I am deeply regretful and that is why I write these painful lines. But this is nothing more than a confession of what we have done. We have unsettled humanity and troubled civilization. We have soiled progress and technology. We are masters in destroying to rebuild. We lived through decades of religious repression and ideological dictatorship. Many Arab generations have grown up in extremism supported by the politicians and the fatwas of sheikhs whose main function is to preserve backwardness.
Myself and other liberal writers have suffered much intimidation, insults and attempts to ruin our reputation in order to force us back in line. Freedom to think differently and decide to not be part of the flock, whose role is blind submission, has a very high price. In this region full of conflict and war, dissent is punished.
While the Thirty Years’ War in Europe ended hundreds of years ago, we are still fighting the battle for progress against the power of the clergy and clerics. For many years now, in civilized countries people have not been judged by their beliefs. On the other hand, we continue to judge the purity of human beings on the basis of his or her adherence to Islam, and the honor of a woman based on the hijab. For decades, dictatorial regimes submerged us in ignorance and darkness, resulting in younger generations that do not recognize each other.
The Islamization of Society
The Arab politician in the 1960s and 70s feared the leftist movements, which dominated the intellectual arena of his time. Therefore, he asked for help from Islamic organizations to put an end to free thought, without realizing that Islamism was emerging, producing something far more severe than the belief in freedom: incitement to kill and die for things in the afterlife, the most central of these things being heaven. Hence, the most important and prestigious centers of Saudi Arabia were handed over to the extremists. In particular, they were given control of educational, judicial and cultural centers, the pulpits of the mosques and the tenures of the universities. In exchange, the liberals and the journalists were deprived of the right of expression. Such was, in my view, an inexcusable political naiveté in order to protect the regime from the wave of Nasserist or Ba‘athist nationalism. Consider the fact that at the time, Hasan al-Turabi [ideologue and politician responsible for reintroducing sharia to Sudan after a 1989 coup, NT] was nominated professor at the Saud Islamic University in Riyadh and from him, an entire generation of young people was formed. In the 1980s and 90s, our libraries in Saudi Arabia were full of books written by the Muslim Brothers who fled to Arabia from various Arab states, or by Salafis coming from the desert of the Arabian peninsula. Upon returning from summer vacations abroad, we were not allowed to pass through airports and territorial borders with fashion magazines, books or films without proper inspection, and certain books were absolutely prohibited from entering the country.
Different religious trends emerged in Saudi Arabia especially Wahhabism, the Muslim Brotherhood, Salafism, and Muhtasiba [a Salafi group, NT]. They played a deep and decisive role in the birth of the armed fundamentalist organizations (i.e. al-Qaida) serving as their military arm. These trends converged, amalgamated, multiplied, and transformed into the so-called “sururiyyah movements” [inspired by Salafism and the Brotherhood founded in the eighties by Mohammed Surur Zain al-Abidin, TN] in order to guarantee their survival, consolidating their control over society and influence on the state. The latter is under illusion that the presence of religious currents allows for the safeguarding of the political system. This is a brief overview of the beginnings of the wave of extremism and how it changed our lives which were simple and beautiful, even if primitive before the discovery of oil.
Fifty years ago, women could welcome men into their homes without the presence of their fathers or husbands and dance with them at weddings and celebrations performing the famous traditional dances. My father tells me that in my hometown it was dishonorable for women to cover their faces, it was shameful to meet a neighbor without saying hello, and in Jeddah and Riyadh there were cinemas with simple yet splendid settings. All has changed with the extremist wave linked to the rise of the Salafis and the Muslim Brotherhood. They have even managed to assume power over our homes through changing architecture, designing them to adapt to a backwards style that separates living spaces of Saudis in two parts: one for women, the other for men. Such hostility between the sexes has no precedent in history.
In general, with the emergence of political Islam, liberties have significantly regressed. In order to understand what I mean, simply compare an old photograph of a public street in Cairo, Baghdad, Damascus or Afghanistan in which there were no veils, with a photo from today, with an abundance of niqabs, [a full veil that only leaves the eyes uncovered, TN]. Do not believe in the distorted information that you are given. We are not all terrorists and we are not all veiled women. Do not believe that the niqab and the aba [a long black dress, TN] are fashions that all women share, and do not think that the bearded sheikh represents us all.
