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.”
Saudi Arabia has a bit of a population problem. Early in its history, the government sought to increase the country’s population. It succeeded.
As a result, there’s been huge population growth over the past 50 years. At present, 60% of the Saudi population is under 30 years-of-age. This presents new problems, however. One of those problems is that there is a huge and growing demand for jobs. A recent report said the country needed to create 300,000 new jobs, annually, to keep up with the rising demand.
Whether the country should adopt a policy promoting limited births, however, is a contentious affair. Arab News reports on divided votes within the Shoura Council on whether such a change should be made.
Shoura Council members were divided on the issue of birth control on Tuesday during a vote on a draft law on population development issued by the Ministry of Economy and Planning.
The council’s committee on economic affairs and energy had called for the deletion of the phrase “reduce the total fertility rate by encouraging spacing between deliveries,” and replacing the term “reproductive health” with “mother and child” throughout the document.
The council voted on the recommendations by the committee, with 58 members in favor of the amendments and 64 in opposition.
In a subsequent vote on the original document proposed by the government, 70 members voted in favor while 50 opposed them. However, the vote failed to achieve the minimum 76 votes to ensure approval.
Editor-at-Large Khaled Almaeena writes at Saudi Gazette that governments need to get on top of “fifth columnists” who are promoting and supporting terrorist organizations. And that includes Saudi preachers.
Almaeena laments that governments allowed this situation to develop years ago when the problem might have been dealt with more easily. There are radicals within Saudi Arabia and within the government. Unsupervised teachers have free rein to teach extremist theology, even when they’re supposed to be teaching chemistry or math. Secretaries within ministries work to subvert the missions of those ministries if they believe them “too liberal” or “too foreign” or “not the Islam I want”. Preachers preach hate and intolerance. While the government may now be seeking to rid itself of such pestilence, it’s awfully late to the game.
This is a situation that has been allowed to fester for going on 40 years. It’s long past time to fix it.
Stop these preachers of hate!
A Gulf paper reported the suspension of the Twitter account of a Saudi preacher who urged followers on social media networking websites to celebrate the death by suicide bombing of dozens of protestors in Yemen thought to be Al-Houthis. On Twitter, Khalid Al-Ghamdi gloated over the corpses of people killed in bomb attacks in Sanaa on Oct. 9. He praised the Al-Qaeda group who carried out the attack and in his twisted way asked followers to take pleasure in watching the images of the burnt bodies. His show on Al-Wesal TV has been accused by patriotic Saudis of stoking sectarianism in the region. The sadistic comments caused outrage among peace-loving people who called for his prosecution.
Al-Ghamdi’s perverted, uncivilized and barbaric behavior is totally repugnant to the majority of Muslims all over the world. To ask people to gloat over the killing of innocent women and children reveals a demonic mind. The government is intent on fighting this evil ideology of hate, intolerance, incitement to murder and the vicious brutality of glorifying such heinous acts. However, we can’t do this by praying in mosques against “Daish”, the so-called Islamic State, or by reading circulars from the authorities asking us not to be swayed by deviants. This is a threatening evil ideology that has to be fought with serious determination and political will.
Writing at Asharq Alawsat, Mshari Al-Zaydi finds that through its online recruiting, ISIS is creating an international league of zombies — mindless creatures that stalk around wreaking havoc wherever they go. Besides being seasonally apt for Halloween, he’s right.
ISIS is able to mobile seemingly brainless youths to join its fight. In addition to the foreigners recruited to fight that he lists, three American teenage girls were stopped in Germany on their way to Syria last week. The attraction of adventure, seeking a break from their boring lives, these youths seem ensorceled by the promise of something different from what they’re living. Instead of the commonplace that terrorists arise out of poverty and unemployment, we’re finding that they can very much be those dealing with “First World Problems“. The recruits are ignorant of Islam, of Islamic history, of regional politics. Those don’t matter at all. It’s that they want to be seen (at least to themselves) as doing something other than what they are doing.
