Sunday, May 29, 2005

Too Much Preaching, Too Little Teaching!

Dr. Khaled Batarfi,

My favorite classmate at an American university was a Jew who was also a Communist. All my life I have heard only unfavorable things about Jews and Communists. How come my beloved friend is both and I never noticed until he himself told me?

Later, I befriended Jews and Communists and found them friendly, compassionate and trustworthy.

Later on, I came to know wonderful people of other faiths and other sects. Never once have I known a bad person who “hates us and conspires to undermine our faith” as I was taught earlier in my life.

This and similar experience, like befriending Catholic and Protestant priests, a rabbi, and atheists, taught me an important lesson in life. We are all the same species. No matter what is your faith, color or race, you are basically mind, heart and soul. We could connect with a simple package of hello, a smile and a handshake.

At the same time, I felt sorry for all those who are still hostage to preachers of hate, suspicion and superiority. There are plenty of these bad apples in every faith, culture and race. In the heartland of America, Russia, Middle East, Sudan, Japan and Europe, many good people pay hand and leg for being different.

Wars, crusades and civil disturbances ensued throughout history to prove who has the super faith or is the super race. Primitive and dark-aged as it sounds, it still exists today. The conflicts among civilizations are based on fear and mistrust of the other’s intentions, as it is on interests and politics.

In a class I took during my US studies on intercultural dialogue, students discovered that even those with the best intention had deep accumulated biases and ideas that needed to be flushed out. Most discovered that they got these thoughts from family, friends, media, schools, churches, mosques, synagogues and temples.

Almost all biases were explained as reaction to perceived stands of the others. They regard their own prejudice as protective measures. (The world is a dangerous place, and enemies are out to get you. Read History. You can’t be too careful. Stick with your own, and keep a watchful eye on the conspiring others.)

Schools, media and places of worship are the main institutions we need to work on. In our case, we have a lot to do.

Our Ministry of Religious Affairs did review the records and stands of thousands of preachers and imams on its payroll. Circulars went to every imam in the Kingdom on how to deal with issues of interfaith. Many were given training courses on similar subjects.

The Ministry of Education and the Ministry of Higher Education took similar steps — all with a view to removing misconceptions about other faiths and promoting interfaith understanding. The Ministry of Information gave Saudi media hints and tips on the subject.

King Abdul Aziz Center for National Dialogue chose the topic of “The Dialogue with the Other” as the subject of the next conference, later this year. Teams of researchers are conducting workshops all over the country to debate the issue on regional bases. The better participants will be chosen to join the national conference.

Is that enough? I would say no. You can’t change a mentality, an attitude or an ideological doctrine overnight. These concepts were made over ages. A whole generation was affected. To fix all that, we need a grand strategy that deal with the roots as well as the symptoms. We need to examine the reference books and doctrines that bred the phenomenon.

The old guards of these texts and concepts must either change their mind, or be changed. Removing parts of books and sermons would help in the short term. Removing the convictions behind them will solve the problem permanently. The new National Dialogue Forum is our chance to formulate such a strategy.

Our schools need to change directions. Instead of focusing on nonpractical, nonscientific subjects, we must concentrate on science and technology. The market is full of preachers, short in teachers, full of talkers, short of workers. The future of this country can only be built on the solid concrete of science not the moving sands of ideologies.

In short, we need more teaching and less, much less preaching.

Wednesday, May 25, 2005

Problems Do Not Go Away Simply Because We Deny or Ignore Them

Dr. Khaled Batarfi,

The Indonesian press is boiling these days about alleged abuse of maids in Saudi Arabia. At the same time, they join the rest of the Muslim world in condemnation of alleged abuse of the Qur’an in US prisons of Guantanamo.

I am troubled by both accounts, since it seems both of us, Americans and Saudis, are in a state of denial. Instead of facing problems head on and dealing with their roots, we preferred the easy way out. Problems do not go away simply because we deny or ignore them. In fact, they get bigger and harder to solve.

Let’s start with our problem. Recent reports published in the Saudi press indicate disturbing trends. Thousands of foreign workers, especially maids, suffer from physical and financial maltreatment. Many work endless hours, don’t get good accommodation and meals and don’t get paid in time, or not at all. Worse is the sexual and physical abuse. It is hard to believe that a Muslim family would deprive an animal, let alone a human being, of sleep, rest and/or food. It is more disgusting to learn that helpless women in our custody are forced into sexual acts. I can’t recognize this, and find it almost impossible to believe. Still, it is happening at an alarming rate, and we should pass the denial mode and do something about it — now. One thing we can’t and shouldn’t is to cover up. Some think it is in the best of our national interest and image to solve problems case by case, in silence. We are under intensive attacks and we shouldn’t give our enemies ammunitions to accuse our religion and culture of brutality and inhumanity, they say.

