The Washington Post runs an article from the Associated Press, under a somewhat exaggerated headline, noting that the King Abdullah International Center for Interreligious and Intercultural Dialogue in Vienna is coming in for criticism.
The critics want the Center to condemn Saudi human rights abuses which include capital punishment, flogging, and jailing Saudi critics. Supporters say that Austria, Spain, the Vatican and others were well aware of the status of human and religious rights in Saudi Arabia before they signed on to support the Center. What’s more, human rights aren’t exactly the issue the Center was formed to address. It was set up to provide a venue where people of different religions could meet and discuss issues of religion as well as to create value by demonstrating that they could do that without calling each other pagans and apostates.
VIENNA — Austria was enthusiastic when Saudi Arabia said it was ready to bankroll a center for religious and cultural understanding in Vienna — but two years after its launch, the desert kingdom’s foray into promoting a more open society abroad while continuing to repress rights at home is in tatters.
Its vice president, a former Austrian justice minister, has quit over comments interpreted as downplaying Saudi beheadings. And the center’s silence over the flogging of a Saudi blogger for criticizing Islam has drawn weekly street protests and condemnation from Austria’s chancellor — who said the nation “will not tolerate” the center’s refusal to repudiate Saudi human rights violations.
“I believe that the center needs to be done away with,” said demonstrator Norbert Brandl outside the turn of the century downtown palace housing KAICIID — the King Abdullah Bin Abdulaziz International Center for Interreligious and Intercultural Dialogue. “Either that or it has to speak up against these unbelievable incidents.”
According to an article in Arab News, King Salman is continuing the efforts of the late King Abdullah to encourage religious moderation and toleration. Speaking at an event sponsored by the Muslim World League, he decried those who “abuse Islam” and drive people from it.
Custodian of the Two Holy Mosques King Salman has called on Muslims to shun intolerance and extremism, work to unify their ranks and seek international cooperation.
King Salman made these comments during a reception at his palace in Riyadh for the scholars and experts who participated in the international counter-terrorism conference organized by the Muslim World League (MWL) in Makkah earlier this week.
King Salman also said that Saudi Arabia “is the land of Islam that implements the Shariah in all walks of life.” He said Saudi kings have been proud of having the title of Custodian of the Two Holy Mosques. “We ask the Almighty to guide us so that we can serve our religion of tolerance.”
He said Islam is a religion of moderation. “We have to follow what is stated in the Qur’an, the Sunnah of the Prophet, peace be upon him, and his followers. We should not alienate people. There are people who abuse Islam and drive people away from it. We beseech Allah to return them to their senses.”
In an op-ed for Al-Arabiya TV, Hisham Melhem, the station’s Washington bureau chief, offers a critique of Pres. Obama’s penchant for vague language when it comes to dealing with terrorism committed in the name of Islam. In seeking to avoid any possible offense with his language, the President and his administration end up using wishy-washy terms devoid of any actual meaning.
Arab and Muslim societies, Melhem writes, do have a problem and it’s one that’s largely self-created. Too many leaders have used religion as a tool of manipulation. Too many have created shadows on the wall to demonize the West. Too many have allowed absurd “religious” inspirations to deflect attention from very real problems created by those leaders.
Failing to acknowledge what the problem is — and it’s not a “lack of jobs,” contrary to what a State Dept. spokeswoman claimed from her pulpit — cannot lead to a solution to the problem. The main burden is on Arab and Muslim society and those who govern them. Pretending it is not will not and cannot lead to a solution.
Violent extremism vs Islamist extremism
“The limits of my language mean the limits of my world”
President Obama is a wordsmith. His relatively short political life has been chiseled and shaped by the possibilities and the limits of his language. He bursts on the national stage when he delivered a memorable keynote address at the 2004 Democratic National Convention. In fact, he defined his campaigns and his presidency by few pivotal speeches that tried to explain his vision of America, domestic decisions, and how he sees the world. Obama the wordsmith struggled with his language the way Obama the president struggled with his decisions. And just as his leadership style and some of his decisions were characterized by tentativeness, excessive caution and deliberation, his language can also oscillate between that which is inspirational and that which is deliberately ambiguous, deceptive and downright Orwellian. His framing of the Syrian conflict and his claims that his options were the extremes of doing nothing or invade Syria are a case in point.
Apparently lacking anything more important to do, Saudi Arabia’s Shoura Council has decided to wade into the issue of what female TV presenters wear while on the air, according to this Arab News report. They’re not entirely out of sync with Saudi society, though, as many were outraged when a female Saudi diplomat at the UN had the effrontery to address the Security Council while not wearing hijab and abaya.
Can one be Saudi without wearing national costume? Apparently not.
Shoura passes dress code law for women TV anchors
JEDDAH: P.K. ABDUL GHAFOUR
The Shoura Council has passed a new law that would make it mandatory for women TV anchors working in the Kingdom to wear modest dress and not show off their beauty.
Ahmed Al-Zailaee, chairman of the media committee at the consultative body, said once the law is passed by the Cabinet it would apply to all women media workers in the Kingdom, including those of MBC and Rotana.
Latifa Al-Shualan, a Shoura member, expressed surprise at the council’s interest in the dress code of women TV anchors, and said there are other more important issues to tackle.
“There are many other pressing issues such as the danger posed by the media activities of the so-called Islamic State terrorist group,” she said.
The politics of today’s Middle East are so complex and rife with contradiction that Saudi Arabia’s Grand Mufti is warning the clerics under his supervision to just stay out of them. By indulging in political discourse from the pulpit, they are only making things more confusing. Given the clerics’ narrow education, focused solely on theology and religious law, this is wise. Al Arabiya TV republishes an item appearing in Al-Watan Arabic daily:
Saudi Grand Mufti Sheikh Abdulaziz al-Sheikh warned religious clerics to stay away from politics as it is murky and changing, the local al-Watan news website reported Wednesday.
The grand mufti, who advised clerics to check facts when discussing politics, also urged them to further showcase the danger of violence espoused by radical groups who claim to be Islamic.
While calling for unity, he described political wrangling as futile due to it not being in the service of God.
He cautioned that clerics should take into considerations the risks facing the kingdom.
In an op-ed in Asharq Alawsat, also republished at Al Arabiya TV, Abdulrahman al-Rashed expands upon the theme:
The religious establishment in Saudi Arabia is very averse to foreign holidays, particularly those that might carry any religious significance. As a result, they rail against “imported” and “un-Islamic” celebrations ranging from Valentine’s Day to Halloween and Christmas, and even birthday celebrations. These foreign influences, they believe, introduce shirk or some sort of polytheism into an Islamically pure society.
Saudi merchants, however, aren’t quite so convinced (nor are large segments of the general population). Saudi Gazette reports on how merchants work to avoid the bans on selling holiday-related goods.
‘Forbidden occasions’ a chance to boost sales
Saudi Gazette report
JEDDAH — Most retail stores, including gold shops, are waiting for what they call “forbidden occasions”, or celebrations that cannot be observed in the Kingdom.
These events start with the recent Valentine’s Day this month and end with Mother’s Day at the end of March and are often seen as crucial to helping markets recover from the annual quiet period of sales that starts after the end of Haj.
Some businessmen doubt sales will increase because the Commission for the Promotion of Virtue and Prevention of Vice bans such celebrations and tour the markets to ensure that they are not selling related merchandise, but others see a significant increase in sales that could reach up to 100 percent compared to the previous four months, Al-Madina reported.
Saif Ali, manager of a gold shop in Jeddah, said the forbidden occasions starts on Feb. 14, Valentine’s Day, and most businessmen see them as an opportunity to increase sales by up to twice as normal.
Al Arabiya TV reports on the flap that followed a Saudi cleric’s assertion that the Earth does not circle the Sun. Mockery ensued on social media, quite as it should have done. Some noted with particular irony that he made his statement on Galileo’s birthday.
A Saudi cleric has appeared in a recent video rejecting the fact that the Earth revolves around the Sun and claiming the opposite holds true, prompting a wave of social media remarks.
Answering a student question on whether the Earth is stationary or moving, Sheikh Bandar al-Khaibari replied: “stationary and does not move.”
He then attempted to support his argument by quoting some clerics and selected religious statements. But his most controversial method to debunk the rotation theory was a “logical” deduction in which he used a visual.
Saudi Gazette reports on a statement from the Saudi government condemning murders in both Copenhagen and Chapel Hill, North Carolina that are apparently based on religious intolerance.
KSA condemns terrorist acts in Copenhagen, North Carolina
Saudi Gazette report
RIYADH — The Kingdom has followed up with great sorrow the heinous terrorist and criminal incidents in Copenhagen and North Carolina which resulted in killings and injuries to innocent people, the Saudi Press Agency quoted an official source as saying on Sunday.
The Kingdom called for the need for respecting religious beliefs and halting incitement against Muslims.
At the same time it stressed its rejection of all heinous terrorist and criminal acts in all their forms and manifestations, and any source or belief that stands behind them.
The Kingdom offered its condolences to the families of the victims of terrorism and their relatives, wishing the injured people a speedy recovery.
It also runs, in another section of the paper, a brief comment noting that American Christians in Texas helped an Islamic center damaged by fire by offering space until the damage can be repaired.
The government seems to be making an effort to encourage religious tolerance.
