanding and respect for non-Muslim holy days. Isn't this a better way of D'awah? Isn't demonstrating tolerance a primary attribute of Islamic D'awah? If we look at the actions of Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him), we find that on many occasions he dealt with his Christian and Jewish neighbors with respect, such as providing them with gifts such as meat from a slaughtered sheep. This was a profound example of generosity during a period of extreme poverty.
Last week, the management of New York's Empire State Building, reportedly once a target for destruction by Al-Qaeda, lit the building green to celebrate Eid. The 1,454-foot-tall building already celebrates Christmas, the Jewish holiday of Hanukkah and the Irish festival of St. Patrick's Day by changing the color of its evening lights. Now the celebration of Eid will join these non-Muslim events annually.
As a Muslim it pleases me and makes me feel good to witness this change. I welcome these changes heartily, but I am also impatient to get on with broader and bolder steps. As the trial of Mohammed Hamid dominates the headlines in the UK, Muslims look to Christian leaders to remind people not to generalize or stereotype Muslims for the actions of a few.

Wednesday, October 10, 2007

Fueling the Fire

Tuesday, 09 October 2007
By Sabria S Jawhar

SAUDIS are sensitive, particularly in the post-9/11 world, about their image and take great care in presenting Saudi Arabia as an ally of the United States and correctly represent their serious efforts to fight terrorism within its own borders as well as other countries. I point this out because I left the cinema over the weekend with mixed feelings after watching "The Kingdom," the American-made film featuring Jamie Foxx, Ashraf Barhom and Jennifer Garner. Foxx and Garner portray a pair of FBI agents who join Saudi police and military investigators to identify and capture a band of terrorists who bombed a fictional residential compound in Riyadh that left about 100 people dead. Barhom plays Saudi Col. Faris Al-Ghazi, the liaison between the Saudi government and the FBI.
Director Peter Berg got much of Saudi Arabia right and some of it wrong. I suppose that is to be expected. I give him credit for trying to provide a balanced portrait of our country. The Saudi characters, usually played by Syrians and Egyptians, come off well although no one speaks with a perfect Saudi accent or even tries to.
And the film starts off promising enough, giving us a brief, but compelling, history of the Kingdom and a dramatic, if not painful, depiction of the bombing of the compound. But it soon becomes apparent that we are watching an action movie with little thought to the political nature and relationship between Saudi Arabia and the United States.
Some of it is an outright distortion of the political equations between the two countries. For example, the film makes it clear that Saudi Arabia does not want FBI agents on its soil, fearing that it will inflame further the terrorists and their sympathizers. At one point early in the film Foxx's character meets with the fictional Saudi ambassador to the United States and threatens him if his team is not permitted to conduct an investigation in Riyadh. Saudis have cooperated for years with the United States by inviting and providing assistance to US investigators in crimes committed by terrorists against US citizens. There has always been a bilateral agreement between the two countries. In reality, there is no need of threats.
Worse, however, is the imagery and selective editing Berg uses to foreshadow terrorists acts. Often before the story changes to the terrorists' point of view, we see scenes of mosques at sunset and the call for prayer. Whenever these evil men are prepared to attack innocent civilians or the FBI agents themselves they repeatedly utter "Allah-o-Akbar."
We already know that so-called Muslims who use their religion to commit murder have forever tainted in the minds of Westerners "Allah-o-Akbar" and similar expressions, but the film seems to go out of its way to reinforce this stereotype. I suppose that could be one reason why some Muslim clerics were denied permission to board a flight in the US early this year. They were praying in the airport lounge before take-off and some Americans became jittery over "Allah-o-Akbar" and reported them to the authorities. This film only adds fuel to the fire.
I can quibble over other misrepresentations. Egyptians place their prayer mats on the walls of the homes. Saudis don't, although you wouldn't know it by watching the movie. And, according to the film, Saudis can break into families' home and threaten them at gunpoint. No Saudi law authority would do such a thing without having female personnel present to escort women from the home. ‘The Kingdom' falls into a typical action movie with lots of bloodshed and violence, so the opportunity to tell a more subtle, important story of Saudi-US relations is squandered.
Yet despite these flaws the performance of Ashraf Barhom stands out as a highlight, if not an inspiration. Playing Col. Al-Ghazi, Barhom, ironically an Arab-Israeli, humanizes Saudis with his wit and intelligence. There is an extended scene showing the home life of his family that drives the point home that Saudi families are just like any other family.
We will see more films telling Saudi stories without Saudi actors. I understand there were Saudi consultants on the film. Naturally not all of their suggestions would have to be implemented. It was Peter Berg's story to tell and I respect that.
But I'm disappointed, although not surprised, that the filmmakers were not permitted to make the movie in Riyadh, according to the director. By extending cooperation and allowing the movie to be shot in Saudi Arabia, it might have given Saudis more control, or perhaps more influence, on how they were portrayed on the screen. This film was shot in Abu Dhabi and Arizona in the United States. Given the chance, a film crew allowed to work in Riyadh could have furthered the understanding between the West and us by using Saudi crewmembers and even actors.
In an interview with a United Kingdom newspaper, Jennifer Garner noted that she knows more about Saudi Arabia now that she has completed the film. She characterized Saudi women as oppressed and banned from driving and receiving no education. She never stepped foot in Saudi Arabia yet her appearance in the film apparently makes her an expert on Saudi affairs. But she does nothing but perpetuate the stereotype. Perhaps this could have been avoided if she actually spent some of her time in the Kingdom.
When the next film crew seeks permission to make a movie in Saudi Arabia, I hope Saudi authorities will consider it.

