Tag Archives: Muttawa

Scared?

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.
So there.

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Muttawa’d!

There is a sense that King Abdulaziz might be concerned about his legacy, his image, or might just be getting soft in his old age.  Previous posts have alluded to this.  Today he replaced the head of the Committee for Promotion of Virtue and Prevention of Vice due, some claim, to them becoming too aggressive.  The new head is, reportedly, a reformer and a liberal (by Saudi standards).

I saw the Muttawa in action for the first time last week, seemingly arresting a gentleman who was attempting to recreate Speaker’s Corner near the Corniche.  They had the police to back them up and seemed to be doing everything in a civilised manner, just asking him to move on and go home.

This week, I also expressed to a friend of mine that I didn’t want to buy an electric guitar in case I got Muttawa’d.  Obviously this was slightly tongue in cheek, but he pointed out that even if I was engaged in some extremely provocative behaviour the Muttawa wouldn’t care because I have “the right passport” (i.e a White Man’s passport).  I’m aware that I am treated differently and less likely to get into trouble, but amongst the expat community you hear stories of westerners being deliberately targeted.  Often this is for downright stupid behaviour, for instance alcohol-related crimes or (in one example) advertising a rooftop Christmas party with a poster in the lobby of your hotel.  The recent case of a westerner being arrested for displaying New Year’s balloons is less-obviously idiotic, but most people I know managed to avoid celebrating New Year…it’s really not that difficult.

Lots of the moaning by Westerners about how they are treated in Saudi Arabia is the kind you would read in the Daily Mail.  Ok, I’m sure things are different in Riyadh, but here in Jeddah it only takes a small adjustment (mainly alcohol-related) to avoid getting into any kind of trouble.  For women it’s a less minor adjustment, but most of the encounters with the religious police described on blogs seem to be due to attire.  Now, the clothing I see Western women wearing compared to their Saudi counterparts is positively scandalous!

My point here isn’t that Saudi Arabia is some bastion of liberal values, or that life here is easy (especially for women).  It’s that  westerners should look around them before complaining.  Try living as a Bangladeshi in Saudi for a few weeks, or as a Filipina cleaner.  Or even as a Saudi.  Most Westerners have a choice about coming here, they know what to expect, they know the rules.  It’s not hard to play by them, especially when you’re earning mega-bucks and probably propping up the people that make those rules.

We should also question the sources of our stories.  Many horror stories I hear of how the Muttawa treat westerners (NB: undoubtedly their treatment of Saudis is, at times, terrible) are second or third hand…and often just read somewhere on the internet.  In England, I wouldn’t listen to anyone quoting the Daily Mail.  Should I listen to those who quote unverified internet sources?

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