Gulf calls for film’s ban

Egyptian protesters tear down the US flag at the US Embassy in Cairo on Sept. 11, 2012. (Photo courtesy AFP)

This story appeared in the 20-26 September, 2012 issue of Al-Ahram Weekly

Gulf citizens upset at the US-made film mocking Islam have called for worldwide bans on attacks on Islam and PR campaigns to explain the religion better, reports Rasheed Abou-Alsamh

The trailer for the US-made film mocking the Prophet Mohamed, The Innocence of Muslims, has upset Muslims across the Gulf, who have condemned the movie but have also called for a calm and united front in the face of such slanderous attacks and for a worldwide ban on attacks on Islam.

The Saudi grand mufti, Sheikh Abdel-Aziz Ibn Abdallah Al-Sheikh, denounced the attacks on American diplomats and diplomatic missions across the region that have taken place in the wake of the film’s release, saying these were un-Islamic.

“It is forbidden to punish the innocent for the crimes of the guilty, or to attack those who have been granted protection of their lives and property, or to expose public buildings to fire or destruction,” he said in a statement in a clear reference to the attack on the US consulate in Benghazi, Libya, which was set ablaze on 11 September leading to the deaths of US ambassador Chris Stevens and three other US staff.

Both the Saudi and the United Arab Emirates governments have condemned the attacks, but they have also criticised the film. ‘Saudi Arabia has expressed its condolences to the United States for the victims of the violent actions in Libya that targeted the American consulate in Benghazi,” reported the Saudi Press Agency. “The kingdom also denounces the irresponsible group that produced the film.”

“I was extremely angered, or rather disgusted, by excerpts from the film. I didn’t think that insolence could push anyone on the face of this earth to be so abusive of God’s messenger and my beloved Prophet Mohamed (PBUH),” wrote Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi in the Al-Hayat daily.

“Nevertheless, I won’t join or support calls for any uncontrolled protests, let alone an attack on an American embassy. On the contrary, because of my fervent commitment to the beloved messenger of Allah and his teachings, I urge all assailants of the foreign embassies and those behind them to be severely punished. We Muslims must have the courage to condemn our people’s crimes before condemning the crimes of our enemies.”

Professor Abdallah Al-Shayji, chair of the political science department at Kuwait University, called for a global ban on attacks on all religions. “The US would do itself, the Muslims and the relationship between the West and Islam a big favour if it addressed the real causes for discontent and grievances among Arabs and Muslims, in order to avoid a real clash of civilisations. The US should be as vocal, resolute and vehement about criminalising those who defame and denigrate faiths and religions, as it is about anti-Semitic expressions,” he wrote in Gulf News.

But many of those interviewed admitted that a ban on blasphemous attacks would be, if not impossible, then very hard to implement and probably not effective.

“A call for a global ban on attacks on Islam is unnecessary,” said Hasnaa Al-Mokhtar, a Saudi journalist. “There is nothing new here. The man who carried the burden of the message was fought, attacked, ridiculed, tortured and went through severe hardships 1,433 years ago. Islamic history is rich with incidents that highlight one major fact: no matter how oppressive or offensive any given situation is, Islam always stands for tolerance and peace.”

“This is an old call made by the mufti and the king four years ago,” said Khashoggi in an interview with Al-Ahram Weekly. “The king called for a ban on all blasphemous attacks against all religions and not just Islam. But it is very difficult to pass such laws in Europe. It is a philosophical question. Most Muslims did not grow up in democracies and don’t know how to interpret freedom of expression.”

He added that he had searched online for videos criticising Jesus Christ and had found plenty of material.

Saudi commentator Abeer Mishkhas agreed, saying “it’s not possible. You can’t stop everyone from criticising religion. The people in the Gulf region have to accept and understand that the rest of the world is going to criticise us. Protesting is fine as long as it is peaceful. You shouldn’t set buildings on fire, killing diplomats, and then wonder why they call us terrorists.”

Khashoggi believes that Muslim leaders must come out and calm down their populations. “The Tunisian leader came out and explained that the US could not ban the film. President Mursi and our other leaders should come out and say the same thing, even at the risk of being criticised by more extremist elements of being puppets of the US government.”

In his Al-Hayat column, Khashoggi went further and accused Arab leaders of cosying up to extremist elements in the hope of gaining their votes or avoiding their wrath.

Both Mishkhas and Mokhtar believe that the best way to counteract such anti-Islamic films is to launch films and public-relation campaigns that explain and defend Islam and its believers.

“Just try to have a PR campaign,” said Mishkhas. “Israel hired a PR company after the Gaza invasion of 2008-2009, and it got much good publicity out of it. This is what we should be doing.”

“Muslims need to strive to become better human beings morally, ethically, socially, culturally and politically, and fight their egos,” said Mokhtar.

“They need to lead by example. Chaos doesn’t bring about change. A united, productive and intelligent Muslim nation can definitely spread a more positive image of Islam in the world. In this time of social and digital media we need to educate people and raise awareness about the true essence of Islam.”

“One online campaign called ‘Inspired by Mohamed’ ( is a brilliant example of a fun website designed to improve the public’s understanding of Islam and Muslims.”

Blogging conference tackles Arab Spring & democratization of media

I JUST came back from attending the 1st International Bloggers Conference that was held in Foz de Iguassu, Brazil, from Oct. 27-30.  Co-sponsored by the Barao de Itarare Center for the Study of Alternative Media and the Itaipu Dam, the meeting drew 468 participants from 22 countries and 16 Brazilian states.

My friend, the Saudi blogger Ahmed al-Omran, was one of the invited speakers, as well as the American blogger Jillian C. York and the Pakistani blogger Muhammad Farhan Janjua.

Although the conference was billed as being “international”, my foreign friends complained to me that the lack of translation into English at the opening ceremony, and the dearth of Brazilians that spoke English at major airports in Sao Paulo and Rio de Janeiro, left them frustrated and unable to communicate their needs to Brazilians. I had to translate for Farhan to explain to him what the speakers were saying at the opening ceremony, that was held right in front of the Itaipu Dam with a live, local band and a fireworks show.

Itaipu fireworks

I commented to my friends that I didn’t know how Brazil was going to manage to host the World Cup in 2014 and the Olympics in 2016, when so many Brazilians do not speak English or any other foreign language. This is going to be a major headache for the country and for foreign visitors, though they will be able to count on the friendliness and warmth of most Brazilians to get themselves understood.

I enjoyed the conference, though at times I felt that I was at a meeting of militant leftist youth, such was the evident strong support for the ruling Workers Party or PT in Portuguese, former Brazilian President Luis Inacio “Lula” da Silva, and the MST or Movimento dos Sem Terra (Movement of the Landless). This was the main drawback of the meet in that many of the speakers tended to ramble on, talking about the struggle for a more democratic media, one free from the control of the capitalist monopolies such as the Globo TV network, that is controlled by the Marinho family of Rio, and the Folha de Sao Paulo newspaper. What the speakers failed to note was that the much hated (among lefties) weekly newsmagazine Veja, and the Folha newspaper, have been responsible for anti-corruption campaigns this year that helped force the resignations of five ministers in the government of President Dilma Rousseff, the lastest one being Sports Minister Orlando da Silva, of the Communist Party of Brazil, who was forced out at the end of October. (Some analysts say that Rousseff is privately happy that she is getting rid of many appointees who were forced upon her by her mentor Lula).

Sadly, the political debate in Brazil has become extremely polarized, with the leftists of the PT, PCdoB, and PSol on one side and the perceived rightists of the PSDB (called the Tucanos and the party of Jose Serra, the man who ran against Rousseff in the presidential election last year and lost) on the other side. The fact remains though, that the PT only manages to control the two houses of Congress because it rules in a strange coalition with the PMDB, which has been the traditional home of large landowners and businessmen, exactly the type of people that leftists love to hate so much! One die-hard PT supporter admitted to me over drinks during the conference that the marriage between the PT and the PMDB was one of pure convenience, and that the PMDB “are ready to sell their support to whomever is in power.”

A view of the conference in session.

That the conference was co-sponsored by the state-owned Itaipu Dam (co-owned by the governments of Brazil and Paraguay) and the Petrobras oil company, should have given me a clue that it would be packed solid with leftist supporters of the Workers Party. The meet would have been much more interesting if different points of view were represented, and if the proceedings had been less politicized. It would also have been a good idea to have more practical information delivered to participants. Diego Casaes, a global campaigner for Avaaz, and I agreed that that future conferences should have workshops on, for example, internet security and how to make effective videos for an online audience, and extra panels with more speakers.

Arab Spring, Pakistan and overthrowing Qaddafi

For me the most interesting panel was the one that tackled the effects of the Arab Spring on Egypt, Libya, Saudi Arabia, and the fight for freedom of expression online in Pakistan.

Ahmed Bahgat, a trainer of activists in Egypt, talked about how the revolution that overthrew the dictator President Hosni Mubarak, has now stalled, and that the ruling military junta does not want to give up power and hold elections. “They have now pushed back elections to 2013 because they do not have a candidate of their own to back. This is also why they are provoking clashes in the streets of Cairo between Muslims and Christians, so that the continuing violence can give them a reason to declare martial law and postpone elections indefinately,” said Bahgat.

Ahmed al-Omran tweeting during the conference.

The Arab Spring has not provoked a revolution in Saudi Arabia yet, noted Ahmed al-Omran, but did cause protests by the Shia minority in the Eastern Province and by women across the country pushing for the right to drive.

He noted that the vast amount of oil money allows the ruling family a degree of protection from protests and unrest, but that the fall of Arab dictators had helped break the fear barrier for many Saudis who are now expressing themselves more boldly online on Twitter and Facebook.

Omran also highlighted the recent arrest of three young Saudi activists who were jailed after they posted an episode of their online video program that highlighted the existence of poverty in the Saudi capital Riyadh. All three were released on Oct. 30.

Muhammad Farhan Janjua

Muhammad Farhan Janjua told the audience how YouTube was temporarily blocked in Pakistan when President Asif Ali Zardari was filmed with a cellphone telling hecklers at a political rally to “Shut up!” The video was then posted online, leading the president to demand that YouTube be blocked.

Janjua also related how his news website,, got a huge boost in readership after he broke the story that a contestant on a popular TV game show, sponsored by multinational giant Unilever, died after drowning in a swimming segment. No mainstream media wanted to touch the story with a ten-foot pole, explained Janjua, because they feared repercussions from Unilever, which is one of the biggest advertisers in Pakistan.

Toppling Qaddafi was an ‘imperialist plot’

Pepe Escobar, a Brazilian journalist and special correspondent of Asia Times Online, spoke for nearly 45 minutes on the revolution in Libya and how the toppling of the Libyan dictator Col. Muammar Qaddafi was an imperialist plot of the US, Britain and France to advance their economic interests. He also claimed, rather amazingly, that it was two members of the Qatari Special Forces, disguised as Libyan rebels, who first caught Qaddafi and shot him in both legs. They then, according to Escobar, handed him over to the Libyan rebels.

While Escobar certainly knows Libya personally, and has met many of the actors in that country’s current drama, it was annoying to have to sit through his mini-lecture on Libya’s situation, which only made him look like he was showing off, and even managed to piss off the organizers of the event. Unfortunately, none of the moderators tried to interrupt him, something that also happened on the other panels.

It would have been much better if the organizers had invited some Libyan bloggers to attend the conference and tell us themselves how they felt after getting rid of a dictator that controlled all aspects of their lives and killed thousands Libyans, during the more than 40 years that he was in power.






The sad fate of Harry Nicolaides

THE first I ever heard of the Australian writer Harry Nicolaides was when he emailed me in 2007 from Riyadh when I was still working at Arab News in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia. He told me that he was a teacher at the Al Yamamah College there, and asked me if the paper would be interested in details of the raid by the religious police (muttawaen) on a school play put on by the students in November 2006. There had been a general scuffle, with fisticuffs, and had been filmed by a student with a cellphone. Unsurprisingly, the video clip was soon circulating on the Internet and via e-mail.

Regular police were quickly called in and several of the religious police and students were arrested. A thorough investigation was promised, but I cannot really remember what happened in the end. In any event, Arab News wrote about what happened only once.

I wrote back to him and asked him for more details, but he was not able to provide us with any. I heard from him again a few months later when he emailed me to say he was leaving the Kingdom, heading back to Australia, and could I find some recent pictures if public beheadings for a story he was writing on the Saudi justice system! I was astonished at his request, as I thought he, having lived in Riyadh for a year, should have known that it was illegal to photograph beheadings, and that if caught one could be jailed for doing so.

I wrote back telling him “no” we didn’t have such photos, and doubted he would be able to find any.

I never heard from him again. So I was quite surprised this week when I saw him on CNN being interviewed from a Thai jail where he had been imprisoned since August 2008 for slandering the Thai crown prince and king. I couldn’t quite place him at first, but after checking my saved emails with him, I realized that he and the distressed man I had seen on my television screen were one and the same.
It turns out that Harry wrote a novel entitled Verisimilitude and apparently self-published it in Thailand in 2005. He sent several copies of it to various Thai government departments, including the National Library and the King’s office. Several people online have claimed that Harry never actually wrote the novel, but an excerpt of it is available here online in PDF format.
The book would have sunk into oblivion, and Harry probably didn’t think much of the silence from the various Thai government departments who had received copies of his book. He actually worked at a Thai university as a teacher in the intervening years, and traveled in and out of Thailand several times (including going to work for a year in Saudi Arabia from 2006-2007), and was never stopped or questioned by Thai authorities, that is until August 31, 2008.
I printed off the first three chapters and apart from being slightly bored with Harry’s description of the Thai countryside, did not find anything to suggest other than a deep concern and love for Thailand, Thais and their culture. 
Some commentators online, like this one, have called Harry a fool for risking his life and freedom by criticizing the Thai Crown Prince for allegedly having sent one of his wives and her children into exile for cheating on him. 
As many Thai officials have pointed out, the King himself has spoken out against the law that criminalizes any criticism of the King or the monarchy. This law was passed ostensibly to protect the royals from public bashings that they cannot defend themselves from publicly because of protocol. 
The King will probably pardon Harry soon and have him deported home. It’s really a shame that anyone should be imprisoned for criticizing the royalty, especially someone like Harry who so obviously cares about the future of Thailand. I say free him now, apologize to him, and allow him to stay in Thailand if likes. That would be the decent thing to do. 
In the end Harry is guilty of only one thing: Naivety.

Fuad al-Farhan Allowed a Visit

ARAB NEWS reported yesterday that jailed Saudi blogger Fuad Al-Farhan was allowed a visit by his father-in-law on Jan. 5 at Jeddah’s Dahban Prison, his first contact with his family since he was arrested on Dec. 10.

Worryingly, the story also quotes the Ministry of Interior spokesman Maj. Gen. Mansour Al-Turki denying having said that Fuad could be released soon. As Ebtihal Mubarak’s story points out, under Saudi law the authorities can hold a suspect for up to six months without charging them. But as Hussein Al-Sharif of the National Society for Human Rights pointed out: “In these six months the detainee must be aware of the charges brought against him, allow him his right to an attorney, not be abused, and, most important, the right of a fair and just trial.

One of Farhan’s friends said “his spirits were high.”

Interestingly enough, a Republican candidate in this year’s elections for the US Senate, Andy Martin of Chicago, Illinois, has called for isolating Saudi Arabia if they don’t release Fuad and improve their humans rights record.

“It is time for the era of human rights to dawn in Saudi Arabia. A first step would be to release imprisoned blogger Fouad al-Farhan. Thereafter the government should guarantee full free speech rights to Saudi citizens, as well as due process of law. Access to the Internet, free speech and freedom from arbitrary arrest and detention are basic human rights,” said Martin in a statement released on Jan. 1.

US President George W. Bush is visiting the Gulf next week and will meet in Riyadh with King Abdullah. It will be interesting to see if Fuad will be released before the visit.

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