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Understanding Saudi Arabia and Wahabism

From Frontpage Magazine

Frontpage Interview’s guest today is Dr. Ali H. Alyami, Executive Director of The Center for Democracy and Human Rights in <쉝 邐邐讐囿ɪjӨ£菿Ǹ蔏㯱 쀳幀噆ྀ쪅ᅦ櫿樀栁齖絑빰?ੋ> Saudi Arabia

FP: Dr. Ali H. Alyami, welcome to Frontpage Interview.

Alyami: Thanks for inviting me, Jamie

FP: Your Center is doing impressive work in informing the public and our leaders about the current situation in Saudi Arabia and in working toward a new democratic political structure for that country.

I would like to talk to you today about the Saudi tyranny and the steps that can be taken to democratize the nation in a real way. First, let’s talk a bit about your background. You were born and raised in Saudi Arabia . Tell us a bit about your youth and how it shaped your intellectual journey.

Alyami: I was born into a semi-nomadic environment. Life was tough, but rich in values. There were no schools to speak of at the time, so learning was very limited. There were no role models to emulate either.

FP: Ok, expand a bit on your experiences and observations growing up in Saudi Arabia — especially in terms of the place of women in the society.

Alyami: I grew up in the southern part of the country. Women were working alongside men. They did not wear the dark abayah, the black cloak. Women did not cover their faces and girls did not cover their hair before they get married. There were lively gender interactions, discussions, consultations, sharing of ideas and very relaxed social mingling.

This environment started to change when the Saudi-Wahhabi men strengthened their presence and implemented their austere religious and tyrannical political rules on the southern region. The exclusion of Saudi women from the decision-making process and participation in the building of their country’s institutions, especially the educational curriculum, is one of the reasons extremist ideologues teach school children hate of other people, their religions and democratic values.

FP: Tell us a bit about the Wahhabis and why they were able to gain power and why they are so influential today.

Alyami: Wahhabism is a revisionist religious movement predicated on the austere Hanifi brand of Islam. The movement was named after its religious extremist founder, Mohammed Ibn Abdul Wahhab who was infatuated with religious domination under the guise of purifying Muslims whom he believed to have had strayed too far from the straight path. Abdul Wahhab heard of a prominent chief of a small tribe in Nejd, Central Arabia, by the name of Mohammed Ibn Saud who was aspiring for an economic and political domination over the areas of Arabia where trade, agriculture, and water were thriving and in abundance in comparison with the arid and poor areas of his region.

The two men formed an alliance (in or around 1744) with the intent of conquering other tribes, confiscate their land, convert them to Wahhabism, and kill those who resisted. From what is known about the Saudi-Wahhabi religious, economic, and political movement, its executers left a trail of death, looting and destruction. After almost two hundred years of wars with other tribes, the Saudi-Wahhabi allies prevailed and declared their state in 1932 which they named after the Saudi clan, Saudi Arabia . The Saudi wing was given the authority over the economic, political and security operation and the Wahhabis were put in charge of the religious, social and educational institutions. This division of powers between two clans and their total control over every aspect of the Saudi people’s lives are the biggest obstacle to political participation, empowerment of women and development of democratic and tolerant institutions.

FP: What is the impulse to marginalize and disempower women? What are its sources? And why do you think misogyny is so inter-related with tyranny in general?

Alyami: Without defending or justifying the Saudi system of the dehumanization and nationalization of women, subjugation of women existed through human history. Misogyny comes from “misein” a Greek term for hate of women “gyne.” Discriminations against and humiliation of women can be found in every major religious books and in every culture, but nothing is as severe, destructive and damaging as the Saudi-Wahhabi inhumane exclusion of women, especially at this stage of human history. The sources of the exclusion of Saudi women can be found in religion, tradition and man fear of women empowerment. Sadly, in the Saudi state, segregation of and discrimination against women are institutionalized and reinforced on daily basis.

Contrary to the Saudi ruling family’s repugnant claims that the causes of marginalizing Saudi women is religious and tradition; it is more economic and political plot. It’s divide, conquer, turn the population against each other and exonerate the system of its full responsibilities toward all of its citizens. The government’s owned and operated political, educational, social, religious and economic institutions are designed to deny women the rights to be treated as full citizens.