Whenever a problem is aired, we deny it. If it persists, we turn the table. Instead of admitting guilt, we blame the victim, accuse them of lying and the press of misrepresentation.

Now, I am not saying that is all we do. The Ministry of Labor recently established a new department to deal with expatriates’ complaints and improve their work environment. The head of the Department for the Protection of Foreign Workers, Ahmed Al-Mansour, is given the title of deputy minister. Another, the Department for Speedier Settlement of Labor Disputes was established earlier this year and is credited for solving the cases of the five Indonesian maids who were met in Jakarta airport on their return by the Indonesian president. A safe haven is established to take care of mistreated maids. How much difference this will make? Only time will tell. But good results are already showing.

What I am saying is that we need change in our attitude toward the problem. We must acknowledge first of all that it is catastrophic. This cannot be tolerated in the Land of Islam. With such attitude we could come with effective solutions.

The first thing we should do is to improve our labor system. All expatriates should register with an authority responsible for their welfare. On their arrival, they should be given a leaflet in their own language about their rights and duties, rules and regulations, with a hotline number to call for consultation and emergency. The Department for the Protection of Foreign Workers should make random checking on them to make sure they are well treated and fairly compensated.

In case of maltreatment we should apply a harsher code of justice. Punishment should fit the crime: An eye for eye and a tooth for tooth. When an employer delays or denies his/her employed their dues, they should pay more. First-time offenders must be denied the right to have new workers for say six months. Repeated offenders lose their privilege indefinitely.

When a complaint is filed, like that of the Indonesian maid Nour Miyati, we should allow her access to lawyers and embassy representatives.

Americans should take the same attitude toward human rights issues in Guantanamo and elsewhere. Pretending all is well, fair and legitimate won’t make it so. The whole world, including American war allies, as well as US courts and human right organizations, are protesting the illegal detention and inhumane treatment of hundreds of people in custody without trial or access to lawyers since Afghanistan invasion.

The abuse of the Iraqi and Afghani prisoners show consistent patterns and indicate real problems that need to be fixed in its entirety, not denied, covered up or solved case by case.

If I may suggest solutions I would start, as in our case, with the vital need to change mentality. Approaching these issues should come from sincere recognition and appreciation of problem and serious search for solutions. Concerns about image, prestige and status should take a break. You must be humble enough to fix and correct your mistakes. “I am a Superpower” attitude won’t do.”

Same here, same there. We all need to change ways, or ... shame on us.

Sunday, May 15, 2005

Fighting Crime and Illegal Immigration

Dr. Khaled Batarfi,

The campaign against illegal immigrants is very much overdue. For decades, millions have immigrated to this country seeking economic, spiritual, and social and political asylum. Most came legally, took residence and work permits and helped us prosper. We owe them for taking this country and nation to the new age.

Many others came for the same goals, but by illegal means or with illegitimate intentions.

Millions come for pilgrimage every year and many stay over. Citizens of certain areas of the world are more likely to do so. They are mostly poor, uneducated and unskilled. Others are skillful, but weren’t fortunate enough to get contracts, or calculated it was more rewarding to work as free-lancers. Many are useful as temporary help, but in total they overwhelmed the labor market with cheap, unreliable workers.

Thousands of laborers and domestic help arrive legally to work for homes and companies. Then they leave their job because they don’t like the pay and treatment or find better offers. Many are making it their business to contact newcomers, offer them free-lance jobs with higher pay and more flexible hours outside the system. It is unfair to the sponsors who paid for their tickets, visas and other expenses. It is dangerous for the rest of us because many turn to crimes. Organized criminal activities, like theft, drug trade and prostitution, are increasingly common. Individual acts such as mugging, pickpocketing, rape and even killing are on the rise.

Shunned by the system, illegal residents concentrate on certain areas of towns. Usually, these areas are in a dismal state. They lack proper infrastructure, public services and security. Visit there and you feel like you are in a different world. Residents have no access to educational and health facilities. Gangs rule in the absence of law and order.

In some places, people live for generations outside the system. They are neither Saudis, nor legal residents. Many have lost their original ID documents. They can’t get work permits or provide their families with proper schooling, training and medical services. Without good skills and legal status they have to survive one way or another. Some do temporary jobs; others don’t feel obliged to work hard for a society they consider hostile. Beside, taking higher risks gives richer rewards, especially considering they don’t have much to lose in any case.

In the last few years, the rise in crime was indicative of the worsening economic situation of some ethnic groups. Many were encouraged by the weak visa restrictions, improving economy, and the distraction of security forces with the campaign against terrorism. As more and more get away uncaught, others were encouraged to follow suit. Something had to be done ... soon to arrest or regularize the status of hundreds of thousands of illegal immigrants.

In the last three weeks the campaign against crime started in earnest. In Jeddah, Makkah and Riyadh, military and civilian authorities cooperated in the crackdown. On good intelligence work, teams of special police and civil defense forces in tandem with municipality and passport representatives moved into hitherto off-limit areas. Thousands of thieves, prostitutes, fake doctors, drug sellers, black magicians and illegal residents were taken into custody. Convicted foreigners will be punished, then deported to their home countries, put on the black list and won’t be allowed in under any excuse and disguise. That is justice. That is right.

But what is not justice or right is to mistreat prisoners or deny them their due legal and human rights. We need to make sure that prison space is available, stay is comfortable and the whole situation is monitored by independent agencies, like the Saudi Human Rights Society.

We, especially the media need to be extra careful not to stereotype, generalize or categorize on racial lines. In Islam there is no guilt by association. Allah says: No soul shall be punished for the sin of another. No race is better than the other and the best of us are the better in deed and character, not blood or color. In the Land of Islam and the two holiest mosques, racism cannot be tolerated. Hate speech about Africans, Asians, and others must not be printed. News stories and headlines about the issue must be treated with sensitivity.

The message should be clear to all: We won’t tolerate crimes, or illegal work and residency. But we are a civilized Muslim nation and we will assure that only the offenders are punished — justly and humanly.

I would also call for expediting the status correction of long-term illegal residents, as Governor of Makkah Region, Prince Abdul Majeed promised. This way, we could tap the huge pool of local, Arabic-speaking, culture-savvy laborers to replace millions of foreigners in low-paid, menial jobs.

Simultaneously we should tighten our visa requirements as well as our border security to prevent illegal crossovers. We might not achieve 100 percent results, but we should make 100 percent effort — all the time.

Sunday, May 08, 2005

Saudi Liberals and Election Lessons

Dr. Khaled Batarfi,

There are many lessons to be learned from the first Saudi municipal elections in decades.
One of the most important is the state of our nation’s consciousness.
It has been difficult in the past to gauge the mindset of the majority. In the absence of scientific research, the answers depended largely on whom you talk to. Islamists would tell you this is a conservative Muslim nation. In the Land of Islam, home to the two holiest mosques, there is no place for liberalism and secularism.
The liberals would advise you to ignore the vocal minority of extremists. Most people, they contend, are fed up with the conservative message and influence but are afraid to alienate them. Given a chance, those people will want to be set free of religious influence and control.
People like myself always felt that the majority is with neither side. Islam is the “religion of balance” as the Qur’an and the Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him) told us. We are not to go extreme either way, lest we lose our track and leave the realm of Islam, as the Prophet advised.
To be a good Muslim doesn’t mean living in a cave, isolated from the world, and hostile to others, and to anything we don’t understand or are not used to. We work for our day like we live forever, and for the hereafter like we die tomorrow.
We always felt that extremists on both sides hijacked our voice and identity, and we urged both to come closer to where we stand — in the middle.
Observers heard these arguments for ages and wondered what exactly was the case. In the last few months, we all had a look at the truth. It isn’t perfect, it isn’t whole, it isn’t comprehensive, but it is more scientific and closer than any other measurement of what Saudis stand for.
Here we are looking at a parade of candidates representing all walks of life. Some are right-wingers, some on the left. Some were tribals, merchants, professionals, and bureaucrats, highly educated, ignorant, rich and poor. Extremists of all hues were present as well. So, who won when the people finally spoke? Let’s have a look at the winners’ background in the biggest cosmopolitan cities, Jeddah and Riyadh; the ultra conservative Buraidah; and the holy cities, Makkah and Madinah.
The winners in all these towns have something in common. All are well educated, many in Western universities. Most are hard-working middle class, with a good record in community service, well before the elections were on the horizon. They have no known connection to ultra conservative organizations but they are no liberals. In fact, most are moderately conservative, like the rest of us. They, like us, are Muslims, not Islamists. We, Muslims, subscribe to a religion of tolerance, civility and decency, treating others the way as we wish they treat us. Unlike us, Islamists are politically motivated and run on global agendas.
As in secular Turkey and Bahrain, people chose candidates with good credentials. They are capable, professional and good Muslims. To be a good Muslim is to work hard, act decent and deal clean. Ethics are not exclusive to Muslims, but the religious tend to be more ethical. The combination of professionalism, hard work and high principles produces a wonderful team of highly motivated and productive officials, as the Turkish experiment proved. After decades of corruption and weak performance, the Turkish economy engine is humming like never before. Corruption and inflation are way down while the growth is exceeding European rates.
The lesson here is: Saudi people are moderate, wise and mature. They listened to all, heard from all, but when they chose they chose well. We ignored the self-serving, deep-pocketed candidates who thought they could buy their way to glory. We passed on those with ideological agendas, left and right. And we especially ignored the out-of-touch liberals, who arrogantly thought they could lead from high and above.
From the high stools of their saloons “diwanias”, newspaper columns, satellite TV, radio, university and corporations they thought their message captivated the public consciousness and imagination. On the day of judgment, they shockingly and suddenly found that they didn’t. People didn’t feel liberals represent them, couldn’t trust them, and wouldn’t vote for them.
This is made clearer in contrast. The “golden list” of candidates endorsed by eleven Muslim scholars won by a huge margin. While the unorganized liberals were busy fighting among their ego-inflated selves about positions and intellectual platforms, the conservative candidates and their supporters were busy talking to the grass roots about earthly issues and real concerns.
The lessons are many and the message is clear. The questions are who would better learn from them, and who would continue to ignore ... and lose.

