Friday, November 5, 2010

Oklahoma gets protection from sneaky Muslims

NOTE: This post was originally published by BlogHer.

Oklahoma has a message for its Muslim population: We don’t want you here.

How else to explain Oklahoma Republican State Representative Rex Duncan’s “pre-emptive” anti-Sharia measure passed by the state’s voters on Tuesday? Duncan wants to target the Muslim community, which accounts for less than 1 percent of the state’s 3.15 million residents, because he suspects they might do something sneaky.

Duncan has acknowledged that there is no “creeping Sharia” in Oklahoma and it’s not used by the state’s courts, but he apparently sees it everywhere else and wants to protect Oklahomans.

The amendment to the state’s constitution, called State Question 755, should have no direct impact on Muslims. The amendment bans Oklahoma’s courts from using Sharia, but says nothing about using Sharia in private arbitration. I don’t even know if Oklahoma Muslims use Sharia to settle domestic and civil disputes. But if they do, the new law can’t touch them as long as Sharia rulings are not challenged in court.

I’m no legal expert, but it stands to reason State Question 755 is ripe for legal challenges on constitutional grounds. Indeed, the Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR) weighed in on Thursday by announcing it will file a lawsuit in Oklahoma challenging the law’s constitutionality. The law also is discriminatory. If a domestic or civil dispute arbitrated by a Sharia panel is challenged, an Oklahoma court can’t consider the Sharia ruling. However, the courts can still consider private administrative hearings and Beth Din, which follows similar guidelines as Sharia by the Jewish community. Using Sharia as private arbitration, like Beth Din, is a form of Alternative Dispute Resolution, which is accepted and encouraged by most state courts.

Although the anti-Sharia aspect of the amendment gets all the attention, what apparently flew under the voters’ radar is that Oklahoma’s courts also can’t use international law when deliberating cases. This has a more far-reaching impact on the state’s judicial system. For all of Duncan’s proclamations that America must keep its values and rely on the rule of law forged by the founding fathers, he seems to be unaware that U.S. courts have used international law in deciding cases for more than 200 years.

Although the U.S. Supreme Court can’t make up its mind whether considering international law is appropriate, all state courts rely on it from time to time. Not only are Oklahoma’s courts now hamstrung in applying international law, the courts may also find they can’t use the Alien Tort Statute. The statute gives U.S. courts jurisdiction in civil cases brought by non-U.S. citizens against individuals for violating international law or treaties with the United States. If individuals commit human rights violations, their victims can sue them in U.S. courts. Except perhaps in Oklahoma.

While CAIR and the state of Oklahoma prepare to wrestle with these issues, one must wonder how Oklahoma took this road.

Ducan’s “pre-emptive” argument doesn’t stand scrutiny. Just who is advocating that Sharia be implemented in the United States? Other than the Taliban, Al-Qaeda and the occasional kooky European imam, there is not a single reputable Islamic scholar in the U.S. who has publicly advocated for Sharia to be the law of the land.

Duncan, however, has taken his lead from Brigitte Gabriel, the founder of ACT! for America, an anti-Muslim organization that spreads the word that Sharia is just around the corner. In an interview with the conservative Christian website OneNewsNow, Gabriel said, "There is actually a huge pocket of terrorist organizations operating out of Oklahoma. I know this because I work with members of the FBI who are in counter-terrorism and who are paying attention to what's happening in Oklahoma. What we are seeing right now, not only in Oklahoma, but nationwide where there is a large concentration of Muslim population, (there are) more demands and more push for Sharia law."

Gabriel doesn’t disclose where these terrorist organizations are operating, although I’m sure Oklahoma law authorities would like to know. She also doesn’t say which Muslims are demanding Sharia. I don’t know what the FBI is doing about terrorists in Oklahoma, but I can tell you what is not happening with Sharia. Women asking for private swimming times at a public pool are not pushing Sharia. They want privacy. Asking for a separate exercise schedule or private space at the local gym is not Sharia. It’s a question of modesty. Asking the local KFC for halal chicken is not Sharia. It’s a request for an alternative way to prepare food that does not impact other methods of food preparation. Asking for time to pray at work is not Sharia. It’s called religious accommodation, guaranteed by the 1964 Civil Rights Act as long as it does not adversely affect the operation of the employer’s business.

Operators of public swimming pools, local gyms and restaurants have the right to say “no.” Employers have the right to say “no” if prayer affects the operation of their business. By the same token, American Muslims have the right to sue.

It’s the great American way.

Monday, October 18, 2010

The Idiocy of the Anti-Sharia Crowd

For those following the idiotic allegations that Sharia is creeping into American society and wonder who speaks for Islam, I think the answer is obvious. Western extremists are now the new hijackers of Islam. They have adopted the language of Islamic terrorists, interpreted the teachings of the Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him) into something unrecognizable to Muslims and cherry-pick aspects of Sharia to offer interpretations in a vacuum.

Muslims may think that Osama bin Laden perverted the true meaning of Islam, but Newt Gingrich, Geert Wilders and their slavish sycophants Robert Spencer and Pamela Geller make Al-Qaeda look like amateurs in the art of deception.

Recently, a peculiar document titled the "Shariah: The Threat to America" was published by the Washington, D.C.-based Center for Security Policy. The Center for Security Policy purports to be a non-partisan group, but only ultra-conservatives authored the 352-page report. The report's objectives are to explain how Muslims are conspiring to supplant American jurisprudence and the U.S. Constitution with Sharia. Yet not a single Muslim or non-Muslim Islamic scholar was consulted. Only one of its 19 authors claims to have a degree in theology. His biography, though, makes no mention of what kind of degree. We are supposed to take their word that they are the experts.

These self-proclaimed experts ignore the principles of Sharia that make Islamic values compatible with democratic societies. Indeed, the principles of Sharia are also found in the U.S. Constitution and Bill of Rights and predate these documents by more than a millennia. These Sharia principles ensure the freedom of religion, the preservation of human life and family, the guarantee of an education and the pursuit of economic security and justice through commerce.

Rather than focus on what Sharia has in common with American values, the report gives considerable space to a 19-year-old Muslim Brotherhood document that reportedly seeks to implement Sharia in the United States. Although the authors give much credence to this document, most American Muslims view the Muslim Brotherhood in the abstract with little relevance in their lives. The report fails to address the question of how the Muslim Brotherhood, which struggles for credibility in Muslim countries, can have a foothold in Podunk, Idaho.

The report cleverly addresses the more sensational aspects of Sharia: stoning, amputations, lashings and taqiyya. Taqiyya, according to Western extremists, means that Muslims can lie with impunity to hide their true agenda of global domination. I must admit that this is a clever tactic because anyone believing in this nonsense can conveniently disregard as a lie any Muslim argument that is contrary the western extremist position. Interestingly, the Robert Spencers of the world insist we denounce terrorism and renounce Sharia. Yet their position is that all Muslims are liars, so what's the point of making these futile arguments?

Taqiyya refers to a single incident in the Qur'an in which a man concealed his religious faith when forced to renounce Islam while being tortured. If anything, recent history has taught us that anyone will lie under the threat of torture. But we are led to believe that this single incident in this context is the foundation of an Islamic strategy to impose Sharia.

The Center for Security Policy wants Americans to think that stoning and amputations are around the corner, but the report can't quite explain why stonings are so rare and the streets of Saudi Arabia and Iran are not filled with one-armed thieves.

The Qur'an never mentions stoning as a punishment and there are conflicting interpretations of the Prophet's involvement in implementing it. The most common interpretation is of a woman consumed with guilt over an adulterous affair that resulted in a child. She pestered the Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him) literally for years for him to wash away her sins with a death sentence. He refused, but when he could no longer find an excuse to send her away, he reluctantly agreed to punish her. What non-Muslim Sharia "experts" fail to mention is that stoning a person who commits adultery requires four eyewitnesses to the actual act of sexual intercourse. This fantastical burden of proof is almost impossible to fulfill. And rightly so. It's designed as prevention, not an actual punishment. Allegations of adultery are easy to make but virtually impossible to prove. Sharia makes stoning extremely unlikely to carry out.

The threat by the Iranian government to stone to death Sakineh Mohammadi Ashtiani on a conviction of adultery is not based on the evidence of four eyewitnesses, but on a judicial authority determined to inflict fear and intimidation on the Iranian population. It's not Sharia.

The anti-Muslim contingent points to wobbly examples that Sharia has infiltrated western judicial system. In 2009, a New Jersey judge denied a Muslim woman's request for a restraining order against her estranged husband because the abusive husband was following his Muslim beliefs. A similar case occurred in Germany in which a judge cited Qur'anic Verse 4:34 that permits husbands to strike their wives. The higher courts overturned the rulings in a clear message that the rule of law supersedes religious principles.

Another example of creeping Sharia, according to the anti-Muslim crowd, is the use of Sharia as private arbitration in domestic and civil cases. In these cases, Muslims agree in advance to the decision made by a panel of community leaders. This method of justice, almost identical to Beth Din employed in Jewish communities for more than a century, is permitted in England under the Arbitration Act of 1996. Outlawing Sharia as private arbitration would also require governments to ban Beth Din and administrative arbitration hearings enjoyed by private businesses and public agencies in the United States and the United Kingdom. The judicial system will collapse under the tens of thousands of additional domestic and civil cases added to the calendar and deprive individuals of their day in court.

What's more disturbing than judges making erroneous rulings is westerners lacking confidence in their own laws and constitutions. Implementing Sharia is impossible yet somehow is a hairsbreadth away from becoming a new constitutional amendment.

As a Muslim, I adhere to Sharia in my personal life. However, I see no need to impose it on anybody else, especially if they live in a non-Muslim country. As an individual, I don't dedicate my life to the advancement of Sharia while living or traveling in the west. But I also do not represent Muslims in the west. I do, however, live my life according to its principles to practice my religion freely, revere human life, pursue an education, remain loyal to my family and work hard to earn a decent living. When I hear people say that Muslims don't share American and British values, I have a feeling they would be embarrassed to recognize they are rejecting basic human rights that Sharia shares with democratic countries.

