Rob L. Wagner روب لستر واقنر

January 3, 2012

News Analysis: Saudi Arabia — ‘Female Body is Battleground in The War to Stem Reform’

By Rob L. Wagner

MidEastPosts

3 January 2012

As Saudi women celebrate their progress in gaining voting rights and expanded employment opportunities, conservatives have intensified their campaign to marginalize those achievements in a new round of attacks targeting liberal Saudi writers and thinkers sympathetic to the women’s movement.

Saudi newspaper columnist Saleh Al-Shehi made a vague critical comment on Twitter at the Saudi Intellectual Forum at Riyadh’s Marriott Hotel that men and women were behaving “shamefully” by socializing during breaks. He implied Saudi men are aiding and abetting the corruption of women in the name of progress. One leading woman writer described the tweet as opening “the gates of hell.”

Saudi Arabia’s internal cultural and religious wars over the last decade have focused on women’s rights issues almost to the exclusion of everything else. Voting, running for public office, employment, education and women’s bodies rarely go unmentioned among religious conservatives railing against the perceived corrupting influences of the West. In essence, the female body has become the battleground in an ongoing war to stem reform.

Saudi women activists and Islamic feminists over the past year have aggressively pursued male allies to help advance their cause. And many forum participants offer varying levels of support to better integrate women into society.

Conservatives, however, see the changing role of women a threat to the stability of society, especially considering that gender segregation is ingrained in the daily lives of all Saudis.

Al-Shehi’s Twitter shot heard throughout the kingdom took on a life of its own on Facebook and the online Saudi newspaper Mmlkah (Kingdom), which reported the incident. The coverage gave conservatives ammunition that Saudi Arabia’s liberal writers and intellectuals crossed the line with flagrant immoral behavior.

The Saudi Intellectual Forum was the second conference held in eight years to bring together more than 1,000 writers and thinkers. A key speaker was Princess Adela Bint Abdullah, daughter of King Abdullah and the wife of the kingdom’s education minister, Prince Faisal Bin Abdullah Bin Muhammad Al-Saud. Among the attendees were author Abdo Khal, winner of the 2010 International Prize for Arabic Fiction for his book “She Throws Sparks.” Khal often writes about individuals living on the margins of Saudi society, which led the Saudi government to ban some of his work as un-Islamic. Also participating was Saudi novelist Badriah Al-Bishr. The conference concluded Dec. 29.

Al-Shehi’s tweet in Arabic said, “I have believed that the so-called enlightenment culture project in Saudi Arabia revolves around women.” He added that it was shameful. Al-Shehi tweeted during a break in events while in the Marriott lobby crowded with men and women. Almost immediately, photographs circulated online showing Khal and other men speaking in close quarters with Saudi women. Mmlkah implied the photos were taken at the forum, but were actually taken at a 2010 Qatar conference. The tweet, according to some participants, implied that Saudi intellectuals and writers were not promoting cultural awareness, but pursuing an agenda of corruption.

A Facebook user identified as Lamh Al-Khawater from Bahar Al-Makhatr (some thoughts from the sea of danger) posted a link to the Mmlkah article on the popular Facebook page run by Dr. Sabah Abu Zinadah. Zinadah writes on social issues and has more than 5,000 followers. Al-Khawater wrote, “Does being educated mean to strip off our values and our morality and cross the red lines?”

Coverage from Mmlkah featured several photographs of forum participants and screenshots of the tweets. Al-Shehi’s comments earned praise from Sheikh Muhammad Al-Oraifi. “(He) is a good man and I have found him smart, wise and educated and (he) cares about his country and religion,” he wrote.

Dr. Sunhat Al-Otaibi wrote on Facebook that, “Saudi Arabia’s new elites have turned to eve-teasing (flirting) and exchanging numbers and dates and shameless behavior. (It’s) a Westernizing project to corrupt women.”

