Thursday, January 31, 2013

SAUDI ARABIA: Boredom + Lack of Activities = Unacceptable Behavior & Stupid Choices

A big problem that exists in Saudi Arabia is the lack of  activities for the youth here.  As a result, many young men end up creating their own forms of "fun."  I felt sickened and angry when I saw this video of these young Saudi bullies who seemingly have no respect for others or the property of others. 

Tuesday, January 15, 2013

The First Muslim - by Lesley Hazleton

Lesley Hazleton is one of those fascinating oddities (for lack of a better word) that I would just love to sit down with to share a drawn-out dinner and a good bottle of wine. British and Jewish by birth, American and agnostic by choice, Ms. Hazleton is an author who writes fervently about religion.

But she is so much more than an author. Ms. Hazleton is a journalist who reported for many years from the Middle East, a trained psychologist who applies her professional insight to all her work, a blogger who writes as The Accidental Theologist, a passionate political junkie, an educator, lecturer, and artist, a car enthusiast, and an airplane pilot – who lives on a houseboat in Seattle. That houseboat sometimes, she asserts, noticeably sinks deeper into the cold waters of Lake Union from the heaviness of all her research books when she is in the throes of her latest research.

She is not easy to describe in simple terms. The author has described herself in her own introduction of her biographical book about Mary as “a Jew who once seriously considered becoming a rabbi, a former convent schoolgirl who daydreamed about being a nun, an agnostic with a deep sense of religious mystery though no affinity for organized religion.”

In 2011 Ms. Hazleton was asked to speak at a meeting of the Women’s Zionist Organization of America.  The subject of her discourse was “What’s a nice Jewish girl doing writing so much about Islam?” In her talk she said, “Islam did not attack the US on 9/11; eighteen people with a particularly twisted and distorted idea of Islam did. The Jews do not shoot Palestinian farmers in the West Bank; Bible-spouting settlers with a particularly twisted and distorted idea of Judaism do.”

Her thirsty quest for answers has led her on an incredible journey exploring religions, politics, cultures, and history. She has read and studied the Quran, the Bible, and the Torah and has researched and written books about Muslims, Christians and Jews. “Her characters are figures who have been trapped, untouchable, in amber for decades by organized religion,”says writer Paul Constant of The Stranger, in his September 2011 Stranger Genius in Literature article about Ms. Hazleton for Seattle’s news, arts and entertainment newspaper.

Lesley Hazleton wearing an abaya in Abu Dhabi in 2012

One of Hazleton’s previous books about Islam, After the Prophet, explores the continuous epic conflict and bitter split between the Shia and Sunni. Another of her books, Mary: A Flesh and Blood Biography of the Virgin Mother, exemplifies Hazleton’s ability to vividly bring her subjects to life in a way that history books never could. In Hazleton’s book Jezebel: The Untold Story of Israel’s Harlot Queen, she manages to dispel the questionable accusations that gave this misunderstood historical figure, whose name is synonymous with evil, such a bad rap.

Says Hazleton, “The fact that few people do actually read the Quran is precisely why it’s so easy to quote, that is, to misquote phrases and snippets taken out of context in what I call the ‘highlighter version,’ which is the one favored by both Muslim fundamentalists and anti-Muslim Islamophobes.”

“Unfortunately many Muslim believers do not bother to think by themselves but leave it to others. Especially those young people who are brain washed and made to act as human bombs. Nothing could be more un-Islamic, starting with the fact that suicide is strongly forbidden in Islam,” she stresses.

Her latest book is called The First Muslim and is due out on store shelves on January 24th.  It is a biography about the life of the prophet Muhammad.

When asked what she found most surprising in her research for this book, she answered, "What struck me most was how much more remarkable Muhammad's life was in reality than in legend.  I can't claim that this was a surprise, however, because legend tends to flatten someone out into two dimensions.  Yes, even Muhammad.  I felt that if I accorded him the integrity of lived reality, with all its very human trials and dilemmas, then I could really appreciate not only what he achieved, but how." 

Regarding the common belief in the Muslim faith that Muhammad was illiterate, Ms. Hazleton says, "I don't know for sure if he was illiterate.  The Quran was transmitted orally, and I don't see what literacy or lack of literacy has to do with it.   As a well-traveled traders' representative, it seems reasonable to think that he may have had some basic literacy skills, if only to keep records.  But the main point is that illiteracy -- or rather, to use a less judgmental phrase, lack of literacy -- was no barrier to knowledge in an oral culture.  In an oral culture such as that of seventh-century Arabia, words lived on the tongue and in the heart, not on the page.  The spoken word thus had more power than it generally does today." 

