Sunday, March 17, 2013

Viruses of racism and intolerance: How sickening!

Sheikh Ibrahim Al-Harthi shocked his audience in his Friday prayer sermon by telling them that starting from next week, only Saudis are welcome. He explained that if he really did so most of us would find it outrageous, but that this was exactly what many of us feel about our fellow Muslims.

 He is right. Under our skins, too many of us are racists. Because we became rich with oil revenue, (which is a gift from Allah not a result of our own hard work), many of us think we are a superior race. And yet despite our ability to think in this way, we still consider ourselves to be the best and purest Muslims?

Allah tells us in the Holy Qur’an: “People, We have created you all male and female and have made you nations and tribes so that you would recognize each other. The most honorable among you in the sight of God is the most pious of you.” His Prophet (peace be upon him) warns against racism and announced that there is no difference between white and black, Arabs and non-Arabs, except in righteousness.  

This is not a Saudi issue only, but a pan-Arab disease. During my travels to Arab countries and meeting with Arabs abroad it troubled me to feel this false sense of superiority, especially against each other and toward other Muslims. Even intellectuals are affected. Many believe that Gulf citizens are merely uncultured Bedouins. While this is true in many cases, it is unfair to generalize. 

Arabs tend to look down on some races, especially those who come from the poorer parts of the world. Many believe the world is somehow conspiring against us. They cite Western and Russian invasions, and the support of our enemies, like Israel, as evidence.

The trouble with such a mentality is that it is the worst kind of escape and blame transfer. Instead of facing our challenges head on by finding and solving our mistakes, we blame others.

Therefore, Palestine was lost not because of our incompetence, but because of a Zionist-Christian conspiracy. Our economic backwardness is a result of similar conspiracy. Neocolonialists are eating up world resources, supporting dictators and forcing failed governments on us. We are behind in almost every race, from space to sport, industry to agriculture, not as a result of the failure of our education system, religious in-fighting and laziness, but because of those foreigners who won’t let us win!

Conspiracy theorists always have “evidence”. They readily recite a long history of colonialism and suppression, and build on it their concept of the present and future. Instead of getting busy finding ways to succeed and win, they are busy crying foul.

Religious intolerance, competition and suspicion are building up the fires of hate among us. Isn’t it amazing that 1400 years after our first civil war, we are still fighting about what the fight was about! How much longer will we let historical wars keep us stuck in history? Iran, Iraq and the Gulf states share the same Islamic basics and principles, follow the same Prophet (pbuh) and pray toward the same Kaaba. Still, we let the agents of death, the preachers of hate keep us engaged not in bettering ourselves and the future of our children, but in a state of tension and war against each other, all the time. 

Racism and intolerance are viruses that take many forms and find their way into many good hearts. Patriotism is one of the most deceiving and deadly forms. Under such a banner, the "others" are dehumanized. It puts one’s own people and their interests above basic human rights and laws.

It then becomes acceptable to deny guest workers basic services, including educational and medical services, because citizens come first. When water and electricity are scarce, it is okay to give ourselves priority. Following the same logic, you may hear demands that fast roads and lines should be reserved for Saudis, or cheaper food and transportation should be given to citizens, only. Some writers even accuse foreigners of stealing our jobs and business opportunities. Others count every penny these workers send home, as if they had stolen the money! 

We need a wake-up call from our opinion, society, tribal and religious leaders. We need to realize how wrong, sickening and dangerous the virus of racism and intolerance is to our civilization. And we urgently need to do something about it! 

Tuesday, March 05, 2013

A cry from a South African mother: Help my Saudi daughter!

I have written five articles about tragic love and marriage stories that have left Saudi and Qatari children stranded with their foreign mothers. The fathers are mostly Gulf students who married or had love relations with American women. They promised these women a lifetime journey or agreed on a temporary relationship that should not involve children and should end on graduation day.

However, reality kicks in and children arrive at inconvenient times. The doomsday comes when the young man has to return home to a family that does not welcome foreign wives. In many cases, his mother has already chosen a relative, a neighbor or a friend’s daughter for him.

