Sunday, April 16, 2006

It Is Time for New Saudi-US Bridges

Dr. Khaled Batarfi

Communication is both art and science. You may be born with the gift, but you need to work on it. Certain tools that come with education and experience are needed. You should know what you are talking about and whom you are talking to, master the language preferred by your audience, and prepare well with information and training.
We all need good communicators. You need to sell your convictions, products, and messages to all kinds of people at all levels for so many purposes. At home, shop and government, whether you are selling a new budgetary system, a new toothbrush or a political candidate, good communication skills are essential.
Saudis and Americans found themselves in dire need of outstanding communicators after Sept. 11, 2001. Unfortunately, there was shortage of such talent on both sides. Somehow, we couldn’t communicate well for many years. Things are improving, but still ... a lot needs to be done before we declare victory.
Needless to say, we were totally taken by surprise. In the beginning, we, Saudis, couldn’t believe that some of our own committed such horrible and sophisticated crime. We were stuck in the denial mode for too long.
Some still are. This cost us very precious time. By the moment we moved, it was almost too late to repair the damage, let alone improve the image of our nation, culture and people. Our enemies, on both sides, used the stall to further the damage and their agenda. Religious radicals, Christian, Jewish and Muslim, crossed interests and locked moves to break all bridges between Islam and the West, Saudi and American.
Where have all of us, Saudi and Americans, gone wrong? First, we should have seen it coming — not necessarily at the same magnitude. The omens were plenty. Radicalism on all sides was increasing. Israel was pushing the envelope. Peace projects — UN-sanctioned, US-guaranteed deals — were ignored. Arab and Muslim anger was boiling.
From our ivory towers, we were watching. Some of us tried to understand. Many were happy with their packaged explanations. Little was done to contain the phenomena. Our priorities were different. Economic woes, domestic politics and other distractions took our eyes away from the ball. When it finally hit us, we were poorly prepared to act — except in anger. Our actions were actually reactions. Our audience was mostly domestic.
Second, we were in the denial mode for too long. This is natural human behavior, but hardly wise. When faced with an ugly truth, we tend to disbelieve, refuse admittance, and return fire with fire: Criticism with criticism, accusations with accusations. Lots of valuable time and effort are wasted in the process. In the meanwhile, the bad guys are working round the clock to boost their gains and increase our losses.
Third, in time of perceived danger, people tend to ignore their differences and stick together. Right or wrong, they retreat to the siege mentality. In such a mode, no mistake is admitted, and not even an inch is given away. That might be understandable or excusable, if, at least, you search your soul then admit and fix your problems. Staying the course, no matter how wrong, is suicidal.
Still, it is not too late. Communication, in my opinion, is the key. We started in the last couple of years to build and rebuild some bridges. To increase the momentum and speed up the pace, we should improve our tools.
We come from different cultures and speak different languages, but that is a challenge, not an obstacle.
Many Saudis studied in America, and many Americans worked in Saudi Arabia. They lived in their host countries for years, made friends, explored the culture, and some even intermarried.
Most feel depressed about the post-9/11 state of our relations. They are fired and ready to do something about it. All we need is some training, organization and support.
Let’s imagine we start some sort of Saudi-US friends clubs here and there, link them tighter, and provide them with channels and avenues to communicate with media and public.
Sponsored visits, conferences, visitor and student exchange programs and so many other activities and events can spring out and spread around. In time, we will win, because, when given a choice, people prefer peace and cooperation to hate and confrontation. This is especially true when the storms of anger and confusion pass, as they did. It is now time for reflection, reassessment, repair and reconnection. It is now time for educated, enlightened, well-thought and organized action. It is now time for the good guys to prevail.