Of course, non-Muslims may have reason not to believe a word I write. This may be my idea of taqiyya

Tuesday, October 5, 2010

Only a woman minister for proposed Ministry of Women's Affairs will work

The talk of establishing a Ministry of Women’s Affairs in Saudi Arabia raises exciting possibilities for Saudi women, particularly businesswomen who need unfettered access to the international business community. Yet the proposal could lead to further marginalization of Saudi women.

The idea of a governmental women’s department may sound quaint in the 21st century, but in Saudi Arabia where every progressive step comes in the smallest increments, it makes sense.

Dr. Basmah Umayr, the executive director of Al-Sayyidah Khadijah Bint Khuwaylid Center at the Jeddah Chamber of Commerce, told Asharq Al-Awsat that a Ministry of Women’s Affairs would contribute to "the transportation of women to (the level) of decision-making.”

She added that, "Globally, we found upon studying the situation that many developed countries still reserve a ministry for women. Women's affairs are limitless, and there are many issues related to them." Turkey, Italy and France have similar ministries dedicated to women and family issues.

Perhaps the most important aspect of forming a women’s ministry is to help Saudi businesswomen remove obstacles to conducting business within and outside the Kingdom. A ministry will also implement programs to aid unemployed women. Although Saudi women comprise of 45 percent of Saudi Arabia’s population, more than 28 percent are unemployed. Yet we should consider that Saudi women also control an estimated $11.9 billion (SR 44.6 billion) in funds.

The female business community has grown so large in the past decade that the current set of rules no longer effectively regulates commercial interests operated by women. For example, Asharq Al-Awsat reports that 72.6 percent of the Saudi female-registered businesses are conducted outside the home and 92 percent have employees on the payroll. However, conducting business outside Saudi Arabia is virtually impossible given guardianship issues, travel restrictions and the archaic requirement that a business must be registered in a man’s name.

But I’m getting ahead of myself here. We can’t assume that a Saudi Ministry of Women’s Affairs will solve any of these issues. Like so many novel proposals in Saudi Arabia, there is usually a high degree of window-dressing. A women’s ministry will not only fail miserably, but it will be an embarrassment to the Saudi government if doesn’t appoint a woman to run it. Not only must she possess the decision-making privileges enjoyed by all ministers, but also have full Shoura member status and all the authority that goes with it.

Similarly, men must also be part of the minister’s team to ease the path of communication between other ministries. From a practical standpoint, it’s important to have men support, encourage and help integrate women into the highest levels of Saudi government. If inexperienced Saudi women think they can run a ministry on their own, expect to be taken seriously and have productive relationships with other ministers without a male team in place, then they are kidding themselves that they will accomplish anything.

Parity in the workplace is a vital issue for women, but it shouldn’t be the primary goal for a women’s ministry. Without question the sticky issue of male guardianship needs attention. Thought must be given whether to abolish the existing patently unfair system or overhaul it to reflect our true Islamic values. While the Saudi judicial system has made some strides in recent years to address the minimum marriage age for women, this is a job for a women’s ministry. In addition, the ministry must have the authority to deal with individuals who abuse their guardianship responsibilities by refusing their daughters and sisters their religious right to marry who they please or by forcing them to work and taking their salaries.

Curbing domestic abuse, establishing women’s shelters and providing medical outreach programs to low-income families without males in the household are necessities that come under the purview of a women’s ministry.

The idea of a Ministry of Women’s Affairs comes at the right time. We’ve seen the Saudi government appear serious in giving women a greater voice. The appointment of Nora Bint Abdullah Al-Fayez as deputy education minister in 2009 was a great step in the right direction. It’s too early to tell whether Al-Fayez is effective in her job, but indications after nearly two years on the job point to her positive influence.

If a women’s ministry is in Saudi Arabia’s future, let us hope it’s given a mandate to make a positive change in the role of Saudi woman and not an effort to satisfy Saudi Arabia’s critics.

Back in the UK

Hello everyone,

As you may have noticed, I've been out of action this past month. I've been busy spending Ramadan with my family in Madinah and Jeddah and just returned to the UK to continue with my studies and set up my new apartment. But now it's back to business!

Thursday, September 2, 2010

A nutty cponsiracy theory

Many Americans are wondering these days just when the Ummah will impose Shariah at their local courts and make Ramadan a national holiday. I will send out a press release once I get a break from working on our diabolical plans to make sure Michigan is ready to become the first western Caliphate.

At present, though, I want to take time out to tell you a story that tops those nutty American conspiracy theorists with a Saudi one. For those who take it for granted that Saudis are more rational than Americans, let me burst your bubble.

It seems that my niqabi sisters working as cashiers at the Panda Hypermarket in Jeddah are the victims of a western conspiracy. Just when I thought the lobbyists for Islamify America Today could push through Congress that modesty bill to criminalize the bikini, the U.S. government one-ups Saudi Arabia by persuading Panda management to hire women.

Panda since May has employed female cashiers at its supermarkets around the city. This not a particularly groundbreaking event. Saudi women have been working as clerks at retail stores for some time with minimal fuss and bother, although we are still not entitled to sell underwear to each other. But that’s a story for another day.

Yet it’s significant that Saudi women are making incremental progress in gaining a foothold in the workplace. Mohamed Amin Qashqari, assistant managing director of retail for Savola Group, which owns Panda, said 16 women cashiers were been hired for just one supermarket.

"More than 2,500 other girls will be hired shortly in branches all over the Kingdom," Qashqari recently told Okaz. "Their salaries will reach 3,000 riyals per month."

Saudi Sheikh Yusuf Al-Ahmed, however, thinks the west is getting its hooks deeper in Saudi society. He has demanded that Panda fire the women.

“This is prohibited because it is part of the western project that is imposing itself upon our society " Ahmed said on a television show. "This is a project of hypocrites and has to be stopped."

Panda apparently doesn’t see their in-house hiring practices as a western conspiracy. According to Ahmed, Panda management gave him an “inappropriate” response when he requested changes in their hiring procedures.

"I am surprised at (the) support the administration of this place is getting,” he complained to the Saudi media while urging a boycott of Panda stores. “Is this project directly backed by the United States?"

He further described Panda’s practice of hiring women cashiers as “novelties imported from the west.”

Whenever a Saudi woman finds a job that requires her to engage in a conversation with a member of the public, we get these Chicken-Little-the-sky-is-falling proclamations from conservatives who seem to think that diaper changing and mall shopping are the only jobs a woman needs. Saudi society is not going to shrivel up and die because a male customer received change from a woman cashier after paying for his groceries.

It’s not that I don’t respect Ahmed’s sense of propriety, but is employing women in jobs that have contact with the public really a western invention? Has he seen the women tucked in the corner shops at the Red Sea Mall selling jewelry and clothing to men and women alike? Or the girls at the high-end department stores on Tahlia? To Ahmed’s way of thinking, shadowy puppet masters manipulate them.

Perhaps critics of fair and equitable employment for women haven’t noticed Jeddah’s changing employment picture. A couple of years ago, I bet there wasn’t a single Saudi man under the age of 30 driving a taxi. Now, they are all over the place competing for fares alongside the expatriates.

The Saudi inflation rate was 5.51 percent in June and steadily rising since January. The inflation rate could very well return to the peak 2008 levels of more than 10 percent. People need jobs to stay afloat. And some Saudi families have determined that their wives, daughters and sisters must work as well.

It’s insulting to Saudi families to have a man in a position of authority claim that western agents of change are duping them. It’s as if we can’t think for ourselves. He obviously does not have the grasp of challenges Saudi families face today.

Now excuse me while I have my secret meeting with President Obama to impose gender segregation rules at the Senate and House chambers at the U.S. Capitol.

Wednesday, August 4, 2010

Why I hate the burqa

Revisiting issues that I previously have written about is not something I do often, but I'm making an exception to return to the West's most beloved human rights cause: Banning the burqa.

I last wrote about pending legislation to ban burqas in Europe more than a year ago when France first proposed laws to make it illegal to wear the burqa in public. Proposed legislation is pending with a final vote set in September.

There is no argument that can persuade me that laws designed to bully women into abandoning their cultural traditions because it makes people uncomfortable are essential in a free society. If a woman chooses to wear the niqab who are we to pass judgment? Lawmakers who argue that banning the burqa is a blow against extremism are naïve and lazy. Band-Aid approaches to fighting extremism are rarely successful. It only serves to pander to the ignorance and unfounded fears of politicians' constituents.

Yet I have grown to hate the burqa. I hate the burqa because it serves no logical purpose in Western society. The intent of the clothing is to draw attention away from the woman, but in the West it only attracts unwanted attention. Recently a Glasgow man was sentenced to prison for attacking a burqa-clad Saudi woman on the street. He ripped away her niqab. The woman was a graduate student. She has since quit her studies and refuses to leave her apartment. To her the attack was an act of rape.

I was reminded of this attack the other day as I was sitting on a bench in Newcastle's Eldon Square. I noticed a Saudi family leaving a rented apartment to walk through the square to a nearby restaurant. It was evening and the pub crowd was out and about. The mother was dressed in a burqa with niqab and she was wearing sunglasses. I watched her skirt along the edge of the square to avoid some loud young men who obviously had plenty to drink. The boys mocked her a bit but left the family alone.

I followed the woman into the restaurant. I tried not to be a scold, but told her that wearing the niqab in public on a late Friday night invited unwanted attention and could be dangerous. I suggested that under some circumstances she should consider leaving the niqab at home. A colleague told me he saw the same woman the next day wearing her burqa. Apparently she is willing to risk her safety to maintain her cultural identity.

The climate for Muslims living in the West could not be worse. The Guardian reported recently that three-quarters of the United Kingdom's non-Muslims have a negative view of Islam. About 63 percent agree with the statement that "Muslims are terrorists." And 94 percent believe that Islam oppresses women, according to the Guardian.

The image of Islam in the West is so badly damaged that Saudi Sheikh Aedh Al-Garni issued a fatwa that Muslim women may show their faces in countries where the niqab is banned or when wearing the niqab may pose a danger to the woman.

There are only a handful of niqabis in Newcastle, but each time I see one I want to grab her by the shoulders and shake some sense into her. Protecting her image is not worth the trauma their Muslim sister is experiencing in Glasgow.

