I’ll be traveling up to the Washington, DC area today and won’t be back for about two weeks. I don’t plan on spending a lot of time posting, but will of course be monitoring the news from/about Saudi Arabia. If anything major breaks, I’ll write.
I’d like to take the occasion, though, to thank my readers and commenters. You’ve made the work more enjoyable and challenging (I mean that in a good way!). I’ll be back in early January and hope to find you all still here, panting for the latest.
Happy Holidays to all.
The Washington Post runs a piece on how Muslim students—a large percentage of them Saudi—are finding welcome at Catholic universities in the US. American Catholic schools, which certainly have a focus on Catholic theology, have tended to welcome students of other faiths, from elementary schools on up, generally for the quality of the education. Catholic schools, too, tend not to be much interested in proselytizing their students but would rather enhance the faith of their Catholic students. As the article points out, as a religiously based institution, Catholic universities are also more in line with Muslim concepts of morality.
I wonder, too, if the selection of religiously-based universities for Saudi students isn’t also part of King Abdullah’s efforts toward raising the level of religious tolerance in Saudi society. When these students go home (nearly all Saudi students do go home at the end of their studies), they are going to serve as first hand witnesses that their faith is not being demonized. Even more, that their differences in belief are being accommodated without rancor.
On a quick break between classes last week, Reef Al-Shabnan slipped into an empty room at Catholic University to start her daily prayers to Allah.
In one corner was a life-size painting of Jesus carrying the cross. In another, the portrait of a late priest and theologian looked on. And high above the room hung a small wooden crucifix.
This was not, Shabnan acknowledged, the ideal space for a Muslim to pray in. After her more than two years on campus, though, it has become routine and sacred in its own way. You can find Allah anywhere, the 19-year-old from Saudi Arabia said, even at the flagship university of the U.S. Catholic world.
… The largest group of international students by far now comes from Saudi Arabia.
Muslim students say they enroll at Catholic schools for many of the same reasons as their classmates: attractive campuses, appealing professors and academic programs that fit their interests. But there is also a spiritual attraction to the values that overlap the two faiths.
“Because it is an overtly religious place, it’s not strange or weird to care about your religion here, to pray and make God a priority,” said Shabnan, a political science major who often covers her head with a pale beige scarf. “They have the same values we do.”
It seems that scandals these days don’t become ‘real’ until they’re on a ‘reel’.
Turki Al-Dakheel, writing in the Arabic daily Al-Watan, discusses a film being shot in India about the plight of an Indian domestic servant who goes to work in Saudi Arabia. Not matter how Saudis see themselves, Al-Dakheel says, people don’t see themselves until they see their reflection in the eyes of others. Domestic servants see the inside of Saudi society. While they may keep their counsel during the period of their employment, there’s nothing to stop them from talking frankly once they’re back home. Talking frankly about the problems of domestics is something too many Saudis are still reluctant to do.
Were I to bet, I’d wager that this film will be available in the Kingdom only as a bootleg.
Our scandal in celluloid
TURKI AL-DAKHEEL | AL-WATAN
PEOPLE here are split in their opinion regarding the issue of housemaids. While some of them consider defending housemaids as justification for their crimes, others look at them as underdogs and say the injustice done to them by their sponsors cannot be condoned at all.
They say the mistakes committed by housemaids can be rectified through the law and the courts and police, not by beating and suppressing them.
Today, the issue has been picked up by cinema world. The brutal aggression against housemaids has become the theme of an Indian movie called “Gaddama,” which tells the story of an Indian housemaid working in Saudi Arabia and who is tortured by her employers.
Indian actress Kavya Madhavan, who played the role of the housemaid, said she was deeply affected by the role to the point of depression. She said it was difficult to obtain a license to shoot the film in Saudi Arabia, so many scenes were filmed in the United Arab Emirates.
You know it’s going to be interesting when you have the US federal government and FOX News lined up on the same side of an argument!
Here, as reported in this Associated Press piece carried in The Washington Post, the US Dept. of Justice is suing a school district in Illinois over the district’s refusal to grant a Muslim teacher leave to take part in the Haj. The case is, as they say, ‘fact specific’. US law requires employers, including state employers, to ‘reasonably accommodate’ employees’ religious obligations. Here, that means the teacher’s request for leave to fulfill her duty to perform Haj. The core of the matter is that the school district’s contract with its teachers union requires accommodation for many reasons, but not religious reasons. The DOJ (and FOX News) want to see that changed.
The case itself is a bit messy, though. The teacher was asking for 19 days of leave. That’s a significant amount of time and perhaps beyond what could be considered ‘reasonable’. Haj itself is only a five-day event. Finding a substitute teacher for that period is not trivial, but it may (or may not) be considered ‘reasonable’. That’s what the court will have to decide.
