Commentary | An Effective Civil Society Essential for Meaningful Reform – Fatany

Published: February 23, 2014

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Editor’s Note:

SUSRIS periodically shares perspectives from columnists in Saudi Arabia and around the Gulf. For your consideration we are pleased to provide a recent column by Samar FatanyFatany recently published “Modernizing Saudi Arabia,” a comprehensive and insightful review and chronicle of reforms accomplished in recent years and the challenges ahead to modernize the Kingdom. In December SUSRIS talked with Ms. Fatany about her book about reform in the Kingdom and why she chose to open with a chapter on countering extremism:

“This is the main issue people need to learn about if they are to understand Saudi Arabia. The Saudi government has pushed for modernity since the 1960s with King Faisal. However, there were always obstacles and resistance from the fundamentalists within the society. For example, girls education was resisted very strongly as was the introducing of television and so on. King Faisal was killed because of the resistance of extremists. Then after the attack on the Grand Mosque in Mecca in 1979 we have seen how the hardliners have slowed progress in Saudi Arabia. The government had to give in to their demands even though the people who did the attack were arrested or killed. It had an influence on the direction of the country.

“When King Abdullah came to the throne eight years ago he addressed many of the restrictions that existed because of the extremists’ influence in society. Women in particular were given more freedom. They have been put in leadership positions like the 30 women members of the Shura Council. There are more job opportunities and there is a long list of improvements.

“So I felt it was very important to start the book, the first chapter, analyzing this aspect of change. It was important to the struggle to stop the influence of the extremists and their control over the society. Theirs has been a mindset that made it very difficult for the government to initiate reforms and to modernize the Kingdom.

“The population in Saudi Arabia is mostly young people. It is the influence of these people, of these religious ulema, who have influence on society. Whatever they say, given their influence and control over education and the judiciary, makes it very difficult to change the mindset and to modernize and influence change within the society.

“So there has been a confrontation between the reformers and the progressive thinkers with these hardliners who refuse to give a chance for modernity. They label anything that is a different or anything that is a modern lifestyle as un-Islamic. They are not un-Islamic. So the confrontation continues.”

Today we provide for your consideration a recent column by Samar Fatany titled “An Effective Civil Society Essential for Meaningful Reform.”

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People Samar FatanyAn Effective Civil Society Essential for Meaningful Reform
By Samar Fatany

Conflicts cannot be prevented and peace cannot be maintained if the public is not aware of the dangers that threaten our peace and stability. Indeed, it is heartening to see strict laws being put in place to protect our youth from being lured by terrorist organizations.

It is also very comforting to know that there are serious measures being taken to stop extremists from manipulating the minds of the innocent among us and incite them to steer away from the true path of Islam; one that advocates hard work, neighborliness and conscientious behavior.

Religious and cultural diversity is an asset of human society and an important driving force for social development, cultural exchange and world peace. It is important to spread awareness and respect for human rights and maintenance of peace and security among our youth.

Fortunately, many of our youth today are eager to support government initiatives, which reflect a strong political will to combat extremism and implement reforms.

Many are on YouTube and on Twitter supporting the efforts of the Saudi human rights organizations to achieve social justice and protect human rights. Saudi citizens hope to participate in the enhancement of global understanding and in the resolution of issues that give humanity great concern.

Building civil society

There are a lot of young doctors, lawyers , businessmen and women, scientists and artists who continue to work hard to achieve our national goals. The nationwide volunteer programs and the entrepreneurial activities are a step in the right direction. They provide our youth with valuable opportunities to become contributing citizens and participate in building a strong economy.

However, social reforms should also include the encouragement of NGO organizations which can help facilitate change and build civil society. It is critical during this period of unrest that has engulfed our neighboring countries to develop a more vibrant and effective civil society and promote local non-governmental organizations; ones that can serve justice and the interests of the underprivileged.

NGOs are the engines for stability, and the cushions against upheavals. They provide a sense of belonging and allow citizens to be involved and become productive members of society. Without the support of civil society and constructive NGOs, it would be difficult to build effective citizenship that is essential for a modern day society.

The role of civil society is crucial because it can offer valuable support to ensure that government responds to the needs of vulnerable and disgruntled groups. NGOs can provide research and analysis on key issues, promote creative solutions to improve quality of services, inspire ideas for decision makers to tackle tough issues, offer opportunities for the public to connect with officials, and provides a platform to share experiences from experts in the field.

They can enable officials to engage in dialogue with civil society and offer more transparency and collaborations with stakeholders in the community in order to strengthen government services to the public.

Further development for the future

Today, the average Saudi is more exposed to benefits than in other countries. Citizens are more aware of their needs and are becoming well informed of better policies that can greatly contribute to better standards of living.

Government organizations alone can no longer satisfy the needs of society. The business community must also contribute in providing jobs and creating business opportunities for small and medium enterprises and encourage entrepreneurs to invest in businesses.

So far social media campaigns have not been as effective in influencing change or shifting the hard line mentality that is in control and so resistant to change. More needs to be done to spread civic sense and responsible social behavior among the Saudi public.

It is time we amend the legal restrictions that stand in the way of creating an effective civil society to better serve the interests of the average Saudi citizen. Currently, NGOs who are striving to address social needs and interests of many segments of society, are suffering due to outdated and restrictive regulations.

They reject the influence of hardliners who continue to exercise legal control over economic and social liberties, actions which threaten the progress and stability of the nation.

The government is required to act with a greater sense of commitment to serve public interests. Policy makers are called upon to encourage and show more support for the development of an effective civil society. A strong and vibrant civil society strengthens responsible citizenship and supports government work.

This article was first published in the Saudi Gazette on Feb. 22, 2014.

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Samar FatanyAbout Samar Fatany:

Samar Fatany is a Chief Broadcaster in the English section at Jeddah Broadcasting Station. Over the past 28 years, she has introduced many news, cultural, and religious programs and has conducted several interviews with official delegations and prominent political personalities visiting the kingdom. Fatany has made significant contributions in the fields of public relations and social awareness in Saudi Arabia and has been involved in activities aiming at fighting extremism and enhancing women’s role in serving society. She has published three books: “Saudi Perceptions & Western Misconceptions,” “Saudi Women towards a new era” and “Saudi Challenges & Reforms.”

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