This is particularly true for niqabis who wear the burqa for the most ludicrous reasons. Most Saudi women, like me, leave the burqa (abaya) and niqab in Saudi Arabia. But I'm guessing that more than a few Saudi girls wear the niqab because their husbands insist on it. The husband doesn't care whether strangers see his wife's uncovered face, but he cares a great deal that his Saudi male friends do. His selfishness and warped view of manhood are more important that his wife's safety is inexcusable. Thankfully, most Saudi women ignore this kind of male behavior, but others don't.

For a long time I strongly objected on principle alone to ban the burqa. A burqa ban is equally offensive as the Taliban's mandate for women to wear one. I see no difference. But Muslims no longer have the luxury of choosing whether to wear the burqa in the West. The French government has led the campaign to steal that choice from us. We now must think in practical terms. Co-existing with non-Muslims in the West means what we must reconsider our cultural and religious values or we go home. By the same token Muslims rigidly adhering to wearing cultural dress unnecessarily invites trouble. It doesn't take much to compromise and adapt at some level to a new environment.

There is no reason to pass laws to ban the burqa. The climate of fear is so prevalent today that wearing the burqa will slowly disappear out of necessity of survival. There will be a price, though. Some Muslim women will return home without a Western education and that will make bridging the gap between Muslims and non-Muslims more difficult. This fear also forces Muslims who want to live in the West to conform to Western appearances. It will also cause resentment and make the fight against religious extremism more difficult. People are not inclined to help governments that pass abusive laws. Muslim women will continue to fear harassment from non-Muslim. And non-Muslims will continue to fear Muslims wearing traditional clothing and hijabs because it represents beliefs alien to them.

Outlawing the burqa will create a tremendous divide between non-Muslims and Muslims. But wearing the burqa in the West is also just plain stupid.

Saturday, July 10, 2010

The only running Saudi women do is at malls and airports

Here’s another message from our guardians in the West for the “We Know What’s Best For Saudi Arabia Although We’ve Never Been There” file: Ban Saudi Arabia from the 2012 Olympics unless women are permitted to compete.

It seems that Anita DeFrantz, a former US Olympic rowing bronze medalist and chairwoman of the International Olympic Committee’s Women and Sports Commission, is getting impatient because Saudi Arabia fails to send women to the Olympics. She’s singled out Saudi Arabia as a country that should be banned from the 2012 Olympics in London if the Kingdom doesn’t comply with her demands.

Already the IOC has browbeaten Yemen, the United Arab Emirates, Qatar and the tiny, helpless Brunei into sending women to the Olympics. At the 2008 Beijing Olympics, ladies participated and nobody paid any attention to them. The 78th-ranked Waseelah Saad of Yemen failed to advance. The UAE’s Maitha Al-Maktou made it to the quarter-finals in Taekwondo, but she failed to advance further. I suspect that these young women trained night and day to qualify to compete and I commend their tenacity.

But Saudi women? The pampered princesses of the Arabian Gulf? My idea of physical exertion is trying shoes on all day and then waiting impatiently inside the air-conditioned mall for my driver to take me home.

Let’s consider the events available to Saudi women. There’s track and field, but our only training is running between airport terminals at Charles de Gaulle. Not to mention we have about as much grace as a galloping camel. Has anyone ever seen a Saudi woman swim? Me neither. Besides, burqinis and floaties will only slow us down. And Saudi conservatives would never allow us to compete in the breaststroke for obvious reasons.

We might have a chance in Taekwondo. With a little training, the lady who beat up the member of the Commission for the Prevention of Vice and Promotion of Virtue some weeks ago might earn a medal.

Saudi women will be a serious threat in shooting competition. The ladies from Buraidah in Qassim and the villages along the Saudi Arabia-Yemen are handy with guns. They’re gold medalists in the making. The only problem is that any Olympics shooting training facility will be mistaken for an Al-Qaeda training camp and a likely target for a NATO drone attack.

Equestrian riding is our best bet, and it’s here that I agree with Anita DeFrantz, the Saudi woman’s BFF. Nobody is more talented in handling an Arabian horse than a Saudi woman.

Certainly Saudi women should be permitted to participate in the Olympic Games to face humiliation like anyone else or revel in the glory of triumph. There is no good reason why Saudi woman should not participate. The people who deny them this right should be publicly shamed. There are plenty of events available to Saudi women that even the most conservative Saudi would deem inoffensive to our moral and religious values. I'm pretty sure, though, the day will come when Saudi women participate in the Olympics. It will happen when Saudis are ready to have it happen. Not according to DeFrantz's timetable.

But I’m not sure who appointed DeFrantz the Saudi woman’s advocate. We have plenty of Saudi and non-Saudi women claiming that title and few Saudi women have paid attention to them. What makes DeFrantz so different? Well, for one she wields influence in the IOC. She has the power to punish Saudi male athletes who have nothing to do with government policy. I wonder why people in positions of power are so desperate to marginalize a group or country that refuses to conform to their definition of equal rights. Saudi women are indeed denied the rights given to them in Islam, but who appointed DeFrantz to stand up for them? Threatening to derail the sports careers of Saudi male athletes will do nothing but enrage Saudi women.

At a recent news conference, DeFrantz said of Saudi Arabia’s refusal to send women to the Olympics: "We keep asking them why not, why not. We've been very specific about the importance of having women take part in the Olympic movement in all the national Olympic committees of the world."

So who is this important to? Saudi Arabia? Obviously not. Saudi women? Perhaps, but nobody has bothered to ask them. It’s important to DeFrantz and the IOC. It’s a noble thing that part of the IOC’s mission statement is to work against discrimination affecting the Olympics. But while the IOC does its best to eliminate discrimination, it may be violating its other commitment to oppose any political or commercial abuse of sport and athletes. Denying Saudi male athletes the right to participate in the Olympics is political abuse as far as I’m concerned. And perhaps DeFrantz should allow Saudi women to define what discrimination is.

Friday, July 2, 2010

The real abuse of Saudi women

I have a friend who lives under the constant pressure of her brothers conspiring to cheat her out of her rightful inheritance after her father died. I have another friend who has accumulated some wealth only to give in to pressure from her husband to finance her mother-in-law’s comfortable lifestyle. I have another who can’t study abroad because her mother emotionally blackmails her into believing the mother can’t survive without her adult daughter next to her every day.

These women are Saudis and all suffer from the same affliction: They are weak in the matters of family.

Many Saudi women from birth are trained to put their personal aspirations aside to serve their families. Their opinions, wants and needs are often ignored for the greater good of the family. There’s an aspect of servitude, but to be more accurate many Saudi girls I know are placed in a lifetime role of caregiver. They provide the emotional support for their sisters, brothers and parents. The men of the family readily acknowledge that the women are the glue that keeps the familial bond strong.

The warmth of the family’s embrace is strongly desired by all Saudi women, but in all too many cases that embrace never loosens. Rather, it becomes restrictive and suffocating to the point that unmarried Saudi women are still living at home well into their 30s. Perhaps worse, they have traded one gilded cage for another by marrying men who see her as a source of income and their concubine. The reality is that the caregiving role that Saudi women play is entrenched in Saudi families so deeply that it’s difficult for parents and brothers to willingly let go of their daughters and sisters.

And if these girls are permitted to live independent lives it’s often an illusion. There are brothers who insist their sisters pay their unpaid bills and act as arbitrator in family disputes. There are fathers who demand half the income a daughter earns in the workplace.

Like an emotionally abused child, the Saudi woman fails to thrive. Many Saudi women will not assert their independence. They will not say “no.” They live in a constant state of anxiety because they must protect their property and income from the very people that profess love for her.

There are also a large number of Saudi women who never experience these issues. Their families encourage their daughters to seek independence, a university education and employment. Such families establish the emotional foundation in their daughters at an early age. When the girls reach adulthood they have clear vision of what they want for a future.

This doesn’t mean that Saudi families less enlightened are intentionally cruel. It’s simply a dependency that has grown to unhealthy proportions and exacerbated by an adult daughter who lacks the emotional strength to seek independence.

I don’t deny there’s a level of cruelty among some Saudi men who think nothing of enjoying women like he’s eating at an all-you-can-eat buffet.

One of my friends has a brother who demanded that his family find him a wife. His requirements for a Saudi wife were simple: She must be beautiful and dumb.

The brother wanted beauty but the brains had to be left behind because she would pose too much of a challenge for him. The family obliged the brother and found him a wife with fair skin and hair that would make Rapunzel envious. A couple of years and kids later, the brother had enough. Like a 12-year-old who discovers that the graphics on his X-Box are not as cool as the Playstation model, he was ready for a trade-in. “I can’t carry on a conversation with her, she has no idea what I’m talking about!”

These scenarios are all too familiar to Saudi women. Self-expression is stifled not only by insecure male family members who haven’t quite outgrown adolescence but by Saudi women who have yet to discover their voice to express their emotions.

There has been a ripple of change in which Saudi women are claiming ownership to a field that has been largely ignored by Saudi men. More and more women are turning to the arts and literature. Usually scorned by Saudi conservatives as having little or no value to society, literature in particular has attracted Saudi women in large numbers.

Among some agents of change are Saudi writers Badriya Al Bishr, author of “Hind and the Soldiers” and “The Swing”, and Laila Al Gohani, who wrote “The Waste Paradise.”

The Saudi female literature movement is in its infancy. But it also will have more influence on future generations of Saudi women than human rights watchdog reports and scoldings from the West.

But as with anything that involves Saudi women, their writing will be relegated to the margins of Arab literature. Female Arab writers are perceived as pursuing a hobby instead of a profession. And when they are taken seriously as writers, it will only be within the confines of being a female author and not part of the larger world of literature.

Sherren Abou El Naga of Cairo University noted at a 2007 “Women of the Arab World” conference at Oxford that Western and Arab societies have set a double standard for female writers. She said, “A woman shouldn’t write, and in the worst cases, the writings of women could be taken as autobiographical. Whatever the woman writes is part of her life, which really restricts the freedom of the writer, whereas, this does not apply to the men in profession.”

From Mary Shelley and the Brontë sisters to Virginia Woolf women writers have been pushed to the margins of world literature.

But as Badriya Al Bishr told Agence France-Presse earlier this month: "There is a new generation of novelists that uses a new language, simple and direct, in dealing with subjects that were not evoked in the past, like the right of a woman to be in love or to work."

Female authors like Al Bishr and Al Gohani may never cross gender lines and be embraced for their work as writers and not just women. But that matters less than the fact they are reaching a female Saudi audience who may be inspired to reach beyond domestic life for a larger piece of the pie.

Thursday, June 24, 2010

Saudi rehab program for terrorists proves skeptics wrong

The other day it was announced by the Ministry of Interior that a little more than 20 percent of the Guantanamo detainees who returned to Saudi Arabia and underwent the government’s rehabilitation program have returned to extremism.

Twenty-five of the 120 Guantanamo detainees that graduated from the program resumed militant activities, with up to 11 joining Al-Qaeda in Yemen. Othman Ahmed Al-Ghamdi, 31, who was imprisoned at Guantanamo for four years and released in 2006, has been named the leader in Al-Qaeda.

The Ministry also reported that overall about 9.5 percent of the 300 people who passed through the program have rejoined the militant ranks or have failed to adhere to the terms of their release.

The Western media has been relatively restrained in reporting these numbers, but present the recidivism rate as a failure. Reuters describes the Guantanamo detainees’ return to extremism as a “setback” for the “world’s top oil exporter”. So by implication not only is the program failing but the failure is in a country that produces fuel for the cars we drive. Agence France-Presse bluntly announces the “20 Percent Failure Rate in Saudi Gitmo Rehab Programme”.

Is the Saudi government’s rehabilitation program failing? The obvious answer is no. Not by a long shot. Rather, the numbers are encouraging. And instead of engaging in torture and isolating individuals in jail cells without trial, perhaps the U.S. can learn a few lessons why Saudi Arabia is succeeding in its own efforts to combat extremism.

Ask any criminologist, police officer, prosecutor or judge about the Saudi rehabilitation program’s recidivism rate and they will express envy. Few Western countries can lay claim to a 9.5 percent recidivism rate among criminals.

According to the U.S. Department of Justice, more than 1.18 million American men and women on parole in 2007 were at risk of returning to prison. About 16 percent actually were reincarcerated in 2007. The average recidivism rate in the United States is 67.5 percent, according to a 1994 Department of Justice report.

An estimated 70 percent of convicted robbers are returned to prison. About 74 percent of convicted burglars are re-offenders. These people pose more of a risk to the average American than a terrorist. In 2005, the BBC reported that the recidivism rate in the U.S. was closer to 60 percent and about 50 percent in the United Kingdom.

By the Department of Justice’s own measuring stick, the Saudi rehabilitation program is a smashing success. In fact, the success rate has been remarkably consistent since the inception of the program. About 90 percent of the militants who pass through the program have not returned to extremism.

The program uses a mix of correct religious teachings and financial incentives to keep participants on tract. Much of the program focuses on the participation of religious scholars who freely engage with participants in debates over the interpretation of the Holy Qur’an by counseling them on the correct doctrine and ferreting out corrupt interpretations. Psychological counseling, the use of halfway houses to re-integrate former militants into Saudi society, jobs, and financial aid to get them back on their feet are also employed.

Western nations are used to the hard-line approach of harsh prison sentences imposed on people who commit crimes. Some U.S. and British legal experts have expressed skepticism whether a religious-based “soft” program can be effective over a long period of time. The consensus among Westerners is to assume a wait-and-see attitude. But now that Al-Qaeda in Yemen is composed of several rehab graduates, the program has been deemed a failure.

Critics have a tendency to believe that the Saudi program is some kind of Islamic version of an American weekend bible camp. Verses are memorized and recited, bonds are made between participates, songs are sung, and then everybody goes back to their secular world on Monday.

These notions can’t be applied to Saudis, who measure their very existence on how they live their lives as Muslims. Islam is a road map to pious living. It’s not a Friday-only thing or the occasional trip to Holy Qur’an camp. It’s an every minute thing.

Saudi extremists stepped off the correct path and only Islam can bring them back. It’s unlikely that hardcore extremists will ever change, and certainly life prison sentences or the death penalty will keep them off the streets. Those people will never personally harm another human being again. But it won’t stop them from spreading their ideology whenever possible, even behind prison walls. It will not stop their families from assuming the same ideology. It will not stop misguided Muslims from seeking revenge because their loved ones were tortured or held in prison without trial.

The Saudi rehabilitation program is successful because the government respects the people it’s trying to rehabilitate. It’s far easier to lock them away forever or execute them, but it does nothing to reduce the threat of extremist ideology.

Saudi tourism projects show improvements

There’s more good news from the Saudi Arabian tourism industry. Revenue was expected this year to jump 4.76 percent over 2009 for a total of SR 66 billion.

Salah Al-Bakhit, the deputy chairman of Saudi Commission for Tourism and Antiquities (SCTA), told the Saudi Press Agency earlier this week that “by the year 2015 (tourism) revenue would reach SR118 billion and by 2020 it would jump further to SR232 billion.”

Also consider the SCTA’s announcement that jobs created by investments in tourism has increased 7.4 percent, or from 333,125 jobs in 2000 to 457,658 in 2009. I suspect that much of this growth, which is not terribly large over nearly a decade, occurred in the last couple of years as the SCTA increased its efforts to promote Saudi Arabia as a tourist destination and improved access to various sites.

Support services, such as restaurants, at tourist destinations also saw a significant rise in revenue with a 9 percent uptick, or a total of SR 36 billion expected this year.

So what are Saudi Arabia’s hot spots? Madain Saleh is popular with non-Muslims. Madain Saleh was named in 2008 as a UNESCO World Heritage Site and continues to undergo excavation in a cooperative effort between the SCTA and the National French Research Center. The Grand Mosque in Makkah and Prophet’s Mosque in Madinah for pilgrims remains Saudi Arabia’s centerpieces of tourism. Asir, Najran and Jizan are beginning to attract new visitors. At least SR 150 billion has been earmarked for the construction of resorts along the Red Sea coast. Ras Muhaisen in the Makkah province, Dhaffat Al-Wajh, Ras Humaid Sharma and Qayyal in Tabuk, Arrayes in Yanbu and Haridha in Asir all have resorts under construction or have projects planned.

A project to develop the old Okaz Souq in Taif also is on the horizon.

It seems that the SCTA has proven the skeptics wrong and has exceeded their own expectations in tourism growth. With an unprecedented number of tourism projects underway, SCTA chief Prince Sultan Bin Salman is turning his attention to domestic travel issues. Citing that 80 percent of the Saudis use domestic highways to reach their destinations, a Saudi Automotive Services Company (SASCO) service station project has been launched.

“To promote domestic tourism we have to provide the best services to the local citizens, residents and tourists who make use of our trunk roads,” Prince Sultan told Saudi reporters at a press conference recently. He said the project is aimed to allow service stations to be more attractive for travelers.

The SCTA plans to add 20 SASCO service stations by next year for a total of 83 facilities. These services stations will include shopping centers, food courts and lodging. But it will take more than additional service stations to increase domestic travel on Saudi Arabia’s highways. What the SCTA hasn’t mentioned about their project is the fact that current highway service stations are notorious for their filthy conditions in restrooms and wash areas and less than adequate service at sales counters. I think that a filthy petrol station restroom and rude service staff will make more of an impression on a foreign visitor than any tourist site. If the Ministry of Transport can get on board with the SCTA and refurbish rest areas and service stations and train staff, then domestic travel will further increase

Also not addressed by the SCTA are the chronic problems of lack of public transportation in urban areas. While railways are planned for inter-city travel, public bus transportation remains substandard in general and non-existent for women in particular. Once tourists arrive at a destination, rental cars and taxis should not be the only transportation option for families.

Ultimately, the transportation problems will be solved given the giant strides the SCTA has made in the past two years. That’s promising for domestic tourism. Now if the SCTA can begin focusing on bringing more foreign tourists to Saudi Arabia, then we can see some further revenue increases.

Wednesday, June 9, 2010

Having an opinion can land Saudis in jail

Young Saudis are in deep trouble yet again for speaking their minds. Three young Saudis, two men and a woman, face lawsuits for “opening declaring sin” in a MTV “True Life” episode titled “Resist the Power, Saudi Arabia.”

A portion of the episode was videotaped at a Jeddah Municipal Council meeting. Now the council claims that broadcasting images of its members is “an aggression against the rights of others” because one of the youths profiled in the show complained of lack of female council members.

The show profiled a young man breaking up with his unseen girlfriend and his attempts at dating. Another subject was a 20-year-old Effat College student starting her own abaya business in which her abayas are in every color except black. Another is a 22-year-old university political science major who regularly attends the municipal council meetings and worked four months to have women allowed to voice their community concerns. A fourth profile focused on a Saudi heavy metal rock band that is unable to stage a concert in Saudi Arabia.

Unlike the young Saudi who bragged of his female conquests on LBC several months ago, at least two of the young people interviewed by MTV in the hour-long episode did no wrong and committed no sin. The rock band is harmless.

It’s not for me to judge any of these individuals. That’s for Allah. I wish the lovelorn Saudi kept his mouth shut because, frankly, he openly defied Islam. But the abaya entrepreneur and budding Saudi politician have nothing to apologize for. This doesn’t absolve MTV from its responsibilities to their interview subjects. Like LBC, the music television company abandoned the people it profiled once the cameras stopped rolling. MTV also failed to balance its show by interviewing their subjects to elicit the positive aspects of Saudi culture.

Still, Saudi authorities – in this case the municipal council and apparently the Commission to Prevent Vice and Promote Virtue, which had sought the lawsuits (Jeddah court officials said this week that no complaints have actually been filed) – have failed to take the documentary in perspective.

It’s telling that in each of the interviews, these young people freely expressed their opinions about the society they live in, yet behaved in every way like good Muslims and had sought the approval of their parents. During practice sessions, the heavy metal band immediately stopped playing their music, performed wudu and went to prayer. The mothers of the Effat College girl and the lead singer in the rock band gave their complete permission and encouragement of their children’s activities. The mothers willingly appeared on camera for interviews. Throughout the entire episode the musicians repeatedly said that heavy metal is a performance driven act that is not “Satanic” that is implied in that genre of music. Rather, their lyrics focus on their lives as Saudis. It was only the style of music they were emulating.
“There is no conflict between heavy metal music and being a Muslim,” one young man said.

Although the young man desperate for a date annoyed me, he made a statement that some young Saudis might agree: “Saudi society encourages Saudi youths to do wrong things.”

This statement is the crux of the MTV episode. Three individuals and a group of musicians swimming against the tide of Saudi society to pursue their dreams. The young abaya maker was lectured by a shop clerk that black represented modesty and was the only suitable color for an abaya.That’s not his place. It took the girl a while to find another shop owner, although he was quite reluctant, to make the colorful abayas she had designed.

There is no sin there.

The political science major’s legal issues are even more ludicrous. He is openly videotaped debating Jeddah Council members on the issue of allowing women to attend meetings. Most council members are photographed and engaging in the debate. Following a four-month negotiation, the Council agreed to allow women into the meeting. A few dozen women attended and are given an opportunity to voice their concerns about their needs in the community. A primary complaint is the lack of affordable transportation in the city.

Not until the MTV episode aired on May 24 did the Council discover that they were wronged by the young man for allowing the meeting to be recorded. Apparently no council member believes he should be held accountable for allowing the videotaping in the first place or giving the young man permission to bring women to the meeting.

Nearly 60 percent of the population of Saudi Arabia is under the age of 24. As one of the rock musicians stated in an interview, there are few ways for self-expression. He noted he could play his music or he could take drugs and drive his car aimlessly around Jeddah. His decision, he said, is to find a creative outlet to express himself.

Saudi authorities showed the wherewithal to allow MTV into the country to allow young Saudis to freely express themselves. Yet when the opinions expressed don’t match the opinions of the collective, then punishment is pending. It’s a wonder that any young Saudi would ever grant an interview to the media. The consequences of having opinions are too severe.

As for MTV, the opening narration provided a laundry list of Saudi generalizations and stereotypes, but to its credit virtually the entire documentary was in the words of the interview subjects. Leaving the young people behind to fend for themselves is unforgivable, but I’m not sure what is worse: MTV packing their bags and leaving without so much as a thank-you, or the Saudi authorities who endorsed the documentary by allowing MTV into the country, and then pulling the rug out from under these young people for speaking their minds.

Wednesday, June 2, 2010

Media give Western extremism a free pass

The other night I was sitting at home minding my own business when I came across Al Jazeera English’s “Inside Iraq” program online. There for the world to see was an American describing Arabs as “barbarians” and Islam a “crazy ideology”. President Bush, he said, courageously “planted some flowers” of democracy in the Middle East when U.S. troops invaded Iraq.

I quickly looked at the time stamp on the program thinking I found something from the 2004 archives of Al Jazeera. No. Jack Burkman, a Republican strategist who does spin control for disgraced former Illinois Governor Rod Blagojevich and toes the Republican Party line on foreign policy, was speaking in the here and now. Burkman told his disbelieving host and fellow guests -- British journalist Robert Fisk and Iraqi analyst Anas Altikriti -- that the Middle East needs to be cleaned up of dictators. He also said that oil, not weapons of mass destruction, was the true motive behind the invasion. Nobody in the U.S. government, he said, cares about Egypt or Syria because those countries have nothing to offer.

Okay, so Burkman articulates what Arabs have known all along. But the curious thing about this second-string Beltway insider is that Al Jazeera would put this guy on the air in the first place. Al Jazeera has fallen into the same trap as the American media by booking individuals with extreme viewpoints, taking off the gloves and allowing the blood to spill.

The unintended consequence of booking people with questionable credentials and outrageous opinions to draw viewers is that Western extremism is legitimized. If on American television we took the polar opposite of a Muslim extremist's point of view, say, that car bombings are a legitimate form of warfare to repel foreign invaders from Muslim lands, a media firestorm would ensue and the hapless Islamic extremist would disappear into a black hole.

Mainstream book publishers with a long record of publishing thought-provoking analysis on world events in general and American foreign policy in particular now recognize that Western extremism can be profitable.

Simon & Schuster has published commendable biographies and autobiographies of Barack and Michelle Obama, Laura Bush, Afgan women’s activist Malalai Joya and Clara Rojas, who was held captive for more than 2,000 days by Colombian terrorists. But the publisher now includes Muslim haters Pamela Geller and Robert Spencer, American advocates of the extinction of Islam, in their roster of authors. Simon & Schuster apparently believes Geller and Spencer’s argument that Obama is waging war on his own country.

Spencer, in fact, purports to be an Islamic scholar although he has no formal education in the field. He enjoys U.S. government tax breaks as a non-profit organization dedicated to Islamic scholarship. Yet his website and public speeches are screeds against Islam much in the same vein as Burkman’s view that Islam is a “crazy ideology” anchored hopelessly anchored in the 6th century.

Spencer’s promotion of “Draw Muhammad (peace be upon him) Day” further solidifies Western extremism directed toward Muslims. “Draw Muhammad Day” was promoted on Facebook last month in reaction to Comedy Central deciding not to air a “South Park” cartoon parody of the prophet following a threat from a fringe Islamic website. Billed as championing free speech and standing up to the excesses of Islamic extremists, artists were invited to submit artwork of the prophet to Facebook.

Scores of entries were submitted with every single one depicting hateful images. Freedom of speech to the organizers and artists was simply an excuse to vent anti-Muslim sentiments. Not one image portrayed the prophet in a positive or neutral light, or even attempted to emulate the well-known 16th century Turkish Islamic artwork.

Muslim extremists and their unhinged followers should assume some responsibility for fostering the rise of Western extremism (although Muslim extremists don’t enjoy the same benefits of being published by Simon & Schuster et al). Westerners have learned a few lessons from Al Qaeda, which virtually pioneered the use of the Internet to further their cause through terrorism Spencer, for example, often adopts the language of Al Qaeda when advocating the elmination of Islam. Yet long before Al Qaeda came about, extremism was alive and well in the U.S. It’s woven into the fabric of American history.

The Ku Klux Klan, the original American terrorist organization, virtually legalized murder, kept racial segregation alive for decades and spawned neo-Nazism. Anti-Semite Charles Coughlin, a Roman Catholic priest, had his radio show in the 1930s. Sen. Joe McCarthy ruined lives simply by hinting that individuals may be communists. Today, the Internet has created thousands of new Klansmen, Father Coughlins and Joe McCarthys. The difference, however, is they get book deals and are interviewed by Wolf Blitzer to spread their hate.

All of these folks have a voice and all have been legitimized by mainstream television news. And yes, that includes Al Jazeera.

Tuesday, June 1, 2010

New medical program could reduce organ trafficking

Saudi Arabia took a big step forward in seriously treating renal disease patient with an announcement earlier this week that a campaign has been launched that among other things publicizes a program that allows renal patients to be treated in villages instead of traveling to urban areas.

Prince Salman also announced that the program will include fund-raising efforts to help the Prince Fahad Bin Salman Charitable Society for the Care of Kidney Patients. Perhaps the most important aspect of the program is that the charitable society has developed a plan to make it easier for renal patients to obtain treatment.

Consider that two years ago the number of kidney patients, a great many suffering from diabetes, was pegged at about 8,500 in Saudi Arabia. That number has increased to 11,000 this year and is expected to jump to 15,000 by 2015. Diabetes accounts for as much as one-third of the country’s renal failure cases. Liver disease stemming from hepatitis also is expected to increase by as much as 10 percent

When I last wrote about treatment for renal failure in March, the Kingdom was facing a crisis with only a fraction of kidney transplants taking place. The King Faisal Specialist Hospital and Research Center, for example, performed 152 kidney transplants in 2008 with 96 kidneys taken from living relatives and 56 from deceased donors. An estimated 2,900 kidney patients were waiting for transplants.

The crisis is actually two-fold: Obtaining kidney donors for a transplant, especially from a deceased donor, is difficult in Saudi Arabia due to cultural issues. And if a transplant is not a priority, simply getting patients with few financial means from poor, rural areas to Jeddah, Riyadh, Madinah and Dammam is almost impossible.

My family is lucky. My mother, who must undergo dialysis several times a week, is treated in her hometown of Madinah or when she visits my brothers in Jeddah. Other families, however, must travel sometimes hundreds of miles for treatment. At one point, however, there was a discussion in my family whether a transplant was needed and whether that transplant should be performed abroad. But it’s a risky venture.
According to the India News, about 500 patients, mostly from the United States, had kidney transplants in India. We decided against the transplant, but other Saudi families don’t have the option or are desperate enough to seek illegal surgery outside Saudi Arabia.

Prince Salman’s fund-raising efforts for the charitable society is expected to aid patients at the end stage of renal disease to access treatment not usually available to them outside of urban areas. What I’m hoping for is that the program will minimize transplant tourism among Saudis who believe there are not enough options available in Saudi Arabia to save the life of a loved one. The society’s program
also could help minimize the conflicts Saudi Arabia is experiencing within the international medical community.

The World Health Organization (WHO) issued a plea in 2004 for countries to “to take measures to protect the poorest and vulnerable groups from transplant tourism and the sale of tissues and organs, including attention to the wider problem of international trafficking in human tissues and organs."

In 2008, “The Declaration of Istanbul on Organ Trafficking and Transplant Tourism” was established. The declaration defined organ trafficking as the “ recruitment, transport, transfer, harboring or receipt of living or deceased persons or their organs by means of the threat or use of force or other forms of coercion, of abduction, of fraud, of deception, of the abuse of power or of a position of vulnerability, or of the giving to, or the receiving by, a third party of payments or benefits to achieve the transfer of control over the potential donor, for the purpose of exploitation by the removal of organs for transplantation.”

Many Saudis are reluctant to participate in transplant programs involving deceased donors. In addition, many Western medical experts are uncomfortable with Saudi Arabia’s policy of compensating families of deceased donors because it could lead to exploitation of poor expatriates and also encourage the commercialization of organ

Saudi Arabia’s medical community has addressed these concerns by arguing that the selection process of using an organ from a deceased donor and the resulting compensation to the family requires a thorough vetting process and is in compliance with our cultural and religious obligations. Prince Salman’s awareness program will educate Saudis about the options available to them and help reduce transplant
tourism. The program should also help bring acceptance that organ donations, whether from a living or deceased donor, is a viable option and acceptable in Islam.

As reported recently in the Saudi press, Grand Mufti Sheikh Abdul Aziz Al-Asheikh described the donation of cash for the awareness program and the donation of organs as not only acceptable but noble gestures.

Wednesday, May 12, 2010

The death of a Saudi woman

In Saudi Arabia common sense often takes a holiday.

Last month an incident occurred at the Teachers’ Education College in Qassim. As usual, press reports are sketchy, but the facts as we know them are all too familiar.
It seems a young female student reportedly fell ill at the college and faculty staff made the appropriate response by calling the Red Crescent Society emergency medical technicians. So far, so good. That is except when the EMTs arrived at the front gate they were allegedly refused entry because they were men.

An argument ensued between the college security team and the EMTs. During all the shouting and finger-pointing the young woman died.

This kind of thing happens often enough. Since a vast majority of medical emergencies involve families and more than half involve women, we have seen urgent medical services fall the wayside because we believe that men attending to a woman is inappropriate.

In effect, we are all too happy to sacrifice a woman’s health, even her life, to protect the reputation of our loved ones. My impatience, however, is the entirely inappropriate reaction to such incidents that make me wonder if we have taken leave of our senses.

The fallout from the death of this young college student did not focus on the reason why she died. Instead, the reaction was that if the EMTs were women none of this would have happened. The answer, therefore, is that Saudi Arabia must recruit female emergency responders to provide adequate care for patients.

I’m all for women working as EMTs. Except for one thing: Saudi society frowns on women taking such jobs. It’s not honorable, remember? Even Saudi men don’t want the icky job of dressing injures, carrying people to the ambulance or seeing people in undignified circumstances. The Red Crescent Society in Qassim reported that only 100 men applied for 1,000 available jobs. One-thousand vacancies!

But that’s not my main concern. College staff had the presence of mind to call emergency responders when the woman became ill. But they lost their cool, and their courage, when the EMTs showed up. Two things happened as far as can be determined. The college staff allegedly refused the EMTs entry because they would be touching the woman. If it turns out the woman was not seriously ill or had recovered, college
officials may be exposing themselves to questions from authorities as to why they allowed strange men to touch one of their female students.

Self-preservation overrode common sense. Staff members wanted to protect the girl’s reputation and their own by refusing treatment.

The other reason is the creeping erosion of the true meaning of guardianship. In Saudi Arabia every single male, from the taxi driver I flag down on the street corner for a ride to the security guard at the airport who reads my father’s written permission allowing me to travel is my mahram. I have millions of mahrams who have an opinion about the way I conduct my life and think they know better than my father and brothers.

I can imagine the conversation between the male security guards and EMTs at the college entrance: “There’s a reputation at stake here and we can’t allow you in.” The victim died knowing her reputation remained intact because of a decision made by non-family members who have their own ideas about guardianship.

Recruiting female EMTs, and of course we are talking about hiring them from foreign countries, is not the answer. It will just bring up more questions. Will female EMTs be able to drive ambulances? Well, no. Will a female EMT be permitted to work with male colleagues and be alone with them in an ambulance? Probably not. Will a female EMT be permitted to treat a male patient alone in the rear of the ambulance while her male colleague drives the ambulance to the hospital? Not likely.

Saudi female emergency responders should be hired to possess the full authority to do whatever it takes to save lives and get the job done. But it doesn’t’ solve our fears of having to answer to law authorities about our decision to allow a man to treat a woman. It’s not khalwa, but in today’s society just about anything passes for khalwa. Our inability to define what is true khalwa has affected our rational thinking. In this case our inability to allow a life to be saved.

Wednesday, May 5, 2010

My driver's tears

Most expatriate workers come to Saudi Arabia for the good salaries. University educated Westerners work for some of the largest Saudi employers in technology, education and medicine. Not only are their salaries far better in the Kingdom than in their native countries, they are allowed to bring their families and live residential compounds that provide most of the comforts at home.

The same can’t be said for non-university educated South Asians, Africans and other workers from developing countries. These expats earn a wage that is far better than home, but they are not permitted to bring their families to Saudi Arabia and they live in dormitories or cheap housing, often with a group of other workers.

The policies of the Saudi government in which unskilled workers are not permitted to bring their families to the Kingdom make sense for the most part. If a worker is earning less than SR 1,500 per month – which is still a better wage than at home – the Saudi government isconcerned that the worker’s family will dependent on free government services. As it is, the Ministries of Social Affairs and Interior are
burdened with dealing with illegal immigrants who often come to Saudi Arabia on an Umrah visa and then stay.

To think for a moment, though, that these unskilled workers are content with their jobs, pleased with their earnings and happy living thousands of miles away from their families is naïve. These workers – the taxi driver or the housemaid – live away from their families for years, sometimes decades. Depending on the employer, the unskilled worker gets a plane ticket home once every other year for a 30-day visit with the families. I know of Bangladeshi tea boys who earn so little that collections by the better paid employees are taken at the end of each month to supplement the tea boys’ income. An extra collection is taken to finance their annual trip home. That is if the employer permitted the trip in the first place.

An estimated 51 percent of the workers in Saudi Arabia are foreign. This is not unusual in Gulf countries where the number of foreign workers in Bahrain, Qatar, Kuwait and other countries far exceed the native workers.

While there are many benefits for the unskilled laborer to work in Saudi Arabia, there is an inherent unfairness of how some workers are treated. A worker’s salary usually determine whether family dependents are permitted to live in Saudi Arabia with the worker. This is a non-issue with skilled professionals, such as physicians, teachers, technicians, journalists and others. These people are paid high salaries and there is no threat of their families becoming dependent on Saudi Arabia for financial aid.

The inequity occurs when an unskilled worker also earns a high salary but is not permitted to bring his family to Saudi Arabia. My driver is an honorable man working in Saudi Arabia under a Saudi sponsorship.

His primary employer is a company and his days are filled driving the company’s employees to and from work and to run errands. His sponsor permits him to take on extra clients. One of these extra clients is me.

My driver, a Pakistani with a wife and two young sons at home in Pakistan, earns an excellent wage between SR 4,000 and SR 10,000 a month. That’s a wage more than many Saudis earn. In a good month, he earns about $3,500 in U.S. dollars. That’s better than what many Americans earn in their own country. Yet my driver is not allowed to
have his family in Saudi Arabia. I couldn’t tell you the exact reasons for this, but at the end of the day to the Saudi government he is simply an unskilled Pakistani worker.

What is troubling to me, however, is that there are simple solutions to his plight. He can afford to place funds in government-approved account that guarantees his family has return airline tickets for home. A specific amount can be added as a bond to guarantee that his family does not become a burden to the Saudi government. Most
unskilled workers can’t afford to have a bond or provide guarantees for a return airline ticket. But if they earn their money legally, as my driver does, why shouldn’t they be permitted to have their families live with them?

Recently my driver brought his wife and two boys to Saudi Arabia on an Umrah visa. He found living quarters for them and I could see that these were the two happiest little boys in the world. My driver often works seven days a week, but with his family in town, he worked only six. Thursdays was family day. The boys knew that their dad reserved that day for them. Each Thursday morning, they were dressed and ready for the big day long before their dad arrived to pick them up for a trip to the Corniche, an amusement park, the mall or a fine family restaurant.

From a practical standpoint this visit is good for Saudi Arabia. The money that my driver earns is being spent in Jeddah. It’s not being sent to Pakistan. He is contributing to Saudi Arabia’s economy.

At the end of the holiday, the family returned to Pakistan and my driver will probably not see them for another year. It’s not often that I see a grown man cry, but I can’t fault his tears for the unfairness of being forced to find work in a foreign country to provide for his family. And even when that wage is exceptional, the labor laws in Saudi Arabia keep that family separated. Further, millions of Saudi Riyals leave the Kingdom each day. Saudi banks and Western Union offices are jammed each day with expatriates sending money home with little being spent in Saudi Arabia.

Saudi Arabia would benefit better if it changes its policies to allow unskilled expatriates earning a good income to have their families live with them.

Wednesday, April 28, 2010

Reporting without context

Navi Pillay, the human rights chief for the United Nations, recently completed a tour of the six Gulf countries and discovered that women’s rights in those nations have improved. She had some sharp words for some countries, including Saudi Arabia, for the lack of employment opportunities but progress, she said, is evident.

Pillay is the right woman for the job. She’s no-nonsense and tough, but she recognizes that hammering away at Muslim countries for their deficiencies in dealing with their women and expatriate workers gets the UN nowhere pretty fast.

Here’s the assessment Pillay gave at a press conference the other day in Abu Dhabi: "Clearly the winds of change are blowing strongly throughout the region on a number of fronts — perhaps more strongly than we had anticipated when preparing this mission, and more strongly than many people in the outside world realize."

Still, she expressed concern that more attention be given to women’s rights, freedom of expression and migration. Treatment of expatriate workers, in particular, troubled her.

Pillay visited Saudi Arabia, Qatar, Kuwait, the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain and Oman. She wasn’t specific in what progress she had witnessed but she was clearly impressed. But she seemed less impressed with the external perceptions of the Gulf countries.

She acknowledged "how the region is portrayed in the international media, particularly on issues related to women's rights and migrant labor."

"What I find admirable is that the issues are being addressed and advances are being made and this is the aspect that is unknown to the international community," Pillay said in a separate interview with the Gulf News.

No truer words could be spoken.

As if the international media couldn’t take the hint, Agence France Presse led its news story about Pillay under the headline “UN rights chief chides Gulf states over women's employment” with this: “UN human rights chief Navi Pillay on Saturday criticized restrictions on women's employment in some Gulf countries and called for those barriers to be lifted.”

Not until the seventh paragraph did AFP acknowledge Pillay’s comments about progress in women’s rights before abruptly turning to allegations by Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch of torture in some Gulf countries.

The Voice of America’s website was more balanced, leading with: “The U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights says more basic freedoms are being seen in Gulf Arab countries, but further progress must be made.”

