An interesting book review in the Times Literary Supplment (TLS) of the book Reading Darwin in Arabic.
The book reports how Darwin’s theories of evolution and human descent made their way to and were received by Arabs in the late 19th and 20th C. There are some surprises, particularly in the favorable reception of not Darwin, but the derivative and erroneous “social Darwinism” as promulgated by Herbert Spencer. Lamarkism was favorably received as well, though it, too, is largely wrong, modified only by current understandings of epigenetics.
It’s interesting, too, that the theory of evolution was generally accepted without rancor, but has now become a hot-button issue in the region, much like among Christian fundamentalists who prefer to follow a theory of ‘Creationism’.
Darwin in Arabia
READING DARWIN IN ARABIC, 1860–1950
448pp. University of Chicago Press.
The title Reading Darwin in Arabic notwithstanding, most of the men discussed in this book did not read Charles Darwin in Arabic. Instead they read Jean-Baptiste Lamarck, Ernst Haeckel, Herbert Spencer, Thomas Huxley, Gustave Le Bon, Henri Bergson and George Bernard Shaw in European or Arabic versions. They also read popularizing accounts of various aspects of Darwinism in the scientific and literary journal al-Muqtataf (“The Digest”, 1876–1952). The notion of evolution that Arab readers took away from their reading was often heavily infected by Lamarckism and by the social Darwinism of Spencer. Darwin’s The Origin of Species by Means of Natural Selection was published in 1859, but Isma‘il Mazhar’s translation of the first five chapters of Darwin’s book into Arabic only appeared in 1918.
For a long time, the reception of Darwinism was bedevilled by the need to find either neologisms or new twists to old words. As Marwa Elshakry points out, there was at first no specific word in Arabic for “species”, distinct from “variety” or “kind”. “Natural selection” might appear in Arabic with the sense “nature’s elect”. When Hasan Husayn published a translation of Haeckel, he found no word for evolution and so he invented one. Tawra means to advance or develop further. Extrapolating from this verbal root, he created altatawwur, to mean “evolution”. Darwiniya entered the Arabic language. Even ‘ilm, the word for “knowledge” acquired the new meaning, “science”. With the rise of scientific materialism came agnosticism, al-la’adriya, a compound word, literally “the-not-knowing”.
Saudi Gazette front-pages a piece on a petition to the Shoura Council to end male guardianship in Saudi Arabia. A group of women have asked the Council to reevaluate the way in which Saudi women are constrained by having to seek male approval and authorization for actions that in any other country would be at the women’s own behest.
Women demand end to male guardianship
Saudi Gazette report
RIYADH — The system of male guardianship should end and the citizenship code amended so that Saudi women can grant citizenship to non-Saudi husbands and children, said a recent petition sent by 25 women activists to the Shoura Council on International Women’s Day (Mar. 8), Al-Hayat daily reported on Saturday.
In their letter, the activists, some of whom are university professors, called on the Council to take necessary measures to protect women’s rights and stop domestic violence against them.
Azizah Al-Yousif, one of the activists who signed the petition, said: “This petition renews our demands as women. We want our issues to be put on the top of the Council’s priority list.”
Thuraya Obaid and Lubna Al-Ansari, both Shoura Council members, promised to tackle most of the points raised in the petition, said Al-Yousif.
Arab News also covers the petition:
According to Al Arabiya TV, a top Saudi cleric has reached the conclusion that Google — the owner of YouTube — should be sued because it permits offensive videos to be broadcast over the Internet. We’ll forget that hundreds have already called to this or for YouTube and/or Google to be shut down.
It was not enough that YouTube, in compliance with a court order, took the offending video down last week due to a copyright claim. That, as it proves, was ineffective because the video, with the scenes that had the copyright complainant now excised, is back up.
This, I think, demonstrates that attempts to remove offending materials through brute force tend to be futile. It is far better to just avoid looking at it. Unlike TV, one is not accidentally exposed to materials on YouTube. One has to make an affirmative action — clicking a link or a ‘Play’ button — in order to see it. Clerics might more fruitfully explain to their followers why they should avoid doing those things that will only lead to offense.
