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Posted in: Islam, Muslim Women

Published on Feb 18, 2010 by Phyllis Chesler

Written for Pajamas Media

An American Muslim Hero: Dr. Ali Alyami


Dr. Ali Alyami is a man after my own heart. He is a Saudi reformer who is based in Washington, D.C. and the founding director of the Center for Democracy and Human Rights in Saudi Arabia. Listen to what Dr. Alyami just told me:

"Democratizing Saudi Arabia is the key to democratizing all Arabs and Muslims. The best, easiest, cheapest and quickest way to achieve this formidable undertaking is to empower Saudi women who are already in the forefront in challenging their ferocious political, religious, economic, social and educational environment. Due to Saudi Arabia's centrality to Islam and its possession of the largest known oil reserves, Saudi Arabia plays a major religious and economic role in the lives of both Muslims and non-Muslims. Empowering Saudi women will resonate throughout Arab and Muslim societies."

I could not have said this better. Why is our State Department not consulting with him? They should. Yes, I know: America has tried to bring freedom to other continents, only to be rebuffed and demonized as a colonizer, an imperialist, doomed to failure. However, what's different now is that America has potential partners among Muslims who are "yearning to breathe free." It is unclear whether or not the democrats or the tyrants will win. But in the past, America made common cause with the tyrants—and either been savaged for doing so or grudgingly praised as understanding how things work in that part of the world.

What's different now is that we have the bravest of protesters risking their lives in Teheran. We have Muslim and ex-Muslim feminists and dissidents, both in the West and back home, risking their lives in an effort to reform Islam, find freedom.

In Saudi Arabia, possibly the worst country in the world for women (although Afghanistan, Pakistan, Bangladesh, and Congo are not far behind), we have incredible feminist activists: Maha Akeel, Rania Al-Baz, (who went public after being beaten senseless by her husband), Fatima Al-Faqih, Dr. Fatoon Al-Fassi, Wajeha Al Huwaider, Samar Al-Moghren (whom I recently met), Thuraya Al-Shihiri (who criticized the Muslim reaction to the Danish cartoons).

Dr. Ali Alyami, who was born and raised in Saudi Arabia, first came to America in 1967 on an Aramco scholarship. He chose to remain here. Now, he is trying to help Americans understand Saudi Arabia. It is an uphill struggle. His Center has taken a strong stand against the infantilization and persecution of Saudi women, minorities, and foreign workers. Alyami has exposed the use of torture in the Kingdom. He is working on a constitution for Saudi Arabia. Of course, he has testified about human rights abuses in The Kingdom at Congressional hearings and conferences.

I recently spoke to him. Here he is, the persistent hero, in his own words.

Q: Talk to me about the women of your country.

America is my country. I am the father of an Iraq veteran Army officer. The women of my motherland, known as Saudi Arabia (most Saudis resent being called Saudis because that makes them the property of the ruling Saudi family), are among the most marginalized people on this planet. This does not mean Saudi women are weak or helpless. In fact, they are the most resilient people I know. Their misfortunes are the result of their government institutionalized discriminatory polices. Discrimination against Saudi women has very little to do with tradition and religion and more to do with politics and economics. Instead of meeting its obligations to all citizens, it has designated women as perpetual minors who must be fed and managed by their males relatives. In addition, it's easier for the ruling elites to divide people into gender, religious, regional and ethnic categories so they can turn people against each other and act as their problem solver and savior.

Q: Are Americans listening to you?

A: Having been an advocate of democratic reforms and respect for basic human rights in Saudi Arabia most of my life, my journey has not been smooth, safe or glorious. This is mostly due to the Saudi autocratic and theocratic ruling families' brutal security apparatus in Saudi Arabia and elsewhere; but also the recipients of their largess abroad, especially in the US. The Washington based Center for Democracy and Human Rights in Saudi Arabia (CDHR) was established six years ago to promote peaceful but tangible democratic reforms in Saudi Arabia including: Religious freedom, empowerment of Saudi women, free press, assemblage, free elections, accountability and transparency. In short, we are calling for the transformation of all Saudi institutions. As expected, the Saudi regime and its apologists and recipients of its favoritisms at home and in the West, especially in the US, did not and does not feel comfortable with this noble undertaking. What I did not expect was opposition to my work on the part of those in government, the media, and foundations, who themselves enjoy liberty.

Q: Have the Saudis tried to stop your work?

A: The Saudi ruling family and is agents and beneficiaries have been trying to stop my work by different means for many years. They have tried financial and employment (high positions) bribery, tribal and friends' intermediaries directly and indirectly. They also have tried the deadly methods, no evidence though. All attempts have failed because of my philosophical commitment and belief in doing something bigger than one's self and that is more important than riches and self-aggrandizement. Something that can't be purchased or silenced by any money, power or death.

Q: What projects are you specifically working on right now? What would you like to do if you were funded?

A: We are an educational organization and we provide information and analysis of Saudi events on a daily basis. CDHR promotes specific themes: Religious freedom for all peoples, freedom of all forms of expressions, women's rights, the non-sectarian rule of law, an independent and non-sectarian judicial system, accountability, transparency, privatization of government industries, free elections and free trade with all nations.

Right now, we are planning a conference to discuss the impact of Saudi-Wahhabi ideology domestically, regionally, and globally.

Q: Have you also taken a stand in favor of tolerance for apostasy? And against honor killing and honor-related violence? What has happened?

Yes to all of the above. We research, write, and analyze and expose these violations of human rights through the internet, conferences and media releases. Te results are impressive, especially with Saudis.

Q: Give me some examples of the kind of foundations, institutes, conferences, etc. that have not invited you to speak or that have challenged you in other ways.

A: Only the Hudson Institute in DC has asked me to speak, even though our Center is the only organization focused totally on Saudi Arabia.

Q: Do you believe a pro-democracy political organization launched by Muslim and ex-Muslim dissidents can be successful?

A: It depends on the individuals and groups and the form of democracy they seek. Most Muslims believe that democracy American-style cannot work in Muslim countries but can be modified to suit the religious and cultural heritage of Muslim societies. CDHR promotes American-style democracy where the individuals, male or female, are in charge of their lives and destiny.

Q: How have you been treated by apologists for Saudi Arabia?

A: Not well, even though they don't disagree with my platform. Their disagreement with me is not philosophical as much as concern for material gain for their own projects and institutions. They are hired to promote Saudi policy and interests and to polish their tarnished image.

Q: Have you ever tried to visit Saudi Arabia? What happened?

A: I have. I was denied a visa. I am a peaceful promoter of genuine democratic reforms where power emanates from the people. I am opposed to religious totalitarianism, gender segregations and inequality. I believe that religion is a belief and a tool of oppression, control, divisiveness, squandering of public wealth, incitement against non-Muslims and justification for child and forced marriages.

Q: Do you correspond with or talk to your family? Has your work endangered them? Have they been forced to cut you off?

A: I don't talk to my family in Saudi Arabia and they don't talk to me either. Saudi society is highly self-regulated because of decades of brutal reprisals by the Saudi ruling family and its ubiquitous security apparatus like the legalized terrorist religious police, known as Matawain or domesticators.

Q: What consequences has your leaving had for you in terms of family left behind and for your work?

Nothing can be more emotionally lonely and excruciating for me than not being able to visit my homeland, family, friends and be able to walk in the simple neighborhoods where I was born, reared, grew and worked.

Q: Who or what keeps you going in the face of so many obstacles?

A: Commitment to do something bigger than me. I have lived under the yoke of tyranny. Consequently, I value my liberty, not just for me but for the oppressed people of my motherland whose freedom is in the best interest of the Middle East and the international community.

President Obama should consider Dr. Alyami as another kind of representative to the Organization of the Islamic Conference–one who would be less interested in appeasing them than in facilitating a reformation.


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