In an article written for The Jordan Times, and here reprinted by Al Arabiya TV, Palestinian journalist Daoud Kuttab notes that certain world leaders are all for free speech, at least while they’re abroad. At home, though, not so much. Speech is still censored in much of the Arab world, if not directly by government, then indirectly (through, for example, the withhold of subsidies or government subscriptions), or by the drawing of ‘red lines’ beyond which journalists self-censor.
Social media activists have filled cyberspace with comments and arguments justifying the presence of this or that leader at the gathering held in Paris in support of the people of France after the brutal killing, in two separate attacks on journalists, cartoonists, policemen and everyday shoppers in a Jewish supermarket.
Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas was attacked for going to Paris while avoiding Gaza. Arab leaders were criticized for attending the French demonstration while not working to protect freedom of expression in their countries.
Arab leaders have many considerations, of course, when they make decisions such as last week’s. When a superpower like France calls for worldwide support, it is incumbent on world leaders to show solidarity by participating.
Asharq Alawsat reports on a conference at Al-Azhar in Cairo at which leading Sunni scholars are dancing around how to denounce ISIS without using ISIS’ tactics. One of the hallmarks of ISIS philosophy — along with sheer brutality — is the way it is quick to declare certain Muslims to not be Muslims, takfirism.
So, instead of declaring ISIS to be a group of apostates, the organization has decided that “very bad Muslims” will have to do.
Cairo, Asharq Al-Awsat—Egypt’s Al-Azhar, the country’s leading Sunni religious institute, has issued a statement formally rejecting the labeling of Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) fighters as apostates.
Takfirism, the practice of one Muslim declaring another to be an apostate, is controversial within Islam. While this is something that is actively practiced by Islamist groups like ISIS, it is generally rejected by adherents of mainstream interpretations of Islam.
“Al-Azhar rejects the takfirism of ISIS . . . Because takfirism cannot be applied to any believer, regardless of his sins,” Al-Azhar said in a statement in response to comments made by the Mufti of Nigeria during last week’s counter-terrorism conference in Cairo.
During the conference, Al-Azhar Grand Sheikh Ahmed Al-Tayeb called for joint Islamic efforts to combat ISIS. “Division, strife and polarization are the main tactics extremists are using to divide the Islamic nation,” Tayeb said. He stressed that ISIS militants are acting “under the guise of this holy religion and have given themselves the name ‘Islamic State’ in an attempt to export their false Islam.”
The Mufti of Nigeria Sheikh Ibrahim Saleh Al-Hussaini later issued similar comments during the counter-terrorism conference, saying ISIS are promoting a “false” Islam.
While being proactive can be a good thing, it’s usually better to be proactive about real things.
Arab News reports that three Saudi government agencies are engaged in dealing with a new social danger — digital drugs. Digital drugs are said to be types of music that stimulate the brain in the same manner as actual drugs. The problem is, there’s no scientific evidence whatsoever to support that claim.
A similar concern erupted in Lebanon a few days ago, likely spurring the Saudi reaction. The issue also arose in the US, at least four years ago.
We do know that music can affect mood. We’ve known that for a long time, so much so that William Congreave’s line about “Music has charms to soothe the savage breast” is a commonplace. But there’s a big difference between being affected by music and being turned into a drug-crazed zombie addicted to tunes.
KSA alert to danger of ‘digital drugs’
Three government agencies have united to tackle what is known as “digital drugs” — a type of sound-based drug that has recently spread via audio files across the Internet.
The National Commission for Drug Control, the Directorate General for Drug Control, and the Communications Authority are exploring measures to prevent the arrival of these “sound drugs” to the Kingdom. Abdullah Al-Sharif, secretary-general of the National Commission for Drug Control, said: “The three parties have held urgent meetings to study this type of drug.”
The commission also commissioned consultants to study the possibility of this new drug being accessible in the Kingdom, and officials have confirmed that no cases have yet been recorded. The type of drug is not new and has been mostly used in America and Europe, he said.
Al-Jazeera TV offers a useful interactive page that shows the types of assistance (humanitarian, military, or both) that are being provided to the coalition fighting against ISIS in Syria and Iraq. It has another graphic that shows which nations have taken part in air attacks on ISIS targets and where those targets are located.