Extreme Overview

Tuesday, 02 October 2007
By Sabria S Jawhar

A SUPERMARKET chain in the United Kingdom recently adopted a policy that allows its Muslim employees to refuse to ring up sales of alcohol by having a non-Muslim clerk stand in to scan the items.
When a customer comes through the queue with bottles or cans of alcohol, the Muslim clerk simply raises his hand and another clerk steps in to make the sale. After the sale is completed, the substitute then leaves and the Muslim returns to his duties. This is a noble effort by supermarket management to be sensitive to Islamic religious practices and to accommodate its employees. But immigrant Muslims are sending the wrong message in their over-enthusiasm to follow Islam.
I am here in the United Kingdom to pursue my doctorate degree. I've only been here for two weeks and I have seen many Muslims going about their daily lives. Many appear to have adapted to their new environment very well. I admire the young women especially who maintain a respectful presence, wear their hijab and remain Muslims in every way.
Others, I'm afraid, have isolated themselves in their faith. During an orientation session one morning I was surprised to find a young woman wearing an abaya and niqab. I was surprised to see this because while I wear the same thing while home in Jeddah, I don't wear it here. This young woman is isolating herself from her fellow students and even the professors and tutors who are charged with her academic studies.
This is her right, of course, but I remember another orientation session where the speaker urged students to mingle with each other, make friends and learn what other cultures and religions have to offer. To study, study, study and not get out in the world will only short-change yourself in the end. A university education is not just about academics, especially for students from overseas. It's to learn of other cultures and religions. The experiences of life in a foreign country are almost as important as studying for a degree.
The lonely student in her abaya is a microcosm of life in the United Kingdom. And much like this student, the Muslim supermarket employees refusing to accept alcohol at their workstation also are isolating themselves and failing to adapt to their environment. To be clear, I am not a religious expert, but to my limited knowledge if a Muslim is not selling alcohol for their own profit, but as an employee for a business, there is nothing un-Islamic about this practice especially if he is in a bad need of this job.
As an employee of a company they have signed a contract to carry out the duties required by the employer. Obviously, if you are working as a clerk in a supermarket in a Western country you will be required to accept all purchases made at the store as well as stock shelves. By refusing, the employer is forced to accommodate the employee with special considerations not given to other workers.
To the credit of local mosque leaders in the United Kingdom, they have condemned the behavior of these Muslim supermarket employees, noting they are "over-enthusiastic" and are failing to assimilate into the culture they chose to live in. And yes, they choose to be here. They acquired a visa, brought their families, and many hope to become citizens. Then, why this over-zealous effort?
Not long ago there was some controversy in the United States when Muslim Somali taxi drivers refused to take passengers in their cabs from the airport if they were bringing alcohol with them. Many conservative American media commentators were outraged that immigrants failed to assimilate into American society. One American Muslim cleric pointed out that these newly-arrived Muslim immigrants were just trying to learn how to navigate through a new and very open society and had erred on the side of caution. That seems reasonable to me, but I wonder about Muslims who are educated and have been in the West long enough to know that you don't give up your Islamic principles simply by stocking alcohol on a supermarket shelf or scanning the price code at the checkout line.
These workers are not consuming or selling alcohol for profit. They chose to work for the employer and they should abide by the rules that everyone must follow.
As for my sister in the abaya, I know that she will sacrifice not a single thing as a Muslim if she wears something that is more colorful than a completely black abaya and niqab. It is what's in her heart and her relationship with God that counts.

