Sunday, July 25, 2004

Of America and Americans

Dr. Khaled M. Batarfi

I was a little bit apprehensive when I gave my passport to the immigration officer at Washington international airport. I wasn’t sure I would be welcome after reading stories of how our fellow Muslims, Arabs and Saudis are treated in America since 9/11. I was in for a pleasant surprise. The officer welcomed me, politely explained that certain procedures are required for Saudis, which wouldn’t take more than 10 minutes in a nearby office. In an apologetic tone, he asked me not to think of this routine as anything more than standard procedure.
I was treated with similar politeness in the office he directed me to, and was given similar assurances and explanations. Fifteen minutes later, I was on my way out.
Like millions of immigrants and people of color, I just blended into the American melting pot and went about my business as usual.
This, of course, doesn’t mean all is well for everyone, everywhere at all times, as Mohammad, a Pakistani taxi driver, explained. Some Muslims have been beaten by angry mobs; others treated poorly by their colleagues or neighbors. The FBI and other security agencies have wrongly accused and detained Muslims, and some airport and airline officers singled them for “special screening.”
Within the polyglot society that is the United States, there are as many attitudes as there are people. The adherence of the majority of citizens, and especially their officials, to the rules of the country is impressive. Of course there are going to be exceptions. They are however, very much the exception and so when they occur, they become news.
Still, Mohammad assured me, he and most Muslims he knew were never bothered, ever. Even though he wore a beard, attend prayers in mosques, and participated in various Islamic activities, not once was he investigated or pressured.
Again, I asked the same question to Jennifer Salan, Communication Director of the Arab American Institute (10,000 members). She agreed with Mohammad and assured me that civil rights groups and organizations representing Muslim and Arab Americans are taking up cases of discrimination and talking to the appropriate authorities regarding laws and mistreatments of Muslims and Arabs in America.
My visit is not over yet; I am here for two weeks to cover the 2004 elections as a guest of the foreign press center in the US department with a group of Arab journalists. But if my previous experiences are any guide, the actual situation is much better than what we anticipated. Accidents do happen, of course, and incidents of aggressive investigation and treatment of Saudi students, in particular, do occur. However, the overall environment is as welcoming as ever. And the American people are as hospitable, open, generous and beautiful as they always were.
This conclusion confirms my earlier conviction that American foreign policies are one thing, and America the civilization, the dream, and the great nation is something else.
- (

Friday, July 23, 2004

Told You So, America!

Dr. Khaled M. Batarfi

I am in Boston, and have been to Washington and North Carolina in a US Dept. reporting tour to cover the elections. During the last 10 days, I have debated the Iraq war, a major election issue, with many American scholars and politicians.
One of their explanations goes like: “OK, as it turned out, Iraq never threatened our security, since it acquired no weapons of mass destruction and had no established link to Al-Qaeda. But we couldn’t risk it. There was no hard evidence, but plenty of doubts. We couldn’t have waited idle and risked a nuclear attack on America.”
So, is it enough to have a suspicion about a country’s intention to invade it? Wasn’t that Saddam’s rationale for invading Kuwait? Isn’t it an irony that America, in accordance with international law and common sense, led the world against this medieval logic in 1991, and then used the same defeated principle to conquer the defeated in the new century? Which way are we heading as time progresses, toward the rule of law or the law of the Wild West? Besides, if that was the case, shouldn’t North Korea with its advertised nuclear capabilities be the first?
The other explanation is romantic: “We warred to topple a dictator, and introduce Iraq and the region to democracy and freedom.”
Well, if the US is now in the liberation business, shouldn’t the Cubans, with millions of relatives in America, be first in line? Castro is a much older enemy of the States, has never served American interests, as Saddam, was an ally of Soviet Union, and once a dangerous neighbor who almost caused a nuclear holocaust. Besides, Cuba is much smaller, nearer and easier to conquer than Iraq. An added bonus would be millions of happy Cuban-American votes, especially in Florida, the state which almost cost Bush his presidency.
But, hey, there is no oil in there, and no Israeli and corporate interests, either. Less war means less guns and fat contracts, who needs that?
When war addicts finally run out of excuses, they throw the ball on you and demand: You think you are Mr. Genius? Give me a better way to clean up the mess?
Great! You design the trap of the century, lead us screaming and kicking into it, then, without even admitting any mistake, expect us to come up with a better way out or we are equally stupid! Somebody has to first come out clean and own up their misdeeds, then we could talk solutions. Otherwise, we will just sit on the fence, shouting at the losing team and its ignorant and arrogant leaders, and enjoy saying: “Haven’t we told you so?”
— (