Faisal Abbas, Editor-in-Chief of Al Arabiya English, has a good editorial today. In it, he writes about the appearance of a Saudi “historian” on Rotana Khalijjiya TV, in which he stated that Saudi Arabia shouldn’t let women drive because it exposes them to rape. It won’t do to emulate other countries because they don’t care if their women get raped. The female presenter met this assertion with the laughter it deserved.
Laughter and mockery are good, Abbas says, but not enough. There needs to be strong push-back, on the air and in other media to counter absurd assertions, as there was following that of a Saudi cleric who said that driving would damage women’s ovaries. I agree, but I also think the mockery should continue. Saudi Arabia has a long history of using mockery as a weapon and it is an effective one. When people beclown themselves, they should be laughed at.
It’s noteworthy that Abbas specifically abjures calling for government action to quiet fools. There is not need to take legal action when social action can achieve the same end.
What is the relation between Saudi women driving and rape?!
Faisal J. Abbas
Media outlets should always remember that they have a responsibility towards informing the public and as such, must always strive to adhere to the highest possible standards of professionalism and journalistic ethics.
Many might find it strange that one has to repeat what is – without doubt – the very soul and essential cornerstone of our profession.
However, when reputable Arab television channels are being used as a platform for a clown of the caliber of Saudi historian Saleh al-Sadoon, one wonders whether our job is inform, stimulate minds and raise questions or simply serve as meaningless, yet somewhat entertaining, optical chewing gum for the masses.
The Washington Post runs an analysis of human rights issues in Saudi Arabia. The piece notes that the Kingdom receives low marks on whatever metric is being used to measure liberty interests, including women’s rights, free speech, and religious freedom. The quandary is that most Saudis are not calling for changes in the way things work and, what’s more, it has been the government at the forefront of change and liberalization.
The US government, the article notes, is not eager to get involved in pushing for reform when there’s no popular support for reform. It would rather leave it to the Saudi government to implement changes at a pace acceptable to Saudi society.
The article also points to the question marks hanging over the changes in government following the ascension of King Salman, not noted as a reformer himself.
For almost 70 years, Saudi Arabia has been a vital U.S. ally in the Middle East. The relationship, which famously opened in a meeting on the Suez Canal between President Franklin D. Roosevelt and the first Saudi king, Abdul Aziz ibn Saud, is based around shared concerns about regional security and crude oil supplies. It has proved remarkably durable, despite a rapidly changing world.
Over the past few months, however, something seems to have shifted. Americans and other Westerners seem to have grown more and more skeptical about the true nature of their ally. In particular, an unusual set of circumstances — including the fearsome rise of the Islamic State, the death of Saudi King Abdullah and renewed concerns about Saudi links to the 9/11 attacks — has led to a significant public debate about Saudi Arabia’s true values.
One particular source of concern has been the state of human rights in the country, highlighted by a spate of public executions and the high profile punishment of liberal blogger Raif Badawi, who was sentenced to 1,000 lashes for “insulting Islam” last year.
Saudis are prickly when it comes to privacy. They hesitate to mention the names of female members of their families. There was a movement to ban camera-enabled cell phones because they put cameras in the hands of everyone. And of course, face veils serve to protect the privacy of women.
Saudi Gazette reports that the ubiquitous cameras can present legal problems, particularly when paired with the Internet. Fines of up to half a million Saudi Riyals can be assessed for improperly posting pictures of individuals who have not given their permission to do so.
The downside of street photography
Taking pictures as a hobby can lead you straight to prison if you violate the cybercrime law and post the picture online.
Saudi Gazette report
TAKING photos in public, once an unthinkable social breach is now the norm thanks to smart phones.
The emergence of social media websites, coupled with the Kingdom’s high Internet adoption rate, has made it possible for Saudis to post and exchange photos they take with their smart phone cameras in real time.
However, sometimes the photos taken can offend members of society and this has created a debate on the issue of privacy rights, Al-Riyadh daily reported.
It seems that the majority of Saudis as well as members of the expatriate community are unaware of the Kingdom’s cybercrime law, which sets out penalty and fines for such actions.
For example, Article 3 of the law sets a penalty of one-year imprisonment or a fine that does not exceed SR500,000 for anyone who uses a cell phone to take a picture that violates the privacy rights of others and then posts the picture on social media websites.
A Saudi cleric has been sentenced to two years’ imprisonment by a special criminal court (that is, the anti-terrorism court) for issuing fatwas calling for Saudis to travel to Syria to take part in extremist group activities.
Saudi jailed, fined for issuing fatwas
JEDDAH: MD AL-SULAMI
A special criminal court in Riyadh on Thursday sentenced a Saudi to a two-year jail term with a travel ban for another two years for issuing fatwas (religious edicts) against the ruler of the country, and traveling to Syria to join an extremist group and fight there violating the government’s ruling. He was also fined SR3,000.
The court also found that the defendant underwent training in weapons. His detention during the trial would be deducted from the total jail time.