Wednesday, September 26, 2007

Let Women Drive!

Tuesday, 25 September 2007
By Sabria S Jawhar

THE issue of women driving in Saudi Arabia has again attracted the attention of the West with the insistence of another group of women that they be permitted to drive cars.
In recent weeks I have received a number of emails and phone calls from my Western friends asking me if the likelihood of Saudi women getting behind the wheel will be a reality. Frankly, I'm not hopeful, but it's inevitable that women will be driving on Saudi streets and soon. Saudi Arabia fought long and hard to become a member of the World Trade Organization and it is considering changing weekends to Saturday and Sunday to conform to Western business practices. After all, if Saudi Arabia wants to be a player in the international business community, it's going to have to make some dramatic changes in the way it does business.
Why do we care and what does this have to do with driving? Think about it. The consequences of doing business with Western nations means that more Westerners come here and observe, and, yes, judge our society. To make progress, to become a 21st century society, other countries will judge our sincerity and our will to join the rest of the world by how we treat our own citizens, the expatriates that work here, and whom Saudi society thinks as our national treasure - women.
Let's face the fact that sooner rather than later women driving will become common. But our people fail to recognize the basic failings of banning women from driving an automobile.
The contradiction in government's policy and common sense is that many women, particularly single ones, are exposed to blackmail and financial pressure from drivers who believe they can demand higher monthly salaries from their employers because they know that their passengers are almost helpless when it comes to finding reliable transportation. Many drivers think nothing of agreeing to a monthly wage with their female employer only to demand a pay raise after one or two months. What happens when the employer refuses? He abandons her, forcing her to find another driver and wasting precious time and financial resources.
I also had an interesting conversation with one driver who told me that he never drove a car in his native country and this was not only his first experience at driving but the first as a professional driver. It's a shuddering thought to think that this man was responsible to get me from Point A to Point B in a safe manner.
Many drivers take on several clients, which means women must vie for a time-slot to do their weekly shopping or conduct family business.
As for me, I have, quite often, been forced to cancel appointments simply because my driver failed to show up at proper time or failed to show up at all. I am at the mercy of an indifferent driver. As a professional woman, these severe restrictions on my movement not only affect my job performance but in the end it is a reflection on my employer.
A friend of mine, who holds a responsible position in the Ministry of Health, was forced to take a week off from work because her driver with legal residency ran away and none of the illegal drivers - men without legal residency - agreed to work for her for less than SR 1,700, especially during Ramadan, although she was providing room and board.
I can't even begin to count the number of drivers I have hired and fired and simply lost to a better paying client. Contrary to the perception of both Saudis and Westerners, many Saudi families can't afford a reliable driver and maintain a car. For women like me, I depend on a stranger driving his own less-than-safe vehicle to get me around time. I am at the mercy of his whims and moods.
Westerners ask me the same two questions when we talk: What about the abaya and the hijab and when will I drive. Since 9/11, most Westerners are educated well enough by interacting with Muslims to understand and appreciate what the abaya and especially the veil means to our culture and religion. I don't think any Westerner, as well as myself, understand the logic behind the refusal to allow women to drive.

