Sunday, June 27, 2004

Don’t Panic, Saudi Is Here to Stay

Many Western friends ask me worried questions about the state of our war on terror: What is going to happen now? Are you in deep trouble? Do you think you can survive the upheaval?
I say to them, don’t panic. Terrorist groups like the IRA in Britain, ETA in Spain, the RAF in Germany, the Red Army in Japan, The People’s War Group in India, RO 17 N in Greece, have led bloody campaigns against their regimes for ages. Yet the systems are still there and life goes on. Saudi Arabia has dealt with this kind of threat before. In the 1920s, the founder, King Abdul Aziz, had to fight and destroy a very strong militant army that sought to bring down his government and establish a Taleban-style one. They lost, he won.
Later, in the late 1950s and most of the 1960s, Egyptian President Gamal Abdul Nasser supported revolutionary groups that sought to topple the Saudi monarchy. They all ended up in prison.
In 1979, a fundamentalist group occupied the Grand Mosque in Makkah and terrorized the holiest Muslim city for weeks. Again, government forces prevailed. The insurgents ended up in graves and prison cells.
Today the challenge is as serious and as dangerous, but, as usual, we are winning. Their loss is much higher than ours. In the long run, we can sustain the war, they can’t. Saudi security forces today are better equipped and trained than ever. Time is on our side, not theirs.
More importantly, the militants lost the war for the hearts and minds of the public. The terrorist Abdul Aziz Al-Muqrin pushed the wrong button when he slit the throat of his American hostage. He turned every decent human being off and shamed us all. When Muqrin was killed, people were congratulating each other. Mobile phones were busy sending and receiving SMS messages with the good news. Even on extremist websites like Alsahat, most were relieved.
Solid systems are bothered, but not toppled by insurgencies. We have survived 200 years of roller-coaster history. A couple more years of trouble won’t break our backs or necks. In fact, they will make us stronger, as long as we learn from our lessons.
We need to continue down the road of reform, and do it much faster. We should give our women, foreign guests and Shiites their overdue rights. We should encourage a free press, create transparent government, fix our education and legal systems, join the WTO, open up to investment and provide our young with better training and jobs.
If we do this, in the future we will look back and remember these times as the years of reform rather than of the war on terror.—

Sunday, June 20, 2004

Problem With Our Public Performance

Dr. Khaled M. Batarfi •

When asked on the BBC’s “Hard Talk” last week about teaching hate in schools, Dr. Abdulrahman Al-Matroudi, deputy minister for Islamic affairs, explained that the concept of fighting Jews during Armageddon is a religious concept believed and taught by other religions including Judaism. The issue here, he explained, is whether it is prudent to teach such concept to 9th graders. This reminds me of a point usually forgotten in our response to similar questions — our fanatics are no worse than theirs.
In an article published in the New York Times and the International Herald Tribune, Nicholas D. Kristof writes about a call by some leading evangelicals at a Washington conference for their fire-breathing brethren to tone down their badmouthing of Islam and the Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him).
Giving examples of outrageous statements by Franklin Graham, Pat Robertson and Jerry Vines, he reports a new rationale not to provoke Muslims. Kristof explains, however, that the change of tone doesn’t reflect a change in conviction — it is more a PR move that also tries to protect traveling evangelicals.
These fanatics are part of an empire that receives billions of dollars annually, with huge support from governments, political parties, religious and public organizations. What they get in a year is more than all Muslim organizations put together have received in their entire history. Besides hundreds of TV channels and radio stations, superpowers, led by the US, put their huge political, economic and even military resources at the service of such organization.
The NYT report mentioned one George W. Bush as the world’s No.1 evangelical. The support received by the Christian militant movements in Sudan and Indonesia are examples of such support. On the other hand, Muslim charities are harassed, banned and pressured. Their employees are sometimes taken prisoners of war for being in the wrong place at the wrong time — even though this is exactly the kind of environment that requires charity presence.
Going back to Dr. Matroudi’s interview, one couldn’t help noticing his unconvincing performance. I don’t blame him. To appear on such a challenging program, you need more than English — and he wasn’t great at that, either. More important is to know what you are talking about, to have up-to-date and comprehensive information as well as some freedom to speak your mind, let alone the truth.
Avoiding the questions and speaking in vague and outdated terms does not work. It doesn’t help your credibility either to assume that your host doesn’t know enough so you can cover up and embellish embarrassing facts. Journalists do a lot of research these days, and they do know what they are talking about.
I would recommend we appoint capable spokespeople representing each department, give them proper training and information and enough space to be more transparent and straightforward. Otherwise, it is better for us to opt for “no comment!”

Don’t Cry Wafa, Fight!

Dr. Khaled M. Batarfi, Arab News

When Wafa Al-Rasheed cried during her speech to the National Dialog Forum in Madinah last week, many of us cried with her. She was responding to a member who went out of his way to criticize the women who drove their cars in 1991 to present their case to the government and demand their natural right to drive.
Not only did Dr. Muhammad Al-Arifi accuse them of an outrageous, anti-Islamic act, but he expressed his astonishment that some of those women still work in educational institutions, providing a bad influence on our girls and threatening the sanity of future generations.
Ten members, men and women, left the conference in protest, and demanded an apology from Al-Arifi. He did apologize, through the media, and mediators brought the protesters back.
However, his apology wasn’t really an apology.
The man never retreated from his positions, and still believes every word he said. That includes his demand for women teachers not to wear their hair and dresses in fashionable ways. Such behavior, he contends, contradicts Islamic ways and may influence young students to follow suit.
Teachers, he preached, must be a conservative model of modesty to their students. He also feels that we don’t need to teach our children subjects like world geography. In the minds of Al-Arifi and people like him, the only useful subject is religion.
I would ask Wafa: What do you expect? This forum is just the first step in the first mile of the 1000-mile rollercoaster trip.
In the real world rights were never granted, they had to be taken. Women and other underprivileged groups must prepare for a long and bitter struggle with those whose interests happen to be in conflict with theirs.
French women fought for their rights to family inheritance up to the 1960s. Swiss women only got the right to vote in the 1970s. Many, there and elsewhere, were punished for their views and paid dearly for their positions. But at the end of the long road, they won their rights.
Al-Arifi is not an authority, but he represents a large body — women and men, young and old, educated and illiterate — that confuses religion with tradition. Some are ignorant, some are just confused, but others intentionally use the confusion to preserve the status quo and protect their interests.
The ignorant we could educate and enlighten. With the confused we could debate. But with those who resist in order to protect their self-interest, we can only fight for our rights.

Tuesday, June 15, 2004

Let Us Reshape Our Society

Dr. Khaled M. Batarfi •

When people move from one culture to another they often experience culture shock. When I returned from the United States, after my five years spent there studying, I was shocked to find that things had changed here dramatically to the extent that people had become polarized.

I would go to a mall and see girls completely covered, hands included. Nearby, girls less modestly dressed eyed boys wearing the latest Western fashions, exchanging signs and mobile phone numbers. Between the people who adopted these two different lifestyles, disagreement and anger had grown to unprecedented levels.

Adnan is a perfect example of “let’s-live-as-we-please” attitude. He despises conservatives, wants to study anything but religion, and demands cinemas, discos, bars, top-less beaches... with no religious police. If all this doesn’t come soon, he says he will consider going to live in the United States.

Walid, on the other hand, does not allow TV and music at home. His wife and daughters do not answer the phone, less a strange male is on the other end. They only go out when it is absolutely necessary. Walid believes travel to foreign countries should only be allowed under special circumstances, such as studying. Learning about the hereafter is more important to him than about this passing journey we call life. Anyone of a different race, religion and school of thought is a complete mystery to him.

What about moderation? What about the rest of us who live between these two extremes? Fortunately, we do exist. The problem is that we lack voice and willpower. We go about our life, trying to pass through the chanting and shouting parties without provoking them or taking sides. We discuss our ideas only among ourselves. While occasionally we may get into a heated debate with one side or the other, in the final analysis we don’t count.

What the world sees, what we see, is a polarized society, with each camp trying to impose its ideas on the rest. Whose fault is this? I contend it is ours — the moderate, tolerant and worldly. We are not united or organized, we don’t advocate a cause, and we don’t contribute to the reshaping process of our society. We don’t even have a name.

As a first step, may I suggest a definition of who we are? We are people who believe in a rich, tolerant, open and diverse Islam — an Islam that accommodates all schools of thought with similar principles and values. We believe in a dialogue with other religions and different schools of our own. We respect the other and believe in mutual and individual responsibility toward the building of a peaceful world where we share resources, exchange knowledge and human skills, and work collectively to safeguard the global environment, peace and human rights.

