The diary of a Saudi man, currently living in the United Kingdom, where the Religious Police no longer trouble him for the moment.

In Memory of the lives of 15 Makkah Schoolgirls, lost when their school burnt down on Monday, 11th March, 2002. The Religious Police would not allow them to leave the building, nor allow the Firemen to enter.

Friday, December 02, 2005

The Religious Policeman FAQ 

I've been getting quite a few emails of late, so I thought that I would update my previous FAQ.

1. Who are you?

I am a Saudi, originally from Riyadh, currently an expatriate in the United Kingdom. I am married (to my one and only ever wife), have a family, with a Filipino maid and driver (her husband) who are at the moment enjoying a paid sabbatical back home . Beyond that, I am not prepared to disclose.

2. Is that your photo?

No, it's not. It is actually Sheikh Ibrahim Bin Abdullah Al-Ghaith, General President for the Commission for the Promotion of Virtue and Prevention of Vice. The head "Religious Policeman", or Muttawa. Callsign "Mutt One"

3. Why The Religious Policeman?

Because, in my opinion, the Religious Police epitomize what is wrong with my country at present. They combine religious fanaticism and intolerance with the apparatus of a police state. They are recruited from the dregs of society, yet they presume to tell other God-fearing people how to conduct their religious lives. They killed innocent young lives in Makkah, yet they were never held to account.

4. Why are you publishing a Blog?

I'm a great believer in the Internet, and in the power of information to cast a light into the darker corners of our world. Saudi Arabia is certainly one of those dark corners. I'm hoping that people will recognize that on the whole we are good folk, just like anyone else, but caught between an ultra-conservative Royal dictatorship on one side, and a fundamentalist religious establishment on the other. I am hopeful that this will inform their opinions of us. I would also like, in my own small way, to educate opinion within Saudi Arabia and around the world that might start to engineer change in our country.

5. Is it dangerous to do this?

The ruling elite would not, if or when they think about it, look kindly upon my efforts. If found out, I would certainly lose my job, as already happens to those who publish critical letters in the press. I might also become a guest of Prince Nayif, until I "got my mind right". However I'm not a super-hero; if I suspect that a net is closing, then I will cease blogging.

6. How do you avoid being intercepted?

All Saudi ISP's are connected to the outside world thru a bank of servers in the KACST (King AbdulAziz City of Science and Technology), where no doubt much listening goes on. However, like many Saudis, I illegally use a satellite link for my connexion. This materializes who-knows-where in the wider Internet. Maybe there is also some form of relay involved. Who knows? While in the UK, of course, things are much easier.

7. Where did you learn to speak such good English?

Thank you, very kind of you to say so. I was educated both in the UK and the USA. God also gave me the gift of being a linguist; indeed, I would go so far as to say that I am a language "geek". I could make myself sound like most Arabs speaking in English, simply by missing out "the", "a" and "an" all the time, but that would be difficult for everyone to read. I suppose I am also a bit of a mimic. In addition, learning English exposed me to a whole world of literature, from Shakespeare thru Tolstoy (in translation) to Garrison Keillor and all points between, not to mention all those movies, not to mention the trashiest bits of 21st century popular culture.

8. What did you study abroad?

That would be a giveaway! However in the UK I learnt to speak correctly, to be polite, to play soccer and cricket, and never to smile when making a joke. In the USA I learnt to misspell ;-), that Jews are not only human but can be really nice and extremely funny, to question and challenge, and that people only get the respect they deserve.

9. Are you really a Saudi and a Muslim?

Well, perhaps I am like that dog in the cartoon. Perhaps you all are, as well. Perhaps all the humans are doing what they should do, not being on the internet, but spending time with their families. Saudis are in the best position to judge from my writings and my knowledge of Saudi society, whether I am genuine or not. However I will not, as I was once requested by someone, "prove" my nationality, presumably by publishing a scan of my passport and Id card, for reasons that will be obvious to everyone else. If there is anyone who cannot read this blog without having proof of my nationality, they may be more comfortable with some of the other 3.5 million blogs out there.

