Thursday, September 24, 2009

KAUST may test Saudi higher education system

A few weeks ago I was taken to task by a reader who complained about my enthusiasm for the academic potential of the King Abdullah University of Science & Technology (KAUST), which had its inauguration this week.

The reader implied that I was na├»ve to believe that KAUST will benefit any Saudis, noting that KAUST is nothing more than a “$10 billion write-off.”

The reader writes: “KAUST barely brings any benefit to the local population. It has been created as a gated microcosm whereby foreign intellectuals and scholars from around the world come, live in their own little worlds whereby they need not have any interaction with the local population, and enlighten each other at the expense of King Abdullah's $10 billion endowment … and will then conveniently leave after benefiting from years of tax-free income.”

I think the observer fails to grasp simple economics. But I will get to that in a moment.

The reader continues with a more valid point: “What … actually (will) be a landmark project would be a complete overhaul of the education system, which is failing spectacularly at nurturing homegrown Saudi talent.”

The fact is that KAUST is likely to be a boon for local job market if the global economy recovers from the disasters of 2008. As for the quality of the Saudi lower educational system, I couldn’t agree more.

But KAUST is the test case as to whether its successes can be applied to entire the Saudi education system in the future. But let’s address the economic impact first.

KAUST is situated on a 24-acre campus in Thuwal, about 50 miles north of Jeddah. Three residential districts for men and women include more than 3,000 housing units for faculty, students and their families numbering upwards of 5,000 and more. Yes, the campus will be self-contained with markets, theater, a bowling alley, bank and other support services.

There is a danger that KAUST faculty and students will live in their own little bubble. There are plenty of examples in Saudi Arabia with self-contained residential compounds where many Westerners remain behind compound walls. But I think it’s unlikely since Jeddah is only a short distance away from the campus.

But more importantly is that that the campus’ residential and commercial project is expected to create 500,000 jobs by the time it’s completed in 2016, according to KAUST officials. The nearby Knowledge Economic City is expected to create 20,000 jobs in the Madinah providence by 2014. And this does not include the benefits the region will reap with the completion of the proposed railway that will link the Red Seat with the Arabian Gulf.

It’s a mistake to believe that KAUST’s success or failure is not linked to the current Saudi education system. Certainly on an international level, Saudi Arabia’s lower education system has failed its students with too much emphasis placed on non-academic curriculum.
The standards of higher Saudi education are less of an issue, although. Western universities continue to accept Saudi university degree holders in great numbers for postgraduate work, so we can’t call the system a failure.

The role I hope KAUST will play in developing better higher academic standards is the international makeup of its faculty and students. According to KAUST, the current faculty of 71 professors is 14 percent American, 7 percent German, 6 percent Canadian and 6 percent Chinese.

The university provost is Dr. Brian Moran, an American who served as chair of the Civil and Environmental Engineering Department at Northwestern University. KAUST’s president is Choon Fong Shih, who was president and vice-chancellor of National University of Singapore.

The student population, which numbers only about 400 now, is 15 percent Saudi, 14 percent Chinese, 11 percent Mexican and 8 percent American. The rest of the students come form nearly 60 other countries. Students, particularly Saudis, thrive in an international environment and their exposure to non-Saudi students will go a long
way to breaking down barriers between the Arab world, the West and developing countries.

While I sound like an optimist I am not kidding myself of the obstacles ahead. A mixed-gender student population is going to be difficult for many Saudis to accept. I suspect the university will be under tremendous pressure from law authorities because the campus is not accessible to routine inspection like other Saudi universities. Further, Western academics teaching Saudis opens the university to
criticism from conservatives that the West is corrupting Saudi youth.

I suppose we can sit back and hope that KAUST fails; that its impact on Saudis will be minimal and the grand experiment will be an object lesson that Saudis have no need for foreign meddlers in our education system. But if my critic is correct that the Saudi education system is a failure, then KAUST is indeed a bold experiment that deserves our support to ensure that it succeeds, and the lessons we learn there
will be passed on to the rest of the Kingdom.

It’s easy to dismiss KAUST as a $10 billion debacle that further lines the pockets of expatriate academics. It’s more courageous to take $10 billion risks to ensure Saudi Arabia future in the international

Tuesday, September 22, 2009

Muslim day of prayer may bring unwanted attention

A New Jersey mosque is planning a national day of prayer on Sept. 25 on the National Mall in Washington, D.C., that expects to draw as many as 50,000 Muslims from across the United States.

This appears to be the first such event held by Muslims on such a large scale in the U.S. It represents a huge step forward for Muslims who for the most part prefer to stay out of the spotlight following 9/11.

Hassen Abdellah, president of Dar-ul-Islam in Elizabeth, N.J., told the Star-Ledger newspaper that, "Most of the time, when Muslims go to Washington, D.C., they go there to protest some type of event ... This is not a protest. Never has the Islamic community prayed on Capitol Hill for the soul of America. We're Americans. We need to change the face of Islam so people don't feel every Muslim believes America is
'the great Satan,' because we love America."

The event will be held from 4 a.m. to 7 p.m., but the main prayer will occur at 1 p.m.

It’s a wonderful thing to see Muslims wear their patriotism on their sleeve and demonstrate the deep love for their country. Abdellah hopes that people of other faiths will join Muslims as well.

But, alas, the event also is turning into a religious war spurred by fringe groups who see an opportunity to stage confrontational anti-Islamic protests. One pastor is urging his congregation to fast from midnight on Sept. 25 to 7 p.m., not for spiritual meditation or to bring his people closer to God but to wrestle the “soul of the nation” away from Muslims. He’s mistaken. Muslims don’t claim ownership of America’s soul and he shouldn’t either.

The argument that has originated on anti-Muslim websites and appears to be spreading among conservative religious groups is that some sort of cultural or stealth jihad is being played out in the West while non-Muslims go about their business blissfully ignorant of the dangers. Meanwhile, mainstream media conspires to keep it all
hush-hush.

For those who may not care to read the blathering of such websites, stealth jihad supposedly when Muslims seek prayer breaks at work or Muslim women request private time to swim at public pools. Even wearing in public the so-called burqini, modest swimwear for women, is somehow Islamifying the local community. Who would have thought that a loose-fitting single-piece swimsuit would become a political hot potato that required government intervention, as we have discovered to be the case in France and Italy?

Now, the image of 50,000 Muslims -- most of who are American citizens – praying in public has raised the hackles of some people who see prayer as not worshipping God but as a threat to the soul of America. The whole thought seems, well, so un-Christian and un-democratic.

This past year or so a disturbing trend has emerged as small groups of people have staged anti-Muslim protests. On the eighth anniversary of 9/11 a small church group held an anti-Islamic demonstration at a Gainesville, Fla., mall to memorialize those who lost their lives on that day and those serving in the U.S. military.

About 30 protesters waved confrontational signs and shouted anti-Muslim rants. In London a nastier and more violent confrontation occurred between the English Defence League and Muslim youths at a Harrow mosque under construction.

If taken as isolated events, the rallies don’t amount to much. But it’s curious that for the first time we are seeing organized anti-Islam protests. I can’t help but think we are witnessing early signs of future, better organized rallies targeting the Muslim community.

Certainly Muslims have staged anti-Western rallies and often these demonstrations are violent. But these protests are not so much as anti-Christian but sparked by specific events, such as the publication of images of the Prophet Muhammad, peace be upon him. The incidents at Harrow and Gainesville are a different animal all together. The protesters’ target is faith, as in my faith threatens your faith.

The implication is that we pray to a different God because we call Him Allah. And that’s the irony. We all share the same God. By denying, interfering or ridiculing anyone’s right to worship demonstrates a complete lack of respect to the deity we all pray to.
A New Jersey mosque is planning a national day of prayer on Sept. 25 on the National Mall in Washington, D.C., that expects to draw as many as 50,000 Muslims from across the United States.

This appears to be the first such event held by Muslims on such a large scale in the U.S. It represents a huge step forward for Muslims who for the most part prefer to stay out of the spotlight following 9/11.

Hassen Abdellah, president of Dar-ul-Islam in Elizabeth, N.J., told the Star-Ledger newspaper that, "Most of the time, when Muslims go to Washington, D.C., they go there to protest some type of event ... This
is not a protest. Never has the Islamic community prayed on Capitol
Hill for the soul of America. We're Americans. We need to change the
face of Islam so people don't feel every Muslim believes America is
'the great Satan,' because we love America."

The event will be held from 4 a.m. to 7 p.m., but the main prayer will
occur at 1 p.m.

It’s a wonderful thing to see Muslims wear their patriotism on their
sleeve and demonstrate the deep love for their country. Abdellah hopes
that people of other faiths will join Muslims as well.

But, alas, the event also is turning into a religious war spurred by
fringe groups who see an opportunity to stage confrontational
anti-Islamic protests. One pastor is urging his congregation to fast
from midnight on Sept. 25 to 7 p.m., not for spiritual meditation or
to bring his people closer to God but to wrestle the “soul of the
nation” away from Muslims. He’s mistaken. Muslims don’t claim
ownership of America’s soul and he shouldn’t either.

The argument that has originated on anti-Muslim websites and appears
to be spreading among conservative religious groups is that some sort
of cultural or stealth jihad is being played out in the West while
non-Muslims go about their business blissfully ignorant of the
dangers. Meanwhile, mainstream media conspires to keep it all
hush-hush.

For those who may not care to read the blathering of such websites,
stealth jihad supposedly when Muslims seek prayer breaks at work or
Muslim women request private time to swim at public pools. Even
wearing in public the so-called burqini, modest swimwear for women, is
somehow Islamifying the local community. Who would have thought that a
loose-fitting single-piece swimsuit would become a political hot
potato that required government intervention, as we have discovered to
be the case in France and Italy?

Now, the image of 50,000 Muslims -- most of who are American citizens
– praying in public has raised the hackles of some people who see
prayer as not worshipping God but as a threat to the soul of America.
The whole thought seems, well, so un-Christian and un-democratic.

This past year or so a disturbing trend has emerged as small groups of
people have staged anti-Muslim protests. On the eighth anniversary of
9/11 a small church group held an anti-Islamic demonstration at a
Gainesville, Fla., mall to memorialize those who lost their lives on
that day and those serving in the U.S. military.

About 30 protesters waved confrontational signs and shouted
anti-Muslim rants. In London a nastier and more violent confrontation
occurred between the English Defence League and Muslim youths at a
Harrow mosque under construction.

If taken as isolated events, the rallies don’t amount to much. But
it’s curious that for the first time we are seeing organized
anti-Islam protests. I can’t help but think we are witnessing early
signs of future, better organized rallies targeting the Muslim
community.

Certainly Muslims have staged anti-Western rallies and often these
demonstrations are violent. But these protests are not so much as
anti-Christian but sparked by specific events, such as the publication
of images of the Prophet Muhammad, peace be upon him. The incidents at
Harrow and Gainesville are a different animal all together. The
protesters’ target is faith, as in my faith threatens your faith.

The implication is that we pray to a different God because we call Him
Allah. And that’s the irony. We all share the same God. By denying,
interfering or ridiculing anyone’s right to worship demonstrates a
complete lack of respect to the deity we all pray to.

Thursday, September 10, 2009

Political hooliganism is now part of the democractic process

In case anybody hasn't noticed, hooliganism is now part of the fabric of democracy.

An incident occurred last week in Birmingham, England, that gained little notice outside the UK but sent shockwaves through some British communities. Dozens of people were arrested last weekend following a protest by followers of the English Defence League against the implementation against Sharia in the United Kingdom.

The reality is the protest against Sharia was nothing more than an anti-Islamic grievance beer party that started at a neighborhood pub and ended violently when a group of Muslims confronted the protesters. Rocks, sticks and punches were thrown with the police blaming both the EDL and Muslims youths for the ruckus.

Lost in all the haze is the fact that most Muslims, British-born or not, have given little thought about whether Sharia belongs in the UK. The tiff in Birmingham was a result of the young Muslims recognizing the protest for what it was: a movement against the Muslim community, and not because Sharia was supplanting British law.

How is this political hooliganism?

While British MPs are dithering over expense accounts, the fringe elements outside the political process have become mainstream. Last June, the British National Party garnered more than 6 percent of the vote in European elections, including two seats in the Brussels parliament. Not only does the BNP have a voice in government, but it has its militia in the streets.

While the Liberal Democrats and Tories think it's fine to engage the BNP in debate, they are making the mistake in believing that logic and common sense will prevail in the political arena. They are faced with such organizations as the Stop Islamification of Europe (SIOE) that argues that "Islamophobia is the height of common sense." Just how do the Liberal Democrats and Tories think they are going to win the war of words with that kind of rationale?

I must admit, though, the Labour Party's policy of ignoring the BNP is probably more ridiculous. Doing nothing in the face of seething unrest among some British citizens who see merit in the BNP and EDL is a recipe for disaster.

The problem lies in the unchecked behavior of the BNP, EDL, SIOE and their followers. Political debate legitimizes fringe groups. It allows these groups to obscure racism and xenophobia with phony arguments of UK border security while the real work is performed in the street. Few people are going to pay attention to Liberal Democrats arguing border security with the BNP when hooligans know the best arguments are made with BBC footage of Britons "defending" the streets of Birmingham with their fists.

This Friday, the anniversary of 9/11, anti-Islamic protests are scheduled to be held by the SIOE at the new Harrow central mosque in London. Muslim supporters, calling themselves Unite Against Fascism, also plan to be there. The mosque is not finished, but Friday prayers will be conducted next door in the middle of Ramadan, Islam's holiest month. Imagine, if you will, the specter of a massive demonstration with the threat of violence outside a London church during Christmas Day services. Same thing. In this case, Muslims are faced with the threat of violence during a period of fasting and prayer.

Ghulam Rabbani, the general secretary of the Harrow mosque, told The Times of London last week that he doesn't know why protesters picked his mosque.

"We don't know why they are singling us out. They say we are planning a Sharia court but we have never had such a plan. This community is mixed with Muslims, Christians, Hindus and Jews. We have had very good relations for 25 years."

Members of the BNP, SIOE and EDL have the right to freely express their views in a peaceful manner. But let's not forget that by embracing their legitimacy in the political process, we are also legitimizing their followers in the street. It's not about Sharia because its implementation in the UK doesn't exist. The Sharia argument is a smokescreen for the true anti-immigrant agenda.

The irony is that this Friday's scheduled protest is planned by extremists: SIOE and the Unite Against Fascism group. In the middle are the Harrow Muslims who just want everybody to go away.

Wednesday, September 2, 2009

Saudis struggle with whether to display pre-Islamic artifacts

Last year a Saudi/French archeological team made a major discovery at Madain Saleh. Pottery and metal and wooden tools were unearthed at Al Diwan and at Ethlib mountain.

The discoveries at Madain Saleh pose something of a dilemma for Saudis. We Saudis are not particularly eager to look for pre-Islamic artifacts. There’s a prevailing opinion among the conservatives that items not Islamic belong in the ground because displaying them risks a tacit endorsement of the culture or religion the artifacts represent.

We have a habit sealing off ancient sites from public view whether they are Islamic or non-Islamic. We have been known to neglect or destroy them. Saudis don’t want to run the risk of turning a site into a place of idolatry. As a rule we minimize the publicity of such discoveries.

But as with most things, Saudis can’t stop progress. And today there is a significant and successful campaign to develop an economically viable tourism industry that will create jobs and stimulate the economy, particularly in rural areas.

Add to that is the fact that Madain Saleh was named in 2008 as a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Madain Saleh is now open to visitors. The Saudi Commission on Tourism and Antiquities, under Secretary General Sultan Bin Salman, and the National French Research Center are continuing excavation efforts. An American team also is participating.

The teams are restoring what has been found and electronic software is being used to record the excavation and restoration efforts. The work is continuing and it’s certain that more items will be unearthed.

Once the Saudi government finds its footing in establishing a consistent tourism program and becomes more flexible in granting visas to Muslims and non-Muslims to visit the Kingdom, Madain Saleh should become a key component in developing a thriving tourism sector.

But offering Madain Saleh as a tourism stop is not a problem. It was first inhabited by the people of Thamud who are mentioned prominently in the Qur’an. But what of the non-Muslim sites? Like most Saudis, I know little of pre-Islamic sites, although occasionally amateur archeologists come across such places. Frankly, it’s gross negligence to destroy or hide these discoveries. The government in recent years has taken positive steps to recover and catalog artifacts, but there’s a disagreement with what to do with them once they are found.

It’s right that churches are not permitted in the Land of the Two Holy Mosques. But what’s less certain is whether crucifixes, if found, should be destroyed or hidden. More precisely is the issue of whether Christian or Jewish artifacts can be displayed in the proper context in a Saudi museum as an acknowledgment of a people who called pre-Islamic Arabia their home.

My guess is that most Saudis will say no. Many Saudis believe there is no place in the Kingdom for such relics.

The Associated Press the other day reported that Sheikh Mohammed Al Nujaimi said non-Muslim artifacts “should be left in the ground.” He said that Muslims would not tolerate the display of non-Muslim religious symbols. "How can crosses be displayed when Islam doesn't recognize that Christ was crucified?" he said. "If we display them, it's as if we recognize the crucifixion."

Most Saudis probably agree, although the argument can be made that displaying an ancient cross doesn’t necessarily recognize that Christ was crucified but only acknowledges a previous non-Muslim civilization.

Religious symbols aside, there is a precedent in showcasing pre-Islamic items. The museum in Riyadh has a number of pre-Islamic statues. And Riyadh’s King Saudi University has similar items.

This is a sensitive time for Saudi Arabia. We have made tentative steps with the international community by promoting inter-faith dialogue. We have been diligent in sending young university students to other countries where they learn of other cultures. We are throwing open the doors of the King Abdullah University of Science and Technology to the world’s best researchers and scientists. Developing a policy to deal with non-Muslim antiquities is a logical step towards continuing to bridge cultural gaps.

Perhaps displays of such artifacts are not the solution, but it’s not unthinkable.