Wednesday, July 04, 2007

Barely veiled menace

Once a radical Muslim in Britain, 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 British.

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.


British weather panic

Last summer we were told not to flush the loo, because of global warming. This summer we are told half of Yorkshire has been flushed down the pan - because of global warming. If the drought don't get you, it seems, the deluge will. As if the weather was not bad enough, we now have to endure a flood of intellectual silt about how overflowing rivers are retribution for rising man-made carbon levels.

The notion that a flood is God's punishment for our sins went out with, well, the Ark. But it has been revived by born-again believers in high places. According to the Book of Genesis, after the great flood had cleansed the world of sinners, God assured Noah that "I will establish my covenant with you; neither shall all flesh be cut off any more by the waters of a flood; neither shall there any more be a flood to destroy the earth." , we have "a new God, with new priorities". So a former government adviser writing in The Guardian asserts that the latest floods are the fruits of global warming "long foretold", and concludes that: "Behind the gathering clouds the hand of God is busy."

Perhaps we should not be surprised to see the bible of the liberal intelligentsia spouting such religiosity on this issue. I recall that one leading Guardian writer welcomed the flooding in 2000 in the way that a zealot might a plague of frogs, as a painful lesson to unbelievers. She concluded: "The more floods, the merrier."

I predict that we will indeed have more floods in the future, just as we did in the past when nobody had heard of man-made global warming. As Weather Eye in The Times pointed out, yesterday was the 90th anniversary of the largest rainfall recorded in a June day. Back in 1917, however, many were less concerned about the weather than the shells raining down during the Great War and the wind of revolution blowing in from the East.

An obsession with the weather has long been seen as a trait of the more petty, boring side of the British character. Now it seems that reading the weather as a sign of the state of the nation and the planet is the stuff of serious debate, reducing high politics to the level of chatter at a (smoke-free) bus stop. This is not really about an irrational revival of belief in God, more of a loss of faith in humanity and its rational works.

Despite implying that modern man is as powerless as a peasant farmer in the angry face of nature, the new doom-mongers also express outrage at the failure of government to do more to stop the world so that they can get off in the dry. After new Labour, Noah Labour? Then again, Noah was supposed to be 600 years old when God told him to build the Ark. An old geezer like that would not get within 300 cubits of the Cabinet today - let alone the BBC coverage of Live Earth.


It has not occurred to European (including British) governments that pregnancy is a private matter

Universal European regulations for fertility treatment are needed to reduce legal differences between countries that are encouraging “reproductive tourism”, one of the Continent’s most senior IVF specialists said yesterday. National laws banning infertility therapies that are available elsewhere in the European Union are denying couples the chance to start a family and driving others to seek expensive treatment abroad, according to Professor Paul Devroey, of Brussels Free University.

Many assisted reproduction techniques that are considered to be best practice in some EU member states are heavily restricted or outlawed in others, and safety measures introduced in parts of Europe are contravened routinely elsewhere. Germany and Italy, for example, ban embryo-freezing, egg donation and embryo-screening for inherited diseases, forcing couples who need these services to pay for treatment in countries that permit them, such as Britain, Spain and Belgium.

Thousands of British couples who require donated eggs have become fertility tourists, travelling to Spain, Cyprus and Eastern Europe. Britain has a long waiting list, mainly because donors can be paid a maximum of just 250 pounds for expenses and lost earnings.

Rules on the maximum number of embryos that can be transferred to a woman’s womb also differ widely, despite the scientific consensus that the safest policy is to limit implants. In Britain, Scandinavia and the Low Countries, only one or two embryos may be used, to prevent multiple births, by far the biggest hazard of IVF treatment. Germany and Italy insist that every embryo created is implanted, increasing that risk.

Professor Devroey, chairman of the European Society of Human Reproduction and Embryology (ESHRE), told The Times that there was an urgent need for uniformity based on the best scientific advice, to secure access to effective treatments and to protect patients. He is setting up a task force to compare legislation and to propose a basic set of standards, and he wants the European Commission and the European Parliament to consider how rules might be harmonised. “The human right to reproduction and access to assisted reproductive technology \ for infertile couples should be preserved in similar legislation throughout Europe as part of a unified strategy to address human infertility,” Professor Devroey said. “These laws should aim to ensure that ART treatment is safe, constructive and reimbursed. The reality, however, is that legislation varies greatly between countries in Europe. Some countries, such as Belgium and the UK, take a very rational and liberal approach to ART and implement practice guidelines or/and legislation in response to published data. In contrast, other countries appear to dismiss or misuse scientific findings, which may increase the risk to the mother or child.”

Speaking at State of the ART, a satellite meeting held before the ESHRE annual conference in Lyons, which opens today, Professor Devroey said he accepted that countries would want to set their own policies on controversial issues such as treatment for lesbians and single women. Similar standards should apply, though, when the scientific evidence was clear. “There is only one human body and human reproductive system,” he said. “It is quite astonishing that well-proven treatments are not allowed in some countries, some of which also have laws on embryo transfer that are not in the best interests of patients’ health. What this has done is to build medical tourism into a billion-euro market. It’s very sad for me to see patients coming to my clinic because their countries’ own laws are needlessly restrictive, and sadder still for the patients.”

Bill Ledger, of the University of Sheffield, said that he agreed with Professor Devroey’s sentiments but doubted whether EU action would be possible or desirable. “He is absolutely right that some countries have over-restrictive policies that are bad for patients, but I am not sure that going to the EU is the best way to resolve this,” Professor Ledger said. “It is hard to see politically how Germany and Italy will be persuaded to take another line, and once Brussels gets involved you never know what you will end up with. It could be that the more conservative countries will try to overturn the liberal systems we have in Britain, Belgium and the Netherlands, as they have attempted with stem-cell research.” The EU would do better to look into basic clinical standards for fertility treatment, so that IVF patients in every country could be assured of high-quality care, he said.


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