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Sunday, December 02, 2007

The Girl of Qatif and the Sweet Orthodoxy

Kudos to the Washington Post for its editorial, "Saudi Whiplash," criticizing the Bush administration’s embrace and celebration of Saudi Arabian foreign minister, Saud al Faisal, at last week’s Annapolis Middle East peace conference.

As the Post reported, national security advisor, Stephen Hadley, praised al Faisal for attending by saying “I know it must have been a very difficult decision.”

Meanwhile, al Faisal, in the spirit of commitment to a Middle Eastern peace accord, lambasted Israel and explained why he refused to even shake hands with Israeli Prime Minister, Ehud Olmert.

Then, one reporter present asked the foreign minister about the Girl of Qatif, as the Saudi rape victim sentenced by a religious court to 90 lashes for being in public with a male to whom she is not related, is known. Women in Saudi Arabia are not allowed to move freely about their country unaccompanied by a chaperone, usually a husband or male relative.

After her harsh sentence, the young woman hired a lawyer, Abdul-Rahman al Lahem, described by the Post as “one of Saudi Arabia’s most courageous human rights advocates,” who appealed the case. For this effort to obtain real justice, the court increased the woman’s sentence to 200 lashes and 6 months in jail. In addition, they retaliated against the lawyer by barring him from further representing the woman and suspending his lawyer’s license. He is also facing a disciplinary hearing, which could lead to his complete disbarment. I reported on this here.

Obviously, heavy handed retaliation like this against a lawyer legitimately defending a client is meant to have a chilling effect on any other attorney who wants to defend a woman’s rights in the Saudi courts. It’s basically shutting the legal door on any woman who is victimized by a crime. And the Girl of Qatif may actually be lucky.

Honor killings of rape victims are still not uncommon in much of the Middle East. Though technically against the law, the family members who commit these murders are seldom prosecuted and if they are, sentences amount to a pro forma slap on the wrist.

As the Washington Post further points out, despite the Bush administration’s embrace of Saudi Arabia and its steadfast friendship of the Saudi royal family, that country is the major source of the spread of radical Islam throughout the world. Fifteen of the 19 September 11th hijackers were Saudis, as is Osama bin Laden. The majority of the suicide bombers in Iraq are Saudis. Furthermore, the Taliban in Afghanistan, which sheltered al Qaeda even after 9/11, was funded and influenced by the radical Wahabi clerics from Saudi Arabia. Indeed, Wahabism, a militantly puritanical and fundamentalist branch of Sunni Islam is the brand of Islam taught in the madarassas – Islamic religious schools – throughout the world. Most of the radical Muslim terrorists have been recruited through those schools and Wahabi- funded mosques, which are heavily financed by wealthy Saudis.

Here’s a quote, from the Post editorial that sums it up nicely:

Six years ago, in the immediate aftermath of the Sept. 11 attacks, it was widely acknowledged in and outside the Bush administration that Saudi Arabia -- the homeland of 15 of the 19 hijackers, along with Osama bin Laden -- was a threat as well as an oil supplier to the United States. Its embrace of extremist Islamic ideology, its vigorous efforts to spread that creed throughout the Middle East and beyond and its sponsorship of groups like the Taliban were a far more direct cause of anti-Western terrorism than the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

For several years the Bush administration pressed the Saudi regime for reforms; the regime responded with half steps that didn't change its essential nature. Most of the suicide bombers in Iraq have been Saudis. Yet in the last year, led by Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, the Bush administration has abruptly returned to describing Saudi Arabia as a "mainstream" and "moderate" state and a staunch U.S. ally. Once again the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is treated as the Middle East's most critical problem and Prince Saud as a statesman who is to be congratulated for appearing in the same room as an Israeli. The case of the Girl of Qatif ought to be a reminder of what the Bush administration has chosen to forget.

Meanwhile, in another excellent report in today’s Washington Post, Kevin O’Sullivan reports on a new, upbeat face of modern Islam. One of its most successful proponents, Moez Masoud, promotes “sweet Orthodoxy.”

Masoud, an advertising executive by day, preaches to huge crowds of young Muslims, telling them that Islam can have compassion for non-Muslims and for homosexuals. Although Masoud does not challenge any of the basic tenets of Islam such as prayer five times a day, the practice of charity, refraining from sex outside of marriage, etc., he encourages his followers to embrace music and the arts. He tells them that Islam, properly understood, is about doing good and also enjoying life. And he encourages greater compassion and a far less punitive and puritanical brand of Islam, one that dampens the rage that has been so prevalent among young, disaffected Muslims elsewhere.

His upbeat message of seeking personal freedom and fulfillment, rather than militant rage, within the context of living an orthodox Islamic life is resonating with young, educated Muslims in Egypt and across the Middle East. It may yet be the moderate form of Islam the West is hoping for to replace the fanaticism sponsored by the aging clerics in places like Saudi Arabia.

In the end, it may be bring hope that we all can prevent both more Girls of Qatif as well as more 9/11s.

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