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!

Sunday, July 24, 2005

Expatriate Workers and Us!

Dr. Khaled Batarfi

“You don’t know how it feels to be a foreigner in this country, unless you live like one. It is unbearable!” said my Arab scuba diving trainer. I was shocked and since then, I have become more sensitive and observant. Sad to say, he was right. I tell you why.

Before the oil boom of the late ’70s, we lived more like a normal society. We had our rich, middle class and poor, Saudis and non-Saudis, educated and less educated. Mostly, we lived in harmony.

I remember those days with fondness because of all my schoolmates who came from all over the world, Arabs and non-Arabs. It didn’t matter then who came from where. In fact, we were fascinated by the stories students from India, Africa and other Arab countries told us about their homelands.

I remember how my Egyptian friends were proud of the land of the Nile and great pyramids, and the wonderful picture they made of Cairo, the heart of the Arab world. I remember my Eritrean friend when he insisted with an edge of anger and pride that we pronounce his homeland’s name correctly. And I remember all the stories I heard from my Iraqi teacher and my father’s Jordanian and Yemeni, Lebanese and Pakistani friends about their countries and heritages.

In the society I lived in before the oil boom, we were more in tune with all the others. My American and English neighbors, boys and girls, played with me and my Arab friends in the streets and visited me at home.

I still remember, with fondness, an old American friend I used to sit with for hours every afternoon discussing politics and religion. I was a child then with limited English vocabulary, but he was kind enough to discuss such serious issues with much patience and respect. I enjoyed and learned a lot from my dialogue with him and my Christian Lebanese neighbor who rented with her husband and kids half our house.

Those golden days are by and large gone now. The boom showered us with lots of money, prestige and pride. Within few years our society changed a lot. The “rich-middle-class-poor” divides were now gone. The ladder to the roof became an elevator. One day you hardly survive. The next morning your old, crumbling home is sold for millions and you can employ the same people who employed you.

Foreigners came in their millions. Most worked in labor jobs Saudis no longer desired. Lazy generation, accustomed to maids and servants, ruled. Newly enriched and empowered parents and society taught them that: We should act like kings. We are the chosen ones and the rest of the world is here to serve us. We owe them nothing but salaries and they owe us gratitude, loyalty and respect. With our cash we could buy the world, and no one could ever be good enough to buy us.

Capitalism, consumerism, materialism, and other ills of modern times are now our ills too. What you wear, ride and use in your daily life became a measure of your worth.

This also applies to the others. Foreigners from poorer parts of the world do not enjoy the same respect and admiration we give citizens from richer and more advanced countries. Westerners, for example, enjoy much more privileges than Easterners and Africans, including most Arabs, except from the richer Gulf region.

I believe the mentality that governs our complex relations, official and private, with our guest workers and outsiders is in a great part a product of this set of materialistic measurement of people’s worth. A European is given much more respect and work compensation than Easterners with similar or better qualifications. An Irish nurse, for example, is treated like a queen, while a more qualified Arab, Indian or Filipino is not.

Other influential factors are ideological, cultural, educational and racial. In sharp contradiction to Islamic teachings, some extremists managed to ideologically justify their sense of “unjustified” superiority. I read a book of a senior Islamic scholar who glorified the super pure Arab race of the Arabian Peninsula. He concludes that we should not marry from other races lest our noble blood mixes with the less worthy. I wrote in response that Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him) married a non-Arab, a Christian and a Jew. Does that mean his children are less pure than yours? The Sheikh never answered in public, but tried to meet in private. I refused.

Sunday, July 17, 2005

What Options Do We Have?

Dr. Khaled Batarfi,

When the TV show “Who Wants to be a Millionaire” hit Arab TV screens it was enormously popular. A major reason, in my opinion, was the show gave options. For an Arab nation that has been deprived of the right to choose, it was refreshing and exciting.

As a child, I was taught to accept what is taught and given without protest. You eat what is on the table, dress like everyone else, go with the family where the elders choose to, study in the school you are put in. In class and mosque you don’t ask questions, except for clarification.

Teachers and preachers tell you exactly how it is, and you got to believe. The books are similar. They echo what you learn from media, education and religious institutions — the same message, different messengers. To succeed you learn to follow instructions, memorize texts, and stay “in line”.

At home and in social gatherings, kids listen and learn but are not allowed to speak up or argue. The wise ones are the silent, because “if talk is silver, silence is golden.”

Fathers, tribal sheikhs, teachers, preachers, and leaders don’t have to explain their instructions if they choose not to. “The sheikhs know better,” is another golden rule.

My father was an intellectual who gave me the right to think for myself, but I was careful not to embarrass him in public. When he was not around, I did ask hard questions.

When I went to British and American schools, the quality of being “maverick” worked well for me. Teachers appreciated my questioning nature and encouraged my independent thinking. Not so in some immigrant Arabic settings.

Elders in the small Arab community of Eugene, Oregon, were groomed in our culture before they immigrated to the West. They expected respect and obedience. Questions were allowed but they had to be “polite.” Rude questions implied you didn’t believe or subscribe to their school of thought or they were wrong or mistaken. What options do I have, then? I kept asking myself all my life, and especially these days.

We don’t choose what paths our countries are heading to, what doctrine our systems are based on, what curriculums we study, what “madhabs” we follow, and what fatwas we accept. Try going your own way and you are in for trouble. Conformity is holy, and those who don’t conform pay a price. They will be ostracized.

A writer called recently for a referendum on women driving. I told him that the majority has no right to deprive the rest of us of our human rights. Women may decide to cover their face because they subscribe to a certain school of thought or follow certain traditions. That’s their right. But when they try to impose it on others they infringe on their rights. The same can be said about working and studying in a mixed environment. There are people who believe they should be more conservative than others. We disagree on that, but respect their stand. What we don’t accept is for them to enforce their choice on us.

Many believe we don’t need to teach English in elementary schools. That’s up to them and their kids. But it drives me crazy when they demand that no other kids take such classes.

What options do I have if I could only go to schools that teach the “one and only,” made-for-all curriculum? Why only foreigners can go to locally based international schools? Why followers of other madhabs can only study in our schools, try in our courts, and read our books?

Why can’t I read what I wish to read? Why people who belong to certain ideologies decide for the rest of us what books are allowed, even in academic libraries? Why can’t followers of other faiths practice their religions without let or hindrance? Don’t we do the same in their countries?

What we need in the Arab world is more choices, freedoms, and options. After decades of progress in education, the Arab nation is mature enough to decide for itself. Women and minorities can and should be allowed the basic human right of choosing what suit them, as long as it doesn’t contradict the standard rules of Islam as agreed by the Islamic Fiqh Council.

Without the freedom to choose we can never have the motives, space and environment for creativity.

Without creativity we will never be strong, independent and leading. In a deadly competitive world based on science and technology that’s a death sentence

Sunday, July 10, 2005

Our Women vs. Our Image!

Dr. Khaled Batarfi,

Women issues have always been hot buttons in Saudi Arabia, just as abortion is in America and immigration in Europe. You push a button and receive instant passionate responses. I wrote a couple of articles about women under stress and heard from so many.

Most respondents agreed with my position, some have interesting perspectives. Few Westerners sound like “how lucky we are to live in a civilized world. What a pity you don’t!” Muslims, especially women, are happy we opened the files, but some are concerned that the stigma might be attached to Islam rather than to misbehaving Muslims.

Saudis who appose my stands seem to be of two minds. No one justifies domestic violence. Many would readily recite Qur’an and the Prophet Muhammad’s (peace be upon him) positions in women’s favor. But here the agreement ends. When it comes to women rights different cultures produce different stands. Tribal and rural traditions, for example, may contradict urban customs.

Take women driving, for example. Bedouin females do drive their cars, because their environment demands it. Urban women, on the other hand, are not allowed. No one claims Islam prohibits it. They do however cite fears and concerns that women driving may compromise Islamic and social values. Women, they say, need to be guarded all the time. Not only are they “treasures” and easy target that may be attacked by the wolves of this world, they are also weak creatures that can’t be trusted. The latter explains why many women are patronized at all stages of their lives. Like children, they maybe loved, adored and well taken care of, but not trusted to decide for themselves. Worse, some don’t trust a woman with emotions, ethics and character. They suspect that she would fall for all kinds of temptation, sexual, intellectual, material and otherwise.

Some of those people are religious. But when you tell them how women were treated in the era of the Prophet and the caliphs, they tell you those were different times. Corruption and modern temptations are rampant and one cannot be too careful. Why women? Because they are the heart of modern decadence. Look around you, they advise, and see how women are reduced to a sexual commodity. They would readily give you global rates of divorce, illegitimate children, rape and other forms of violence and exploitation. The only way to preserve our society and culture is to keep our women safe at home, they argue.

Other Saudis who disagree with my position would agree with them in private but are afraid of the stigma. They expect Western campaigns against Islam and Saudi Arabia would use such self-revelations and criticism to bolster their case and intensify their attacks. They readily argue that mistreatment of women is not a Saudi specialty and give you figures to show worse cases of abuse and exploitation in America and Europe. So, why us?

My Friend Ed, an American Jew, agreed: This category of human relations is not limited to Saudi Arabia; far from it. It exists in parts of the Western world as well, hidden and exposed. Slamming Islam is totally wrong and irresponsible; some folks enjoy each and every opportunity to belittle Muslims. This has been going on for centuries and we never seem to grow up and be respectful. However, the rights of women are integral to a humanistic society and this is a universal caveat. Nick, a British Middle East observer, disagrees: Argument about image and comparison is often heard in the region. In the US and Europe there is indeed the same problems. But they are discussed in the media; there are civil organizations to support women and very stringent laws against those men who abuse women. This is not an issue about image.

