Change in Saudi Arabia- Short and Long Term

As we have all read by now, Saudi Arabia has made some changes in its government and brought in more moderates. Some changes were expected, some were nominal while others are profound.

A lot of people focused on the first woman appointee as it heralds something new, however bringing in women is an inevitable change. No matter how much certain segments of society fight this change, it will happen – and within a generation. The reasons are obvious in a country where women will be majority business owners within a decade: demographics, telecommunications and education. By the way, a week or so before these changes, the first female Saudi cultural attache was announced for Canada.

Some are talking about the change of the Justice minister which is in line with the judicial reform that started a few weeks/months ago. Plans to overhaul the system were put into action several months ago.

Others are talking about the changes in education. This is aligned with the changes in curriculum that have already been started, as well as some of the “experimental” programs that have been tried out.

Changes in SAMA, Health and Info/Culture (along with all the other changes) were necessary for stability. The word is that several people maintained their positions/ranks however they have been reformed by internal pressure- better to reform yourself than be replaced!

The next big area is of course the change in the Hayy’a head (Commission for Promotion of Virtue and  Prevention of Vice). This is where it starts to get really interesting, not because of the change in person but because of the change in status quo in the ongoing tussle between the reform agenda of the administration and the religious right. There is a constant thrust-and-parry dance between society and the Hayy’a; the King has come down on the side of society.

The most profound and long term changes are the ones in the Shoura Council. Changing the head is of  course newsworthy. However this is the first time that all four Sunni schools of thought are being represented in the Shoura Council, not just the Hanbali school. Avoiding a history lesson, Wahabbism/Salafism is an off-shoot of the Hanbali school.

Including the other schools of thought on the Shoura Council dilutes the impact of Hanbalism/Wahabbism/Salafism. This is a long term change that has the potential to change the country in unprecedented ways; it effectively weakens the alliance between the House of Saud and the idealogues of  Ibn Abdul Wahab. There are different extreme end points that can come out of this (over the next few decades):

  • the door can be opened to move from a direct monarchy towards a constitutional monarchy
  • the religious right can feel threatened and destabilize the legitimacy of the monarchy
  • the country moves in the direction of becoming the next Dubai

Reality will probably lie somewhere between these extremes. The reign of King Abdullah has initiated the internal reform process. Crown Prince Sultan will have the choice of continuing on this path or reversing its course.

Several news story that cover the recent government changes are given below:

Religious Tolerance in Saudi Arabia

Disclaimer: this post includes references to the following two news articles.  I do not know the veracity of the articles nor the legitimacy of the web-sites.

Saudi Arabia arrests Christian blogger

Pastor flees death threats

Churches, synagogues, temples are banned in Saudi Arabia however people are allowed to practice their religion in private. They are not permitted to practice in public or in large gatherings. Proselytizing is definitely banned, whether direct or indirect.

Last year was one of change. There was talk of negotiations between the Vatican and Saudi Arabia to open the first Roman Catholic church in KSA. Saudi Arabia hosted an interfaith dialogue conference in June, sponsored a 2-day UN conference to promote interfaith dialogue and is actually leading the same UN Faith Forum!

In light of these happenings in 2008 it is surprising that at the beginning of 2009 there would be reports of arresting a blogger talking about how he converted from Islam to Christianity, and death threats against the ex-pastor of a 300 person church (~ 150 members would congregate at his house, not all 300).

It would appear that the tension between the “Commission for Promotion of Virtue and Prevention of Vice” and the rest of the administration and population is heating up again. There are constant reminders of the different directions the country is being pulled in. Sometimes it is stories about probes into Vice cops raid of British universities fair and sometimes stories about arrests of Christian bloggers.

The situation is not going to get better anytime soon but at least the indicators of change are starting to appear.

Success Factors for Terrorism Rehabilitation

The concept of prisoner rehabilitation is not new. Several European countries, in addition to their regular closed prisons, also have open prisons where prisoners are called clients, there is little security, the living conditions are rather luxurious, they can leave the facility for short periods of time and have provisions for conjugal visits. In some of these countries the open prisons also include rehabilitation programs (e.g. Sweden, Finland, Greenland, Denmark, Norway and Netherlands) whereas in others (e.g. UK) open prisons are just prisons with very limited security.

The difference between the rehab programs in the Scandinavian countries and what Saudi Arabia is implementing is the type of person who ends up going to each. The former tends to house the mildest, least dangerous criminals compared to the latter that are working on people who are intent on killing others based on hatred.

Given the “clientele” of the Saudi rehab program it is imperative that they succeed. As reported by CNN, Libya has implemented a similar program, Yemen will be building a facility (US funded) and Pakistan is considering setting one up as well.

