Monday, December 26, 2005

Where Is the Arab Media Outrage?

Dr. Khaled M. Batarfi
“So, where is your media outrage? Instead, you show Western hostage beheadings, allow Muslim fanatics to preach on TV and radio, and publish hate speeches against Christians and Jews. Where is the shame? Where are your principles? You should be campaigning for peace, tolerance and human rights and against intolerance, women and minority abuse, and religious fanaticism. That is the holy role of the media, Arab journalists!”
The above are not the exact words, but a summary of an American scholar’s comments during an international conference convened last week in Dubai on the role of the media to enhance security of Gulf states.
In my response, I said to him (in the general meeting and later in a smaller group discussion): What you are calling for is a classic academic and professional question discussed for ages in journalism schools and forums. Is our role to educate, preach and enlighten the public or just to provide accurate, updated and objective information? Do we campaign and rally for causes we support, or just provide an open marketplace of ideas and a neutral forum for debate and discussion?
The Western media in general, and the American in particular, stand for independence and neutrality: You give the masses well investigated and researched reports and news stories, supported by available evidence, background information and analysis. You allow all parties to have equal access to the public. You don’t take sides or make judgments, except in editorials. It is up to your audience to decide what and whom to believe, accept and side with. End of role.
When riots erupted in Los Angels after the acquittal of four white policemen accused of brutally beating black motorist Rodney King in 1991, the media professionally covered the events. They didn’t campaign for black rights or advocate a review of a long history of abuse and enslavement.
Journalists in non-democratic countries are justly accused of being tools of propaganda, mouthpieces of the rulers, and ideologically committed to one school of thought. They marginalize different viewpoints, campaign for certain causes, and serve their owners and controllers’ interests.
Most new independent media in the Arab world are moving away from the old ways. They attempt to provide as-is news and multi-perspective commentary. If you don’t like what is written, write a letter to the editor. If you don’t agree with a guest of a live show, call in and tell him so. If an opinion or a report on a website seems wrong, email them your correction. As long as your perspective, no matter how different or unique, is published or aired, you can’t complain about the equal opportunity and space given to those you disagree with.
In evaluating Arab media performance, we need to distinguish between mainstream media and underground outlets. The first is owned and supervised by governments and media corporations. Their policies prevent them from preaching religious hatred or siding with terrorists. After all, terrorists are enemies of the Arab states, as much as of the West. But at the same time, they cannot ignore their statements and actions. Professional coverage of events requires comprehensive reporting from all sides.
The non-licensed media are mostly Internet based. Comments are usually unsigned. Web blogs, electronic newsletters, mailing lists and discussion groups are uncensored and uncontrollable. Those are the ones who may preach and advocate, with impunity.
By the way, the mainstream media never aired or printed beheading videos and pictures, as some websites did. This turned the public against the perpetrators. The coverage of the suicide bombing of civilian compounds in Saudi Arabia and wedding parties in Jordan made most people see the ugliness of the terrorist organizations they may once have admired, believed or tolerated.
Finally, you cannot take media coverage out of context. The liberal US media tolerated outrageous breaches of constitutional principles after 9/11. Because they thought the administration was fighting a just war, they turned a blind eye to abuses of international rules, civil liberties and human rights — at home and abroad. Where was the outrage over the administration’s lies and sleazy and brutal tactics? Why did the New York Times accept the Bush administration’s request and delay a story about government eavesdropping on American citizens for a whole year? Where is the campaign against torture in CIA prisons around the world?
If the context allows for such tolerance on the American side, why can’t it also be applied to Arab media? After all, the media are supposed to reflect the public’s mood. In a world where the anger against Western policies has been boiling for decades, you can’t expect much sympathy for colonizers and occupiers. Instead, a minimum level of tolerance for some sort of violent reaction in response to even worse actions should be expected and accepted.

Friday, December 23, 2005

Unemployment: The Ticking Time Bomb

Dr. Khaled M. Batarfi

I just came back from two international conferences. The first, in Berlin, discussed Gulf states’ security, the other in Beirut was about “social issues in the eyes of the Arab media.” Both conferences highlighted a very clear and present danger: Unemployment.
In the Arab world, today, we face three dangers: Economic stagnation, political unrest and extremism. The first two inflame the third. Why have we had these problems for more than thirty years now with little signs of hope? Here is my take: Economic progress is based on creativity, liberty and the rule of law. Creativity cannot flourish in an environment of fear and police rule. Slaves and soldiers are trained not to think for themselves but to obey orders without a second thought. The rule of law can only be maintained with a system of checks and balances. You can’t get that in regimes that put all powers, executive and legislative, in the hands of one great leader or one group of decision makers who think of themselves as owners and not servants of the public. You can’t go far in an environment of unilateralism, nepotism, corruption and favoritism.
Since the creation of modern states in the Arab world, we were promised but so far denied these basic components of civilization and human rights. Most Arab countries today still insist on reforming without changing their mentality, attitude or corrupted systems. They offer opening windows without bringing down the ancient walls of tribalism, one-party rule and individual leadership. And when internal and external pressures persist, they make symbolic gestures, like releasing political prisoners, running sure-to-win presidential elections and allowing some live debate and media criticism that never reaches to the top and can be silenced anytime the givers decide to clamp down.
What does it take to solve the problem of unemployment in the Arab world? In the British Council-sponsored conference in Beirut we studied the worsening situation in leading Arab countries. The role of the media was extensively examined. But study after study showed that we need lots of immediate attention and extensive work to correct the underpinning problems.
Theoretical, political and ideological education systems are the biggest obstacle. Other administrational and social ills like nepotism, red tape, corruption, and state-dependent economies come next. Women as well as religious and racial minorities suffer the most, the young more than the old.
The newcomers to the job market, especially from these groups, find most seats already taken by those who won’t leave before they reach retirement age, beside the socially, economically or politically well-connected and the better prepared. The latter include those who were lucky enough to study in private or foreign schools in subject areas that were most needed, like foreign languages, computer science, engineering and medicine.
In my opinion, the best solution is to open up to the world. In this era of globalization you have no option anyway. So why don’t you start now at your own pace, and with your own initiative?
Opening up means you need to upgrade your standards. You cannot compete for investors if you cannot provide protection and guarantees for their investments. They need stable, workable, universally applicable laws. They expect a minimum level of transparency, accountability and openness. They are used to certain freedoms, liberties and rights. They must have unhindered access to certain government, legal, information and religious facilities.
We should provide their investments with updated and functioning infrastructure, such as communication services, public transportation and business amenities. We must upgrade our local talent, ease foreign recruitment in needed specialties and liberate our labor movement.
But first of all, we ought to change our isolationist, racist attitude towards foreigners. Our religion and Arab culture command us to be hospitable, kind and fair to our guests, no matter where they come from. Our current attitude is alien to what we are and what we stand for. It happens to be bad for business, too.
If we expand the dancing floor we don’t need to limit the number of dancers. In fact, we will have enough space for more outsiders who would enrich us with their talents, ideas and cultures. That is what made America, Canada and Australia such desirable destinations to the world’s best and brightest, including our own. Arab countries are not that crowded. There is enough room for many more people to join and enlighten the party.
Arab regimes don’t need to worry. Here we are not talking revolutions, but evolutional, short and mid-term solutions. Long term ones will present themselves if we start on the right track, at the right speed, with the right attitude.
What Arab regimes should worry about are the economic time bombs, such as unemployment. In the absence of social networks, like free social services and unemployment allowances, what options do frustrated, desperate and humiliated job seekers have?
Wrong turns might be the only available detours when the right road is blocked.

Thursday, December 22, 2005

Our Youth’s Work Ethics and Attitude

Dr. Khaled Batarfi
Every time I hear one more businessman or corporate manager complaining about his young Saudi recruits, I know before he finishes his first sentence it is going to be a complaint about qualifications and discipline. I don’t exactly know why, but so many graduates go to the marketplace with little patience, work ethics and discipline, not to mention other shortcomings in training and skills.

We must admit that our education system has problems. For one, it tends to focus more on theory and ideology than practicality and job related skills. Some thirty-five years ago our schools taught English and French. Now, we are still debating whether English should be taught in elementary schools. Worse, English teachers need better training themselves. My son had to convince his teacher that “is” doesn’t have to be capitalized and some university students were confused about where to use “is” and “are”.

Computers in many schools and colleges still use DOS. Laps are rarely well equipped and handicraft workshops are not part of the curriculum. Libraries are stuffed mostly with religion, history and Arabic literature books. Academic libraries are heavily censored and rarely updated and lack many resources. Public libraries can be counted on one hand, and only in the major cities—please forget about smaller towns and villages.

Still, the educational system is not the only problem our youth have. The way we raise them is another. We teach them at an early age to follow the official line without any questioning. They are supposed to read only textbooks. Independent research is not encouraged. They are told exactly where in textbooks to study — or memorize — for exams. When they reach university, they expect — and get — the same treatment. After all, most of their teachers either gave up on them or are trained that way themselves — garbage in, garbage out.

Wherever they go, our young are not encouraged to think, search and invent. Following the set rules is the norm. Few dare to break them.

This explains why our graduates are underskilled. But the train doesn’t stop here. We have work ethic and attitude problems, as well. Somehow, this generation is worse than the previous. A couple of generations ago we were OK. Our fathers and grandfathers worked harder, produced more, and had a much better attitude towards work and higher ethical standards. Is there a turning point when our workforce started to deteriorate? If so, when and how? If not, where did we go wrong and why?

I would say the economic boom of 1975-82 had a lot to do with it. Along that way, we got used to having easy money and an easy life. A whole generation was brought up in such a corrupting environment. Then came the conservative change of the curriculum around 1982. For the next 23 years the curriculum guardians kept the books almost untouched. They probably feared that any change would make them less conservative. The focus in this system is on teaching not inspiring, memorizing not understanding, directing not exploring.

Why am I going back to the problem of education? Because in the absence of family, school is the most influential institution left in our kids’ upbringing.