Khal threatened Al-Shehi with a defamation complaint if he did not apologize, but the harshest remarks came from Saudi writer Lamia Baeshen, an academic specializing in English literature. She invoked an Islamic rebuke that shakes up even the most stalwart Muslim conservative. “Hasbi allahu wa ne’mal wakeel (“Allah alone is sufficient for me and is the best trustee of my affairs.” Muslims generally interpret this as “I delegate Allah as my attorney to give me justice from you”),” she wrote on Facebook.

“You have opened gates of hell,” she added.

By threatening a defamation complaint, or more accurately libel, Khal raised the stakes in the war over cultural values, attitudes about women’s social behavior and the price paid for damaging reputations. While the burden of proof for defamation and libel is set high in Western democratic countries, the threshold is much lower in Saudi Arabia. A Saudi’s honor and personal and religious reputation often are the keys to professional success. A Saudi can face professional and personal ruin if his religious faith and morality are impugned and the allegations go unchallenged.

Yet, as personal attacks via Twitter and Facebook grow and the ironclad protections against libel once found in Saudi print media diminish, establishing personal and professional harm has become more difficult.

Westerners are often baffled over controversies involving men and women socializing in the same room, but Saudi society strictly adheres to gender segregation to avoid improper conduct. Separating men and women goes to the heart of Islam’s definition of morality. Men and women meeting in the lobbies of Jeddah’s upscale hotels are relatively common, but Riyadh hotels follow a stricter code of conduct. However, Riyadh’s Marriott Hotel staff members often overlook such interactions since foreigners often can only conduct business with Saudi businesswomen in a public lobby.

Some Saudi journalists view the Marriott incident as an expanded effort by conservatives to tame influential male intellectuals supporting the suffrage movement. Until last year, women activists have largely fought the battle alone. In 2009, 13 Saudi women journalists complained to the Ministry of Interior that the online newspaper Kul Al-Watan defamed them by alleging that “women journalists rely on illicit relationships with newspaper bosses to get support and fame.” In March 2011, Amal Zahid and Amira Kashgari, prominent writers on women’s issues for Al-Watan, were banned from writing.

One Saudi woman journalist said the mere suggestion of immoral behavior not only could leave a career in tatters, but also create a roadblock and even reverse advances in women’s rights.

“It’s not necessarily religious people who think this way,” she said. “It’s people blinded by backwardness and tribal culture. You look at what happened in the Marriott lobby and say to yourself, ‘How silly, it’s a big deal over nothing.’ But it is a big deal. If the men who support our cause are silenced for fear of being accused of corrupting Saudi women, we will get nowhere.”

October 19, 2011

For Saudi Terror Suspects, a Legal Fog

By Rob L. Wagner

The Media Line

19 October 2011

Judges define terrorism on the fly, lawyers hesitate to defend them

The trials of suspected terrorists this month in Saudi Arabia bring good news and bad news. The good news is that accused extremists are getting their day in court after as long as five years of detention without trial. The bad news is that justice remains elusive.

Christoph Wilcke, the Saudi Arabia researcher for New York-based Human Rights Watch (HRW), told The Media Line that kingdom has improved its approach to bringing suspected terrorists to trial. But he says continuing “flawed” court proceedings may deny justice.

“There were two major shifts in late 2008 to mid-2009 when Saudi Arabia decided to move [defendants] to trial,” Wilcke says. “All of these guys were put on trial and some were let out of prison. And earlier this year they [the Saudi government] decided to open trials.”

Saudi authorities see the new wave of public trials a huge step towards legal transparency. HRW sees the deck stacked against the defendants.

Wilcke says that terror defendants lack competent legal representation, a clear-cut understanding of the charges against them and due process.

In Riyadh, 16 Saudis and one Yemeni are on trial in Specialist Penal Court on 97 charges of belonging to a terrorist cell with links to Al-Qaeda in Syria. Prosecutors allege the defendants, who the court does not identify, plotted attacks in Saudi Arabia to destroy oil wells. The cell also allegedly planned to assassinate a Shiite cleric in an effort to spark sectarian violence.

