Looking Back at 2018

This is a self-reflection post on how I relate and try to understand change happening thus far in Saudi Arabia.

I look back at 2018, perhaps like others, with mixed feelings. As someone who comes from the most conservative region in the Kingdom, Al-Qassim, I have always been apprehensive about change. My parents, both from religious families, had to experience what it feels like to break away from the norms and constrains of the conservative life that was expected of them.

My father was one of the first Saudis to be awarded a scholarship to study abroad. However, my mother’s family was quick at issuing a fatwa (which my father has been keeping until today) forbidding her from travelling with him to the United States. She stayed behind with my siblings in Buraydah. At the same time, my eldest sister joined the first girls’ school in Al-Qassim. The parents of the few students who enrolled struggled to make sure that their daughters go to school unseen. My father, who was not present at that time, asked his cousin to be responsible for taking her to school. He would hide my sister’s bag under his bisht so it wouldn’t be seen by passers-by. This was in the 1960s, before the oil boom and when most people in al-Qassim, including my family, lived in mud houses.

After a year of studying abroad, my father traveled back to Saudi to take my mother and siblings with him to the United States. The process of smuggling them out of Al-Qassim with the help of the government was perhaps one of the most dramatic moments of their lives. They drove from Al-Qassim to Riyadh and then flew to the United States via Beirut.

Upon returning back to Saudi Arabia, the oil embargo followed by the oil boom dramatically transformed people’s lives. Nevertheless, the economic transformation did not change the conservative lifestyle that was maintained in the 1970s, and more so in the 1980s. My family continued to live their lives without upsetting their extended families or the larger conservative society at that time. They adapted to the circumstances by maintaining a private life for themselves and a public life for those around them. Living through the oil boom and its  economic transformation was a dramatic transition for the older generation. Until today, my parents keep remembering how difficult it was to live through poverty, hardship and disease. Yet, their core values remained untouched.

Looking back at 2018, one can openly state that it has been a year full of astonishing and perplexing developments. The year started off on a good note; it was nice and promising to see women entering football stadiums in January. Cinemas opened in the absence of gender-segregation. A baloot tournament took place in Riyadh after being considered by religious scholars a forbidden pastime. Women were allowed to drive for the first time in the Kingdom. The year ended with concerts and dancing by a mixed crowd of men and women, something that would not have been allowed a few months ago.

As the youngest of seven children, I was born in the 1980s which meant growing up during the height of the sahwa era. For those who have been affected by the religious discourse, the change witnessed today makes us reflect on the beliefs and values that were constantly reinforced and rarely challenged. As someone who criticized the dominant religious discourse and never adopted it, I still struggle to cope with my mixed feelings regarding change. I find myself thinking of those who, not so long time ago, believed in the religious discourse that is being contested today. I remember the debates I had with them regarding the veil, segregation and religious diversity. Are they now supportive and adoptive of change? Or are they merely accepting change while holding on to their beliefs? In social psychology, holding contradictory attitudes or beliefs towards something is called “cognitive dissonance”.

The problem with cognitive dissonance is that it usually leads to feelings of discomfort. Some of those who experience this discomfort will ultimately need to alter their beliefs in order to minimize or resolve dissonance. Others might refrain from taking part in activities that might challenge their belief system. Perhaps many are not confronting their feelings of inconsistency as a way not to deal with dissonance. It makes sense that the youth are enjoying the moment without thinking of the religious and psychological baggage that lurks somewhere in their subconscious. If anything, perhaps we can conclude that we have mastered the art of living through change and the discomfort that comes with it. We learned to accept the seesaw effect of social transformation whether we’re up or down.

Takhwin: A Present Day Witch-Hunt

Those familiar with Arthur Miller’s The Crucible know that the play is inspired by the events of the Salem witch trials that took place in the Massachusetts Bay Colony in 1692. Miller wrote the play in the 1950s during the era of McCarthyism in the United States. Communist influence was considered a threat and accusations of treason and being communist sympathizers were a common occurrence.

But what if we reset Miller’s play in today’s modern context? For example, the “treason” hysteria that has been sweeping the social media scene in Saudi Arabia is a phenomenon similar to the witch hunt in Miller’s play. In fact, accusations of treason and “traitor” name-calling (takhwin) is made easier with the use of social media platforms. In The Crucible, trials are carried out for those accused of witchcraft. In today’s takhwin, everyone can go through someone’s previous tweets (even their likes and retweets), screen capture them and take them in or out of context to circulate them with treason related hashtags. This phenomenon has become significantly on the rise in the past few weeks.

A cartoon by Abdallah Jaber titled Takhwin (Mekkah newspaper).