Startling Statistics

Wednesday, 19 September 2007
By Sabria S Jawhar

MOBILE blood donation centers operating around the Corniche in Jeddah have discovered startling facts in recent weeks as they take blood samples from Saudis and non-Saudis: An estimated 25 percent of blood taken from random residents is infected with Hepatitis C, HIV and AIDS, Al-Hayat daily reported.
Most of those people testing positive for a blood disorder condition are young adults. They are aware of the dangers of becoming infected with HIV or AIDS and understand the ways to protect themselves. Our faith in Islam and its practices affords Saudi Arabia to have one of the lowest ratio of people infected with the disease. But it still happens. What's alarming, however, are the statistics of young people affected with Hepatitis C, which is usually acquired through living in unsanitary conditions. It appears that the Ministry of Health has now taken steps to launch an awareness program for Saudis and expatriates.
The most current statistics released by the Ministry of Health shows that as of 2006 there were a total of 11,520 HIV cases in the Kingdom - an estimated 2,658 cases among Saudis and 8,852 among non-Saudis. Infected men outnumber women 2-to-1, according to government figures. Infected adults between the age of 15-49 were estimated at 79.5 percent, while the total number of infected children was 6.4 percent.
In 2006 alone, 1,390 HIV cases were reported in the Kingdom.
Last month the ministry announced that it would enhance the current HIV/AIDS awareness campaign to include mosques in various cities and rural areas and to focus more on airports and markets. Universities also will be targeted. The current campaign is an extension of the program launched after last Ramadan.
It's also refreshing to hear reports from the Ministry of Health and medical authorities that people, who in the past have been reluctant to acknowledge AIDS, have expressed a keen interest in the program and are willing to be tested for the disease.
A doctor, Salem Maati Al-Harbi, told Asharq Al-Awsat last month that he received positive reactions from shoppers at markets or from visitors at the local recreational centers. There is a high demand for information, he told the newspaper. It appears that many of those testing for the disease completely renounced any idea that AIDS was a shameful disease. It also appears they are fairly well educated on the subject.
In addition, the Saudi government has recently announced that couples wishing to get married will now be required to undergo HIV/AIDS and Hepatitis testing as part of the mandatory premarital tests. If a bride or groom tests HIV positive and still wants to marry, the case would be transferred to the Justice Ministry for further review.
Clinics and testing centers also are being set up to increase testing and detection. Clinics are aimed primarily at Saudi citizens since expatriates undergo AIDS testing every time they renew their Iqamas (residence permits) and those found to be HIV positive are deported.
Saudi citizens who also test positive are referred to specialized AIDS treating centers. There are eight centers in Jeddah, Riyadh, Asir, Dammam, Jizan, Ahsa, Madina and Jouf.
The efforts by the Ministry of Health in spreading awareness and detecting the killing disease should be highly appreciated. However, there are still some more precautionary measures that should be taken by both citizens and officials. For instance, I was told recently that two dental clinics in a specialized hospital in Jeddah for treating infectious diseases, including AIDS, were closed for more than a year. The closure of these clinics has angered AIDS patients getting treatment there. That might sound okay in those countries where precautionary measures are taken by both people and dentists and where patients are willing to reveal their information to doctors. But, in our case, as we are still struggling to spread awareness among people, the closure of these clinics might contribute to the spreading of the disease especially in overcrowded public clinics and the small private ones which pay scant attention to precautionary measures.
We have to know that 25 percent of a random sample among a population of mostly youths is shocking and is something that should receive more attention from media as well as officials. It, unfortunately, did not happen. Each AIDS patient in the Kingdom costs the government almost SR100,000 annually. This quite high amount of money should go for developing the health sector in the country and to introducing more advanced health care centers. The whole issue, though, does not take more than a little amount of follow-up and more attention to save both our youth and our economy.

