Saturday, March 28, 2009

Israel’s public opinion has changed, but not the govt’s

A RECENT poll announced that 64 percent of the people in Israel oppose the 2002 Arab peace plan that promises Arab recognition of Israel if it returns to its 1967 borders and the Palestinian “right to return” issue is negotiated in good faith.
There are many who would be disheartened to hear that a large majority of Israelis still oppose the peace plan, but I take a glass half full view of the new poll. The poll tells me that 36 percent of the Israeli population supports the plan. That’s a far cry from just a couple of years ago when nobody was even talking about it.
The results tell me that the Israeli civilian population wants a solution that will bring peace. I hope the percentage of Israelis accepting the peace plan will rise dramatically in the coming years.That’s the good news (or better news, anyway). The bad news is that the actions of the Israel Defense Force are undermining efforts to bring peace to the region.
At the same time that the Palestinian Center for Policy and Survey Research and the Harry S. Truman Research Institute for the Advancement of Peace came out with its poll, the Jerusalem-based Haaretz newspaper published a lengthy report that IDF soldiers routinely killed women and children under permissive rules of engagement during the 22-day siege of Gaza.
It also reported that IDF rabbis describe the conflict to soldiers as a “religious war.”The report has only garnered passing attention and muted criticism in the Western media, but it provides evidence what Palestinians and NGOs have been saying all along.
The killings of civilians – women and children – are not simply unfortunate collateral damage as the Israeli government has us believe, but a systemic problem that goes to the core of IDF policy on handling civilians.According to testimony from IDF soldiers, snipers routinely target women and children on the theory that they have been ordered out of a neighborhood, and if they remain they must be “terrorists.”
This bit of rationalization fails to take into account that often during the fog of war not every civilian gets the message and many that do have no place to go and are unwilling to give up their homes.But IDF logic really falls apart when one considers a Haaretz report that soldiers, as an act of “bonding” with their brothers in arms, order and wear T-shirts that carry slogans announcing their pride in killing civilians.
One T-shirt worn by soldiers shows a pregnant Palestinian woman with a bull’s-eye on her stomach with the English title “I shot, 2 kills.” A sniper academy graduation T-shirt depicts a Palestinian infant, who grows into “a combative boy and then an armed adult.” The slogan reads, “No matter how it begins, we’ll put an end to it.”
There are more disturbing slogans that give every indication that Israel believes that every Palestinian boy will grow up to be a terrorist. Apparently the Israeli government has no plans to seek peace since it already believes the next generation of Palestinians – or what’s left of them – is right around the corner and ripe to do harm.
It seems to me to be a self-fulfilling prophecy. Kill enough families and the next generation Palestinians will indeed conspire to do harm.It’s difficult for me to blame 19-year-old boys in the IDF for this culture of hate and permissive murder.
The blame for killing of innocents and then wearing T-shirts announcing their pride in such accomplishments sits squarely on the shoulders of the men who command these boys and religious advisers who attempt to mitigate the moral dilemmas by couching the Gaza invasion as a “religious mission” to rid the region of non-Jews, just as we have seen with Al-Qaeda.
The T-shirts are printed with military command’s full knowledge, and they turn a blind eye every time a woman or child is shot dead in the street.The IDF has its supporters who claim that that Israel has a “moral army.” Supporters also say the testimony that snipers willfully kill civilians comes not from the snipers but from people who know the snipers. I’m not sure of the distinction. Few killers will publicly announce their actions.
While this comes as no surprise to the Palestinians and their Arab neighbors, the IDF is now exposed. The important difference is that the allegations are coming from within Israel, from its own soldiers and its own media.
These are not the allegations of a European NGO or Palestinian witnesses, but the soldiers who committed these acts and those who wear the T-shirts to prove it. I sense change in Israeli public opinion about the Palestinian issue, but I don’t in its government and its military. And until the government recognizes and corrects these abuses the chances of peace are remote.

Saturday, March 21, 2009

Accurate studies essential in fight against child abuse

The Saudi government launched earlier this month a national campaign to raise awareness of child abuse.