In the Classroom
I studied in public schools and read in my coursework that the other – Christian or Zoroastrian, Jew, Buddhist or Hindu – is a kafir, or nonbeliever. I also studied the rules of other faiths and schools within Islam – Shiite, Ismaili, Twelver, Sufism – the followers of which are all considered nonbelievers and heretics. The same is true for thought. Those who indulge in thought and say what they think, breaking the doctrinal framework is a nonbeliever, apostate and heretic. The liberal, the leftist, the modernist… they are all nonbelievers.
In schoolwork I learned that the woman is temptation, that her body is fitna (seduction) and that it is the cause of man’s entry into the Gehenna (hell). I read that the man is a wolf that seduces women and therefore I must fear him, I mustn’t leave the house or participate in the progress of the nation – that’s how I am taught to protect my chastity. I studied that I was a gemstone to be preserved in a chest that can only be opened by its guardian, his Excellency, the man. Millions of women are unemployed, our economy is on the brink of the abyss and, yet, there are still those who urge women to stay home. I studied that it was prohibited to question and to have a personal thought. It is prohibited to innovate, invent and discover. All is written, illustrated and explained in religious books and all of my attempts to think differently is equal to leaving the community and detaching oneself from Muslims.
I studied that seventy-two beautiful women await men in paradise. And since having sex is prohibited in the earthly world, the shortcut to the afterlife is martyrdom through killing western nonbelievers. I studied that women’s sports are prohibited, driving a car is haram [prohibited, NT], traveling without the consent of the guardian is haram, democracy is haram, high heels are haram, the hairdryer is haram. Short dresses, even if worn in the presence of siblings is haram. Music, singing, dance, film, theater, festivals, promiscuity with men, philosophy, modern poetry are all haram, along with reading books that are not religious, liberty and the laws of personal status.
When I was in school, I mocked those barbaric books and safeguarded the banned books in my home library in the attempt to counter the growing wave of ignorance. Unfortunately, however, hundreds if not hundreds of thousands of kids were brainwashed. They believed those stories, and today they have become the main perpetrators of bloodshed, of imprisonment and terrorism.
What does the world want from us? It wants astronauts, physicists and geological experts.
Every so often I ask myself if our political regimes truly were the ones to create such backwardness, and if violence is really so deeply rooted in us or if they are products of repeated dictatorial movements. We are enervated and tired. To be pushed so far away from both civilization and nomadic life is very oppressive. It has forced us into a period that has nothing to do with any period in human history. They have frozen our minds, our bodies and our movement, it has become difficult to move. As for men of religion, who have collected billions from our bodies, our health and our brain, they have managed to impose their control and dominance. I have not seen a single international court bring any of those agitators to justice, only mentioning the young executors of the attacks. While the sheikhs, the authors of the fatwas who legitimize the attacks and invite people to jihad and to go to the world’s capitals bringing bombs to the squares and the airports, continue to live free in large palaces.
A Glimmer of Hope
Only today in Saudi Arabia is there a glimmer of hope in the State’s decision to repeal the apparatus of religious police. I suddenly felt as though the wall that separated me from my country was knocked down, and that now I would be able to walk and sleep peacefully without fearing for the religious police lurking among the citizens in the street, waiting to pounce on them like prey.
A friend of mine was visiting Brussels after the recent attacks in Belgium and he told me that he perceived no extremist behavior towards him for being Arab or Muslim. He told me that he was prepared for the worst treatment and rudeness, especially in the airport and on the street, instead he was met with precisely the opposite, and not even for a moment was he treated badly for being Arab. I told him: This is called civilization.
In Europe, terrorism has increased dramatically and we are confident in the fact that the culture of Europeans prevents them from even thinking about coming here to seek revenge in the name of the Cross. Let’s think about the reaction of people in Belgium and the reaction of the Muslim world after Charlie Hebdo. On the streets I heard insults towards Europeans, regarded collectively as the authors of the comic caricatures to the detriment of the Prophet. Very few people felt pity for the souls of the journalists killed by ignorance. This is what education has led us to: an ISIS which kidnaps Christian women in Syria and in Iraq, imprisoning them and selling them to the slave market. Instead, the European man and the historic civilizations pick themselves up again.
Good for the Arab Muslim living in Europe who has been given another chance to live. But I feel sorry for his folly when he enjoys the West’s democracy, his passport, the better schools, better healthcare and social systems, and then thinks that the West is an unbeliever and that revenge must be taken by blowing it up.
To the illuminated minds of my Arab country, I say: dream, dream, dream.
This article was translated from the original Arabic by Chiara Pellegrino