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.