In a Jeddah court, a top member of the notorious Turki Al-Dandani extremist cell admitted to unspecified terrorism charges against him. The cell leader rejected an offer for a lawyer and asked for the death penalty in order to become a martyr. Saudi authorities say the Turki Al-Dandani cell is responsible for the bombings of three residential compounds in May 2003 that left 239 people dead and injured.

In a separate trial underway in Jeddah, seven men face charges of plotting bombing attacks against U.S. military installations in Kuwait and Qatar. They are also accused of operating a training camp near the Yemen border.

The current, public trials are in stark contrast to the largely secret proceedings held between 2003 and 2009. In those trials, 327 convicted terrorists received prison sentences of up to 30 years.

Saudi Arabia has garnered international praise for its counterterrorism efforts. Yet it appears the Saudi courts define terrorism much like the U.S. Supreme Court defines pornography: “I know it when I see it.” Wilcke says a fair trial is not possible when the crime of terrorism is not defined.

The international community has yet to agree on a criminal law definition of terrorism. United Nations members in 2005 rejected a panel’s recommendation that would establish parameters to define terrorism as an unlawful act. Consequently, Saudi terror defendants face a double whammy. There are no international laws available as a precedent and Saudi judges, instead of relying on codified law, make up the definition as they go through the proceedings.

“We find that people are convicted of rebellion on earth, which is a Qur’anic concept and not a definition of terrorism,” Wilcke says. “In Saudi Arabia, the judge defines the crime to fit the crime.”

A draft anti-terror law proposed earlier this year was sharply criticized by Amnesty International, which obtained and published a copy last July. The law defines “endangering… national unity” and “harming the reputation of the state or its position” as terrorist crimes and allows suspects to be held incommunicado for an indefinite period, if approved by a special court. It also calls for a minimum 10-year jail sentence for anyone questioning the integrity of the king or crown prince.

Since then, the kingdom has hinted that a revised law is in the works, although it hasn’t released any details. An activist told Reuters in August that the amended draft changes the offense to taking up arms against the king or crown prince or abandoning loyalty to them.

Meanwhile, the absence of codified laws has long plagued the Saudi judicial system, although the quasi-legislative Shura Council this year is nearing completion of a codified system. Domestic courts in particular have bedeviled Saudi women who must contend with tribal customs superseding sharia (Islamic law). Accused terrorists face vague charges of belonging to Al Qaeda or working with foreign agencies plotting against national security. Although specialized sharia legal assistance is essential for defendants to make their cases, the court’s inability to rely on written law tips the scales of justice in the government’s favor.

“It’s just the Saudi way of saying in essence, ‘trust me,’ ” Wilcke says.

Add to the mix the lack of legal representation and defendants are engulfed in a perfect storm of a flawed trial leading to flawed justice.

Wilcke expresses doubts that having a lawyer can even help. “Some lawyers in normal, non-political trials tell me that the judge can kick out a lawyer if he doesn’t like him,” he says. “It raises the question of whether lawyers are any good in trials.”

Indeed, attorneys have complained to HRW that Saudi courts sometimes pressure them not to represent defendants. Other lawyers have no qualms about not representing terrorism suspects.  Sultan bin Zahim, deputy head of the Saudi National Lawyers’ Association, told Al Watan newspaper that it’s “a national duty and a professional objective” not to defend accused terrorists because the “investigation and trial methods are very precise in terrorism cases.”

However, a Saudi lawyer, who asked not to be identified, told The Media Line the courts attempted to recruit him to represent a terror defendant but he turned it down because the legal fog surrounding cases. “I didn’t want the job because I never know what to expect when I go to court.”

International observers also have no access to trials. Wilcke says that since 2009 the Saudi government has banned his organization entirely from the kingdom. Requests for HRW to attend trials have gone unanswered, he said.

