Sunday, August 31, 2003

In Defense of Amr and Reem

Dr. Khaled M. Batarfi

Father, may his soul rest in peace, was a fan of American foreign policy. For him, the last great American President was Eisenhower, who ordered Israel, Britain and France out of occupied Egyptian towns in 1956.
Since then, America, for him and his generation, equaled Israel itself, if not worse. He first began to modify his stand during the first Gulf War of 1990. This was not the result of US actions or policies, but rather of the demonstration of its democracy.
I remember him relaying with amusement the anti-war views he heard on the Voice of America, asking with some confusion: How can American radio talk this way about their president?
When I told him the radio was owned and funded by the government, his amusement — and respect — increased.
“A nation that is independent and free enough to say to their leaders a brave NO deserves my respect. A system that allows such debate and differing stands without fear of oppression is closer to Islam than any Arab dictatorship,” he often said.
When I wanted to study for a doctorate in journalism in America, he agreed only because of his admiration for its democracy and freedom.
“Learn how to present your views they way they do and the trip is worthwhile,” he said.
Five years later, I learnt what he had hoped and I returned a better journalist. By that time, he had had two strokes but was well enough to know about what I had done. I told him also how well my wife, American-born children and I had been treated and how good the American people and schools were.
He smiled and nodded, and I felt that he no longer confused America, the country and people, with its government’s foreign policy.
My father died after the “mega-crime” of September 11, but by the time it was committed he was no longer mentally fit to see what had gone wrong with the American democratic system.
He probably went away thinking America of Bush Jr. was still the same America that treated Bush Sr. as a public servant, rather than a divine prophet.
I remembered my father’s positive view of American democracy with sadness as I followed the media campaign against my friends Amr and Reem Mohammed Al-Faisal, and indeed against myself, in such “respected” media outlets as The Wall Street Journal and United Press International (UPI) — not to mention all the hate mail. It seems the great American democratic system has no stomach now for intellectual criticism and opposing views.
- Arab News Opinion 31 August 2003

Sunday, August 24, 2003

Our Arrogant Friend

Dr. Khaled M. Batarfi •

I have a friend who is rich and powerful. The problem is he knows it. In his arrogance, he decided not worry about a good education or human relations. Sports, entertainment, market news is all he cares to know about.
Very much living for himself and his family, he doesn’t worry about what the world thinks about his actions in pursuit of selfish interests and pleasures.
This carelessness about others puts him in many tight spots, which he fails even to admit. But the latest one has been so tight that now he demands help (or else!). But since he insisted in doing what he did against our best judgment, most are saying: Serve you right. Those who are afraid of the consequences of his disappointment or hope for some reward are trying to help him sort things out. But with an ego so big, pride so injured and advisers so stupid, he seems to get deeper and deeper into the grand mess he managed to put himself in.
Since we are his best friends, we are in the same boat. If he passes the stormy seas, we survive and hope for a better day with a more sensible captain. If he goes under, we go under too.
Sound familiar? For America’s friends it is sadly very much so. While many are feeling vindicated and telling the superpower of the world: “We told you so,” most are fearful of what the injured tiger might do. After the bombing of the UN headquarters and the Jordanian Embassy, the warning message is loud and clear. The peacekeepers’ job is to keep peace — after peace is established. With the kind of violent environment in Iraq, only those who really have to would take a chance. Therefore, the only two options left are to stay or leave.
The first is very costly. It requires more investment and commitment — double the number of troops to guard peace and hundreds of billions of dollars to rebuild the environment for peace. Politically, the US desperately needs to swallow its pride and try for a UN cover — a Security Council resolution authorizing international help for Iraq.
Diplomatically, it needs to mend relations with friends and foes alike. European and Mideastern allies and opponents (such as Iran and Syria) are Washington’s best potential partners in peace. Intimidation may go only so far, but beneficial partnership is the only viable long-term strategy.
The second option (pack and leave) is not only humiliating and discrediting to the US but will also make a dangerous breeding ground for terror more dangerous. Leaving now, therefore, is not a sensible option.
Let’s hope and pray that our powerful friend takes the right path, consults the right people and makes the right choice, this time.