The campaign has the strong backing of the Royal Family and it was launched with a three-day conference in Riyadh by the National Family Safety Program. An estimated 1,500 delegates from throughout the GCC and other Arab countries attended.

The launching of the awareness program, which focuses on physical, sexual, emotional and negligent abuse, coincides with the release of some rather startling and troubling child abuse statistics that have gained currency in both the Western and Arab media.

I say “startling and troubling” not because the numbers of abused children in the Gulf region in general and Saudi Arabia in particular are high (they are), but because the method of collection of data that ultimately provides these numbers is missing.

It gives the impression that there is a child abuse epidemic inside Saudi Arabia.Last week, Inam Rabui, head of Himaya Association, a charitable organization that provides protection to women and children from abuse, told a stunned audience at an educational forum at Dar Al-Hekma College, that the number of reported cases of child abuse in Saudi Arabia had tripled over a three-year period.

During the first year of Himaya’s existence, the institution received 80 child abuse complaints. Midway through the second year that number more than doubled to 163. By the third year, the number tripled to 281 complaints. She further said that out of a total of 524 cases, 284 children were abused by their fathers.

In an unrelated study conducted by Al-Watan newspaper, journalist Mohammed Al-Matter reported that 83 percent of children under the age of 18 had received e-mails that contained “inappropriate content.” Al-Watan also discovered that 62 percent of Gulf children were contacted by a pedophile in either a chat room or in e-mail. “The number of children exposed to pornography and bullying is very high,” said a spokeswoman for the Bahrain Women’s Association for Human Development.

Rabui’s statistics are likely accurate, and if one considers the number of unreported child abuse cases, I’m sure her numbers would triple. Troubling, however, is that the statistics reveal very little, although I don’t blame Rabui so much as I do Gulf media. First, the statistics imply that child abuse has tripled in Saudi Arabia when actually it’s really only Himaya’s complaint caseload that has tripled and is not a true picture of what is occurring in Saudi Arabia. Second, little is taken into account why the numbers have tripled.

I suspect that exposure to satellite television and the Internet and a more open Arab youth culture has led to greater awareness. While exposing a family’s dirty laundry, in this case child abuse remains taboo in our society, our greater awareness of the world around us has made us less tolerant of abuses. It’s one reason why there is not only greater outcry in the Saudi blogosphere about forced marriages of young girls but also in the Saudi mainstream media.

Even more troubling than those misleading statistics quoted at the Dar Al-Hekma forum is Al-Watan’s attempt to raise the fears of every Arab parent with these exceptionally high percentages of pedophiles lurking in chat rooms to prey on our children. I question the authenticity of the study simply because the methodology is missing. Newspapers conducting their own studies are usually rife with flaws because collecting data to conduct what purports to be a scientific study is not in a newspaper’s area of expertise.

It takes a polling company with experience to conduct such a study. And as far as I can tell, Al-Watan’s study was far from scientific.It’s negligent of the media, whether in the West or the Gulf, to serve up these statistics in a vacuum, reporting without context and discussion of methodology.

Yet these two studies were reported widely and taken at face value in the Arab- and English-language media.This should not take away from the excellent work by Himaya or the rare attempts at investigative journalism by the Arab press. Child abuse is a horrific problem and a shame on every country that tries to sweep it under the rug. The Saudi government in particular is to be commended for its diligent work to stem the problem.

But we also run the risk of misrepresenting a problem with flawed analysis and faulty news reporting. Inflated or flawed statistical information also serves to promote fear and hysteria.I’m reminded of a series of incidents that occurred in the United States throughout the 1980s in which child sexual abuse statistics were released by various rights organizations at regular intervals.

At the same time rumors spread that some pre-schools were havens for pedophiles who routinely sexually abused little children. Stories surfaced that some pre-schools were practicing witchcraft and conducting Satanist rituals. A famous case in California led to the jailing of an entire family that owned one such pre-school. At the end of the trial, not a single family member was convicted of any of the hundreds of counts leveled at them.