As time and distance intervene, love wanes, and so does his commitment. The poor deserted foreign mother is left caring for the young children with no help or even acknowledgement from their father. She calls him, his family and friends, the Saudi embassy and concerned organizations like Awasser, but to no avail. The young man gets married, has children, and goes on with a life that has no room for his “other” family which lives so far away. He abandons his responsibilities to his own children, in some cases not even acknowledging their existence. What a shame!

This time the cry for help comes all the way from South Africa. The husband who abandoned his wife and children is not a young student, but a Saudi traveler who decided to keep a warm home abroad for occasional visits, without taking any responsibility for its cost, or so claims his wife.

Here is a summary of her story. She says: “I am a South African Muslim woman of a Turkish-Middle Eastern background, who has been married to a Saudi citizen for nearly seven years. Before our marriage, he assured my family that he was applying for permission from the Saudi government to marry me. Yet, soon after we were married, he claimed that he had applied many times but was not granted permission. I find that difficult to believe! Anyway, in all those seven years he insisted that he was unable to take my daughter and me to live with him in Saudi Arabia as our marriage was not recognized. Therefore, he would travel back to the Kingdom for long periods of time. This time he has been away for eight months, leaving us with no money, and not even calling to enquire about our well-being.

“I have contacted my husband’s family concerning this issue many times, as well as the Saudi embassy here, but to no avail. I’ve also contacted the Awasser organization on numerous occasions. After many years and hundreds of emails, they finally answered.
 “They said that in order to apply for help, I needed to apply through the embassy. I tried there but they said I needed official documents from my husband. Upon calling him in Saudi Arabia, he refused. The embassy contacted him and assured me that he would return in a couple of weeks. Many more weeks have passed by and I am still waiting.

“A few months ago, I requested my husband to please sign a document that the South African Ministry of Interior emailed him in order to issue a new passport for my daughter. I have been saving up for many years now to take her for Umrah in Makkah and to visit her Saudi family. He bluntly refused to sign the document.

“I can say with all pride that I am an honorable Muslim lady desperately fighting for my dear, dear child! I have done all that I am capable of doing and have given her a good Islamic upbringing. My daughter is only five, but loves her prayers dearly and has begun memorizing the Holy Qur’an. Still I cannot deny that she needs the presence of a proper father in her life! I have taught her to sit down every morning and evening and cry to Allah for help.

“My unanswered questions are: Why is it so difficult to resolve these issues in Saudi Arabia and why are we treated like beggars and sent from pillar to post by every group and organization every time we try to get their help? Why hasn’t the Saudi government come forward to address these important issues and make these children feel part of their own country – Saudi Arabia?

“My daughter clearly is suffering from a complex, as she does not know where she belongs. It is my Islamic duty to give my child her father’s name and tell her that she belongs to the Holy Land.”

That is one more tragic story. The mother of another abandoned Saudi child is asking the same question I have been asking in every article I have written about the issue with no answer at all from those it may concern. It makes me wonder: Is anyone listening? 

Sunday, March 03, 2013

Women in the workplace: Saudi youth and work ethics

“Are Saudi women better off in the workplace, today?” Bloomberg reporter, Dona Abu Al-Nasr asked me. Ten years after her last visit to the Kingdom, she was wondering if the unemployment situation was improving, especially for the young and women. What are the obstacles for females in certain work environments? Are they religious, social, economic or political? Who is responsible and what are the solutions?

I told her that much had been achieved in ten years. Are we there yet? No, not yet. Reasons vary. More than the obstacles she mentioned, I would say we need more proper training and work ethics.

Let’s start with education. Former Malaysian Prime Minister, Dr. Mahathir Mohamad, was asked about the secret of his country’s economic miracle. In 22 years, he managed to develop his country into a prosperous, sophisticated and highly developed nation. His answer was: Education, education and quality education.

Dr. Mohamad was absolutely right. No nation can progress without good education. Our kids are overloaded with books that are mostly theoretical not practical. They are taught more about the past and hereafter than about the present and future.

Then we send them off unprepared to an ever demanding and sophisticated market. They lack the needed skills in English, computers, accounting, administration and general sciences. Needless to say, they get no practical experience during their school years.

Government and large corporations, like SABIC, ARAMCO, Saudi Arabian Airlines and other mega financial, petrochemical and energy companies can afford to provide on-the-job training for fresh graduates or send them abroad for postgraduate education and training.

However, most companies are small and medium enterprises. They are the engines of our economy. But to survive in a very competitive market, they cannot afford expensive training and education for their new recruits.

And even if they could, what guarantees do they have of retaining them? Saudis, especially the young, tend to apply to different companies and state agencies. They may accept the first job available in the private sector, but many jump ship once they get a better offer, especially from the government.

Even though public sector jobs are not highly paid, their workload is much less and the hours are usually 7 A.M. - 2 P.M. Saturday to Wednesday. This allows for other work and social activities. The workload in small and medium enterprises is usually heavier and the hours longer, divided into two shifts, with much less tolerance for inadequate performance.  

This leads us to the issue of work ethics. Let’s face it: A lot of our youth are not hard workers. Many lack discipline, patience and persistence. Some are not serious, responsible or even honest. In such cases, how can they be given any critical missions and who would invest in training them?

This problem is a joint responsibility of home and school. Take for example the first week after any school vacation when most students are absent. Who encourages such behavior and makes excuses for it? Parents do. Society accepts. Teachers tolerate or encourage the trend.

What messages are we sending to our children? Here are some: Disrespect, irresponsibility, cheating and disregard for the system. These bad ethics are carried over to the workplace.

Saudis, however, work harder in their own businesses.  Offered government incentives and protection, plus tax-free profits, many are finding it more profitable to start their own business.

Maybe this is the solution. Instead of imposing job seekers on employers, we should increase the job market by encouraging entrepreneurship.

Here’s an illustrative example. Shorooq Al-Sulaiman is a graduate of the Business College of King Abdulaziz University, Jeddah. She didn’t learn enough in school, but had good training in a mega company, Emaar.

She used her work experience to start a real estate business. Three years later, she is creating jobs instead of looking for one. Her company is working now in real estate development, wood manufacturing and construction.

Many success stories, like that of Shorooq, are pointing us in the right direction. Creative young entrepreneurs with the help of state and private organizations are making waves in every field, from traditional trade and services to graphic design and new media marketing. 

Let’s embrace them, support their efforts, guide their steps and provide them with a sophisticated network and modern infrastructure and superstructure.

Government agencies, education institutions and non-government organizations should coordinate their plans and efforts to accommodate and encourage this phenomenon. Our youth, women, progress and future depend on it.

Capitalism, consumerism: Time for revolution?

I just bought a new Galaxy Tab. This is my fourth tablet in two years. The first three were iPads that I replaced one after the other. I still have the last one and am eyeing a mini iPad. I also bought an iPhone and a BlackBerry less than a year ago. Now I feel backward and am resisting the urge to buy the brand new BlackBerry Z10 and iPhone 5.

My 15” MacBook Pro laptop is doing just fine. Still, I bought the lighter 13” MacBook Air, convincing myself that I needed it for more portability. All the above is in addition to a couple of desktop PCs at work and in my home office. The cost of all these gadgets is some SR30,000, which could have bought a small car or helped me replace the one I have — not that I need to! So what is going on? I am fully aware of how insane this is, but still can’t help it! 

Prince Amr Al-Faisal believes that a capitalist economy is built on consumerism. After 9/11, former president George W. Bush’s first advice to Americans was to go shopping. The US president knew only too well that his economy depended on spending. Factories keep making products that exceed people’s needs. Car factories build a car every 45 seconds. Apple alone produces millions of iPhones for people who already own phones. 

So if we were to keep what we have and pass it on to our children, then who is going to buy all these products? Remember old cars and phones? Remember when they would last a lifetime? Today, we buy cars every few years, and cell phones at least once a year, not because we need to but because the culture of consumerism makes it seem necessary, and even urgent, to buy the latest and greatest. 

How does this work? Manufacturers keep adding more features and speed to new products. Then marketing showers and surrounds us with news, reviews and advertising about how useful the new software applications are that can only work with the latest hardware. If you cannot afford them, you can get bank loans or use credit cards — so no excuse! (What are you waiting for? Call this free number now and get a discount, or buy two and get one free! Hurry, only a limited supply is left!)

No one says anything about the Earth having a limited supply of resources as well. No one explains how we can afford this rate of consumption that eats up our world’s limited resources. No one explains what is going to be left for new generations? 

