Tuesday, July 3, 2007

*Barely veiled menace*

*Barely veiled menace*
Once a radical Muslim, *Ed Husain* was shocked by the racism, sexual
perversion and extremism he encountered while working in Saudi Arabia


DURING our first two months in Jeddah, my wife Faye and I relished our
new and luxurious lifestyle: a shiny jeep, two swimming pools, domestic
help, and a tax-free salary. The luxury of living in a modern city with
a developed infrastructure cocooned me from the frightful reality of
life in Saudi Arabia.

My goatee beard and good Arabic ensured that I could pass for an Arab.
But looking like a young Saudi was not enough: I had to act Saudi, be
Saudi. And here I failed.

My first clash with Saudi culture came when, being driven around in a
bulletproof jeep, I saw African women in black abayas tending to the
rubbish bins outside restaurants, residences and other busy places.

"Why are there so many black cleaners on the streets?" I asked the
driver. The driver laughed. "They're not cleaners. They are scavengers;
women who collect cardboard from all across Jeddah and then sell it.
They also collect bottles, drink cans, bags."

"You don't find it objectionable that poor immigrant women work in such
undignified and unhygienic conditions on the streets?"

"Believe me, there are worse jobs women can do."

Though it grieves me to admit it, the driver was right. In Saudi Arabia
women indeed did do worse jobs. Many of the African women lived in an
area of Jeddah known as Karantina, a slum full of poverty, prostitution
and disease.

A visit to Karantina, a perversion of the term "quarantine" , was one of
the worst of my life. Thousands of people who had been living in Saudi
Arabia for decades, but without passports, had been deemed "illegal" by
the Government and, quite literally, abandoned under a flyover.

A non-Saudi black student I had met at the British Council, where I
taught English, accompanied me. "Last week a woman gave birth here," he
said, pointing to a ramshackle cardboard shanty. Disturbed, I now
realised that the materials I had seen those women carrying were not
always for sale but for shelter.

I had never expected to see such naked poverty in Saudi Arabia. At that
moment it dawned on me that Britain, my home, had given refuge to
thousands of black Africans from Somalia and Sudan: I had seen them in
their droves in Whitechapel. They prayed, had their own mosques, were
free and were given government housing.

Many Muslims enjoyed a better lifestyle in non-Muslim Britain than they
did in Muslim Saudi Arabia. At that moment I longed to be home again.
All my talk of ummah (a global Muslim nation) seemed so juvenile now. It
was only in the comfort of Britain that Islamists could come out with
such radical utopian slogans as one government, one ever expanding
country, for one Muslim nation. The racist reality of the Arab psyche
would never accept black and white people as equal.

Racism was an integral part of Saudi society. My students often used the
word "nigger" to describe black people. Even dark-skinned Arabs were
considered inferior to their lighter-skinned cousins. I was living in
the world's most avowedly Muslim country, yet I found it anything but. I
was appalled by the imposition of (fundamentalist) Wahhabism in the
public realm, something I had implicitly sought when an Islamist.

Part of this local culture consisted of public institutions being
segregated and women banned from driving on the grounds that it would
give rise to "licentiousness". I was repeatedly astounded at the stares
Faye got from Saudi men and I from Saudi women.

Faye was not immodest in her dress. Out of respect for local custom, she
wore the long black abaya and covered her hair in a black scarf. In all
the years I had known my wife, never had I seen her appear so dull. Yet
on two occasions she was accosted by passing Saudi youths from their
cars. On another occasion a man pulled up beside our car and offered her
his phone number. In supermarkets I only had to be away from Faye for
five minutes and Saudi men would hiss or whisper obscenities as they
walked past. When Faye discussed her experiences with local women at the
British Council they said: "Welcome to Saudi Arabia."

After a month in Jeddah I heard from an Asian taxi driver about a
Filipino worker who had brought his new bride to live with him in
Jeddah. After visiting the Balad shopping district the couple caught a
taxi home. Some way through their journey the Saudi driver complained
that the car was not working properly and perhaps the man could help
push it. The passenger obliged. Within seconds the Saudi driver had sped
off with the man's wife in his car and, months later, there was still no
clue as to her whereabouts. We had heard stories of the abduction of
women from taxis by sex-deprived Saudi youths.

Why had the veil and segregation not prevented such behaviour? My Saudi
acquaintances, many of them university graduates, argued strongly that,
on the contrary, it was the veil and other social norms that were
responsible for such widespread sexual frustration among Saudi youth.

At work the British Council introduced free internet access for
educational purposes. Within days the students had downloaded the most
obscene pornography from sites banned in Saudi Arabia, but easily
accessed via the British Council's satellite connection. Segregation of
the sexes, made worse by the veil, had spawned a culture of pent-up
sexual frustration that expressed itself in the unhealthiest ways.

