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.