WASHINGTON (AP) — The federal government sued a suburban Chicago school district Monday for denying a Muslim middle school teacher unpaid leave to make a pilgrimage to Mecca that is a central part of her religion.
In a civil rights case, the department said the school district in Berkeley, Ill., denied the request of Safoorah Khan on grounds that her requested leave was unrelated to her professional duties and was not set forth in the contract between the school district and the teachers union. In doing so the school district violated the Civil Rights Act of 1964 by failing to reasonably accommodate her religious practices, the government said.
As is often the case, Volokh Conspiracy, notes the case. The comments to the post are a mixed bag. A little Islamophobia, a lot of ignorance about Haj, and some very acute observations about the law. Some do point out that whether one attends Haj in a particular year is also determined by the Saudi government, in its issuing of visas. Eugene Volokh, in the post itself, notes that religious accommodation laws have benefited Christians far more than any other religious group in the US.
Arab News reports that Naif Al-Mutawa, creator of ‘The 99′ comic book series, gave the keynote speech at Effat University yesterday. In his remarks, he noted how Muslim society had somehow come to see thinking as dangerous, instead preferring to take on received knowledge. Mankind, he said, shares a commonality of values, he said, though it appears some try to disguise this. Arab and Muslim societies do need to develop critical thinking skills. This is not to create a world of doubt, but to ensure that they are doing the best they can to confront challenges unknown in the 7th C. CE.
Society needs diversity to be healthy, says Al-Mutawa
ROGER HARRISON | ARAB NEWS
JEDDAH: Dr. Naif Al-Mutawa, originator of the series of superhero comics and films “The 99” gave a sparkling presentation at Effat University in Jeddah on Wednesday of the origins and thinking behind his creation.
The presentation came as a keynote speech at the two-day eighth Social Media Symposium, which reviews and analyzes the impact of digital social media channels on society and newsgathering.
Demonstrating with practical examples that a viewer’s culture defined his perception of beauty, he told the audience that when art became another branch of religion it took away an individual’s ability to think and form an independent opinion.
Al-Mutawa, a practicing medical psychologist, referred to the rapid expansion of access to art and ideas in the early European renaissance and the invention of the printing press, saying that as a result they were no longer the province of the extant church from whom opinions of beauty and worth stemmed.
“It was the end of the age of recitation over reason. Henry VIII spent a lot of his life trying to reverse that, but he failed,” he opined. “Our culture tells us that if you think too much you will go to hell. We need to make up a new word for think.”
Saudi Gazette/Okaz report on an issue in one of the two holy cities that serves as an object lesson in how Saudis need to up their appreciation of human rights. A groups of widows, divorcées, and orphans are being pitched out of their housing in Madina because the buildings they’re living in need repair. Keeping their housing in repair is, of course, necessary. But the country offers few options to what already exists. It’s hard for widows without extended families, divorcées who chose not to live forever with their parents (if still alive), and orphans whom Saudis do not wish to foster. The support structures to support them are few enough and, as the article alleges, in poor condition. I think the government needs to focus on the fact that times have changed. No longer is the ‘extended family’ there to provide support. Someone, i.e., the government, needs to step in to provide housing for those whom its strictures push into corners.
No place to live for widows, orphans and ailing women
MADINA: The Ministry of Islamic Affairs branch in Madina gave 24 families, including widows, orphans and divorcées, less than two weeks to leave buildings where they have lived in for a number of years, some of the residents told Okaz/Saudi Gazette.
The families, who lived for decades in the two endowed buildings, said they were suddenly told by the Ministry’s Endowment Branch that they must move out by December 24 because the buildings must undergo maintenance.
Residents said their pleas had no effect on the decision and officials refused to secure housing for them, despite their being inability to do so.
Saudi Arabia and Saudi Arabs need to learn more about human rights, says the National Society for Human Rights. I think that’s a fair assessment. Human rights, as a concept, does not seem to have much of a history in the country which, until relatively recently, was pretty much a survive-at-all-costs world that relied exclusively on family support to resolve problems.
Something that could also be worked on is recognizing that non-Saudis, non-Arabs, non-Muslims—like the millions of foreign workers brought into the country every year—are also human beings, by definition. They, too, deserve the same rights a Saudi would accord his sister or brother, his mother or father. They are equal in the kind and number of human rights owed them. Too often, there’s a sense that foreigners are of some different essence than ‘human’. That seriously needs to stop.
MAKKAH: The National Society for Human Rights (NSHR) has urged government departments to do more to educate people on human rights, said a member of the society’s local branch.
“The NSHR noticed shortcomings in the services offered by some government departments such as prisons, social affairs department and even the courts,” said Muhammad Al-Sahli while giving a talk on human rights at a function at the Presidency of Girls Education Hall in Makkah recently.
Al-Sahli was of the view that all Saudi social practices were not based on Islamic principles. He added that while senior government officials cooperated with the NSHR in its attempts to address people’s issues, it was mostly junior officials that created difficulties for the society. He attributed this trend to a lack of awareness of human rights. He said 94 percent of the people in the Kingdom are ignorant of human rights, or even the existence of the NSHR.
Claims and counter-claims are flying about in this rather convoluted case of Shariah law in the Saudi courts. A daughter claims her father isn’t permitting her to decide on her own marriage—the sin/crime of ‘adhal; the father claims that the child is legally disobedient—the sin/crime of uquoq. The brothers of the woman are siding with her, but could face criminal penalties of the court sides with the father. It has the makings of a classic soap opera, but it’s real life as this piece from Saudi Gazette/Okaz tells us.
Perhaps it’s time for Shariah law to start disregarding ‘crimes’ that are not actually crimes. Let adult children behave as adults. If they break laws (for instance, violence against their parents) there are other laws that could be brought to bear upon them. Disagreement over who to marry, however, should never be a crime.
Woman flees country, litigious father, ‘objectionable’ suitors
MADINA: A Saudi woman has fled the Kingdom in the company of some of her brothers after her father’s refusal to allow her to marry became a legal case of “uqouq” – parental disobedience.
Another brother has been questioned by the Commission for Investigation and Prosecution after objecting to the case and standing by his sister.
The 37-year-old woman from Madina told Okaz/Saudi Gazette that a foreign Arab suitor but from the same tribe asked for her hand in marriage. When he was turned down by her father, she took him to court.
The judge, however, sided with the father, who said that a number of Saudi suitors existed and that it was his daughter who objected to them.
When her father then brought a complaint charging parental disobedience, she was put before the very same judge at the General Court.
Faced with a quickly growing population and an absolute dearth of fresh water, Saudi Arabia has given up on the concept of ‘food self-sufficiency’, that is, adequate food supplies grown within the Kingdom to meets its needs. Instead, it is looking to establish agricultural entities in foreign countries with adequate water supplies. This has been met by some as a form of ‘neo-colonialism’, anticipating that the relationship between Saudi Arabia and other, generally poorly developed countries could only be exploitative.
Now, Arab News reports, Australia is inviting the Saudis to invest in agriculture in that country. Already a major exporter of meats to Saudi Arabia, Australia sees benefit to both countries in having Saudis set up farming establishments within it. That doesn’t meet any definition of ‘colonialism’ of which I’m aware.
Saudi food from Saudi farms … in Australia?
Michael Cousins | ARAB NEWS
JEDDAH: Australian lamb and beef are well known to Saudi shoppers. Both are a regular feature in Saudi supermarkets.
Likewise, Saudis became well aware of Australia and camels thanks to stories in the Saudi media earlier this year about the Australian government wanting to cull its wild camel population and impassioned calls by some Saudi readers for them to be given a home in the Kingdom.
But if former Australian Prime Minister Bob Hawke has his way, Saudis will get to know a great deal more about produce from Down Under — on their dinner plates!
Hawke wants Saudi Arabia to produce its food in Australia. He issued his appeal in Jeddah on Sunday at a meeting of the Australia Gulf Business Council and the Jeddah Chamber of Commerce and Industry (JCCI).
Despite agriculture being part of the old stereotype of the Australian economy, there were, he said, “enormous” opportunities for food cooperation between the two countries. The combination of Saudi capital with Australian land and experience could answer the Kingdom’s quest for food security.
Under a rather defensive headline, Arab News reports that Saudis are looking for ways to ‘reduce their dependency on Indonesian maids’. I guess rapes, beatings, and murders of maids is being seen as somehow unfair to the employers who do such. Indonesia is looking to make Saudis pay more care to their Indonesian servants by making them more expensive to hire. Saudi employment agencies, the aggrieved party here apparently, are instead seeking to find new sources of domestic servants. That’ll work until word gets back to the sending countries. Then, it’s wash-rinse-repeat.
Perhaps, a long term solution would be for Saudis to develop more realistic attitudes about domestic service. Perhaps, Saudis are not quite so helpless, unable to cope with the difficulties of daily life, that they can’t start doing things for themselves. Is it real necessity or a signal of status that requires so many maids?
JEDDAH: Heads of recruitment committees at chambers of commerce and industry in Jeddah and Makkah have indicated that there is a trend to reduce dependence on Indonesian maids and find alternatives for them.
Yahya Hassan Al-Maqbool, chairman of the recruitment committee at the Jeddah Chamber of Commerce and Industry (JCCI), said the chambers in Riyadh, Makkah and Jeddah have taken a joint stance on this issue in response to the anti-Saudi campaign by a section of the Indonesian media.
“We’ll hold a meeting at the headquarters of the Council of Saudi Chambers of Commerce and Industry in Riyadh to discuss other alternatives including recruiting from other Asian and African countries,” Al-Maqbool told Arab News.
There have been differences between Saudi authorities and Indonesian manpower exporters on the salary of maids and drivers. The anti-Saudi media campaign in Indonesia following reports of mistreatment of maids by some Saudi employers has exacerbated the situation.
Saudi Gazette/Okaz report that 89%, yes, nearly 9 out of 10 Saudi families employ one or more maids. With a poverty rate of 15%-20%, that means that at least 5% of those living under the Saudi poverty line are also employers. Either there is something wrong with those statistics or Saudi Arabia is such a difficult place to manage daily life that no one appears competent to do it alone. Perhaps it’s only a statistical error, not noting that many families employ more than one.
The number comes out in a Saudi symposium in Madina that addressed the issue of abuse of domestic servants, a very real problem. It is indeed time that Saudi society and government faced up to the fact that they have a very real problem and that the solutions to it are not going to make everyone happy. I don’t think Saudi Arabia can continue to hire the large numbers of foreign workers it currently does. Historically, a well-to-do family might take in poor cousins, as happened in most of the world at one point or another. But those times have changed. Even if poor, those cousins aren’t interested in working for another Saudi, for the most part (79% of maids are non-Arab). Whether it’s a sense of entitlement or some superiority complex, Saudis are not uniformly ready to take on the responsibility of being employers to foreign domestic workers.
89% of Saudi homes have housemaids
MADINA: Studies show that 89 percent of Saudi homes in the Kingdom have at least one housemaid in their employment, and that 79 percent of them are of non-Arab origin.
The figures were stated at a symposium on violence against house workers held in Madina Saturday, which heard specialists tackle the various forms and effects of physical, sexual and mental abuse, as well as the detrimental effects of the presence of a housemaid to employers.
Psychologist Dr. Naif Al-Marwani said that housemaids attempt to flee their sponsors due to maltreatment, non-payment of wages, sexual aggression, being sent to work for other people, differences in customs and traditions, and homesickness.
“Others reasons entail overwork and no provision of health care,” he said.
The number of housemaids is also ever-increasing, the symposium noted, with the figure currently approaching two million.
The papers also report that the government, finally, is getting around to establishing a commission to supervise the welfare of domestic workers. Finally.
The Saudi-US Relations Information Service (SUSRIS) has an interesting interview with Dr Larry Michalak looking at the changing image of Arabs and Muslims in Hollywood films. Perhaps surprisingly, the image is getting better. Since a film in 1999—the Michael Crichton story ‘The Thirteenth Warrior’—claims Michalak, Arabs and Muslims are being shown as heroes, as sympathetic characters, as complex characters. This is a far cry from the cartoonish characterizations of earlier films. Even after 9/11, Muslims were not utterly demonized in American films; Michalak notes only two such films. Instead, we find films like ‘The Kingdom’, in which even Saudis get to be heroic in American film.
The text below is from the SUSRIS write-up of the interview. You can hear the entire, 15-minute interview at this link, though be warned that the audio is not top quality.
Images of Arabs and Muslims in American Cinema
Elizabeth R. Pfiester | SUSRIS
Dr. Larry Michalak, PhD, a cultural anthropologist and Middle East specialist from the University of California, Berkeley, recently talked with SUSRIS about the “Improvement in Images of Arabs and Muslims in Recent American Cinema.” Dr. Michalak’s research about the film portrayals was the subject of a paper he presented last month at the Middle East Studies Association annual conference in San Diego. [Interview on SUSRIStube.com]
In his study, Michalak examined 23 major films about Arabs and Muslims between the years 1999 and 2010 — categorizing them as positive, negative, and neutral films — to understand how the image of Arabs and Muslims in American cinema evolved in the recent past. Despite challenges in properly fitting each of these films into precise categories, Michalak rated 11 of them positive, six neutral, and four negative. He created an alternative category for two films, which were about the 9/11 terrorist attacks, which needed separate discussion and classification.
“There has never been a positive [main stream] movie with a main character who was an Arab or a Muslim before 1999,” Michalak explained to SUSRIS. Two 1999 releases –The Thirteenth Warrior and Three Kings – portrayed Arabs in a realistic, non-negative light. This seemed to be the start of a new era of more conscientious and well-informed filmmaking, but when the 9/11 terrorist attacks occurred in 2001, Michalak feared the prevalence of negative portrayals would return. However, he found this not to be the case. In the following years other movies with Arab or Muslim characters appeared on the scene, including Kingdom of Heaven in 2005. This film portrayed Muslims as the “good guys” and the crusaders as the “bad guys”. In his conversation with SUSRIS, Michalak cited several other films since 9/11, including Syriana and The Kite Runner, which portrayed diverse Middle Eastern characters. In the case of the movie The Kite Runner, Afghans and Muslims are represented based on characters in the book, which was written by an Afghani. Michalak’s assessment noted the positive depiction of Islam.