Although the inconsistent approach to dispensing justice rankles human rights activists, Saudi Arabia’s counterterrorism efforts have been generally successful. Saudi law authorities view the trials as a successful coda to ending the reign of terror wielded by Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula from 2003 through 2006.

Maj. Gen. Mansour Al Turki, spokesman for the Saudi Ministry of Interior, told The Media Line there has been little extremist cell activity inside the kingdom since trials started earlier this year. In August, the Interior Ministry reported that 5,696 people remain held in militant cases. Nearly 5,100 of those individuals have appeared in court.

“We are continuing our efforts and really keeping a preventative stand to any more activity,” Al Turki says. “We have our police ready, but here is really nothing to react to for the time being.”

Al Turki adds that the “terrorism threat remains a major concern to prevent Al Qaeda from continuing terrorists crimes, but the group continues to keep a low profile in the kingdom. The success is due to Saudi Arabia’s “soft” rehabilitation program to de-radicalize militants. The program has only 10% recidivism rate due in part to a post-release monitoring system of freed prisoners. The move by Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula to Yemen also has contributed a reduction in extremist activity in the country.

Copyright © 2011 The Media Line. All Rights Reserved.

 

October 4, 2011

Tussle over a Textbook

By Rob L. Wagner

The Media Line

27 September 2011

New Saudi high school text prompts controversy with attacks on West and UN

A power struggle usually ends with winners and losers. If a new religious textbook critical of Western culture is any indication of who is winning the role of guardian of young minds in Saudi Arabia, then Islamic conservatives are the clear victors.

In what amounts to a rebuke of a scholarship program under the aegis of none other than King Abdullah himself that sends thousands of young Saudis to foreign universities, a new secondary school textbook called Hadith argues that Western culture exposes students to corruption.

“The conservatives have the upper hand and have made sure that it’s their voice that says what is permitted in Islam,” Ehsan Ahrari, a Middle East analyst based near Washington DC, told The Media Line  “The conservatives have the loudest voice in making a persuasive argument within the Saudi context. Saudi Arabia is truly concerned about modernization in its educational institution, but even the king doesn’t know how to deal with it.”

The publication of the book comes at a sensitive time for Saudi Arabia as it struggles to scrub its textbooks of derogatory language of other religions and cultures. The Ministry of Education has made progress to eliminate some passages, including controversial definitions of jihad.

More than 100,000 Saudis have obtained King Abdullah Foreign Scholarship to pursue studies in universities in professional fields such as medicine, computer science, engineering courses and administration and finance. About 30% study in the U.S., 15% in Britain, 11% in Canada and 8% in Australia. Only about 6% study in a Muslim country, Egypt. Saudi Arabia has the largest number of citizens studying aboard of any country in the world.

The textbook, which warns students of democratic countries’ attempts to Westernize Muslim countries by advancing the United Nations’ human rights agenda, has received little attention in the media, where restrictive laws passed in response to the Arab Spring. The Saudi government can levy fines and jail sentences for criticizing government institutions

As a result, few Saudis are willing to publicly criticize for the record the Ministry of Education. Religious conservatives, Ahrari says, are taking advantage of the chilling effect of those laws to broaden their power.

But the book has lit up the social media with complaints – mostly anonymous – that politics have no place in teaching hadith, sayings attributed the Prophet Muhammad.  The authors are accused of attempting to politicize Islam by slipping criticism of the West into religious texts just as students are preparing to enter foreign universities.

Saudis have also expressed bewilderment that the Ministry of Higher Education, which administers the scholarship program, and the Ministry of Education, which published Hadith, do not have a shared strategic education plan.

However, Hadith has brought renewed scrutiny to how the ministry vets textbooks that contain political opinion. The controversy also renews focus on how much influence Saudi conservatives wield at a time when Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood and the Islamic Ennahda Party in Tunisia are also flexing their political muscle.

