Friday, December 10, 2010

Judicial Reform in Saudi Arabia: A Battle of the Fatwas


A spate of recent religious opinions and court rulings ranging from the bizarre to endorsement of mutilation issued by prominent Saudi sheikhs and judges highlight the difficulty King Abdullah faces in clamping down on fatwas and codifying the kingdom's largely unwritten Islamic legal regulations. James M. Dorsey reports

In response to disputed religious opinions and court rulings in Saudi Arabia, king Abdullah has intervened repeatedly in recent months to ensure that none of the more outrageous legal opinions and rulings were implemented and has curtailed media access of their authors.

In doing so, Abdullah appears to be gaining the upper hand in his battle to push through sweeping legal reform and codification of Saudi law needed to meet World Trade Organization and human rights standards, encourage foreign investment, standardize legal practice and grant courts enforcement powers.

Restructuring of the court system

Abdullah recently won a major victory when the kingdom's top religious body endorsed his reform and codification proposals. Abdullah also decreed that only members of the Council of Senior Islamic Scholars were authorized to issue fatwas in a bid to halt religious rulings that embarrass the kingdom. Abdullah last year removed Sheikh Saleh al Luheidan from his post as head of the Supreme Judicial Council because the ultraconservative cleric was obstructing implementation of the king's proposed restructuring of the court system.

Lawyers and analysts say the recent spate of controversial fatwas constitute an attempt to thwart Abdullah's efforts by his opponents within the royal family and conservative clerics who fear that they could undermine Saudi Arabia's puritan interpretation of Islamic law as well as the independence of judges by making them adhere to written rules and regulations. "The traditional establishment is by nature against these reforms. So it's going to take time to implement them," said Riyadh-based lawyer Ibrahim al-Modaimeegh.

Opposition to the principle of retribution

In the latest ruling sparking international concern, Saudi judge Sheikh Saud Al-Yousef ordered a man to be paralyzed in retribution for injuries he allegedly caused with a meat cleaver during a fight two years before the verdict. Applying the principle of 'an eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth', the judge ruled that the man should be injured at the same place on his spinal cord to cause identical crippling damage to what he inflicted on his victim, 22-year-old Abdul-Aziz al-Mitairy.

Al-Mitairy had petitioned the court in the town of Tabuk to replace its sentencing of his attacker to seven months in prison with an equivalent punishment in accordance with the Islamic principle of qisas, or retribution. Past Saudi applications of qisas have involved eye-gouging, tooth extraction, and death in cases involving murder. Two Saudi hospitals, including Riyadh's prestigious King Faisal Specialist Hospital and Research Center, rejected the judge's request that they implement his ruling.

In a statement condemning the ruling, Amnesty International said another hospital had advised the judge that it was medically possible to administer to the perpetrator an injury identical to the one that he caused. "Under international human rights law, the use of this sentence would constitute a violation of the absolute prohibition of torture and other cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment," the statement said, suggesting that the court instead imprison, fine or flog the condemned man.

In response, officials say Abdullah persuaded Al-Yousef to deny that he had seriously considered ordering the mutilation. Al Riyadh newspaper quoted the judge as saying that "the proceedings in this case are still pending and no verdict had been issued in that regard." Al-Yousef said the court had queried hospitals and other authorities about surgical paralysis in order to convince the plaintiff that it would be impossible to carry out such a medical procedure. "The plaintiff was demanding punishment of the attacker, and the judicial ruling in this case only includes the plaintiff's eligibility for blood money," Al-Yousef said.

The hot and curious issue of gender mixing

At about the same time, Saudi authorities pulled on Abdullah's instructions the plug on the daily radio program of Sheikh Abdel Mohsen Obeikan, a cleric and royal court adviser who earlier this year earned notoriety by decreeing that women could give men breast milk to avoid illicit gender mixing. "The man should take the milk, but not directly from the breast of the woman," Obeikan was quoted. "He should drink it and then becomes a relative of the family, a fact that allows him to come in contact with the women without breaking Islam's rules about mixing." Islamic tradition stipulates that breastfeeding establishes a degree of maternal bond, even if a woman breast feeds a child who is not her own.

In a separate incident, the kingdom's most senior religious scholar, Grand Mufti Sheikh Abdul Aziz Al-Asheik, ordered a preacher to shut up after he issued a fatwa calling for a boycott of the Panda supermarket chain because it employs women as cashiers. The fatwa forced the chain to reassign 11 of its 16 female cashiers who were part of a pilot project to employ females in a country where women are prevented from working in gender mixed environments, according to Panda spokesman Tarik Ismail.

The preacher, Sheikh Yousuf Ahmad, known for his strident opposition to gender mixing, had earlier suggested that only Muslim maids could work in Saudi homes. He also called for the Grand Mosque in Mecca, Islam's holiest site and the world's largest mosque, to be demolished and rebuilt to ensure segregation between the sexes in the shrine.

The Islamic Affairs Ministry, in a further curtailing of clerical power, ordered clerics to keep their Friday sermons short and smart. Azam Shewair, a ministry official, warned clerics they would face punishment if they didn't trim their speeches, including forced training or having their paychecks docked. Shewair said clergymen needed to keep in mind that elderly or sick worshipers may not be able to sit and listen to hour-long speeches filled with their words of wisdom.