But why is the family is absent? It is the economic boom again. It made parents leave the most tasking and vital duties of their children’s’ upbringing to domestic helpers, if not to the street. Fathers go home to rest before leaving again for more work, or to join friends to play cards, smoke shisha, and watch sports.

Mothers go from family and friend’s gatherings to parties, from shopping to social outings. The kids are left in the care of Filipino and Sir Lankan maids. Older kids are given freedom to play, shop, and chase girls.

There are other culprits, too. What have the media done to educate and enlighten? What has the corporate world done to train and retrain? Aramco, SABIC, banks and Saudi Arabian Airlines, and Abdullatif Jameel have achieved a lot by their focus on training, but what have the rest of our private sector been doing?

All the above are mere shots at the truth. I do know claim to know all the answers, but I do know that we need to talk. We need dialogue forums compromising experts, specialists, public and private decision makers, parents, and representatives of the new generation. We must discuss all issues in an open-minded format. No one group should censor, control or program our debate. It must be inclusive of all strands and stands — men and women, Sunni and Shia, liberal and conservative, and every shade of color in between.

Let’s do this, and answers will come rolling. Actions should immediately follow.

Wednesday, December 21, 2005

Our Youth, Reforms and Future

Dr. Khaled Batarfi

How do you make your youth more responsible, humanistic, and appreciative of their country, heritage and art? How can you make them more loving and lovable, caring and considerate? What changes you should apply to your education system and the way children are brought up? And how can we help some of them be less self-centered, violent, and hateful of the different other?
Is this a tall order? Not if all concerns are symptoms of the same illness. Not if the medicine comes in one package. Not if the alternative is self-destruction.
Why now? Why suddenly we have this problem and need urgent solution? And how can we solve it without antagonizing a powerful segment of our society and authority?
First, it is not a new problem; only our awareness of it is new. A whole generation was born in the middle of an economic boom that lasted seven years from 1975 to 1982. It started with the oil boycott crisis, Iranian revolution and Iraq-Iran war, and then quickly plunged into a long lasting recession.
With the huge and sudden influx of cash and foreign products, people and values, our morals and ways of life changed — not always for the better — and the virus of materialism ran into our system.
At the other end, a conservative movement went on the offensive. Worried of losing to new trends and modern decadence, they fought furiously. When Johaiman’s violent crusade to militarily change our world was defeated, the fundamentalist movement continued the challenge intellectually.
Since we were concerned that we might have strayed too far from the roots of our conservative society, we listened to them and swallowed too much of their prescribed medicine.
Some of us agreed, more were in doubt, and many revolted. The social balance and coherence were lost in the furious clash of principles, doctrines and religious interpretation.
Today, we stand to harvest what the winning school of thought single-handedly seeded in the last twenty-five years. Unrivaled and hardly checked or questioned, they made a lot of system alteration, curriculum change, school penetration, media watching, social progress administration, intellectual censorship, and comprehensive preaching and training.
Today, they are on the defensive, but they still stand by their strong-headed beliefs, resisting change and finding ways to continue their crusade. They are still influential in all the wrong places — schools, mosques and religious establishments.
Second, it is high time we did something about that section of our youngsters which lacks in worldly awareness, sympathy and direction. Those with no proper contact with the other half and the other who is different in religion, school of thought, race, language and culture tend to get confused, suspicious, and even hateful of them.
Exploited by people with extremist agendas, those angry and religiously motivated youngsters can be foot soldiers of dangerous ideologies. There is no more dangerous a soldier than the one who has no regrets, has nothing to lose, and is ready to take his own life for a cause.
Our experience shows that the only way to neutralize them is to eradicate them or re-educate them. The Interior Ministry’s re-education campaign has proved so successful that many ex-extremists are now working for the program that saved them to save others.
Third, we have no choice but to urgently solve the problem. If we keep ignoring it, denying its existence or leaving it to the healing of time, two terrible things would certainly happen.
One, the problem will persist, if not worsen, as long as the elements that produced it, the environment that encouraged it, and the rules that tolerated it are still in place.
Two, the world that waited too long for us to act will eventually get sick and tired of waiting. The least the rest could do is to leave us behind in their march toward a more integrated, liberated and prosperous world. Isolation is not an option in the New World Order.
Internally, the wiser and brighter might get the same message and reach the same conclusion — it is a hopeless case. Again two bad things might happen. They might get paralyzingly depressed. Or they may just leave us and pursue better life and future somewhere else. We can’t afford either.
So what do we do? There are a lot of proposed changes and reforms. We already know what we need to do, but disagree on the extent and speed. Shall we wait for everyone to come on board, or take the willing and move on? Do we take the winding country road or use the highway? If the latter, do we run in the fast or slow lane?
So far, we opted for the slower road of consensus-building to minimize friction and confrontation. No one is ready for a social upheaval — not in the middle of our war on terror and extremism.
I could be wrong. But this might prove too little, too late.

Empowering the Saudi Youth for the World

Dr. Khaled Batarfi
So what do we do to rescue our kids from the hell of extremism to the heaven of tolerance, love and peaceful coexistence?
I always say that solving a problem starts with a good, sincere question. Answers come automatically if you provide an environment of free thought, speech, and press.
Here is a good example. I raised similar questions in my last couple of articles and good answers were given to me on a golden plate.
It seems Dr. Haifa Jamal Al-Lail, dean of Effat College for Girls, and Dr. Ghazi Binzagr were studying the same problem and coming up with creative, practical solutions.
We are members of the International Relations Committee (IRC) of Jeddah Chamber of Commerce and Industry (JCCI). Our Chairman Amr Khashoggi asked us to think of ways of training our youth on how to communicate, appreciate and project our country and culture. Haifa and Ghazi came back with the following plan:
Saudi Arabian Youth Ambassadors Program is dedicated to creating world-class ambassadorship. It has three basic strategies. One, to instill three identities: An understanding of the Saudi identity, an appreciation of the Arabian identity and the centrality of the Arabic language to it, and a deep admiration and respect for a tolerant global Islamic identity.
Two, to teach basic personal and interpersonal communication skills to guarantee maximum effectiveness of their communication with the world.
Three, to ensure that these programs will move the youths from the local to the global arena gradually and with wisdom (Hikmah).
The plans have three phases. The First Phase is entitled (Safwa) which means “select elite” in Arabic. It is also an acronym for the first letters of Saudi Arabian Future World Ambassadors.
The plan will find, recruit, and locally train Saudi youths to prepare them to become youth ambassadors to the world.
It will also select events that can become the building blocks for the first phase of the Saudi youth international empowerment program. The Second Phase is entitled (Safeer), which means ambassador in Arabic. Here, Saudi youths will be sent to selected parts of the world to participate in visits designed to link them with the world and help them understand how other countries work while also giving them the chance to represent Saudi Arabia to the world.
Selected youths will be sent to a country or two as samples of building blocks that can later become the foundation of Phase Two of the program.
The Third Phase (Majlis) which means “gathering” or “council” in Arabic is dedicated to creating a Saudi/International Youth Council.
The sponsors of such a plan will be ready to help Saudi youths host a first event in Saudi Arabia inviting youths from around the world (or selected countries) for dialogue, exchange, and understanding. If successful, we may choose to institutionalize this effort into a permanent Majlis: The Saudi Arabian Youth Ambassadors Council.
The Action Plan for the First Phase will prepare 30-40 Saudi males and females to be ambassadors. The goal is to instill the Saudi Arabian, Arab and Muslim identities in young Saudi participants by lectures, training, field trips and discussion forums.
Lectures will explore the history, geography, social, economic, and political system of Saudi Arabia. They will also provide brief historical and socioeconomic and political information about the targeted foreign country.
Training will focus on basic personal, interpersonal and diplomatic communication skills and languages.
In the field trips, Saudi participants will visit cities and villages in Saudi Arabia, religious sites and foreign diplomatic missions (embassies and consulates) for the purpose of awakening in the participants a deep sense of purpose and identity.
The plans also call for a small forum for participants with the Saudi foreign minister, Saudi and foreign ambassadors so they learn more about foreign affairs. It will also train them in debating skills and give them practical experiences.
Executing the plan will require strong commitment from IRC members and all related public and private sponsors and parties for the entire program.
Recognition (certificate or trophy) would be given to all youth participants as an incentive to attract them and retain them for the entire program.
Funding should be available through sponsorship and support for processing the three phases required for the whole program. Crucial logistical controls must be in place before the program can be launched.
Selection of foreign country must take place before the program begins.
I congratulated Haifa and Ghazi on a project well done, and I offered to publish it in my column, hoping more interest from concerned parties would give it a head start. We need more of such plans ... more of such planners ... and more of as many enthusiastic participants, helpers and executors.
No problem is too big for a solution. As long as there is a will, there is always a way.

