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Egyptian regime's contempt for religion

The repression of Muslims with unorthodox religious views continues in Egypt. Following the absurd ban on Sufi dhikr ceremonies a couple of weeks ago, there's news that nine followers of the Ahmadiyya sect have been held in jail for the last two months under Egypt's controversial "emergency" law.

A statement from the Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights (EIPR) said yesterday:

In the early hours of Monday, 15 March 2010, State Security Investigations (SSI) officers carried out an arrest campaign targeting members of the Ahmadi faith in the five governorates of Cairo, Qalyoubiya, Monufiya, Minya and Sohag. In the course of this campaign, nine individuals were detained and many books and computers were confiscated.

Four others were reportedly arrested by released after a few days.

The nine were held without charge for up to six weeks and then accused of "contempt for religion" – a vague charge that can be applied to all sorts of unconventional beliefs and behaviour. It was even used against some defendants in the notorious Queen Boat gay trial nine years ago.

Last Wednesday, state security officers also arrested the wife of one of the nine detainees. The next morning, she was brought before the Supreme State Security Prosecutor’s office, who also charged her with contempt for religion after questioning her about her religious beliefs and her affiliation with the Ahmadi sect.

“The use of the emergency law to detain citizens because of their religious affiliation blatantly contradicts government claims that the infamous law is used solely in crimes involving terrorism or drug trafficking,” said Adel Ramadan, the EIPR’s legal officer. “The government must immediately stop punishing people because they hold certain religious beliefs."

Posted by Brian Whitaker, 15 May 2010. Comment

Marriage for the masses

More than 2,200 Yemenis have tied the knot during the past month at a series of mass weddings funded by Saudi businessmen and various charities, Arab News reports:

"Each groom is given 65,000 Yemeni rials ($290), a gold necklace, a ring and clothes. Another 30,000 rials ($133) and a meal for 300 is granted to the bride's family. Eligible grooms must be employed and have to be unmarried."

Mass weddings of this kind are not unusual in the Arab countries (I first wrote about them almost 10 years ago). Obviously they are a boon for the impoverished couples who take part, but I do feel rather ambivalent about them. For one thing, they are usually organised by conservative religious elements – the same types that we find in the west promoting marriage as a cure for most of our social ills.

Also, mass weddings can never be anything more than a palliative. The underlying problem is that marriage has become prohibitively expensive for many Arabs while, at the same time, anyone who remains unmarried is generally regarded as a social failure.

The average age for marriage is rising, while the taboo on sex before marriage (together with the obsession with female virginity) leads to all sorts of frustrations. Behind that is the dowry problem and the attitude that marriage is an economic partnership between two families rather than the culmination of a love affair.

Posted by Brian Whitaker, 14 May 2010. Comment

Human rights in Kuwait

The UN Human Rights Council has been looking at Kuwait this month under its periodic review system. As is now customary at these sessions, the Kuwaiti minister of social affairs, Mohammad al-Afasi, gave an upbeat assessment of the country's human rights achievements and its future good intentions. Others have been more critical.

The human rights situation in Kuwait has deteriorated in the last year with "continued violations against expatriate workers, bedoons [stateless people], women and the media," according to a report by the Kuwait Society for Human Rights. The society also highlighted "failure to reform visa rules, inadequate new labour laws, failure to address discrimination of bedoons and women and the arrest of MPs and journalists for speaking out."

Besides continuing problems with freedom of expression, two major issues in Kuwait are the treatment of migrant domestic workers (thought to number more than 660,000) and around 100,000 bedoons (or bidun) – long-term residents who lack Kuwaiti nationality.

Regarding domestic workers, Human Rights Watch says:

The country's 2010 labour law continues to exclude domestic workers from labour protections required for other workers. In addition, Kuwait's immigration sponsorship system traps workers in abusive employment situations by making it a violation of the law for a migrant worker to leave a job without the employer's consent.

Domestic workers are unable to escape abusive employers or to seek redress even though workloads often exceed 15 hours a day, and there are frequent complaints of unpaid salaries.

Meanwhile, Kuwait continues to portray the bidun as "illegal residents". HRW says:

Many Bidun families have lived in Kuwait for generations, since the founding of the Kuwaiti state, but failed to apply for nationality at that time. Now, they cannot bring their citizenship claims before the courts because the 1959 Nationality Law prohibits judicial review of such claims. Kuwait now classifies the Bidun as residents without legal status ...

They frequently cannot obtain essential state-issued documents, such as marriage licences and birth and death certificates, making it difficult or impossible for them to own property or even legally establish a family.