And most investigations into other pre-schools found the allegations were unfounded.No, child abuse studies did not lead to those scandals, but we have a tendency to put our faith in rock solid numbers, even if they don’t stand up to scrutiny.If Saudis are to be transparent and ensure that reporting child abuse statistics are accurate and enlightening, then more deliberation at how we arrive at statistical reporting is critical to fighting the fight against child abuse.


Sunday, March 15, 2009

Bringing Obama’s change outside the campaign bubble

US President Barack Obama is learning the hard way that being shaped by the media into the image of John Kennedy or even Abraham Lincoln has its drawbacks and being an agent of change isn’t as easy as his campaign talk has led us to believe.

Obama is no doubt sincere when he talks about connecting with the Muslim world and is willing to listen. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton has made overtures to Iran and the Iranian government has responded in a cautious, if not positive, manner.

The British government now wants to negotiate with Hezbollah and talks with Hamas could very well follow. I think that somewhere down the line the US government may follow the British.Yet for all of its happy talk of engaging Arabs in dialogue to bring peace to the Middle East, the Obama administration, much like previous administrations, wears the yoke of Israel around its neck.

And it appears easier to wear that yoke rather than shake it off and implement real change in the US government’s foreign policy towards Israel.Charles W. Freeman, former US ambassador to Saudi Arabia during the first Bush administration, is somewhat of a maverick – at least by Washington, DC standards – when it comes to his views on Israel. He was under consideration to be named chairman of the National Intelligence Council, which supplies Obama with daily intelligence briefings.

It’s a key post as the top intelligence analyst that helps shape the response of the US to Middle East issues and events. Freeman’s nomination signaled Obama’s sincerity to effect change in US foreign policy. Here was a man who supports Israel as a friend and ally, but also sees the world for what it really is and is not afraid to take Israel to task for its conduct against the Palestinians.

According to the New York Times, Freeman said in 2006 that, “left to its own devices, the Israeli establishment will make decisions that harm Israelis, threaten all associated with them and enrage those who are not.” And as recently as this week, he said that “Israel is driving itself toward a cliff, and it is irresponsible not to question Israeli policy and to decide what is best for the American people.”These are incendiary views in Washington, if not heresy, to condemn or criticize Israel.

Outside of Washington in many parts of the world, it is the opinion of a man who is demonstrating common sense with blunt talk. Sometimes the truth hurts and people don’t like it much. This kind of talk has landed Freeman in hot water. His comments attracted the attention of the Israel lobbying group American Israel Public Affairs Committee and New York Democrat Senator Charles E. Schumer.

Schumer began a lobbying effort to pressure the Obama administration to dump Freeman because he is viewed as too pro-Arab and an enemy of Israel. Schumer provided White House officials with transcripts of Freeman’s speeches and writings that ultimately led Freeman to withdraw his name from consideration for the post. Freeman complained that he was the victim of “character assassination” by the Israel lobby for taking his comments out of context.

Obama didn’t ask Freeman to step aside but to its shame the White House didn’t stand up to the pressure. Instead, Obama’s team buckled under implied threats that to refuse to unconditional support of Israel is somehow anti-Semitic and sympathetic to terrorists.There is something pathological in America’s slavish support of Israel. Elected officials there have yet to learn they can remain a staunch ally of Israel but still question, if not criticize, its foreign policy.

The US government has never been shy about criticizing the foreign policies of the British government, and has certainly made it no secret its disdain for some policies of Germany and France. Yet Israel is hands-off. Freeman is not stupid. He works for a president who has unequivocally given his support to Israel. Freeman’s job, like Hillary Clinton’s, is to implement the president’s policies. But what Freeman brings to the table is a clear-eyed view of what Israel’s destructive policies bring to the Middle East.

Freeman is not throwing out the baby with the bathwater. He would certainly support Israel but also bring a much needed reality check of what is going on in the Middle East.Unfortunately, full change is not coming to Washington anytime soon. There is fear and a malaise in the US government that prevents it from looking for practical solutions to the Middle East crisis.

That solution is to reexamine US support for a country bent on the destruction and humiliation of the Palestinian people. But as long as the US cowers in the corner every time Israel voices its displeasure over anything remotely critical of its government, then it will remain business as usual.

