Sunday, February 14, 2010

Happy Valentine's Day! - Except in Saudi Arabia

Valentine’s Day has been declared illegal in Saudi Arabia! In accordance with this ruling, police are raiding gift and flower shops there, confiscating all items that are red, including flowers.

This has to be a joke. Right? Surely, something over-the-top like this can only exist as a spoof. But as anyone who has lived or worked there can tell you, this is no joke
My job as a sales engineer gave me the opportunity to visit the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia on four occasions back in the 80s and 90s. It was a culture shock unlike any other that I have experienced. And it started when I arrived for the first time at customs in Riyadh. Since my flight arrived there at about 2 in the morning, I expected things to go quickly. Wrong! It was a seemingly endless line that wasn’t moving anywhere. After about two hours, when I got near the customs inspectors, it was apparent why it was taking so long. The inspectors were thoroughly looking through each and every item in each and every suitcase. Opening cologne and after shave bottles looking for alcohol. Thumbing through magazines for any possible photos of scantily clad women. Checking any food items to make sure that they contained no pork.

Until very recently, no public theatres were allowed to exist. And TV back then consisted of two channels, Saudi 1 and Saudi 2. Saudi 1 was in Arabic. Saudi 2 in English (presumably for the benefit of foreign expats) had mostly children’s programming along with westerns. This was to avoid programming that gave any significant roles to women. (To this day, women are not even allowed to drive on public roads.)

In such an environment with so little to do when not working, I have never had the urge for a drink any more than when I was there. Fortunately, there was always access to
siddique, a black market moonshine that had a faint smell of nail polish remover but tasted acceptable mixed with tonic and lime. Even in as strict a country as Saudi Arabia, prohibition still doesn’t work!
So when there was outrage here in the US over our troops in Desert Storm having their mail opened by Saudi censors when they were stationed there, I knew this was little more than business as usual.

But what is most controversial about Saudi Arabia is its governmental backing of
For more than two centuries, Wahhabism has been Saudi Arabia's dominant faith. It is an austere form of Islam that insists on a literal interpretation of the Koran. Strict Wahhabis believe that all those who don't practice their form of Islam are heathens and enemies. Critics say that Wahhabism's rigidity has led it to misinterpret and distort Islam, pointing to extremists such as Osama bin Laden and the Taliban.
This has resulted not only in the Saudi government’s strict control of its people but also a tremendous control over the religious education of its youth. Critics have cited that teaching this belief in others being heathens and enemies has led to hate filled people on their way to possibly becoming terrorists.
Freedom House, an organization that is an advocate on human rights issues including religious freedom, published this scathing report titled Saudi Arabia's Curriculum of Intolerance.
This report has been written in response to concerns over whether adequate reforms have been implemented in the Saudi government’s educational system. After September 11, 2001, complaints were voiced around the world, including by the U.S. government, that Saudi schools demonize the West and the “other (religions).”

Senior Saudi government spokesmen have also acknowledged this as a problem, and have repeatedly pledged that reform is underway or completed. Yet our findings contradict Saudi Arabia’s public claims that it has removed all such material from its educational texts.

As demonstrated by excerpts from the dozen current Islamic studies textbooks analyzed in this report, the Saudi public school religious curriculum continues to propagate an ideology of hate toward the “unbeliever,” that is, Christians, Jews, Shiites, Sufis, Sunni Muslims who do not follow Wahhabi doctrine, Hindus, atheists and others. This ideology is introduced in a religion textbook in the first grade and reinforced and developed in following years of the public education system, culminating in the twelfth grade, where a text instructs students that it is a religious obligation to do “battle” against infidels in order to spread the faith.
When 15 of the 19 suicide hijackers who attacked America on 9/11 were discovered to be young Saudi nationals, it is no wonder that many Americans came to the understandable (but incorrect) conclusion that Islam is inherently a religion that is all about hate and intolerance.

But in truth, it is more about Wahhabism and Saudi Arabia. The report continues..

Adherents of Wahhabism constitute a small minority within world Islam, yet, Saudi Arabia is trying to assert itself as the world’s authoritative voice on Islam.

(It has) control of Islam’s two holiest sites and the Hajj, the annual pilgrimage to Mecca that is one of the five pillars of Islam. This role, along with its vast oil wealth, has been used by Saudi Arabia to lay claim to being the leading power within all of Islam and the protector of the faith, a claim emphasized in the Saudi Basic Law.
If these criticisms of Saudi Arabia are as true as they appear to be, some diplomacy needs to be done to try and prevent the emergence of future generations of terrorists. And if that doesn’t work, they need to be publicly called out for their lack of cooperation. But who is going to do that? The US is in a very awkward position since it is so dependent on Saudi oil. Perhaps this is best done by the other Muslim nations that practice Islam with peace and tolerance but have had to endure a bad rap on Islam because of a small number of their extreme fundamentalists who are out of control!

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