Salman Aldossary, Editor-in-Chief of Asharq Alawsat, writes more on the fact that the Saudi government is condemning the attack on Shi’ite worshipers in the Eastern Province by Sunni extremists. It truly is noteworthy and a first of its kind.
Aldossary is a bit too sanguine about how inclusive the Saudi government has been toward its Shi’ite citizens, though. Certain — Shi’a — sections of the Eastern Province were put pretty far down the infrastructure development list. The Shi’ites have had problems getting permission to build new mosques while there seems to be no limit on Sunni ability to do so. Textbooks deprecated Shi’ism and its followers and taught only Sunni orthodoxy. There are still barriers facing Shi’ites in obtaining certain government jobs. In calling protests by the Shi’ite population “provocations by a foreign power,” the government has clouded the ability to distinguish legitimate protest from foreign interference: any protest is cast as Iran’s fingers in the pie.
This could be a start to significant change. It’s a significant act, but it needs to be followed up with more acts that show that the government truly intends to be inclusive.
The Crime that Changed the Face of Saudi Arabia
Last week, the winds of change blew with a vengeance in Saudi Arabia, when armed terrorists opened fire on visitors to a Shi’ite Husseiniyah (meeting house) in the Al-Ahsa province, killing eight people, among them three children. True, this is not the first time Saudi Arabia has witnessed a crime of this nature, where innocent civilians and children have lost their lives. In fact, it has seen even worse. But it is the first time such terrorist acts have played on the country’s dissonant sectarian chord in such an ugly and dangerous way, in an attempt to fan the flames of sedition and strife between its people. It is also the first time Saudi Arabia’s Grand Mufti, and its entire Council of Religious Scholars, have come out in defense of Saudi Shi’ites in this way, and they were joined by all groups in society—unequivocally and without pretense.
It is not surprising for us in Saudi Arabia to witness Sunni members of the country’s security forces giving their lives in order to protect their fellow Shi’ite brothers. Nor is it surprising for us to witness the country’s interior minister traveling to the site of the attack to pay his respects to the families of those killed. The real surprise here, in my opinion, is that the forces seeking to incite sectarian hatred and strife between Saudis have not, on this occasion, succeeded in doing so among the vast majority of the population. This time, it was the love of Saudis for their country and their depth of feeling and sadness over the tragedy that befell their fellow citizens, that prevailed—and not the “sectarian project” that has been insidiously at work in the country for years. This time it failed miserably, and the attack in Al-Ahsa—whose perpetrators no doubt thought the incident would help further their cause—may well be the knockout punch that will end this sectarian project once and for all.
There is no denying that there are still transgressions being committed against some Shi’ites in Saudi Arabia; but we must of course make the distinction between transgressions sanctioned by the state and those committed by individuals, who no doubt think that through these actions they are upholding their “rights,” when in fact they are committing an affront to the law in a most blatant manner.
In his column for Arab News Mshari Al-Zaydi counts out the toll of terrorist attacks in the Arab world over the past week. He uses that count to excoriate Saudi Arabia’s Ministry of Islamic Affairs for not following its own rules in dealing with religious extremism in the mosques over which it claims control. With over 94,000 mosques in the country, it seems impossible for the authorities to monitor them in order to prevent extremist messages being fed to worshipers.
The column is a good example of how Saudi media relies on the readers’ understanding of issues in such a way that it can avoid actually stating facts or naming names. When he refers to the attack in Al-Ahsa, he means — but does not say — attacks on Shi’a taking part in Ashoura ceremonies. The reader is expected to know that a Husseiniya is a Shi’ite thing and that Al-Ahsa is one of the informal centers of the Shi’ite population. He does not say the attackers were Sunnis — the reader should know that, but won’t find that fact stated explicitly in media reports.
It is heartening, though, to see the Saudi religious establishment condemning sectarian violence, even if obliquely. This is something it should have been doing 50 years ago. It could not, however, because it supported the reasons, if not all of the tactics, and it became an informal government policy. Just another thing that was not stated bluntly, but simply understood. The country now gets to reap the results of what it had permitted to be sown.
A Week of Terrorist Attacks
In just one week, we have seen terrorist attacks in Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Tunisia, Syria and Iraq.
In Saudi Arabia, a group of militants attacked citizens in Al-Ahsa, killing and injuring a group of people who had gathered at a Shi’ite Husseiniya (meeting house). The gunmen, along with those who assisted this terrorist operation, were quickly pursued by Saudi security forces. One police officer and two soldiers?defenders of the nation—were killed in the subsequent counterterror response.
In Tunisia, we saw a new form of terrorism with gunmen targeting a bus transporting soldiers, resulting in the death of five.
In Egypt, there has been a series of explosions and attacks this week, not least an attack on a train that killed at least four people.