Friday, September 14, 2007

A Rarely Debated Issue

Tuesday, 11 September 2007

By Sabria S Jawhar

A NEW book released last week in the United States addresses an issue long on Arabs' minds but rarely debated in American political circles: that American political leaders are so slavish and uncritical of Israel's foreign policy that it actually damages both countries' interests. "The Israel Lobby and US Foreign Policy" by John J. Mearsheimer and Stephen M. Walt has already been labeled anti-Semitic and has stirred considerable controversy among Jewish leaders in the United States and Israel.
The book argues that the United States should support Israel if it's in the best interests of the former and that the Jewish state should be treated no differently than any other Mideast country.
Of course, this is something Arabs have advocated all along. And I acknowledge that most high-minded, intellectually honest Arabs agree that Israel is here to stay and peace must be achieved to allow Israel to be a good neighbor and to maintain a stable region.
Saudi Arabia has said as much by advocating the 2002 Arab peace plan that returns pre-1967 borders to Israel's Arab neighbors and creates a viable and independent Palestinian state.
The US has invested much in its support of Israel since the end of World War II but it has strayed considerably since then and especially after the 1967 war. And it seems to me now that there is no rhyme or reason for much of its support of Israel.
For example, during the disastrous Lebanon-Israeli war last year, President George Bush and Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice stood by while Israel attacked Hezbollah positions in Lebanon, asserting that Israel had a right to defend itself after three Israeli soldiers were kidnapped by Hezbollah.
Israel, incredulously as it sounds now, defended itself by bombing residential neighborhoods and killing more than 1,100 Lebanese civilians. The argument at the time, and supported by Bush and Rice, was that Hezbollah was using residential neighborhoods as a base for operations. The Human Rights Watch dismissed it as a myth last week. Hezbollah had longed pulled out of civilian areas to conduct military operations. Surely US and Israeli intelligence were aware of this, but it didn't fit into the United States' position of support for Israel.
Despite these crimes committed by Israel, Americans' unwavering support for the Jewish state in many ways is understandable. Israel has a powerful lobby in Washington, D.C., with the American Israel Public Affairs Committee and the American Jewish Committee lobbying relentlessly to safeguard Israel's interests. This is the way of American politics. One has to look no further than Michael Moore's "Bowling for Columbine," "Fahrenheit 9/11" and "Sicko" film documentaries to understand that there are lobbying groups for every single existing organization that wants legislation to protect their interests. Why should Israel be any different? Having said that I must ask why are Arabs so resistant to establish their own lobbying group to solicit support from the US Congress and the White House? One must learn to play the game.
Yet I can't help but feel enraged that the American Congress, which prides itself on debating everything under the sun from global warming and gay rights to health care and the war in Iraq, is virtually silent on the issue of aid and support to Israel at the expense of the Palestinians.
American lawmakers appear to be seized by fear that they will be identified as anti-Semitic if they oppose or even question loyalty to Israel; never realizing that one can oppose a country's foreign policy without being anti-Semitic. There is simply no connection. So Arab anger against the US is justified. Arabs want to know where are the courageous Americans who will step forward and correct the wrongs dating back to 1967.
As Mearsheimer and Walt argue in their book, unflinching American support of Israel has seriously damaged Uncle Sam's credibility among Arabs and Muslims and has actually created more terrorists than ever imagined. And perhaps the worse crime of all, taking into account all that has occurred in last 40 years, is that the United States has had numerous opportunities to guide Israel to solve the Palestinian issue but has failed simply because it won't question Israel's policies.
Because of that lack of courage, the world has become a much more dangerous place than before.

Job for All of Us

Tuesday, 04 September 2007

By Sabria S Jawhar

Despite the belligerent rhetoric that has escalated recently between the American and Iranian governments, Iran is likely to do exactly what Ahmadinejad promised: fill that vacuum once US troops begin to draw down. Every time Ahmadinejad opens his mouth, the Americans take the bait with now tiresome responses by claiming that Iranian weapons are killing American soldiers - although hard evidence remains lacking - or that Iran's pursuit of nuclear technology will put the Middle East "under the shadow of a nuclear holocaust." But if it's clear that Iran will do everything it can to protect its borders and interests and if that means helping its Shiite neighbors, then Ahmadinejad will certainly do his best to provide support. Ahmadinejad's boasts of filling a power vacuum and his pursuit of nuclear technology are not in the best interests of the region, although he suggested cooperation with "regional friends like Saudi Arabia." We also have to remember that Iran's clerics hold the real power so it remains to be seen just how Ahmadinejad will fill this void. In the end it will be up to the clerics whether to help Iraq.
But rather than listen to the hysterical rantings of President Bush, which do little to address these issues in a calm and deliberate manner, I prefer Arab League chief Amr Moussa's call for talks between Arab countries and Iran over Iraq.
"There should be a consensus between the Arabs and Iran over Iraq,"
Moussa said after a recent meeting of Arab diplomats. "Iran and the
Arabs should be on one side."
Let's face it, whether the Americans like it or not, Iran is poised to meddle in Iraq and it's up to Saudi Arabia and its neighbors to solve the problem since the United States lacks the will and expertise to get the job done. It will be up to us, not the US or Great Britain, to do all we can to avoid turning the Iraq war into a regional conflict. For one, Arabs must do everything possible to slow the race for nuclear technology and bring Iran into the same line of thinking.
Secondly, it's to our advantage to set aside the differences between Shiites and Sunnis to make Iraq a thriving and workable government. The bottom line is that if we don't step into the breach and solve these issues on a regional level, the United States will continue its presence with disastrous results.
President Bush keeps hammering the argument that to abandon Iraq now would mean that Iran would take over. This is a similar argument that Presidents Lyndon Johnson and Richard Nixon used to keep America in Vietnam.
If US troops withdrew from Vietnam the communists would seize control and create a domino effect that ultimately would allow China to gain influence throughout Asia. It never happened, but we are witnessing similar arguments today that Iraq could fall to Iran. Yes, it's possible. But unlike Vietnam, Cambodia and Laos in the 1960s and early ‘70s, Arab countries have the ability and foresight to bring Iran into the fold of regional neighborliness.
We've seen enough of the result of American intervention. Now it's time to clean up their mess. The US commander in Iraq, Gen. David Petraeus, and US Ambassador Ryan Crocker are expected to give Bush a progress report next week on the surge in Baghdad that will determine the future for U.S. troop deployments in Iraq. The report, I suspect, will not provide a bright picture. That means a longer occupation.
The time is now to assume control of our own future. It's unfortunate that Ahmadinejad has taken the lead role in offering help to Iraq although he has no concrete plan at the moment and his agenda is questionable. This is a job for all of us - from Egypt, Jordan and Syria to Qatar, the United Arab Emirates, and, yes, even Iran.
But above all for Iraqis themselves. The Iraqis should unite in a real coalition government that serves the interest of Iraq as a one nation without being influenced by any foreign factor or serving a specific faction, whether Sunni or Shiite.
All of us need be involved to build a peaceful coexistence in our region. And it must be now.