Khaled al-Shaya, a top Saudi cleric, recently called on Islamic countries to ban and legislate against Google, after the internet search giant’s apparent “disrespect of Islamic beliefs” in continuing to display an inflammatory video against Islam, news website CNN Arabic reported on Saturday.
Google – the parent company of video sharing site Youtube, which hosted the controversial video entitled “The Innocence of Muslims” – had “insulted the Prophet” by not removing the video, said Shaya, who serves as the assistant secretary-general of the Global Commission for Introducing the Messenger, a Riyadh-based Islamic organization.
The video “insulted the Prophet through distorting facts and spreading falsehoods, which was condemned by Muslims as well as all those who support rightness and justice,” said Shaya, adding that the Islamic world needed to “look into” freedom of expression.
The injunction issued by the 9th Circuit Court requiring YouTube to take down the offensive “Innocence of Muslims” video based on copyright law is being challenged. Google — which own YouTube — has filed an emergency motion to stay the enforcement. Eugene Volokh has more…
An interesting piece from Al Arabiya TV criticizing an article appearing in the Arabic daily Al-Madinah. That article called for Saudi Arabia’s Commission for the Promotion of Virtue and Prevention of Vice to become more involved in monitoring social media with the purpose of protecting society from unwanted and dangerous messages.
Controlling social media is fraught with problems that make it impossible to actually do. Simply blocking the various media do not address the issues behind criticism or complaint. Blocking does, however, squelch free speech, alternate opinion, challenges to received wisdom, and dissent. While these can be uncomfortable for some, can be factually wrong, can be ‘inconvenient truths’, they are not and should not be stopped.
Never mind that the Commission doesn’t have the technical wherewithal to effectively monitor all social media. Never mind that the Saudi government’s efforts to filter the Internet are porous and can be defeated with relative ease. The point is that the attempt is wrong in principle.
Saudi religious police to monitor social media?
Eman El-Shenawi | Al Arabiya News
A Saudi columnist has encouraged the country’s religious police to monitor social media platforms such as Twitter and Facebook, targeting “evil” accounts that “promote pornography, magic and sorcery.”
In a column published in the Saudi-based al-Madina newspaper on Friday, Lulu al-Hubaishi noted that efforts by the religious police, officially known as the Commission of the Promotion of Virtue and the Prevention of Vice, to target such “vices” should be bolstered.
“The decision of the Haia (religious police) to activate its awareness and to monitor social media violations, which are difficult to control and purify in terms of contents, is extremely important in order to protect society and the youth, especially those who frequently visit social networking websites with good intentions,” wrote Hubaishi.
The writer went on to say that the police force should look beyond popular platforms, such as Facebook and Twitter.
“The New Yorker” magazine’s online site runs an article about the consequences a Saudi woman is facing after writing about the meaning of beards in the Kingdom (“silly,” in her terms). The critique could have been applied to Pakistan as well, but the article focuses on Saudi Arabia.
It’s very clear that there are subtle and not-to-subtle messages being sent by beards — shape, length, color, as well as lack of a beard. The signalling is primarily used in a religious context to identify people who share the same beliefs. As the “New Yorker” writer notes, the beards of members of the Muslim Brotherhood differ from those of Salafis and the Al-Saud, including King Abdullah, wear them differently as well.
Messing around with religious signals can be risky because it’s seen as a challenge to one’s piety. And if there’s one thing the religiously conservatives hate — and fear — is that their piety be challenged. Sometimes, as here, the result is threats to one’s life and that of one’s family.
A Saudi Woman Is Threatened After Tweeting About Beards
The controversy began—as virtually all political and religious debate in Saudi Arabia does these days—with a provocative tweet. On January 18th, Souad al-Shammary, a liberal activist with more than a hundred thousand Twitter followers, tweeted her thoughts about the idea, popular among devout Saudis, that Muslim men should grow long beards in order to differentiate themselves from unbelievers. The notion was “silly,” Shammary wrote, pointing out that “Jews, priests, Communists and Marxists” have also been known to wear beards.