The textbook details the “risks” scholarship students face. “A lot of them [student] have returned laden with the spirit of the West, breathe with its lungs and think with its mentality,” the book states. “They echo their Orientalist teachers in their own land and spread their ideas and theories with deep belief, increasing enthusiasm and eloquence so they become a burden on their society.”

“The percentage of those who survive from this influence is a very little one,” the book’s authors say.

Another section in Hadith, entitled “Westernization,” targets the UN. The section characterizes the international organization as a tool for “dominating” Western powers to apply political pressure on Muslim countries to adopt more aggressive human rights legislation. The West, the textbook argues, uses “the United Nations, the Security Council and its different committees, on weak countries, especially the Islamic ones. This is done for the sake of westernization under slogans such as reform, democracy, pluralism, liberation and human rights, in particular those related to women and religious minorities.”

In fact, some of the views expressed in Hadith are widely held by Saudis.

Maha A., a 33-year-old Jeddah native and university student studying in Newcastle, England, says the UN entry in the book is legitimate. She points to the UN Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW) as meddling in the Kingdom’s affairs and with sharia, or Islamic law. Saudi Arabia ratified CEDAW in 2000. “I have no problems with the way the United Nations is portrayed in the book,” she told The Media Line.

The schoolbook also warns of Western attempts to subvert Islamic culture by distributing “immorality” through the media. It considers the media tools to advocate western values.

Turki Al-Dakheel, a journalist and presenter on Al-Arabiya television, complained in a column in the Arabic-language daily Al-Watan that the textbook’s “extremist” portions are not consistent with the changes taking place in the international community and in Saudi society.

“The same educational institutes that send students abroad also criticize the scholarship [program],” Al-Dakheel argues. “We should take out the mentality of disagreement from our curriculum in order to protect our students from being politicized or being slaves to one single notion.”

Ahrari, the Washington-based analyst, told The Media Line that the book’s content is less a challenge to King Abdullah and more of “classic bureaucratic” infighting in the Ministry of Education

A Saudi Ministry of Education official, speaking on the condition of anonymity because of the sensitive nature of the textbook, agreed. He told The Media Line that there are two factions in the ministry struggling to implement their ideology: Western-educated liberals and Saudi-educated conservatives.

Many of the ministry’s decision-makers hold postgraduate degrees in education from the U.S. and Britain. These supervisors often square off with mid- and upper-level managers educated in Islamic studies from Imam Mohammed Bin Saud University in Riyadh and other Saudi universities.

“There is a great debate between conservatives and liberals. The conservatives are in the minority, but they are very active,” says the official, although he notes the ministry’s policy requires moderation in texts.

The infighting is so intense, he says, that the ministry recently began publishing school textbooks without authors’ names to prevent accusations of extremism. Yet the anonymously authored books have also led to the lack of accountability within the ministry’s ranks for authors failing to adhere to moderation guidelines.

One 22-year-old Riyadh student studying in Britain says there is little merit in warning scholarship holders of the dangers in the West.

“Saudi students are already asked to attend a two-week course on Western culture. The scholarship program selects the highest qualified students to go abroad. If a student is weak in religion and cultural values, he won’t be studious and he won’t be allowed in the program,” Muhammad A. told The Media Line.

But the student also says that human rights issues advocated by the UN are consistent with the pillars of sharia. “Sharia talks of human rights and it’s no different than the United Nations’ human rights. It’s compatible, and there are no negative effects on Saudi Arabia,” he says.

Copyright © 2011 The Media Line. All Rights Reserved

June 2, 2011

News Analysis: Intimidation Tactics Attempt to Silence Saudi Women Journalists

By Rob L. Wagner

MidEastPosts

June 2 2011

Tucked low in Manal Al-Sharif’s statement to the media this week was a plea to individuals to resist attacking her religious and moral beliefs after she sparked a public debate about Saudi Arabia’s female driving ban.