A Tale of Three Cities

Dr. Khaled Batarfi
Dr. Basim is a prominent Saudi lawyer. At one time he worked for the World Bank in New York. We all envied him. What a position he held in the capital of capitals of world capitalism!
But then he suddenly returned and sat a law firm in Jeddah. Now don't get me wrong; I expect our brightest to come back home after they finish their studies abroad. We need them. But for a Saudi to represent us in such a great institution is an honor to be upheld.
Thinking he was just homesick, I was critical. He should have stayed longer to get more experience and prominence, I told him.
It wasn't homesickness that brought me back, he calmly explained. "One day I was hurrying down a Manhattan street on my way home. Then I realized that there was no reason to hurry. I had no family waiting for me, no date or appointment and wasn't hungry. I slowed down and was pushed over by the guy behind. He was cursing at the sudden slowness. When I asked him why the hurry, he was disgusted. Only oldies, handicapped and tourists would walk the way I did, he snapped.
I put my back to the wall and stopped to watch the human traffic. It was 5.30 p.m, and most people seemed, just like me, on their way home. They all hurried. They all ran. Why? I asked myself. Because that is the rhythm of life in New York. We chase our tails to survive.
We run in vicious circles, until it becomes the norm. You compete with yourself if you don't have a competition.
Do I need this? Can I survive with a slower rhythm of life? Not in such a capitalist city, I decided. Then and there I realized I must go home."
In three weeks I had been to three different cities. London, a favorite of mine, showed me how we can be modern, capitalist and preserve a unique culture, all at the same time.
Dubai, tries hard to follow on the same footsteps. Problem is, like most Gulf states or cities, they jumped from tents to towers without the necessary progressing trip in between.
Then I went to Tunis. Even though a French colony for centuries, they progressed much earlier. Still, they haven't gone down as far in the capitalism and consumerism road as have London and Dubai.
The rhythm there was refreshingly relaxed. I spent most of my money in seawater and mineral springs spas-much less in the elegant but relatively few, small and expensive shops and malls.
The Tunisian heritage is very much preserved. The social life is largely intact, even in cities. People are going about their lives with much easier breath. They have plenty of time to chat with you on the street, to take you home for dinner or to sit with you at a cafe for sweets and a cup of tea.
Here, in Jeddah, where I live, things are changing ... fast. Malls are erupting everywhere. Materialism and consumerism, symptoms of free market and capitalism, are gaining ground even with conservatives. More and more, we measure people and achievements by numbers rather than merit. Less and less we find time to reflect, enjoy our gifts of family and friends and take breaks.
It doesn't have to be one way or another. We don't have to live in tents or work half a day. We don't have to live in jungles of cements and asphalt, either. What we need is a balance. Once we decided on that, we could formulate a vision-as a nation and as individuals. Our cities, our homes, our lives could be built upon that.
One thing we can't afford: To rush down the road without an objective, without a plan, without even a map.

The French Approach to Muslim Discontent

Dr. Khaled Batarfi
France has been a strong supporter of Arab causes after King Faisal’s state visit and crucial meeting with President Charles de Gaulle days before the 1967 Arab-Israeli War.

France’s stand against the war on Iraq and the larger US-led campaign to fight terror with terror won it lots of credit in the Arab and Muslim world. However, the pretty image was stained lately by a couple of major events: The law prohibiting hijab in public schools, and the recent riots in its poor Muslim neighborhoods. Both exposed the deep-rooted racism toward the French of Arab origin and Muslim background. As public polls showed, most French applauded the hijab ban and don’t think highly of their Muslim fellow citizens. This hurts.

Dr. Pascal Boniface is the founder and director of the Institute for International and Strategic Relations. He is also a consultant on strategic issues for the French defense and foreign departments.

I met him recently with members of the International Relations Committee of the Jeddah Chamber of Commerce and Industry.

He was mostly on the defensive during our exchange. The majority of French people, he insisted, are not racist. Only a small minority thinks of Islam as a problem and considers French Muslims inferior. The hijab issue was taken out of context and blown out of proportion. Most French believe in multicultural and multiracial secular society. In fact that is why they supported the hijab law!!

On the recent riots, he advised not to believe the American media. Yes, a majority of the rioters happened to be Muslims; the rest were black. But the issue was about social problems, not Islam. Solutions are on the way to address all causes of discontent, like unemployment, inequality and racism.

I asked: If Muslims form 10 percent of the population, what is their representation among decision-makers in all branches of power, including the media? And are they consulted when it comes to decisions affecting their lives?

To be honest, he said, Muslims are not represented well in the corridors of power. When Boniface was a professor in the university, few Muslims were among his students. Most joined the workforce as soon as they finished high school if not earlier. Poverty might be a reason, but there might be other causes.