New sources of legitimacy

A debate on the ministerial edict in the Saudi Gazette suggests a generational divide among Saudi religious scholars with older clerics displaying contempt for their younger colleagues whom they dismiss as a bunch of uneducated rabble who need to be cut down to size. "The impact of the sermon is not measured by its length but by the eloquent, concise and precise wording," said Saleh Humaid, a ranking cleric. "Imams should refrain from flowery and bombastic language and delve directly into the core of their sermon."

Another scholar accused some clergy of copying and pasting Friday sermons from books or the Internet and reading them out loud without even understanding what they're saying. Yet others suggested that clerics needed to improve their writing skills. "Some of them elaborate on the topic by repeating themselves and going around in circles," Ahmad Mawrai, a Saudi professor, told the Gazette. "In many cases they jump from one topic to another. This is why their sermons are tedious and boring."

The debate over the rules that govern the issuing of fatwas reflects King Abdullah's recognition and a growing body of public opinion that Wahhabisim, the kingdom's puritan version of Islam, hinders the development of a modern state capable of competing in the 21st century and catering to people's needs. Five years ago, bizarre and obscure fatwas would have been seriously debated rather than ridiculed and condemned.

Many Saudi clergymen have yet to recognize that Abdullah's legal reform offers them an opportunity to consolidate their influence. Yet, they seem more intent on scoring own goals that undermine their public credibility and ultimately could signal the decline of clerical power in Saudi Arabia. In doing so, the clergy could be opening the door for the House of Saud to identify new sources of legitimacy that go beyond their historical reliance on Wahhabism.

Wednesday, December 8, 2010

World Cup 2022: A Middle East Game Changer?

By James M. Dorsey

With its winning of the bid to host the 2022 FIFA World Cup, Qatar may face both its greatest challenge and biggest opportunity in positioning itself as a maverick regional peacemaker and agent of change.

Soccer constitutes for Middle Eastern regimes a double-edged sword. Only soccer commands the kind of deep-seated emotion evoked by Islam. And in a world of predominantly repressive regimes, soccer together with Islam provides the only public space for pent-up anger and frustration. Managing the national, ethnic, religious and social fault lines that soccer in the Middle East highlights could make cooling down football stadia in temperatures of 50 degrees Celsius the least of Qatar’s worries.

A look at the Gulf Cup that ended in Aden on Sunday as well as Middle Eastern soccer’s walk up to this year’s World Cup in South Africa tells all. To many residents of southern Yemen, which united with the north in 1990, the Gulf Cup highlighted the very reasons why southerners support cessation. It also highlighted the effect of political control of the game by regimes bent on retaining power. To southerners, Yemen’s national team represented the country’s most powerful government-aligned tribes rather than the nation. That sense was reinforced by the fact that southerners were virtually excluded from participation in the organization of the cup.

The picture is no better elsewhere in the Middle East where spectators in Lebanon have been barred from soccer games since the 2005 assassination of Prime Minister Rafik Hariri; Palestinians can’t compete because of Israeli travel restrictions; Iran and Iraq’s performance has been hampered by political interference; players on Egypt’s national team have to prove not only their soccer skills but also their religious devotion; and Saudi players struggle to maintain international standards because the government discourages players from joining foreign clubs. The world’s most violent derby between Cairo archrivals Al Ahly and Zamalek constitutes an epic struggle over nationalism, class and escapism. Women’s soccer is a continuous fight for its existence in a chauvinist, male dominated world in which women playing the game is at best controversial and at worst blasphemous.

If anyone can rise to the challenge a World Cup in the Middle East poses, it is Qatar, a maverick oil-rich Gulf state that maintains close ties to Islamic radicals while hosting a US military base and has rewritten the Middle East’s heavily controlled media landscape with Al Jazeera’s often no-holds barred reporting. Qatar’s successful bid could prove to be with FIFA President Sepp Blatter’s help the monkey wrench that forces Middle Eastern rulers to recognize opportunities offered by sports to manage the region's many fault lines.

The Middle East is riper than ever for a contribution by Blatter, who has successfully imposed his will on notoriously intransigent Middle Eastern leaders seeking to control the game. Take Middle East peace for example. Blatter could engineer Israel’s return to playing World Cup qualifying games in the Asian Football Confederation (AFC) against Middle Eastern teams rather than as it does against European squads in UEFA since the Arabs four decades ago forced its ouster from the AFC.

International tennis has paved the way for Blatter to force the issue. Three Israeli tennis players appeared this year at the ATP World Tour and World Tennis Association tournaments in Qatar and the United Arab Emirates despite the two countries’ formal ban on sports encounters with Israel and Israeli passport holders crossing their borders.

If Israel drew for example Iran, Syria, Saudi Arabia, Lebanon, Yemen or Iraq, governments would be hard pressed to prevent their teams from playing. Stopping their teams would cost their squads valuable points and reduce, if not eliminate, their chances of reaching the Asian and World Cup finals.

The teams would face censure from FIFA, which in turn could spark riots as soccer did in Tehran in 1998 and 2001. So deep-seated is soccer passion that governments would be acting at their own peril and would likely conclude that they have no alternative but to allow their teams to play Israel. By doing so, they would effectively recognize the Jewish state and offer Middle Eastern soccer fans a picture of Israelis that differs substantially from widespread preconceptions.