Writing at Al-Monitor, Bader al-Rashed, a Saudi commentator, points out how the government of Saudi Arabia seems to be trying to draw a line between the dominant interpretation of Islam in Saudi Arabia (frequently called “Wahhabism”) and the beliefs and actions of ISIS. There are efforts being made to identify ISIS as Kharajites, referring to the 7th C. group that supported a philosophy at odds with both Sunni and Shi’a interpretations of Islam and Islamic rule and was noted for its harsh implementation of takfirism.
This is all well and good, al-Rashed writes, but is complicated by the fact that ISIS is busy handing out books written by Mohammad ibn Abdul Wahhab, whose writing are at the core of Saudi religious belief and practice. Oops.
Over the past 10 years or so, the Saudi government has tried to back away from the most severe interpretations of Islam that it had largely acquiesced to following the 1979 seizure of the Grand Mosque in Mecca. It has managed to do so, to some extent. The government, though, has not been able to ‘convert’ all Saudis to a regime of tolerance. This is proved by its now having to arrest and imprison domestic extremists.
How Saudi Arabia is distancing itself from the Islamic State
Thirteen years after US President George W. Bush declared war on terrorism, the Middle East is no closer to victory. Instead, terrorism appears to have morphed into an even more dangerous beast in the form of the Islamic State (IS). Westerners, as expressed through the media, seem to be under the same impression as they were after Sept. 11, 2001 — namely, that the Sunni jihadist movement is linked to the Wahhabi brand of Islam emanating from Saudi Arabia. This has prompted renewed debate among Saudis about this supposed Wahhabist-jihadist connection.
After bombings in Riyadh by al-Qaeda in 2003, the relationship between terrorism and religious extremism was widely discussed in the kingdom, with the government establishing the King Abdulaziz Center for National Dialogue that same year. During the dialogue’s second meeting, Extremism and Moderation … A Comprehensive Methodological Vision, it was agreed that religious programs in Saudi Arabia were the primary force behind the spread of extremism in society. As a result of the dialogue, school curricula, the religious curriculum in particular, were modified by the Ministry of Education. Doubts remained, however, that religious education had been sufficiently modified given that radical Islamists were believed to dominate the education sector in the kingdom.
Saudi Arabia is today taking seriously the allegations in the international media that it is the ideological root of the current jihadist groups. Some have sought to defend the country’s religious vision by trying to disassociate Sunni jihadist groups from their brand of Islam, instead castigating other groups, such as the Kharijites — an Islamic sect separate from Sunnis and Shiites that emerged from the first Islamic civil war in the seventh century between Ali Ibn Ali Talib and Muawiya Ibn Abi Sufyan following the killing of the third caliph, Uthman Ibn Affan.
Al-Jazeera TV reports that Saudi Arabia has sent $1 billion to Lebanon to aid in its fight against extremists in the eastern part of the country. This is in addition to financing a $3 billion purchase of arms from France.
Saudis give $1bn to Lebanon amid fighting
Saudi Arabia sends military aid to help Lebanon’s fight against “terrorism”, ex-prime minister Saad Hariri says
Saudi Arabia has given Lebanon’s military $1bn to help its fight against self-declared jihadist fighters on the Syrian border.
The Saudi gift came as Lebanon army’s chief urged France to speed up promised weapons supplies and amid reports that a group of Muslim religious leaders were trying to mediate an end to the fighting.
After fighting in the eastern area on Tuesday, where troops have been clashing with the fighters since Saturday, ambulances entered the town of Arsal amid reports of a temporary truce.
Earlier, three out of 20 police officers detained by the fighters were released, according to police sources, reportedly as part of negotiations for a ceasefire.
According to Debka, the Israel-oriented news source of dubious reliability, Saudi Arabia, Israel, and Egypt have colluded to create the current situation in Gaza. The Debka piece, behind a paywall at its own site, has been picked up by several other media, here the UK-based Middle East Monitor…
The war on Gaza is planned and orchestrated by Israel, Saudi and Egypt, a report by DEBKA-Net-Weekly said yesterday.
“Saudi Arabia’s King Abdullah, Egyptian President Fatah Al-Sisi and Netanyahu… [are] in constant communication on the war’s progress and confers on its next steps. Our sources reveal daily conferences, and sometimes more, between King Abdullah and President Sisi over a secure phone line,” the newsletter said.
DEBKA, thought to have close ties with Israeli intelligence agencies, said the world leaders go to great lengths to ensure their alliance remains undiscovered “given the political and religious sensitivities of their relationship”. Fearful of having even their secure lines intercepted, they prefer to send secret missions to visit each other and discuss the ongoing conflict.
“Israel keeps a special plane parked at Cairo’s military airport ready to lift off whenever top-secret messages between Sisi and Netanyahu need to be delivered by hand. The distance between Cairo and Tel Aviv is covered in less than an hour and a half,” DEBKA explained.
The report, which was also used in some British reporting, drew a prompt denial from the Saudi Ambassador in London, according to Saudi Gazette:
According to a report in the UAE’s Gulf News, the number of Saudi women employed in the private sector has doubled over the past year to reach 400K. This is explosive growth compared to the 48K figure that pertained in 2009 and a ten-fold increase since 2004.
Various measures have led to this result including increased salaries for teachers and the banning of male employees in lingerie shops. There’s still a lot of work to be done to increase the number of Saudis in jobs, both male and female, but this is an impressive mark.
Number of Saudi women employed in private sector doubles
Habib Toumi – Bureau Chief
Manama: The number of Saudi women employed in the private sector almost doubled in one year to reach 400,000 last year, an official report has indicated.
The meteoric rise from 48,406 women in 2009 to 100,000 in 2011 and 200,000 in 2012 is a clear indication of the success of the ambitious drive by the authorities to find employment opportunities for women in the conservative society that has strongly resisted allowing women to take up jobs in the private sector.
According to the report prepared by the labour ministry, the opening up of opportunities for women to work in the industrial and commercial sectors, as well in shops, has contributed massively to the high employment figures, local daily Al Eqtisadiya reported on Monday.
Asharq Alawsat runs an interview with former US Ambassador Mark Hambly. Hambly, who had a reputation as one of the best “Arabists” in the State Dept., ran the Regional Media Center in London during and following the US invasion of Iraq in 2003. In the interview, he explains why the Center was established in London.
The Center, in fact, was an expansion of the program I established in 1996-97 while I was the Information Officer at the embassy. I hired the first Arab support personnel for that office because it was abundantly clear that the pan-Arab media based in London — both print and satellite broadcast — was critically important and needed full-time attention. My job was to deal with the British media, a more than full-time job itself, but I was able to convince Washington that the Arabic media needed to be addressed as well. With the Iraq war, this became even more obvious, so the new Center was created. I was in Riyadh by then.
London, Asharq Al-Awsat—Thanks to the presence of a number of pan-Arab newspapers and media outlets (including Asharq Al-Awsat) in London, for the last decade the US Embassy in the city has played host to one of the State Department’s Regional Media Hubs which aims to conduct ‘public diplomacy’ in the Arab World, engage with Arab and Iranian journalists, and monitor the Arab media.
Mark Gregory Hambley—a former US ambassador to Qatar and Lebanon—was appointed its first director when it was set up in 2003, after a decades-long career as a diplomat in the Middle East. Since retiring from the State Department in 2005, he has acted as an occasional advisor and consultant to the US government. Asharq Al-Awsat recently spoke to Ambassador Hambley about his time as director of the Hub and American efforts to engage with Arab media over the past ten years.
Saudi Gazette/Okaz report on an attempt by a group of Saudi graphic artists to bring graffiti in from the wilds of its association with vandalism. They’re doing it by focusing on the beauty of individual letters of the Arabic alphabet. The group is named “Dhad“. This is particularly apt as Arabic is sometimes known as “the language of the Dhad”.
The group is having trouble getting grants and governmental recognition, however. I don’t find this particularly surprising as graffiti is usually associated with vandalism and the defacing of buildings… not something government’s usually support. They may find an art patron, however, who will ease their way.
The power of a single letter graffiti
Abdullah Al-Mansouri | Okaz/Saudi Gazette
Many young Saudi graphic designers brush up on their talents by creating single letter graffiti art, and one of the most popular Arabic letters to do this is the letter ? (dhad). But graffiti artists in the Kingdom are struggling to gain acceptance in society due to the general view that graffiti is a public nuisance and not a form of renegade art.
Artist Ous Ghazzal created a group with several other young Saudi artists whose sole purpose is to decorate streets and cars with Arabic letters in multiple graffiti styles and colors. They went on to open a store but the group, however, has faced problems securing financing for their projects, marketing them and navigating bureaucratic red tape.
“From the very beginning, we have faced numerous hurdles. We knocked on the doors of several government departments and private companies to get some financial support but to no avail. Our store is the first of its kind in the Arabian Gulf for promoting the art of graffiti. We are proud of creating miracles with the language of our fathers and forefathers. We want to elevate the position of Arabic letters, especially the letter dhad, which is a distinguished one, in the art of graphic design and graffiti,” he said.
Gulf News from Dubai carries a story that explains how YouTube has become an alternative — and preferred — source of information for young Saudis. It reports that Google, which own YouTube, complies with government requests to shut down videos for which there is a valid legal reason, but that the Saudi government has been sparing in that regard. It notes, too, that YouTube has been offering support for new video channels produced in the region. Some of those channels are earning millions of dollars for their creators and producers. A new medium indeed.
Why Saudis are world’s biggest YouTube fans
People in Saudi Arabia watch more hours of YouTube content per capita
than anywhere else in the world
Dubai: Google has launched a campaign to develop online videos in the fast-growing market of Saudi Arabia, where residents watch more hours of YouTube content per capita than anywhere else in the world.
Over the past year, time spent on YouTube in the conservative kingdom has increased fivefold, persuading Google to hold a seminar in the oil-rich kingdom to foster closer relationships with producers of Arabic-language web videos.
About 60 per cent of the 350 million people in the Arab world are younger than 25, with internet penetration in the region at about 70 million users — over 300 per cent growth in the last five years, according to numbers from UAE-based entrepreneurship research portal Sindibad Business. Internet penetration is expected to reach 150 million users by 2015.
Traditional media in Saudi Arabia, where more than half the population is younger than 35, is failing to engage youngsters who are turning to the internet for relevant drama, comedy, sports and news.
The same trend is sweeping the broader region, where 310m video views a day make the Middle East and north Africa the world’s second-highest online viewership after the US.
That has generated concern among some of the region’s states about the rise in political expression.
Saudi Arabia’s Ministry of Interior has caused its own little firestorm by announcing a ban on some 50 names that are not to be given to children, Gulf News reports. The ban, issued as a fatwa by some anonymous cleric, is a peculiar one. Some names are banned as being against religious principle; others because they’re foreign. The reason why yet others are banned — like Benyamin (Arabic for ‘Benjamin’) is simply baffling.
Dubai: Saudi Arabia’s interior ministry has banned 50 given names including “foreign” names, names related to royalty and those it considers to be blasphemous.
Saudis will no longer be able to give their children names such as Amir (prince), Linda or Abdul Nabi (Slave of the Prophet) after the civil affairs department at the ministry issued the list, according to Saudi news sites.
It justified the ban by saying that the names either contradicted the culture or religion of the kingdom, or were foreign, or “inappropriate”.
The names fit into at least three categories: those that offend perceived religious sensibilities, those that are affiliated to royalty and those that are of non-Arabic or non-Islamic origin.
Gulf News reports, too, that a member of the Shoura Council, Eisa Al Gaith, isn’t having it. Fatwas are not public laws, he says. A fatwa — a non-binding religious ruling — should not be elevated to the law of the land. According to the follow-up story, large numbers of Saudis agree with him, seeing no reason for the government to be poking its nose into family matters.
Shura Council member rejects ban on baby names
Habib Toumi Bureau Chief
Manama: A member of Saudi Arabia’s Shura Council has denounced the decision by the civil authorities to ban 50 baby names on the grounds they clashed with the local culture or were inappropriate.
“The decision by the mufti on the names is an interpretation, so if he is right it is good for him and for those who follow him, but it cannot be imposed on others,” Eisa Al Ghaith said. “There is a serious issue when an interpretation which is just an opinion becomes an obligation for government agencies and for the people. A commitment becomes official only when there is a religious consensus about it. However, if there is no full agreement, there can be no obligation,” he said in remarks published by local daily Al Sharq on Sunday.
Civil authorities last week announced a list of 50 names that cannot be given to new babies, saying that they were alien to the local culture or offended religious sensibilities or were of non-Arabic or non-Islamic origin.
Several people said they were bewildered by the inclusion of some of the names on the list, particularly that they have traditionally been part of the local scene for decades.
UPDATE: I should note that banning names isn’t just some oddball Saudi thing. Portugal has an 80-page list of banned names. The Mexican state of Sonora published a list of 61 names that were impermissible last month. Denmark, instead of a blacklist, has a whitelist from which children’s names must be selected.
UPDATE: Saudi Arabia’s Ministry of Interior denies it ever published a list in the first place, but added that religiously or socially improper names, as well as compound names would not be registered in official documents at birth.