Abdallah Al-Fawzan, member of the Shura Council, said in a television interview last week that everyone has the right to call someone a “traitor” if they fail to defend their nation or decide to remain quiet. Al-Fawzan’s remarks divided the Saudi public opinion into two groups. A smaller group criticized such behavior arguing that this attitude is worse than the international media campaigns targeting Saudi Arabia, The majority, however, received his remarks positively and saw it as an open invitation and a legitimization to go after others on social media.

The literary themes of The Crucible contain striking similarities to our present day situation. The takhwin phenomenon follows a similar pattern to the hysteria experienced by the residents of Salem. In Miller’s play, women accuse each other of witchcraft in an attempt to distance themselves from suspicion and to save themselves by naming others. Similarly, the collective pressure witnessed on social media platforms has resulted in name-calling users with different views or even those who decide to be quiet. Accusing others of treason is an attempt to save oneself since not taking a stance, according to Al-Fawzan, is enough to raise suspicions.

The Crucible (Photo courtesy of N.C. Archives via Playmakers)

The hysteria and accusation of takhwin has replace that of takfir (accusing a Muslim of apostasy) which, for decades, was usually directed at those who challenged the cultural or religious status quo. Saudi actors, singers and writers were usual victims of takfir. After stripping the religious police of their powers and arresting a number of religious figures, the takfir accusation was no longer relevant. However, the void was soon replaced by takhwin as it became an effective way to exclude and accuse those who express contrary or different views.

Social media is the only space for many in the Arab world to voice their opinions and get familiar with the news away from the traditional media’s rules and restrictions. However, this space is becoming increasingly restrictive and has lost so much of its credibility and appeal. As a result, those who express different views find it safer to remain quiet or to quit social media platforms altogether. The developers of social media platforms, especially Twitter, have an ethical responsibility to protect their users and to live up to their obligation of providing a breathing space for peaceful exchange that is highly needed by many around the world.

The Evolution of the Culture of Exclusion

Observers of the social media scene in Saudi Arabia may have noticed a growing sense of nationalism among its users. Expressing nationalist sentiments has become a ritual and an important part of the daily life of Saudis. The strong sense of nationalism coincided with the disappearance of any other critical voice. Has nationalism contributed to the evolution of the culture of exclusion, or is it the result of a genuine sense of pride among the young and aspiring Saudi population?

The Roots of Exclusion

Exclusion (or iqsaa in Arabic) has always found a solid ground in the Saudi culture dating back to its pre-Islamic history. The importance of tribal lineage and the need for classification and labeling maintained such behavior and reinforced it. However, as the Arab world was going through ideology testing and independence, some Saudis began getting familiar with new emerging notions. In the 1960s, pan-Arabsim received a modest share of admiration among a group of Saudi thinkers and writers. After the oil boom and rapid urbanization, the strong religious influence in the 1980s and the 1990s dominated the cultural scene. As a result, the culture of exclusion reached an all-time high. The strong religious influence ostracized those who did not adhered to the conservative lifestyle. A number of Saudis who preferred not to be ostracized by their extended families or society maintained their private lives away from the public eye. Living a double life, one that is conservative publicly and one that is less so in private, demonstrates the roots of the exclusion dilemma.

The Conservative vs. Liberal Debate 

In the early 2000s, the “liberal” camp gained more freedom and was able to voice its opinion in national newspapers. As a result, conservatives pushed back through writings and the use of religious platforms to counter the liberal narrative and condemn its thinkers. Such debates were witnessed daily in national newspapers and television channels. The intellectual exchange between liberals and conservatives tended to exclude and criticize the other, however, such discussions were important and demonstrated a healthy exchange of ideas that allowed the intellectual scene to mature and develop further.

A cartoon by Abdallah Jabir in Mekkah newspaper.

In 2011, when prominent women’s rights activists began a campaign to end the ban on driving, the hashtag #لن_تسوقي (you will not drive) became widely used to ridicule and bully activists. However, after curbing the powers of the religious police in 2016 and the detention of sahwa figures in 2017, the hashtag #لن_تعودي (you [sahwa] will not come back) became commonly used to silence conservatives and religious voices. As sahwa and its figures were pushed out, nationalism was pulled in to fill the void and to become the only identity for Saudis.

Watani or Watanji? 

In the past two years, nationalism took over social media platforms. As a result, voicing any kind of criticism is not tolerated and is often attacked. Labels such as “traitor”, “ikhwan sympthizer” and “agents” are casually thrown at anyone who questions or voices different views. Therefore, some attempted to draw a distinction between patriotism (watani) and nationalism (watanji) to demonstrate that constructive criticism does not make someone unpatriotic. Nevertheless, such attempts often lead to negative and harsh consequences.