Some issues that need to be addressed include (in no particular order):

  • Program length – this was covered in my previous post on the topic
  • Religious legitimacy- Saudi Arabia is considered the home of Islam by many and thus scholars/professors/teachers educated in KSA have enormous respect and legitimacy across the globe. Having Saudi educated instructors at these rehab programs would actually be helpful as a counter-balance to the militant recruiters who carry similar credentials.
  • Funding- this is a tricky issue as the source of the funding impacts the perception of who is driving the initiative and if it respectable. A US funded program to rehab Muslims to not hate the US after being imprisoned by the US for 5-6 years without charges smacks of pandering to US interests alone. However, countries like Yemen and Pakistan do not have sufficient resources to natively implement such programs without external assistance. Maybe President Obama should send money for relief efforts in Gaza and Saudi Arabia can send similar amounts to Yemen and Pakistan instead!
  • Psychological help- many of these militants have developed mental/psychological issues due to the conditions they have endured and what they have seen. Several of them have attempted suicide. This is a huge red-flag as suicide is considered a major sin in Islam and for a person who was willing to die and kill others in the name of religion, it takes an unthinkable amount of despair, hopelessness and depression to want to commit suicide (it is the opposite end of the spectrum from being a martyr).
  • Post-completion assistance. Prisoners at these programs need assistance to be able to succeed in life after they are released:
  1. Education (literacy)
  2. Vocational training
  3. Job placement
  4. Assistance in getting married
  5. On-going support groups and sessions to ensure they do not fall off the bandwagon again.
  • Phased release. This will be important to ensure that when the prisoners are first released they do not flail around trying to find a place for themselves in society. They need to gradually integrate with society, with support instead of being left to fend for themselves. Part of this could include having working villages that can be manned by prisoners (close to being released) where they can live with their families.

the role of gossip

When wearing a scarf in the US it is not uncommon for well-meaning people to tell you that “you don’t have to wear that here, you know.” It is usually the start of a longer conversation that goes something along the lines of  ” I do it because I want to, no one is making/forcing me to wear it, the reason I wear it is… etc etc”. And of course defining what is normal, the role of peer pressure and confirming to pop culture (sometimes akin to having no choice, especially when women are younger) is part of the discussion.

KSA is interesting in that many choices are taken away by gossip. A common theme that I have found amongst people living the Saudi lifestyle (either Saudis or expats married to Saudis) is the role of gossip in defining their choices.

People talk and talk and talk about others. It almost sounds like high school in a small town where “did you see what she was wearing? did you see how fitted her abaya was? did you see her hair showing at the mall? did you see who she was with? did you see the men looking at her?” followed by the eternal “no nice/decent girl/woman would do that!” Eventually the whispers reach the mamas/papas/husbands/wives and “corrective action” is often applied.

Interestingly, for the majority of the women I have talked to thus far (young and old), this has been given as the number 1 reason to cover their faces! Not religion, not culture but anonymity- if no one knows who they are, they can do what they like without people gossiping about them. A sad reason to do something if you do not actually believe in the act.

Qutb

Saudi Arabia recently removed two books related to Qutb from it’s school libraries. One is written by him, and one is apparently about him. Extremist ideas and deviant ideology is the given reason. IT’S ABOUT TIME SOMEONE PAID ATTENTION!!

Many Muslims consider Qutb’s writings  to be the bastion of Islam without care or worry. They encourage young impressionable minds to read certain books without regard to the content and the context. Banning his books (or any book for that matter) is not the solution; however Qutb’s books need to be read with a full understanding of the context and life circumstances of the author (which is true for all authors).

Some works are particularly insidious in today’s world. Written by authors who hate the “West” and broadly stereotype everything and everyone, persecuted in their own countries, these bitter individuals are/were trying to bring about change through the only means they had available, revolution. Their writings embed the seed of revolt and encourage action, even (especially) if violent. In today’s increasingly divided world, with “us vs them” mantras, disenfranchised masses, and easy access to improvised tools of destruction, violence is becoming the first option rather than the last.

Several years ago I spoke at a gathering of 700-800 people about the need to revise Islamic school curriculums in the US. I mentioned that we have to be aware when an author is writing for political objectives, regardless of how familiar we are with his writings. Some authors teach “hate the West” philosophies which are very problematic for our youth because they too are the West! We should not be encouraging self-hate. If we want our youth to learn about social activism we need to point them towards  Malcolm X, not Qutb. They need to accept who they are and work towards changing systems- not hate who they are and lash out against the world. Instead of always allocating blame we need to take responsibility for the places where we are deliberately or inadvertently part of the problem.

Not surprisingly I was the most controversial speaker on that panel. The responses and questions fell along a generational divide. Roughly speaking, immigrants forty and older disagreed with my critique of their favorite authors; first generation youth thirty and younger agreed with what I said.

Just don’t get me started on Ibn Tahmiyah 😀