Saudi video plea to Obama

A group of Saudis have launched this video plea asking US president Barack Obama to pardon their countryman Humaidan al-Turki, who was convicted in a Colorado court four years ago for several crimes and was sentenced to 28 years in prison. The short video is well produced, and has racked up more than half a million views on YouTube so far. It features several Saudi celebrities, bringing together, probably for the first time, a Sunni cleric and a Shia cleric as well as some other notable Saudis including a columnist, a tv talk show host, and a former footballer. The idea for this video plea grew out of a column by Najeeb al-Zamil, a member of the Shoura Council, who also appears in the video. However, the highlight of the video is the emotional appearance of Ruba, the 12-year-old daughter of Humaidan.

The effort by Al-Muhannad Al-Kadam, Asem Al-Ghamdi, and the young Saudi team behind this work is no doubt commendable. But like Abdulrahman al-Lahem and John Burgess, I wonder about the real impact of the video. The case has been raised by Saudi officials in several exchanges with US counterparts, but to no avail. In December 2006, Colorado Attorney General John Suthers travelled to Riyadh to explain the original convictions to Saudi officials.

The timing to release this video was apparently chosen to coincide with the fourth anniversary of his sentence, but from the American perspective it seems like a bad timing. The controversy over building an Islamic community center near ground zero has resulted in a rise of anti-Muslim sentiments here. As John points out, “At this time, sad to say, Islam and Muslims do not enjoy favorable views by a majority of Americans. There is simply no up-side to the President’s issuing a pardon.”

In any case, and regardless of the outcome of this work, I’m certainly glad to see such grassroots effort gains traction. It is a good example of what regular citizens can do to make a difference, and it is a also a good example for the use of social media to promote a cause. The idea that started with a newspaper column now has a Facebook group with more than 26,000 members. The goal of the video, according to the website, is to deliver the Saudi point of view on this issue. I think this goal has been reached. Can this goal be a catalyst for a presidential pardon in favor of Homaidan Al-Turki, like the campaign hopes? That’s a totally different matter.

Demolish?!

If someone told me this few days ago, I would have thought it was a sick joke. But then I watched the disturbing video and heard it from the horse’s mouth:

Shiekh (?) Yousuf al-Ahmad from Imam Muhammad bin Saud Islamic University in Riyadh has shamelessly called for demolishing of the Grand Mosque in Makkah and rebuilding it in a way that prevents women from mingling with men during tawaf and prayers.

Al-Ahmad argues that in the past nobody had the means to achieve that but now it can easily be done. The Grand Mosque can be completely demolished, he said, and then rebuilt all over again. Al-Ahmad suggests the Grand Mosque can have 10, 20, or even 30 floors, dedicating some of them exclusively to women.

I have nothing to say, really. I think the absurdity of this whole thing speaks for itself. How did we get here? God, have mercy on us.

Kill Me Now

For someone who would probably enjoy the lifestyle of a caveman, Shaikh Abdul-Rahman al-Barrak has an impressive ability to occasionally make news headlines with his ridiculous, albeit dangerous, fatwas. His latest fatwa called for opponents of the kingdom’s strict segregation of men and women to be put to death if they refuse to abandon their ideas.

Some people think the best way to deal with this fatwa is to simply ignore it, because the more media attention it gets the more weight it will carry. I disagree. It might be true that al-Barrak is an old man who is still living in the past, but failing to address his fatwa might lead to serious consequences. This guy has a loyal following who admire him and regard his opinions highly.

What if one of his enthusiastic fans decided to act upon this fatwa and killed somebody? What if someone from those who spoke in favor of mixing like justice minister Shaikh Mohammed al-Eisa, Shaikh Ahmed al-Ghamdi, or Shaikh Ahmed Bin Baz got killed over this?

That is unlikely to happen, but it remains a possibility nevertheless. As Ebtihal Mubarak tweeted earlier today, “there is a huge number of unemployed men who are agitated, and it’s easy to rally them using the argument that the government is focusing on women and mixing of genders while ignoring them.”

I think all those concerned should speak out against this fatwa and denounce al-Barrak. The official religious establishment, namely the Council of Senior Ulema, should take a stand and make a statement here. But based on their recent history with the mixing at KAUST drama, I’m pretty sure they won’t say a single word about this.

I hate to repeat myself, but here is what I said two years ago when al-Barrak released another one of his insane fatwas:

I can imagine that neither the government nor the official religious establishment would speak out on this issue, but if they fail to address this properly then they should stop whining about extremism and how terrorists are simply a “misguided group.” It is this kind of dangerous messages that feed extremism and donate fuel to terrorists to continue their lethal destructive acts. Keeping silent and later blaming “external influences” for what happens here will be a hard sell…

  • Sheikh Ahmed Bin Baz is the son of the former Grand Mufti of Saudi Arabia, and he has been saying some interesting things for someone with a famous lastname. Saudi Gazette profiles the young upstart scholar.
  • A Saudi embraces Islam. Seriously. He says his American mom, whom he has been living with for the past 23 years, did not mind because he is an adult and can do whatever he wants. Now imagine if it was the other way around. Would his Saudi father accept his son’s decision to become Christian? Hmmm… UPDATE: here’s the story in English from Saudi Gazette.
  • The Commission for Promotion of Virtue and Prevention of Vice detained two males and three females on charges of “khulwa.” How come?! They are five people! How in hell they were in “khulwa”? Somebody stops these morons before people start shooting them.

Now Walk the Walk

President Obama’s speech was better than expected, but less than what I was hoping for. We know that he can give a good speech, and he certainly did that in Cairo. However, I think that in his attempt to be balanced, he came out sounding too balanced, especially on democracy and human rights.

Probably he was trying to be careful not to offend his hosts, but as I said in my New York Times op-ed, I was hoping that he would speak directly to the leaders in the same way that he did in his inaugural speech when he said: “To those who cling to power through corruption and deceit and the silencing of dissent, know that you are on the wrong side of history, but that we will extend a hand if you are willing to unclench your fist.”

However, I understand why he was cautious when he talked about democracy and human right, and I can’t blame him. He obviously wants to distance himself from the rhetoric and policies of the previous administration, and I guess that’s why he also did not use the word “terrorism” at all in his speech. Still, I think that in the few words he said on democracy he made several good and important points:

America does not presume to know what is best for everyone, just as we would not presume to pick the outcome of a peaceful election. But I do have an unyielding belief that all people yearn for certain things: the ability to speak your mind and have a say in how you are governed; confidence in the rule of law and the equal administration of justice; government that is transparent and doesn’t steal from the people; the freedom to live as you choose. Those are not just American ideas, they are human rights, and that is why we will support them everywhere.

There is no straight line to realize this promise. But this much is clear: governments that protect these rights are ultimately more stable, successful and secure. Suppressing ideas never succeeds in making them go away (…)

No matter where it takes hold, government of the people and by the people sets a single standard for all who hold power: you must maintain your power through consent, not coercion; you must respect the rights of minorities, and participate with a spirit of tolerance and compromise; you must place the interests of your people and the legitimate workings of the political process above your party. Without these ingredients, elections alone do not make true democracy.

In any case, he had too much ground to cover, and therefore it was only normal that he would choose to focus on some issues more than others. I think the way he talked about the Palestinian-Israeli conflict was different than what we usually hear from American presidents. Yes, he said the bond with Israel is unbreakable, but for the first time we hear a US president talk about “Palestine,” not just the Palestinian people, and use words like intolerable and humiliation to describe their suffering. It was also good that he dedicated parts of his speech to religious freedom and women’s rights, two issues where there is much to be done, especially here in Saudi Arabia.

Over all I think the speech was a good start for a frank dialogue between America and the Muslim world, but now those words must be matched with deeds so we can move forward. “And I want to particularly say this to young people of every faith, in every country – you, more than anyone, have the ability to remake this world,” Obama said at the end of his speech. Count me in. I, for one, want to remake this world, starting from here.

UPDATE 6/6/09: David Brooks described the part on democracy as “stilted and abstract — the sort of prose you get after an unresolved internal debate”:

But many of us hoped that Obama would put a gradual, bottom-up democracy-building initiative at the heart of his approach. This effort would begin with projects to create honest cops and independent judges so local citizens could get justice. It would make space for civic organizations and democratic activists. It would include clear statements so the world understands that the U.S. is not in bed with the tired old Arab autocrats.