FP: What kind of democratic reforms are badly needed in Saudi Arabia today?

Alyami: There needs to be transformation of the Saudi political, economic, religious, social, and educational institutions. Presently, all powers and pillars of oppression reside in the hands of the Saudi ruling family and its religious extremist supporters. Without public active political participation, the same extremists will keep doing what they have done for the last eighty years and the results will be devastating for the people of Saudi Arabia , the Middle East and the international community, especially the US .

FP: Would you say that the roots of the terror war reside in Saudi Arabia ?

Alyami: Ideologically, I would say Saudi Arabia is the major source of terror incitements and probably financing. Even though, the Saudi government, ruling princes, have deleted some anti-Semitic and anti-Christian hate phrases from its school curriculum, the fact remains that hate for non-Muslims and Muslim minorities are very strong in Saudi schools, mosques, media and living rooms. Without drastic political, educational, economic transformation of all Saudi institutions and empowerment of women, Saudi Arabia will remain the hotbed for extremism, terrorism and incitements.

FP: Is Saudi reform today real or artificial? Is it designed for political participation or to strengthen the status quo?

Alyami: The Saudi reform is mostly done to appease the system’s critics, especially the US , whose intense pressure is necessary if any meaningful reforms in Saudi Arabia are to take place. The Saudi reforms hitherto have been artificial, meaningless, misleading and designed to strengthen the status quo and neutralize the Saudi reformers’ efforts to expose the tyrannical policies of the Saudi ruling princes. An example of the Saudi reform duplicity is the partial municipal elections, which ended in April 2004. Only half of the candidates were allowed to run for office. The other half is to be chosen by the government. The government scrutinized all candidates and anyone who was perceived to be a potential non-conformist was eliminated.

The voted-in candidates were elected by less than 10% of the population. This is because women were barred from voting and so was everyone below the age of 21, the arms and security forces. The 10% who were allowed to vote are mostly members of the society who have already bought into and support the system as is. The elected candidates were told to wait until the government decides what to do with them. They waited for eight months and were told that they can only be another government’s observers. They have no power to enact and laws or even ask for anything from the central or local government officials. They were assigned the tough job of sending their complaints to the proper authorities. In short, the government created another agency to strengthen its grip on every corner of the country.

In Washington and in European capitals, the elections in Saudi Arabia were a milestone of more good things to fellow. This optimism is based on wishful thinking and avoidance of calling the Saudi elections by their true name, deceptive, flawed and designed to paint a positive image of a system that is anti-democracy and among the most violators of basic human rights. All a person has to do is look at the Mijles al-Shurah, Consultative Council. It was established in the early 90s and still yet to be anything other than a rubber stamp. It has no power to do anything other than meeting and praising the king and his family.

FP: Paint us a portrait of the persecution and oppression women in Saudi Arabia suffer today.

Alyami: The best person to be asked would be a Saudi woman. However, most Saudi women are still considered property. They still have to get male approval to travel, to open a bank account, to visit neighbors and even to deliver their babies in hospitals. Only six percent of able Saudi women are working in segregated areas and are not allowed to work at night for fear of sexual encounters.

FP: If you were to give the Bush administration advice on policy toward Saudi Arabia what would you recommend?

Alyami: Contrary to President Bush’s bashers, he of all American Presidents has been able to change the political landscape in the Arab and Muslim countries. There is no more evidence of this than in Saudi Arabia . Bush’s public pressure on the Saudi princes to share power with their oppressed citizens have empowered Saudi democratic men and women reformers to speak up and demand fundamental changes in their politically stagnant society. My recommendation would be to continue public demands and pressure on the Saudi ruling family to share power with educated, democratic and tolerant Saudi men and women or step aside and let the people rule themselves. There are alternatives to the present system that can be put in place. Millions of educated Saudi citizens are capable of doing superior a job than the geriatric and uneducated princes who are in charge now.

FP: Mr. Alyami, thank you for joining us today and keep up the great work.

Alyami: Thank you for having me and for your interest in the important educational work the Center for Democracy and Human rights in Saudi Arabia is doing.

By Jamie Glazov