I had a Frightening Vision

Wednesday, 22 August 2007

By Sabria S Jawhar

I had a frightening vision the other day.
About 1.5 million Indians, 85 percent of whom are blue-collar workers will be deported from Saudi Arabia in a reaction to the unexpected increase in rice prices in the Saudi market. "We received hundreds of thousands of deportation requests from Saudis who would like to get rid of their Indian domestic workers," an official at the passport office announced.
The same officials said that thousands of Saudi families have decided to replace their Indian help with Eastern European help, since every time they looked at their Indian workers, they couldn't help but be reminded of who was behind the rice price crisis.
In response, India has recalled its ambassador, suspending high-level Indian-Saudi meetings on energy-related issues. As a Muslim country and a close ally of Saudi Arabia, Pakistan declared that it would suspend negotiations with India and boycott its products. Inspectors expect the two countries to go as far as using nuclear weapons against each other if the UN does not intervene and find a quick solution to the rice crisis.
Al-Qaeda in Eastern Asia posted a letter on their website in which they declared Jihad (holy war) against India, accusing it of waging an anti-Islamic war by depriving the country of the Two Holy Mosques of rice.
The United States, as well as some other friendly European countries, expressed their concern about the deterioration in the relation between Saudi Arabia and Pakistan, on one hand, and India, on the other. Meanwhile, the Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert told reporters that Israel would support India in whatever decision it takes against the two Muslim countries, Pakistan and Saudi Arabia.
The Saudi Minister of Commerce addressed the public via the government- owned TV channel, one asking Saudis to calm down as the crises has been brought before the Security Council in an attempt to find a quick resolution to the rice shortage in Saudi Arabia. Meanwhile, the minister said we should look for alternatives.
This was the scenario that came to mind while I was watching the televised interview with the Minister of Commerce, Hashim Yamani. The interview was devoted to the unprecedented increase in prices, in particular, the price of rice. He attributed the rise in price to several factors, none of which has anything to do with the failure of his ministry to have any effect on it by carrying out studies and offering alternatives. For instance, he attributed the increase in rice prices to price rises in India, the Kingdom's main rice supplier.
The minister sounded deadly serious as he attempted to convince the audience with his point of view and to place the blame on international factors such as the Indian economy and oil prices. He used very strong and flashy economic terms, such as supply and demand, that made his answers sound very realistic.
However, he failed to offer even one practical solution to the present situation.
The minister raised the ire of his audience when he started defending his own ministry, adding that the price increase is out of the ministry's hands. He added salt to the audience's wounds when he said that there are 200 inspectors around the Kingdom whose responsibility it is to observe prices. To be honest, I was also among those who were disappointed with that number as it clearly seemed to be intended to justify the price hikes, especially at places that are off-the-beaten track. It also raises questions concerning the honesty of those inspectors and their ability to grasp the commercial boom that the country is experiencing. After all, new shopping centers or mega malls are popping up on every corner of the Kingdom's big cities. In Jeddah, the shopping havens grow faster than the speed that the ministry takes to process one single paper.
Following the interview, though, I felt very sad for Saudi society. It has not completely recovered from the shock of the stock market crash that has left more than three million Saudis, mainly from the middle class, in debt and in a deep state of depression.
But, you know, as Saudis, lets look at the bright side. At least, our Minister of Commerce did not suggest us barley as an alternative. According to cattle dealers, it has also increased by 50 percent.