The same absence can be noted among the elite. This is a real problem that needs to be addressed, urgently. Boniface said the French authorities are working on quick fixes for the social problems that produced such anger and unhappiness among the Muslim population. But we also need to look at the larger picture and work at the strategic level, he said. In a way, the riots were a blessing in disguise. Now, no one can ignore the obvious and delay actions any more. The danger is clear and present to all.

Consultations are going on with the leaders of the Muslim community on how to face radicalism and fanaticism. The same debate is going on in the elite circles. Intellectuals and experts are looking at ways to give more education, empowerment and representation to all minorities, especially the biggest, Muslims. Actions are already being taken, Boniface said. In the next election, for example, Muslims figure in the list of liberal candidates. One of them is already heading a list. In public TV and media, we are looking for better representation. Muslim and black producers, actors and presenters should get more and better opportunities. Now we have Muslim scholars appearing on public TV. More windows of opportunities are on the way ... soon.

But of course these steps are not without resistance, Boniface conceded. As you know, there are groups who feel that greater presence means stronger influence. In a democracy, governments can’t just take actions without considering all voices and opinions. Let’s hope that justice and sensibility prevail. It is high time we gave Muslims fair representation in education, government and media.

I wrote last week about how the British try to solve the problems of their Muslim minority in cooperation with Islamic councils. Meeting with Dr. Boniface was a good opportunity to check what is going on on the other side of the Match Canal.

We all have minority issues. The first step is to come out clean about them. We can’t solve a problem no matter how small if we don’t admit its existence. Thorough study must follow, involving all concerned parties, giving them equal access and respect.

Solutions are mere paperwork if not executed. This is the hardest part and it needs a strong and determined leadership to work it out.

There is no simple solution to complex problems. But the easiest and most obvious first is to communicate with the right people, the right way. Great ideas and thoughts will flow from there.

Wise British Moves to Tackle Domestic Radicalism

Dr. Khaled M. Batarfi
What distinguishes the experienced former empires from the new immature ones is wisdom. The wise do not act on instinct. They thoroughly investigate before they make a finding, then fully analyze before they formulate a judgment. They do hit and miss, like the rest of us, but they self-correct when they find out.

The British always strike me as wise. They have known through their long colonial history how to make the best of what they had. Of the many lessons they learnt and taught is don't jump to conclusion, don't burn bridges you may need to use, and don't sour your words less you have to eat them.

After 9-11, they made a strategic decision to ally themselves with the Americans in what came to be known as the War on Terror. They tried to moderate lots of decisions but at the end they dutifully followed in US steps, and did what they felt they had to do.

Still, their actions were always calculated to maximize benefit and minimize loss. Their profits from Iraqi contracts are high; while their domestic troubles in the areas they rule are low. They tried understanding, respect and self-discipline. Relatively speaking, they made many successes in their management of post war Iraq.

Domestically, they were wise in their relations with Arab and Muslim communities. Even after the metro bombings of 7-7, their reactions were reasonably moderate. Arab and Muslim phobia was kept at minimum. Their relations with local Islamic communities were of cooperation not confrontation. From the Royal family to the Prime Minister to concerned government officials and most media editors there were a good level of understanding and appreciation of the situation.

I just came from an organized visit to London. The Foreign Office took us, three Saudi journalists and writers, to meet with a number of officials in governmental and non-governmental organizations dealing with interfaith relations. They explained to us how they try to make sense of the participation in the metro attacks of second generation, educated and clean-record young Muslim citizens.

Instead of relying on paranoid police tactics, they went to Muslim leaders and asked for assistance. A number of councils were created to study the phenomenon. They thoroughly and patiently studied the political, social, economic and religious dimensions. The study is not over yet, almost a year after the attack, but many recommendations are already implemented. Social, educational, racial and religious discrimination that produced unemployed, unqualified and unhappy generation are now being tackled.

According to Tony Heal of the Faith Communities Unit in the Interior Ministry, many corrective steps are taken to insure better schooling, fairer treatment, and higher representation in government including the police and other security agencies.

Further wise steps include screening local and foreign imams. All had to get approval from recognized Muslim councils. Foreign and visiting imams must speak fluent English to get visas. The Council monitors mosques for immoderate teaching and radical views. They encourage the public to collaborate with the government and the Council in fighting radicalism and terrorism by avoiding and reporting suspicious activities.

All the people I met, and they were many, agreed that there are valid reasons for the problem. No one claims that terrorism is an illegal import. The relation between Al-Qaeda and the attackers is minimized, while the focus is mostly on the provoking policies like the war on Iraq and the perceived crusade against Islam and Muslims. They asked us and many others for advice and encouraged us to criticize, analyze and recommend. In searching for accurate answers you have to act humble, respectful, keen and sincere. Our hosts certainly did.

Those are wise and positive steps. Communicating, even with your enemies, is the only way to find out the whys and hows of their actions. Nobody sacrifices his life to punish the people he hates just for fun. Regardless of the validity of their anger, your enemies must have a reason. Finding out the correct answers is the first step towards understanding and resolution.

Such steps do tend to be tedious and last longer. They won’t satisfy public anger or make a leader instantly popular, but … they are the right thing to do.
I salute those who are working hard and smart on this problem. I hope the rest of us do the "same thing", the "same way."

Do We Need Al-Hiaa?

Dr. Khaled M. Batarfi
Members of the Human Rights Committee are visiting Sheikh Algaith President of the Commission for the Prevention of Vice and Promotion of Virtue (known as Hiaa) to check some disturbing complaints.
According to Ms. Suhaila Zein Alabedeen, The newly-found nongovernmental organization is checking stories of human rights abuse by zealot commission members.

Cases include beating, imprisonment and verbal abuse of innocent couples because of unfounded suspicions of improper relations. Others complain that the commission members hunt for such relations in family sections of public places. If single men are not allowed into these areas why these members are the exception? they protest. Many were taken from malls, restaurants and streets just because they couldn't prove they were relatives.

A South African nurse was caught in a supermarket with her Lebanese boyfriend. Both were Christians shopping for Xmas. The "Hiaa" put them in its private prison for 14 days. Both were denied phone calls and access to their lawyers, embassies and companies.
It took their relatives and friends a couple of weeks to find and bail them out.

A Filipino maid with her husband and infant were caught in another market for similar suspicion. Even though the husband proved their relations, his wife was kept in prison and he was let out with the infant. A prison officer insisted she should return to her sponsor not husband. She left her sponsor because he had not given her a single salary for six months. Apparently, this wasn't enough reason to let her go, so the husband's lawyer enlisted the help of the Human Rights Commission and the media. Prince Salman, the Governor of Riyadh intervened and ordered her release.

A Saudi Doctor with his sister was leaving the market with a couple of traveling bags when an angry Hiaa member approached them. Why, he wanted to know, was the lady half covering her hair, and that under her abaya the lower parts of her legs were not covered. (How could he tell? He must have been a keen observant!) Besides, the brother must prove that she was his sister. Both should go to the Hiaa offices for further investigation and proper Islamic teaching.

To make a long story short, the brother was strong enough to insist on taking his sister home first then went to their offices to go through unforgettable confrontation. It would have been even worse if she wasn't his sister or he wasn't Saudi!

Engaged couples, colleagues, relatives and friends are caught everyday in very open, very public places on their own or in groups because the Hiaa regards this as "Khelwa". Al-Khelwa in Islam means that a man and a woman are meeting alone where no one can see them. To be in a public place automatically means you are not alone, and therefore not in Khelwa.

The problem is a matter of basic principles. Either you believe in human rights and dignity or you don't. Either you presume the best in people or the worst. Either people are innocent until proven guilty or they are all guilty until they prove their innocence. Either all people are equal under the law, foreigners of all nationalities included, or they are not. Either you take Islam as is, or you make your own version and enforce it on others.

Besides, how can one be the accuser, judge, juror, jailor and executor at the same time? How could a Hiaa member make the accusation, take the accused to his private court, judge him without the presence of a lawyer and imprison him in Hiaa jail? This is too much authority in one hand. Justice cannot be served this way even if the Hiaa members were angels, and they are not.

In the reform mode we are in, it is about time we fix this problem. I don't advocate the scrapping of Hiaa. We do need them. They do a lot of good work in promoting Islamic values and preventing vice, as they are supposed to do. But these duties have to be regulated, and performed in civilized manner. Human rights and due process have to be observed. Thos who cross the line and abuse their authority must be disciplined. Punishment should fit the crime—no exceptions allowed.