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Change marks Saudi Arabia's National Day

  • Story Highlights
  • King Abdullah: "Sons of Islam are the ones desecrating this pure religion"
  • Al-Watan columnist al-Shihi: Saudi Arabia's tribal mentality stifles diversity
  • TV personality-activist Nassr recounts rape victim's story, edict against Mickey Mouse
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From Octavia Nasr
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(CNN) -- Saudi Arabia's National Day -- traditionally a day for reflections on self, religion and faith -- was marked Tuesday by an unexplained change in the traditionally conservative Saudi kingdom.

Perhaps it was the kingdom's increasing access to the Internet, King Abdullah's efforts to reform and moderate his kingdom, general fatigue with the bad name imposed on Saudis by terrorists and other radicals who claim to represent them, or any combination of reasons.

"Unfortunately, the image of Islam is being tarnished by none other than Muslims themselves," the monarch declared. He spoke clearly and repeated the word "unfortunately" several times. "If we want to be honest with ourselves, we have to accept this reality that the sons of Islam are the ones desecrating this pure religion," he said, adding, "Islam disowns them and disowns anyone who tries to give it a bad name."

His remarks were carried on Saudi TV channels as well as the Saudi-owned satellite channels, which can be viewed across the Middle East and as far away as Europe, the Americas and Asia.

In an editorial in the pro-government newspaper Al-Watan, columnist Saleh Muhammad al-Shihi expressed disappointment with what he calls his nation's limiting tribal mentality that stifles his longing for diversity.

"No one can leave the boundaries of the tribe whose name he carries," he wrote. "This tribe represents to you an existential value, but one that denies you the right to being different. It wants you to be a carbon copy of your seventh ancestor even down to your mustache... Many tribal rules are similar to the state laws. But state laws can be at least amended to serve the interests of the people, while no one dares amend tribal authority and rules."

Al-Shihi added, "What is even more painful is that many of these tribal rules are on a par with many religious fatwas or edicts with the exception that tribal fatwas and rules don't die out even if half the tribe dies because of them I have come to experience and appreciate diversity. If I was not different, if you weren't different, if she wasn't different, we wouldn't be able to coexist in peace and happiness. We differ about the path as each of us has his own preferred path, yet we all agree on the destination."

This year, al-Shihi said, "We have come too late to realize the fact that we are the victims of the mentality that ruled us. We realized that reserving rights to one half and not the other is the same stick that was waved over our heads when we were young.

"Faced with that menacing stick, there were no compromises: either accept the whole or reject it completely! Tribesmen: on the 23rd of September, 2008, it is a disaster for a person to force his son to become a carbon image of himself and to carry the same burden of the tribe and its traditions. Teach them and teach yourselves how to be different without clashing with one another."

TV personality and women's rights activist Buthaina Nassr observed National Day with a note on her Facebook page. She reminded people of events this year that she, as a Saudi, is not proud of.

She cited the story of a rape victim whose sentence -- six months in jail and 200 lashes -- was doubled when she appealed what she thought was an already unfair sentence and her seven rapists walked free.

She recalled the continuing imprisonment of journalists and bloggers just because they had expressed an opinion.

She raged over the killing of a citizen at the hands of Saudi religious police; the killers walked free as they are considered above the law.

Nassr also cited a recent edict calling for the death of Mickey Mouse and media executives for their showing of racy soap operas. "After such absurd edicts, nothing should surprise us anymore," she said.

Nassr expressed her love for her country and loyalty to its rulers along with the "god-given right to disagree" with them.

In her conclusion, she promised "to remain honest and true" to herself, to her pen and to her readers and viewers.

It is not every day that Saudis can read a strong opinion from a veiled Saudi woman who is this vocal about defending her right to speak and live the life she chooses.

Her note drew few criticisms but many postings of support and admiration.

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