Sunday, August 17, 2003

Martian Spying on the Arab World

Dr. Khaled M. Batarfi •

Some of my friends accused me of living in “another world” because I have not been following the events of the Superstar show now showing on the Lebanese-Saudi-owned satellite channel Future TV. This show takes the form of a competition to choose the best amateur singer in the Arab world by tallying votes cast by phone, e-mail and mobile text messages.
Crowds went wild in Lebanon because the Lebanese candidate was voted out as a result of organized calling campaigns by public and private Syrian and Jordanian authorities.
I imagined a Martian spying on the Arab world and speculated on what he would write about us:
“After examining domestic and international records of economic and societal conditions in the Arab world, I found out that unemployment rates reach over 40 percent, even in countries rich in natural resources. The gap between rich and poor is getting wider, with 10 percent of the population owning 80 percent of resources. The Arab world is not only poor by international poverty standards, but it is also extremely poor in its scientific and cultural productivity.
“For the last 500 years, it has not produced any significant scientific contribution to human civilization. Since the fall of Andalusia, the southern part of Spain, it is living on the remnants of other civilizations, depending on other nations for just about everything — from the needle to the rocket. People in the Arab world eat what they don’t cultivate, dress in what they don’t make and reside in what they don’t build. This absolute dependence encouraged others to occupy and exploit their countries and kept them in the dark ages.
“Despite all these serious failings, one gets a different impression when one follows their media. Arabs are busy following sports and entertainment news. They spend on such activities more than they do on universities and academic institutions. People demonstrate not to demand social justice, human and political rights or revolt against state oppression and failures, but rather to chant slogans in support of the candidacy of a singer. This is happening in an Arab country, Lebanon, whose capital and southern borders are periodically subject to military strikes from a historical enemy, Israel.
“What is more baffling is that governments and elites share this interest to the extent that they allocate free international telephone lines, organize campaigns and encourage citizens, rich and poor, privileged and oppressed, working and unemployed, to call and vote for their national hero or heroine ‘to preserve the honor and good name of their country’.
“I might be growing old and stupid and therefore I have to retire from this job, or that the Arabs really deserve what they befallen them and their place in history’s junk yard.”

Sunday, August 10, 2003

The Civilization Bridge That Never Was

Dr. Khaled M. Batarfi •

A Saudi concerned with the state of our relations with the West in general and the United States in particular asked me: “Who is responsible for the mess? Us or them?”
The truth is that we are all responsible. In decades of easy communication and transport, both sides missed many opportunities to build that elusive bridge between our civilizations. Yes, there was a bad blood between us — religious crusades, colonization and all. Yes, there is Israel and the West’s responsibility for its creation, expansion, and oppression of our Palestinian brethren. But most of this is now history.
New generations of good and decent people came and went without being introduced to each others. If they had been, they would certainly discover that what we have in common is much more than what makes us different. After all, we are the same species, living in the same boat, facing the same challenges to our environment, interests and future.
The real question then becomes: Why no one went first to say hello, I am Mohammad or John, this is my identity, culture and interests. What about you?
Is it fear of the unknown? Is it the need to feel superior to others, especially the different others? Or is it that the people in the middle whose exclusive religious, political and social authority is threatened if the “we against them” mindset is to become “we are all equal and same”?
I believe all those reasons are important, but the most important one is the failure of our thinkers and media, education and social institution in their most crucial task of bringing people of different civilizations and heritage together to work on common problems, dreams and interests. Instead, they worked in isolation or in competition to advance limited national aspirations.
While the world is increasingly becoming one village, the people who are freer to move and cooperate today are inadequately equipped to make the best of such freedom and material cooperation. They don’t know much about each others’ cultural environments, and they don’t appreciate the benefit of mixing different backgrounds for the advancement of human identity.
What can we do to change this? I would say: Go direct! With the miracle of the Internet and cheap, reliable communication and transportation we are able to speak to and learn about one another without biased and agenda-laden mediators. After years of communicating with friends all over the Earth, I have found this to be the best bridge of understanding and friendship.

Sunday, August 03, 2003

Saudi Women and Schizophrenia

Dr. Khaled M. Batarfi •

When I wrote here about our schizophrenia two weeks ago, the first example I gave was about how we behave in different environments in different ways. We get into planes to travel abroad and by the time we get off a plane in another country we have become different people. Many women, discarding their abayas, change into tight and revealing clothes, while some men seem to forget many of their important traditions and religious regulations.
Many women thought I was targeting their freedom to dress as they wish.
“Is it not enough that you force us into certain behavior and dress code at home, you want to follow us with your prison rules abroad,” one angry reader wrote me.
Others, including my mother, took issue with my explanation that women don’t have to cover their face or wear black abaya, as long as they cover hair and body. Their argument is: Yes, most Islamic schools of thought don’t require this particular dress code, but our society needs it.
What I really, truly, wanted to say is: We have to synchronize our beliefs, behavior and attitude. If we believe in our religion and culture, then Allah is everywhere. We cannot pray five times a day in Saudi Arabia, and then skip even Friday prayers abroad. We shouldn’t cover hands and toes at home, and wear shorts when we are away. If working in a mixed environment is allowed in Islam, then it should be permitted inside the Kingdom as well as outside. Why may families mix freely in London, but not in Riyadh? Why can women drive in Bahrain, but not in nearby Dammam? How come we let them study in Dubai in mixed schools, but won’t give them the same right in Jeddah?
We need to agree first on what is acceptable in our religion and what is not. Our religious establishment should come together in a forum and discuss all issues with the aim of giving clear guidelines and advice.
Families and individuals could then decide for themselves how to behave on the basis of the information given. And once a consensus has been reached, we should all act consistently.