It is no wonder, then, that the hashtags #الوطن_غالي_فلاحياد and #الوطن_خط_احمر (the nation is a red line) start trending at the wake of any internal or external crisis. Expressing strong nationalist sentiments is immediately displayed regardless of what the issue is. Some justify their stance by arguing that there are attempts to jeopardize and hinder the reform process, hence one must aggressively defend any kind of criticism. Others argue that adopting nationalism is the only way to prevent the religious influence from finding its way back in. Some even argue that being nationalistic is vital to ensure the unification of the Saudi front in the face of its regional and international rivals and enemies.

The nationalism dilemma can be seen is the case of the Saudi writer Ziad Aldrees who recently wrote a coloumn in Al-Hayat that was soon deleted on the newspaper’s website. In the article, Aldrees mentions “electronic flies” in reference to social media users who attack any opposing voices. Such reference was strongly criticized and the hashtag #الدريس_يسيء_لمغردي_الوطن (Aldrees attacks Saudi Twitter users) began trending. As a result, Aldrees was referred to as an “ikhwan sympthizer” while others circulated a short video of him to question his views and beliefs.

https://twitter.com/abdullah1134381/status/1056618842087219202

https://twitter.com/Dr__abdulmalek/status/1056620086000340992

Expressing nationalist sentiments is not only a Saudi phenomenon. The nationalist rhetoric has been on the rise in the West since 2016. Donald Trump’s “America First” is now used among Saudi social media users with the hashtag #السعودية_اولا (Saudi first). In the past, opening the door for dialogue and discussion made Twitter important for Saudis as it was the only platform available for them to exchange and voice their opinions and views. Now, Twitter has become the platform to express one opinion and one view.

Filling the Void (2): Nationalism

Earlier this year, I wrote a post on the declining influence of religious figures in Saudi Arabia and how this could leave a void ready to be filled with something else. Within a few months, a growing nationalist sentiment swept social media and became the new body to fill this void.

For decades, tribalism and regional differences stood in the way of developing a sense of national identity in Saudi Arabia. After the first clash with Sahwa figures in the 1990s followed by the attacks of 9/11, the lack of nationalism was seen as the real culprit responsible for pan-Islamism and extremism. To salvage the situation, and in an attempt to counter pan-Islamism, ‘nationalism’ was introduced as a subject to be taught in school, but only to male students.

One of the memorably daring attempts at establishing a sense of nationalism was witnessed during the era of the late King Abdallah as he made the National Day a public holiday in 2005. This was considered a milestone since celebrating non-Islamic holidays was long opposed and referred to as bida. At that time, conservatives disapproved of the celebration and considered it an alien practice.

Saudi National Day preparations in 2017. (Arab News)

A number of aspiring Saudi writers and thinkers challenged the notion of nationalism in favor of Arabism. Their book Fi Ma’na Al Urouba was published after the events of the Arab Spring which revived the idea of Arabism that had been dismissed since the 1970s. As the Arab Spring turned into an Arab Winter, the regained interest in Arabism soon died down and nationalism across the Arab world, and especially in the Gulf, began to gain momentum.

For the past two years, the nationalistic discourse has reached an all time high. Nationalism is no longer only celebrated on the 23th of September; it is an every day ritual that can be witnessed on the streets, in shops and even influences how social media users define themselves. This year, the celebration of the National Day began on the 19th of September and will continue for four days. The General Entertainment Authority’s calendar has more than 100 activists and events to celebrate the event throughout the Kingdom.

Girls celebrating the National Day. (Reuters via Al-Arabiya)

The Sahwa era and it’s figures were long blamed for stifling modernization. For the past few years, the anti-Sahwa discourse gave birth to the word ‘sahwanji’  which was used to denounce the movement and its followers. The suffix –nji transforms the term into a pejorative one, and adds a negative connotation to the action. Such labels became more relevant recently as the growing sentiment against Ikhwan became more visible and soon Ikhwanji was used to denounce the Ikhwan and their sympathizers. Ironically, the term watanji is now considered the newest addition to the Saudi social media lexicon as it is used to express dismay with those who exhibit hyper nationalism.

https://twitter.com/aziz_alhamdan/status/1040582034001944576

In early 2000s, the clash between liberals and conservatives reached an all time high. The political atmosphere at the beginning of the millennium provided greater space for free expression as debates between those calling for change and those opposing it were witnessed daily in national newspapers. However, nationalism today has become the only label for the modernization project. Therefore, liberals and conservatives alike have jumped on the bandwagon of nationalism. It seems that regardless of one’s view, nationalism should always be at the forefront. The strong emphasis on nationalism seems to have succeeded in enforcing a sense of national unity to counter ideologies that have been daunting policy-makers in Saudi Arabia.