This is a summary of the events of just one week in our region. However, the most striking thing is that while terrorism is nothing new, the terrorist acts that we have seen this week have all been unprecedented in one form or another.
In Saudi Arabia, we witnessed an excellent response to the Ahsa crime from the state and the people. Saudi security forces, utilizing two decades of counterterror experience, did their duty competently while the media also played a crucial role. Saudi Arabia’s judiciary has also played an important role and we have noticed the stringent sentences that have been issued recently against terrorism-related crimes after years of deliberation.
Abdulrahman Al-Rashed again has an interesting piece at Asharq Alawsat. He points out that it is fatuous to say, in effect, “Let the extremists on our team beat up on the extremists for the other team” when it comes to matters of religion. He notes, too, that Shi’ite extremism tends to be controlled by a certain state while Sunni extremism is chaotic, completely outside the reins of control a state sponsor might impose. Worse, Sunni extremism seems to have a way of coming back to bite the states that permit it to have its way.
The real issue, though, is that the commingling of religion and state is always fraught with danger. Religion is not bound by logic and reason because it deals with matters of faith. Matters of faith are simply not accessible through reason alone and rational argument too often runs into impenetrable walls.
Sunni extremism vs. Shiite extremism
The only argument that I have heard in response to what I wrote two days ago about the dangers of extremism – which is still spreading despite the huge magnitude of the chronological events – is why would we seek to contain extremists in our community while there are extremists of all nationalities and religious doctrines out there?
Some were even more pronounced when discussing this issue with me. They told me that overriding Sunni extremism would help countries like Iran, which is supporting its brand of Shiite extremism everywhere!
Firstly, this whole notion is wrong because extremism is dangerous foremost to the community that creates and hosts it. Secondly, those who think that there is an unquestionable state of extremism and that is safer to accept it lest it devastate them – or those who say that maybe it’s better to employ extremism the way Iran and the Syrian regime have used it – will find out the true cost only later.
Writing at Foreign Policy, Caryle Murphy — who has spent considerable time in Saudi Arabia — reports that the fundamentalist view of Islam promoted by the state and supported by large parts of the population, is coming under pressure.
On both social and political fronts, the most conservative aspects of the “authorized” Salafist interpretation of Islam is being questioned by Saud youth. They do not, of course, have the field to themselves. There are those who continue to see the government as too liberal, too inclined to “succumb to foreign influence.” The government itself has vested interests, of course. But increasingly, individual Saudis are willing to question the assertions that have been drilled into them since early school years. Some, indeed, are willing to acknowledge their agnosticism or atheism, knowing that they could be legally punished for expressing such views.
The article is worth reading in its entirety.
Questioning the Faith in the Cradle of Islam
In Saudi Arabia, a new generation is pushing back against the government’s embrace of fundamentalism. But is the kingdom ready for nonbelievers?
JEDDAH, Saudi Arabia — Ahmed al-Ghamdi’s long, bushy beard and red-checked headscarf are emblems of his conservative approach to Islam, which is no surprise for a man who once supervised the Saudi religious police in the holy city of Mecca.
But it was something surprising about Ghamdi that brought me to his apartment in a scruffy, low-income section of Jeddah in the sweltering summer of 2011. I wanted to know why he had announced that, after extensive research, he could find no Islamic basis for Saudi society’s most distinctive feature: its strict gender segregation.
As his wife, sister, and mother listened in with obvious pride, Ghamdi explained that he could no longer take “at face value” religious rulings that gender mixing is haram — that is, religiously prohibited. “I wanted to go to their underpinnings, so I began collecting all the texts relating to this matter from the Quran and the Sunna [examples from the life and teachings of the Prophet Mohammed],” he said. “My conclusion was that not a single text or verse in the Quran and Sunna specifically says that mixing is haram. The word ‘mixing’ is not even in the Quran.”
Instead, he said he found plenty of texts “that proved that mixing happened at the time of Prophet Mohammed” and that “it is just another part of normal life.”
As Haj begins, Saudi Gazette runs a brief photo collection showing the Grand Mosque over the years. It is indeed interesting to see how both the mosque itself and the area surrounding it have changed over the past 60 years.
Saudi-owned Al Arabiya TV runs an interesting editorial by Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid al-Maktoum, Vice-President and Prime Minister of the UAE.
He points to the fact that ISIS can only be truly defeated if its ideology can be defeated. Military success against it, though assured, does not result in its end as it will just metastasize into a new form. He points to Saudi Arabia’s deradicalization program by name, but also notes that too many countries in the region accept the presence of extremist thought within their borders. There is currently insufficient effort being put toward teaching toleration of differences, human development, and good governance.