The UN Human Rights Council was established in 2006 as a replacement for the discredited Commission on Human Rights. Although this is an improvement on the previous body, its membership is still somewhat problematic, allowing various countries with poor human rights records to gang up and protect fellow-offenders.

However, the periodic review system – one of the council's key elements – is basically a sound idea. It provides for the performance of all the UN's member states to be scrutinised in rotation. This identifies specific areas of concern and usually results in some undertakings from the member concerned (even if the member later ignores them, as happened with Egypt over its emergency law).

The council's next periodic review, later this year, will include three Arab states: Lebanon, Libya and Mauritania.

Posted by Brian Whitaker, 14 May 2010. Comment

The great unwatched

Writing for Salon, Joe Conason is the latest to take a swipe at the US government's disastrous and hugely expensive Arabic-language TV channel, al-Hurra:

Having started as an arm of the Bush administration "democracy campaign" – with its founding chairman handpicked by Karl Rove – al-Hurra has never been able to achieve the kind of credibility enjoyed by al-Jazeera in Arab households. Repeated investigations of al-Hurra over the past five years by the American Prospect, ProPublica, "60 Minutes" and various federal investigators have uncovered rampant cronyism, weak programming and broad rejection by the targeted Arab audiences.

Even President Obama avoided appearing on al-Hurra when he inaugurated his outreach campaign to the Arab and Muslim world, sidestepping the US network for an interview on Saudi-based al-Arabiya.

Yet the network continues to spend well over $100 million annually in taxpayer funding, without any measurable positive effect and much anecdotal evidence that its impact is negative.

Posted by Brian Whitaker, 14 May 2010. Comment

'No political prisoners' in Yemen

There are no political prisoners in Yemen, justice minister Ghazi al-Aghbari claimed yesterday. He was speaking to a technical team from the international "Friends of Yemen" group who had come to look at issues of justice and security.

This is ridiculous, as Jane Novak points out in her blog:

The problem with reform efforts in Yemen is that no one in the Saleh administration will acknowledge basic realities. Illegal, retaliatory and arbitrary arrests are among the main drivers of instability and civil unrest.

Political prisoners include journalists, children and activists as well as persons officially designated as "hostages" by the state, a particularly abhorrent practice of imprisoning an individual in order to pressure a wanted family member.

Yesterday, the Committee to Protect Journalists called on the Yemeni government to "end its campaign of intimidation, violence, and politicised prosecutions against journalists".

The call came after Hussain al-Leswas, former editor of the Sanaa Press news website, was jailed for a year in connection with a series of articles about official corruption in al-Baydah.

Another journalist was briefly detained on Monday for holding up a sign at a public event calling for his release.

Meanwhile, a verdict is expected on Sunday in the case of four journalists from al-Nidaa weekly who are accused of "publishing false reports liable to incite violence". They wrote a series of critical articles last year about unrest in the south and the government's handling of it. The information minister considered the articles a "threat to national unity and democracy".

Posted by Brian Whitaker, 13 May 2010. Comment

Egypt prolongs state of emergency

In a rare burst of public relations activity yesterday, the Egyptian embassy in London circulated emails to journalists about the latest extension of the country's emergency law which has been in place since 1967 (apart from a short break around 1980).

For several years the government has been saying it will end the state of emergency as soon as a "balanced" anti-terrorism law can be put in place. It reiterated this promise to the UN Human Rights Council in February.

However, producing an anti-terrorism law is taking an inordinate amount of time and proving rather problematic – hence the latest extension of the emergency law for a further two years. Last November a UN report heavily criticised Egypt's draft of the proposed anti-terrorism law.

The London embassy's PR offensive seems intended to head off western media criticism of the emergency law's further extension. The email – the first I had received from them for several years – included three attachments: a translation of prime minister Ahmed Nazif's speech, a "fact sheet" and a press release.

The fact sheet sought to justify the situation by saying that maintaining a state of emergency for years on end is by no means unusual, especially in the Middle East. "Israel has operated under a state of emergency since its founding in 1948," it said. "Other countries which have decided to take such measures include Pakistan (1977-1985 among others instances), Syria (since 1963), Algeria (since 1992) and Turkey (1971-2002)."

The press release explained how in future the emergency law will be applied "solely for the purposes of countering terrorism and narcotics trafficking", and a note at the end of the email from the embassy's press chief said: "I am sure you will agree with me that this is a very important step towards enhancing the path of liberty and democracy."