As a Muslim, I certainly feel more comfortable in countries such as the UK, where they generally have have a more relaxed, but no less holy, approach to their religious life. Although it is not for me to judge, I am possibly a better Muslim in terms of the fundamentals of the religion, rather than in terms of the ritualistic rules-based "praying-by-numbers" approach. I also believe that whatever we call Him, we all worship the same God, and he requires us to love one another. I am not going to kill you because you read from a different book.

10. Will you reply to emails?

As I was taught at school, I will aim to reply to every letter I get, even if briefly. I will answer simple questions if they are not too taxing. However I cannot answer detailed lists of questions, but may address them in subsequent posts, as the opportunity arises. Occasionally I get requests to help write peoples' school assignments or Ph.D. theses, which is very flattering, but not part of the service! Also I cannot enter into an exchange of correspondence that might lead me to reveal any further personal information.

I am also grateful for emails pointing me to relevant items on the internet.

11. Why don't you write in Arabic?

Because the audience I am addressing speaks English. It consists of educated Saudis and Arabs, who speak English to a greater or lesser extent, and also the wider body of world public opinion, also largely English-speaking, living in countries that support the Saudi regime thru trade and political patronage.

If I were also to address an Arabic-only audience within Saudi Arabia, it would not just be a question of language, it would also be a question of style. To be frank, my brand of humor does not get many laughs in a Bedu encampment. The style would need to be simple and folksy, which doesn't appeal to me personally. If someone else wants to do that sort of blog, I will give them every encouragement.

12. Do you hate Saudi Arabia?

I don't hate Arabia; it is my country. I detest the name "Saudi", because it implies that the Saud family own it, instead of it belonging to God and the people. How would you feel about "The Bush States" or "Windsor Britain"? That aside, it is an ambivalent relationship. I love the sense of family and community in the country, but I don't like its backwardness, and the way it is used by royal and religious elites for their own ends.

I want to see Saudi Arabia develop and improve, and quickly, so that it can be a source of real pride for everyone. But it will only do that when it faces up to its problems, and decides to do something about them. Not everyone likes doing that, it makes them uncomfortable, and they often resent the people who do say "That's wrong!". So it can be convenient to try and dismiss people like me as "unpatriotic" or "un-Saudi". I'll live with that.

13. Do you hate Islam?

No, but I detest the people who have hijacked the religion for their own perverted ends, be they Wahabbi fundamentalists or Al Qaeeda terrorists. They don't represent the vast majority, but are bringing shame on all Muslims. In response to this, Muslims react in one of four ways:

(i) To ignore the problem, to perform their own devotions, but otherwise keep their heads down.

(ii) To deny that there is a problem, or when the problem is obvious, to deny that Muslims are involved, or when it's obvious that Muslims are involved, to deny that Islam is anything to do with it, or when it's obvious that Islam is a factor, to say that it's a "special case", etc. etc.

(iii) To become apologists. "You need to understand our history / our culture / our being victims of colonization /our persecution etc. etc."

(iv) To criticize. Again, this makes (i) to (iii) feel very uncomfortable. So internal critics get labelled as "apostates", "Islamophobes", "bad Muslims", "traitors" etc. However, history tells us again and again that (i) to (iii) don't bring about change; it either comes from internal criticism, or it is forced from outside. And I don't want to see Islam "reformed" by some neo-conservative Christian fundamentalist "Holy War".

14. Do you make this stuff up?

I know a lot of this stuff sounds wacky, but all I'm doing is reporting what's been published elsewhere, and passing my own comments. I always give a reference to the original text; if you don't like what you read there, don't blame me, I'm only the messenger!

The dialogs are of course my own creation; however the opinions and attitudes of the characters won't be a million miles from what I've portrayed.

15. Are you optimistic for change?

Well, we all have our good days and our bad days. I think we'll see some tinkering around. Perhaps the cinema, showing "approved" movies.

But long-term, I think the answer is O-I-L. While ever those countries that could bring about change, depend on the Kingdom for their oil, and as long as the oil is not threatened by Al Qaeeda, I don't think we'll see too much improvement.

But I'll soldier on anyway, doing my own thing.

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