Thursday, October 27, 2011

Gaddafi's Death May Bring Tribal Warfare Before Democracy

The question of whether Moammar Gaddafi deserved to die following his Oct. 20 capture and the startling revelations that he may have been sodomized raises troubling issues for Muslims. Do we celebrate the death of a despot or should we set aside our joy to consider that Gaddafi's enemies violated the basic tenants of Islam to kill him?

By focusing on what kind of government Libyans will form ignores the big picture that the manner of Gaddafi's death will likely bring an intense period of tribal warfare.

There is no question that Gaddafi's end was inevitable. He wreaked terror on his people for 42 years. He was responsible for the Lockerbie bombing, supported the Irish Republican Army and he engaged in assassination plots. Even Gaddafi's closest neighbors were not safe. He conspired in 2003 to assassinate Saudi King Abdullah while the crown prince of Saudi Arabia. Gaddafi was responsible for killing thousands of Libyans. Vengeance, more than justice, was on the minds of most Libyans.

Yet his death could very well derail Libya's pursuit of a new government that embraces the democratic ideals the international community wants so badly. At the end of the day, tribal politics and vengeance for the flagrant disregard of Islamic principles may dictate the course Libyans take.

Gaddafi belonged to the small, but influential Gadhadhfa tribe. Gaddafi's minister of information, Moussa Ibrahim, who is believed to still be alive, also belongs to Gadhadhfa, which had dominated the Libya's security groups and militias.

Tribal law, more or less, ruled Libya. It matters little whether Gaddafi's tribe condoned or opposed the dictator's treatment of his people. Tribal leaders will use a mix of tribal law, pride and the sayings of the Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him) as very potent reasons to avenge Gaddafi's death. The man responsible for killing Gaddafi was videotaped and his image played worldwide. It is beside the point whether the allegations are true that some individuals sodomized Gaddafi. The hint alone further humiliates a captive at the mercy of his enemies.

Under tribal law, Gadhadhfa leaders will target the people responsible for Gaddafi's rape and death as a matter of honor. Retaliation will follow from other tribes and Libya could fall into chaos.

From a religious standpoint, Islam is specific in its instructions that the elderly and children should not be killed in warfare. Gaddafi was 69 years old. The Holy Qur'an also stipulates:

• Wounded soldiers unfit to fight or not fighting should not be attacked.
• Prisoners of war should not be killed.
• Any person tied up or in captivity should not be killed.
• Corpses of the enemy must not be disgraced or mutilated.
• Corpses of the enemy must be returned.

These aspects in Islam are not lost on the Libyan population, which is 99 percent Muslim, and it furthers the justification in the minds of some Libyans to seek vengeance.

Gaddafi was cunning in his treatment of Libya's tribes. He played on intra-tribal rivalries and often bribed tribal leaders to secure their loyalty. Major tribes such as Zawiya, Zentan, Bani Walid and Obeidat backed the rebels. The Maqarha tribe, with its estimated 1 million members, was pro-Gaddafi. Libya's largest tribe, Warfalla, was a pillar in Gaddafi's regime, but in the waning months of the war waffled over its allegiances between the pro- and anti-Gaddafi forces.

The Gadhadhfa and Maqarha tribes are centered in Gaddafi's hometown of Sirte, while Warfalla stretches from Bani Walid to Sirte and on to Tripoli and Benghazi. The three tribes are a powerful combination that before engaging in rebuilding Libya likely will seek out and punish individuals responsible for Gaddafi's humiliating end. Millions of Gaddafi sympathizers, or perhaps more accurately people once sympathetic to Gaddafi but consider themselves pious Muslims, will not sit idle until they deliver justice.

Tribal conflicts at the height of the civil war foreshadowed the climate in a post-Gaddafi Libya.
In Yafran, for example, Mashasshia tribe members who supported the Gaddafi government fled to the mountains after anti-Gaddafi forces burned their homes to the ground. The, the Berbers who long suffered under the Gaddafi regime, say they do not want the Mashaashia tribe back. And last month, rebels looted and the destroyed the homes of the pro-Gaddafi Hasoun tribe.

Given these early signs that the civil war threatens to fall into insurgency and tribal warfare, Gaddafi's death all but seals the bloody path these tribes are likely to take before Libya's Transitional National Council can form a lasting government. The transitional government's failure to protect Gaddafi from the very public tribal revenge does not bode well for the immediate future of Libya.

This post was originally published by The Huffington Post.

Sunday, September 25, 2011

Saudi Women Demonstrate They are Capable of Making Change

To say that Saudi King Abdullah’s decree to give women the right to vote and become Shoura Council members is a historic moment would be an understatement. The women’s suffrage movement is only part of the story.

To celebrate our victory to cast ballots in municipal elections and run for office, we must also acknowledge the Arab Spring and the spilled blood of our Middle East neighbors. Without them, we may still be begging for our rights.

When the King announced earlier this year funding for various projects, Western analysts dismissed his efforts as a cynical ploy to keep Saudi citizens quiet. This attitude ignored King Abdullah’s well-documented support for women’s rights since he assumed the monarchy in 2005. Above all, King Abdullah has remained consistent in his approach to reform, whether through the Ministry of Labor to relax gender segregation rules or to provide more funding for scholarships for women university students studying abroad.

Yet King Abdullah is not blind to the bloodshed in Libya, Syria and Yemen. The impact of the revolutions has been significant. I’m convinced the King likely would have given women the right to vote and Shoura Council membership with or without our neighbors taking to the streets. But certainly there was an urgency to grant these rights now rather than later.

I’m not suggesting the Saudi government feared the tide of revolution spreading to Saudi Arabia. Rather, the government responded to Saudis’ restlessness to pick up the pace of reform. Religious conservatives continue to emotionally blackmail Saudis by preying on their weaknesses to always be good Muslims. That means resist change. The Saudis I know possess intellectual honesty. In our hearts we acknowledge the need for accelerated reforms in a shrinking world where human rights violations can’t easily be swept under the rug. We recognize that moving toward women’s rights at a leisurely pace in the 20th century doesn’t work so well in the 21st century.

The women’s driving movement also brought about change. Although there was no mention of it in the King’s speech, it’s clear the June driving campaigns had a tremendous effect on our future. It’s only a matter of time that women will be behind the wheel. The driving issue isn’t really up to the Saudi government, but Saudi women and their families.

It’s a proud moment for Saudi women to win this victory. However, this isn’t the end. We must have municipal councils that are open to the public, encourage citizen participation, and be responsive to the public’s wants and needs. We are not anywhere near that since we have little transparency in local government. We must also tighten the rules in the electoral process to eliminate cross-district voting. We must also stop efforts to subvert elections with so-called “Golden Lists” that give the religious conservatives voter clout by again exploiting Saudis’ eagerness to elect “good” Muslims.

And while full membership in the Shoura Council exceeded our highest expectations, we must move towards having Shoura Council members elected by the people instead appointed by the government.

In his speech, King Abdullah, said, "Because we refuse to marginalize women in society in all roles that comply with Sharia, we have decided, after deliberation with our senior ulama (clerics) and others... to involve women in the Shoura Council as members, starting from the next term."

Sharia is the key here. We have long recognized that Sharia provides rights to women within the context of Islam, but that it never has been implemented fairly and properly. By understanding our true rights under Sharia, women now should educate themselves in politics, the economy and become active in NGOs. This will help build a civil society and prevent religious conservatives from hijacking our happiness by dragging their feet to implement the King’s decrees.