Sunday, December 18, 2005

Ways of Dialogue With the Other

Dr. Khaled M. Batarfi

Once I asked Abdullah, my young conservative friend, to join me in a “diwania” (weekly gathering). He was surprised to find people with diverse views among my friends. There were liberals and Islamists, those who belonged to the left or the right, and those, like myself, of the middle.
We talked and discussed. After heated discussions someone cracked a joke and we all laughed. On the dinner table we seemed to have forgotten our differences altogether. Abdullah couldn’t understand this. On our way back, he was thinking and pondering. Finally he asked: “How could you all be friends? How could you discuss divisive issues like curriculum change, roots of terrorism, minority and women rights, extremism, the attitude of youngsters, and joining the World Trade Organization and not get angry with each other? Early in the evening I thought you hated each other. One camp was almost shouting at the other. Then some of you came to an agreement. Others were whispering in the ears of the people they disagreed with earlier. And then you all joked and laughed like nothing happened. I might not understand, but please try explaining, anyway.”
I tried. I told him that in Islamic civilization, as in any other, people have not only the right but also the obligation to a free debate on all issues of concern to some or all. Since heated debates do cause fractions, dislike and anger, golden rules were set. They are almost alike everywhere. Basically, you express yourself as you wish, as long as you don’t insult the personal feelings of others. Talk about public issues as strongly as you like but never go personal with your opponents. Even if you disrespect his position, respect his person, and his/her right to speak his/her mind.
Abdullah thought for a while, and then looked hopelessly at me and said: “I need time to absorb all this. You see, I was raised in all-of-one-idea environment. We debate, yes, but within the same boundaries, under the umbrella of the same school of thought, representing different angles of the same issue. The other camps have always been alien to us. They represent the rival if not the enemy. You cannot be friends with others without their subscribing to your school of thought. Besides, these disagreements are too serious to be forgiven in a minute. It is not sports. You cannot just fight it out in the field or fan club, and then leave hand-in-hand. This goes against how I was raised. You may convince me intellectually that this is the true Islamic way, but I would need lots of time and effort to change my natural response and attitude.”
I wish Abdullah were a lone case. Unfortunately, he is typical of many young people raised by some teachers, scholars, trainers and fathers to be of one idea, one group, one way. They are not used to dialogue with the others. When they confront alternative stands and thoughts, they either avoid it or fight it. Whether the fight is mental or physical, they can’t help shielding their heads and hearts against the other’s message. They feel guilty for talking nicely to holders of contradicting thoughts.
Labeling is their best game. Instead of analyzing and attempting to understand the other’s point of view, they take the easy way out by judging people’s intentions and classifying them accordingly. So, I was called in different settings, by different people, or even the same ones, so many names. In a party, last Tuesday, I was labeled by the same person as Salafi (fundamentalist), Ikhwani (of the Muslim Brotherhood), liberal and American stooge. How can I wear all these hats and kofyas at once? Go figure! So, we do have a problem. Once we recognize it and decide to face it rather than ignore and deny it as we did for ages, it is not a hopeless case. Like Abdullah, many youngsters can be impressed. With comprehensive, well-planned and thought-out, enduring and relentless program we could change even the die-hards. At least we could teach them how to make a useful dialogue.
The idea is not necessarily to makeover people, but to teach them how to be civilized: Respectful, reasonable and sensible in dealing with the different other. They could insist on their beliefs if they so wish. They could preach and try to convince us to move over to their side of any argument. But they should do so following our Islamic rules of debate (Fegh alkhelaf), not by force, not with hate, disrespect and dissidence.
By the way, Abdullah became an active member of our “diwania.” He turned out to be a wonderful debater. Told you! It is not over, yet!

Our Missing Middle

Dr. Khaled M. Batarfi
What is the difference between our right and left? I was asked this recently by a bright Saudi student. I said it was the missing middle. She thought for a moment then asked: What are we supposed to be as a nation? I told her: We are the nation of the middle, as the Qur’an has described us. But that we should tolerate those on both sides.
Again, she paused. Then she came back with a stronger question: “Why would we tolerate the extremists on both sides? We are a young nation starting our way on the road of progress and development. Do we need these divisions and dividers to distract us? They could continue their fight in prison, where they belong, but we cannot afford to have them around wasting our time and energy with their intellectual, if not physical, fight.”
I reminded her that we are not new to development and progress. The Umma ruled the world for centuries. We introduced Europe to science, medicine, astronomy and technology. Today, we are restarting, not starting on that road.
Great nations read their history well before importing experiences and experiments from others. Our culture not only allows but calls for sophisticated, civilized debates. The Qur’an is full of such debates. Allah has debated with the non-believers and believers alike, including his prophets. Remember His debates with Abraham, Moses, Muhammad (peace be upon them) and their peoples? He never says believe the hereafter because I said so. No, he gave evidence of His being and supported His statements with logical and physical proofs. His prophets did the same with the extremists and doubters.
To follow this divine example, we should allow for all kinds of peaceful expressions of thought, marketing of perspectives, and discussion of ideas. Let the left and right and all those in between make their cases and defend their positions and try as best as they can to bring us over to their sides.
As long as this is done without hurting personal feelings, attacking personalities, enlisting authorities or denying the others their equal right to free association, thought and expression, we will do fine. After all, we are a young nation, with educated and open-minded citizens among us. We are mature enough to listen to all, and, at the end of the day, make our own stand and take our own position.
Those who deny the other party their day in the court of public opinion, are not sure of their ability to persuade or, worse, of the validity of their case. If they are as sure-footed as they pretend, why would they censor academic libraries and international book fairs? Why are certain groups not allowed to present or defend their “mathhab,” doctrine or stand? How come one school of thought is the one and only voice heard, taught and preached? After they had their chance for decades to establish their ideologies in our heads, why can’t they trust us enough to listen to other points of views? Is it because they don’t believe in our ability to distinguish right from wrong, or because they don’t believe in their ability to convince us? Is it that they don’t believe in us or don’t believe in themselves?
My young friend looked at me tentatively, while absorbing what I had just said. Then she smiled and flashed her bright large eyes at me said: “Man! You know what you just said? You are telling me that all what we were taught, read and trained in all our life, is one-sided stuff. That we need to re-educate, reread, retrain ourselves all over again to absorb other schools of thought, other trends and perspectives, and to open up to the rest of the civilized world. This is a huge order! This is not an evolution, but a revolution! This is like reliving your life in a different a world, starting from scratch. Man! This is mass killing of our present characters and the remake of another!”
I laughed and said: “Girl! How lazy your generation can be! All that is needed for those who have already graduated from such a learning experience is to have a taste of a new one. For those who are still entering education, we should change the parameters of their experience, allow them more freedom to explore on their own, and let them come up with their own conclusions.
“We should stop breastfeeding them after their infant years, so they can depend on themselves the rest of their lives. We must open the world for them to research and study, discover and communicate with others, instead of limiting them to our own. How hard can this be for them? After all, babysitting people is harder than letting them grow on their own.”

Sunday, November 06, 2005

Lamenting Our Missed Opportunities

There is nothing more bitter than missed opportunities. In the Arab world we had lots of that to mourn. And unlike the rest of the human race we can’t find a better time to do so than during our Eid celebrations. While others enjoy theirs, we tend to ruin our happy anniversaries remembering the worst moments in our history and keep asking what an Arab poet asked 1,000 years ago, “Eid, what kind of Eid did you bring with you?”
I hate to do the same and ruin what are supposed to be happy moments with similar remembrances. But since everyone else is doing it, why not me? Here is what I would mourn most: Our missed opportunities for freedom, democracy, progress and peace. I won’t go far in history, limiting my memory to the last hundred years.
In the beginning of the 20th century, Hussein ibn Ali, grand sharif of Makkah made a deal with the Allies. He was to lead a revolution against the Ottomans. In return he was promised to be declared the new caliph of the Muslim Ummah and the king of all Arabs. He did his part betraying the Muslim Caliphate that installed him but never received his ultimate reward. The English were kind enough to recognize him in 1916 as the king of Hijaz, install one son as the king of Iraq, a second as the emir of Jordan. But that was it. Not even the rest of Arabia and the Gulf area were to be under his control.
Still, there was a great opportunity for him and his sons to cooperate with the other Arab leaders, like sultans (later kings) Abdul Aziz in Riyadh and Fuad in Cairo to free and improve the rest of the Arab world. The colonizers were open to gradual progress starting with freeing slaves and giving women and minorities their due rights. Instead he insisted on pursuing his dream of being the king of kings. In the process, he antagonized the Saudis and ended up losing his fiefdom and destroying the dream of Arab unity. Later, the independent and semi-independent Arab governments decided in 1945 to start a process of unity under the Arab League banner. But even today, after more than half a century, we are still at square one.
When Nasser led the era of military revolutions in the Arab world, we were promised unity, freedom, reforms and progress. Instead, every colonel wanted to rule the rest. Even young Qaddafi of small Libya felt he deserved to lead the horde. Marriage projects like those between Egypt and Syria; Egypt, Sudan and Libya; and, in recent history, the cooperation councils of the Gulf states, the Western Arabs (Algeria, Libya, Mauritania, Morocco, and Tunisia) and the Eastern Arabs (Egypt, Jordan, Iraq and Yemen), either failed to achieve their set goals or disintegrated disgracefully. We had peace opportunities with our main foe, Israel, and lost them. The best chance was the road Egyptian President Sadat opened for us. Instead of working with him to negotiate as a group, most leaders felt insulted that he didn’t consult with them first. For this mistake they were willing to forgo the golden opportunity and fragment the Arabs into two camps — the small peace group and the “countries that are standing up and challenging.” Later the war party members were warring among themselves. We lost. Israel won. The end of the first Gulf War between Iraq and Iran presented another golden opportunity. We were then more in agreement than not. With the eight-year costly war no longer a distraction, we could have concentrated on getting our act together and working on achieving our goals and dreams.
Not so fast! Saddam couldn’t have a break of more than a couple of years before he started another adventure. This time against his brotherly allies who supported him in the previous aggression. We deserved this because we missed our opportunity to forge good relations with the Islamic Republic of Iran. We had more in common with the new Muslim regime than we did with the Baathists.
One war led to another. The Third Gulf War, like the second divided and distracted the Arabs once more. Again, Arab leaders found a good excuse to delay reforms. Even with democracy a priority in the Anglo-Saxon agenda for the Middle East, Arab governments managed to find ways not to reform. A few improvements here, a couple of basic or meaningless elections there, and we convinced the world we are moving in the right direction. The Americans and British found something to show for their costly war, and the Arab governments managed to avoid costlier confrontations with the neo-Crusaders.
After 1426 Eid anniversaries we are mourning once more, unable to positively answer the Shakespearian question (to be or not to be). What a waste!

Wednesday, November 02, 2005

Reforms? Why? Why Not?