Tuesday, July 20, 2004

Our Society Suffers From Schizophrenia

Dr. Khaled M. Batarfi •

A foreign journalist told me about a weird incident that happened to him on his flight from Jeddah to London. After taking a short nap on board, he woke up to set eyes on a totally different scene. His veiled neighbor wearing the familiar long black abaya had disappeared. In her place, he found a beautiful and stylish girl in tight pants checking her make-up. Still dazed, he looked right and left trying to find his veiled neighbor, but then came the second surprise: All surrounding veils were gone. Some men who had been taking care of their women were busy watching others, some of the completely silent women started talking and laughing loudly, expensive dresses came out, and for the first time the astonished journalist saw and heard Saudi women. In London, it was the same. Cheery Arabs were gathering in London’s markets, squares and nightclubs dressed in the latest Western fashions.
My confused friend asked: If your religion and traditions specify certain features for a woman’s dress, why is their use limited to your country? Why can’t I phone my friend’s wife in Jeddah if I can meet her in full make-up in London? Why does my Muslim friend perform his prayers regularly five times a day in his country and turns his back on some or all of them in London? Is your religion confined to the land of Islam or do rules vary according to time, place and occasion?
I explained to him that these few don’t represent the whole of society. There are maximum and minimum levels of veiling depending on persuasion and circumstances. Covering the face is not required in most Islamic schools of thought. The black abaya is a societal tradition and not a condition for wearing the veil. Foreign women do the same when they visit the Kingdom. They wear veils and dress in long abayas out of respect for the country and its authentic traditions.
Although I believe in that answer, I also share the desire to explore the reasons for the “schizophrenia” many segments of our society suffer from. Our young are taught the noble values and virtues of the Prophet (peace be upon him) in schools and mosques, and learn about them from radio and TV, but when they are out in the real world dealing with adults and observing the behavior and attitudes of their teachers and parents, they discover that what they had learned is not necessarily what is practiced. Confusion rules and innocence is submerged in a sea of contradictions.
We are in real need of religious, sociological, and scientific studies concerning these phenomena. Experts in each field should participate in exploring ways to get us out of this situation. Allah doesn’t help a people unless they help themselves.

Sunday, July 18, 2004

It’s the Foreigners’ Fault

Dr. Khaled M. Batarfi

Here, we have a serious attitude problem. We seem to disagree on an awful lot of things, but agree on one: Foreign hands are responsible for much of our ills and predicaments; we are blame free, and it is always somebody else’s mistake.
Just listen to preachers, teachers and public speakers. Read what our intellectuals, columnists and analysts are telling us in the media everyday. It seems that there is a general agreement on the responsibility and involvements of “others” in almost everything, from security problems to flaws in education, unemployment to capital flight, immorality to corruption, crimes to car accidents. Saudis are mostly victims to foreign plots, schemes and conspiracies.
I ask these interesting, educated brains, how anyone, but ourselves, could be possibly responsible for this suspicion, misunderstanding and even hate of those who look different, think different, or pray in a different way?
Who taught our kids in schools not to be independent thinkers and free scientific researchers, and just follow set rules and thoughts? Who designed our curriculum to be so theoretical and unpractical, and so unresponsive to market realities and needs? Who developed our faulty development plans? And who neglected our economic problems until it was almost too late to fix? We did.
Now, you can tell me from this moment till morning that the West doesn’t love us, Israel hates us, and America is not a reliable friend, and I won’t even argue. But I will ask in return, are we so hapless that we let the others lead us to our demise without objecting, resisting or even thinking?
How have countries like Malaysia managed to move from an agricultural to a high-tech economy, from poor to rich, and from ignorant to highly educated nation, without the help of the rich natural resources we are blessed with?
And, hey, they did this without sacrificing their Islamic values or principles. So, let’s put this lame excuse of the contradiction between modernity and religion to rest.
My fellow Saudis, ladies and gentlemen, unless we own up to our mistakes, we will just stand by as the world moves on at light speed, play victim, blame foreigners, pray for an easy victory over our enemies, and wait for a savior or a God-made miracle.
Allah doesn’t do the job for the lazy, and prayers without hard work are not accepted. So, let’s admit our faults, realize our failures, and seriously look for remedies.
In the meantime, just for once, forget about foreign conspiracies and cease foreign bashing.
- (