So what would happen if one day we decided to stop playing this game? The answer comes from all directions: The whole economic structure of the world would collapse! Recession, we are told, starts with less shopping. 

Then the vicious circle turns in the opposite direction. Instead of booming, economies collapse. Factories shut down, shops close, advertising agencies go out of business, and so do all supporting service providers from distribution to transportation, and from storage facilities to hotels and restaurants. We all lose our jobs and benefits. 

Look at Greece, they point out. More austerity measures made people poorer. They could only afford to buy less, which means less production. The only way to lift this country out of its recession is to lend it more money so that people can buy more of its produce.

How do we get out of this predicament? What is the solution? Prince Mohammad Al-Faisal, the founder of Islamic banking, believes we should start searching for an answer. There is no Islamic economic theory, yet. What has been achieved in the last 30 years is the development of Islamic financial institutions and banking products. It is high time Muslim scholars start looking for solutions to the world’s economic ills.

To encourage research in this field, he established the Prince Mohammad Al-Faisal Award for Islamic Economic Studies. His son, Prince Amr, is traveling all around the Kingdom these days to spread the word. He is encouraging university students to think out of the box. “Ignore all established theories and come up with your own,” he urges them. “Capitalism has failed us time and time again. As a result, only 1 percent of the population in rich and poor countries enjoys the fruit of the hard labor of the 99 percent.”

Islam has the solution, but what is it, exactly? How can we develop the endowment “waqf” and alms “zakat” concepts, for example, to serve our modern needs? Only the young would dare to challenge the traditional concepts, and Prince Amr is daring them to come up with creative answers to ancient questions. The elders should follow. That is the way revolutions go! 

Ikhwan phobia: Truths and myths

When Imam Hassan Al-Banna, founder of the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood (Al-Ikhwan), met with late King Abdulaziz Al-Saud during the Haj of 1948, he asked for permission to open a charter of his organization in the Holy Land. King Abdulaziz told him: In Saudi Arabia we are all Ikhwan, and I am their head.

What he meant was that the Saudi version of Muslim Ikhwan, which preceded any similar movement and concept in the Arab world, was already in place. It was also a diplomatic way of saying no to the establishment of political Islam in Saudi Arabia.

The Society of the Muslim Brothers (MB) that started in 1928 as a purely Islamic social organization in an increasingly Westernized Egypt, then a British colony, later took on politics as well. By the end of World War II, the MB had an estimated two million members. Its ideas gained supporters throughout the Arab world and influenced other Islamist groups with its “model of political activism combined with Islamic charity work.” Today, it is the most influential and one of the largest Islamic movements and political opposition organizations in the Arab world.

According to Wikipedia, the Muslim Brotherhood started as a religious social organization; preaching Islam, teaching the illiterate, setting up hospitals, and even launching commercial enterprises. But in 1936, it began to oppose British rule in Egypt. The Brotherhood’s stated goal is to instill the Holy Qur’an and Sunnah, the sayings and traditions of the Prophet (peace be upon him), as the “sole reference point for ...ordering the life of the Muslim family, individual, community ... and state.”

The movement officially opposes violent means to achieve its goals, although it, at one time, encompassed a paramilitary wing and its members were involved in the assassination of political opponents, notably Egyptian Prime Minister Mahmoud Al-Nukrashi Pasha.

Th Egyptian government, under King Farouk, dissolved the organization and arrested its members after the Arab defeat in the first Arab-Israeli war of 1948. The Ikhwan fought bravely in that war, and shared with the Free Officers, led by Gamal Abdel Nasser, a resentment toward weak and inefficient Arab governments and armies. Therefore, the MB supported the military coup of 1952, but after its members were accused of the attempted assassination of Nasser in 1954, the organization was once again banned and repressed. They were suppressed in other Arab countries as well and many were killed in Syrian President Hafiz Al-Assad’s Hama massacre in 1982.

The MB is financed by membership fees. Some of these contributions come from members working in oil-rich countries. Saudi Arabia, Kuwait and the United Arab Emirates provided safe havens to Ikhwans escaping Nasser’s crackdown. Because many were highly educated, they were given prominent positions in institutions of general education, media and Islamic teaching. A good number of them were influential in establishing religious colleges and designing school curriculum.

