Many Questions, No Answers

Last Wednesday was the 79th National Day of Saudi Arabia. Most of what has been said, written, and sung, focused on celebrating what has been achieved over the relatively short life of this country. There is nothing wrong with taking pride in what we have accomplished, and we certainly have many things to be proud of. But what I’m proud of the most are the people, the citizens who put their country first, those who their pride won’t stop them from seeing the shortcomings and work to rectify them. I salute those who live by the ideals of this nation, and find the courage in themselves to stop, think and reflect, and then say: we can do better than this, we must do better that this, we are better than this.

That’s why when I read that groups of young men in different parts of the country decided to celebrate the National Day by acting like hooligans, I was disturbed but not surprised or shocked. As Qusay said, we can probably attribute this behaviour to many reasons, including the lack of discipline. But the fact that these terrible acts happened on this day in particular raises some troubling questions: have we failed to instill any sense of national belonging in our youth? What does it mean for those boys to be Saudi and how can they express that? Although we have a great country, we are yet to construct a plural identity and make those boys realize that what they were vandalizing is actually theirs. Our national identity has been tied to individuals, tribes and religion among other things, but never to the country which we all should belong.

Talking about nationalism is easy, but at least some of us know that it takes much more than a bland weekly tarbiya wataniya class and a few songs to produce upright citizens. People belong to the country only when their rights are protected. People belong to the country only when they have a say in how it is run. People belong to the country only when they know they can dream and that their dreams may someday come true.

At the very same moments when the hooligans were destroying storefronts in Riyadh and Khobar, a dream of our King was coming true in Thuwal. The $100m inauguration of King Abdullah University of Science and Technology, aka KAUST, was attended by more than 3,000 guests, including world leaders, prominent Saudis, and Nobel laureates. The launch of KAUST promises a new dawn for Saudi Arabia, the beginning of a future based on knowledge and enlightenment. That’s the promise, but will we ever come to realize it or even just come near it? How can we make sure that KAUST will not end up, in the words of Rasheed Aboulsamh, as a west coast Aramco enclave, where freedom and progressive thinking prevail while the rest of the country remains hostage to a religious dogma controlled by a select few?

The celebrations of the National Day, the opening of KAUST, the acts of vandalism, and everything else that happened over the course of this past year left me with many conflicted feelings: aspiration and disappointment, hope and despair. But more than anything, this 23rd of September left me with many questions, and no answers.

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23 September, Revisited

Today is the National Day of Saudi Arabia. On the same day two years ago, I wrote this, and it has become one of my favorite posts because I felt that it says a lot about myself and the message I’m trying to deliver through this blog. It saddens me to admit though that very little has changed since then. Have things become worse? No, because I don’t think it could get any worse. The country is changing, but at a glacial pace that is leaving me and many others dejected and frustrated. It is just disheartening to move in slow baby steps when we can — and should — take leaps ahead to the future. Here’s hoping our dreams won’t be deferred any longer.

P.S. I will be traveling with my family later this week and I don’t think I will be able to update the blog for two weeks or so. I will be back on the 2nd week of October.

Unhappy Birthday

As someone born and raised in Saudi Arabia, I am quite familiar with the kind and amount of hostility Wahhabi teachings hold against the display of joy in most aspects of daily life because they view such display in contradiction with the piety and solemnity that is required in a Muslim. This can be explained by their obsession over superficialities and their disregard of all things mortal. The hostility is clearly seen in their attitude towards celebrating occasions such as birthdays, anniversaries, etc.

So when I heard Sheikh Salman al-Awdah speaking on his TV show last week on the permissibility of such celebrations I was sure that he would get a lot a of heat for that statement. Al-Awdah, a former poster boy of Sahwa, has been increasingly distancing himself from the official religious establishment of the country, promoting more tolerant fatwas and opinions that obviously deviates from orthodox Wahhabism. His new approach gained him some popularity with the public, but not much from the old guard who seemed to ignore him.

This time, however, they think that he has gone too far. The matter of birthdays and anniversaries, silly and insignificant as it may sound, was just too much for them that the Grand Mufti himself came out saying “such a call is against righteousness.” Other scholars such as Sheikh Abdullah Al-Manie said al-Awdah made a mistake and urged him to retract what he had said.

The Wahhabis’ rationale (if you can call it that) for their contempt of celebrating birthdays and anniversaries is because they consider it to be in imitation of non-Muslim practices, but they don’t go out of their way to explain what is exactly so un-Islamic about it. The lame excuse of imitating others is xenophobic, but that is of course not surprising because xenophobia is very characteristic of Wahhabism.

Although the official religious establishment here is disturbingly zealous when it come to such trivial matters, they don’t mind twisting and zigzagging for political gain. For instance, until recently, marking the national day which falls on the 23rd of this month, was a big no-no. Then, and for reasons that I leave to your imagination, they said it is ok to dignify the day provided you won’t call it “Eid.” It seems to me like a mere technicality, but what do I know?