Many Egyptians are not so sure about that, and neither am I. The claim that the law will in future be limited to combating terrorism and narcotics has been greeted with widespread scepticism. See, for example, the reports in al-Masry al-Youm and the New York Times, plus the statement from the Egyptian Human Rights Organisation.

However, if the Egyptian government is really serious about this it could start by releasing Hany Nazeer, the blogger who has been arbitrarily detained under the emergency law since October 2008. Nazeer's case has nothing to do with terrorism or drugs (except, conceivably, in the sense that Karl Marx considered religion to be the opium of the people).

Posted by Brian Whitaker, 12 May 2010. Comment

UPDATE,13 May: Human Rights Watch issued a highly critical statement about the renewal of the emergency law.

New call to ban Elton John

Hot on the heels of efforts by the musicians' union to stop Elton John performing in Egypt because of his sexuality and his views on religion, the Moroccan Justice and Development Party has got in on the act too.

The Islamist movement wants to ban him from the Mawazine Festival in Rabat on May 26, fearing that this would pose "a risk of encouraging homosexuality in Morocco".

However, the festival's organisers are insisting that his performance will go ahead.

"At the Mawazine festival we invite artists on the basis of the quality of their performance on stage and according to their artistic career", artistic director Aziz Daki told AFP, adding that Elton John is "one of the world's top pop singers and composers". He has "many fans in Morocco and "his private life is none of our business".

Meanwhile, a group of British academics has written to Elton John urging him to cancel a scheduled performance in Israel next month. "Political or not political, when you stand up on that stage in Tel Aviv, you line yourself up with a racist state," they wrote.

Posted by Brian Whitaker, 12 May 2010. Comment

Gunmen try to free arms dealer

In an apparent attempt to release Faris Mana'a, Yemen's top arms dealer (now under arrest), his relatives opened fire yesterday on a police convoy taking him to court. The driver of a passing mini-bus was killed.

Mana'a served for some time as head of the committee mediating between the Yemeni government and the Houthi rebels, while allegedly simultaneously supplying the rebels with weapons. His brother was governor of Saada province, where the rebellion originated.

He was named in a list of illegal arms traffickers issued by the Yemeni government last October and was also named in connection with a Chinese weapons ship discovered at Hodeida port around the same time.

Last month his assets were frozen by the US Treasury on the grounds that he "has directly or indirectly supplied, sold or transferred to Somalia arms or related material in violation of the arms embargo".

Posted by Brian Whitaker, 12 May 2010. Comment

Protests over journalist's murder

There were angry scenes in Erbil, the capital of Iraq's Kurdish region, on Monday when students protested against the abduction and murder of Sardasht Osman, a 23-year-old freelance journalist. More demonstrations are expected today in Sulaimaniya.

Many are blaming his killing on the Kurdish authorities, and the New York Times says there are signs that his death is "fast becoming a rallying cry for reformers, particularly among the young".

Sardasht (or Zardasht) Osman was apparently abducted on May 4 when arriving at the University of Salahaddin where he was in his final year of studying for a degree in English. His books and papers were found strewn in the street outside.

Late that night, his body was found dumped in Mosul, 50 miles away. He had reportedly been tortured and shot twice in the head.

While studying, Osman had written for a variety of Kurdish publications, including one for Kurdistan Post last December which criticised President Massoud Barzani and his family for running a monopoly on business and politics in Kurdistan.

According to the Kurd Net website, he sarcastically suggested that he wished that he was married to Barzani’s daughter so that he could be corrupt and benefit from the position.

Kurd Net says Osman later reported that he was receiving death threats:

After writing "I am in love with Massoud Barzani's daughter", his subsequent article suggests that he has received a number of threatening emails asking him to give his real name and to reveal his face in a photograph. He posted a photograph of himself in the article and declared that he is not afraid of death.

The Kurdish Insight website says Osman’s brother believes he was killed because of a critical article he wrote in the independent daily Ashtinam in April about a high-ranking Kurdistan Regional Government official.

The last activity by Osman logged on his Facebook page says "Saro wrote on Masrour Barzani's Wall". Whatever he wrote has since been deleted from the corresponding section of Barzani's Facebook page

Masrour Barzani is General Director of Security and Intelligence in the Kurdistan region and a son of President Barzani.

Posted by Brian Whitaker, 11 May 2010. Comment

Resisting homophobia in Lebanon

Next Sunday, May 16, is the International Day Against Homophobia, or Idaho for short. Uniquely among the Arab countries, it will be observed in Beirut (as it has been for several years now).