The Good, the Bad and the Ugly

Tuesday, 14 August 2007
By Sabria S Jawhar

Earlier this week I received an e-mail from a regular reader whose opinion I highly respect. In that e-mail he commented on a column that I wrote two weeks ago and was entitled "When I cried this summer." Among the things that he mentioned in his e-mail was the following: "I noticed that recently you are tending to be sort of pessimistic, especially when it comes to the development or changes taking place in Saudi society. There are always things that disappoint us in our society but on the other hand there are others that we should highlight and be proud of." To tell the truth, I can't help but add my voice to that of my friend. I agree with him concerning the positive things that take place in the Kingdom. But, to me, positive and good things are supposed to be common and I am sure that hundreds of people will be more than happy to write about them. Only a few are willing to talk about the negative things. Criticism, however, should not be an ultimate goal in and of itself.
It should be a constructive goal that aims to put thing in place and to help those who are in charge to see the shortcomings of their establishments and to find the best solutions for any deficiencies.
Dear friend, I have never been pessimistic. Actually, I am writing about what I perceive as wrong because I am very optimistic that change will take place soon and because I have great expectations. But I also believe that we have to work hard toward finding out what's wrong and change it for the better. The world will not wait for us. The world is keeping an eye on our achievements judging us by the speed of the oil coming out from beneath the ground.
Yet, for the sake of my friend I will dedicate this column to things that took place this week and have given me a glimmer of hope that the wind of good intention is so strong that it is moving the wheel of change faster.
I was delighted this week to read that Prince Mohammad bin Saud, Emir of Baha region, has given orders to discharge 20 high officials from Baha region who were proved to be violating the rules and not carrying out their responsibilities. The prince was not hesitant to talk to the media about the reasons behind discharging those officials or even about their designations. He seemed to be sending a message to all of those who think of bartering away the nation's interest or selling it for cheap.
By doing what he did, the relatively newly-appointed prince has proved to the leadership that choosing him was a wise decision. It also reflects the leadership's intention to combat government corruption, which has reached alarming levels and was the main reason behind many vital projects not being carried out.
I felt also so comfortable when I read the news about the enforcement of the cyber law that governs the use of the Internet and offers protection to the legitimate use of computers and the Internet. The law is not a new one. In fact, it has been implemented in several countries where cyber crimes are common.
However, what gives it a special value in Saudi society is the importance that it gives to the people's privacy and their reputations. For instance, it imposes a prison sentence and a fine not to exceed half a million Saudi riyals to those who encroach onto other's private lives through misuse of cameras on mobile telephones or similar devices.
Those who defame others or harm them through the use of information technology will face the same punishment.
Some readers, especially newcomers to the Kingdom, might wonder why am I giving such weight to these particular points of the 16-article law. To those I would like to say that Saudi society is a very sensitive one. This sensitivity can be seen most when women's issues are involved. I don't think that there is any Saudi who has not heard or, at least, read about a story in which a mobile phone or an Internet site played a role in destroying a family by leading the couple to divorce.
Some people smuggle cameras into women's gatherings, take photos or video clips, then post them on specially designed websites in order to defame them and ruin their subjects' lives.
Some pictures that were also taken of girls, who were lured by young men, were also posted on those web sites, completely destroying the girls' lives. The damage wrought by such misuse of technology has pushed people in some cases to commit suicide. Some readers might still remember the story of the young Saudi man who was raped by a group of his friends who videotaped the assault in order to humiliate and blackmail him.
The video clip was circulated and the news of his humiliation spread, resulting in so much pressure on the young man that he finally took his own life.
I think that by now you will all agree with me that simple procedures should be taken to protect society, at least, until it reaches a level of awareness where such things defame the doer more than the victim.