And what should we call ourselves?

I would suggest: Muslims.

Sunday, June 13, 2004

Where Is the Media Outrage?

Dr. Khaled M. Batarfi, Arab News

The New York Times has apologized because it didn’t investigate the US administration’s excuses for waging war on Iraq as thoroughly as it should. I respect that apology and take my keffyah off to the editors.
It must be said, though, that the paper did question the war and did take a stand against it. That cost it a lot of fans in the circles of power and earned it some powerful enemies.
A couple of journalistic scandals in the paper were uncovered, damaging a highly respected paper, and very well covered. Still, the paper steadfastly stood its ground and time proved it right.
On the other hand, most other American papers went along with the war propaganda.
Reporters and writers rarely questioned the evidence and motives or care to ask the hard questions. Even after most claims were found baseless, the evidence fabricated, and motives suspicious, there was no real outrage.
The same can be said of our media. An American civilian was savagely slaughtered, on camera, and little fuss has been made about it.
Some would explain the mooted reaction by the mode of anger and anti-American sentiment in the Arab street, especially after the Abu Ghraib crimes, and the devastation of Gaza by Bush’s champion Sharon.
Others would explain that the Arabs have been victims for so long that they can’t find it in them to sympathize with a small loss for the enemy.
Why would we who lost tens of thousands to unjustified, brutal war, the argument goes, worry about one enemy down, no matter how brutally that happened.
I would say to all those apologists that such arguments may suit barbaric Nazis and Zionists but cannot fit the ethics of the civilized Arab nation. Islam instructed us to use a sharp knife and be efficiently quick when we slaughter an animal.
Sentenced killers must be killed with a sharp sword in a specified way to assure a quick and easy death. We are prohibited from mutilating enemies’ corpses under any circumstances.
If all that is due to animals, criminals, and enemy soldiers, it has to be even more so when it comes to innocent civilians.
The media should lead, not just follow the public mode and reflect its sentiments. It should educate, enlighten and propagate our noble principles at all times, especially when the world is on fire and rage confuses the rest of us.
Both American and Arab media failed us in this test. When we most needed them, they were feathers to the wind. What an outrage!

Sunday, June 06, 2004

National Dialogue? Just Talking!

Dr. Khaled M. Batarfi, Arab News

Dr. Ghazi Al-Gosaibi, our intellectual minister, angered many when he wrote in Al-Watan recently that the National Dialogue forums are meant to train people in debating skills, not to recommend reforms.
The notion that more than 60 people who represent all social groups and are some of our best in most fields were just brought in to engage in speech training course was shocking.
This could be because our expectations were too high, or due to the general feeling that we are so late and need to move much faster, or that the implication that our top intellectuals don’t know how to speak their minds, express their thoughts and discuss their positions was insulting.
Al-Madinah columnist Muhammad Salahuddin felt it was like asking a straight-A college graduate to go back to kindergarten. Al-Riyadh writer Mohammad Reda Nasruallah wrote that time was running out, and we needed to reform our government to better respond to the challenges and to implement urgently needed social and administrative reforms.
Dr. Muhammad Al-Qunaibit, a Shoura Council member, asked how Gosaibi would feel if asked to invest so much time and effort in one of these forums only to be told that all was just for practice. Abdullah Khayyat of Okaz expressed his astonishment that Gosaibi, a respected intellectual, would advocate that the forums’ recommendations should not be at the top of the decision-makers’ agenda.
I do agree with Dr. Gosaibi on the need to improve our culture of debate. Our school curriculum, like our society, is not based on two-way dialogue. Children are brought up, whether in school, home or mosque, to listen, memorize and obey. They are not supposed to discuss and disagree, or encouraged to read beyond a very limited canon, or to carry out scientific research.
When they study in the West, they get their first culture shock at school as they struggle to cope with the new learning environment. They don’t know how to argue, speak their minds, think independently, and do free uncharted research.
Yes, we need to change all that, not just within the Center for National Dialogue but everywhere — at school, in the media, in the administration, in society at large.
But I don’t agree with Dr. Gosaibi that the fruits of two real, mature, well-prepared and conducted debates should not be put to good use. Those are reform recommendations most people, if not all, agree must be urgently implemented.
The world is watching. Women, the unemployed, the underprivileged, Shiites and other schools of thought are waiting. The clock is ticking, Dr. Ghazi, and we don’t have all day.