Shammary is the co-founder of a group that calls itself the Saudi Liberal Network, in a country where liberaliyeen—Saudis use the English word, giving it an Arabic plural—are so widely reviled that even prominent feminists and human-rights advocates shy away from the label. She has never been popular among Saudi conservatives. But her remarks about beards were met with an unusually violent reaction. Sheikh Adel al-Kalbani, a former imam at the Grand Mosque in Mecca (in 2008, when he became the first black man appointed to the post, some in the Kingdom dubbed him “the Saudi Obama”), announced that Shammary should be tried for insulting the Prophet, adding that he prayed for her to become blind and to lose the use of a hand.
In the past month, via Twitter, thousands of conservatives have echoed Kalbani’s remarks, attacking Shammary and calling for her to be put on trial. Some have gone a step further, accusing Shammary of apostasy, an offense that carries the death penalty under Sharia law. Last week, Shammary told an interviewer for the BBC World Service that she and her family had received so many threats that she had gone into hiding.
Eugene Volokh, professor of constitutional law at UCLA and among the writers at the eponymous Volokh Conspiracy (now part of the The Washington Post‘s online presence), has an article in the Oklahoma Law Review that looks at how American law and religious law intersect. He finds that US courts are not subject to ‘creeping Shariah’ — a meme that is well-planted within the Islamophobe community, but has also led to several misguided attempts by American states to limit religious freedom.
While church and state are separate within American governance and law, religion and religious issues still play some part in American law. These laws, whether concerning contracts, arbitration, comity, or even exemptions from generally applicable law are of long standing in America. The earliest of religious accommodations dates to not long after the signing of the US Constitution, in fact. The point is that the laws apply equally to all religions, with no special preferences given to Islam.
The law review article is clear and easily read. If the subject matter is of interest, I strongly recommend it to you.
Many people worry about the possible encroachment of Sharia—Islamic law—into the American legal system. Oklahoma voters banned the use of Sharia and other religious law, though the Tenth Circuit struck down the ban precisely because it singled out Sharia by name. Other state legislatures have considered similar bans.
But in many of the instances that critics see as improper “creeping Sharia,” it is longstanding American law that calls for recognizing or implementing an individual’s religious principles, including Islamic principles. American law provides for freedom of contract and disposition of property at death. Muslims (like Christians, Jews, and the irreligious) can therefore write contracts and wills to implement their understanding of their religious obligations. American law provides for arbitration with parties’ consent. Muslims can use this to route their disputes to Muslim tribunals, just like Christians, Jews, and the irreligious often route their disputes to private arbitrators of their choice.
Saudi-owned Al Arabiya TV carries a report from Reuters News Agency about how the Saudi government monitors the Internet and social media.
The report notes that the primary target of the monitoring and rapid response to problematic commentary is aimed primarily at religious extremism. But, as the law is written, the goal is to avoid anything that might disrupt Saudi governance and society. As a result, those who call for liberal reforms can be caught as easily as those who call for extremist or terroristic violence against the state.
Officials say that they look for ‘incitement’ rather than just ‘opinion’, but where the line is drawn is seen to be too subjective. The article notes that liberal reformers are pulling back from social media in light of new laws that severely punish those promoting extremism. The target might be radicals calling for Saudis to take part in jihad in Syria, but those who call for reforms like allowing women to drive in the Kingdom fear that too-eager monitors could overly complicate their lives.
It would hep if the Saudi government had a clearer statement of purpose, spelling out exactly what is permitted and what is not. “Disruption” or “discord” (fitna) is insufficient grounds. People can become upset over all sorts of things, but ‘upsetting people’ should not be sufficient grounds for criminalizing speech.
Reuters, Riyadh –Syria’s civil war has led to a new, greater threat of Islamist radicalism in Saudi Arabia that requires a more aggressive “war of ideology” on the internet, says the man responsible for online monitoring in the kingdom.
Remarks by the head of the Saudi Ideological Security Directorate (ISD) suggest that the unit, known for keeping tabs on liberal activists and women drivers as well as Islamist extremists, is turning its focus increasingly towards those using the Internet to recruit fighters for jihad abroad.
