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IOS Minaret Vol-1, No.1 (March 2007)
Vol. 6    Issue 4   16-31 July 2011

Professor A. R. Momin

Morocco and the Arab Spring

Morocco, located in North Africa, gained independence from 44 years of colonial rule in 1956. It is a constitutional monarchy with an elected parliament. The king of Morocco holds enormous powers, including the power to dissolve parliament at will. The king is the chief of the armed forces as well as the country’s religious head. The present king Mohammed VI succeeded his father King Hassan II in 1999. Morocco is quite different from other Arab states in at least three respects: unlike many countries in the Arab region, it is not groaning under the oppressive weight of an autocratic, unresponsive regime; rather, its institutional structure is substantially influenced by democratic principles; with economic liberalization, the country has fared better than other states in the Middle East; the country’s record of human rights is better than that of many Arab countries.

Morocco is beset by several serious problems, including poverty, environmental insecurity and desertification, a high unemployment rate, especially among educated youth, educational backwardness, paucity of jobs and a deficit of political freedom. The country’s GNI per capita is $2,790. Nearly half of the country’s population of 32.3 million is illiterate. Unemployment among educated youth is nearly 20%. King Mohammed has been concerned about the severity of these problems and has taken certain important steps to deal with them, but the outcome of such measures has not met people’s expectations. In 2005 the king launched a $2 billion-project called the National Initiative for Human Development, with the purpose of alleviating poverty and underdevelopment.

The reverberations of the democratic uprising that surged in Tunisia and Egypt in February 2011 and led to the ouster of the ruling establishment were felt in Morocco as well. Thousands of people held demonstrations in Rabat, Casablanca and Marrakesh, demanding, not his removal, but political reform, change in the constitution and freedom. King Mohammed wisely sensed the undercurrent and promised a comprehensive review of the constitution after a nationwide referendum. Before the July 1 referendum, nearly 100,000 Moroccans held demonstrations in the capital Rabat, reiterating their demand for major, wide-ranging political reforms. On July 10 the king unveiled the outlines of a new constitution, which has been approved by a sizeable majority of Moroccans as well as the major opposition parties. According to the new constitution, nearly half of the powers previously held by the king will now be vested in the office of the prime minister, who will be appointed from the majority party in parliament. It also grants substantial political, social and cultural rights to women and the non-Arab sections of the population, including the Berbers. The king, however, will retain his control over the army and foreign intelligence services. Announcing the new constitution, King Mohammed VI said: “If the reforms are approved, they could constitute a decisive historic transition in the process of the building of the rule of law and democratic institutions, and in entrenching the principles and mechanisms of good governance.”

One hopes other states in the Arab world would take a leaf from King Mohammed’s book and grant sufficient political and social rights to their people.

Growing Discontent and Disaffection in Saudi Arabia

Saudi Arabia is the largest economy in the Middle East and one of the wealthiest countries in the world. It has more than 25% of the world’s oil reserves and the largest hydrocarbon reserves. The country is capable of producing more than 10 million barrels of oil per day. It has more than $550 billion in foreign reserves. The Saudi monarch is one of the richest men in the world.

Despite the affluence, Saudi Arabia is beset with a host of formidable, intractable problems, most of them of its own making. These include a high unemployment rate, wide inequalities of wealth and income, one of the highest divorce rates in the world, child marriages, the looming spectre of terrorism, and growing political and social discontent and unrest, especially in the minority Shia community. Most of these problems are rooted in the insularity of the kingdom, the iron grip of tribal customs and traditions, the hold of a conservative but powerful religious elite, authoritarian rule and absence of democracy and political freedom. Political parties are banned and criticism of the government or the royal family—which are synonymous—is not tolerated. An academic who posted an article on his Facebook page sometime ago, imagining Saudi Arabia without the royal family was jailed for three months. Since the 1991 Gulf War, about 5,000 US troops have been stationed in the country. This and the country’s political and military alliance with the US have fuelled considerable resentment and anger in the country, which has been dealt with by the authorities with an iron hand. In 2003 suicide bombers killed 35 persons, including some foreigners, in the capital Riyadh. In recent years demands for political reform have increased. There has been a close and long-standing linkage and collusion between the country’s highly conservative and puritanical ulama and muftis and the ruling dynasty. Recently the Saudi muftis issued a fatwa saying that holding demonstrations against the government or the royal family is un-Islamic. The fatwa should be seen against the backdrop of the recent democratic uprising in Tunisia and Egypt.

There is wide gap between the rich and poor in the kingdom. While the members of the royal family and a small minority of Saudi businessmen live in incredible opulence, more than ten percent of the population are forced to live a life of poverty and deprivation. Turki Faisal al-Rashid, a Saudi businessman, reckons that while 80,000 Saudis are worth more than $250 million, there are more than 3 million people in the country (in a population of 26.2 million) who are very poor.

Fragility of Marriage and Family

The Arab Human Development Report 2009 pointed out that, by and large, Arab women continue to remain victims of institutionalized discrimination, social subordination, violence and deeply entrenched male domination. Several horrifying practices such as female genital mutilations and child marriages are still rampant in many Arab countries. Several studies indicate that early marriages and teenage pregnancies pose a serious threat to the health of mothers and new-born babies. Furthermore, early marriages often result in divorce, family breakdown and poor child rearing. Arab countries have yet to adopt laws prohibiting child marriage before the age of 18. Although child marriages are on the decline in many Arab countries, the practice is still widespread. It is estimated that nearly 60 per cent of cases of child marriage result in divorce.

Saudi Arabia has no minimum legal age for marriage and it is common, especially in the poorer, tribal areas to get girls married off before they reach puberty. The absence of a minimum age for marriage for girls in Saudi Arabia has led to legal complications and injustice. In April 2009 a Saudi judge refused to annul a marriage between an 8-year-old girl and a man in his late forties, saying that she could not seek divorce until she reached puberty. Defenders of child marriage say that the practice is part of Saudi culture.

An 11-year-old Saudi girl was married in September 2009 to an 80-year-old man in return for a dowry of $22,600, paid to her father. Later she and her mother asked a court to annul the marriage on the grounds that the girl had been raped. In February 2010 the girl withdrew her petition, saying she wanted to respect her father’s wishes. In April 2010 the Saudi Justice Minister said there should be increased regulation to prevent parents from “selling off” their daughters. The minister was speaking in the context of the marriage of an eight-year-old girl to a sixty-year-old man. Princess Adela bint Abdullah, the king’s daughter, recently said that child marriages violated the child’s rights. “A child has the right to live her childhood, and not be forced to get married, “she said.

Saudi Arabia has one of the highest divorce rates in the world. According to a report in the Arab News published on March 4, 2011, nearly 62% marriages in the country end in divorce. Most of the divorce cases involve young women and men. The high divorce rate is attributed to child marriages, forced marriages, the pattern of gender relations in the country, which does not allow much scope or personal space between the spouses, and incompatibility. There are more than 1.5 million spinsters of marriageable age in Saudi Arabia.

Women’s Rights

Saudi women make up about 55% of university students in the country. Some of them have been educated in American and European universities. However, the political, economic, social and cultural rights available to them are insufficient and inadequate. They are not allowed to vote in the municipal elections. Their participation in the labour force is one of the lowest in the world and lower than that of many countries in the Middle East. According to the International Labour Organisation, in 2009 just 17% of Saudi women of working age were employed, compared with 42% in the UAE, 32% in Bahrain, 45% in Kuwait and nearly 50% in Qatar. The World Economic Forum 2009 Gender Gap Report ranked Saudi Arabia 130th out of 134 countries for gender parity.

Women are not allowed to go out without covering their bodies and heads and without a male guardian. Businesswomen are required to have a male guardian to take care of their businesses. Most Saudi businesswomen, though not many in number, feel frustrated by such restrictions, and many of them prefer to work abroad. Women’s groups in the country are voicing their demand for greater political and social freedom. There is a small but vocal community of human rights activists, bloggers and tweeters, who seeks to reach out to larger numbers of people through social networking sites such as Facebook and Twitter and video-sharing sites such as YouTube.

Saudi Arabia is the only country in the world where women are not allowed to drive. The late Saudi mufti, Shaykh Bin Baz, an extremely conservative and fundamentalist scholar, issued a fatwa saying that Islamic law prohibits women from driving. In 1990 a small group of educated Saudi women started a campaign against the ban, but it fizzled out. About 50 women who drove their cars in defiance of the ban were detained, lost their jobs and were banned from travelling abroad. They were accused of being part of a conspiracy hatched by foreign agents to destabilize the country and of undermining the country’s social fabric. Women who have learnt to drive overseas and are keen to take to the wheel complain that while they are banned from driving, this ban does not apply to American women who are part of the US troops stationed in the country.

In June 2011 a small group of Saudi women started a campaign Women2Drive on Facebook, demanding the right to drive. On June 17, about 50 or 60 Saudi women took to the wheel and drove around the city and posted images and videos of themselves driving cars on Facebook, Twitter and YouTube. Dozens of such videos surfaced on the social networking sites and passed around through mobile phones. In most cases the police appeared to be under instruction from the authorities not to arrest such women. But some of them were detained.

Manal al-Sharif is a US-educated Saudi woman who works for a prestigious oil company. She is divorced from her husband and lives alone with her four-year-old son. She was an active member of the women’s group which started the campaign against the ban on driving. She decided to drive her car on June 17, and asked a friend, a prominent Saudi feminist, to film her while driving around. The video was posted on YouTube. She was arrested by the police and charged with inciting public disorder and going against the government by collaborating with foreign media. She was detained for 10 days and was released only when her father personally pleaded with King Abdullah. She apologized to the king and was asked to sign a pledge to the effect that she would never drive again and that she would withdraw from the campaign.

Saudi Arabia is caught in a paradoxical situation. On the one hand, the ruling establishment, supported by the state-sponsored ulama and muftis, is keen to ensure that the kingdom should remain untouched by the Arab Spring. On the other hand, the composition and structure of Saudi society are undergoing a slow but perceptible transformation. Nearly 70% of the country’s population are under 30 and 35% are under 16. Women, who constitute about 52% of the population, make up nearly 55% of university students across the kingdom, and their proportion is steadily rising. More than 100,000 young Saudis are studying overseas. Despite strict media censorship, the Internet, social networking sites and mobile phones are becoming increasingly popular, especially among Saudi youth. The growing exposure to modern information and communication technologies is making Saudi women conscious of their legitimate rights and aspirations and resentful of the outmoded policies of the government. Images of the Arab Spring that were repeated shown on satellite TV made the younger generation of Saudis acutely aware of the winds of change blowing across the Arab world. The undercurrent of discontent and resentment that is simmering across the kingdom should not be underestimated.

There are indications that King Abdullah has taken cognizance of the winds that have started blowing across the kingdom. Since he took over the reins of power in 2005, King Abdullah has consistently pursued a policy of reform and educational rejuvenation, often in the face of resentment and criticism from the country’s ultra-conservative ulama. In 2009 he appointed Nora bint Abdullah al-Fayez as deputy education minister, the first woman ever to be appointed to a ministerial position in the kingdom. The king recently announced a package of $29.5 billion in financial assistance to poor Saudis.

A multi-billion dollar new university, called King Abdullah University of Science and Technology, opened in a sprawling 36-kilometre campus along the Red Sea coast about 80 kilometres north of Jeddah on September 23, 2009. The university is equipped with state-of-the-art laboratories, three-dimensional imaging facilities and the world’s 14th fastest supercomputer, worth nearly $1.5 billion. The new institution will have mixed-gender classes, an absolute novelty in the conservative kingdom, and will allow women to move without the mandatory veil. They will also have the freedom to drive, otherwise a taboo in the country.

The hi-tech university has already enrolled 817 students from 61 countries. Nearly 15 per cent of them are female, who have previously studied at foreign universities. The teaching faculty includes 71 professors and instructors, including 14 from the US, 7 from Germany and 6 from Canada. Classes will be held in English. On October 4, 2010 King Abdullah sacked Sheikh Sa’ad al-Shithri, who demanded that the ulama should vet the curriculum at the new hi-tech university and objected to mixed-gender classes, from the membership of the state-appointed Council of Ulama.

The first women’s university in Saudi Arabia and the world’s largest women’s university was opened by King Abdullah in Riyadh in May 2011. The Princess Nora bint Abdulrahman University is spread over an area of 8 million square metres and can accommodate 40,000 students and 12,000 employees. Built at an estimated cost of $5.3 billion, the university has 15 academic faculties, research centres for nanotechnology, information technology and bioscience, a library which can accommodate 4.5 million books and journals, conference centres, laboratories, and a 700-bed hospital. The campus also has residential quarters for the faculty, mosques, a school, a kindergarten and theme parks.

Ban on Halal Slaughter in the Netherlands

In recent years there has come about a greater awareness and concern for halal food among Muslims living in Western countries. The easy availability of halal food products in most cities, the entry of global food companies in the halal food business, global tourism and international halal food festivals in Malaysia and Dubai have made halal food a conspicuous feature of Muslim culture in large parts of the world. According to the Malaysia-based World Halal Forum, halal food accounts for nearly 17 per cent of the global food market and is one of the fastest-growing segments of the food market. The current global market for halal food is estimated at over $600 billion annually. Sales of halal food reached $641 billion in 2010, up from $587 billion in 2004. In Europe, sales of halal food products touched $67 billion in 2010. Since halal food is not available in some parts of the US and Canada, many Muslims turn to kosher. In the US an estimated 16% of sales in the $100 million kosher industry come from Muslim customers. About three million tonnes of halal meat are consumed annually in Europe.

Religious slaughter—dhabiha for Muslims and shechita for Jews—is generally permitted in Europe, except in Norway, Sweden, Luxembourg and Switzerland. In Germany, the right to slaughter animals according to Jewish ritual, constituting an exception to the Animal Protection Law, was granted to the Jewish community since the end of World War II. The Muslim community gained the same right in 2002 in a case in the Federal Constitutional Court.

On June 17, 2011 the Dutch parliament passed a bill banning the slaughter of animals without first stunning them. Until now, Jews and Muslims were exempted from this rule. The bill has to be approved by the Senate before it can be enacted and enforced. The legislation was proposed by an animal rights party with two MPs, which argued that killing animals without stunning them causes them unnecessary pain. Opinion polls show that the majority of Dutch voters support the ban.

Muslims living in the Netherlands, estimated at 1.2 million, and Jews, with a population of about 50,000, have protested against the ban, calling it an infringement on their right to freedom of religion, which is guaranteed by the Dutch constitution and the European Convention on Human Rights.

The issue of halal slaughter in Europe has been surrounded by a good deal of controversy for the past few years. Votaries of animal rights contend that slaughtering animals without subjecting them to stunning is cruel and inhuman and should therefore be banned. But many scientists and scientific organizations take exception to this view. The German Constitutional Court, which permitted halal slaughter in a landmark judgement in 2002, quoted a 1978 study conducted by Wilhelm Schulze at the University of Veterinary Medicine in Germany. The study concluded that “the slaughter in the form of a ritual cut is, if carried out properly, painless in sheep and calves, according to electrocepalographic recordings and the missing defensive actions.” In 2008 the French Ministry of Food, Agriculture and Fishing published a report of the Association de Sensibilisation d’Information et de Defence de Consommateus Musulmans (ASIDCOM) on religious slaughter. The report quotes many scientific studies to the effect that religious slaughter is equal, or possibly superior, to other methods of slaughter. ASIDCOM published an updated English version of the report with the help of Professor Joe M. Regenstein, Professor of Food Science at Cornell University.

Three aspects of the ban on halal slaughter in the Netherlands are particularly note-worthy. For one thing, the ban should be seen against the backdrop of the rising wave of Islamophobia and the changing political scenario in the country. For more than two decades, the Netherlands has followed multicultural policies, which have been fairly accommodative of the rights and sensibilities of the Muslim minority. However, certain events in the West and in the Netherlands, such as the terrorist attack on the United States on September 11, 2001 and the murder of the Dutch film maker Theo van Gogh in 2004, have triggered anti-immigrant and Islamophobic sentiments across the country. In the Dutch parliamentary elections held in June 2010 the anti-immigrant Freedom party (PVV), led by Geert Wilders, secured 24 out of 150 seats and emerged as the country’s third largest party. It supports the minority coalition government from the outside in return for tougher measures against immigration and against Muslims. For the past few years Wilders has been campaigning for an end to all non-Western immigration and a ban on the construction of minarets. Wilders makes no secret of his hatred for Islam and Muslims. He calls Islam “the ideology of a retarded culture” and demands a ban on the Quran in the Netherlands because it is “an inspiration for intolerance, murder and terror”. Wilders has set up an “International Freedom Alliance” in July 2010, with the twin objectives of “defending freedom and stopping Islam.

Tourage Atabaki, a Dutch-Iranian professor at the University of Amsterdam says: “Many Muslims and non-Muslims in the Netherlands believe that the ban on the ritual slaughter of animals targets Muslims, and in fact it reflects the rising anti-Muslim sentiments here.” Second, the ban on religious slaughter is at variance with the right to freedom of religion guaranteed by the European Convention on Human Rights. During the past few years, certain laws enacted by some European nations—such as the ban on the construction of minarets in Switzerland and on the wearing of the face-covering veil in France—are clearly in contravention of the European Convention on Human Rights. Third, the move to ban halal slaughter will further alienate the Muslims from mainstream Dutch society.

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