Wednesday, March 11, 2009

How Saudi women celebrated International Women’s Day

I don’t think that Khamisa Sawadi celebrated International Women’s Day last Sunday. No, more than likely the 75-year-old widow was wondering abut the 40 lashes and four months in prison she is facing for mingling with two young men, which included her late husband’s nephew, who had brought her bread.

International Women’s Day celebrates the economic, political and social achievements of women in the past and the present.

While the event is a national holiday in some countries, such as China and Russia, it goes largely unnoticed by women n Saudi Arabia. The case of Khamisa Sawadi is evidence that the social achievements of Saudi women remain a distant dream.

Sawadi is Syrian but is the widow of a Saudi. The nephew and his friend and business partner had delivered bread to Sawadi to her home in Al-Chamil. They were immediately arrested.
In court Sawadi testified that she had breast-fed the nephew as an infant and considered him her son. But her argument was rejected by the court, which based its conviction on testimony from the father of the nephew’s friend who alleged that Sawadi corrupted his son.
After Sawadi serves her sentenced she is expected to be deported to Syria.

Saudi Arabia has made significant strides in the advancement of women in key government positions. The appointments of Noral Al-Faiz as deputy minister for Girls' Education and Dr. Fatimah Abdullah Al-Saleem as cultural attaché at the Saudi Embassy in Canada by the Ministry of Higher Education, inspires Saudi women. Saudi women view Al-Faiz and Al-Saleem as role models, recognizing that they, too, can achieve success on their own terms.

Yet the social realities are that Al-Faiz and Al-Saleem are the exceptions, not the rule, of what Saudi women face in the future. For every Al-Faiz and Al-Saleem there are 100 Khamisa Sawadis. For every female Saudi graduate student studying abroad, there are 100 other Saudi women denied their right to divorce abusive husbands or to gain custody of their children.
A Saudi delegation can stand before the United Nation’s Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination Against Women and provide a laundry list of all the good things the Saudi government has done for their women. But closer scrutiny of Khamisa Sawadi, the Qatif Girl, forced divorces and the countless 13-year-old brides married off to men four times their age tarnishes the appointments of Saudi women to high places.

While we have seen remarkable changes recently in the general presidency of the Commission for the Promotion of Virtue and Prevent of Vice and a new chief justice of the Supreme Judicial Council, it’s the judges in court that seemed to have lost sight of their religious and social obligations and revert to tribal customs.

A friend of mine has had her divorce case in the courts for 10 years. No matter how many appeals she makes to the court, she is refused a divorce. Another friend is scorned and humiliated by government officials as she attempts to gain permission to marry a non-Saudi. And for what purpose? A woman is entitled to a divorce as long as she complies with Islam and is prepared to return the dowry. A woman is entitled to alimony, but rarely receives it. A husband can only take a second wife if his first wife approves, yet these religious obligations are often subverted by the husband and later upheld by the courts. A woman is entitled to marry whom she pleases, but the obstacles are so great to receiving permission it’s virtually impossible to get married to who she wants.

There is no religious prohibition preventing women from driving yet we are forced to mingle with unrelated men who are employed as our drivers. If Sawadi is guilty of mingling with men who are not her close relatives, then 95 percent of the Saudi women are guilty of the same thing. Imagine if the laws, as interpreted by the Saudi courts, were administered in an equitable manner. The jails would be bursting at the seams with thousands upon thousands of Saudi women bearing the scars of hundreds of lashes.

Saudi Arabia is witnessing an unprecedented brain drain of female post-graduate degree holders who find jobs and freedom in other GCC countries – notably the United Arab Emirates, Kuwait and Bahrain. They know they can live productive lives, work alongside whomever they want, and drive a car without looking over their shoulder for the Hai’a. They can live their lives without being exposed to the risk of facing a judge who parses every word of a Hadith to reach a verdict he had already decided on or who will succumb to tribal pressures.

I have great hope for the future of Saudi Arabia. Certainly change, especially in our society, comes slowly. But tell that to Khamisa Sawadi and my friend who hasn’t been granted a divorce after 10 years. What about their future?