This month King Abdullah decreed that any Saudi who goes overseas to fight faces jail terms of 3-20 years. Authorities believe 1,000-2,000 of the kingdom’s citizens have gone to Syria to join the war there.
The decree also imposes punishment on Saudis who join, glorify or give moral or material support to groups described as terrorist or extremist, a list that has not yet been published.
From an office near a firing range in a police academy in Riyadh, the ISD keeps tabs on “anything that might influence the stability of Saudi Arabia,” said its director, Abdulrahman al-Hadlaq. That broad mandate includes peaceful political or human rights activists, he said. Several have been jailed over the past year on charges that included comments made online.
In 2002, a fire at a girls school in Mecca led to the deaths of 15 students. The deaths were blamed on the way in which the General Presidency of Girls Education (a quasi-governmental agency run by religious conservatives) and the religious police. The former was accused of putting girls schools in sub-standard buildings; the latter for preventing girls from leaving the school without covering themselves in their ‘abayas’. The result was a rapid change in the power balances. The General Presidency was abolished in early 2003 and girls education was moved to the Ministry of Education, which was and continues to be responsible for boys education. The religious police were strongly condemned in the Saudi media and society started to look far more critically at how the Commission for the Promotion of Virtue and Prevention of Vice operated. [It should be noted that not all Saudis criticized the group. Indeed, journalists and editors writing about the event received threats.]
Now, according to an Associated Press report carried by Gulf News from the UAE, similar allegations that allowing the fine points of religious practice led to the death of a female university student at King Saud University in Riyadh. It is claimed that a student suffered a heart attack, but male paramedics were prevented from attending to her promptly. The university administration denies the claim.
Nevertheless, a storm has erupted on Saudi social media with claims that the enforced segregation of the sexes inevitably leads to inhumane results like this.
Riyadh: Thousands of Saudis vented their anger online over a report on Thursday that staff at a Riyadh university had barred male paramedics from entering a women’s-only campus to assist a student who had suffered a heart attack and later died.
The Okaz newspaper said administrators at the King Saud University impeded efforts by the paramedics to save the student’s life because of rules banning men from being onsite.
According to the paper, the incident took place on Wednesday and the university staff took an hour before allowing the paramedics in.
Saudi Gazette runs an article from the Saudi Arabic daily Al-Jazeera (not to be confused with the Qatar-based Al-Jazeera satellite TV channels). In it, the author notes that Saudi society is undergoing rapid change. Conversations and public discussions are far less circumscribed when it comes to the issues of what can be discussed. This is a good thing, of course.
The writer, though, is puzzled about why all these discussions somehow end up raising the issue of women in Saudi society. This, he seems to believe, is excessive and counterproductive.
Since women comprise about 50% of the population of Saudi Arabia, there is not problem — even men’s health — that does not concern and involve them. A Royal Saudi Air Force pilot is going to rely on the women in his family, be it wife, mother, sister, or aunt, to support him in many aspects of his life. He cannot do it alone. Nor are his fellow pilots, those who share most intimately the vicissitudes of his job, going to bear him children or help raise them. What happens to and about women involves every single person in Saudi Arabia, male as well as female. Sure, men and women may have separate roles to play — though not nearly as separate as religious and social conservatives might have it — but the roles overlap and support each other.
Inhibiting women’s lives in any aspect leads to losses in men’s lives. Losses in the lives of either or both sexes diminishes the potential for Saudi Arabia and its economy.
That’s why discussions always come down to ‘women’. They and the issues surrounding them are so important that they cannot be ignored.
The changes sweeping through Saudi society
Salih Al-Musallam | Al-Jazeera
Saudi society is witnessing sweeping cultural, social, economic and political changes. On the one hand, members of society have become more open-minded, while on the other, the Kingdom’s demographic characteristics are changing.
Some practices and issues used to be taboo for religious reasons and, therefore, were treated carefully. If you tried to touch on them, you would be discouraged by others. However, today, such issues are completely open for discussion. What in the past was impermissible has today become permissible. This transformation is called social evolution.