An American friend wrote: The problem of abusing women is indeed universal. What needs discussion is what are the protections available to women faced with abuse. Can a woman get a restraining order easily? Will the police come to her aid or hesitate to interfere in a family matter? Are there shelters waiting for her and her children if she has no family who will take her in? Are laws supportive of her right to live without abuse or do the laws encourage her husband (or father or brother) to blackmail her into remaining in a private hell to provide food, shelter and education for her children?

Many Saudi women are blessed with kind, loving, respectful husbands who know the value of a good woman, helpmate and foundation for the family. The question is where are the laws to protect those who don’t? My stand is: We should work on our problems without worrying about who thinks what of us. The fair and wise will know we are doing the right thing. The unfair and unwise will criticize us anyway. Meanwhile, half the population starves for justice.

Monday, July 04, 2005

Battered Wives and Women Under Stress

Dr. Khaled Batarfi,

My last article “Justice for Women: Some Urgent Steps” generated many positive and passionate responses. Huda, my niece, for instance, decried the way countless women are denied marriage to men of their choice. They are pressured to marry relatives or from rich and well-connected families.

Too many parents ignore Islam’s instructions to let their girls choose. This is a symptom of how they regard women as incapable of deciding for themselves. A girl, they fear, would go for a handsome, romantic suitor rather than a solid man of character, achievement and position.

When life becomes hell for wives, they have to endure it because no one — judge and society — would accept their grounds for divorce. Psychological satisfaction is not good enough of a reason for separation in lots of courts of law and public opinion.

Many divorced women are brutally punished. They take most of the blame for the marriage’s failure. While a man, especially with no kids, can remarry a woman of his choice, his divorced wife hardly can. The stigma of being a divorcee limits her choices and timeline. In lots of cases, she goes from one prison to another. This and the risk of losing her kid’s custody force many abused wives to stay the course. A hell you know, they figure, is better than the one you don’t.

Needless to say, this should not be tolerated in an Islamic society. Prophet Muhammad, peace be upon him, told us that the best of us are the kindest to their women. He set a great example in the way he treated his women with respect, love and kindness. His first wife, Khadija, was also his boss. His young wife, Aisha was his consultant in matters of politics and governance. We are supposed to follow his example to be Muslims, so why we don’t?

Here is a sample of the best response:

“As I read this, I thought of a young Saudi lady who has struggled with similar issues. Although she was fortunate to have a family who finally recognized the depth of her despair/abuse and allowed her to return home with the child, she now faces the stigma of being a divorced woman and the associated restrictions attached by society.

In particular, her movements are continually watched and she is under pressure to remarry another of any number of older suitors. One can only imagine the stress and duress she finds herself in at the moment on a daily basis.

Of course, when one considers a younger male of closer proximity in age and hopefully, more compatible in interests, problems arise there as well due to the stigma of “divorce”. Sadly, the girl feels the only freedom available to her is another marriage, but to whom?

Naturally, her experience has given her a level of maturity beyond her age — a maturity others of her age cannot even begin to comprehend. In essence, this young lady feels trapped by life’s circumstances.

There is so much more that Saudi society can do and give to their precious females — the benefits of which would be felt by all of society.

However, it will take many strong courageous voices standing together to be heard, and with the reminder that these humane changes are within Islam and present no moral degradation of society.

I tell my young friend that she is strong and that I pray for her to maintain her strength and courage to face life as it is before her. I encourage her to ensure that her actions always include her own prayers to seek guidance and strength from God. Although not related by blood, she became my daughter through a deeper kinship while I resided in KSA. My heart aches for her.” — Mary

“Domestic violence is a prevalent crime being committed against women not just in Saudi Arabia but in numerous Muslim countries. From the well known Mukhtaran Mai case in Pakistan to last year’s headlining case of Saudi Rania Al-Baaz to Karachi’s Dr. Siddiqi’s brutal assault and so many more DV cases against so many helpless women. We should be ashamed as Muslims for not speaking up against this! Women, specially caring and devoted mothers, are national treasures and future makers, as it is mostly under their nurturing new generations are made.” — Your Sister in Islam

“We just cannot keep quiet and let such “criminal acts” continue. Justice cannot be denied and severe punishments must be dealt to stop those who claim to be Muslims and abuse their wives. Prevalent violence against women is becoming a phenomenon that might turn into a habit if we don’t take appropriate actions.” — Khalid Al-Mutairi

I hear you sisters and brothers and pray the whole nation hears you and does something about this disgraceful phenomenon.