Sunday, May 01, 2005

Elections and the Golden Lists

Dr. Khaled Batarfi,

What is going on? Why are losers of the first municipal elections in decades protesting? What do you think of the “golden lists” of candidates endorsed by a number of popular Islamic scholars and preachers?
I was asked those questions by some foreign friends who are closely following the developments in Saudi Arabia.
In a meeting attended by some members of Jeddah’s “Golden List” and their opponents, I listened to arguments from both parties. List members were defending the right of eleven Islamists to endorse seven candidates out of over five hundred. This is after all a lesson in democracy and endorsement of candidates is one legitimate way of playing the game, they argued. Besides, how can we have freedom of expression if people cannot express their support for one candidate or the other?
The opponents ask: How can we compete and why should we if certain candidates are already guaranteed to win? On what basis those scholars chose the lucky seven? When they say certain candidates are good Muslims, what that make the rest of us? Besides, the rules prohibit getting support from any government employee. Some of the endorsers work for the government. Not only they publicly endorsed the candidates, but they also participated in their campaign programs and activities with sermons and lectures. It is also against the rules for candidates to coordinate with each other.
Those complaints were filed with the concerned authorities. But there were no evidence to support the allegations of material support from government employees and coordination among list members. After consultation with experts and Saudi Telecom, it was not possible to establish that candidates and endorsers were responsible for the broadcast of the Golden List. Members of conservative websites published the lists. Others distributed them by e-mail and SMS messages. It wasn’t against the rules for scholars to participate in campaign programs or endorse candidates.
When it was my turn, I explained that endorsement is a citizen’s right in a democracy. In the States, for example, a group of distinguished economists may support the president in his re-election campaign. Another group of corporate executives or religious leaders might support his opponent. Even newspapers could endorse one party or another.
The electorate needs this kind of advice to help them choose from among hundreds of candidates. Without that, they might lose interest or choose the more familiar names. Those with the deeper pockets are usually the winners in this case. Ads and other campaign activities cost more than 100 million riyals in Jeddah alone.
The Islamists took the initiative and produced a list. The question is why the others didn’t. I expected groups like former mayors, engineers, university professors in related fields and other opinion leaders to come up with a list each. The public, then, will find it much easier to choose among endorsed lists.
What were missing in the Golden List are the bases for the recommendations. In the Golden List case the only reason given was the endorsed were “good Muslims” and competent individuals. Those are vague terms that can be said of many.
Why the public would comply with a set list without much questioning is another story. This is the story of a generation taught not to argue with authority whether in homes, schools, or mosques. Children blindly obey parents; students study only schoolbooks, and believers take their imams’ teachings as final. That is why we are very much behind in scientific research. You need to have a free mind and spirit to be creative and adventurer. Faithfully following the script will help us maintain the status quo, but will never help us move ahead.
This slavish, lazy, dependent mentality and attitude explain why most people didn’t bother to do proper investigation of candidates. On Election Day they just turned on their mobiles, copied the names sent to them, and declared their conscience clear.
That being said, we must admit that the chosen candidates are some of the most capable. They are highly educated. All are university graduates. Three hold Ph.D. Four are Western-educated. Three are educators. Four work for the public sector and three for the private. Most have good records in community service. They worked hard and spent wise. Their campaigns were run professionally and efficiently. They spoke the common man’s language, and addressed real concerns and vital issues. Their credibility was high even before the endorsement by religious scholars. They deserve to win.
These are good lessons to learn for future elections. Another is that liberalism doesn’t sell in Saudi Arabia. Even in Jeddah, the most liberal town in the country, the electorate listened to their sheikhs and trusted conservatives. Western-minded Saudi liberals should know that Islam is in the DNA of every Saudi, and that’s a fact of life.