Sunday, January 25, 2004

Take Us to the Moon, America!

Dr. Khaled M. Batarfi,

My Western readers keep reminding me that Arabs are the last and least to lecture the world. How dare we Arabs demand freedoms and human rights in Western countries while we lack them in our own? How can we accept what is going on in our midst and then blithely turn and criticize what happens in theirs? Unfortunately, they are absolutely right!
Arab intellectuals are not doing enough to right our wrongs and fight the battles for more freedom, representative government, equal rights, better education, job opportunities, freer media, world-class businesses, and rights for women and minorities.
We don’t raise our voices high enough to defend the abused, uncover abuses, and fight the abusers. We don’t confront as strongly as we should our isolationists, corruptors and rednecks. Our countries are in dire need of civil institutions, scientific education, productive investments, and more intelligent administrators. Our children need better education, training and plenty of market orientation. Our foreign policies must be overhauled to better understand and deal with the new world order.
Yes, all this is true, very true. And world citizens are not only entitled, but have a duty, to criticize our ways and advise us on possible improvements. After all, we all live on the same planet, and what your neighbor does affects your life one way or another.
Badly brought-up children, for example, can corrupt the morality of those who have been well brought-up. A poorly maintained garden with stagnant water in holes may breed mosquitoes which then infect a neighborhood. But as one criticizes so one must accept criticism.
With a heavy stick, America today, is lecturing the world about democracy, justice and freedom. It should, as well, humbly accept and expect the same from the world in return. Americans should also separate what the world thinks of US foreign policy and how the world thinks of them as individuals. The various polls that named America one of the greatest threats to world peace and security should be understood as a reaction to this administration’s foreign policies rather than as a judgment of America-the country and people.
The world knows and appreciates America’s leadership in civilization building. Therefore, we regret and fear a change in direction which seems to us overwhelmingly negative.
Help us, Americans, by helping yourselves. You are a democracy. Show us how democracy can be used to correct your country’s direction. Show us how you can go back to trading peace and prosperity instead of fear and destruction. Show us how a great nation such as yours can make the world a safer, fairer and happier place for all. Then you can lead our hearts and minds to reach the moon and stars as, under other and better administrations, you once did.

Sunday, January 18, 2004

A Confession to America

Dr. Khaled M. Batarfi,

In a meeting with a Congressional delegation visiting Jeddah, I admitted to some of them that we owe the world some overdue explanations. I said that first, we do have problems with our educational system. Yes, some books, teachers, imams, and writers instill uncertainty and fan fears of those who are different from us. Our isolationists, just like yours, would like to keep us indoors, away from you and everyone else including our next-door neighbors.
This is a problem that has been with us for generations and has been growing worse for the last twenty years. Thank God, we are finally tackling it. One of the most important recommendations of our National Dialogue Forum is to rethink and redesign our curriculum on a more tolerant, worldly, scientific and practical basis. We need graduates who know how to do things rather than how to philosophize and advance theories about man’s relationship with God. Yes, we need to keep the hereafter in mind but we also urgently need to help ourselves in the here and now.
Second, we must open ourselves up to the world. Our visa process should be more hospitable to investors, tourists, students and visitors of all faiths, races and nationalities. How else can we convince the world of our goodness and progress if the only proof we present is paid TV commercials?
Third, we have to learn how to communicate. Unless we, the silent majority, find our voices and present our case to the world, certain self-appointed representatives, the extremists on our left and right, will have the stage all to themselves. Their captive audience in America and elsewhere will see us either as anti-western or more western than the west itself.
Fourth, our media must act more responsibly and be more sensitive to those who are different from the majority. It is obvious that our traditional rhetoric has failed us and it is high time we realized its failure. We need a better understanding of others, and to make better use of available communication to present our case. To get us right, we shouldn’t expect the world to go the extra mile to see through our shouts and cries.
In a couple of hours I became friends with Alan Makovsky and David Abramowitz of the US House of Representatives, and as we hugged goodbye, we realized that all we need is for our peoples to talk to each other. The rest, I assure you, will be New History.

Sunday, January 11, 2004

Not in the Republic’s Name!

Dr. Khaled M. Batarfi,

When warned about possible angry reactions to his writings, an Indian philosopher explained that the problem wasn’t what he wrote but that others added the meaning to the words he had coined.
While I try my best to be clear, I do fail — miserably, sometimes — in presenting my ideas and opinions. Judging from the flood of angry e-mails, my last article about the banning of the Muslim hijab in France must have been one of my failures. Please, let me explain. Arab and Muslim governments should be criticized for their human rights abuses as much as any other government should. I don’t defend their “crimes” because I want to be accused of double standards. In fact, I have always criticized similar denials of women rights in Muslim and Arab countries as well as in my own. We are not angels and our societies are no better than any — and may well be worse.
But, ladies and gentlemen, two wrongs never make a right. Women have been the subject of abuse and discrimination everywhere, throughout history. We shouldn’t, as free citizens of the world, do the same by hesitating to speak out for women’s rights regardless of religion, race and culture.
France claims that it went to war to liberate Afghani women. Why can’t we use more civilized methods of defending the liberty of French women? If a female decides to obey God and cover her head, why is it a problem for anyone except Satan? Anyway, why is it safe or right for females to entice males with their nudity but too offensive for them to cover up? How is it that only Islamic or Jewish head coverings threaten the French Republic? What connection is there between the hijab and terrorism and how can banning hijab make the world a safer place?
When Hitler tested our humanity and resolve by denying Jews their basic rights, the rest of us thought it wasn’t our business and some accused the Jews of being “the problem.” Why wouldn’t they “skip” their dress code and religious symbols to “look alike” and fit in and be accepted? The principle, ladies and gentlemen, is the same. Once accepted, you lose control over the evolution and growth of the action. Your objections and arguments, when the fire finally reaches your door, lose credibility. And the rest of us might choose to be stupid, selfish and immoral and ignore your call for help. That is just what the civilized world is NOT about. I hope and pray that this time we are wiser.