The King took a giant leap forward, but it’s only the first of many steps we must take. Now, if you don’t mind, I’m going to hop into my car and drive up to Riyadh to apply for Shoura Council membership.

Wednesday, August 31, 2011

News Flash: American Muslims are Really American

The Pew Research Center came out with a new poll that provides more evidence that American Muslims are, well, American.

While some American political leaders prefer good old-fashioned loyalty oaths and McCarthyesque congressional hearings to determine who is a real American, the Pew Research Center found that 82 percent of the American Muslims polled are “overwhelmingly satisfied” with their lives in the United States. Seventy-nine percent rated their communities as “excellent” or “good.” And to hammer home that idea of extra American goodness, 56 percent of the American Muslims surveyed said they like the “way things are going” in the United States while the only 23 percent of non-Muslims only think so.

Not surprisingly, 49 percent of the Muslims in the United States say they think of themselves as Muslims first. However, before the lunatic fringe blows a gasket, they should take note that Pew also found that 46 percent of American Christians consider themselves Christians first.

No U.S. poll is complete without asking Muslims about Al-Qaeda. Pew found that 81 percent of American Muslims believe suicide bombings and other violent acts against civilians “are never justified.”

The research center also found that nearly half of American Muslims believed that their religious leaders have not done enough to denounce Islamic extremists. Twenty-eight percent of Muslims complained they were “looked at with suspicion” and 22 percent said they were “called offensive names.”

The same day that Pew released the results of its poll, a kerfuffle occurred at a Playland amusement park in Rye, N.Y. when some hijabis belonging to the Muslim American Society of New York were denied access to rides because “headgear” was not permitted. An argument between Muslim women and park operators ensued, bad language was presumably used, and feelings were hurt.

Apparently, the Muslim American Society had 3,000 people at the park to celebrate Eid.

Park officials said headscarves were not allowed on some rides due to safety concerns. Park management provided group members with a list of rides that banned headgear. Park officials then offered banned riders a refund, but somewhere between the ride and the gate entrance a scuffle broke out within the group. Cops rolled in and arrested 15 men and women for making a nuisance of themselves.

I suppose the incident illustrates the sensitivity in the Muslim community about how the general public views American Muslims. As the Pew Research Center pointed out, 28 percent of American Muslims say they are viewed with suspicion. So being ultra-sensitive when denied an amusement park ride because one is wearing the hijab is understandable.

But, really, apparently the Muslim American Society had been at the park at last year’s Eid and had no problems with the park’s headgear policy. This year the group had been told on several occasions about the longstanding policy.

Based on the news reports I’ve read, the blame seems to go to the Muslim American Society for not informing group members of the rules. If the organization planned to bring 3,000 people to the park, perhaps it should have issued the park’s guidelines before boarding the bus to avoid people embarrassing themselves when it was time to get on a ride.

There is often no rhyme or reason for banning hijabis from participating in events or having access to venues. Certainly a continuing concern over discrimination against the hijab remains the inflexibility of sports organizations. And, according to Pew, an estimated 21 percent of American Muslims say they are singled out by airport security. So problems do exist. However, the amusement park incident doesn’t meet the discrimination test.

I have yet to see a statement from the Muslim American Society. But based on the facts at hand, I’d say some folks in the organization simply behaved badly.

Saturday, August 27, 2011

The Hijab as a Feminist Statement

The West's zeal to save “oppressed” Muslim women by urging them to discard the veil, whether it is the hijab or the niqab, demonstrates a profound ignorance of Islam and the rights of Muslim women.

We have seen a number of European nations and, to a lesser extent, Australia enact laws that purport to free women from their religion. While some Muslims may view these actions as good intentions gone awry, I see it as a systemic attempt to impose draconian laws that further oppression. As I have stated previously, democratic nations that impose laws restricting Muslim women from wearing the hijab, the burqa or the abaya share much in common with the Taliban by imposing their own interpretation of what is appropriate for Muslim women.

Academic Leila Ahmed goes so far as to call this a new colonialism, and there is much merit in her arguments. British occupiers, she points out, sought to free Egyptian women from the alleged tyranny of Islam at the beginning of the 20th century by encouraging them to unveil. Indeed, for more than 70 years Egyptian women rejected the hijab.

By the 1980s, the hijab emerged as a symbol of Islamic feminism. Specifically, women embraced the hijab as a means to minimize gender bias and force men to see them as equals in the workplace, and not view them as sex objects or simply for their beauty. Muslim women do not want their appearance to influence the conduct of the people around them.

Ahmed recognizes that the hijab is not a symbol of empowerment in some Muslim countries where women have no choices in whether they cover their hair. Yet Ahmed is spot on in stating what Muslim women have been telling the West for more than decades: the hijab is an Islamic feminist statement.

Ahmed has a new book out called A Quiet Revolution. I plan to pick up a copy and I suggest that those readers who prefer to discover an enlightened view of the hijab buy a copy as well.

The Hijab as a Feminist Statement

In the West's zeal to save Muslim women from oppression by urging them to discard the hijab

Sunday, July 31, 2011

Ramadan Kareem

Ramadan Kareem! Ramadan Mubarak to all my family, friends, acquaintances and colleagues. Ramadan Mubarak to everyone beginning fast today. May Allah bless each and every one of you during this holy month.

Monday, July 25, 2011

Anti-Muslim Website Provides Aid and Comfort to Right-Wing Terrorists

It should come as no surprise that anti-Muslim bloggers Robert Spencer and Pamela Geller helped shape the political ideology of right-wing terrorist Anders Behring Breivik, the confessed killer of at least 76 people in the bombing in Oslo and the shooting rampage at the nearby island youth retreat.

In his 1,500-page manifesto, Breivik quotes Spencer 64 times. Breivik also suggests that he was the anonymous Norwegian blogger who wrote anti-Muslim posts as Fjordman, who regularly contributed to Spencer's website.

Spencer and Geller have distanced themselves from Breivik. There has been increasing blog chatter about Spencer's right-wing extremist influences, but the notoriously thin-skinned Muslim hater is uncharacteristically restrained in his response. His only answer to the growing speculation about his links to Breivik was a July 23 post denouncing the Norwegian and reiterating "our dedication to the defense of free societies and opposition to all vigilantism and violence."

Spencer hides behind the argument that he doesn't advocate violence, but his mocking and abusive rhetoric against Muslims on Jihad Watch prompts hundreds of commenters to fill the gap that Spencer leaves open by suggesting or openly advocating the destruction of mosques, mass deportations of Muslims and wars against Islam. Here's one mild example from a regular Jihad Watch reader commenting on the pending trial of an alleged Muslim extremist: "Burn his ass at the stake. I'll bring the (sic)."

Spencer claims that readers shouldn't construe any comments to his posts, or any of the dozens of his links to hate websites, as an endorsement by Jihad Watch, which has tax-exempt status as a religious education website. However, each link to websites like Geller's Atlas Shrugs or posting comments that suggest execution by immolation, rings of endorsement.

In the July 24 New York Times, former CIA officer Marc Sageman said anti-Muslim writers like Spencer argue "that the fundamentalist Salafi branch of Islam 'is the infrastructure from which Al Qaeda emerged.' Well, they and their writings are the infrastructure from which Breivik emerged."

Sageman said such "rhetoric is not cost-free."

This points to the culpability of Spencer and his fellow travelers concerning the Oslo terrorist attacks. Breivik, and only Breivik, is responsible for his actions. However, should be consequences for laying the foundation that helped Breivik reach the conclusion that the mass destruction of life and property was the only answer.

Osama bin Laden was not an active participant in the 9/11 terrorist attacks, but he inspired 19 men to wage horrific attack son New York City and the Pentagon in the name of Islam. Jihadist websites worldwide inspire young men and women to wage war against the West. Some websites explicitly advocate violence, while others are more subtle in espousing an extreme ideology that prompts followers to commit violence. Law authorities shut down or block these websites, and may put the owners or website readers under investigation.

The irony is that Spencer's Jihad Watch is emerging as the mirror image of the jihadist websites. He doesn't advocate violence; he just inspires it in his readers. He plants the idea that Muslims deserve special retribution for the ills of society and demands that his readers be vigilant to prevent Muslims from imposing their will. He then stands back and watches someone else do the dirty work, whether its mounting a pig's head on a stick in front of mosque, or, I suppose, killing people with a machine pistol. I see little difference between Spencer and jihadists.

Yet Spencer, who a generation ago would be mimeographing his screeds in the basement of his parents' home, has gained respectability in the mainstream media. The BBC, for example, included his viewpoints in its "Life of Muhammad" (peace be upon him) special. He exercises restraint and minimizes his trademark mocking and smirking in front of the camera for audiences watching the BBC or ABC. He's a little more frothy as a guest on Fox News, but he generally keeps his hate on a leash.

The same can't be said for his website, which attracts a much broader audience with a much nastier tone. And like any true extremist, Spencer is unaffected by the Oslo horrors. He takes a moment to express outrage that the media linked him to Breivik, and then moves on to chronicle the perceived misdeeds of every Muslim that comes under his gaze.

As a journalist, it's repugnant to me to see anyone's right to free speech curbed. Still, I'm conflicted. I have to admit that after reading the noxious postings on Spencer's website I see merit in hate speech legislation. But rather than go to that extreme, I prefer to see Spencer come under the same scrutiny from federal authorities as any jihadist website. After all, they have common goals: Inspire the masses and then sit back and watch the mayhem.

UPDATE: Mr. Spencer responds to a query from a Norwegian journalist with this:

"I have never been in contact with Anders Behring Breivik.

If I was indeed an inspiration for his work, I feel the way the Beatles must have felt when they learned that Charles Manson had committed murder after being inspired by messages he thought he heard in their song lyrics. There were no such messages. Nor is there, for any sane person, any inspiration for harming anyone in my work, which has been consistently dedicated to defending human rights for all people."

Ah, yes. The Beatles, those hateful lads from Liverpool with a well documented history of writing hateful songs. Who would have thunk it?

Friday, July 8, 2011

Mandatory English Courses Come to Saudi Primary Schoolers

For too long the Saudi Ministry of Education gave less than its full attention to requiring primary school students to learn English. When I was a kid the Saudi education system provided me with few tools to master English, so I learned the language mostly on my own.

Beginning with the 2011-2012 academic year, the Ministry of Education will require English-language instruction for Saudi students starting in Grade 4. Khalid Al-Seghayer argues in the Arab News that “there is evidence that students knowing English are more creative, they develop a deeper understanding of cultures, show stronger skills in their own native language, and generally do better in problem-solving and overall academic performance.”

I have a younger brother taking intense English-languages courses in the UK to prepare for undergraduate studies abroad. I have seen amazing results in his command of the language and improvement in his cognitive skills in just a few months. Imagine if he had started when he was 8 years old.

There are thousands of Saudis abroad studying at the best universities because they took the time to study English on their own or had had teachers who influenced them to study the language. These students are part of the fabric of the international community because of their ability to communicate with people of other cultures and nationalities.

The Ministry of Education recognizes the necessity of mastering English. It’s a vital step towards narrowing the differences between cultures and religions. I look forward to see what the next generation of Saudis will bring to world as they acquire these new skills.

Sunday, July 3, 2011

A Sports Organization Gets it Right

You may remember that Atlanta weightlifter and hijabi Kulsoom Abdullah sought a religious exemption to wear a modified uniform to compete in the USA Weightlifting organization's American Open Weightlifting Championship. USA Weightlifting operates under International Weightlifting Federation rules.

USA Weightlifting initially denied her request, but promised to discuss it with the IWF. A few days ago the IWF announced that its changing its rules to accommodate Abdullah.

IWF President Tamas Ajan said: "Weightlifting is an Olympic Sport open for all athletes to participate without discrimination on the basis of race, color, religion, sex, age, or national origin in accordance with the principles of the Olympic Charter and values. This rule modification has been considered in the spirit of fairness, equality and inclusion."

Hmm, "in the spirit of fairness, equality and inclusion." What a novel thought.

FIFA? Care to address this issue?

The Real Conspiracy Against Saudi Women

You may have read articles on some Arabic-language blogs identifying me as a member of and The blogs allege CyberDissidents and Movement are Zionist-backed groups that use some Saudi women’s rights activists as the puppets of Zionists.

Although lists my name, I am not identified as a member of anything. I am not a member of CyberDissidents, nor do I plan such a membership. My inclusion on the website’s list was done without my permission or consultation. As anyone with the slightest knowledge of the Internet is aware, we have no control over who publishes our names or what they say about us.

I have made it abundantly clear over the years that I am a patriotic Saudi. I do not seek wholesale changes in the Saudi government, and I certainly don’t want to see the Western concept of democracy in Saudi Arabia. Yes, I advocate for women’s rights, but within the context of Islam. That hardly makes me a dissident.

These blogs got their facts wrong, and not only have they put me in harm’s way but other Saudi women who have found themselves on without their knowledge. Most of these Arab blogs hide behind the cloak of anonymity. If there is a conspiracy involving Saudi women with a voice, it starts with these Arabic-language blogs that want to silence women with intimidation.

UPDATE: removed my name from the list per my request. An Egyptian blogger who is responsible for the original phony story will not cooperate.

Sunday, June 19, 2011

This Hijabi Has a Legitimate Complaint

Unlike the Iran Football Federation's political shenanigans to create controversy over FIFA's hijab regulations, a 15-year-old Montreal hijabi has a legitimate complaint.

You'll remember FIFA disqualified Iranian footballers from a 2012 Olympic qualifying match for violating the hijab ban. Much shouting and hurt feelings ensued, although two years ago Iran signed an agreement to the ban and to wear specially designed caps.

But Sarah Benkiran's case is different. She has been a football referee for two years before someone noticed she was wearing a hijab and complained. Lac St. Louis league officials fired Benkiran. Again, we see FIFA rules conflicting with religious obligations. In Benkiran's case, her hijab never posed a problem until someone whined about it. There was no safety issue or specific incident in which the hijab posed a hazard. Above all, nobody thought it was worth rushing to the rule book to see whether she was violating the guidelines.

The problem here is the inconsistency in which leagues operating under FIFA regulations apply the rules. I don't necessarily agree with Benkiran that caps not covering the neck are inappropriate, but that's me. I can't judge how other Muslim women practice their religion.

Giving a waiver for a referee making calls for a teen league doesn't seem like such a huge violation of FIFA rules.

Clearly this issue is coming up regularly now. Perhaps FIFA should revisit Rule 4 to provide leagues with some leeway in handling the hijab issue to minimize tossing every Muslim woman off the playing field.

Thursday, June 16, 2011

Saudi Women June 17 Driving Guidelines

Saudi women planning to drive on June 17 should observe the following guidelines for their safety:

1) Islamic dress code

2) There won’t be any gatherings. Go out only to run important errands, visit the hospital, drop kids off at school, etc.

3) It is encouraged that you videotape the event and upload it on Youtube.

4) Drive within city limits only.

5) To reaffirm our patriotism, fly the Saudi flag and lift up a photo of Abu Mit’ib (the King).

6) No need to be scared. If the police arrest you, you’ll only be required to sign on a pledge.

7) It is preferred that whoever plans on driving to have an international driver’s license.

8) It is better if a male accompanies you to protect you and to guarantee your safety (since the ball would just be starting to roll).

9) Avoid driving into any empty plots or deserted or faraway areas because that might pose some danger to you.

10) Driving is not scheduled for one day only. Saudi women are starting Friday but will continue to take to their cars beyond that date until a royal decree is issued.

11) Any woman who fails to comply is responsible for any possible consequences.

12) Ensure notifying family and friends of your intentions to drive (in case you go missing they’ll have an idea how to act).

13) If you have a phone with internet connection, follow WOMEN2DRIVE on Facebook and Twitter.

Sunday, June 12, 2011

Iran's Hissy Fit Over FIFA Hijab Ban Lacks Credibility

FIFA’s ban on women athletes wearing the hijab and its recent clash with the Iran Football Federation renews the debate about cultural and religious sensitivity in amateur sports competition.

However, using FIFA’s latest run-in with Iran as an example of religious discrimination is dumb. Iran president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, ever the provocateur, called FIFA officials “dictators and colonialists” in a characteristically over-the-top news conference.

A FIFA official ruled that the Iranian women’s football team forfeited its match against Jordan for violating the ban on hijabs in competition. The rule has been in effect since 2007. The forfeit is a serious blow to the Iranian team’s chances to qualify for the London 2012 Olympics.

Iran’s Football Federation knew full well of FIFA’s hijab ban. Iran signed an agreement in 2010 accepting the ban and agreeing to wear caps to cover players’ hair. Iran broke its word with FIFA. It used the women’s football team as a pawn to gain political traction, hoping that Muslim countries will take the bait and raise a collective howl.

Make no mistake. FIFA’s hijab ban has little merit. There is no evidence the hijab poses safety hazard and the concern over religious symbolism is nonsense. The hijab is more of a modesty issue. Most Muslim women I know wear the hijab for both modesty and religious reasons, but not all of them. And by the end of the day, the hijab is worn to preserve modesty. To deny women this simple right is to exclude Muslim athletes from their rightful place in the sports world.

FIFA, however, found a solution by agreeing to permit Iranian female athletes to compete in the 2010 Youth Olympics if they wore the specially designed cap. The cap covers the head to the hairline, but not below the ears to cover the neck. I can live with this compromise if it means Muslim girls and women can compete without compromising their dignity.

In January, a 12-year-girl was prevented from playing in the first half of a Mid-Maryland Girls Basketball League game because she wore the hijab. At halftime, a league official gave her a religious exemption and she was allowed to play in the second half. Now the league requires an exception to the uniform rules by having parents give written permission.

The league quickly found a common sense solution to a thorny issue, but the same can’t be said for USA Weightlifting and the International Weightlifting Federation. The organizations said no to 35-year-old weightlifter Kulsoom Abdullah’s request for a religious exemption to wear a modified uniform that covered everything but her face, hands and feet. Abdullah had planned to compete in the American Open Weightlifting Championship.

IWF rules prohibit clothing from covering the elbows or knees because judges must see that the joints are locked to complete a lift. That makes sense, but there are clothing options that are tight enough to allow judges to determine whether the lift was successful without compromising the athlete’s modesty. USA Weightlifting, to its credit, said it would address the issue with the IWF later this month.

The IWF ban on modest clothing is not a case of simply failing to keep up with the increasing presence of Muslim women in sports. In the United States, the Ted Stevens Olympic and Amateur Sports Act prohibits sports organizations from discriminating against athletes based on “race, color, religion, sex, age or national origin.” The act has been in effect since 1998, giving the IWF plenty of time to revise its bylaws.

Western and Muslim women’s right activists are focused today on Saudi Arabia’s ban on women driving. There’s been a great deal of international support for Saudi women who want the right to drive. By granting women the freedom to choose how to live their lives strengthens their relationship with the global community. Yet these same activists remain silent over the hurdles Muslim women athletes face to gain a foothold on the playing field or basketball court.

Few women in leadership roles appear willing to tackle the nuts and bolts of dismantling discriminatory bylaws of sports organizations. These women contribute to the marginalization of Muslims with their silence
There is a growing number of Muslim women that want to participate at the international level. Eighteen-year-old Saudi equestrian Dalma Malhas captured a bronze medal at the 2010 Youth Olympics. Saudi Lina Al-Maeena founded the Jeddah United women’s basketball team and she wants the team to play abroad. Yet full participation in sports for many Muslim women is beyond their reach because some organizations are unwilling to change the language in their bylaws to accommodate cultural and religious differences.

Thursday, June 9, 2011

Another Pretty Arab Face Seduces the Media

During the Lebanon’s Cedar Revolution following the assassination of former Prime Minister Rafik Hariri in 2005, massive demonstrations erupted in the streets of Beirut. As I read about these demonstrations in newspapers and watched events unfold on television, I was struck by the obsessive media coverage of what I now can only describe as the “hot girls of Lebanon.”

Without fail, television cameras turned their attention not so much to speakers and rally organizers, but beautiful women — their faces painted red, green and white — waving Lebanon’s flag. One respected American with an expertise in Middle East issues couldn’t help himself and posted a photo gallery on his blog of only female Lebanese protesters.

Now we have a new hot face for the uprisings in Syria: Amina Abdallah Arraf, also known as, “A Gay Girl in Damascus” As AnonymousSyria recently twittered to his or her 3,300 followers, “#Amina is beautiful, hot & brave.”

A group of men, presumably Syrian security forces, allegedly abducted Arraf and is detaining her somewhere. She had gained considerable attention for her blog entries challenging the Syrian government. She reported on the violent clashes with police and the military.

Arraf’s kidnapping quickly elevated her to celebrity status. Activists mounted the “Free Amina” movement, much like the “Free Manal” campaign for Manal Al-Sharif following her arrest in Saudi Arabia for driving a car.

Now there is speculation that Arraf doesn’t exist and her abduction was a hoax. Journalists once enamored with Arraf are now considering that she may be a fraud. Not a single person has come forward to claim a face-to-face relationship with Arraf. Her parents have made public no statements. And there appears to be no documentation to support Arraf's claims that she is a Syrian-American raised in Virginia.

Still, Arraf possesses the key elements that make her the perfect image of a revolution. Arraf is a young pretty, non-hijabi woman who writes provocative blog posts. She does not have that otherworldly Middle East appearance and does not wear Muslim garb. Throw in the fact that she’s gay and has dual citizenship, and you’ve got a sexy story that appeals to the Western media.

Manal Al-Sharif never represented herself other than a hard-working single mom making a statement about the Saudi driving ban. Her life and her brief campaign are well documented. Arraf, or the people behind her blog, can make no such claim. Enough time has passed that proof of her existence should have surfaced by now.

Yet these persistent questions apparently have not dissuaded many journalists and rights activists that Arraf deserves to be the poster girl for the Syrian uprisings. One women’s rights activist went so far to say that Arraf’s identity doesn’t matter because she represents all Syrians imprisoned by the government.

Really? Amnesty International reports that Syrian authorities have jailed 10,000 people and killed as many as 750 since the uprisings began. Among those detained are children, including 13-year-old Hamza Ali Al-Khateeb, who was tortured and murdered.

It’s offensive that a fictional character, if indeed the alleged hoax turns out to be true, becomes the face of the uprising. Meanwhile, Hamza Ali Al-Khateeb, who disappeared on April 29, fades from view as the media lose interest. Apparently, Hamza’s story pales in comparison to Arraf’s situation.

I hope that Arraf is an actual person and I pray for her safe return to her family. I want her to be real because if Arraf is a fake, then it’s simply cynical manipulation of the emotions of the Syrian people. It’s the last thing Syrians need. The media is responsible for perpetrating the fabrication through lazy reporting by not establishing her identity in the first place. Pro-democracy and women’s rights activists also share the blame for their eagerness to embrace a cause that was suspect. They, too, did not check their facts.

If indeed Arraf turns out not be real, then we all have been duped by a pretty face that managed to distract the world from the grievances of the Syrian people.

Monday, June 6, 2011

Lingerie Shop Jobs for Women a Hollow Victory

The Gulf News reported today that King Abdullah issued a decree permitting Saudi women to work in lingerie shops. The language of the decree apparently stipulates that only Saudi women could sell lingerie.

The King also ruled that Saudi women could work at some industrial jobs.

Women working in lingerie shops became an issue in 2004 when female customers complained they felt uncomfortable talking to strange men about their underwear. The Ministry of Labor attempted to force lingerie shops to hire women, but it lost a battle of wills with passive-aggressive owners who ignored the edict. The Ministry reversed its position about three years ago, and some sheikhs joined in by issuing a fatwa banning women from obtaining such jobs.

It’s all well and good that the retail job market opened a tiny fraction for Saudi women. But lingerie sales work will only create about 6,000 low-wage jobs.

The nagging problem with this development is that it took seven years for the Saudi government to resolve this issue. And while I believe it’s a small victory for Saudi women, I can’t help but feel it’s some sort of consolation prize for being denied the right to drive a car. The Shoura Council has agreed to consider the driving ban if someone suggests it (as if Abdullah Al-Alami hasn’t been asking to be heard for I don’t know how long).

Saudi women have been thrown bone. Creating jobs for Saudi women in lingerie shops is only meaningful if women receive all their rights guaranteed in Islam. I give thanks that women have finally received the opportunity to seek employment in such shops, but I’m not going to delude myself into thinking we achieved some great victory.

However, there is a glimmer of hope. The King also issued a decree to create 39,000 jobs for women in the public education sector. The jobs for women are part of the King’s requirement to develop 66,000 new jobs for trained healthcare professionals and graduate teachers.

Public education jobs for women is indeed good news, but it also is a step towards creating a ghetto for women in the education and health sectors. Surely, not all female graduate and post-graduate degree holders are looking for jobs in the education and health fields.

Tuesday, May 31, 2011

Manal Al-Sharif's Statement to the Media

I would first and foremost like to express my profound gratitude to our leaders, in particular the Custodian of the Two Holy Mosques, for ordering my release from detention, a gesture that does not come as a surprise knowing the King’s benevolence toward his sons and daughters of this honorable country.

Concerning the topic of women’s driving, I will leave it up to our Leader in whose discretion I entirely trust, to weigh the pros and cons and reach a decision that will take into consideration the best interests of the People, while also being pleasing to Allah, and in line with Divine Law.

On this happy occasion, I would also like to affirm that never in my life had I been anything beside a Muslim, Saudi woman who aspires to remain in God’s good graces and to safeguard the reputation of our beloved country. And I will continue to uphold these values and principles until the day I meet my Creator.

Thanks to Allah, His compassion, then King Abdullah’s big heart, has helped me to persevere through my short ordeal.

That said, I was stunned to learn of the accusations hurled at my religious and moral beliefs especially that they originated from people I least expected to go down that route. I held my breath for those speaking in the name of religion and others-May Allah guide them rightly-to do me some justice, and that if I had done wrong to blame me only accordingly and fairly, without defaming my faith, creed, and moral system. For at the end of the day I’m everyone’s sister and daughter. How could they wound their sister and daughter with such charges? From the bottom of my heart I beseech Allah to shower them with his forgiveness for the serious harm they’ve caused me.

Furthermore, I must point out I do not authorize any individual to speak on my behalf or put words in my mouth, whatever their personal agenda.

Finally, I pray for the Lord’s mercy and forgiveness. He is Most Compassionate, Most Merciful.

Translated by Zaki Safar via Archetype in Action

Sunday, May 29, 2011

Some Saudis Promote Violence against Women over Driving Ban Debate

Often when Saudi women speak of being denied their basic rights guaranteed in Islam or the freedom to choose whether to drive a car, the inevitable backlash occurs in the form of a smear campaign, or worse, threats of violence.

There are more Saudi men than people would expect that support the freedoms sought by women. There are also many men who feel threatened just by discussing these freedoms. They wage campaigns against outspoken Saudi women who apparently don’t know their place in society. The anonymity of the Internet has encouraged some pretty offensive behavior.

I can speak from personal experience, and I know of many Saudi women journalists who have had their morality called into question for speaking about what should be an intelligent discussion about the female driving ban. The comments sections on news website are rife with accusations of immoral behavior, lack of patriotism, lewd remarks on women’s physical characteristics, speculation about their sex lives and why the men in their families can’t “control” them.

There is something eerily consistent about the language and tone of comments, both in Arabic and English, that raises the question of whether such reactions are an organized effort to further marginalize Saudi women. I have noticed on different news websites obscene comments repeated word for word on articles written by Saudi women journalists reporting or offering an opinion on social issues.

Now a Facebook campaign has surfaced encouraging men to beat their wives and daughters with an iqal – the black wire rope that keeps the ghutra in place – if they presume to get behind the wheel and drive a car. It seems that the whisper campaign to demean Saudi women is failing, and this band of thugs has resorted to advocating violence.

These same gangsters feel emboldened by some sheikhs who not only advocate violence against disobedient women, but also want these women killed. This kind of violent language contradicts King Abdullah’s position that hate rhetoric has no place in Saudi society.

The controversy over the jailing of Manal Al-Sharif is such an insult to Saudi women that few will be cowed into submission. We have reached a point of no return. So, does this mean that violence is a likely result if we fail to submit to our male masters on the issue of women’s rights?

Monday, May 23, 2011

Saudi Women's Driving Ban Rises to Become a Major Issue

A version of this post appeared in the Huffington Post.

There was a time when I firmly believed the endless debate about Saudi women banned from driving cars was trivial. It distracted Saudis from the real problems of the denial of women’s rights: employment, education, guardianship abuses, inheritance, and fair and equitable treatment in the Saudi judicial system.

The arrest and imprisonment of Manal Al-Sherif, 32, after driving a car in Khobar, has changed all that. The driving ban is no longer a distraction to Saudi women’s quest for their rights, but could very well be the centerpiece of our struggle to obtain rights long denied us.

My change of heart comes from the fact that it’s obvious that well into the 21st century, Saudis are unable and apparently unwilling to solve minor issues like a woman’s right to drive an automobile. So what makes me think that we can solve the weightier problems of guardianship and justice in the courts?

Well, we can’t. The path Saudi Arabia is taking towards judicial reform and granting women better employment opportunities is questionable. It’s a questionable because Manal broke no laws, yet she was arrested in the dead of night on a vague allegation of “violating the public order.” She is accused of “violating the rules and the system by driving her car, roaming the streets of the province" and "inciting public opinion" by posting a video of her driving on YouTube.

Clearly it’s the Khobar municipal police and the Commission for the Prevention of Vice and Promotion of Virtue that have violated the public order. Manal was performing basic tasks as a woman in charge of her household. If that means driving a car to perform those tasks, so be it. By arresting Manal for exercising her rights to perform these chores, the police and commission violated the public order. The public order was further violated because the arrest caused anger among Saudi women who empathize with Manal’s attempts shed light on her plight to get around town to take care of her family.

The facts as we know them are that Manal, who possesses an international driver’s license as required by Saudi authorities, drove her car. She was wearing a seatbelt, obeyed all traffic laws, wore the hijab and had her brother in the car with her. There is nothing in the Saudi traffic codes about women not permitted to drive. There is nothing un-Islamic about her behavior. Sheikh Ahmed bin Baz, and long before him, Sheikh Al Al-Bani, said there is no Islamic reason to deny women the right to drive.

By arresting Manal Al-Sherif, Saudi authorities elevated the once trivial debate on women driving to a major issue. King Abdullah in an interview with Barbara Walters, and virtually every Saudi minister from the Ministry of Interior to the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, unequivocally said that women driving is a societal issue. King Abdullah said that only Saudi society could determine the appropriate time when women can drive cars. He said he believed that time was soon.

I gather in this case Saudi society comprises of the religious conservatives who continue to object to this simple right, although there is no religious foundation to prevent women from driving. Manal’s brother, the woman who sat in the passenger seat of Manal’s car and Manal’s family apparently do not qualify as members of Saudi society. Nor does the woman arrested with her two female relatives the other day for driving in the rural province of Al-Ras. And perhaps the Al-Ras arrests are even more troubling than Manal’s detention.

For decades, Saudi women living in rural areas have driven cars and trucks to keep food on the table, take children to school and to make sure the family business runs smoothly. It strikes me as odd that the Saudi government gives rural women a free pass, but denies Manal a trip to a Khobar supermarket to put food on her table.

Saudis, however, have no one to blame but themselves. And I wonder whether they even understand the significance of Manal’s case. A Saudi male colleague wrote to me the other day that his father’s “neighbor refuses every single young man who comes asking for the hand of one of his three daughters in marriage … They should go to court and complain against him but they did not. Isn't (marriage) a more important issue than driving? Why do you, women, insist on driving and forget your other more basic rights?”

Clearly, the right to marry whom one pleases is more important than driving. Yet we have no hope of solving this more significant problem if we can’t even agree on the less important ones.

Frankly, I’m ashamed of what happened to Manal. Saudis hold themselves up to ridicule from the global community. Saudi Arabia singed the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW) as long as it doesn’t conflict with Sharia. Women driving cars does not conflict with Sharia. In addition, Saudi Arabia has earned a seat on the United Nations’ new women’s rights agency, UN Women. It was my hope that the CEDAW ratification and the membership to UN Women would bring Saudi Arabia into the global community’s embrace of universal women’s rights.

It appears we are not even close to that goal.

Wednesday, March 2, 2011

Starting a Saudi Revolution without Revolutionaries

NOTE: This article was originally published in the Huffington Post.

Sometimes people are so hopeful about the prospect of more bloodshed spilled in the Middle East that they resort to stretching the truth to further their agenda. There is the thinking along conventional lines that if Tunisia, Egypt and Libya fall, then so must Bahrain and Saudi Arabia.

The jury is out on Bahrain, although it does not look good for the Sunni monarchy. But Saudi Arabia? There is no question the Saudi government is a little more than nervous about the Shi'a-led protests in Bahrain. It is impossible to predict what the end result means to the Kingdom, but there is the odor of hope in the western media that Saudi Arabia will fall with the endless coverage of "Will Saudi Arabia Be Next?"

This leads me to wonder whether foreign policy analysts and so-called Middle East experts are being deliberately obtuse about Saudi Arabia's future. Since when do 465 people signing a Facebook Saudi "Day of Rage" page constitute a brewing revolution in a country of 16 million Saudis? It appears that most of the petitioners are non-Saudis with more than a few living outside the Kingdom. I am all for the democratic reforms they demand. However, will a thousand or even 465 people stage a demonstration in Riyadh on March 11 or March 20, or whatever day they decide, to vent their rage? Maybe, but the support from most Saudis is likely to be from the comfort of their homes while watching them on Al Jeezera.

Much is made of the couple dozen Saudi women staging a demonstration in Riyadh demanding the release of their men from custody because they have been charged with no crimes. Several dozen expatriate workers demonstrated in Makkah because they have not been paid. Legitimate grievances, sure. But are these public demonstrations out of the ordinary? No. Has anyone seen Saudi tribes gather in the desert for a meeting with an emir over water issues? I would not want to be on the receiving end of a finger wagging from a Bedouin tribal leader with an entire village standing behind him.

The west's argument that Saudi Arabia is poised to erupt in revolution is found in the reports about King Abdullah allocating an estimated $36 billion in social benefits to Saudis. The benefits will provide home loans, funding for NGOs, 15 percent fixed raises for government employees, scholarship money for Saudis studying abroad at their own expense and unemployment benefits.

News outlets ranging from Investment Watch to the Washington Post and the New York Times assert the money is simply to stave off protests with a Band-Aid. One BBC commentator likened the benefits to "bribery" to keep Saudis quiet.

One must wonder where these news organizations have been for the past five years. The Saudi government has been issuing these types of social welfare benefits annually since King Abdullah became the Kingdom's leader in 2005. Each year, usually in December, the Saudi government allocates massive funds to help Saudis keep pace with inflation, build more schools and universities, and send Saudis abroad for a western education. This year's announcement of providing unemployment benefits is not only new, but historic. Yet it is consistent with previous fund distribution schemes since 2005. This year's allocation occurred in February and not December because the King has been in Morocco for medical treatment.

It is convenient, if not lazy, to place the social benefits package in the context of the regional uprisings, but a look into the archives of any Saudi newspaper tells the story of consistent annual fund allocations for similar programs.

The Saudi government has been on a reform binge for five years, but its sometimes lethargic pace has little to do with the will of the government, but with some Saudis who have their own agenda. They have only their interests in mind, and government transparency and efforts to end corruption threaten those interests.

The true discontent among many Saudis is the lack of accountability for the rampant government corruption and the lack of transparency in how the government goes about its business. It botched the follow up to the 2005 municipal elections by not holding further voting, but I am not sure the average Saudi's interests truly lie in local elections.

There is no question now that Saudi Arabia needs to pick up the pace of reform. It cannot allow special interest groups in various government ministries to continue dragging their feet to implement programs ordered by the king. But the simplistic thinking that the Saudi government unleashed this huge sum of money to keep the Facebook revolutionaries at bay is laughable.

