Mona Eltahawy: Preserving Rights In a Terrorized World
Preserving Rights In a Terrorized World
By Mona Eltahawy
Sunday, June 1, 2003; Page B07
"So what did you do this weekend?" I was instant-messaging my 16-year-old
sister in Jiddah, Saudi Arabia.
"We went out shopping and I was freaked out by the number of police cars
everywhere," she replied. "There are four police vans in front of our
I knew that the three suicide bombings on May 12 in the Saudi capital of
Riyadh had targeted residential compounds. I used to live in one such
housing complex in Jiddah many years ago. I'd hoped that Jiddah, a Red Sea
port city on the Saudi west coast, was immune from the violence that
shattered Riyadh's calm facade.
"The police cars everywhere would make anyone nervous. If it weren't for
them, I wouldn't know what the hell was going on," my sister typed. "And
there's talk that the Jamjoom mall area is a likely target, and that's like
THE hangout for everyone in my school and their families."
It did not feel good to hear her talking about "likely targets."
When she apologized for worrying me by reporting this very visible security
in what is still, in my memory, sleepy Jiddah, I told her about the Union
Square subway station in New York, where I now live.
"There are two national guardsmen on every corner," I told her. "It's
supposed to make you feel safer but it just reminds you of what might
happen, God forbid. Do you know what I mean?"
There is little comfort in knowing that we share the same worries halfway
across the world. And how odd that cities in countries with so little in
common now share the same fears. But that's terrorism -- the ultimate
There is no comfort in the knowledge that it took the bloody attacks of
Sept. 11, 2001, and May 12, 2003, to shatter the barriers between "us" and
"them." The devastation that visited New York, the Pentagon and Pennsylvania
on 9/11 far outweighs the scale of the Riyadh attacks, of course. But just
as many critics of America were quick to announce "Welcome to the rest of
the world" after America's jolting introduction to vulnerability, so too is
Saudi Arabia fielding shouts and cries of "blowback" and "the chickens come
home to roost" for its famous denials of homegrown extremism.
The challenge for the United States and Saudi Arabia lies in recognizing
that just as terrorism has leveled the playing field of security -- we're
all potential victims now -- they need to do some leveling of their own by
showing as much concern for the rights of "them" as they do for the rights
First, the U.S. administration -- which somehow managed to convince half of
this country that Iraq was implicated in the 9/11 attacks and was therefore
a legitimate target -- must not use the Riyadh attacks to line up a similar
war on Iran. The Saudis should nip any such scenario in the bud.
It is time, too, to dismantle the Guantanamo Bay camp and either try the
boys and men held there or send them home. The administration's defense of
the camp's existence rings ever more hollow when juxtaposed with its
protests over the treatment of American prisoners of war during the war
A similar hollowness would undermine current Saudi Arabian soul-searching
unless the country stops clerics, particularly in Islam's holiest site in
Mecca, from urging God to curse Christians, Jews, Hindus and anyone else
Muslims are supposed to be angry at that week.
Evangelical Christian leaders for whom Muslims are nothing but fodder for
conversion must stop their own hateful sermons in which they routinely
describe Islam as "evil."
If this is not the time to acknowledge the universality of human rights,
when is? No more talk of Muslims vs. infidels, U.S. citizens vs. aliens,
defendants vs. enemy combatants. Only by reciprocating each other's rights
can we place terrorists outside the circle of humanity that is our only
protection against their senseless bloodlust.
Recognizing each other's humanity at such divisive times does not come
without a price. Just as those who criticize their government's policies
here in the United States and who seek to protect civil liberties are
accused of being unpatriotic, so too are those of us Arabs and Muslims who
have opposed suicide bombings made to feel lacking in both these
identifiers -- ethnic and religious.
In 1998 I was a correspondent with Reuters news agency in Jerusalem. There
was a suicide bombing at an open-air market that was 10 minutes from where I
lived, but it was a quiet year compared with recent months and their recent
rash of bombings there.
"Do you remember when I'd call you from Jerusalem to tell you that I was
fine whenever something happened?" I asked my mother when I called her on
May 13 to make sure other relations in Riyadh were all right. "I can't
believe I'm calling to make sure everything in Saudi Arabia's all right."
It is a sad testament to how much we have developed in common that
Jerusalem, Jiddah and New York are mired in the same fears.
Mona Eltahawy is an Egyptian-born writer who lives in New York.