Today, after 84 years in the shadows, prisons or underground, the Ikhwans are finally in the driving seat. After prevailing in Turkey, Sudan, Yemen and Gaza, the MB and its affiliates have won executive and/or parliamentary elections in Tunisia, Morocco, Egypt, Jordan, Libya and Kuwait.

This creates great opportunities and challenges. The Ikhwan can finally deliver what they have promised if they rule in the Islamic spirit of good governance. However, while their supporters are in the millions and are well organized and strong, their many well-supported rivals are also united and determined to see the MB experiment fail. Their adversaries include local and international opponents of Islamic rule and those who doubt the Ikhwan’s intentions.

So now is the prefect time for MB parties to prove themselves worthy of people’s great expectations and to disprove the accusations of their detractors. These accusations include that the MB favors a Taliban-like rule and has  a hidden agenda to activate sleeping cells, topple Gulf regimes and extend the MB system to include the rest of the Muslim world.

If the MB succeed, they may, once and for all, put an end to Ikhwan phobia and Ikhwan bashing. That would be good for them, for their countries, for Islam—and for the rest of us.

Social intruders: Mind your own business!

THE man interviewed on Arabic TV Channel, MBC1, was explaining why women don’t need to drive. "Look around you; I have three cars in my garage: One for me, the other for my son, and a third for the family with a driver," he was boasting.  

Good for you, I thought, but you are answering the wrong question. It wasn’t whether "your" women need to drive, but why women, in general, need to. Again, the question is raised and answered the same way about women’s need to work. Those who are well off decide for the rest of us.

Their argument is that men should take care of their families, but what about those who don’t have men to take care of them? Some women are actually taking care of their families - parents and children, and even unemployed husbands. Besides, why should work be associated with financial need? What about work for work, work for experience, work for social service? What is the use of female education if it ends up with a certificate hanging on the wall of a kitchen?

The same logic goes with any and everything. The idea is that "your business is my business, but mine is not yours." Why? Because, I am more religious, conservative and patriotic than you are. I know what is going on, even in your head and heart. I am aware of the conspiracy of local and global liberals to destroy this society. Since I am the self-appointed guard of virtue, it is my holy duty to fight you and your fellow conspirators with all means, even if not holy.
“Together, with my fellow faithful, we will protect our society from your moral decadence, even by force. And don’t tell me you are free to live your rotten Western lifestyle here, we won’t allow it, not even in your own home. We are the representatives of God and the guardians of his religion, and we have the right to correct your habits and dictate your ways.  If you don’t like it, you may leave and live where it suits you. This is the land of Islam and holy places, and there is no place for liberalism and liberals.”

So whether you are preaching your beliefs or keeping it to yourself, you can’t be free or safe. Your neighbor will criticize the women in your family for not covering their face and “mutawwas” will put you in jail for driving your female colleague home, and your friends will hammer you for allowing your wife to work in a mixed environment. 

This mentality is spreading in the Muslim world. In Arab Spring countries, Salafis are forcing their way of life on the rest of the population. If persuasion doesn’t work, force or the threat of it is applied. 
My friend Dr. Omar Elmershedi called this phenomenon the herd mentality. People tend to defend and impose collective rules on all members of the group because they fear the dismantling of societal structure. Mavericks with disruptive new ideas and lifestyles are treated as agents of disorder. 

I agree with Dr. Elmershedi.  Fear of change takes on different disguises. Religion and patriotism are the most used. People who fear the loss of control of their herds raise holy and/or nationalistic flags. They plant the fear of change and the unknown in their followers’ hearts. The herd mentality then makes each member vigilant.  

The real game is control. Leaders may have full control of the herd when they claim to only have access to information and ideas. As gatekeepers, they take strong measures against independent thinkers and free spirits because their ideas are dangerous due to their unpredictability, independence and attractiveness. Persuasion, silencing and intimidation are used to reward or punish them. When logic doesn’t serve leaders’ arguments, they resort to conspiracy theories and the occult. How can you argue with someone with exclusive access to Divine guidance and inside information from the source of power?

The struggle for power and control will continue; it is human nature. The use of patriotism and religion will continue. They are the winning cards. Our fight against these people should also continue. 

To all these self-appointed guardians of virtue and rightfulness, I would say: Mind your own business. We are born free.