Tuesday, February 22, 2011

Religious conservatives fail Saudi filmmakers

Saudi Arabia’s Riyadh Mayor Prince Abdul Aziz Bin Ayyaf Al-Migrin told the Arabic-language Asharq Al-Awsat recently that he is considering opening cinemas in the city. This could be a major announcement since the Kingdom has no cinemas, but these kinds of pronouncements have come and gone with regularity since 2005 and nothing has come of it.

It’s apparent to Al-Migrin, though, that the time is right for cinemas to debut in Saudi Arabia. The Kingdom’s burgeoning film industry demands it. And last summer, an estimated 230,000 Saudis went to the United Arab Emirates to watch theatrical releases, according to the newspaper. That’s money in the pockets of western, not Saudi, filmmakers.

Contrary to myth, cinemas are not illegal nor are they banned in Saudi Arabia. But in the gray world that is Saudi society, people take their chances with religious conservatives. Municipalities and the Ministry of Commerce are generally willing to approve freestanding cinemas, or at least megamalls that include cinemas.

The catch is cinema owners are responsible for dealing with the Commission for the Promotion of Virtue and Prevention of Vice. The mutaween and has no legal authority to close businesses, but they display little subtlety in applying pressure to business owners they believe subvert Saudi morality. Just consider the occasional book fair or literary club discussion workshops where these guys toss around chairs, shout insults and generally intimidate people who want to talk about a good book. Given such boorish behavior, no potential cinema owner is willing to challenge the religious establishment.

That hasn’t stopped the construction of cinemas. Virtually every mall built in the Kingdom since 2005 features specific accommodations for a cinema. Mall owners are simply waiting for the day that a theater owner will take the plunge.

It’s a sad fact the religious establishment has no interest in helping Saudi youth make constructive use of their time. Saudi Arabia is experiencing at least 10 percent unemployment with many guys and girls under the age of 30 struggling to find work. It’s disgusting that they should be shut out of the opportunity to engage in a passion that could lead to a rewarding career. It’s this shortsightedness that drives Saudis to other countries to find their way in the world. When it comes to the arts, Saudi youth will get no help from the government or religious conservatives.

Saudi authorities acknowledge there is no religious reason to prevent theaters from opening. The issue of gender mixing is not a concern since it’s easy to segregate cinemas for families and single men. Religious authorities, however, claim that western films import moral values not compatible with Islam. Saudi filmmakers have undermined that argument by insisting on telling compelling Saudi stories.

Undeterred by the naysayers is the Talashi Films Group, a loose organization of young Saudi filmmakers who have taken their movies to a number of foreign film festivals. But I’m sure they prefer to practice their art in their own country.

According to their Facebook page, the group organized in 2008 to share “a passion for cinema and collaborating to contribute to the Saudi film scene by producing a number of quality films each year.” The group includes Fahad Alestaa, Mohammad Aldhahri, Abdulmohsen Al-Dabaan, Mohammed Al-Hamoud, Turki Al-Rwaita, Mohammed Al Khalif, Hussam Alhulwah, Abdulamusin Almutairi and Nawaf Al-Muhanna.

The group had five entries screened last fall at the Arab Film Festival in San Francisco. The Arab Film Festival has been screening Saudi films since 2007. Talashi members screened their work last year at the Abu Dhabi Film Festival and Dubai’s Gulf Film Festival. Last November two of their films were screened at the International Film Festival at Bratislava, Slovakia.

The theme here, of course, is their films get play anywhere except Saudi Arabia. For a country intent on weaning itself from oil revenue, there seems to be a poor grasp of what other industries have to offer.

The door is not completely closed to Saudi filmmakers. The Asian Consuls General Club is sponsoring its 4th annual Asian Film Festival in Jeddah through Feb. 28 with two Saudi films by Abdullah Al-Muhaisin and Abdullah Al-Eyaf. But the more prominent Jeddah Film Festival, which ran three consecutive years, was abruptly cancelled in 2009 without explanation. More than 70 films, with many showcasing Saudi Arabia’s best filmmakers, were never seen. There was no 2010 Jeddah Film Festival.

There are a handful of Saudis in positions of authority that recognize the necessity of establishing a filmmaking presence in the Kingdom. Prince Khalid Al-Faisal, the governor of the Makkah region, for example, has a long history of supporting film festivals. It takes only one Saudi with clout and one entrepreneur with a vision to build a cinema to move against the illogical argument of conservatives that there is no place in Saudi Arabia for movies.

Imagine the possibilities of Saudis watching Saudi-produced stories that accurately reflect their lives and not some foreigner’s idea of whom we are. You would think some people would recognize the benefits of this approach, but ignorance is blind.

Sunday, January 30, 2011

Why Saudi Facebook support of Egyptian uprising disappeared

Saudis during the early days of the anti-Hosni Mubarak demonstrations took to social media to overwhelmingly voice their support for the Egyptian people to end the president’s 30-year-old regime.

Although the demonstrators’ goals for a replacement government are unclear, it appeared in those first days of unrest that it mattered little to Saudi youths and intellectuals. Via Facebook and Twitter, Saudi men and women, including some university professors, were near unanimous in their support of efforts to depose the Egyptian president.

A young Saudi women employed by the United Nations posted on Facebook, “Thumbs up to Egypt and the girls of Egypt.” A Saudi man wrote, “Mubarak is against freedom of speech … and the proof is disconnecting the Internet, mobiles, SMSes and attacking media people. It was all an unsuccessful attempt … the message to all dictator governments is the world has become a small village and dictators can’t block the sun anymore.”

Popular Saudi blogger and activist Fouad Al-Farahan Twittered, “Democracy is the Solution!”

In one Facebook posting late Friday, a Saudi woman sought general observations about the Egyptian people’s bid for a regime change. Most of the nearly Saudi 200 responses fervently supported the demonstrators’ right to demand a new government. One Saudi wrote, “Doesn’t a politician feel ashamed when he lies in front of millions? Not only lying to your own people, but you are lying to the whole Arab world.”

That all changed on Saturday when Saudi Arabia released a statement condemning the street protesters. King Abdullah offered words of support from his government and the “Saudi people” to the threatened Egyptian president. King Abdullah reportedly blamed the unrest on “infiltrators.”

Saudi Facebook and Twitter postings fell dramatically almost immediately after King Abdullah's announcement was released. Now that the Saudi government has stated its disdain for the protesters, most pro-uprising statements disappeared. Many Saudis turned their attention away from Egypt and towards the tragedy of last week’s Jeddah floods that left more than 10 people dead.

Postings after Saturday were limited to links to Western news articles critical of President Obama’s tepid response to the demonstrations and his failure to demand that Mubarak resign from office.

Unlike most Arab countries, Saudis have a different view about expressing opinions once the King invokes the will of the Saudi public. Most Saudis are religious and Islam prohibits the uprising against a ruler who should be chosen based on wisdom, justice and fairness. The same goes for contradicting a ruler.

Moreover, there are hadiths that advise Muslims not to depose a ruler because it creates division in the Islamic community. Ibn `Umar (May Allah be pleased with them) reported that the Prophet (PBUH) said, “It is obligatory upon a Muslim to listen (to the ruler) and obey whether he likes it or not, except when he is ordered to do a sinful thing; in such case, there is no obligation to listen or to obey.”