The intellectual battle against ISIS
Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid al-Maktoum
The global financial crisis taught the world how profoundly interdependent our economies have become. In today’s crisis of extremism, we must recognize that we are just as interdependent for our security, as is clear in the current struggle to defeat the ISIS.
If we are to prevent ISIS from teaching us this lesson the hard way, we must acknowledge that we cannot extinguish the fires of fanaticism by force alone. The world must unite behind a holistic drive to discredit the ideology that gives the extremists their power, and to restore hope and dignity to those whom they would recruit.
ISIS certainly can — and will — be defeated militarily by the international coalition that is now assembling and which the UAE is actively supporting. But military containment is only a partial solution. Lasting peace requires three bigger ingredients: winning the intellectual battle; upgrading weak governance; and grassroots human development.
Such a solution must begin with concerted international political will. Not a single politician in North America, Europe, Africa, or Asia can afford to ignore events in the Middle East. A globalized threat requires a globalized response. Everyone will feel the heat, because such flames know no borders; indeed, ISIS has recruited members of at least 80 nationalities.
Over at Al Arabiya TV, Hisham Melhem continues his critique of Arab society and politics, seeking to explain how the Arab world came to be in the situation in which it now finds itself.
He highlights the point that there is no longer any real freedom of thought in the region. Would-be intellectuals are forced into extreme positions if they wish to stay out of jail or to stay alive.
He sharply notes that while the actions of the “outsider” may prove a useful political excuse for the current state of the Arab world, it is far from an adequate excuse. He contrasts the political fortunes of Egypt and India, both becoming independent in the same year, and finds that the Egyptians — for Egyptian reasons — has fallen far behind. He further contrasts Egypt with S. Korea. Both countries had essentially similar demographics and economies in 1960, but now, Egypt has only one-eighth of S. Korea’s GDP per capita. These disparities are not accidents of faith nor are they the result of foreign oppression or interference. The stories Arabs have been telling themselves are no longer believable and populations are no longer buying into the mythology. But solving the problems can’t even start until people can start talking about them, start exploring alternatives, without having to worry whether they’ll be alive tomorrow.
Who brought the Arabs to this nadir?
In recent weeks and months I tried in this space to critique an Arab political culture that continues to reproduce the values of patriarchy, mythmaking, conspiracy theories, sectarianism, autocracy and a political/cultural discourse that denies human agency and tolerates the persistence of the old order. The article in which I said that the ailing Arab body politic had created the ISIS cancer, and a subsequent article published in Politico Magazine generated a huge response and sparked debates on Twitter and the blogosphere.
The overwhelming response was positive, even though my analysis of Arab reality was bleak and my prognosis of the immediate future was negative. Yet, these articles were not a call for despair, far from it; they are a cris de Coeur for Arabs, particularly intellectuals, activists and opinion makers, to first recognize that they are in the main responsible for their tragic conditions, that they have to own their problems before they rely on their human agency to make the painful decisions needed to transcend their predicament. These articles should be viewed through the motto of the Italian Marxian philosopher Antonio Gramsci: “Pessimism of the spirit; optimism of the will.” Pessimism of the will, means that you see and analyze the world as it is not as you wish it to be, but for this pessimism not to be fatal, it should be underpinned by the optimism of the will, to face challenges, and overcome adversity by relying on human agency.
In 2002, a fire at a girls school in Mecca claimed the lives of 15 students. An investigation into the event identified several contributing factors. Among them was the fact that many girls schools were being operated, not out of purpose-build schools, but in rented facilities that had been constructed for other purposes, often as apartments.
The situation hasn’t changed a great deal over the past decade, according to a report in Saudi Gazette. Parents of girls attending schools in Jeddah are pointing out the sub-standard buildings into which they entrust their daughters. They’re not happy about it, reasonably enough. The schools may have desks and blackboards, perhaps even computers, but they’re sorely lacking in even basic safety measures.
2,000 girls in Jeddah face danger of school collapse
Saudi Gazette report
JEDDAH — There are concerns that a two-story rented building in north Jeddah that has been converted into a government school poses a serious threat to the lives of the 2,000 girls that use it, reported Makkah daily.
The building in the Hamadaniyah area looks perfect from outside but inside it lacks all safety measures, parents and teachers claimed.
Though the building bears a signboard saying it is the 96th elementary school for girls, in fact it has also been made into an intermediate and secondary school.
The 800 elementary students come to school early in the morning and leave about at 11 a.m.
The 1,200 intermediate and secondary students will come immediately after that and remain until around 6 p.m. There is no other government school for girls in the neighborhood, which is why it looks after so many students.
Young Saudis are changing their expectations about work, Al Arabiya TV reports. Rather than waiting around for high-status/low-productivity jobs in the public sector, they are now looking at and taking jobs in the service sector. They are bucking this (recent) historical social disdain for these jobs because they realize that any moral job that pays a salary is a respectable job and that earning a salary is much better than not earning a salary. Saudi males are starting to catch up with the women, who have had far more pragmatic ideas about work.