The Zombies of ISIS
A Canadian national named Michael Zahaf-Bibeau, aged 32, made the headlines this week when he carried out a terrorist attack in Ottawa, killing one soldier standing guard at a war memorial before storming the nearby parliament. He was killed in the subsequent firefight with security officers.
Is there more to this story?
According to local media, Michael Zahaf-Bibeau’s mother is Canadian while his father is Libyan. He did not speak Arabic. In his youth, he had wanted to travel to Libya to learn the language and study Islam. He had a criminal record. His parents are separated. He has been seeking to travel to Syria to join the terrorist Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS).
At the time of writing this article, everything else regarding Zahaf-Bibeau’s motive and intentions is mere speculation.
The media reports delving into Michael Zahaf-Bibeau’s past paint a picture of a confused and angry young man. A man who wanted to express the anger and uncertainty that was boiling inside of himself; a man who wanted to prove something to the world.
Ultimately, Zahaf-Bibeau appears to be completely ignorant of true Islam, just like the two Austrian teenage girls who traveled to join ISIS, and the two British Somali schoolgirls who ran away to join this terrorist organization, as well as countless others. These people have no concept of religion, history or politics; if they did they would never join ISIS in the first place.
Just a few years ago, the idea of physical education for girls was one that led to huge arguments in the Saudi population and, consequently, one the Saudi government preferred to avoid.
That’s changed. Not only is physical education becoming part of the curriculum in girls schools, but the government is establishing 1,000 “fitness and social clubs” around the country, Arab News reports.
The wars over what’s acceptable for women are hardly finished. There are still many Saudis who find the idea morally dangerous and fight against it. For now, though, they’ve lost the battle.
Ministry plans 1,000 fitness clubs for girls
JEDDAH: FOUZIA KHAN
The Ministry of Education plans to launch 1,000 fitness and social clubs for girls around the country by the end of 2015.
Noura Al-Fayez, deputy minister of education for girls, said on Wednesday that the aim is to ensure these clubs are for members of the community, particularly young people, to develop a range of skills.
Al-Fayez made the comments on Wednesday during a tour of a club in Riyadh.
Al-Fayez was welcomed by Samira Sheaibi, assistant director of the girls education department in Riyadh; Nadia Al-Ghyshian, assistant general supervisor of the program; Nora Alkanaan, director of the Shifa education office; Nora Budaiya, director of the club; and several supervisors and management activity directors.
Writing for Al Arabiya TV, Hisham Melhem, Washington Bureau Chief for the network, reports on a fascinating conference held in Abu Dhabi last week. The conference discussed just about every facet of the discord that now defines the region. Worth reading in its entirety.
Of domestic demons and aggressive neighbors
Last week a group of scholars, current and former officials and journalists from the Middle East, U.S., Europe, Russia and China met for two days at the inaugural forum of the Abu Dhabi Strategic Debate, sponsored by the Emirate Policy Center. We met to discuss and ponder what can be done about Syria and Iraq – two countries in flames – and to ask are there any chances to prevent Yemen and Libya from moving on the same path of nihilism, whither Egypt after almost four years of tumult and uncertainty, the impact of non-Arab regional powers like Iran and Turkey on the ongoing conflicts of the Arabs, and the major powers policies (assuming that they have coherent ones) toward the Gulf region. And like most conferences the participants met but not necessarily their ideas.
Most of Saudi Arabia’s efforts toward solving its unemployment programs have gone toward finding jobs for men. But not all of them.
The Saudi government has “feminized” lingerie and women’s accessories shops, permitting only Saudi women to work in them and limiting the access to those shops by males. Now, Saudi Gazette reports, gold and jewelry shops are coming into focus as a women-only domain. New regulations are being kicked around that will see women as the primary employees of these shops, though details are still to be worked out. The women will replace mostly expat employees, most of whom come from S. Asia.