 

The Fight Against the Muslim Brotherhood in the Education Sector

The relationship between Saudi Arabia and the Muslim Brotherhood has been a turbulent one. Formally listed in 2014 as a terrorist organization, the influence of the Muslim Brotherhood began to be actively challenged. However, their power over the education sector is considered the most problematic. Ahmed Al-Issa, Minister of Education, expressed in March that “the invasion of the Muslim Brotherhood in the education system is an indisputable fact.”

The Sahwa and the Muslim Brotherhood 

Parallel to its fight against the Muslim Brotherhood, Saudi Arabia is also engaged in another fight against Sahwa thinking. Sahwa is believed to have adopted and promoted the ideologies of the Muslim Brotherhood and is considered the reason for religious extremism in the country. The Muslim Brotherhood, on the other hand, is seen as a political and ideological movement with aspirations inside the country and the whole region. In September 2017, the arrest of a number of Saudis considered sympathizers with the Muslim Brotherhood sent a clear message of the country’s firm stance.

The Sahwa Conference 

The campaign against the Muslim Brotherhood caused a strain on the education sector that soon had to demonstrate its allegiance and support to the government. The University of Al-Qassim, a city that fostered and promoted Sahwa figures and thinking for decades, hosted its first conference on Sahwa earlier this week. The opening video of the conference is a four-minute documentary on the rise of Sahwa, and how it “gave birth to extremism”.

The papers presented in the conference dealt with issues related to Sahwa’s origin, aspirations, implications and flaws. One of the papers presented in the conference was by Dr. Hisham Al-Alsheikh, professor at al-Imam University. Al-Alsheikh attempted to provide an alternative religious framework to Sahwa by highlighting its differences with Salafism. Al-Alsheikh pointed out a number of Salafi principles that contradict with Sahwa thinking, such as use of the Quran and Sunnah as the only religious references and the obligation of obedience to the ruler. He argued that “true Salafism is not a movement” but a “lifestyle followed by the majority of Muslim”.

The Sahwa conference hosted by Al-Qassim University

The conference was criticized by a number of Saudis on social media, arguing that it is still largely influenced by Sahwa figures. The Saudi writer, Abduallah Al-Alweet, argued that the conference must point out the flaws of Salafism that gave birth to Sahwa. Others saw the attack on Salafism as a proof of Saudi liberals “continuous fight against Islam”.

The Muslim Brotherhood Dilemma 

Launched in 2015, the “Faten” program meant to protect students from extremist views. However, the program’s head was dismissed last year, as reports suggest that Muslim Brotherhood influences led to the decision. In September last year, Suleiman Aba Alkhail, director of the Imam Muhammed bin Saud Islamic University, recommended not to renew work contracts of faculty members considered sympathizers with the Muslim Brotherhood.

In March 2018, the Riyadh International Book Fair banned books that deals with issues related to the Muslim Brotherhood. Also in March, Al-Issa stated that the ministry is working on revamping school curriculum and eliminating any references to the Muslim Brotherhood. In April, the Ministry of Education decided to end all contracts of faculty members considered followers of the Muslim Brotherhood.

The Alternative? 

In light of all the changes affecting the education sector, one wonders what will replace themes and ideas that were promoted in textbooks for years. The trans-nationalism of the Muslim Brotherhood might be replaced with more Saudi nationalism. Relaxing social restrictions and introducing more social reforms will eventually weaken the conservative structure, especially since the majority of youth is supportive of reforms.

The decision by Ahmed Al-Issa to include Ghazi Al-Gosaibi’s book A Life in Management as a textbook in high school is a positive step. The late former Minister of Labor was a constant victim of harassment by conservatives who criticized his views, writings and work. Introducing his books in school is an important step towards acknowledging figures who strive to modernize regardless of the criticism they face.

Haya Al-Awad, Deputy Minister of Education, at the International Exhibition and Forum for Education

Earlier this week, Haya Al-Awad, Deputy Minister of Education, attended the International Exhibition and Forum for Education without wearing her face veil. Al-Awad’s decision caused a wide backlash among Saudis on social media who were critical of her action. Supporters considered it a “personal choice”, and hoped that this will allow a more lenient dress code for Saudi female students who are required to cover their faces by some universities. Al-Awad can be seen as setting a positive example, as the highest female official in the education sector, to other female students in the country.