Rather controversially, the title of this year's Idaho event in Lebanon is "Ana Shaz" ("I am queer") – a re-claiming of the Arabic term of abuse.

In countries such as Lebanon, where the idea of a Gay Pride event would still be too much for most people to stomach, Idaho provides a more socially-acceptable opportunity for some public activism. Even so, in previous years, sections of the media have tried to make out that it involves sordid goings-on.

I happened to be in Beirut in 2005 at the time of the city's first Idaho event. The organisers had booked a conference hall in the Monroe Hotel for a showing of the documentary, I Exist. I went along, mainly to see if the hotel would decide to cancel the booking at the last minute. But they didn't, and around 200 people watched the film.

Posted by Brian Whitaker, 11 May 2010. Comment

Child labour in the Middle East

The issue of child labour in the Arab states "has long been viewed either with indifference or with a degree of scepticism," the International Labour Organisation (ILO) says in a new report. "However, the last decade or so has witnessed a dramatic change both at the government level and in civil society at large."

Although the Arab countries now show "a commitment to tackling child labour", efforts to deal with it are hampered by a lack of information about the scale and nature of the problem.

The report, issued to coincide with the start of a two-day global conference at The Hague on child labour, continues:

It is assumed ... that the problem is significant in some countries and further compounded by poverty, widespread unemployment and the poor quality of education leading to early dropouts. Most working children are in agriculture and endemic political conflicts have led to an aggravation of the problem. The latest conflict in Gaza is a case in point, leading to school disruptions and loss of adult breadwinners ...

Legislative reform raising the minimum age for work has been accomplished in many countries along with other child protection measures. However, there is still a long way to go to create monitoring mechanisms to ensure implementation.

The special situation of girls is still not fully recognised as a priority in the region, with many parliamentarians, for example, still opposing minimum age laws for marriage. As in other regions, many working children are in the informal economy where labour law is hardly ever applied.

An article in The National this morning discusses the problem and says the ILO is focusing particularly on Egypt and Yemen – both of which are considered to be in need of "priority attention".

"The recent conflict between Houthi rebels and government troops in northern Yemen has exacerbated the country’s child labour problems," the ILO is quoted as saying.

Yesterday, in collaboration with the ILO, Yemen announced the start of its "first comprehensive field survey of street children across the country". More than 300 researchers are said to be involved in the work.

Posted by Brian Whitaker, 10 May 2010. Comment

Investigating nepotism

Health authorities in the holy city of Madina are investigating allegations of nepotism and fraud at the King Fahd hospital.

One senior official at the hospital is accused of appointing his nephew to fill a vacancy; another is accused of using fraudulent means to get his son and two nephews employed there.

Given the widespread use of nepotism and wasta throughout the region, it will come as no surprise to anyone if these allegations turn out to be true. More interesting, though, is the fact that they are being investigated and the prospect that some action may result. It's a small step but a further sign of how Saudi Arabia is gradually changing.

Posted by Brian Whitaker, 10 May 2010. Comment

Blocking Skype in Yemen

Yemen has joined the list of Arab countries trying to stop people making cheap phone calls over the internet. According to the Yemen Times, blocking of Skype was introduced earlier this year at the request of TeleYemen to protect the revenue it gets from international calls.

TeleYemen's terms and conditions state: "Access to applications which transmit or receive live video or audio, or make similar demands on the capacity of the network, constitutes unreasonable usage which may affect the performance of the network, and is therefore not permitted."

Calls to mobile phones and landlines using Skype are blocked, though some users are reportedly still able to use Skype-to-Skype voice chat. "However," the paper says, "even Skype voice chat is not possible for many in Yemen if they don’t have specific software such as Hot Spot Shield, which itself is now blocked".

Other countries in the region – including Qatar, Kuwait and the UAE – have attempted to block Skype, by a variety of methods and with varying degrees of success.

Some have blocked access to the Skype download page, though users have circumvented that by downloading the software from alternative sites or loading it on to their laptops during trips abroad. Another approach has been to block online payments for Skype's services.

Posted by Brian Whitaker, 9 May 2010. Comment

Bahrain's alcohol dilemma

Bahrain's unelected upper house of parliament has blocked a move by the lower house (elected and Islamist-dominated) to impose a total ban on the public sale and consumption of alcohol.