Using Bluetooth technology on mobile phones, strangers sent pornographic
clips to one another. Many of the clips were recordings of homosexual
acts between Saudis and many featured young Saudis in orgies in Lebanon
and Egypt. The obsession with sex in Saudi Arabia had reached worrying
levels: rape and abuse of both sexes occurred frequently, some cases
even reaching the usually censored national press.

The problems of Saudi Arabia were not limited to racism and sexual
frustration. In contemporary Wahhabism there are two broad factions. One
is publicly supportive of the House of Saud, and will endorse any policy
decision reached by the Saudi government and provide scriptural
justification for it. The second believes that the House of Saud should
be forcibly removed and the Wahhabi clerics take charge. Osama bin Laden
and al-Qa'ida are from the second school.

In Mecca, Medina and Jeddah I met young men with angry faces from
Europe, students at various Wahhabi seminaries. They reminded me of my
extremist days.

They were candid in discussing their frustrations with Saudi Arabia. The
country was not sufficiently Islamic; it had strayed from the teachings
of Wahhabism. They were firmly on the side of the monarchy and the
clerics who supported it. Soon they were to return to the West, well
versed in Arabic, fully indoctrinated by Wahhabism, to become imams in
British mosques.

By the summer of 2005 Faye and I had only eight weeks left in Saudi
Arabia before we would return home to London.

Thursday, July 7, was the beginning of the Saudi weekend. On television
that morning we watched the developing story of a power cut on the
London Underground. As the cameras focused on King's Cross, Edgware
Road, Aldgate and Russell Square, I looked on with a mixture of interest
and homesickness. Soon the power-cut story turned into shell-shocked
reportage of a series of terrorist bombings.

My initial suspicion was that the perpetrators were Saudis. My
experience of them, their virulence towards my non-Muslim friends, their
hate-filled textbooks, made me think that bin Laden's Saudi soldiers had
now targeted my home town. It never crossed my mind that the rhetoric of
jihad introduced to Britain by Hizb ut-Tahrir (The Liberation Party
committed to establishing an Islamic state) could have anything to do
with such horror.

My sister avoided the suicide attack on Aldgate station by four minutes.
Faye and I were glued to the television for hours. Watching fellow
Londoners come out of Tube stations injured and mortified, but facing
the world with a defiant sense of dignity, made me feel proud to be

In my class the following Sunday, the beginning of the Saudi working
week, were nearly 60 Saudis. Only one mentioned the London bombings.
"Was your family harmed?" he asked.

"My sister missed an explosion by four minutes but otherwise they're all
fine, thank you."

The student, before a full class, sighed and said: "There are no
benefits in terrorism. Why do people kill innocents?"

Two others quickly gave him his answer in Arabic: "There are benefits.
They will feel how we feel."

I was livid. "Excuse me?" I said. "Who will know how it feels?"

"We don't mean you, teacher," said one. "We are talking about people in
England. You are here. They need to know how Iraqis and Palestinians feel."

"The British people have been bombed by the IRA for years," I retorted.
"Londoners were bombed by Hitler during the Blitz. The largest
demonstrations against the war in Iraq were in London. People in Britain
don't need to be taught what it feels like to be bombed."

Several students nodded in agreement. The argumentative ones became
quiet. Were they convinced by what I had said? It was difficult to tell.

Two weeks after the terrorist attacks in London another Saudi student
raised his hand and asked: "Teacher, how can I go to London?"

"Much depends on your reason for going to Britain. Do you want to study
or just be a tourist?"

"Teacher, I want to go London next month. I want bomb, big bomb in
London, again. I want make jihad!"

"What?" I exclaimed. Another student raised both hands and shouted: "Me
too! Me too!"

Other students applauded those who had just articulated what many of
them were thinking. I was incandescent. In protest I walked out of the
classroom to a chorus of jeering and catcalls.

My time in Saudi Arabia bolstered my conviction that an austere form of
Islam (Wahhabism) married to a politicised Islam (Islamism) is wreaking
havoc in the world. This anger-ridden ideology, an ideology I once
advocated, is not only a threat to Islam and Muslims, but to the entire
civilised world.

I vowed, in my own limited way, to fight those who had hijacked my
faith, defamed my prophet and killed thousands of my own people: the
human race. I was encouraged when Tony Blair announced on August 5,
2005, plans to proscribe an array of Islamist organisations that
operated in Britain, foremost among them Hizb.

At the time I was impressed by Blair's resolve. The Hizb should have
been outlawed a decade ago and so spared many of us so much misery.
Sadly the legislation was shelved last year amid fears that a ban would
only add to the group's attraction, so it remains both legal and active
today. But it is not too late.

/Edited extract from The Islamist by Ed Husain, published by Penguin
Australia, $24.95. Copyright Ed Husain, 2007./

© The Australian

No comments: