Throughout the summer months of last year, Al Majid Islamic Channel
broadcast, via satellite, daily, programs on the religious camps taking place across Saudi Arabia. In one show, a presenter asks a thirteen year-old boy to sing; the boy then chants the following: "They forget about Palestine, they forget about Palestine, and then start singing secular songs and dress up as infidels." The host replies "Peace be upon you. Well done!"
In the last two years, journalists and intellectuals have been campaigning against these summer religious camps in the Kingdom. Critics describe them as centers that breed extremism and brainwash young people and accuse them of supporting fundamentalist ideologies. In turn, those involved in running the camps have asked their opponents to visit the camps and see for themselves before jumping to any conclusions.
As for the youths the camps hope to attract, their opinion is divided. Ahmad Jadaan, aged 24, doesn”t believe these camps encourage extremist thought. On the contrary, they welcome young people and protect them, especially in big cities across the Kingdom that lack social centers and youth clubs." The summer camps, he adds, "offer valuable cultural and sporting activities.
Attacking the camps is wrong." In Jadaan”s experience, the camps benefit many young Saudis who have progressed in life. They feature a variety of lectures that offer helpful suggestions and ideas to the participating youth. He warns "those who want to shut the camps [to] be able to offer an alternative."
On the other end of the spectrum is Mohammed Dahlawi, also 24, who has attended one of the many such camps and found "the title of different lectures to be the same. The lectures were alarming and laden with political suggestions and fundamentalists ideas. He said that after spending two months in a religious summer camp, young men return to the outside world and "find [themselves] totally alienated from the surroundings."
Dahlawi also exposed how lecturers often looked down on participants and made light of their intellect. For example, in one of the lectures he attended, the speaker was called "Abu Zaqm", of the most infamous reckless drivers in his circle of youths who had, recently, repented. "Abu Zaqm lectured while imitating the sounds of speeding cars and made the audience laugh. He then asked all those present to remove all immoral possessions from their pockets and publicly announce their atonement. Isn”t this a mockery of our human brains?"
In effect, the ridiculous conclusions of Abu Zaqm”s lecture deserve to be recounted. I am still, however unsure about his nickname and don”t understand the relationship between repentance and irresponsible driving, since overdoing the ignition and speeding can either be right or wrong but not a sin. To go back to the lectures, apparently, as soon as Abu Zaqm concludes his speech, the table in front of him gets covered with different kinds of evil objects participants got rid of. How can a group of young men taking part in a religious summer camp bring their sinful possessions along? How is this repentance not repeated by other lecturers?
Many involved in administering these religious camps are adamant that their activities are legitimate and subject to government supervision. In all honesty, I find this impossible to believe. A year ago, Asharq Al Awsat newspaper conducted an in-depth investigation on these camps. At the time, an ex teacher informed me of undeclared and unaccounted for transgressions occurring in various camps during the summer months. For example, a number of young men who studied at a government-run Secondary School in Mecca conspired to post links to certain websites on their school”s homepage, without prior permission. Their links directed the internet user to known Islamic militant websites such as Al Sahat and Ana Al Muslim, whose founders are currently on the run from the Saudi authorities. The Al Sahat website has even featured writings from Al Qaeda members.
So far, the discussion has centered on what is known of the world of
religious camps for Saudi boys and young men. What is hidden about the world of religious camps for girls is worth being revealed as well. The few leaflets and brochures that are leaked from the Kingdom”s camps for girls don”t point to a totally innocent environment.
A glance at the advice in these pamphlets reveals an opposition to fashion, jeans and white wedding dresses, as the latter imitate non-believers. More baffling, perhaps, is the cookbook distributed at some of these camps and aimed for the Muslim woman who wants to be a virtuous housewife and confront Western challenges, with a hamburger on its cover! Does the hamburger become Islamic because it is made by a Muslim woman?
Since the discussion started with a clip from a program by Al Majd
television, I hope the reader will allow me to conclude with another scene from the same channel. A young woman calls the station to speak to a well-known Saudi religious scholar. She asks him whether dyeing part of hair red is permitted. The Sheikh smiled and replied: "It is acceptable, if you stop at this act. But don”t go further and use colored lenses and dress in Western clothes because you will resemble the non- faithful." After listening to this answer, I became very confused and asked myself: "Are Western women who”ve converted to Islam obliged to dye their hair black, use sunglasses, and wear Arab clothing to be accepted as Muslims?"