Yet another First by a Saudi Woman

Monday, 13 August 2007

By Sabria S. Jawhar

A Saudi woman will be one of the delegates of the government's Human Rights Commission to an international conference on the role of the Muslim woman in contemporary society to be held in Malaysia. The Saudi female delegate Intisar Felimban, director of the International Relations and Activities at the Arab organization for combating terrorism, said participating in such an international conference would help clear the negative image the world has of the rights of women in the Kingdom. "People abroad don't know about the position women in Saudi Arabia has reached especially in the era of King Abdullah," Felimban said. "Our great King has opened gates for women everywhere even at the security level. It's now up to the women to seize the chance or let it go."
The conference aims to define a unified Islamic position relating to Muslim women. The delegates will also discuss the factors that have denied some Muslim women of their political, social and economic rights. Plans and recommendations will be made to prevent the increasing influence of culture on the interpretation of the Islamic regulation based on the Qu'ran and Sunnah (Prophet's action and sayings).
The conference will be sponsored by International Institute for Muslim Unity and the International Islamic University in Malaysia.
Abdullah Al-Meatani, director of the Commission of Human Rights branch in Makkah region, and Mamdooh Al-Shemrani, a commission member, will also be part of the delegation.
The role and status of the Muslim woman in the society have always been a subject of debate and discussion throughout the Islamic world since these vary from one society to another due to factors such as the Islamic school of thought, and culture and tradition.

A Workshop in UK

Tuesday, 07 August 2007

By Sabria Jawhar

Earlier this year, I wrote a column entitled "When a turkey's life is more valuable than a human." In that column I mentioned a story about an American friend who, knowing only a little about my culture, sent me an e-greeting card on the occasion of Thanksgiving. In that e-mail he told me jokingly that President George W. Bush had forgiven his bird this year and granted it a reprieve.
It did not take me long, however, to find out that the big bird's life was more precious to President Bush than that of a Muslim or an Arab in the Middle East. The same talk applied to some Arab governments that didn't show any sign of caring about the feelings of their own people nor their interests.
As I woke up in the early morning of Eid Al-Fitr last year, I was shocked, like million of Muslims, by the announcement of Saddam Hussein's execution.
"He was hanged after he was convicted of crimes against humanity for the killing of 148 Shia villagers in the town of Dujail," the crawl across the bottom of my television screen said.
Regardless of my stand on the whole issue, my concern at that time was basically about the timing of the execution coinciding with Islam's holiest day. The picture of the forgiven big bird came to my mind along with the image of Saddam's corpse.
Yesterday, I was also following the news on television when another crawl on the screen said British Prime Minister Gordon Brown had broken off his vacation on Saturday and returned to London to closely follow the case of an outbreak of foot and mouth disease. A drug company is at the center of the investigation.
There were reports hundreds of cattle have been slaughtered in a cull of animals at the infected farm and those at high risk nearby. The British Prime Minister chaired several emergency meetings on the matter.
He also appeared on television talking to the public about what has been and what will be done.
Regardless of the motives behind the prime minister's action and whether it has something to do with the voters' judgment of him, he showed care if not for the 7 million animals that were slaughtered, than to the estimated €12 billion that the crisis would cost the British economy, not to mention its effect on tourism.
On the other hand, while the whole world is moving and calling for real solutions for the Middle East, in general, and for Iraq, in particular, the Iraqi parliament is taking a month off.
The break comes at a time when very serious decisions concerning the future of the whole nation such as those related to Iraqi oil should be taken.
It also came at a time when the American Congress was supposed to decide on the defense bill that is partially related to spending on the Iraqi war.
I am really confused whether this decision to go on vacation is a sign of indifference regarding the Iraqi people or a way of saying "no" to President Bush, who is working hard to get the "oil law" through the Iraqi parliament.
Is British livestock more important to the UK prime minister than the Iraqi people to their government? Is this an analogy to making an animal life more important than that of a human being? Is taking a summer vacation a must for all politicians despite the vital decisions that are to be taken?
Another question also puzzles me: where are the Iraqi politicians spending their vacations? Are they going to spend them in Iraq enjoying the beauty of blood and destruction on every single street in Baghdad? I have been told that nothing is more attractive than the combination of red blood and green grass.
Are they going to spend their money in promoting local tourism or are they going to enjoy the breeze and nice weather in one of Europe's great capitals? If "yes," what is their destination?
Let's not jump to conclusions. Maybe they are attending a workshop presented by the British Environment Secretary Hilary Benn, who recently announced that "it was vital to contain the outbreak, which infected a local herd of cattle and could cost the British livestock industry up to $30 million a week in lost exports."
If this is the case then I am quite sure that after failing to bring about prosperity, peace or even security to their own people, Iraqi lawmakers could learn from the British how to care about the hundreds of people who die daily on Baghdad's streets.