Tuesday, July 13, 2004

Absence of Alternatives in Our Society

Dr. Khaled M. Batarfi •

Whenever Islam prohibits something we naturally need, it always gives us a better alternative. Marriage, for example, is the substitute for adultery. While black magic is prohibited, science is encouraged. This divine wisdom is what we lack in our human judgment.
As we start the summer season the same old question is asked: What is the alternative to international tourism? With all our natural resources and rapid advancement in the tourism industry we still lack good preparation and organization, especially when it comes to families with limited resources and varied and conflicting interests, such as women’s needs vs. men’s, adults’ vs. children’s. Add this to high prices, phony sale offers and poor information service. Not to mention the beaches, mountain tops and public parks that somehow turned into commercial projects and private villas and palaces.
Our discussion about families leads us to the problem of singles. While families have options, bachelors don’t. What can millions of singles do for entertainment? Go to malls, beaches, cafes? Then what? Even getting accommodation for singles is becoming a challenge. Besides, treating them with suspicion (many deserve it, though) everywhere they happen to be even when walking in public parks, is forcing them into summer exile. What better options do they have?
As for entertainment, we seem to have tightened some parts too much, and opened others too wide. While we forbid cinemas, which can be censored and controlled, we let our homes’ space open for all kind of really bad programs without the slightest control. While we set rigid rules to segregate sexes, we drop all rules in tourist villages and chalets. As we spend billions on sports facilities, we forget to provide public parks and playgrounds to neighborhoods. Expensive malls and commercial tourist facilities are built everywhere, but few public beaches and children’s playgrounds are provided.
Good alternatives are not lacking only in tourism and entertainment. On our highways, we prohibit pedestrian crossing, but neglect to provide pedestrian bridges. We don’t allow private help at lessons at homes but provide no after-hour schools. Our children are not allowed to study in international schools, but we don’t provide equal alternatives. Non-Saudis are not allowed to have their own schools according to their countries’ curriculum, and yet we don’t allow them to study in our public schools.
I go back to what I started with and say: If our religion provides better alternatives to forbidden needs, and regards everything as “halal” except what is prohibited, why can’t we Saudis do the same?

Tuesday, July 06, 2004

Women Rights Revisited!

Dr. Khaled M. Batarfi •

In Islam there is a principle known as “sad althara’a.”
The idea is to avoid anything that may lead to sin or wrong-doing. Therefore, since women driving may lead to situations where they might be harassed or taken advantage of, we don’t allow them to drive. The same goes for women working and studying in mixed environments.
Covering faces and wearing black cloaks are not required of women in Islam. These customs developed on the basis of the general “sad althara’a” principle in order to avoid temptations that might lead to improper relations. Other things that resulted from this principle include not opening up the country to very much-needed foreign investment, foreign expertise and tourism.
There are others, too, such as setting up branches of highly reputable international universities and scientific institutes and teaching English in the first years of primary school. Fears of the corrupting influence of Western culture on Islamic and Arabic values has led to the closing of many windows of opportunity which might have led to good reforms and improvements in our society, economy and education.
This has in turn produced the present situation in which women, the better half of our nation, as well as followers of different schools of religious thought, have been marginalized, their talents under-utilized, their opportunities reduced and their rights limited. I would argue that this principle has been abused for a long, long time and it is now time for us to think carefully in order to regulate and control the way we apply and use it.
Going for easy solutions to difficult and complex problems may lead to crazy situations. One could argue that the best way to stop traffic accidents would be to prohibit cars and use camels and horses instead. Or that we must shut down the Internet because it allows people to access pornography. Or since traveling to Western countries allegedly leads to improper indulgence, we should limit travel to those areas only to elders and to situations which could be classed as emergencies. These are not just funny ideas; some people actually consider them to be good and correct solutions.
Islam has limited what is prohibited to a list. Anything and everything not listed is allowed, is “halal.” Doing it the other way round would obviously be un-Islamic and therefore unacceptable. We don’t need a “fatwa” to tell us whether we can do things Islam has never prohibited.
If someone is in some confusion about the “sad althara’a” principle, he or she ought to refer the matter to a council of authorized and specialized Islamic scholars representing all regions and all Islamic schools of thought. Those scholars should investigate all related dimensions and issues while consulting with all concerned parties. They must make sure the perceived dangers are real and that the benefits realized will exceed the possible harm. Only after doing so can we accept the rule.