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.

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