With backing from Bahrain's Chamber of Commerce and Industry, the Shura Council last week amended the bill to say that it would apply only to Muslims. The lower house rejected the amendment and sent it back to the upper house for reconsideration. With both houses about to be dissolved at the end of their four-year term, the Gulf Daily News suggests the entire bill will fall by the wayside – at least for the time being.

The proposed ban is meeting opposition from business interests, since Bahrain's alcohol trade is extremely lucrative. The tiny island is a popular watering hole for Saudis.

A Bahraini blogger quoted by The Media Line says: "The problem is not that they drink ... It is what is happening afterwards – car accidents, anti-social behaviour – that is the problem."

Posted by Brian Whitaker, 9 May 2010. Comment

Double standards in Saudi Arabia

Today's Arab News has an interview with Sir William Patey, who has just moved to Afghanistan after three years as Britain's ambassador to Saudi Arabia. The kingdom is changing, he says, and for the first time in ages it has a sovereign and group of senior people who are thinking long-term: “They accept that you can’t just go on the same old way.”

This is probably true, as far as it goes, but Patey seems determined to look on the bright side and any hint of criticism is couched in suitably diplomatic language. “Saudi Arabia,” he says, “is investing hugely in the education of women but is not realising the benefits of that investment ... I am not confident that women will be able to exploit their education.”

It's typical of the bland interviews that departing British ambassadors give to the local press – which don't necessarily reflect their real thoughts. Their final (but private) reports to the Foreign Office in London tend to be a lot more interesting. 

I have no idea what Patey's final dispatch to London says, but in 1972 Willie Morris, the departing ambassador in Riyadh described life in the kingdom as like "being shut up in a theatre where the repertoire consisted of extravagantly over-written and over-acted plays constantly repeating themselves". 

His confidential memo, released into the public domain 30 years later, went on:

It is a great tragedy that, with all the world's needs, Providence should have concentrated so much of a vital resource and so much wealth in the hands of people who need it so little and are so socially irresponsible about the use of it ... What they do with the wealth is often comedy and sometimes farce; there are also legal, social and religious dramas, and the theatre of the absurd is never far away.

A country where the Head of State has strong personal views about the iniquity of male sideburns and where the barbers are ordered to cut them to levels consistent with morality; where a probable murderess of foreign nationality escapes with a deportation order because the only alternative is decapitation – and is prevented from leaving until she gets an exit visa; a dry country, where one can find a Minister incoherently drunk in his office before noon – who could fail to be diverted in such a country, or fail to develop claustrophobia from time to time, and want to get out of the theatre into a street of real people outside?

Meanwhile, Ahmed al-Omran of the Saudi Jeans blog reflects on the current debate about gender mixing and makes the important point that this time the battle is not between liberals and conservatives but is taking place among the conservatives, and is likely to continue. But he wonders if this debate is really changing how the Saudi public feel about gender mixing – and suggests it is not:

Socio-religious beliefs are very difficult to change. Even more difficult in a conformist society like ours ... For examples, look at hospitals which have always been some of the few places in the country where men and women work side by side. I currently train at a hospital pharmacy in Hofuf. The pharmacy has separate windows to serve male and female patients, but from the inside pharmacists and technicians of both sexes work together without segregation. To reduce dispensing errors, a new policy has been recently implemented where some female pharmacists work on the male window while some male pharmacists work on the [female?] window.

I asked a female colleague, let’s call her Zainab, what is it like to work on the male window. “Work is work,” she said, “it’s the same for me here or there.” A male colleague who was in earshot, let’s call him Basheer, turned to me and asked, “would you let your wife work in a place like this?” I was shocked by the question, but I calmly replied that I certainly would. I said it is a respectful and professional work environment, so what’s the problem? I glanced quickly at Zainab who was standing next to me, then asked him: do you find anything dishonorable or disgraceful about working here?

Basheer said that some guys are jealous and can’t let their wives mix freely with men. “I’m that kind of guy,” he added. I was struck by the hypocrisy of what he said. He finds it acceptable for him to be here and work with other women, but apparently the same rules don’t apply to his wife. This kind of hypocrisy, however, is nothing new. It is a typical symptom of the double standards many Saudis practise in their lives every day.

Posted by Brian Whitaker, 7 May 2010. Comment

Yemeni body language

What do these gestures mean? The Yemen Times explains.

Posted by Brian Whitaker, 6 May 2010. Comment

Money versus love in Oman

Omani women can now appeal directly to Sultan Qaboos if their family do not allow them to marry the man of their own choice, according to a royal decree reported in The National. The paper explains:

Many parents, according to judicial experts, use the court of law to prevent their daughters from marrying, with reasons ranging from demands for high dowries to getting married to a man within the family clan. 

