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Mona Eltahawy: Preserving Rights In a Terrorized World

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  • Josh Pollack
    washingtonpost.com Preserving Rights In a Terrorized World By Mona Eltahawy Sunday, June 1, 2003; Page B07
    Message 1 of 1 , Jun 1, 2003
      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?"

      "Yeah, definitely."

      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
      of "us."

      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
      against Iraq.

      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.
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