But there is one issue that has not been affected by the winds of change. It is really painful that some segments of society attribute our social practices, our backwardness, our development, our defeats, our victories, our pains, our wounds, our sad times and our happiness to one fundamental issue – women. Why is it impossible for us to discuss religion, ethics, business and culture without involving women? Why are there so many discussions about women driving cars, intermingling with men in the work place and walking around with their faces uncovered? Why do we always try to involve women in every issue as if they actually had anything to do with it?
Fahad Nazer, a Saudi analyst, has an interesting piece at Al-Monitor. In it, he looks at the way social media — as well as modern media in general — have and are changing the politics of Saudi Arabia. He says that if one steps back and looks at the changes that have occurred over the past few decades, the changes become clearer than if one only looks at the past few years. Change in Saudi Arabia is certainly happening, but it’s incremental reform, as a recent study put it.
In the article, he notes how a young Saudi host lost his job at Rotana TV because of an interview he did with a member of the Shoura Council. A social media protest flared up. The host got his job back. Saudi voices are now louder and far more numerous than they used to be. The methodology of the classroom — “shut up and respect what I say!” — is being deprecated with new pedagogic methods. It’s also being overturned on the streets and in the homes. No more can a government have absolute control of ‘the message’ as it did when there was only one TV channel. Now, satellite TV (even though it remains illegal under Saudi law) has opened the doors and windows, and hopefully the minds of Saudi audiences. And beyond just listening, Saudis are speaking up as well.
Due to its opacity, the continuing existence of traditional institutions and the generally conservative outlook of its citizens, casual observers tend to see Saudi Arabia as a relic of a bygone age where time has stood still.
However, those of us who have followed developments there over an extended period — decades as opposed to years — are likely to have a different perception. While the pace of change is slow — with Saudis favoring incremental reform to their social, political and economic institutions instead of wholesale changes implemented overnight — the political culture of the country has changed markedly. This slow evolution, however, is only observable over an extended time frame. This pace helps explain why an Arab Spring-inspired revolution has not taken place in Saudi Arabia and is not likely to happen any time soon. One can, however, be observed through the changing media environment.
Exactly when this change in understanding of what it means to be a Saudi citizen began is difficult to pinpoint. However, the 1990 Iraqi invasion of Kuwait and subsequent US-led Operation Desert Storm were seminal moments that left an indelible imprint on the psyche of Saudis.
The petroleum sector of Saudi Arabia’s economy is massive and it’s growing. Unfortunately, young Saudis aren’t able to take advantage of this because their educations simply do not qualify them for the jobs on offer.
Al Arabiya TV quotes the head of Saudi-ARAMCO criticizing the situation at the World Economic Forum in Davos.
This seems to me to be a blunt failure of the King Fahd University of Petroleum & Minerals (KFUPM), established in Dhahran, just a couple of kilometers from ARAMCO. The university was first established in 1963 to train Saudis to step into jobs next door. It has had some very limited success in doing so and is considered among the top universities in the country, but clearly it is not reaching its goal. Starting around 1980, more and more of its curriculum shifted away from the hard sciences toward theology. On my first full assignment in the US Foreign Service, I was stationed in Dhahran and KFUPM (then, just UPM; Fahd had not yet become king) was in my remit. I recall faculty and administrators — all Saudis — complaining about how the curriculum was being watered down.
The head of Saudi Aramco says a skills shortage is holding back growth in the energy industry, pointing to a mismatch between unemployment and the lack of qualified workers.
Khalid al-Falih, the President and Chief Executive Officer of Saudi Aramco, was speaking during a panel discussion at the World Economic Forum meeting in Davos.
He said the problem was widespread in the oil and gas industry.
“Here is an industry that is growing, that is very profitable… and more often than not companies in our industry are constrained by growth because of a lack of skilled human resources, while they are living or working in countries where there is high unemployment,” he said. “The issue of a mismatch… is real.”
ARAMCO continues to support the university, but it’s not getting petroleum specialists in any great number from the school these days. Today’s Arab News reports on a joint project between the two, but it’s not oil-related.