My last article "Reformatting the Middle East" has generated many responses. Some were in agreement; others rationally disagreed.
Dr. Thuraya Arrayed is a prominent Saudi writer and women-rights activist. She writes: (I still hang on to my belief in true continuing reform. You do too. I hope to be there for it. How can we start our trip towards true reform in the Arab world?
What we need is a genuine sense of dedication as part and parcel of our value system. The norm now is "every one is for himself" and "get it any way you can". "Smear the others and even kill them to make sure you are the only one remaining on the scene.
Anyone who does not apply that norm finds himself with the short end of the stick. The grip of this destructive conception must be broken.
Reform has been either a dream or a nightmare because we continue to sleep and ignore our role in making our fate change direction.

Yet, it is a miracle that some of us still believe that reforms will become a reality. Our experience has been a past of continuous disappointments, a present that is reflecting the negative results of all the accumulation of wrong decisions and selfish actions by shortsighted individuals. No wonder it is also an experience of a dream future which never materializes as promised.

We have always been sold glittery lies, told what we would like to hear and believed it was honest promises only to find out it was the way to guarantee the "promiser" his self interests. So why are we still believing in reform??? Because nothing else is left to hang on to. The other options are worse: suicide, suicidal bombings or becoming suicidal bomber yourself. Who wants that? We all know that diffusing the power of these inciters of destruction and reestablishing the normal functioning of the brainwashed angry youth are the first step towards reform.

Rescue the educational system from the clutch of the perpetuators of ignorance and opponents of human rights, and you would have started a new generation that will demand reform as a right and as a continued driving force in their life style.
Egyptian political analyst Hatem Ezzeldin writes: (There was no revolution in Egypt and there were none in the Arab world throughout history. It is hard to compare what happened from army turnovers to true revolutions in Europe in nature, characteristics and outcomes.)
Saqib Bukhari (England) objects to the Western link to our reforms. He says : (It is wholly true that the Arab world and the wider Muslim world needs to be reformed and like you said, the push for reform has been at the loudspeaker for quite some time.

However, what I feel quite alarming is that you don't pay much attention to who are calling for these reforms and why. If one was to look at the political landscape of the Arab world and the aspiration of its populace, one finds that people can be categorized as "Nationalist", "Secularist", "Fundamentalist", "Socialist" and so on, calling for different types of reform. The reform debate currently at the forefront of global politics is extrinsically linked to the exportation of democracy and this odd notion of freedom and equality between the sexes.
For the West to be successful in such reforms, they can utilize the secularist (or sometimes called the modernists) coupled with military onslaughts as we are seeing in Iraq.

The cause for reform, then, is part and parcel of the war on terror, which in all intents and purposes, is a war on political Islam. Therefore, the current actions and policies of the West towards the Muslim world simply reinforce the rhetoric of the politicians in the early 20th Century. The "liberal" Prime Minister Benjamin Disraeli held a copy of the Quran in the House of Commons and said, "Muslims can never be defeated until this (the Quran) is taken from them."

So, to conclude, the nature of these reforms is to counter the growing rise of the need for political Islam by millions of Muslims throughout the world. The Nationalist movements failed so if we want to call for reforms in the Muslim world, we need to realize that it's only through Islam we can rise and gain back our dignity.)

Virginia Johnston (Gainesville, FL) writes: (You must have heard about our special counsel Patrick Fitzgerald. If the law cannot get to the truth of what has happen to the American people under the Bush administration, and as we hear the death rattles of our own democracy, we have no right reforming the Middle East.)

Tuesday, October 25, 2005

Reformatting the Middle East

Like democracy, “reform” is a catchword these days in the Arab world. Leaders promise it, media sing it, and people wish to believe it. But is it believable? Or is it just too good to be true? Or maybe something in between — buy one true promise and get ten lies free?
Before we decide which case is the case, let us review our progress on the road to reforms, so far.
The question of reforms is not new, and didn’t arise after 9/11. The promise arrived with every revolution and evolution phase in our modern history.
After we fought with the Allies in World War I against our rulers, the Ottoman Empire, the new regimes that replaced them promised to deliver us to a new world of freedom, progress and democracy.
The Western colonizers brought in some enlightenment, some sophistication, some modern infrastructure and some democracy. Many Arab metropolises like Cairo, Aden, Baghdad, Damascus, Khartoum and Casablanca became world class. They had life and semi-free press, parliaments, labor unions and other democratic tools and privileges. Airports, railways, ports, highways and many other modern infrastructure networks were built. In Egypt, the Suez Canal was finally dug and operated. In Aden, the new port was one of the world’s biggest and busiest.
It wasn’t enough, though. Humans hate to surrender their decision-making right to foreigners. Reforms were mostly in big cities and towns. Villages and remote areas were left almost as backward as they were found. Education was a minority privilege.
The military academies were for certain class. And the final decision on real matters, including who stays in power, was squarely in the hands of the occupiers.
Parliaments get dissolved, elected prime ministers dismissed, and kings assassinated. Alliances, wars and peace agreements have to get through London, Paris and Rome before they can be made. Nationalist movements were fought and subdued politically and militarily. In the end, only the army was left as a national institution capable of effecting change.
Nationalist officers swept the Arab world as one successful revolution encouraged another. From Egypt to Iraq, from Libya to the Sudan and from Syria to Yemen, Arab armies were on the march to reclaim their nation’s destiny.
Like the colonists, they promised reforms, but unlike the colonists they delivered few. In fact, freedoms were lost and democracy became a show business, a big lie, and a facade for police regimes. Prisons in the new states grew larger, the infrastructures older, the economy weaker and poverty more endemic.
There was growth in other sectors, like education, but quantity did not always match quality. Graduates of Egyptian, Iraqi and Sudanese colleges were way better, if lower in numbers, than today. Cultural life became too much politicized and propagandist.
The media turned into tools for state control and “political education” rather than means for free discussion and debate, as well as watchdogs on government performance. The revolutions that promised to correct, reform and then leave, became permanent. (Whom are you revolting against, if you are the ruler?)
So, could anyone blame Arabs for suspecting any claim of true reforms? Now many Arab governments are talking about reforms — real this time! At the same time, America is pushing a new agenda for the Middle East. The world would be safer, they reckoned, if disillusioned, dissatisfied, poor and angry Arab masses were given the chance to live a better present and dream of a brighter future. With good education, vibrant economy, real democracy, they won’t be easy recruits for the likes of Osama Bin Laden and Al-Zarqawi, the theory goes.
Reform or else was the message that reached Arab capitals. Many didn’t need much convincing. In Saudi Arabia the call for reforms and national dialogue preceded 9/11. In Yemen, Oman, Bahrain, Qatar, Kuwait, Morocco, Algeria, the Sudan and Jordan, regimes felt the need to reform for their own reasons. Those include civil wars in the Sudan, Algeria and Yemen, civil liberties movements in Kuwait and Egypt and new leaderships in Morocco, Jordan, Syria, Qatar and Bahrain. Are these reforms deep and wide enough? Not much or not at all. But they are good, small steps in the right direction. We need to encourage them, blow the wind in their sails, and make those steps steady and sure. Intellectuals in each county must take the lead and call for public involvement and participation. We need to continue building civic institutions that deliver the goods, not just the “see me I am here” charade.
And we all need to remember that to survive in the new world of borderless trade and transparent governance, this is the only way to go.

Saturday, October 15, 2005

‘Tribalizing’ Democracy!

Democracy is such a magic word! Politicians love to pretend it, intellectuals to explore it, people to demand it, media to measure it, and a bunch of organizations to watch it. Few, however, really understand what it is and where they stand on it — especially in the Arab world.

Lately, I read many scholarly and news reports about fake democracy in the Arab world. Almost nobody is rejecting democratic reforms these days for fear of looking bad before world public opinion. More importantly, it is politically dangerous to do so, since Uncle Sam may put you on his list of “failed regimes.” Depending on how much oil or terrorism you may have, or how inconvenient you are to Israeli and US interests (in this order), you could be erased, modified or seriously talked to.

Most governments either pretend to be more democratic than America, on their way to be, or don’t need to. When put under pressure and scrutiny to hurry reform measures and be more transparent about them, they play the “injured dignity,” you-hurt-my-feeling card. (How dare you instruct ancient civilizations on governing art?)

Others lecture you on how democracy must be homegrown, not imported, fit-for-all takeaway; and how we need time to grow our own. That “time break” means ages. By the time we reach there, they won’t be there, you won’t be there, or you won’t be interested anymore — an effective stalling technique.

The funny ones try to sell you the claim that we already have democracy. Look how the people adore their rulers, they say. Note how our leaders come from humble origins, visit with the roots and interact with the common man. People and destiny have chosen them. This is ultimate democracy.

The frustrating ones are smarter. They play the game as it should be played. “You wanna democracy? No problema! We give you one.” Then they give you a big show. Constitutions get changed, candidates run, media criticize, analyze and cover events, and the whole country party-celebrate! It is Elections Time! But the whole game is designed to re-elect the same aging rulers and preserve the same oldie regimes. The only difference is: It is now legitimate illegitimacy. Go figure.

One of those fakers gave me a lecture the other day. He went on and on about the history of democracy and its “rotten” application today. “Did you know that the original Athenian concept was democracy for free men only, as was the case in the first American version? Women, slaves and the poor were excluded,” he argued. “Western democracy is custom-made for the white man. The West is based on individualistic system, we are based on consensus. With tribal societies, like ours, we already have our own version of democracy. Leaders are ‘accepted’ by the people, and led by consensus. They have their ways of seeking, building and enforcing such consensus. At the end of the day, the whole nation — not just those who voted ‘yes’ — is on board in any project.”

I say to him and to all those like him, if you are so sure about what your people want, let them say so. Put in the scientifically proven mechanisms to measure their sentiments. Give every runner an equal chance and provide a level-playing ground. Allow the media to play its role as the people watchdog. Let all vote for whoever wishes to run and let the world scrutinize the vote and see that you won fair and square.

Once empowered with such mandate, you can implement your agenda with powerful authorization and public support. The civilized world may disagree, but they would have to respect the people’s choice.

Does this sound science fiction or foreign play? That is because nobody reads history.

