After Hamza Kashgari was forced to flee Saudi Arabia for his comments on the Prophet (peace be upon him) last week, two strands of thought occurred to me.
The first was purely selfish. Is anything I’m saying controversial? Unlikely in cyberspace – not sure anyone really cares. But in the classroom? We do have to be careful about what we say. Obviously calling-a-teddy-bear-Mohammed levels of stupidity aren’t likely, but my colleagues to tell me about some of the things they do in the classroom and therefore my second worry their futures (the turnover rate at our college is extremely high, and we often don’t find out why…more on this later). You never really know who you are teaching. Rumours abound that X is the son of a Prince or the Y is a member of the muttawa. Often this is unlikely, but the chances are there will be a couple of students with Wasta. One prime suspect is a student who should be getting straight As, but due to his attitude (superior, disinterested, disruptive) he often gets kicked out of class. Combined with some cheating, this got so bad that our co-ordinator and his teachers decided to make him resit the Elementary level. Miraculously, with no discussion, he re-appeared this term in the level above this.
What you say in front of such students is an issue, but it becomes a problem if a connected student is a hard line Salafi. Some teachers will play music (introducing students to the unheard-of Beatles), some will discuss what they do on their holidays (meet girls, drink alcohol). I have been guilty of discussing similar topics, but not talking about my own actions. The danger lies in how you talk about such subjects.
One of my colleagues (the one who was surprised that his students – many of whom consider music to be haram – hadn’t heard of the Beatles) recently had his room raided by the Muttawa and had his laptop confiscated and thoroughly searched. A call to the Canadian embassy was met with a sigh and he was told that unless he had been arrested there was nothing they could do. The colleague in question has publications on Islam, and is a well known academic, but is extremely careful about his behaviour in Saudi Arabia. I’m not even sure I am as careful as him, which makes me worry again.
(On a side note, my flatmate recently left his wallet and passport in a taxi. The following day it was miraculously returned to him by the Sri Lankan taxi driver who scoured the area where he picked my flatmate up asking people for clues as to his whereabouts. Upon returning the walled the driver said he had taken it to the British Embassy and was told that there was nothing they could do…they refused to even hang on to it.)
I also realised this week that questions are possibly more likely to get me into trouble than answers. If I answer a question about my girlfriend or my religion honestly then there’s not much the Saudis can do, or would want to do, unless I’m flaunting my beliefs. After all, I have the right passport. If I start going around asking questions about the political, religious, social or economic situation then I am more likely to arouse suspicions. A new exhibition “Edge of Arabia” opened last week in Jeddah, and I went along. In my opinion it was the most controversial of any exhibition I have been to in Saudi Arabia, and so – after a brief chat – I asked one of the curators how easy it is to get something like this shown in the Kingdom. His demeanor suddenly changed and he practically denied there was anything revolutionary about the work on show. Eventually he admitted that all work which goes on public display is vetted by the authorities, a process which often takes about 2 months. I’m not entirely sure how some of the work passed the test. But, Jeddah is a bastion of Saudi liberalism, and I am constantly surprised and pleased with the baby steps to reform which are occurring in the Kingdom – and I increasingly think King Abdullah deserves some credit for this. If you’re in Jeddah, I’d urge you to go along. I have enclosed one (unrepresentative) photo below, (if you know the artist, please comment) which sums up my experience of the Saudi postal service), but the other work on show is highly diverse and often more shocking.
In other news, I’m currently reading “Journey into America” by Akbar Ahmed. Aside from containing some terrible anthropological methods, some arrogant views and some downright offensive views the book is quite informative and entertaining. Then again, it’s probably nigh-on impossible to go to America, speak to a bunch of random people and not come away with something full of spice. However, another problem I have with the book is the way it looks down it’s nose at Salafis. The “literalist” interpretation of Islam, as Ahmed terms it, which is prevalent in Saudi Arabia is often cited as the root cause of troublesome relations between the West and Islam. He is very much of the opinion that Salafis (in America) fail to integrate and foster cross-faith initiatives, and this view undoubtedly influences, and is influenced by what he sees or hears about Wahhabism in Saudi Arabia. Everyday experience in Saudi Arabia teaches me differently, and Muslims here are very open to discussing religion, very welcoming, and do not fit the picture painted by Ahmed at all. This may not be the case amongst Salafis in America, but perhaps this suggests the problem is not the literalism, but the context.