Saudi municipal police in the Eastern Province released Al-Sharif from jail on May 30. Law authorities had charged her with “violating the public order” by driving in Khobar and then posting a video of her driving on the Internet. In her statement, Al-Sharif said she would leave the driving ban issue to the discretion of King Abdullah. However, trailing in the wake of her release is a tattered reputation.

Al-Sharif said in her statement that she “was stunned to learn of the accusations hurled at my religious and moral beliefs” and the allegations had caused “serious harm.”

“I held my breath for those speaking in the name of religion and others —May Allah guide them rightly — to do me some justice, and that if I had done wrong to blame me only accordingly and fairly, without defaming my faith, creed, and moral system,” Al-Sharif said.

The statement has become an increasingly common refrain among Saudi women activists and journalists who write and blog about women’s rights issues in Saudi Arabia.

Conservatives anonymously attack outspoken women by questioning their morals and beliefs in Islam. Long-held speech freedoms in democratic countries have made Western journalists relatively thick-skinned to personal attacks. But Saudis view allegations of improper behavior as scandalous and creating great shame among family members. Publicly questioning a Saudi woman’s moral ethics damages not only her personal reputation, but also her professional credibility. Public shaming hurts marriage prospects and the ability to find employment.

As more Muslim women create blogs and write for newspapers and websites, online attacks — particularly in the comments sections of news websites — have grown in proportion.

“Whenever I write an article, I can expect some comments from readers raising questions about my sex life, or they comment on how I look in my photograph. They say I’m not a good Muslim girl,” a Saudi woman journalist told me recently. “Why? Because I wrote an article about equal justice for women in the courts.”

The newswoman said that her brother once read comments about a video interview she gave, and he “cried” about the effect the personal attacks would have on their parents.

“Obviously, some people feel that by attacking women’s religious beliefs and morals, they can silence them into submission,” the journalist said. “It’s almost as if it’s an organized effort to sideline us.”

The smear campaign became apparent in 2009 when 13 Saudi women journalists filed complaints with the Ministry of Interior accusing a local online newspaper of “defaming and distorting the image of the Saudi media.”

According to the English language daily newspaper Arab News, the Kul Al-Watan news website alleged, “that prostitution, alcohol and drugs have become widespread in Saudi society, and that women journalists rely on illicit relationships with newspaper bosses to get support and fame.”

Suad Al-Salim, one of the complainants, told the Arab News: “The report is offensive to Saudi media and Saudi women journalists. Saudi media have been able to build a relationship of trust and integrity with society. How will this relationship sustain after the publishing of this report?”

Last March, the highly respected Arabic language daily newspaper Al-Watan banned popular journalists Amal Zahid and Amira Kashgari from writing. Zahid and Kashgari often write on women’s rights issues. The newspaper cited no reason for the ban, but both women had complained of attacks on their morality without elaborating.

Kul Al-Watan, the same news website accused of defaming women journalists, reported that the firings “followed growing attacks through the Internet against Saudi female journalists as some consider this (writing about women’s rights) against Islam and local traditions.”

Many women journalists and activists continue to write about social causes despite efforts to marginalize them through slander. However, some Saudis have ratcheted up the rhetoric to encourage violence against women. A prominent Saudi sheikh recently announced that women demanding their right to drive a car deserve death, and a group of men created a Facebook page to wage a campaign to beat women who get behind the wheel.

Tougher media laws enacted in Saudi Arabia earlier this year include new standards for slander. The regulations ban individuals from writing “anything affecting the reputation or dignity of, or slandering or personally insulting, the Grand Mufti of the Kingdom or members of the Board of Senior Ulema, or dignitaries of the state or any of its employees, or any person of ordinary standing or any legal person.”

Yet journalists and people like Manal Al-Sharif that fall in the category of “any person of ordinary standing,” receive no such protection under the new law.

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