A large number of young Saudis have joined jobs that were considered beneath them in the past and are proving that such negative traditions and norms are not an obstacle to their ambitions.
It has become normal to see young Saudis working in men’s fashion shops, restaurants and coffee shops, serving customers to acquire the experience and work culture that will allow them to achieve higher goals.
These Saudis are reflected in the recent data released by the Ministry of Labor that showed the number of Saudis working in the private sector has reached 1.47 million in 2013, representing a 332.2 percent increase from 2012.
This increase was also helped by the ministry’s Saudization efforts and the security campaigns that were conducted against illegal workers, Al-Hayat daily reported.
Writing at Al Arabiya TV, Hisham Melhem finds the origin of extremist groups like ISIS to be in the Arab penchant for “conspiracy theories, delusions, self-deception, paranoia and xenophobia.” Undemocratic societies, where government seek to control the flow of information, leave vacuums which people will seek to fill. They end up filling them with nonsense, with anger, with paranoia.
It’s worth reading his column in full. He does a good job of pointing out the various zany theories that are rippling across not only the Arab world, but the world at large. And it’s scary.
Most people are averse to introspection, and rarely engage in self-criticism. Arabs are no different. However, the political culture that developed in the Arab World in the last 60 years, particularly in countries ruled by autocratic regimes, shifted blame from their catastrophic failures in governance to other external, sinister forces. For these countries, self-criticism has become next to impossible.
Over time, this legacy has created fertile terrain for conspiracy theories, delusions, self-deception, paranoia and xenophobia. If you read an Arab newspaper or many a website in the region, you will invariably encounter some of these symptoms. Admittedly, sometimes they can be entertaining, but in most cases they are downright ugly, reflecting deep pathologies of fear.
The passage of time changes things. Rather than a vast, undelimited region across which migrating tribes traveled, there are now national borders that delineate the countries of Syria, Jordan, Iraq, Kuwait, Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, the UAE, and Oman. With the drawing of borders came nationalities; with nationalities, there came regulation, registration, and documentation.
Some of the members of the migrating tribes missed out on becoming anchored to a nationality. They, known as the Bidoon, or “stateless” suffer in various ways through their lack of anchoring. As they cannot demonstrate that they belong to any one state, they do not qualify for state-offered programs and support like education, health care, and various subsidies, as well as access to jobs. The various countries in which the Bidoon are found have offered a variety of ways in which to ‘regularize’ them, with some programs being better than others.
Saudi Gazette reports on a new Saudi initiative that will offer government-provided ID cards to the Bidoon to grant them access to at least some social programs. This will not make them Saudi citizens — they won’t be eligible for Saudi passports, for instance — but it will not leave them completely out in the cold, either.
Saudi Gazette report
RIYADH — The Directorate General of Passports (Jawazat) has issued special ID cards for the members of migrant tribes currently living at the outskirts of the Kingdom’s regions. The people of such tribes are commonly known as the Bidoon (people without identities).
Director General of the Jawazat Maj. Gen. Sulaiman Al-Yahya told Al-Hayat newspaper in a statement published Tuesday that the new ID cards would facilitate all the official procedures for these people.
“The cards look similar to the iqamas (residence permits) of the expatriates but they have many privileges over them. Their holders will be treated on equal footing with the Saudi citizen,” he said.
Al-Yahya said the data on the Bidoon are currently being collected prior to the issuance of these cards.
Arab News reports that the oldest text written in Arabic (actually, in a Nabatean-Arabic script) has been discovered in the far southwest of the country. The Arabic script appears to have been developed from several sources, including that of the Nabatean civilization that ruled to the north of current Saudi Arabia, but was known to have reached into northern Saudi Arabia at least as far as the area in which the ruins of Medain Saleh are found. The newly discovered inscription demonstrated the antiquity of trade routes to Yemen and is an important indicator of both the development of Arabic script and the history of the region.
A Saudi-French archaeological team has unearthed in Najran what might be considered the oldest inscription in the Arabic alphabet, said a spokesman from the French Foreign Ministry.
“The epigrapher Frédéric Imbert, a professor at the University of Aix-Marseille, found the Nabatean Arabic inscription about 100 km north of Najran near the Yemeni border,” said the spokesman. “The first thing that makes this find significant is that it is a mixed text, known as Nabatean Arabic, the first stage of Arabic writing,” he said.
This script had previously only ever been seen north of Hejaz, in the Sinai and in the Levant. The second is the fact that these inscriptions are dated. The period indicated corresponds to the years 469-470 AD. This is the oldest form of Arabic writing known to date, the “missing link” between Nabatean and Arabic writing, he added.