Thursday, January 08, 2004

Our Servants and the Absence of Justice

Dr. Khaled M. Batarfi,

In our neighborhood, a housemaid fell and broke her back as she was escaping from her sponsor. As I read the story, I thought of many similar tragedies and wondered why?
While I know that many of these people escape in the hope of better pay and freer choices, I suspect most are just desperate souls who want to escape unbearable abuses. A Saudi woman friend once told me that while she was in a restaurant, she noticed a table with two women. One was eating from a large plate while the other had no plate and was eating nothing. When the one who was not eating left the table for a few minutes, my friend’s curiosity overcame her and she asked if the woman were fasting or perhaps sick. The woman who was eating answered. “She is only the maid. I am not going to feed her in an expensive restaurant.”
If this story is sickening, what about the really awful ones? Beating, imprisonment, overworking, even rape. Many maids are denied their month-long vacation every two years, their weekly day off and their monthly pay. Living conditions are sometimes both unhealthy and inhumane.
A housemaid who almost died in her attempt to escape explained that she had come to this country for two reasons: to make money for her mother and children and to perform Haj. In more than two years, she had not achieved either; she wasn’t paid her salary and so couldn’t call her family, had gone nowhere or seen anything except the road from the airport to her sponsor’s house. Risking death for freedom, therefore, was not a bad option!
Another maid died because food ran out and she couldn’t escape from the house while the family was vacationing somewhere else.
I shiver when I hear these tragic tales, not just because they are horrible, or because we are supposed to be hospitable Arabs and decent Muslims or for the bad image they gave us all, but most importantly, because of what Prophet Muhammad (PBUH) warned against. That God supports the just non-Muslim over the unjust Muslim, that silence towards injustice is a crime, and that God may punish a whole nation for tolerating the crimes of some.
As a Muslim, I am required to right wrongs as much as I can — with my hand, if possible; with my tongue if I can’t or with my heart, if that’s all I can do.
I urge that we treat our servants with kindness, compassion and mercy, as our Prophet did, and to interfere if others don’t. I demand more rigorous rules and regulations, and the mechanisms to assure just and efficient implementation.
And I pray, that we always remember what the Prophet said: Allah helps those who help the underprivileged. A woman will go to Hell for killing a cat and a man will go to Paradise for feeding a dog.

Sunday, January 04, 2004

The French War on Islam

Dr. Khaled M. Batarfi,

A French king once said: France is me and I am France. The French Revolution came to liberate France and the French from such tyranny. Imagine, then, our shock as admirers of the revolutionary principles when the hijab issue came up.
In order to defend secularism, France decided to prohibit the wearing of headscarves in schools and public institutions. The law also bans Jewish skullcaps and oversized crosses. French officials say they want to liberate women from social pressure to wear the hijab and protect the sensitive feelings of those who don’t like to see religious symbols. (This time it is headscarves and skullcaps; who knows what will be next: beards and turbans?)
Now, let me get this straight, Mr. Chirac: It is OK for women to “uncover” but not to “cover”, to undress, but not to dress? So if someone dresses in a way that some people don’t like then they are breaking the law? When a Muslim girl covers her head with a scarf, it is forbidden, but a Christian nun, a Gallic peasant or anyone else covering his or her head with a hat, fur, silk or any other sort of material is not a problem? Isn’t that interesting?
The amusement doesn’t stop there, because the law says you can wear a small cross, but not an “oversized” one. I wonder what size schoolgirl would wear a super-sized cross around her neck.
The law forbids both the skullcap and the scarf because both are regarded as offensive religious symbols, but not the hats worn by Christian priests, even though headscarves for women are an Islamic requirement, while the rest are an optional (mostly ceremonial) dress code.
As for the liberation part, the law replaces the people accused of influencing their daughters’ dress choice with strangers who “undress” girls against their choice. According to this logic, a girl was not free when she was free to wear hijab. But now, thanks to this law, she has been liberated because she can’t wear what she chooses.
The biggest double standard in all this is calling Muslim protests outside France interference in internal affairs. So, it is OK for the “civilized” French to intervene in Muslim countries on behalf of women against hijab (like in Afghanistan), but not OK for us, the “savage”, to defend the choice of French women to wear it? My head is spinning already, is yours?
My best explanation to this twisted logic is: racism and Islamophobia. Muslims everywhere, please take note: France, our champion at the UN, has finally joined the Anglo-Saxon crusade.