Tuesday, July 12, 2005

Is the pen mightier than the sword in Saudi Arabia?

Saudi Stories: The writer

Bill Law, Reporter, Saudi Stories

BBC website 11 July, 2005

Hamza al-Mizeini describes himself as "an ordinary guy, not a brave man", but this softly-spoken professor of linguistics is anything but ordinary.
Articles Mr Mizeini has written over the past two years condemning the slide into extremism at his own university and within the Saudi education system provoked the wrath of religious conservatives.
"I wrote about some religious and social issues that got parts of the establishment very angry. They wanted to settle a score with me," he told me at his home in a suburb of Riyadh.
His opponents bombarded him with hate-filled emails and text messages. He received numerous death threats, including one from a fellow academic.
The writer ignored the threats and kept writing. Early in 2005, though, he found himself hauled up in front of the Sharia court.
Courageous stance
Mr Mizeini had become the pawn in a behind the scenes power struggle between the liberal-leaning Crown Prince Abdullah, the effective head of state, and the conservative religious authorities who control the country's judiciary.
The conservatives hoped to use the Mizeini case to silence their critics.
And they were gambling the government would stick to its official line of non-intervention in Sharia court rulings.
Six times over several months Mr Mizeini went before the judge and six times with enormous courage said simply: "You have no jurisdiction over me."
He cited regulations established by the crown prince that say any dispute between writers and others in the newspapers must be settled at the information ministry, not the court.
"This is what I kept telling the judge," he told me with a glint of amusement in his eyes.
Rush to judgment
Anxious to be seen as not openly intervening but frustrated by the persistence of the religious hardliners, Crown Prince Abdullah wrote a letter directing the case be dropped.

Knowing the letter was on its way, the judge abruptly brought Mr Mizeini's appearance forward.
"I asked the judge what the rush was, why he was bringing me to the court that day. And he said: 'Well, today is a suitable day.'"
The judge ordered Mr Mizeini to produce the letter from the crown prince.
"He knew that it was impossible for me to get a copy, and he said: 'If you don't bring me a copy, I'll issue my verdict.'
"I said: 'Look, I'm just telling you that Prince Abdullah issued his order. This is your job. Do whatever you like.'"
The judge promptly passed a sentence of 75 lashes and two months in jail.
The lashes were to be administered all at once which - had the order been carried out - could well have killed the slight and ageing Mr Mizeini.
When the writer challenged the judge again, he upped the sentence to 200 lashes.
But this time the hardliners had gone too far. Just hours after the verdict was passed, an angry Crown Prince Abdullah ordered it set aside.
Mr Mizeini says he will keep writing. "It's not a choice, it is a responsibility."
And what of the hard-line conservatives who tried to silence him?
"What made them strong in the past was that they were the only voice. They win when there is just one voice. Now there are many voices and they cannot win."

Link to other Saudi stories on: http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/world/middle_east/4671393.stm

Bill Law writes here each Monday to accompany his series which is broadcast on Tuesdays at 0930 BST on Radio 4.
Saudi Stories programmes will also be available online at Radio 4's Listen again page.

An example of Mr Al Ma[i]z[e]ini’s articles:

Reforming Saudi Arabia's curricula

Hamza Qablan al-Mazini,

Al Watan 4 June 2004

Defenders of preserving the curricula currently followed in Saudi Arabian schools-including the curricula used in religious education-always use the same arguments to fight their corner, says Saudi commentator and academic Hamza Qablan al-Mazini in the Saudi daily al-Watan.
SERIOUS PROBLEMS: But these arguments do not stand up to close scrutiny, and are soon exposed as contradictions designed to divert attention away from the serious problems facing education in the country, as well as to sow doubts about the intentions of those calling for reform and to question their integrity.
I have already discussed one of these arguments (viz. that genuine reform must begin with scientific subjects such as physics, chemistry, mathematics, etc.) I proved that this particular argument was nothing more than a contradiction.
In this article, I will discuss several other contradictory arguments furthered by opponents of reform; I will prove that these arguments are too weak to stand in the way of reforming religious education in Saudi Arabia.
One of these inconsistent arguments goes like this: Those calling for reforming religious education are simply lackeys of the United States, which began calling for such reforms after September 11 in order to temper Muslim anger directed against it. According to this argument, traditional religious education deepens hatred of the United States by describing it as an aggressor bent on destroying Islam and humiliating Muslims.
But this is a spurious argument at best; it is an unjustified attempt to smear critics who at any rate are no less devout Muslims than those who pretend to defend religious curricula in their present form.
I do not want to appoint myself as a defense lawyer for reformers, for they can defend themselves better than I can. But I want to elaborate on my own experiences, not to defend myself, but to prove how weak these arguments really are.
One fact that disproves what the critics say is that I have been calling for reforming our education systems long before September 11 2001.
-I wrote a personal letter to the education minister more than eight years ago, suggesting a number of ways for reforming the education system. I even volunteered to serve on any committee formed by the ministry for this purpose. I subsequently received a reply signed by one of the minister's deputies telling me that my suggestions have been referred to the committee specializing in reforming Arabic language teaching; I have yet to hear about what happened to my suggestions.
-I wrote an article in al-Watan in which I opposed the principle of teaching primary school pupils English-on practical rather than ideological grounds.
-I wrote an article in Asharq al-Awsat on February 26 2000 (19 months before the attacks of 9-11) severely censuring what the education minister had to say about those who criticized the kingdom's education system. My article caused consternation in some quarters, and I was the subject of a fair bit of abuse.
Therefore, my criticism of the Saudi education system has nothing to do with September 11, the issues raised by the attacks, or with the positions adopted by the current U.S. administration regarding education in the Arab-Muslim world.
It therefore becomes clear that the argument saying that those criticizing education in general (and religious education in particular) are only doing the Americans' bidding is patently untrue-at least as far as I am concerned.
At any rate, my record shows that I am not a member of 'America's party.' In spite of my admiration for many aspects of American scientific, cultural, political, and social life, and in spite of the gratitude I feel for the excellent education I got in American universities, I share (with many American and non-American) observers a loathing for the arrogant and aggressive policies pursued by successive U.S. administrations against the Arab and Muslim nations.
I despise America's blind acquiescence to Israel's policy of aggression against the Palestinian people and the Arab nation in general.
To prove my point, I have translated many of Noam Chomsky's articles and lectures criticizing American foreign policy, especially post-September 11. I also translated statements made by many American and European politicians and intellectuals opposed to the foreign policy pursued by the current administration. Many of these translations were published by al-Watan.
In 2003, Cairo's Madbuli Press published a book I wrote containing translations of articles critical of American foreign policy.
NOT AN AMERICAN LACKEY: All these activities disprove the accusation that I am a lackey of the United States.
Another falsity advanced by opponents of reform is that our education system cannot be an incubator for terrorism, since if that were true, we would now have hundreds of thousands of terrorists in our midst.
This allegation lacks the essential statistical element that would have made it trustworthy, and can therefore be refuted with ease. It is not too hard to prove that our current curricula contribute toward producing extremists. Religious curricula in particular give teachers so inclined the legal justification they need to encourage extremism in their students. Present rules allow teachers to bring inciting tapes and other materials to schools, and to encourage students to listen to them, discuss them, and hold seminars around them-all of which provide fertile breeding grounds for extremism and recruiting future terrorists.
It was only thanks to God's mercy that more of our students did not end up as extremists. Some people are more easily influenced than others.
Another proof of the false nature of these accusations is the fact that those who defend current school curricula equate extremism with terrorist acts and other forms of violence-then allege that those who commit such acts were influenced from outside the kingdom.
Anyone with a close knowledge of domestic Saudi affairs realizes however that the sources of extremism are largely homegrown. Many of the sheikhs who have been issuing inflammatory edicts are still based here in their own mosques and among their students and supporters. Some of them even have their own websites.
Many extremist websites full of hatred not only towards non-Muslims but towards Muslims as well, are run by Saudis.
One aspect of domestic extremism is the phenomenon of accusing Saudi writers of apostasy, hypocrisy, secularism and subservience to the United States. Many moderate Saudi writers and sheikhs regularly receive threatening phone calls and emails. Saudi weeklies are full of inflammatory articles encouraging violence and extremism. In fact, the climate inside the kingdom is characterized by a worryingly high level of hatred and verbal violence.
The most important question that has to be asked is: Where does the ideology that nurtures such extremists come from?
Any sane person would undoubtedly admit that our schools with their teachers steeped in extremist culture have always been the primary source of such ideas.
Another falsity propagated by the enemies of reform says that extremism is not exclusive to Saudi Arabia, but is also prevalent in other countries such as Egypt, Algeria, and Morocco-conveniently overlooking the fact that many extremist movements outside the kingdom look to Saudi clerics for inspiration. A close look at the rhetoric used by non-Saudi extremists reveals that it is based on the extremist religious rhetoric prevalent in Saudi Arabia. In fact, many non-Saudi extremists studied in Saudi Arabia at the hands of Saudi sheikhs. Some of them embraced extremist ideology while they were in this country.
What I am trying to say here is that falsities can never help us solve our problems; we have to face up to them with honesty and frankness. We have to admit that our programs of religious education in their present form can (and frequently do) lead to extremism. We then have to remedy the situation.
Finally, even if we absolve religious education in this country of extremism, we cannot absolve it of failing to immunize young people against falling into the hands of extremist groups that exploit religious curricula for their own ends.


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