I’m not sure that 100% of jewelry and gold shops can work with only-female staff. Saudi men do buy jewelry and not always in the company of their wives. Some sort of accommodation will have to be found for them. Whatever the solution, the cost of jewelry will go up as shop owners have to make changes to make their shops suitable for female employees. The government might offer one-time financial assistance in making these changes, but that will have to be addressed in the regulations.
Move afoot to employ women in jewelry shops
Naheel Abdullah | Saudi Gazette
JEDDAH — The Ministry of Labor is working on a new regulation to employ Saudi women at jewelry shops, according to Fahd Al-Tekhaifi, deputy minister for special programs.
The ministry will soon post the draft regulation on its electronic gate of “Together We Improve” in order to have feedback from businessmen, jobseekers and members of society prior to finalizing the regulation.
Al-Tekhaifi said the ministry considers that jewelry shops are one of the major areas that can provide jobs for a large number of young women jobseekers. He noted that jewelries and gold market are one of the key areas designated for Saudization as per a royal decree issued three years ago. Owners of jewelry shops will be instructed to employ Saudi women after meeting all the terms and conditions put forward by the ministry in this respect, he said.
Al-Tekhaifi said the conditions will vary in accordance with the location of jewelry shops, which are either inside indoor commercial centers or outdoor souks or separate locations. The conditions are aimed at guaranteeing safe and suitable work environment for women.
Saudi media are reporting on the Grand Mufti’s assertion that Twitter is the “source of evil.” While he acknowledges that it could be used for the good, he believes it has been misused and has now become a source of “lies and falsehoods.”
There are certainly no “truth filters” on Twitter — or anywhere else on the Internet. It is up to the individual to discern truth from falsehood. But that requires an education that enables one to do that critical thinking. Saudi education, so far, does not provide that. Instead, it focuses on what authority figures say the truth is. And when those authority figures are found to be in error on any issue, it weakens both them as individuals and whatever system of authority has been established.
RIYADH — The microblogging site Twitter is nothing more than “a source of lies” and evil, the Kingdom’s Grand Mufti said.
“If it were used correctly, it could be of real benefit, but unfortunately it’s exploited for trivial matters,” Sheikh Abdulaziz Aal Alsheikh said on his “Fatwa” television show broadcast late Monday.
Twitter is “the source of all evil and devastation,” he said.
“People are rushing to it thinking it’s a source of credible information but it’s a source of lies and falsehood.”
The Kingdom has 2.4 million active Twitter users, accounting for 40 percent of all active Twitter users in the Arab world, according to the sixth edition of the Arab Social Media Report.
From Arab News:
Saudi Gazette translates a piece from Okaz, its Arabic daily sister paper on the question of wasta, the use of influence and connections to get things done.
Wasta can help or hurt, depending on whether it’s being used for or against one’s interests. This is something that the Senior Board of (Islamic) Scholars acknowledges when it condemns as haram its use when it offends the rights of others. But Saudi society is built on the patron:client model, where patrons — whether within a family or tribe or otherwise — are expected to use their influence to help members of their group. It’s the rare occasion when its use does not hurt another, if only by denying him a just opportunity. Still, it is expected and to not use wasta can result in condemnation from the family.
The writer of the piece offers a wholly unworkable solution: a fixed number of uses of influence. While this might reduce the extent of the use of influence — the patron would have to save up his chances for the really important ones — it does nothing to address the fact that by favoring one over another because of connections, an injustice is still being permitted.
Who said wasta is haram?
Ahmad Ajab Al-Zahrani | Okaz
There are several practices that have taken place in our society so often that they have become norms that are passed down from one generation to another. Today, it gets more and more difficult to discuss and debate these practices and whether they are lawful, legitimate or unfair and whether or not they damage society. Wasta (using influence to get people to do something for you) is definitely one of these practices.
I can swear that not a week goes by without a senior official being involved in wasta. Someone calls him and tells him that he has been sent by such and such a person and he needs help. Maybe the person who wants help is a father who wants to get his son into university by getting around the system or who wants to find a job for his son and asks the official to help.