Naturally, the Gulf News and the Khaleej Times touted the progress and downplayed the setbacks since the story was in their own back yard. The Khaleej Times couldn’t bring itself to write about any improvements needed in the Gulf.

Only the independent-minded Abu Dhabi-based The National played it tough among the Gulf newspapers: “The UN’s top human rights monitor called yesterday for Saudi Arabia and other Gulf countries to give migrant workers more dignity and rights, and to eliminate the male guardianship system that gives men almost total control over spouses and female relatives,” wrote reporter Caryle Murphy.

To The National’s credit, Pillay’s praise in improved human rights followed in the second paragraph.

Pillay met King Abdullah, Prince Saud Al-Faisal, Ministry of Justice Minister Mohammed Al-Issa and some Shoura Council members. She also spoke to a handful of students at King Abdullah University of Science and Technology (KAUST) in an unpublicized visit. She met with no NGO groups.

Although Pillay indirectly criticized the international media for contributing to the misperceptions of the Gulf countries, none of the journalists attending the Abu Dhabi news conference could manage to put Pillay’s comments in proper context. I can’t speak for Saudi Arabia’s neighbors, but Saudi women account for nearly 60 percent of all university students. And the last I heard, Saudi female employment was up to 14 percent from a dismal 5 percent a decade ago. Yes, not particularly impressive numbers compared to 59 percent of the Emirati women employed in the UAE and 42 percent in Kuwait, but progress nonetheless. We know that a university education for a Saudi woman doesn’t guarantee employment, but clearly Saudi Arabia is on the path towards closing in on that goal.

Without this kind of context from the local press, Pillay’s comments, both the positive and the negative, are empty of meaning.

Saturday, April 24, 2010

Find someone else to rescue

Like all Saudi women I appreciate the efforts by American and European human rights organizations to protect us from bad Saudi men and to help grant us the freedom we deserve. Without the help of Americans and Europeans my life would have no future.

Okay, I’m lying.

If Western do-gooders minded their own business I’d be a pretty happy girl.

The same goes for the Kuwaiti media. Kuwaiti journalists apparently have ripped a page from the Western “Save the Oppressed Saudi Woman” handbook and now want to rescue us poor little lambs from the wolves. In this case, Kuwaiti newspapers and websites are criticizing the male organizers of the Janadriya Festival for “exploiting” Saudi women and engaging in “unethical behavior.”

Ouf! According to the Kuwaitis, women Janadriya Festival workers just fell off the camel in Riyadh following a long journey from Sakakah. The only women who are exploited are women who want to be exploited. And I’m pretty darn sure that the Riyadh ladies and desert village girls can take care of themselves. They probably have a few suggestions for journalists offering to save them.

According to festival organizers, three women committees were involved in helping stage the event: a media and protocol committee chaired by Lubna Al-Ajami, a cultural committed headed by Jawahir Al-Abdul Aal, and the education and upbringing committee supervised by Iqbal Al-Arfaj. Not for a second would these committee chairwomen stand for any hanky-panky when working with their male counterparts.

Typically, the Arab media are not specific in their allegations, providing only hints and vague allegations, which cast a dark cloud over the event and leaves the meaning of these charges to the imagination of the reader.

The festival is not just any festival, but Saudi Arabia’s cultural and heritage festival with craft and culinary exhibitions, camel races, national folklore dances, poetry readings, art and theater. If I was asked to participate and I was available, I would be proud to serve in the festival and proud to serve my country. Most women I know would jump at the chance to be part of it. In recent years, stronger family
participation has become more common as segregation rules have been eased a bit.

This unnecessary scrutiny based on unfounded allegations hurts more than helps Saudi women and the family-oriented atmosphere. The last thing festival organizers need is to second guess themselves at next year’s festival planning meetings and scale back female participation for fear of external criticism.

I resent the fact that outsiders, whether they are our Gulf neighbors, or some well-meaning but ignorant Westerner, telling us what is best for Saudi women. Criticism of this sort doesn’t bring Saudi women closer to gender equity but endangers what we have already accomplished.

The other night I visited the Red Sea Mall in Jeddah. On the first floor was an exhibit on Islam that appeared to be organized and run by Saudi girls no more than 18 years old. The exhibition was designed to attract the young Saudi generation by offering a view in a modern context of science combined with the teachings of the Holy Qur’an. Young men and women viewed the exhibits and discussed Islam in a respectful way. On the second floor was a small exhibit offering sales literature on a personal hygiene product. A number of young women, wearing uniforms instead of abayas, were working alongside young men giving sales pitches to passersby. On the top floor young women were running their own clothing and accessories shops.

It’s refreshing to see these young girls take charge of their future and get out and meet the public. I was particularly impressed with the mobile Dawa center where these young ladies, speaking almost perfect accentless English, handed out reading materials to men and women and answered questions about Islam.

Are these young women being exploited? Is there even the danger of exploitation? Of course not. We as a society offer tremendous education opportunities to Saudi women, although we are not quite committed to giving them jobs. After all, only 14 percent of the Saudi workforce consists of Saudi women.

Yet when we make the effort to allow these women greater opportunities, whether its selling deodorant or clothing, we not only get a little nervous, we have malgoofs (nosy people) who complain that these girls are being exposed to blackmail and exploitation. If it’s not our Gulf neighbors worrying about the safety of Saudi women, it’s the West saying selling deodorant is not good enough and they should be selling cars, or whatever big ticket item, instead.

Here’s a tip for the complainers: Saudi women are doing just fine and making progress on their own. Find someone else to rescue.

Wednesday, April 14, 2010

Muslim leaders must reach out to common Christians, Jews to make interfaith dialogue effective

A funny thing happened after the Saudi Arabia-sponsored 2008 World Conference on Dialogue in Spain: People began paying attention.

For those readers who may have forgotten, King Abdullah initiated the interfaith dialogue conference with the hope of bridging the gap that exists primarily among Muslims, Christians and Jews. Not unexpectedly, the conference was greeted with a lukewarm response, if not more than a little hostility by the Western media. Saudi Arabia, according to the argument at the time, was presumptuous to sponsor a conference on religious harmony since no churches are permitted in the Kingdom.

Media coverage was casual and the event was soon forgotten. Or maybe not. According to the Washington Times, an arch-conservative newspaper and ordinarily a harsh critic of Saudi Arabia, some Jewish leaders have recognized that such conferences can narrow the gap that separate Jews and Muslims.

Rabbi Marc Schneier, who heads the Foundation For Ethnic Understanding in the United States, attended the conference in Spain and a similar one later in Vienna.

“The challenge of the 21st century is to narrow the chasm between Judaism and Islam,” Schneier told The Washington Times. He added that, “the King has realized how much damage has been done by religious fundamentalists and extremists, particularly in Islam.”

Well, okay, that’s true as far as it goes, but what Schneier doesn’t mention is the utter failure of the media, both Western and Arab, to convey what Islam means to Muslims on a personal, not political, level, and just how removed the vast majority of Muslims are from extremist ideology.

Although speaking from a Western viewpoint, Blake Michael, chairman Ohio Wesleyan University’s religion department, puts the Muslim position in better context than Schneier: “A lot of Muslims around the world are utterly bewildered by terrorist and jihadist efforts. They want to get the truth about the complexity of Islam out there. They feel the Western media cover a narrow strand of what Islam is about.”

The number of interfaith dialogue conferences has increased tremendously over the past five years or so, but even more so since King Abdullah’s 2008 conference. The inclusion of Muslim imams who were previously absent at interfaith conferences has added another layer of dialogue.

Unlike Christian, Jewish and other religious leaders, Muslim leaders have two strikes against them when participating in religious conferences. They must answer questions about extremist ideology found on dozens of websites that is perceived as speaking for the Muslim community. They also must find a solution to the manufactured threat of Wahhabism, which is considered by Western conservatives as a conspiracy to create a caliph.

Most non-Muslim religious leaders recognize these two issues are not reflective of the Muslim community, but whether they convey that message to the members of their church or synagogue is another issue. I think not. It’s one thing to participate in large scale conferences like the ones held in Spain and Austria and the ones that followed, but the greater challenge is to bypass the Christian and Jewish hierarchy and speak to the people themselves.

Saudi imams and sheikhs might consider educating non-Muslims on the true voice of Islam by participating in events at smaller venues outside major metropolitan centers. Many non-Muslim centers, for example, have guest clergy from other faiths give lectures and presentations.

Discussions between imams, priests and rabbis will help break down significant barriers.

King Abdullah got the ball rolling two years ago and Muslims are quietly being heard by non-Muslim leaders, but the next step is to make sure that message is delivered unfiltered to the rest of the non-Muslim community.

Rogue agency fails to protect Saudi women

In February I wrote about the “heroic” role the Commission for Promotion of Virtue and Prevention of Vice can play in Saudi society, noting that the commission can earn the confidence of the people it serves by protecting women from predators. When some Hai’a members become the predator, however, then they betray all Saudis.

Recently a girl, who was reported to be a runaway, was arrested in Tabuk after she asked a man for a ride to the bus station so she could return to her family in Jeddah. The Hai’a says the girl asked the man to smuggle her to Jeddah in his car.

Recently it’s been reported that the young woman is not a runaway but a divorced mother who was visiting her child in Tabuk and was returning to Jeddah.

The young woman was detained and taken to the commission’s Tabuk headquarters. During Maghreb, several people at a nearby mosque reportedly heard a woman’s screams from the headquarters and called police. The girl allegedly had been severely beaten and taken to the hospital for treatment. Bruises were said to have been found on her body. It was also alleged that she had been choked.

The Hai’a members denied they beat the girl and imply the injuries were self-inflicted. The Bureau of Investigation and Prosecution is investigating.
The Hai’a’s version of events doesn’t ring true. They should leave the stories of prisoners abusing themselves to the experts, like the Americans in Iraq and Afghanistan. Saudis are not so gullible.

If indeed those members beat this young woman, then it’s a betrayal of Saudi society in the worst sense. It’s further evidence that Hai’a’s rogue members are accountable to no authority and they wage terror in the name of instilling virtue. These Hai’a members, if the investigation reveals wrongdoing, used their mandate to prevent vice and promote virtue as a shield to inflict pain with impunity on the people they were supposed to protect.