Yes, the Egyptians demonstrating in the streets clearly don’t believe their president possesses wisdom, justice and fairness. But one will be hard-pressed to find Saudis who feel that way about King Abdullah, who Saudis consider one best rulers in the Kingdom’s history. He is consistently named one of the top influential Muslims worldwide.

Saudis by nature put their trust in their ruler’s judgment, which is reflected in the decline of public statements. And for those Saudis who disagree with their government, there is immense pressure from Saudi society to conform to the government’s position as a religious duty.

King Abdullah’s speech, however, is not the only reason for the sudden silence in Saudi public opinion. Granted, few Saudis are willing to take on the role of contrarian once the King takes a stand on an issue. But Saudis were also disturbed by the violence and looting of Egypt’s oldest artifacts in public buildings and museums. The destruction of some of the country’s most treasured antiquities at Cairo’s Egyptian Museum during a wave of looting may have included items from the tomb of Tutankhamun.

Many Cairo and Alexandria neighborhoods have been seized by thieves who ransacked homes and supermarkets. A former student of mine living in Alexandra told me Saturday her neighborhood supermarket was stripped bare and looters roamed the streets. My father lives in central Cairo. He told me his neighborhood was spared from looting only because the young men living nearby blocked the streets and stood guard through the night.

While Saudis may support the democratic goals of their Egyptian brothers and sisters, they find violence and the wanton destruction of property an anathema. It’s simply uncivilized behavior. This kind of behavior doesn’t necessarily cool the passions of Saudis. But if Cairo and Alexandria slipped into chaos, Saudis don’t want to be thought of as endorsing such behavior.

Arab people now recognize that the United States is incapable of effecting real change in the Middle East. The American model of democracy has failed in the region. Changes must come from within. The Egyptian people are entitled to express their thoughts, fight for their freedom and seek a better standard of living. But revolutionaries defeat their cause by creating chaos and the wholesale destruction of property.

Wednesday, January 19, 2011

Dialing down the violent rhetoric from imams

NOTE: Common Ground News Service ran a version of this article on Feb. 15 titled Does the Pulpit Speak for Saudi Arabia?.

As American politician debate whether violent rhetoric contributed to the attempted assassination of Arizona Rep. Gabrielle Giffords and the slayings of six people, a similar debate is underway in Saudi Arabia.

There is a rising chorus among religious scholars demanding that imams put an end to supplications against non-Muslims. Supplications are petitions offered by a religious leader seeking Allah’s aid in a time of need.

It used to be that supplications were offered as an invective against specific individuals or groups that had wronged Islam or were perceived as an enemy of Islam. Supplications against non-Muslim faiths were off-limits and contrary to Islam.

However, following the invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq, Saudi imams during Friday jumah increasingly directed their anger to non-Muslims and singled out Jews and Christians for destruction. It wasn’t a conscious effort to demonize other faiths, but like in the United States, passions run high when the Muslim community is in danger. Things have gotten out of hand.

Sheikh Abdul Aziz bin Fouzan Al Fouzan is the latest religious scholar to add his voice by asking imams to take a time-out. “These supplications are an aggression against non-Muslims,” Al-Fouzan, recently told the Jeddah-based English language newspaper Arab News. “This is against the spirit of Islam. The imams should instead pray to Allah to guide them toward the path of righteousness.”

There should be little argument that supplications against non-Muslims is haram and that all people should be treated equitably and with charity. But Saudi Arabia’s leading scholars also recognize that violent rhetoric is no longer contained in the local mosque. The image of the Kingdom is tarnished when exhortations of violence against entire groups of people is broadcast worldwide with today’s instant access to information.

King Abdullah is sensitive to Saudi Arabia’s image, but instead of simply hushing imams for their intemperate sermons, he has taken steps to reach out to other faiths. He met with Pope Benedict XVI in 2007, and in 2008 held a conference in Makkah to urge Muslim leaders to join Jews and Christians to speak with one voice. Also in 2008, he held an interfaith conference in Madrid. In a groundbreaking move for Saudi Arabia, King Abdullah reached out to Hindus and Buddhists.

In the same spirit, King Abdullah spearheaded the creation of the King Abdullah University of Science and Technology (KAUST) that permitted men and women to work together in the classroom. Although the source of much debate in Saudi Arabia, KAUST served as an experiment in tolerance that after more than a year has proved a success.

The king secured the support of most Saudi imams and those imams who resisted were marginalized. In fact, the supplications against non-Muslims by a small minority of Saudi imams do not track with the Saudi government’s policy, and the teachings of Islam, of religious and cultural tolerance.

The inconsistency between the rhetoric of some imams and King Abdullah’s goals is perhaps best exemplified by the large numbers of Saudi university students attending Catholic, Methodist and Baptist universities in the United States. Even secular British universities with Christian principles ingrained on campus attract thousands of Saudi students. Saudis are attracted to these universities because of their superior academic programs, of course, but also because of the universities’ religious values that are not that different from Islam. Saudis are attracted to institutions in which God is the priority.

So how do I, as a Saudi, reconcile the King’s vision of tolerance and the Ministry of High Education’s willingness to send students to non-Muslim, but religious-based universities and the anti-Christian and anti-Jewish sermons in neighborhood mosques?

To my ear, there is little difference between the intolerant sermons of a conservative, if not ignorant Muslim imam, and that of a Christian preacher in rural America. What is said from the pulpit, whether in Saudi Arabia or the United States, bears little relation to the goals of governments and what is in the hearts of common people. I no more look at the United States government as anti-Muslim as I do Saudi Arabia as anti-Christian.

American Christian and Jewish leaders are protected by the First Amendment. Imams in Saudi Arabia have no such protections. Saudi society usually governs Saudi behavior. Imams who refuse to follow Islam’s path of tolerance and fairness are feeling the pressure from Saudis to quit the trash talk. Those imams who point to Afghanistan and Iraq as examples of Christian transgressions, and therefore are right to issue invectives against an entire faith, have lost their way. Muslims leaders who complain the entire Muslim community is being held responsible for the murderous actions of a minority of fundamentalist Islamic terrorists should look inward as to whether it’s appropriate to apply the same standard to other faiths.

Al-Fouzan perhaps put it best: “The Prophet (peace be upon him) used to say he was not sent to people (with the message of Islam) as a preacher of curse but as a man of mercy.”

Hello everybody

You may have noticed that I’ve been gone a while. Well, the news is that I took a break from my studies in Newcastle to return to Saudi Arabia in November to get married. Much of November was taken up with last-minute wedding plans. Then the big day was Nov. 25 at the InterContinental Hotel in Jeddah.

We had big plans for a honeymoon after returning to the UK in early December, but both of us came down with flu bugs, which we have been battling off and on for about a month. It’s only now that I can return to writing and today’s column you see above.

Before we get into that I want to thank all those folks who made the big night possible: Walid Abou El Naser, the events coordinator at the InterContinental on the Corniche; Elvie and her team that ran the whole show in the ballroom and organizing the event; the Pance shop on Kasem Zaina Street in the Rawda District for the wonderful flowers and stage; Mr. Salama from Molaei for the pastries and chocolates; and Lialy Al Omar, the wedding photographer. Lialy and her crew took great photos of the groom and me, even though it was 5:30 in the morning before we could take the first pix!

So here are some pictures. For those who were expecting photos of the bride and groom, well, you know we Saudis are. All private and hush-hush. Use your imagination.