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Muslims who travel to Saudi Arabia:
Different Cultures, One Religion

Abeer Mishkhas

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The time has come and millions of Muslims from around the world will come to the Kingdom for a few days to perform Haj, the fifth pillar of Islam. All nationalities imaginable will meet and mix in a small space for five days or more and then disperse, each to his own destination. Different cultures and traditions have a good opportunity to learn about each other.

The vital question, however, is how much we Saudis learn from the cultural diversity that comes among us once each year? Dare I say that we do not learn much? Some of us, maybe people who live in the two holy cities come into direct contact with different cultures, however briefly.

What about the rest of us who don't live in Makkah or Madinah? We see Muslims from Iran, where women are in the army, in high-level government positions, where they have their own sports clubs, drive cars and even participate in rallies. And yet they are all good Muslims, no less than we are. From Egypt, the same: women and men learn how to mingle without problems and they too are good Muslims. The same is true of those from Pakistan, from Morocco, from Europe, from America and India. There are countless examples of those Muslims of both sexes having equal opportunities and nobody dare say their faith or belief is weaker than ours.

Why then do people here insist on seeing danger in every step to open up a little and allow society to develop and move forward? We are adamant that this is the land of Islam and that we are thus obliged to set examples. But when we come face to face with other Muslims who are different from us, we cast them aside. If Islam is the same everywhere, then its limits are the same everywhere. Women follow the rules of Islam in Indonesia, Europe, the US and Africa - and in some Asian countries, women have become presidents and prime ministers.

This idea of cultural diversity emerged while I was skimming the local press. Two columns, each about education, made me stop. One of the writers was against giving physical education (PE) classes a slot in the daily schedule, saying that doing so might affect the time given to other subjects such as Arabic and religious studies. The other columnist actually said that there was no need for PE and that it was a waste of time to discuss it or to introduce it in schools. His reasons were that girls have delicate constitutions and that it is better to give them sewing lessons than endanger their delicacy with physical exercise which, he argues, is only for boys. He goes on to say that physical education is the first step toward the complete chaos and loss of morality that have engulfed Western countries. A heavy statement indeed.

These thoughts rankled, especially when I read what a well-known sheikh said to a newspaper a few days ago. It seems that the sheikh sees no Islamic reason for women not driving. In fact, he told Arab News, "There is no definite text (either in the Qur'an or Sunnah) that bans women driving." A few days later he said that his statement had been taken out of context. OK that might have happened - but what he said next is more important. He actually said that he was against driving because it would corrupt the morals of young people and destroy our society.

Another religious academic being interviewed on Al-Jazeerah was asked about the new Saudi News channel and he objected to the idea of women presenters. The interviewer commented, "But you watch Al-Jazeerah and we have women presenters?" his response was: "That's a different case. Each society has its own rules."

The implications are always that any change is going to destroy our society and our morals. Did not God say in his holy book that Muslims should go around the world and learn from other civilizations? Isn't it in the Qur'an that God created mankind into sects and nations so that they could know each other.

Were the early Muslims wrong when they mingled with other societies and learned from them, and even adopted some of their traditions? Everyone seems ready to offer a decisive answer on how society is falling apart because of the acquisition of knowledge. If only those people would think more than they talk, things might be different.

Abeer Mishkhas is a Saudi Arabian journalist and an editor for the Arab News newspaper in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia.


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hagalil.com 01-02-2004



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