History showed that only those who win people’s hearts by democratic means stay in power or leave peacefully. Democratic systems develop in time. Autocratic regimes do not evolve peacefully; they come with a revolution ... and end with one.

Saturday, October 08, 2005

Who Hangs the ‘Wake-Up’ Bell?

Democracy is about free debates on all issues relating to public interest. It is the supermarket of ideas, to which all members of society contribute and benefit from available intellectual products.
Saudi Arabia is now ripe with discussions about all kinds of opportunities and challenges facing our nation. From rights for women, guest workers, children and minorities, to education, extremism, globalization and social decadence, all the cards are on the table. Players include men and women, old and young, conservatives and liberals, Sunnis and Shiites. No one is excluded from taking part in this mental exercise. If not in the mainstream media and forums, then at least you could say what you want without censorship on the Internet.
Is this good or bad? Too early or too late? Too fast or too slow? Those are valid questions for the debaters to address. But it is vital for society to continue its roundtable, round-the-hour dialogue. The exercise is good for our mental health. We got mentally fat with all the junk thoughts we had been fed for ages. It is about time we slimmed down and muscled up with a healthier diet, better digestion and a good workout.
“What is the use?” I was asked by a frustrated youth after a long night of discussions in a weekly “dewania” (intellectual gathering). “We talk and talk, and by the end of the day, we all go home to catch a football game, a fat meal, and sound sleep. Nothing happens overnight, nothing happens the next day. And when we meet again, it is the same story all over, for nobody has done anything to change the status quo since our last meeting.
“Isn’t it better for the sake of our cholesterol level and blood pressure, serenity and sanity to save our breath and time, and look for better things to do?
“Isn’t some quality time with your kids, a gem exercise, and a trip to the sea or a desert camp more fun and useful than the smoky discussion that is all hot air and no substance? Personally, I am having colon problems from listening to all these intellectual debates that agree on solutions but not on how to implement them. Bottom line is, without ‘do’ and ‘doers’ we are wasting our mental and physical energy for nothing!”
This reminds me of the “Who will bell the cat?” tale. For those who don’t know this classic Aesop tale, it is about a group of mice meeting to figure out how to defend themselves from attacks by the cat. One wise rodent pointed out that a bell around the neck of the cat would herald the cat’s movements and thus all the mice could escape the feline’s clutches in time. The mice agreed that a bell was indeed a brilliant solution, and after a long pause, one inquired, “Who will bell the cat?” No one volunteered and no problem was solved.
Solutions are plenty and cheap. You can buy one and get ten free. The problem is when it comes to action no one likes to be in the driver’s seat. Most prefer to be in the audience. Few care to be in the play.
This has to change. In the new mode of civic institution building, reforms and dialogue, we need more effective participation. This means more individual and group initiatives — speaking out, joining forums, participating in public institutions, forums and actions.
Talk for talk’s sake is not enough, but also not bad. After a long rest it is not easy to jump right into action. We need time to flex our mental muscle, open our eyes and ears and awaken our senses to capture present and future trends, modes and drifts.
Once you get the picture, you start pondering and reflecting. Others do the same, and you get together to exchange thoughts and ideas. Then you get bored of sitting still, and warm up for action. Since doors are now opened for participation, you join in with your own thoughts, actions, and contribution.
That’s how I hope we all do. But truth is: I am not sure we are all up to it. Decades of dependence on the government to make all decisions and do all the work for us have left us with little understanding and weak motivation to make the right move and do the right thing.
I hope and pray this attitude changes soon. Some of us should hang the bell, the rest support them. Our present reforms and future progress depend on such courageous initiative, and cooperation.

Building Bridges With Americans

American visitors to Saudi Arabia come with their baggage of perceptions and get their first cultural shock on day one — especially those who come for the first time. Thanks to media and education, our image as backward, savage, and fundamentalists persists. Misperception leads to perception and if repeated enough times and long enough it becomes reality. Once in the news, you’re always in the news and it is difficult to remove the stigma once it sticks.
Some reporters and researchers write their reports during the long flight to Saudi Arabia, and come here to fill the gaps. They look around every corner for political tension, religious extremists, battered women and street wars. They do find, now and then, what they look for and jump on it. That would be fine if at the same time they report the other side of the story, which represents the norm more than the spicy stuff.
Just imagine if, after a visit to America, I write only about drugs, crimes and racial discrimination. While those problems exist in America as in any other society, they are not what America is about. The same is here. We have our share of social ills such as fundamentalism, extremism, marginalizing minorities, consumerism, drug abuse, abuse of women and foreigners. But we also have our bright spots. Look around you and you will see the inspired and inspiring people, young and old, men and women, liberal and conservative, Sunni and Shiite.
Such was the case with a visiting group of American intellectuals. We met in the Jeddah Chamber of Commerce and Industry last week. Our group, the International Relations Committee, is made of concerned citizens volunteering to build a bridge of communication and understanding with the rest of the civilized world. The chairman of the committee, Amr Khashoggi, is an intellectual businessman, educated in American universities, like most of us, father to two bright kids who have just graduated and returned home to serve their country. They were all present at the meeting and at another gathering with Karen Hughes, US undersecretary of state for public diplomacy.
Committee members come from different business, academic and government backgrounds. They include economist Dr. Nahed Taher, businessman Eng. Omar Khalifaty, journalist Ms. Maha Akeel, merchant Dr. Ghazi Binzagr, psychotherapist Assia Khashoggi, and political scientist, Ms. Ranya Bajsair.
Guests and hosts talked in a spirit of openness and friendship. Some were emotional, apologetic or frank. However, all expressed their sorrow, anger, disappointment, confusion, misunderstanding and criticism in a civilized way. At the end, we all felt like hugging each other. It was a great group therapy.
Alta Schwartz, director of Outreach program in Georgia Middle East Studies Consortium touched my heart. She expressed her dilemma as a Jew trying to reach out to us. She told me about a recent visit to Gaza and her shock and dismay at the Israeli abuse of Palestinians. How could she dissociate herself from Israeli policies and actions? She wants to rescue her religion from the extremists who have hijacked Judaism in Israel and America. She spoke about that tense moment when she tells an Arab she is a Jew and how she got used to the frank discussion that follows and the friendship that results.
I told her of my experience in America when my best friend suddenly told me that he was a Jew as well as a Communist! I had that double-shock moment but it passed quickly. It really didn’t matter what his religion was as long as he treated me right. As it turned out, we ended up helping each other in school projects and learned a great deal about one another’s perspectives. After reviewing my dissertation about US media bias toward Israel, he thanked me for moderating his views about Middle East history. I thanked him for standing up for me. He, and other colleagues, advocated changing class schedules to accommodate my Ramadan fasting hours. Similar tense moments became easier, like when I found out that the wonderful doctor and nurse who took care of my newborn daughter were Jews. Alta liked my calling her a cousin. I explained to the rest that Jews and Arabs are Semite cousins. An American pointed out that we are all cousins. What stands between us can easily be torn down. The biased media, ignorant intellectuals, inconsiderate politicians, and geographic, cultural and political barriers can be overcome with a simple smile, hello and a handshake.
As soon as we talk and visit each other’s homes and meet with family members, we will discover how strikingly similar we all are. We all wake up every day worrying about school grades and job security, family well-being and neighborhood safety.
We go through our days striving for a better life, and a brighter future. And when we sleep, we get nightmares about losing the ones we care about, and confronting those we don’t. We dream about an environment of peace, love and prosperity.
If we just understand these basic facts about each other, it is the perfect win-win. Only the merchants of hate, war and misery lose out in this eventual battle of bridge-building for the sake of all humanity.

Tuesday, September 27, 2005

Our Economy, Our Women

What’s the relation between our women and the economy?
Last Saturday, I attended a heated debate about the government’s decision to allow women to run in the election to the new board of the Jeddah Chamber of Commerce and Industry, as well as similar elections in other cities.
This is the first time businesswomen get the right to be candidates, not just voters. I thought this was a historical, but overdue step. It defies logic that 15,000 owners of Saudi businesses cannot be represented on the boards of trade organizations like the chambers of commerce and industry.
The same can be said of the boards of banks, companies and industries, where women make a sizable minority of shareholders and employees. Similarly, government ministries and departments, courts and religious scholars’ organizations, universities and schools all deal with constituencies of both sexes. Isn’t it absurd that even in the Department of Girl’s Education only men are in charge?
Some of the opponents are basing their objections on religious and cultural grounds. I told them: Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him) worked for a businesswoman, his wife. He consulted another wife, Aisha on matters of state and religion, and told his companions to take half their religion from her. Why is it that, after 1400 years, women are not allowed to be at the level they reached then? If culture is the issue, it is wrong since it is in conflict with the principles of Islam.
As for experience and expertise, they come with training and practice. New generations of men go through this learning curve to reach higher positions, so why not our better half?
To help in this direction, we need to improve women’s education and training. Many fields, like engineering, accounting, and d├ęcor are still off limits to girls in public colleges, even though they are better school achievers than boys.
• Here is a comment on my last article “The Economic Boom: Our Second Chance!” from an American who taught and understood Saudi girls. I found it refreshing and enlightening to see one’s position from a different angle and with different eyes.
Let me quote her letter:
“I left Jeddah about two months ago and was living there for a little over a year. I have written to your e-mail correspondence a few time concerning women’s issues, but I think this issue about how to spend the money is just as, if not more, important. It is also relevant to the women’s issue.
Jeddah has turned into a giant mall and it’s very disappointing and sad. In the past, weren’t the best and most renowned educational centers in the Middle East based in Makkah and Madinah? Are not Arabs known for great educational achievements such as algebra and beautiful poetry? Well, it seems things have changed, and not because of bad financial times.
There should be large public libraries, good sporting facilities and top-notch learning facilities for everyone.
So as to not abandon my women I will speak to how this correlates directly to women. When young women have more to do with their days than go to the malls to spend money they haven’t earned, they themselves will gain a higher feeling of self-worth. This is much more important and preliminary to achieving a status that they seek in society.
I taught Saudi girls and it got very boring when all they had done over the weekend was to shop, meet at a cafe, or sit at home. What about scuba diving, sports leagues, book clubs, efficient technical institutes?
Of the hundred or so female students I taught, NOT ONE had ever scuba— dived. With one of the world’s most beautiful reefs at their fingertips, none were given the opportunity to take advantage of something people outside of the Kingdom can only drool over. At this point, society is telling Saudi women all they are worthy of is spending money.
Certainly, the men don’t have it much better. Therefore, it’s time to stop ignoring Saudi youth. Make investments in their future. Create a school system that allows them to compete in the world that looms like a tidal wave above them.
Of course, follow-through is just as important as the initiation. Provide them with facilities so they can be involved in healthy activities to make them well-rounded individuals. Then they can say, ‘This weekend? Hmm, where do I start’”.