In an interview in Religion Dispatches Magazine for her new book,  Ms. Hazleton talked about her inspiration in writing the book:  "There was a terrific story to be told here: the journey from neglected orphan to acclaimed leader—from marginalized outsider to the ultimate insider—made all the more dramatic by the tension between idealism and pragmatism, faith, and politics."

The First Muslim is an offering from Riverhead Books. Click here to read an excerpt of the book (the opening chapter). 

Lesley Hazleton is scheduled to speak at Town Hall Seattle on January 24, 2013.   Future appearances include March 9 at Seattle University at the Search for Meaning book festival and on March 23 at Rutgers University at the Muslims for Peace conference.

To read additional articles about The First Muslim:

A book review by Tamam Kahn, herself an author on a book about Muhammad and his wives called Untold.

An interview in Religion Dispatches Magazine.

The video below is when Lesley Hazleton spoke in October 2010 about her experience of reading the entire Quran - filmed at TEDxRanier.  It's less than 10 minutes long - and well worth your time.

Sunday, January 6, 2013

When Religious Debate Becomes a Capital Offense

I find the religious aspect of living in Saudi Arabia very confusing.  Muslims tell me all the time that questions are encouraged in Islam, yet getting satisfactory answers is an entirely separate matter.  I have also found that when I ask questions, people often seem offended or insulted at the thought that I would question something they believe in.

Then there are reports in the news that I find puzzling too, that definitely seem to contradict Islamic teachings.  For example, Islam permits marriages of Muslim men to women of Muslim, Christian, and Jewish faiths, yet a Muslim man was recently arrested in Mecca for letting it be known that he wanted to marry a Jewish woman.

With Islam being the predominant religion of the Middle East - and the only one permitted in Saudi Arabia, so much so that it requires religious police to keep everyone in line - I find it peculiar and troubling that the rate of depression in Middle Eastern countries is excessively higher in this part of the world, according to a just released study by the World Health Organization.  I can't help but wonder if this has some correlation to the ultra-strict religious choke hold on life here. 

I believe in freedom of religion.  I dislike it when others try to impose their religious beliefs on me.  I also abhor the wars, the killing and the violence, and the oppression of women that people around the world commit in the name of religion.  And I think it's a very sad day when a person is jailed and could even face the death penalty for encouraging discussions about religious beliefs.

The following article  appeared on the Human Rights Watch website on Dec. 22, 2012...
Saudi Arabia: Website Editor Facing Death Penalty 
Encouraged Peaceful Religious Discussion

(Beirut) – Saudi authorities should immediately drop all charges against the detained editor of a website created to foster debate about religion and religious figures in Saudi Arabia.

On December 17, 2012, the Jeddah District Court, which had been hearing the case against the editor, Raif Badawi, referred it to a higher court on a charge of apostasy, which carries the death penalty. The charges against him, based solely to Badawi’s involvement in setting up a website for peaceful discussion about religion and religious figures, violate his right to freedom of expression.

“Badawi’s life hangs in the balance because he set up a liberal website that provided a platform for an open and peaceful discussion about religion and religious figures,” said Eric Goldstein, deputy Middle East director at Human Rights Watch. “Saudi Arabia needs to stop treating peaceful debate as a capital offense.”

A member of Badawi’s family told Human Rights Watch that during the December 17 hearing, Judge Muhammad al-Marsoom prevented Badawi’s lawyer from representing his client in court and demanded that Badawi “repent to God.” The judge informed Badawi that he could face the death penalty if he did not repent and renounce his liberal beliefs, the family member said.

Badawi refused, leading Judge al-Marsoom to refer the case to the Public Court of Jeddah, recommending that it try Badawi for apostasy.

Prior to the December 17 hearing, Badawi had been charged with “insulting Islam through electronic channels” and “going beyond the realm of obedience,” neither of which carries the death penalty. A different judge, Abdulrahim al-Muhaydeef, presided over five sessions of the trial but was replaced without explanation for the December 17 hearing by Judge al-Marsoom.

Saudi law derives from principles of Islamic Shariah, which are not codified and do not follow a system of precedent. As a result, individual judges are free to interpret the Quran and prophetic traditions – the two agreed-upon sources of Shariah – as they see fit.

With the exception of a few crimes – including the capital offense of apostasy – judges essentially can interpret offenses to fit facts rather than assessing whether facts fit a clearly defined offense. Saudi judges also frequently convict people who engage in peaceful criticism of religious or political authorities on vague charges, including “going beyond the realm of obedience.”

Security forces arrested Badawi, a 30-year-old from the port city of Jeddah, on June 17. Badawi in 2008 was co-founder of the Free Saudi Liberals website, an online platform for debating religious and political matters in Saudi Arabia.

On the website, Badawi and others had declared May 7, 2012, a day for Saudi liberals, hoping to garner interest in open discussion about the differences between “popular” and “politicized” religion, Su’ad al-Shammari, secretary general of the website, told Human Rights Watch. Human Rights Watch had previously called for al-Badawi’s release on the grounds that his arrest violated his right to freedom of expression.

Based on a royal decree issued by King Abdullah in April 2011, all crimes related to insulting Islam by electronic means fall under the jurisdiction of a judicial council in the Ministry of Information. The council has the authority to refer cases directly to the king, who may “take measures in the public interest,” including referring cases to court.

The judicial process against Badawi has not made clear what words or activities provoked his prosecution. However, international human rights law provides broad protection of the right to freedom of expression. It permits restrictions only in narrowly defined circumstances, such as speech that constitutes incitement to imminent violence. International norms provide protection for speech about religion, including speech that some may find departs from commonly held beliefs or insults a religion or religious group.

Saudi authorities have harassed Badawi since he founded the website. In March 2008, prosecutors arrested and detained him for questioning but released him a day later. In 2009, the government barred him from foreign travel and froze his business interests, depriving him of a source of income, a family member told Human Rights Watch.

His father and a brother have publicly distanced themselves from him and declared him an unbeliever, and members of his wife’s family also filed a suit in a Jeddah court to have him forcibly divorced from his wife as an apostate. His wife and children are living outside of the country.

“Instead of protecting their citizens’ right to freedom of expression, the Saudi government has gone all-out against Badawi, to punish him and intimidate others who dare to debate matters of religion,” Goldstein said. “The authorities should drop the charges against him.”

7th MIT Pan-Arab Conference

Press release:

22,000 jobs needed per day to combat the high unemployment rate in the Arab world -

MIT AAA conference to address employment and innovation in the region

06 January 2013

The MIT Arab Alumni Association (MIT AAA), with the lead sponsorship of Sadara Chemical Company and its parent companies, the Dow Chemical Company and Saudi Aramco, is convening world and regional industry leaders this month in Dubai to address the future of manufacturing and economic development in the Arab world. The 7th MIT Pan-Arab Conference: Manufacturing for Jobs, Growth and Diversification will be held at the Westin Dubai Mina Seyahi on January 19-20, 2013.

According to a recent IMF study, the Arab world must add 22,000 new jobs per day until 2020 and manufacturing is a key sector which can accelerate the growth and development needed to tackle this challenge.

Regional and global leaders speaking at the 7th MIT Pan-Arab Conference include:
1.     His Excellency Dr. Tawfiq Al-Rabiah, Minister of Commerce and Industry, Saudi Arabia
2.     His Excellency Abdullatif Al-Othman, Governor, Saudi Arabian General Investment Authority
3.     His Excellency Ahmed Chami, Former Minister of Industry, Trade, and New Technologies, Morocco
4.     Mohamed Al-Mady, Vice Chairman and CEO, SABIC
5.     Jim McIlvenny, Senior Vice President, The Dow Chemical Company
6.     John Rice, Vice Chairman, GE and President and CEO, GE Global Growth and Operations
7.     Homoon Kang, Vice Chairman, Samsung Electronics
8.     David Steel, Senior Vice President, Samsung Electronics
9.     Motassim Al-Maashouq, Vice President, Saudi Aramco
10.  Martin A. Schmidt, Associate Provost and Professor of Electrical Engineering, MIT
11.  Joe Saddi, Chairman, Booz & Company
12.  Amer Majali, Chief Commissioner, Development and Free Zones Commission, Jordan
13.  Azzam Shalabi, President, National Industrial Clusters Development Program, Saudi Arabia
14.  Ahmed Yahia Al-Idrissi, Executive Director, Mubadala Industry
15.  Professor Fred Moavenzadeh, President, Masdar Institute of Science and Technology
16.  Professor Stefan Catsicas, Provost and Executive Vice President, King Abdullah University of Science and Technology
17.  Ziad Al-Labban, CEO, Sadara Chemical Company
18.  Gassan Al Kibsi, Director, McKinsey & Company
19.  Dr. Hani Shammah, Head of Private Equity, National Bank of Abu Dhabi
20.  Nader H. Sultan, Senior Partner at F+N Consultancy and Former CEO, Kuwait Petroleum Corporation
21.  Zuhair Allawi, President, Dow Saudi Arabia
22.  Badr Al-Olama, CEO, Strata Manufacturing
23.  Abdulrahman Al-Ubaid, Founder and Managing Director, Saudi Development and Innovation Group

Mr. Talal Kheir, President of the MIT AAA, said: “The Conference will focus on the future of manufacturing and its potential in meeting two of the Arab world’s most pressing demands: job creation and economic diversification. The objective of the conference is to bring together leaders in technology, policy, industry, education and finance to discuss innovations and showcase solutions that have the potential to significantly impact today’s global manufacturing challenges.”

Topics addressed at the two-day conference will include institutional, regulatory, and macroeconomic issues pertaining to manufacturing; education, training and innovation in manufacturing and their impact on employment, entrepreneurship and investment opportunities; plus models for a globally competitive Arab manufacturing sector.

Conference delegates will include senior government and industry leaders from the Middle East, Europe, Asia and North America, MIT faculty, students and alumni, as well as regional business leaders and professionals. Registration is still open at

About MIT Arab Alumni Association:
The MIT Arab Alumni Association (MIT AAA) was established in order to bring MIT to the Arab World and to bring the Arab World to MIT. MIT AAA’s vision is to promote the highest interests of humanity, to support science and technology education in the region, and to facilitate education of the diverse MIT community in the region.
Since its inception in the late 1990s, MIT AAA has pioneered and developed a regional conference model for which it received the MIT Presidential citation. These high profile regional conferences bring together the MIT community from Cambridge, as well as alumni/ae and prominent leaders in the Arab region to the different countries in which the conferences take place: Cairo (2000), Amman (2001), Beirut (2002), Dubai (2003), Tunis (2004) and Abu Dhabi (2009) have been recent venues.

For more information kindly contact:
Rabih Riman
PR Manager, entourage
Mobile:         +971 55 414 929 6

Wednesday, January 2, 2013

Religious Bullies

Making the news this past week from Saudi Arabia was a report that some 200 Saudi religious clerics have united in a cause - applying pressure and threatening the Saudi Minister of Labor, Adel Fakieh.  Their beef with Mr. Fakieh lies in his promotion and support of Saudi women in the retail workplace, a new policy which was unheard of when I first moved to the Kingdom in 2007. 

It seems that these religious zealots fear that gender mixing will lead to unacceptable and sinful behavior between unmarried men and women.  It's one thing to be opposed to gender mixing.  It's quite another to threaten the Labor Minister with the wish for bodily harm to come to him - in the form of praying to Allah that he will be stricken with cancer and die, which is exactly what happened to Fakieh's predecessor.  To his credit, Mr. Fakieh defended his position and told his opponents to file a lawsuit and let the courts decide. 
I find this threat repulsive, disgusting, and totally against the ideologies that religion is supposed to stand for.  There is nothing in Islam that would prohibit women from working in retail jobs.  I personally have been thrilled to see more and more females working in lingerie, cosmetics, and dress shops and in grocery stores in the past couple of years.  I have gone out of my way to address these working women and their managers to express my unabashed delight in seeing females in these positions.  
Me with a female employee in one of my favorite shops

It was downright creepy, humiliating, and embarrassing for a woman in Saudi Arabia - who must be fully covered from head to toe when out in public - to go into a lingerie shop and have to deal with a salesman telling her that she should buy a B-cup instead of a C.  Yet this is exactly what Saudi women were forced to endure for many years in this country before they began a 3-year campaign against this practice, ending in a tumultuous victory when a law was passed and enforced - with the King's blessing - requiring saleswomen in these positions. 
Saudi female cashiers in grocery chain Hyper Panda

After all, what could be more confusing and contradictory than placing Saudi women in the uncomfortable position of having to purchase bras, panties, negligees, cosmetics, toiletries, and feminine hygiene products from men in a culture where gender mixing is banned?   I just don't see the difference between whether a woman is the customer dealing with a salesman, or a man is the customer dealing with a saleswoman.  Isn't there the same amount of "gender mixing" occurring either way? 

But what I would really love to know is: what kind of a hideous and sick interpretation of any religion would endorse praying for a person to be stricken with cancer?  This is such an offensive idea coming from so-called "religious" men.   I believe they are just bullies practicing religious voodoo who like to keep people in line through fear mongering. 

For more reading on this subject:

From Al Arabiya - Saudi Labor Minister faces "deadly prayers" from angry clerics

From Riyadh Bureau -Saudi Clerics To Labor Minister: Stop Women Employment Or You Will Get Cancer

From American Bedu - Saudi Arabia: They Do Not Deserve the Title of Cleric