Wednesday, March 4, 2009

Challenges in modernizing the Saudi education system

I SURVIVED the Saudi educational system.
Of course, I didn’t realize that my education was in jeopardy as I went to school. And I managed to obtain my bachelor’s and master’s degrees with distinction.
When I arrived in the United Kingdom to pursue further studies I found myself reasonably prepared. Not only did the Saudi educational system not fail me, but the attitudes of my parents and brothers helped shape my global view of life.
But if 9/11 has taught us anything, it’s self-examination. And we have done plenty in the past seven or eight years to re-examine how we teach the new generation of Saudis to approach life in the 21st century.
While the Saudi educational system has been under review at times over the past few years, King Abdullah has now put the issue at the forefront with his cabinet changes that include the appointment of Noura Al-Fayez as deputy education minister for female students.
Al-Fayez is the first female cabinet appointee.Al-Fayez and her colleagues in the Ministry of Education are faced with the monumental task of bringing Saudi education to a global standard. At the moment nearly 90 percent of the students are receiving an education in Saudi Arabia’s 25,000 public schools.
Fawziah Al-Bakr, a professor of education at King Saud University reported recently that as much as 75 percent of the curriculum is studies in religion. Studies in math and science, not to mention studies of other cultures, are not a priority.
And Prince Faisal Bin Abdullah told a group of ministers recently that, “We need more efforts in strengthening Saudi Arabia’s position by building brains and investing in humans.”King Abdullah obviously believes the same as he has approved SR9 billion in funding for new education projects.
An estimated SR2.9 billion alone has been set aside just for the training and improvement of teachers.As construction continues on the King Abdullah University of Science and Technology, the top minds at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology have stepped in to serve as consultants.
This is all well and good. But we have seen billions of riyals spent on the Saudi education system in the past without any real progress in turning out great professionals who will take their place among the best scientists, physicians and mathematicians around the world.
An obvious step would be to put religion in its proper context in an academic environment. Without diluting the vital importance of Islam in our society, it can find a place in academia without compromising the value of science and technology, which is the key to the future of Saudi Arabia’s economic diversity and lessening our dependence on oil revenue.
But on a more basic level beyond curriculum is the relationship between teacher and student. Perhaps the greatest weakness in the Saudi classroom is that the authority of the teacher is so great that any attempt to foster intellectual curiosity of students is severely dampened.
A successful educational system demands a flourishing partnership between student and teacher.Saudi teachers have full control over questioning, Students typically are not encouraged to give their own views on subjects, demonstrate their knowledge or to seek explanations and clarifications of lessons they may have difficulty understanding.
I recall as a young girl often being reprimanded for calling my teacher’s attention to inconsistencies in texts because they were changed – as I later learned as an adult – due to cultural differences between Saudis and non-Saudis.
The contadictions in these texts were not necessarily serious, but diluted the object of the lesson, often making useless the point the teacher was trying to make.The nature of interaction inside the Saudi classroom is a one-way street that lacks the basic features of a real interaction that might take place outside the classroom.
It has also been reported that in spite of the Ministry of Education’s efforts to introduce communication-based language teaching by changing textbooks, many teachers still use the traditional teaching methods, where the process of foreign language learning is reduced to the mere mastery of grammar and vocabulary.
This has left high school graduates with a level of communicative skill that is much less than is needed for them not only to cope with communication demands outside the classroom, but also to use language as a tool for learning scientific subjects and exploring knowledge.
Saudi Arabia is undergoing tremendous social and economic challenges. Regional conflict, oil and new international trade relations have put Saudis in direct contact with non-Arabic speakers. It also has made the Saudi government face the challenges of preparing students to cope with this change.
As a result, calls have increased to exert more efforts to teach the students better communication skills to help them deal with this increasing number of non-Arabic speakers. To have any kind of success in the world outside of Saudi Arabia, the next generation will not only need the necessary communication skills to interact with non-Arabic speakers but have the analytical skills to match.
By learning a foreign language through memorization with an emphasis on testing and preventing students to engage in intellectual debates in the classroom, Saudis will always find themselves playing catch-up with the rest of the world.