There have been many attempts to rein in commission members. There was the laughable campaign five years ago to develop a “kinder and gentler” commission. There was this year’s effort to spell out in writing the duties of commission members, much like a job description. But as I mentioned in February, these measures mean nothing without enforcement to govern behavior and accountability for those who abuse their authority.

The incident in Tabuk so thoroughly damages the Hai’a’s credibility that no woman may feel confident to seek sanctuary at their headquarters or flag down a commission member on the street if she is harassed.

The rule of thumb in Saudi Arabia is that change comes when Saudi society permits it. That’s how we skirt around the issues of women driving, child marriages and allowing women equal access to jobs and to the judicial system. If no one asserts their daughter or wife’s right to drive a car or to practice criminal law in a courtroom, then the status quo remains and our society becomes stagnant.

The problem with the Hai’a is more immediate and more critical. It involves the safety of women who, according to the commission itself, need protection. Yet some members of the Hai’a repeatedly demonstrate that women apparently need protection from them. From the ugly 2002 Makkah fire tragedy to car chases that leave people dead in the streets, the commission appears to operate without fear of annoying law enforcement intervention.

Let’s assume for a moment that commission members did not beat the girl and all those people who heard the screams were mistaken or misinterpreted the cries for that of a budding Saudi actress. The Hai’a, according to reports, did not allow the girl medical attention until police intervened and they did not take the man who purportedly gave the girl a ride into custody or question him. Commission members’ reported behavior before police intervention is suspect even without the allegations of abuse.

If Saudis are comfortable with such conduct and prefer to wait for the next big fire or to expose their daughter or wife to the abuse of strangers, then so be it. But as for me, I see no reason to subject myself to questioning by a commission member or agree to visit their offices. I want to believe in their goals, but I don’t have the confidence that my safety is their concern. In the meantime I will wait for the government to impose codified checks and balances to govern the Hai’a.

I believe the Hai’a can be heroic, but that time has yet to come.

Tuesday, March 30, 2010

What's so offensive about the Saudi 'reform offensive'?

The Jerusalem Post, in its infinite wisdom, published the other day an opinion column by Seth Frantzman who complained that reform in Saudi Arabia was “offensive.” Yes, reform is offensive to all good people.

No, wait. I got it wrong. Frantzman actually was whining about Saudi Arabia’s “reform offensive.” In other words, he says the Kingdom is waging a public relations battle in the West to demonstrate the advances Saudis have made in cultural and women’s rights reform.

Frantzman’s laments that dumb Westerners have jumped on the Saudi bandwagon to shout from the rooftops that the Kingdom is on its way reinventing itself. He pays particular attention to a Westerner he likely considers to be the dumbest of all, New York Times columnist Maureen Dowd. She wrote recently about some progressive steps taken by Saudi Arabia. Frantzman also singles out American bloggers living in Saudi Arabia like Tara Umm Omar and American Bedu for joining the diabolical Saudi conspiracy of disseminating good news.

Frantzman and I share something in common. He identifies himself as a Ph.d researcher at Hebrew University and I am a Ph.d researcher in the United Kingdom. Well, I’m embarrassed for my Ph.d brothers and sisters worldwide. He gives us a bad name. Apparently this researcher lives in a bubble and hasn’t noticed the Western press is convinced the all the evil in the world is sourced from Saudi Arabia.

Okay. I’m exaggerating, but for every one Western journalist who refuses to engage in Saudi stereotyping there are 10 others who think that stereotyping is the “truth.” As a Ph.d researcher I’d expect some evidence that these Americans bloggers are dupes. The evidence I see is that Tara Umm Omar and American Bedu have intimate knowledge of Saudi Arabia that most American journalists could never begin to understand. These bloggers possess Western values by virtue of their upbringing but live a Saudi life. Their life experiences give their written observations credibility that Frantzman lacks.

The reality is that Frantzman may write about the Saudi reform offensive, but his real message is that Saudi reform is offensive. Saudi reform is offensive to him because it’s a stark contrast to Israel’s relentless desire to keep the status quo and to deflect criticism of its actions.

Frantzman and the Jerusalem Post attack changes in Saudi society, particularly when embraced by Western journalists and bloggers, because Israel is rapidly losing the good will of the international community by failing to help find a solution to its conflict with Palestinians. Rather, Israel seems to delight in stoking the fires of rage among Palestinians and now the Obama administration by building housing settlements in East Jerusalem and sending hit squads around the globe to assassinate people the Israeli government deems annoying.

Frantzman is so offended by Saudi reform he cites dialogue in an American movie. In the film a police officer in the early 1960s American South says it’s “progress” that a black man is only whipped instead of hanged for stealing. I suppose he is talking about the snail’s pace of Saudi reform, but without considering for a moment that reform is indeed taking place. So when Maureen Dowd says some nice things about Saudi Arabia after spending a few days as a guest, people like Frantzman behave like an insecure younger sister living in the shadow of her prettier and brighter sibling. The insults fly.

Although the movie analogy is an example of lazy thinking, I must admit I am impatient with the pace of change in our society.

The Saudi judicial system’s recent decision to allow women lawyers to represent women clients in domestic and civil matters is a case in point. Severe restrictions will remain in place limiting a female lawyer’s access to judges and the right to practice criminal law. It’s almost as if the new rules were established to set up women lawyers for failure. Yet the Saudi government’s policy has always been to make incremental changes to reflect the sensibilities of Saudi society. These are the nuances that some Westerners get.

It’s also what the Jerusalem Post finds so offensive. It’s not that reform is slow, but that Saudi Arabia is willing to embark on the difficult, if not painful, path to reform while Israel isn’t.

Wednesday, March 24, 2010

U.S. conservatives guilty of denying their neighbors 'freedom from want'

The landmark healthcare reform legislation passed by the U.S. Congress on Sunday promises to be the beginning of further reforms in the healthcare industry that guarantees that an additional 32 million Americans will receive affordable medical care by 2019 regardless of their income.

The Democrats, however, continue to be hammered for this “un-American” and "socialist” approach to healthcare. It’s ludicrous to suggest for even a moment that legislation designed to guarantee all Americans health coverage under government supervision is the road to socialism.

Clearly the existing free-enterprise system in which health insurance companies have complete control is not working. Yet many Americans rather see their neighbors suffer than have the government put in place a sensible and equitable program.

Most Europeans, who enjoy the benefits of nationalized healthcare and view it as their right, look at these overwrought, emotional arguments against government-supervised healthcare with disbelief.

Although criticism of Saudi Arabia’s “backwardness” from certain quarters is loud and persistent, the Kingdom has a distinct edge over the United States: Mandated healthcare for all residents.

And by residents, I just don’t mean Saudis, but expatriate workers that number at least 6 million.

Although we don’t call it nationalized or socialized healthcare, the Saudi Ministry of Health, and to a lesser extent the Ministry of Defense and Aviation, the Ministry of Interior and the National Guard provide primary healthcare at about 2,000 medical facilities throughout the country. In addition, preventive care and rehabilitation also is provided.

Consider this: A Saudi living below the poverty level and suffering from terminal cancer will receive around the clock care no matter what stage of the illness. If the patient lives in Jeddah but needs treatment in Riyadh, not only is there a bed available to him, but he is entitled free transportation via aircraft to Riyadh and is permitted to have a relative accompany him. Lodging for the relative will be provided as part of the coverage. Further, there are no cost-sharing requirements for the patient or his family.

What Western insurance company provides such benefits?

As a Saudi citizen and an international university student I enjoy an embarrassment of riches in healthcare coverage that no American can possibly dream. I have full coverage, like any Saudi, under the Ministry of Health. While studying abroad I have full medical coverage under the Ministry of Higher Education. As an international student and legal resident of the United Kingdom I am covered by Britain’s National Health Service. International university students employed by the National Guard have additional coverage.

Expatriate workers are protected as well. All Saudi employers are mandated by the government to provide medical insurance to its foreign employees and their ependents.

The Saudi government sets aside 11 percent of its total budget for healthcare. The healthcare budget is obviously funded from government revenue but not by taxing its citizens. Naturally, U.S. taxpayer costs to fund President Obama’s healthcare reform package remains a major theme among Republicans. Granted, I don’t pay a single Saudi Riyal for my health coverage, but the U.S. government’s own Congressional Budget Office estimates that when the key aspects of the law take full effect in 2019, the overall cost to the U.S. taxpayer for healthcare will be only about $25 billion more than if no healthcare reform was enacted. Further, healthcare costs to individual families could fall as much as 30 percent, according to the U.S. Congressional Budget Office.

For all the shouting, handwringing and boorish behavior from American conservatives who complain that the new healthcare law curbs Americans’ freedoms, they’ve seem to have forgotten the Four Freedoms championed by their own president, Franklin D. Roosevelt, 69 years ago: In addition to the U.S. Constitutionally protected freedoms of speech and religion, there is the fundamental right of freedom from want and freedom from fear.

American conservatives have already stripped much of the West of freedom from fear by whipping up hysteria over imagine threats of communism, socialism and fascism creeping in democratic societies. And now they are ignoring the fundamental right that any person regardless of their station in life is entitled to healthcare.

Roosevelt may have had poverty on his mind when he articulated America’s right to freedom from want in his 1941 State of the Union address, but in the 21st century affordable healthcare deserves the same consideration as freedom from hunger.

As a Saudi woman, it would be intellectually dishonest for me to deny that Americans enjoy almost limitless freedoms while I still can’t drive a car or get an education or job without my guardian’s permission. Even the British, who complain often about their Big Brother government, marvel at the purity of freedom that Americans enjoy.

Yet the temper tantrums displayed by the mob at the U.S. Capitol last weekend as the healthcare reform bill was debated and ultimately passed, illustrates a breathtaking example of selfishness and lack of understanding of just how the rest of the world admires the U.S. government for its willingness to reform itself.

Next week I will walk into a Saudi government hospital without an appointment, consult with my doctor after only a few minutes’ wait, and receive treatment without ever opening my wallet. I have it pretty good. Can the millions of employed Americans who have no health insurance say the same?