Many people do not know that wasta according to the law against bribery is actually a crime. The law stipulates that any government official who fails to perform his duties honestly and breaches the trust placed in him by doing or refraining from doing an act at the request of someone else is guilty of committing an act of bribery, punishable by up to three years and a fine of not more than SR100,000. It is natural that a large number of people are not aware of this fact because the issue, as I mentioned earlier, is sensitive and it is difficult to discuss it, let alone work toward ending it.
Saudi media break with common practice by citing the name of a young Saudi believed to have left his education program in Australia to join a terrorist group in Syria or Iraq. Usually, Saudi media avoids naming names, but here — likely because of the family’s concern about their son — they do mention it. I think the article is intended, too, to alert other Saudi parents to the possibility of their children’s being suborned while abroad. What is notable, too, is the speed with which this story is being reported. The family sought assistance from the government of Australia just three days ago. This suggests that the Saudi government is on very high alert for wandering students studying abroad.
The Saudi student who “mysteriously” disappeared in Malaysia last month is believed to have joined one of the terrorist groups in Syria or Iraq, his brother told Al Arabiya.net.
Meshaal Suhaimi, who joined an English-language program in Sydney, Australia, last year, has been missing since Sep. 20. Suhaimi reportedly stopped attending his classes and left for Malaysia instead.
“He is young. And he is a conservative Muslim. He was definitely [indoctrinated],” said his brother, Mohammad Suhaimi. “We received pictures from one of his colleagues in Australia that prove that he is in a conflict zone.”
Saudi Gazette runs a similar story:
The Washington Post runs an Associated Press report noting that this year’s Haj was free of both Ebola and MERS. Saudi public health authorities took measures to reduce the risk, up to the point of barring pilgrims from certain West African countries from taking part in Haj and continuing their visa restrictions on the sick and elderly from all other countries. I think this has to be considered a public health success.
MINA, Saudi Arabia — Saudi Arabia’s acting health minister said Monday that this year’s hajj has been free of Ebola and other contagious diseases because of measures taken by the kingdom to protect more than 2 million pilgrims who took part in the annual Islamic pilgrimage.
The hajj, which lasts around five days, ends Monday. Pilgrims began leaving the desert tent city of Mina, where they were taking part in the ritual of the stoning of the devil, one of the last rites of the hajj. Many headed back to Mecca, ending the hajj as they started it by circling the cube-shaped Kaaba seven times.
There were concerns regarding Saudi Arabia’s readiness to ensure a healthy hajj for pilgrims after the kingdom became the epicenter for the potentially fatal Middle East Respiratory Syndrome, or MERS. Several health workers and doctors died of that coronavirus in Saudi Arabia earlier this year, raising alarm about the safety of hospital.
Khaleej Times from the UAE runs a similar article based on a Reuters report. This report also acknowledges the heightened effort Saudi security personnel took to keep those without Haj permits out of the holy city.
The millennia-old pilgrimage to Mecca is mashing up with the smart-phone-potentiated selfie photo and not everyone is happy about it.
Saudi media are all reporting on the new phenomenon of pilgrims taking selfies and uploading them to the Internet. Some see it as just something that people will do. Others find it to be disrespectful, obnoxious, and maybe even blasphemous.
Arab News and Saudi Gazette carry a report from Agence France Presse that is typical of the reporting…
MINA (AFP): Raising his arm, Yousef Ali hugs his elderly father in front of one of the Haj sites as they pose for a selfie — a new trend that has hit this year’s Haj. But not everyone is happy about young pilgrims from around the world constantly snapping “selfies,” as they carry out the rites of Haj.
Haj is world’s largest religious gatherings of Muslims. It has attracted over two million believers this year.
“As this is my first pilgrimage, it is important for me to document all the events taking place around me,” Ali, 24, told AFP, snapping a picture of himself.
“Wherever I go, I take pictures,” the casually dressed Kuwaiti pilgrim said with a smile.
The increasingly popular phenomenon has sparked controversy among some Muslims.
Maktoob, the Yahoo! news portal, has a slideshow based on the imagery: