Tuesday, April 21, 2015

My InterNations Interview

InterNations is a great tool and support system for expats around the world.  With communities in almost 400 cities worldwide, InterNations provides a way for people working in foreign countries to socialize and network.  It also provides information useful for living in and adapting to another country. 

I am the featured blogger on InterNations this month.  CLICK HERE to read my interview.  I hope you enjoy it!
Susie of Arabia (Photo Credit: Blue Abaya)





Monday, April 6, 2015

Art Rehab Therapy for Convicted Terrorists

I wanted to share this encouraging story with you that I read on NPR about a successful rehabilitation program for convicted terrorists in Saudi Arabia. 

Treating Saudi Arabian Jihadists With Art Therapy

by Deborah Amos / NPR

Dr. Awad Al-Yami, an art therapist trained at the University of
Pennsylvania, is a counselor at a Saudi Arabian center
that seeks to rehabilitate convicted terrorists.
The center claims a success rate of more than 80 percent,
but acknowledges that some return to extremist groups like al-Qaida.
Deborah Amos/NPR

There are golf carts and palm trees and an Olympic-sized pool at the Mohammed Bin Naif Counseling and Care Center, a sprawling complex on the outskirts of Saudi Arabia's capital, Riyadh.

Once a holiday resort, the walled compound still looks like one — and not a rehabilitation center for convicted terrorists.

In the past year, the country has expanded counter-terrorism laws that make it illegal for Saudis to fight in Syria and Iraq. The kingdom has also expanded the terrorism rehab centers.

More than 3,000 young Saudi men graduated from the program since it began in 2008, including 120 former prisoners from a U.S. prison in Guantanamo Bay.

The centers only work with inmates not convicted for violent crimes. The Saudis claim a success rate of more than 80 percent of the detainees returning to their families as well-adjusted members of Saudi society.

On my visit, the inmates are kept out of sight, except for a handpicked star graduate, 29-year-old Badr al-Anzi. Two years ago, he was set to join the militants of the self-declared Islamic State. Now he's a model of rehabilitation.

"I wanted to go to jihad," explains al-Anzi, who has a wife and three daughters. His plan was to travel to Syria with his cousin and brother, but he was arrested when he tried to pick up his passport at a government office.

After a six-month jail sentence, al-Anzi was sent to the rehab center. His treatment was intense, with psychological counseling, religious re-education, vocational training, plus financial incentives. Al-Anzi now attends college on a scholarship. He had help finding a job.

Many inmates draw pictures of castles. Al-Yami, the art therapist,
interprets them to mean, "I'm not going to give you any information.
I'm behind the wall and you can't get through."
Deb Amos / NPR
He makes monthly visits to the center to counsel others.

"Now, I want to fight ISIS," he says, which he does on Twitter, challenging Saudi recruits to quit and come home.

Al-Anzi's was an easy case. He never made it to the battlefield. But what about the hardened cases, the al-Qaida extremists?

"They're not so tough," says Dr. Awad Al-Yami, a counselor here. "These are our kids, and anyway, they are members of our society, and they are hurting us. We feel obligated to help them."

Al-Yami trained as an art therapist at the University of Pennsylvania. He pioneered an innovative program that's unusual in Saudi's ultra-conservative culture, where some clerics say that drawing is forbidden.

"I had a hard time convincing my people with art, let alone art therapy for jihadists," he says.

But the program has delivered results.

"Actually, art creates balance for your psyche," he says.

It is also a window on the psyche, he says. Drawing is a way for inmates to express emotions, anger and depression, when they first arrive at the center.

He keeps a gallery of paintings, which he analyzes like a detective. The black and white landscapes, which depict scenes from Afghanistan, mean an inmate is still living in the past.

After a few months of counseling, the paintings show more promise. Inmates use color and depict scenes from family life in Riyadh. Al-Yami says this is a sign that the inmate is coming to terms with coming home.

There is a striking number of inmates who draw pictures of castles with high walls. Those send a distinct message, according to Al-Yami.

"I'm not going to give you any information," he says. "I'm behind the wall and you can't get through. If I give you information, I am weak."

He takes the failures hard. Some 20 percent of the inmates here go back to the fight. One spectacular failure went on to become an al-Qaida leader in Yemen.

Now, Al-Yami is preparing for a new wave of inmates: the ISIS generation. He knows they are more extreme than al-Qaida.

"We've got some in prison, waiting for their sentences to be over and they will be here," he says.
Can he reach them, too? He pauses before he answers.

"What the hell am I going to do with ISIS?" he says, a man who knows his toughest challenge is ahead.


 See the original story on NPR and listen to the story on NPR's Weekend Edition Sunday by CLICKING HERE.

Saturday, April 4, 2015

Saudi Arabia's first female detective trained in U.S.



As a former police officer myself, I was quite excited when I saw this news video of Nadeen Alsayat, the first Saudi female trained for police work.  Nadeen recently graduated from Colorado University with a Master's Degree in Criminal Justice paid for by the Saudi government and will become Saudi Arabia's first female detective.  She spent six months interning with the Commerce City Police Department in Colorado.

In addition to Nadeen's accomplishment in the USA, Saudi Arabia will be graduating its first ever class of female police officers as well this year.  Congratulations to Nadeen on achieving her childhood dream of becoming a police officer - and congratulations to the graduating class in KSA for leading the way for other females to break into careers that were previously taboo for Saudi women.

To read more about Nadeen Alsayat's training experience, CLICK HERE.

Saturday, February 28, 2015

First Wives Club



I used to be able to count on one hand the number of women I personally know whose Saudi husbands married a second wife.  Those days are gone.  Sadly now that number exceeds all the fingers on both hands and all of my toes as well.  As many of you know, Saudi Arabia is governed by Sharia Law which comes from the Quran, the holy book of Islam.  Islam allows men to be married to up to four different women at the same time. 


Muslim scholars and Muslim men seem to be proud of the fact that the Quran is the only holy book that actually states “Marry only one (wife).”  I hear them boast about this all the time!  Why then are so many Muslim men taking on more than wife?  I find this amusing, since polygyny is permitted in Islam but not encouraged.  I just hate it when I hear men here saying that it is their God-given right.  Pfffft!

The original idea for this arrangement is centuries old and was borne out of the necessity of the times.  Men would go off to war, get killed, and there was an abundance of widows and orphans left behind that needed to be protected and provided for.  It was affirmed to be man's “social responsibility,” which begs the question:  Why exactly does a man have to marry a second woman to fulfill his social responsibility?  Especially when the Quran clearly says "Marry only one"???  Aren’t there other socially acceptable ways to provide for needy people other than marriage?  How about charity?  Why do men have to introduce sex into the equation in order to fulfill their social responsibility?

Many Muslim men like to make the claim that there are SO many more women in the world than men, and while that may have been the case centuries ago, statistically speaking, this is no longer a valid argument.  In today’s world, all recent statistics clearly show that men now outnumber women in births (107 to 100) and in the world population (101 to 100).

Yes, there are some countries in the world where women outnumber men, but in the total overall, there are more men.  And Saudi Arabia – where men can marry up to four women - is one of the majority countries that actually has more men than women - so this contention just doesn't hold water any more.

Another reason given for why polygyny is allowed in Islam is to allow a man whose wife cannot bear children to marry another woman who can have babies so he can produce heirs.  The problem with this assertion is that frequently the man is the one with fertility problems - so this excuse for multiple wives should at least have a provision that the man should be checked first to make sure he is not the one with sterility problems - don't cha think?  

 
I’ve even heard proponents of the multiple wives policy come up with the reasoning that there are so many gay men in the world - so obviously gay men don't count as eligible men in the marriage pool.  Hello?  They always seem to overlook the fact that there are also plenty of lesbians in the world too who don’t want to marry men either.  Moot point.  

And probably the most "honest" excuse I have heard for why polygyny is allowed in Islam is because men just naturally have a stronger sex drive and want to have sex with a variety of women.  So polygyny allows men to do this under the sanctity of marriage to prevent either of the participants from committing a grave sin, according to religion.  However, this argument totally discounts the female’s sex drive and presumes incorrectly that only men have strong sexual urges.  

So in Islam, a woman who becomes a second wife (or third or fourth) is considered by many as doing an "honorable" thing.  But somehow I really don’t think there are too many first wives out there who would actually agree with that statement.   

My thoughts on this are that there are three possible situations where a woman might become a second wife:  
1 – She is a desperate divorcee or widow and wants the security for herself and her children.  
2 – She becomes a second wife unwittingly because the man wasn’t honest with her.   
3 – She actively pursues a married man because she sees that he is wealthy and she doesn’t care that she is destroying a marriage and a family in the process.  

I personally know of women here in Saudi Arabia fitting all of these scenarios.  To be continued…

Saturday, February 21, 2015

Is the Problem with Islam Today Wahhabism?


"Open letter to Saudi King Salman bin Abdul-Aziz"

Saudi Arabia should curb Wahhabi ideology to alleviate human suffering in the Muslim world

by Ani Zonneveld

Ani Zonneveld  (Photo Credit: Arzeen's Photography)


Dear King Salman bin Abdul-Aziz,

Assalamu-alaikum.

I am a 52-year-old Malaysian-born Muslim. I was raised in a harmonious interracial and interfaith society that accepted and respected other religious practices. The existence of different faith groups was viewed simply as different ways of connecting to the same God. Saudi Arabia started exporting its Wahhabi ideology in the 1970s, and it spread around the world, turning existing interpretations of Islam into one that is dogmatic and violent.

The result is a nearly unrecognizable form of Islam. It appears to get worse by the day. Murders, suicide bombings, sectarianism and religious hatemongering have become commonplace. We cannot continue on this path of religious-based mayhem in the name of Islam. The Muslim world needs a change. You are in the best position to take us out of this misery.

As a child, I remember celebrating Mawlid — the Prophet Muhammad’s birthday — with uplifting songs, prayers and even a parade. Now it is taboo to observe Mawlid even in America, and adherents to the Wahhabi brand of Islam would rather emphasize his death. The same clerics tell us we cannot critically engage with the Quran or use our God-given right to think in order to reconcile the contradictions that exist between the Quran and hadith, the collection of record of the prophet’s sayings that serve as a source of religious and moral guidance.

When I was growing up, weddings and community events were colorful and featured music and dance, without segregating the sexes. This is no longer the case in many Muslim communities. Music, dance and unsegregated gatherings are deemed haram, or forbidden. Artistic expressions must be Sharia-compliant, meaning no depiction of humans or animals.

The Quran liberated women from subhuman status, gave us rights to choose whom to marry, to work, to be in leadership positions and to ultimately live in full dignity. And yet in 2015, Wahhabi imams have relegated women to subhuman status by allowing husbands to cane their wives into obedience and promoting a version of Sharia that permits forced and child marriages and condones honor killings. Women have become sexual objects through forced veiling, which makes our voices, skin, hair and faces off limits, and even a handshake is deemed a potentially arousing sexual experience.

How is this Wahhabi chokehold different from the practice of burying daughters alive?

Our society is increasingly looking like the age of jahiliyya, or ignorance that preceded the birth of Islam. You have the power to change that by lifting the ban on women driving in Saudi Arabia, abolishing the male guardian system, granting full voting rights for women and promoting equality in all spheres of life for all people. This would deflate the theological foundation of the criminal beliefs of the ISILs, Talibans and the Boko Harams of the world.

There are many reform-minded Saudi men and women whom you should include in discussion rather than imprison them. This will have a profound effect on millions of women and men in the Muslim world and beyond.

Enough with the vilifying of minority sects and non-Muslims. You should sit down with the supreme leader of Iran and sign a covenant of peace till the end of time.

The divisive sectarianism and ideology of Islamic Sunni supremacy is sickening. We are tired of the infighting, the dehumanizing of “the other” at the minbar (mosque pulpit), the talk of takfir (excommunicating of fellow Muslims) and the slaughter of “the other” by assuming a God-like role as the judge and the punisher. There were no Sunni, Shia or other sects during Muhammad’s time, but there were believers of many faiths, nonbelievers and even pagans, all residing in dignity in your country — protected by the prophet.

The Quran teaches us all people are equal in the eyes of God: “We have created you men and women, into nations and tribes for you to learn from each other. Surely, the most honorable among you in the sight of God is the most righteous.” (Quran 49:13). Imagine a Saudi Arabia where all people can come together to exchange ideas freely and share in our humanity.

The Muslim world remains corrupted by power and money, the very dynamic Muhammad spoke against. Imagine a Muslim world void of corruption and endowed with good governance. Such an environment would ensure that the ISILs and Saudi dissidents would not flourish. There is nothing Islamic about the way many countries in the Muslim world are run today.

Saudi Arabia’s Wahhabi ideology is the root of all the ills in the Muslim world. You have the power to uproot it once and for all through your influence in the Organization of Islamic Cooperation and the hundreds and thousands of madrassas the kingdom funds. As host to millions from around the world during the annual hajj, the kingdom can send a message of change to Wahhabi-influenced ideologues.

We do not have a pope in Islam, but by adopting the official title of custodian of our two holiest sites, Mecca and Medina, you have assumed a unique position of influence to shift our Muslim world onto a positive path.

I recognize that my letter is an idealistic plea. After all, you are a king with all the earthly needs one can imagine and so powerful that you have Muslim and non-Muslim nations at your feet. But do what Muhammad did: Promote equality and a just system that benefits all people. That is the true meaning of the straight path we recite in al-Fatihah.

With deepest sincerity,

Ani Zonneveld
Founder and president, Muslims for Progressive Values

This op-ed piece is a reprint from Al Jazeera America that was originally published on February 20, 2015.

Wednesday, February 18, 2015

Chapel Hill Vs Copenhagen - Which Is Terrorism?

Comedian and actor Russell Brand may strike some people as uncouth or vulgar, but he is spot on about the media's portrayal of Muslims as terrorists. 


Thursday, February 5, 2015

Driving Developments

The women's driving movement in Saudi Arabia took a big hit recently with the imprisonment of two Saudi women who were arrested for driving.  Loujain al-Hathloul, 25, and Maysa al-Amoudi, 33, have both been held in Saudi jails since early December, longer than any other Saudi females who have been apprehended for defying the driving ban.


Loujain Hathloul

What is especially disconcerting about this case is that the women have been referred to a special Saudi court and may be charged with terrorism.  Although the women were initially detained for driving, the word is that the terrorism charges stem from voicing their opinions on Twitter about the driving movement, which is now seen as "terrorism" by the Saudi government. 

Saudi Arabia's Anti-Cyber Crime Law enacted in 2007 makes it a crime to call for reforms, criticize the government, or encourage social dissidents online.  Article 6, Section 1, states that one can be imprisoned for up to five years and fined up to three million riyals for the "production, preparation, transmission, or storage of material impinging on public order, religious values, public morals, and privacy, through the information network or computers."  It's easy to see how this all-encompassing, broadly-worded edict can be liberally applied to almost any situation the Saudi government chooses.

Maysa al-Amoudi

While Loujain and Maysa sit languishing in a Saudi prison for more than two months now, uncertain of their fates, a tragic driving incident happened this past week in Abha, a city in southwestern Saudi Arabia with a population of almost half a million people.  A ten-year-old Saudi boy got behind the wheel of a vehicle - as many unlicensed prepubescent boys here in Saudi Arabia commonly do - striking and killing a man who was crossing the street.  Little boys can be seen driving in Saudi Arabia every day, without repercussions.  I have often seen youngsters driving huge SUVs, chauffeuring around a gaggle of Saudi females who are forbidden to drive themselves. 

This incident crystallizes the absurdity of the women's driving issue here in Saudi Arabia.  Grown women are forbidden from driving and, if caught, face a multitude of punishments ranging from jail time and lashes to loss of employment and being banned from leaving the country for years.  And yet, unlicensed elementary aged school boys, who can't even see over the steering wheel, drive on the streets of Saudi Arabia every day while law enforcement officers turn their heads the other way.

So, who will be held accountable for this man's death?  Who gave the boy access to the car in the first place?  The boy's father?   If the father has "wasta" (connections high up in the government), he likely won't be charged or jailed. 

I have my doubts that justice will be served for the dead man.  First of all, he was not Saudi.  He was a poor expat worker from Sri Lanka.  Sadly his life is not valued much here in Saudi Arabia.  It is common knowledge that South Asian workers are often treated poorly and discriminated against by many Saudis.   If the tables were turned in this case, and the poor foreign worker was the one who drove the vehicle causing the death of the little Saudi boy, the man would be thrown in prison for life or might possibly even be given the death penalty. 

Photo by:  Areej Adel Albagshy

Saudi Arabia's Shariah law allows for the payment of "Blood Money."  This is called "diyya," and it is monetary payment for loss of life, bodily injury, or property damage to compensate the victim's heirs.  According to Shariah law, the amount of blood money paid varies greatly depending on the victim's religion, gender, and whether the death was intentional or accidental.  A Muslim's life is worth a lot more than a non-Muslim's, and a man's life is worth twice as much as a woman's.  This value system carries over into how people are treated in Saudi Arabia.

And finally, another slap in the face to Saudi women, this time by the country of Switzerland which has implemented a new law saying that all drivers in Switzerland must have a valid driver's license issued by their home country.  Since Saudi Arabia refuses to issue licenses to women, Saudi women who have a valid license from another country or who have an international driver's license are no longer allowed to drive in Switzerland.  In 2013, Kuwait - showing its solidarity with Saudi Arabia's patriarchal system - came up with a law refusing to issue driver's licenses to Saudi women unless they had the consent of their legal male guardian.

"Like" this Facebook community page - To keep abreast of developments in the case of Loujain and Maysa

Sign this petition on the Amnesty International page to show your support for Loujain and Maysa.

UPDATE:  I'm happy to report that Loujain and Maysa were released after spending 72 days in Saudi prisons. 
On March 1st, 2015, Loujain Al Hathloul was named as #3 on the list of The 100 Most Powerful Arab Women 2015 by ArabianBusiness.com