Lutfi al Rashdi, a lawyer at Salmi Legal Consultancy in Muscat, said: "What the royal decree basically means is that if the court rules in favour of the parents, then the girl can appeal straight to the sultan and the judgment can be overruled, depending on the circumstances."

It's a step forward, of sorts. But surely the real solution is to devise a system that works fairly without a need for intervention from the unmarried Sultan.

One factor, The National says, is that with larger numbers of young women going out to work, families have become dependent on their incomes – which they lose when they marry. 

That, in turn, is pushing up the bride price which can be as high as 10,000 Omani rials ($25,000), plus several thousand rials-worth of jewellery:

“If the boy cannot pay that, then the woman is not allowed to marry him. It all boils down to pure greed. In other words, daughters are sold off to the highest bidder,” said Fatma Fallahy, 74, a marriage counsellor in Muscat.

Posted by Brian Whitaker, 6 May 2010. Comment

Britain and the Middle East

With Britons voting today in an general election, you may be wondering how a change of government could affect Middle East policy. Rosemary Hollis discusses the question here

For myself, I suspect it would make little difference and anyway, as Hollis points out, the days when Britain had much influence in the region have long gone.

Posted by Brian Whitaker, 6 May 2010. Comment

Absurd ban on Sufi ceremonies

Egypt's absurd ban on Sufi dhikr ceremonies continues. This is the most stupid government move since the great pig massacre of a year ago and a major infringement of religious freedom.

So far, the ban hasn't been getting much comment in the media or the blogs but it's good to see some resistance on the ground. Al-Masry al-Youm reports that "hundreds of Sufi followers entered Sayyeda Zeinab mosque [in Cairo] after noon prayers last Friday, reciting Quran and Sufi chants." And good luck to them.

The ban is symptomatic of the Mubarak regime's mentality: imposing uniformity and control for control's sake. Naturally, it's being implemented with "complete coordination" between the government and the government-controlled Supreme Sufi Council (SCC) whose chief, Abdel Hadi al-Qasabi (or Qasbi), is 
a Mubarak appointee.

“This decree comes as a re-enforcement of Law 118 that requires any Sufi sect to get a permit from SSC in order to establish a sect," al-Qasabi says, noting – horror of horrors – that many unregistered Sufi sects hold ceremonies when and where they want.

But why on earth is there a law requiring them to be registered? Why should they have to keep the awkaf ministry informed about their activities? Egypt has 74 Sufi orders; why can't they be allowed to function independently?

Of course, the Sufis are not alone in this. Newspapers, civil society organisations, trade unions and the like all have to be licensed, registered and supervised by the authorities too. The question, with all of them, is "why"?

Posted by Brian Whitaker, 5 May 2010. Comment

Anti-smoking students banned from exams

More absurdity from Egypt. About 50 students at Cairo university have been banned from completing their end-of-year exams because of their unauthorised activities on campus. They broke the rules, apparently, by sticking up anti-smoking posters.

Perhaps the nastiest part of it is the way they were informed of the ban:

“They received letters at home yesterday,” says Ashraf Omar, a student who has not been targeted by the university administration.

“Nobody warned them, or even brought it to their attention before. They all just received letters at home telling them they would not be allowed to take the final portion of their year-end exams.”

According to the students, the letters bore a post date of 17 April, and cited the university’s decision as having been taken on 31 March.

“They waited to send these letters out,” fumes Mostafa. “They wanted us to receive them now, in the midst of our exams – so it would be too late to do anything real about it.”

Posted by Brian Whitaker, 5 May 2010. Comment

Elton John faces Egyptian ban

The Egyptian musicians' union is seeking to prevent Elton John from performing at a private concert in Egypt on May 18, because of his sexuality and his views on religion.

Mounir al-Wasimi, head of the musicians' union, told the German news agency: "How do we allow a gay, who wants to ban religions, claimed that the prophet Eissa [Jesus] was gay and calls for Middle Eastern countries to allow gays to have sexual freedom?"

Wasimi says the union – which is the only body "authorised to allow performances by foreign singers in Egypt" – is "coordinating" with the authorities to ban the concert.

Elton John is also scheduled to perform at the Mawazine Festival in Morocco on May 26, but there appear to have been no strong objections to that.

In an interview with The Observer in 2006, Elton John said:

"From my point of view I would ban religion completely, even though there are some wonderful things about it. I love the idea of the teachings of Jesus Christ and the beautiful stories about it, which I loved in Sunday school and I collected all the little stickers and put them in my book. But the reality is that organised religion doesn't seem to work. It turns people into hateful lemmings and it's not really compassionate."

Last February, he told Parade magazine:

"I think Jesus was a compassionate, super-intelligent gay man who understood human problems. On the cross, he forgave the people who crucified him. Jesus wanted us to be loving and forgiving. I don't know what makes people so cruel. Try being a gay woman in the Middle East – you're as good as dead." 

Posted by Brian Whitaker, 2 May 2010. Comment

Head of religious police dubbed an atheist

Amid unprecedented public debate in Saudi Arabia about gender segregation, the head of Mecca's religious police has complained that he and his family are suffering threats and verbal abuse – including accusations of atheism – as a result of his controversial views.

Ahmed al-Ghamdi caused a stir last December when, in an interview with Okaz newspaper [in Arabic], he challenged strict interpretations of Islamic rules on mixing of the sexes. He has also questioned the need for believers to attend congregational prayers.

Since then, according to Arab News, he has "been receiving continuous threats".

He said he has also received threatening SMS messages on his cell phone with some people calling him an infidel and an atheist. Meanwhile, others have been leaving messages on his car saying they want to kill him. Some other[s] have written abusive comments on the wall of his home. According to one website, some people have claimed that the Ghamdi tribe had disavowed him.

Saudiwoman's Weblog discusses some of the other repercussions of Ghamdi's remarks. Last month there were a number of false reports that he had been sacked from his post, including one posted on the religious police's own website which was later removed.

In today's Arab News report, Ghamdi seeks to clarify his views:

"What I said was that women are allowed to go out to meet their own needs and that of society while wearing a veil or a loose overcoat or any other decent dress without creating any suspicion or jostling with men, because they need to go out for education and work," he said.

"There is nothing wrong for women to go out for such purposes. It has been approved by the shariah and renowned scholars," he added.

The nub of the religious argument here is that ultra-conservatives fail to distinguish between chaste mixing of the sexes in public (ikhtilat) – which is permissible – and forbidden khulwa (or khalwa) which according to some definitions means people of the opposite sex being secluded together in "a place of privacy which is not usually accessible to others".

The National points out that other prominent Saudis have expressed similar views, including Muhammad al-Issa, the justice minister:

But Mr al Ghamdi’s remarks made bigger ripples because of his position with the commission, whose agents patrol malls, restaurants, universities and other public places to make sure men and women are not mingling.

The furore set off in conservative circles by Mr al-Ghamdi’s arguments is even more intense within the commission [the religious police], which is already coping with rising public criticism of its sometimes aggressive behaviour and with a fierce internal debate over its policies.

The political observer Abdullah al Shammary said that right now,“there is something like a revolution inside the commission. There are huge discussions about its role.”

Ghamdi's views on congregational prayer [in Arabic] have also stirred up debate about the closure of shops at prayer times – the enforcement of which is one of the religious police's most cherished activities.

Quoted in Arab News, he says he says he is not trying to discourage daily prayer in mosques, but "while emphasising the importance of congregational prayer I said we should not brand as infidels those who perform it at home with or without a reason. It should not be considered a sin but they will surely lose the reward of congregational prayer."

Public debates of this kind would have been inconceivable in Saudi Arabia just a few years ago, and there is little doubt that King Abdullah has decided to let them happen. How long Ghamdi will keep his job remains to be seen, because the forces of reaction are still strong. But the genie is now out of the bottle and the issues themselves will not go away.

Growing numbers of Saudis are beginning to recognise that the old ways are not sustainable in a modern world. The National says: 

Many outside experts believe that economic realities will be the most influential factor in breaking down sex segregation, especially as more women enter the job market. But in such a religious society it is important that social change be seen as compliant with Islam.

This is why the debates have to be conducted in religious terms. To outsiders, the actual arguments – relying as they do on citing various religous authorities – may seem obscure and even bizarre, but it is probably the only way that change can win public acceptance.

Posted by Brian Whitaker, 2 May 2010. Comment

The king ... with women

Yesterday several Saudi newspapers, including Arab News and al-Watan, published a very unusual photograph showing King Abdullah and Crown Prince Sultan surrounded by a group of more than 30 women. (The complete picture is here.)

The women attended a National Dialogue forum on "society and health services" in Najran on April 8-10. Al-Watan says the king was "keen to emphasise the role of women and their active participation in the development process". Those taking part in the forum received copies of the photo when they returned home.

Though the forum itself was not of much consequence, the picture is remarkable. Viewed in the context of the ongoing debate about gender mixing in Saudi Arabia, it can be interpreted as a sign that the king is trying to nudge the country in a more liberal direction.

The Saudi Jeans blog notes that the photo was taken on April 11 and suggests that newspapers held back from publishing it while awaiting official approval.

Posted by Brian Whitaker, 1 May 2010. Comment

Controlling Egypt's Sufis

Sufis are the latest religious group to fall foul of the Egyptian authorities' control freakery. Earlier this week, security forces in Cairo closed the Sayyeda Zainab and Sayyeda Nafisa mosques after night prayers and turned off their lights in order to prevent the holding of Sufi dhikr ceremonies. This was the first implementation of a ban announced earlier by the interior ministry.

According to a ministry official quoted by al-Masry al-Youm, the ban is "intended to preempt undesirable behaviour at such gatherings, such as the shouting of invocations and late-night loitering in mosques". 

The ban, which applies to all Sufi dhikr gatherings, is said to be temporary until such gatherings can be "more comprehensively regulated". It was allegedly introduced "in coordination" with a prominent (but hitherto unnamed) official from the Supreme Council of Sufi Orders.

It's not entirely clear what lies behind this, but there appears to be some kind of internal battle within the Sufi orders – in which the Egyptian government may be taking sides. On February 14, al-Masry al-Youm reported:

A conference held by leading representatives of Sufi religious denominations on Saturday called for the registration of all officially acknowledged Sufi orders and for forbidding what it called "intruders" from organising events not in accordance with established Sufi doctrines.

Conference participants criticised some of the dances performed during religious events organised by what they called "false" Sufi sects. They also condemned the practice of erecting tents that are shared between men and women at these events.

"Sufism must be purified from such intrusive practices," Sheikh El-Husseini, leader of the Husseini Sufi order, said.

According to another Sufi leader, Sheikh Alaa Eddin Abul Azayem, "No genuine Sufi order would ever allow men and women to share the same tent at a religious event."

As head of state, President Mubarak is officially in charge of Sufi affairs in Egypt. Last month, he appointed Abdel Hady Ahmed el-Qasbi (a member of the upper house of parliament) as Grand Sheikh of the Sufis. This followed months of legal wrangling between Qasbi and Mohamed Alaa el-Din Abu el-Azayem, head of the Azamiya order, after the death of the previous Grand Sheikh.

A few days after Qasbi's appointment – in what may or may not be a related incident – security forces arrested 20 Sufis from the Ahmadiya order who were meeting at a house in Derenka (Assiut province). Those arrested included seven members of Mubarak's own National Democratic Party.

Posted by Brian Whitaker, 1 May 2010. Comment

Previous blog posts




May 2010

Tamim family drops murder claim

Sign of the horse

Justice, Moroccan style

Morocco welcomes Elton John

Hariri's Future

Bahrain's halal sex shop

Misery of the housemaids (12)

Another botched airstrike

The power of Facebook

Misery of the housemaids (11)

Israel and the Bomb

Promoting democracy

Salih declares an amnesty

Saudi 'emo' girls arrested

Yemen: 20 years of unification

Activists on trial in Egypt

Bahrain bans al-Jazeera

1,600 women back gender apartheid

'Here were houses'

Saudi bulldozers destroy Yemeni village

Sex and the City and the UAE

Against homophobia in Beirut

Misery of the housemaids (10)

Salih assassination attempt

Migrant killed on Egyptian border

Houthi rebellion simmers on

Assassination attempt in Yemen?

Saudis debate women drivers

Egyptian regime's contempt for religion

Marriage for the masses

Human rights in Kuwait

The great unwatched

'No political prisoners' in Yemen

Egypt prolongs state of emergency

New call to ban Elton John

Gunmen try to free arms dealer

Protests over journalist's murder

Resisting homophobia in Lebanon

Child labour in the Middle East

Investigating nepotism

Blocking Skype in Yemen

Bahrain's alcohol dilemma

Double standards in Saudi Arabia

Yemeni body language

Money versus love in Oman

Britain and the Middle East

Absurd ban on Sufi ceremonies

Anti-smoking students banned from exams

Elton John faces Egyptian ban

Head of religious police dubbed an atheist

The king ... with women

Controlling Egypt's Sufis


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What's Really Wrong with the Middle East  
Brian Whitaker, 2009



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Last revised on 20 June, 2010