The Economic Boom: Our Second Chance!

In the early 20th century, during the British colonial rule of Egypt, an Egyptian suddenly decided to establish the first national bank. He was motivated by a moving experience. An Egyptian farmer was crying in shame, anger and sorrow because the British bank tricked him. Typically, they gave him a loan, drove the cotton price down and confiscated his land for payment. Now, he was going to work as a laborer in his ancestor's land.
Young Talat Harb decided then and there to establish Misr Bank. Many laughed at him. He proved them wrong.
Within a couple of decades, Misr's Bank sat up 28 Egyptian companies producing everything from cotton dresses to heavy industries. They went into every field from hypermarkets for local products to Cinema for local movies, to sea, air and land transportation.
In addition, the bank helped starting and supported sixty more businesses in all kind of production and service fields.
The bank trained and maintained a competent and competitive professional Egyptians work force. Not only Talat Harb Basha suprvised them during work hours, but he also insisted that as representatives of the bank they must well behalf in their private lives. He would fire anyone who mistreated his wife or stole his neighbors. The bank's image had to be upheld at all times.
When the British forced him out, Misr Bank was worth more than two billion Egyptian pounds. He commented: "They could fire me but they can't fire the professional generation this nation now has."
Many Arab banking pioneers were inspired by this example. In Saudi, Salem bin Mahfouz, founded the National Commercial Bank to break the "economic colonialism" in his country, as he explained to the founder of modern Saudi Arabia, King Abdulaziz. He sat up companies, built low-rent flat blocks, and supported hundreds of factories, farms and businesses. The bank played the role of the Central Bank before it was sat at a later stage.
Suleiman and Saleh Alrajehi started, like bin Mahfouz, from the bottom. They well understood the needs and aspirations of their nation and business environment. Their bank was more like a holding company of specialized units. They entered the fields of modern agriculture, poultry, manufacturing and marketing, among many others.
In addition to supporting businesses, those pioneers helped their people. Charity works accounted for as much as third of their fortunes, with billions sat aside for helping the poor and underprivileged.
In the beginning of the 20th century, Mohammad Ali Xenel sat up a network of schools. Not only providing free education, he also supported the poor students' families and sent the best to India to pursue higher studies. In the sixties, Sheik Abdullah Al-Suliman donated million of acres of his land, including his palaces and farms to support the establishment of King Abdulaziz University in Jeddah. Sheik Abu Bakar Bakhashab was first to support the project with a million Riyal donation, a fortune by the standards of those days.
Today, fewer people act and think the same way. Tall among the best is Mohammad Abdulatif Jameel. He, alone, put up 100 million riyals to establish pioneering schools, services and funds. Hundreds of poor women are getting micro financing of up to a thousand riyal to start small businesses individually and in small groups. Young girls and boys are taking training courses in untraditional courses for Saudis like food catering, hair dressing, fashion design, event management, and car maintenance. Others are sent aboard to study in prestigious universities like Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Oxford and Cambridge. Before they graduate, Jameel finds them secured jobs in and outside his group.
Abdulrahman Fakeeh is another shining example. His free training schools are focused on modern tools like computer and languages, as well as traditional like farming and poultry. After graduation students are free to work for him or anywhere else, without any strings attached.
The same can be said of charitable business groups, lik Alkherieji, Alamodi, Bin Mahfouz, Xenel, Bin Laden, Aljaffali and Bugshan.
There must be many others working in silence. But the percentage is too small, the help insufficient, and the philosophy rapidly changing. Banks today are more concerned with fueling consumerism than nurturing small businesses. Most investors prefer to make easy money by building malls, importing and selling consumer goods, and providing services and entertainment. Productive businesses that provide good paying jobs and reform the economy attract fewer investors.
Charity is less smart, focused and directed towards sustainable help, such as training, cottage industry and productive families. Investment venues are hardly enough to absorb more than 500 billion riyals in private bank accounts alone.
We blew our first economic boom of the late seventies, and need to dramatically change strategy, philosophy and attitude before we blew our second chance.

Thursday, September 15, 2005

Arab Leaders and How They Treat Public Criticism

Dr. Khaled Batarfi,

ARAB officials are not used to any sort of criticism, especially in public, and don’t tolerate open debate about their performance.

Now and then, I have off-the-record conversations with Arab leaders of various levels in the public and private sectors. Most are unelected.

I ask them: Why don’t they allow intellectual, peaceful dissent and free discussion of ideas and thoughts? They have the power to pick and choose among proposals; so why the imposed silence and unilateral governance?

Their rationale goes like this: Talk to me respectfully and I’ll listen and consider. Do that in public and you put me in a serious dilemma. If I respond positively, I admit to having made mistakes and you take credit and steal the victory. Worse, by relenting to your demands, I show weakness. You can’t run a business, let alone a country like that.

Besides, in our culture, you don’t humiliate your leader, be it a father, a boss, a sheikh or a president. We shouldn’t copy less respectful societies in this regard.

Eastern societies are different. We don’t go around smearing the image of our heads and expect them to take it kindly. Of course leaders get angry; they are only human. Of course they punish offenders; they have prestige, security and unity to protect. Wrong approaches deserve bad receptions.

If you are sincere, then don’t make a scene. If public interest is your goal, come and talk to me in private. Let me take the credit for doing the right thing. It won’t hurt you, but makes me stronger. However, if it is fame, political gain or any other self-interest you are after, I won’t allow you to gain it at my expense. I will fight you to the bitter end. And you will most likely lose, because I have the muscles and you are toothless.

An Arab public official may add: Make a noise and you might get the outside world’s attention. Some foreigners might take up your cause. Western officials might call on your behalf. This helps me prove you are an agent and traitor. Human rights organizations might protest. Pressure may mount. But it is up to me to set you free. And if I do, I could make your life miserable. You can live outside prison, but the whole country will be your jail. The difference is: I pay your expenses inside, but make sure you are not able to pay them outside. Your call! Your choice!

In response I say: “Those with tight chests and short breaths are not good for leadership,” as an Arab proverb says. If you are so sensitive and thin-skinned, be kind enough to leave the headache for those who are not. You are right to be offended if critics were intruding into your personal affairs that don’t affect your job performance. But if people are criticizing, demanding or advising on issues that concern their well being, then you ought to listen, respect and accept.

Say we are a traveling group. We choose you as our organizer and treasurer. You start acting without our authorization, slipping your gambling loses into the budget or changing our travel plans. Isn’t it our right to raise concerns and objections, present suggestions and proposals and call into review your administrative performance? Why do we have to come, one by one, in private, to discuss such issues with you? Why can’t we debate them among us all? And why is no one but you entitled to take credit for our achievements and proposals?

Most disasters in the history of mankind were caused by dictators. Good governance requires teamwork. No one person, no matter how brilliant, decent and strong, can successfully lead for long without decision sharing. Be it a family, small business, sports team or nation, people need and must take part in the managing of their own affairs.

Systems differ, but the basics are the same. Mechanisms may be tailored to suit different cultures and environments, but they all pursue the same goal — public participation in the decision-making process.

Ordinary citizens must have the divine, constitutionally protected right to voice their opinions publicly or privately without fear of persecution, isolation or retaliation. They should be entitled to expect respectful and systematic responses to their questions, interaction with their proposals, and addressing of their concerns.

Some agree with such logic — intellectually. The problem is, when we talk we are all men of principles. When we act, we are chasers of benefits. Without any protecting, overriding and correcting mechanism, leaders will always pursue their own interests — first.

Sunday, September 04, 2005

Is Corruption Curable?

Dr. Khaled Batarfi

“Framing” is a dangerous art. You can give a horrible thing a good name and make it look good. With the right media tools, you can sell it to the masses. A good lie, repeated long enough, convinces even the liars themselves.
Worse, lies in time become norms. The rules change to accommodate. And new generations know no better or different. The social evolution alters its ways accordingly, and what was immoral in the past, becomes acceptable and even ethical.
Take for example “corruption” in the Arab world.
Bribe is now called “commission.” The rationale goes like: Life became costly. What was regarded a decent life in the good old days is now poverty. Salaries, especially in the public sector, are meager. You need to think of your family and dependents. Good accommodation and private schooling cost a fortune. Every one is doing it; why not me?
Corruption is universal, but in degrees. Ours is one of the worst. This reminds me of a funny — and telling story.
Once, an Arab minister was invited to Japan. His Japanese counterpart took him on a city tour. He noted that most Japanese live in small apartments. Later, he was invited to lunch with the Japanese minister and was awed to see his spacious villa. “How could you afford this on your salary?”
The Japanese asked him to look out the window. “Do you see that bridge?” he whispered. “I got 10 percent commission on the project.”
Years later, the Japanese came to visit his Arab friend. On a city tour he noted that many people lived in shantytowns, if not homeless. He visited the minister’s home, and found it a palace. He couldn’t resist asking how come. The Arab minister didn’t need to whisper what is common knowledge. Do you see that bridge? He asked proudly. The Japanese couldn’t see anything. “Of course,” the Arab explained, “I took 100 percent commission on it!”
True, corruption is universal, but in our Arab world it is cancerous. Billions are spent on development but most go to private Swiss accounts. Few are brought to justice or even exposed. Little is done for the average man. Meanwhile, the ships of civilization are steaming ahead in all seas and oceans, while ours are sinking. Something has to be done if we ever hope to survive the storms of the New World Order where no economic or political barriers are allowed. So, is corruption a curable disease or a hopeless case? If we can fix it, then how and where to start?
This is a long story with so many variables. Some diseases are more curable than others. The longer you wait, the harder it gets; the stronger the medicine, the faster the recovery. But first, you need to know, acknowledge and be committed. Without knowing the extent of your problem you can’t appreciate it. Without acknowledging the seriousness of the disease and the urgent need to cure it, you are not prepared. And without commitment you might start but not finish, take some steps and leave some, get mixed results, no results or make it worse.
Our corruption is cancerous but curable. It will take lots of effort, plenty of headache, and tons of commitment. Once we decided we had enough, we can think up the right systems, procedures and safeguards that deal with cases, causes and symptoms.
When the Mafia polluted America in they early 20th century, the police, laws and courts were powerless, and often too corrupted to fight it.
In response, a committed US government came up with new solutions. They put new laws, created special task forces, and reinvented the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI). From a small group of investigators within the Department of Justice in 1908, the bureau grew up to become a formidable force with (to a large extent) incorruptible agents. They took on organized crime, with the support and backing of a committed government, and achieved great successes.
The story was replayed in the sixties when the Kennedy administration gave full authority and support to Attorney General Robert Kennedy to break up the Mafia structure, and he did — to a great extent.
What I am driving at is: It is possible to cure a disease like corruption if we research it, acknowledge it, and sincerely decide to fight it. If there is a will, there is always a way.
Most important, though, we should start from the top down. Catch the sharks before the crap. And make it a holy rule that no one is above the law. Otherwise, it is going to be like in the Communist and Baath regimes, the fat cats swallow it all while the rest dies of malnutrition!

Sunday, August 28, 2005

Reforms? Where? How Fast?

Dr. Khaled Batarfi,

How far and how fast we go down the road of reforms is an open question in all Saudi political, intellectual and social circles. Most believe in reforms.
A minority is not hot for change. Since they are happy with the way it is, they insist all be as happy. Unfortunately, many are influential in all above circles.
In the reform camp, we are of two minds. Some believe in speed, others advocate slow progress. Speeders disagree on where to go fast and where to slow down, or even halt. Economic reforms might top the agenda for some, but they might not stand for social reforms, such as women and minority rights.
Others, especially in intelligentsia and academia, advocate democratic and personal freedoms and rights first. They would like to see the glass ceiling that prevents many parts of society from rising above certain level broken. They’d like to see the divide between sexes, races and economic classes brought down. Education and legal reforms are priority, too. Then comes other kind of reforms like that in the investment and business sectors.
For me, all these issues should be given the same level of attention. Reforms should go in parallel and packages. You can’t fight corruption without free press. You don’t get to the moon without good education. Citizens who don’t feel they belong won’t give you their best.
They need an environment of trust and fairness. They want to identify with the rest of us. They demand the same treatment regardless of race, gender and ideology under the rule: What you know and do, not who you know or are that matters. In short, reforms are trains not cars. Trains don’t go one carriage at a time. On board you receive as much as you give. No one is left behind, and no one is given the red carpet without paying first for the privilege.
I had a debate lately with an advocate of slow progress. “Democracy took over 400 years to take hold in the ‘mother of modern democracy,’ England, since the sealing of Magna Carta in 1215 to the issuing of the Bill of Rights in 1689. Let’s at least have a breathing space of 40 years,” he suggested.
I asked him: How come we didn’t need that much time to catch up with the rest of the modern world in other aspects of civilization? Why didn’t we wait forty years to make use of its modern tools and sciences? That is because human knowledge is an accumulative project. We don’t rediscover the wheel in every civilization. We build on each other’s achievements, block over block. And we start from where the others ended.
“But democracy is a social revolution. You open your doors to its winds and may end up with a hurricane that brings down the temple. Going slow is the surest way to reach your destination without an upheaval like the French or the American Revolution, and now the Iraqis’ sudden jump to the turbulent high seas of democracy. We are a deeply conservative society rooted in certain ways of governance, from family to tribe to nation. We need ample time to change.”
I remind him that in the time of the Prophet (peace be upon him) and his caliphs, we had more democracy than most Arab countries do today. More recently, King Abdul Aziz in the 1920s gave us fully elected and authorized Shoura, regional and municipal councils. If our Arab culture could absorbs democracy then, why not now? Thanks to education and modern communication, we are ready. Check discussions on the Internet and satellite TVs and meet people in the street to see how far they are enlightened. Let’s not forget that more than 70 percent of our population is below thirty.
They expect more than what’s on offer. And their expectations should be met, at least in their lifetime.
He countered: “Just look around you! Arab countries who claim to be democratic are dictatorships, poor and backward.”
But theirs is fake democracy, I reminded him. The Iraqi Parliament under Saddam had never represented the people. The same could be said of many Arab and regional democratic experiments.
But when there are real, sincere ones, like that of Turkey, Iran, Lebanon, Kuwait, Bahrain, and now Saudi Arabia, you can see it is working. They might not be perfect, comprehensive or advanced, by Western standards, but they’re certainly sure and steady steps in the right direction. What we need today is more, faster steps on the road of democracy, freedom, equality and reforms. We need to open up to the world we live in, educate ourselves of its ways and tools, connect and ... belong.

Saturday, August 27, 2005

Our Preachers in the 21st Century

Dr. Khaled Batarfi,

Traveling thousands of miles, a man once carried a question from the city of Kufa in Iraq to Madinah. This was during the Umayyad era. On arrival, he wouldn’t rest before meeting one of the greatest scholars of his time, Alhasan bin Sereen. The question was: Does the mosquito blood invalidate wudhu (pre-prayer wash)?
The scholar was astonished: Can you believe these people? They kill the Prophet’s grandson Al-Hussein and worry about the blood of a mosquito!
This is exactly the trouble with religious extremists, then and now. They are like the fishnet of the law.
It tends to catch crabs and let the sharks get away. They may get concerned about a mosquito’s blood, but not the blood of river they caused with their illegitimate jihad. They worry about the way a sheep is slaughtered, but not how an innocent hostage’s throat is severed.
They cry foul when a hate preacher is deported from London, but demand prison for a Christian resident for leading a peaceful Sunday prayer in their country. They accuse the Shiites of deviating from the Sunnah “path” of the Prophet (peace be upon him) without following his example in more substantial matters.
Take, for example, the Friday sermon. The Prophet used to give a short, peaceful, nonpolitical one. Many imams, nowadays, give an hour-long of shouting lectures. When I reminded one of the Prophet’s ways, his response was typical: “Muslims today need more enlightenment.”
But what about the old, sick and busy of us? Didn’t the Prophet censure an imam for reading long surahs of the Qur’an in his prayers?
Besides, what can you say in an hour that you cannot summarize in half?
Mostly, it is repetition and mumbling about social decadence, youth’s deviance from the true path, and Zion-Crusaders’ conspiracies.
Don’t we get enough of this stuff from the media to have more in a day of reflection, peace, rest and celebration?
My imam didn’t like what I said, and accused me of being a Western loyalist betraying Islam. Some believed him.
Now, I am not saying we shouldn’t be concerned with such social and political issues. I write about them myself. But to limit our scope to a small number of problems that are symptoms of larger ones, and neglect more pressing issues is not right.
Satellite TV’s obsession with belly dancing and its negative influence on viewers is a valid concern. But the answer is to call for an alternative programming that balances the needs of the here and the hereafter, like that of Almajd, Iqra and Almanar channels, not to outlaw satellite dishes. Our youth needs exciting options, if we are to shut down the seductive ones. Before we prohibit a desirable road, we should provide a reasonable detour.
We should also discuss other important issues, such as domestic violence, women and minority rights, racism, foreigner bashing, political reforms and a host of other social, cultural and economic concerns. Here is more: Our education needs a lot of fixing.
The economy is long in cash flow, short in investment venues. Our nation is young. Most of us are below thirty-five. Many can’t find a place in universities.
Too many are unemployed, untrained and unarmed with modern tools for the increasingly sophisticated, competitive and demanding job market.
While we complain about the presence of seven million expatriates, most of our seven million women are kept at home. They lack proper training, welcoming environment, family encouragement and social support. They can’t study, work, travel or even have urgent surgery without male permission. They can’t even drive.
Just imagine if thousands of enlightened imams discussed such issues at least once a week! Ours is a conservative society, and we listen to our preachers more than intellectuals and teachers.
If we assign good imams from all schools of thought (there are 3000 mosques in Jeddah alone), they could lead the whole nation to a better present and more promising future.
But first, we should review, study and carefully observe the qualifications and attitudes of existing imams, religious educators and preachers. If needed, we should re-educate, reorient and enlighten the willing. Those who insist on their Dark Ages ways should keep their thoughts to themselves.
It is a different world now, and we need different mentalities to cope with its challenges. A system to monitor mosques and imams is already in place, training courses are now available, and the laws to deal with the situation are being enacted. What is urgently needed is for the Ministry of Islamic Affairs to rigorously implement them ... now.

Sunday, August 14, 2005

The Trouble With Thomas Friedman

Dr. Khaled Batarfi,

When I was a student in the US, The New York Times and Thomas Friedman were my favorite read.
The distributor wouldn’t accept subscription in the area I lived in of Eugene, Oregon, so I had to “find” the paper every single day. Sometimes I had to travel all over town to get a copy.
I told Friedman that I was fan of his when I met him here in Jeddah and then in Washington. But that was three years ago. Since then, Friedman changed a few lanes that surprised even his colleagues in some Washington press circles, as I was told by some in Washington. He lost their and my confidence and loyalty as a result. We have good reasons.
Take for example Friedman’s stand on Iraq war. For months he was admirably moral in his insistence that this was a war of choice not necessity. He rightly warned the US administration of the illegality of a war based on unproved accusations. Time proved him right.
However, when the war tide became overwhelming, he suddenly changed lanes and took the opposite direction. Just before the invasion, he was advising on what to do after what he thought would be an easy war.
Some of his advices were valid and wise, but it shocked me and many of his admirers that he was now validating and approving the invasion.
Friedman is a crusader. He designs a mission for himself, and then keeps hammering on the issue forever.
Lately, he has become obsessed with lowering US dependence on Middle East oil, especially from Saudi Arabia. His rationale goes like this: Let’s punish those “medieval” nations for supporting “terrorism”, and force them to reform. Rich dictatorships tend to resist reform and support terror. Make them poorer and they will embrace Western democracy, America, the West and — of course — Israel. Poverty will make Saudis more educated, market-oriented, worldly, and less religious.
There are other domestic rationales of course, like making America greener, but that it is about less oil consumption, not dependence on Middle Eastern oil.
Friedman wrote extensively and repeatedly about another of his obsession — globalization. His books “The Lexus and the Olive Tree: Understanding Globalization,” and the latest best-seller, “The World Is Flat: A Brief History of the Twenty-first Century,” is about, among other things, how it is becoming impossible to differentiate American from foreign products. You buy a computer and it is half-made in China, half-collected from different parts of the world, and sold with US logo. I agree. And I like Friedman’s stand that this is a reality we have to embrace and make the best use of.
But then he turns around and tells us that he could differentiate between Saudi oil and other oils sold in the open world market. To the best of my knowledge, they are all black!
Like cocoa, rubber and gold, oil is a global commodity. Producing countries sell it to international oil traders.
Those in turn sell it in the open market. Other traders, petrochemical companies and refineries buy it and resell it raw and manufactured.
These products may be sold as they are to consumers or used as feeders to make more sophisticated products.
So you may boycott a chocolate coming from a certain Swiss producer, but you cannot boycott cocoa.
The same can be said about all other basic natural products. International oil companies, who are mostly Americans, own or eat the greatest chunk of this cake.
The world is becoming one big hypermarket that mixes all things and sells to global citizens, as Friedman would say defending outsourcing to India, and free trade with China. Why it is a different story when it comes to Saudi oil?
Besides, who, with a straight face, would claim that poverty produces reformers and democrats, security and technology, but Friedman? If so, why democracy and scientific achievements thrive mostly in richer nations? Why wars are made on and in poorer countries? Why security is a privilege for richer neighborhoods like LA’s Beverly Hills not as much for poorer districts like New York’s Harlem? And why most graduates from elite schools come from richer families?
According to Friedman’s earlier views, the secret of Arab radicalism in recent years is severe unemployment and general poverty. If that is the case, how could a poorer Middle East make better, more sophisticated, civilized and secured neighborhood? With post-9/11 Friedman’s lane-changing, Israel-first attitude, one doesn’t have to wonder much. In his Saudi bashing and Israel serving, at least he is consistent.

Sunday, August 07, 2005

Never Far Away From the People

Dr. Khaled Batarfi,

I was asked in a live TV show to highlight the best achievements of late King Fahd and the merits of King Abdullah. It was difficult to summarize, but I tried.

I said: The best title for King Fahd’s era is “infrastructure building.” Internally, he built great networks of roads, communication, schools, universities, civil institutions and public services. The holy cities of Makkah and Madinah witnessed the greatest expansion and development in history. Internationally, he built a great economic and political infrastructure that enhanced the country’s standing, influence and prestige. He initiated the first Arab peace offer to Israel in 1982, Lebanon’s Peace Agreement that ended its long civil war, and the Gulf Cooperation Council.

Whenever we needed political backing, it was readily availble, like during the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait. The king took a courageous stand, then, by calling on foreign help and a respectful and grateful world obliged.

Before I talked about King Abdullah, my time was up. Here is what I wanted to say: I met the then Prince Abdullah for the first time around 1982. He invited a group of journalists to attend the National Guards annual training, and I was lucky to be among them.

We were waiting for him at the VIP language at Riyadh airport. When he arrived he wholeheartedly and humbly apologized for being late and presented his valid excuse. Then he went around shaking hands in highly friendly and charming spirit with everyone, including a teenage reporter, like me.

Later, in the desert camp, we experienced more of his unique merits.

He was very open and simple, talking to locals, eating and sipping coffee with them, and discussing everything from the weather to personal needs. They called him by the first name or Abu Miteb (father of Miteb) or ibn Abdul Aziz, (son of Abdul Aziz). The journalists rode a school bus, and were supposed to follow the prince’s four-wheeler. But the Bedouins wouldn’t respect this order. They came, with their dusty pickups, between our car and his. In camps, they jumped before us and took the best seats. We, the official guests, had to sit in the back or stand around. When I asked why security wouldn’t organize that, I was told the prince would hate to upset them.

Once I came late, and all the spaces around the prince were taken, so I sat in the empty place next to him. This was supposed to stay available to unexpected senior guests. Many were surprised at my daring move, but the prince was not. To show all that it was OK, he started talking to me about the weather. He said: I smell rain, can’t you? I asked: How can he tell? He smiled his fatherly, loving, encompassing smile and explained: The air is wet, you know! He should know. A Bedouin at heart, he is never away from the desert or the people.

A Yemeni office boy told me once: (I used to visit Prince Abdullah regularly. One evening, he was sitting in the garden with some visitors. I saw him from where I stood at the gate, and tried to get in. The guard refused to let me in. This was private, he said, and advised me to come later for the prince’s open “majlis.” Abu Miteb saw that and hurriedly came to greet me. He told the guard never to treat his guests this way again. That night he sat me beside him. At the dinner table he was cutting meat and putting food on my plate. And when I left, his secretary gave me double the amount I used to get as princely gift. I am but a poor, old man, with many kids. I won’t take a blow for anyone, but I’ll take a bullet for him.)

I wasn’t surprised to hear that story, it was one of many. When we were in the desert camp I saw him treating poor, simple people like kings. I saw him serving his guests and filling their plates with food himself. And I witnessed how he was giving more attention to the less expecting, like the young journalist I was. I would take a bullet for him, too.

May Allah have mercy on King Fahd’s soul, and help King Abdullah to take us to higher flights on the same path his father and brothers led us on. There is a lot to be achieved and 14 million Saudis — men and women, young and old, Sunni and Shiites — are ready to help achieving it.

Sunday, July 31, 2005

Terrorist Attacks: Where Is the Outrage?

Dr. Khaled Batarfi,

An American friend protested once: If Muslims really are against terrorism why don’t I hear strong condemnation coming from every direction — religious leaders, intellectuals, media and all?
Recently, he called again surprised at the level of outrage against the London attacks and wondered: There are more brutal ones in Iraq, why only London you care about?
He meant to say: I understand the sympathy with Sharm El-Sheikh and Egypt, but the English standing in the Muslim world is supposed to be just like that of ours. Both countries invaded and occupied Afghanistan and Iraq. They are closest allies in the “war on terror.” Why the difference in treatment?
I explained to him what he probably already knew: Media is about new, amazing and shocking news. The terrorist attacks on London and Sharm El-Sheikh fit the bill. The story in each case was huge, surprising and new. It was more of one big fireball, rather than small and similar flashes. This is the problem with the Iraqi terrorist attacks — they are all the same. Just like the stories that streamed from the world’s troubled areas, like during the civil wars in Lebanon, Sudan, Congo, Nicaragua, Bosnia and Kosovo. Unless you have a new angle or dimension, they taste like old news.
During the Vietnam War, international media, including the American, was not as interested in reporting daily events as they were in the beginning. Yes, when there was a shocking new story, like the aerial bombardment of North Vietnam, the reports were front page. No one was as much interested in daily skirmishes.
During the first Gulf War between Iraq and Iran, I remember how the news made front-page headlines. Months later, it started getting slimmer and withdrawing to inside pages.
People get used to repeat bad news. They become numbed and start to care and feel less about them. The first murder crime in a neighborhood might get people talking for a long while.
But in a dangerous neighborhood were crimes are daily affairs, no one talks about them as much. This is basic human nature.
My friend wasn’t totally convinced. He knew better. As he suspected, I wasn’t telling the whole story. Maybe because it was long and complicated. Maybe, I was in a hurry. And maybe I was self-defending.
Here is the rest of the story. The situation in Iraq is much more complicated than in London. Here, we have occupying powers that invaded a sovereign country under false pretexts. Occupation, as history of nations testifies, produces resistance. Resistance generates retaliation. The vicious cycle goes on and on, along with all the resulting resentments, mistrust and hatred from both sides. Such negative thinking about the “enemy” makes the heart colder, morality confused, and emotions mixed. Yes, people get upset when some of their own get killed in the crossfire, but they usually blame it on the other side, especially if it was the one who started it.
I am not trying to justify the muted reaction in the Muslim world to the mayhem in Iraq, but only to analyze and explain.
As for my own stand, here it is: I feel that the best for the Iraqis now is to continue their democratic reforms and nation-building. Only when they manage to rebuild their civil and security infrastructure, they may demand gradual withdrawal of foreign forces.
My stand is based on cool reasoning, not hot emotions. Public opinion is not always based on rational thinking. The French and Dutch said no to the EU Constitution for emotional reasons. Many didn’t even care to read it. They feared for the future, they were angry with their own governments and politicians; many were unemployed and poor. They said no to that more than to the constitution.
In the fog of war, accurate and objective intelligence is as hard to get as water in a desert hell. Information tends to be colored and biased. Emotions cloud reasons. Anger poisons perception, decisions and stands. As a result, the public, via the media and the rumor factory, gets a much-skewed picture of what is going on. This explains the different reactions to seemingly similar events. There are no easy answers to difficult questions. I hope my American friend is reading this right now. I hope this time I fully answered his valid, but tough questions. And I hope he would appreciate, accommodate, and understand!