Tuesday, February 14, 2006

CW Interviews: THE RELIGIOUS POLICEMAN
I remember the first time I laid my eyes on the Religious Policeman's blog. Following a link from Bahraini blogger Mahmood Al Yousif (www.Mahmood.tv) I immediately sensed a great read was upon me. I was right. At that time the RP, using the nom de plume Alhamedi , was a Saudi who was living in Riyadh. His stated motivation for starting a blog was and still is according to his website to be: "In Memory of the lives of 15 Makkah Schoolgirls, lost when their school burnt down on Monday, 11th March, 2002. The Religious Police would not allow them to leave the building, nor allow the Firemen to enter." If you need a refresher on this tragic motivating event try this link.

To no-one's surprise the Blog took off like a rocket. People from all over the world began to visit and post, trying to catch a glimpse into perhaps the most closed society on the planet sans North Korea. Then as suddenly as it started it stopped, only to reappear a year later.

The RP turned in up the UK where he had taken up residence with his wife and children. Once Mr. Alhamedi dusted off his keyboard and opened up his stagnant blogger account, making his return to the blogging world after the death of Saudi King Fahd, it didn't take long for the blog to recapture the attention it once had. Al-hamedi was back and back with a purpose. Banging out witty satire that is side splittingly funny, blunt, pointed and tragic as he continues to call attention to the shortcomings in his home country. No topic seems to be untouchable either. From cute pictures of camels and feral alley cats, making fun of Prince Naif, parody memos and interviews, the RP leaves few if any stones unturned.

Of course all has not been smooth. A mini controversy erupted a couple of months ago that called into question the real nationality of the RP. As with most half strung accusations and questions, charges and criticisms, the "controversy" didn't seem to dampen the readership. In fact traffic increased and an ever growing world wide audience keeps clamoring for a look inside of the "Magic Kingdom" called Saudi Arabia. This author believes the RP is a Saudi as I have not seen any evidence that withstands past a prima facie glance to conclusively show me otherwise. Regardless most feel the RP's blog stands on its own merit regardless of the his nationality.

CerebralWaste feels lucky that the elusive RP would take his valuable time and sit down and answer some questions. I hope you enjoy the answers. Special thanks to Amira Al Hussaini from In My Opinion for helping me shape, craft and refine some questions and to the ultra left wing liberal Desert Island Boy for tossing in his two cents... TAX FREE as well!!!.

1.When did you start blogging and what did you hope to accomplish? What have you learned?
I started blogging in the middle of 2004, but with a gap of several months later that year. What I wanted to achieve was, to use a phrase that I am fond of, "To shine a light into the dark corners", those "dark corners" being the medieval practices of Saudi Arabia's ruling elite and religious hierarchy, all subsidized by Westerners filling their gas tanks. I have learnt two things. The first is that 9/11 has sparked an enormous curiosity about the sort of society that has produced mass-murderering terrorists in industrial quantities. The second is that too many of my fellow-Saudis and fellow-Muslims are in continual denial, don't want to acknowledge that we have a real problem, and regard any criticism as some form of treason.

2.What was your initial reaction to the avalanche of comments? Were you prepared? Did you expect to continue blogging for this long?
I certainly was surprised, and wasn't prepared. I suppose I saw myself as some lone voice in the desert, venting my frustration, with my voice echoing around but then dying away unheard. I didn't expect that what I said would resonate to such an extent with others. I also thought that once I'd got everything out of my system, I would stop blogging. However that hasn't happened so far; every week seems to bring a new idiocy that I can't resist commenting on. The latest example of course is the Muslim community's spectacular "own goal", the cartoon controversy.

3.Do you keep a track of online visitors? If so, how many visitors have you had so far? Who is your target audience and how many people have you banned for various reasons?
I don't know the total since I started, but the number keeps growing and last week there were 31,255 visitors altogether. My target audience is an English-speaking one of both Arab and Saudi professionals, and people around the world whose destiny is in some way tied up with Saudi Arabia, thru its exports of oil and /or religious intolerance. I have banned a few from the Comments section because they displayed extreme bad manners in what is, in effect, my house. However none are currently banned, because I declared an unpublicized amnesty; I have an infinite but probably naive belief in peoples' ability to improve their behavior.

4.What makes Alhamedi tick and how does the Mrs.A and the little a's feel about your internet hobby?
I'm a fairly ordinary and quiet person who gets very cross about injustice, intolerance and hypocrisy. The family regard my hobby as my little quirk, but I do make sure that they get all the time they deserve, and when work gets busy, blogging time gets squeezed, not their time.

5.How long do you spend blogging daily? Which blogs do you frequent and why?
It varies between half an hour to two hours per day. Other blogs I visit most days are:
Crossroads Arabia; written by a US ex-diplomat to Saudi, his take on things is always more measured and diplomatic than mine, but I find it a useful counter-balance.Mahmood's Den; Mahmood writes from Bahrain, has a similar outlook to mine, and is a thoroughly nice guy. I know that things are not all roses over there, but they do at least have some form of democracy, and I long for the day when I too can complain about local politicians like he does.
That's about it on a daily basis, because I spend most of my time on reading the papers. Others I read less frequently, including yours of course. I'll also mention another favorite, Walking the Streets , because it's completely off-topic for me, it's an insight into another world, a man who writes with quiet and dignified humor about being the unloved nemesis of illegally-parked cars and their owners.

6.How has blogging affected your life?
It's put me in touch with many sensible and decent people,of all nationalities and creeds, whom I count as friends, virtually-speaking.

7.It must be exasperating documenting one foolish episode after the other in the Kingdom. How do you manage to maintain your sense of humor considering the personal attacks that have been leveled at you.
It is exasperating. The Saudi establishment is like some nuisance neighbours on a housing estate or project; stupidly proud of their background and reputation, oblivious to the fact that they are anti-social and a problem for everyone else.The only personal attacks that bother me are when someone comes into my Comments section and slags me off. That's a violation of my hospitality, and I am strong on hospitality. If they do it on their blog or website, then I just find it rather pathetic, because what it says is "You have really struck home with something you said, but I can't muster an argument against it, so I'll try to insult you instead".

8.As a commentator in a society which lacks tolerance, do you think you can ever come out in the open and disclose who you are?
It would need to be a very different society, and even then I don't think I'll ever come out, because there are always crazies out there.

9.How do other Saudis react to your blog, especially after the free publicity Jihad Al Khazen, unwittingly provided? Were you able to 'convert' any of them to your stream of thought?
If you want to get your message out, there's no such thing as "bad publicity"! Reaction from Saudis is always mixed. There are some who complain that I am "rocking the boat", and approaching things in the wrong way. When I ask them what they themselves are doing, they go quiet. Others are very supportive, I encourage them to start blogging themselves.

10.Do you consider yourself as a voice of sanity in a mad, mad world? If not, who are you and what is your goal?
I sometimes look at Saudi Arabia and think that I am the one who is mad, because I just don't "get it"! My objective is quite simply to keep pointing out its dangerous idiocies, in the belief that one day it will become embarrassed about them, and start to behave like any other normal 21st Century nation state. It's not as if Saudi Arabia is just a problem for its own people, like Zimbabwe and Myanmar; instead it exports its problems, in the form of terrorists and religious extremists, so it becomes a problem for everyone else.

11.What is your reaction to those who claim that The Religious Policeman's only purpose in life is to ridicule Islam and Saudi Arabia?
Saudi Arabia ridicules itself daily in the newspapers; all I do is to highlight that fact. The people who decapitate others in the name of Islam, or torch cars while shouting "God is Great", or "honor-kill" women, are the ones who denigrate Islam, not me, and not the peaceful guy who goes to the mosque on Friday just to pray, and otherwise keeps himself to himself and takes care of his family.

12.Have you ever considered blogging in Arabic?
I have, but I would only do that in order to reach a different target audience, which would need not only a different language but also a different style. It would effectively double the workload, which I can't afford to do at the moment.

13. What could Saudi Arabia do NOW to show the world it was serious about reforms?
Any one of a number of things, like allowing women to drive, opening the courts to the public, letting women vote, having fully elected local councils, allowing the one million plus Christian expatriates to have churches....

14. Do you think you will live to see a day when there will be some Religious Freedom in Saudi Arabia like your neighbor at the other end of the Pier?(Bahrain)
Yes I do. And that's an interesting comparison, because, as well as allowing churches, the Bahrainis allow non-Muslims to enter their mosques, indeed they see it as an opportunity to show them the beauty of the buildings and decorations, and hopefully win over converts. The Saudi Imams think that you win converts by keeping non-believers out of mosques.

15. As a Saudi do you think the radical elements inside the Royal Family outweigh the moderates?
It is difficult to read the situation because they are very secretive. The only clues are their occasional public actions, but they are few and far between. I think there is a sort of balance there at the moment, with the moderates trying to push things their way but meeting resistance.

16. Why do you think some have accused you of not being a "real" Saudi? Is there a more sinister motive behind the accusations?
I am always amused by the idea that a non-Saudi would want to pretend to be Saudi, after 9/11 and all that. It would be like someone pretending to be North Korean, or a necrophiliac, or infected with leprosy. If I wanted to pretend, I'd pretend to be tall, muscular, with wavy blond hair, athletic, a voice like Pavarotti. Pretending to be a Saudi would suck.However, I don't think it's sinister, it's just the typical "ad hominem" attack you get from people who can't engage with your arguments. "The RP is not a proper Muslim" is the other variation.

17. Your near perfect use of the English language (written) has been called into question by some. Can you provide some insight into where you learned English and did you find it difficult or was it something that came natural?
Thanks to my parents, I had an extensive education both in England in the USA, and always went for the language options. For much of my early life, and even at times now, I would think in English. Generally, I find languages easy. Of the European languages, I can speak French, Spanish, Russian and, if I ever meet up with an ancient Roman or Athenian, Latin and Ancient Greek; I can also manage to read newspaper articles in German, Italian and Portuguese. I am the archetype language "geek". So colloquial English is no great problem.

18. Considering how the Press is "opPRESSed" in Saudi Arabia and the Arab world in general what do you think the impact is with bloggers like yourself opening up new avenues for people to gather news and trade opinions? Is it a threat to the old guard?
Just as bloggers were a factor in the recent Canadian election, publishing the stories that others could (or would) not, so bloggers in Saudi Arabia are a potential threat to the old guard. I just wish that there were more, and that they were more radical, but I'm only too well aware of the risks they run. That is why existing Saudi blogs are generally very tame.

19.The charge has been made that the edginess of RP's satire brings negative attention to other Saudi bloggers. Will the RP ever take that into consideration in future posts?
I think each blog stands or falls on its own merits. People don't judge all U.S. blogs by "Little Green Footballs" or "Daily Kos". So I'll go on doing what I am doing, as long as I feel that I am hitting the target. If others want to adopt a different style, great, there's nothing to stop them setting up their own blog, it's free, the more the merrier.

20.Do you have a "Riyadh Rumor Mill", sort of like a "Deep Throat", an anonymous source who can't go on record but helps direct you to the real story?
There is no-one who is knowingly feeding me material, but of course I have a lot of relatives and friends back home, and we are always chatting about things, so I pick up insights and views that way. Having said that, meeting up with Prince Naif in a dark corner of a multi-storey car park would be cool. ;-) copywrite 2006 by CerebralWaste

21 Comments:

Anonymous the Colonel said...

To some degree he is preaching to the converted, and while I appreciate muckrakers, someone has to appeal to the hearts & minds of the Moslem community, addressing their destructive worldview while calling for tolerance and peace. Ultimately this is a spiritual problem, and people who won't live at peace with God will be at war with the world.

February 14, 2006 8:18 AM  
Anonymous Scott from Oregon said...

Good questions. Good answers. Jeopardy ain't got nothin' on you two....

February 14, 2006 6:32 PM  
Blogger Jauhara said...

I always check the Religious Policeman's blog. If anything, reading your blog gives me a better perspective of Saudis. If anyone tells me that Muslims have no sense of humour, I will gladly point to the Religious Policeman as proof that there is at least one who does!

February 14, 2006 9:53 PM  
Anonymous Mahmood Al-Yousif said...

Very nice interview.. Is this a new career, especially as you have copyrighted the thing?!

Can I at least have a bit of it to link on my blog do you think? I promise to buy you a shawarma on your next trip!

-- m ;)

February 14, 2006 10:08 PM  
Blogger Cerebralwaste said...

Mahmood,

You can use whatever you deem you need! mmmmm shawarma mmmmmm

February 15, 2006 3:33 AM  
Blogger SillyBahrainiGirl said...

CW is in business now ;)
Am I out of a job? hehe

Great interview !!

February 16, 2006 9:57 AM  
Blogger Cerebralwaste said...

SBG
I doubt I could ever attempt to fill your shoes. Again THANK YOU for all of your help!

February 16, 2006 10:04 AM  
Blogger Ingrid said...

I just discovered your site today and recognized the religious policeman as I had recently found his site as well. That was a great interview; intelligent questions with an eloquent person. Keep up the good writing and perhaps even interviewing because you know how to do it well! I'll put your site in my favourite section now... and ahm...know what you mean, shawarma man...having a left over shawarma for breakfast the following with coffee...whoo..don't get me started!

February 17, 2006 3:20 PM  
Blogger Cerebralwaste said...

Ingrid

Thank you for the kind words. I am glad you enjoyed the interview. I do plan on doing more interviews in the future. In fact I plan on making interviews a huge portion of this blogs content.

Shawarma wise I agree with you 100%!

February 17, 2006 3:41 PM  
Blogger Abhijit Krishna said...

This was a very nice interview. I really liked the way you asked your questions and Religious Policeman's answers were quite interesting.

I started reading a Saudi blog sometime back and from their I have hopped to vaious different Saudi and Muslim blogs. I like the spirit with which you people blog.

-Abhijit

February 18, 2006 12:02 AM  
Blogger SillyBahrainiGirl said...

You are more than welcome CW. Keep up the good work!

February 18, 2006 11:04 PM  
Blogger secretdubai said...

Wow I can't believe he speaks so many languages!

Great interview, and great subject.

February 21, 2006 5:36 AM  
Blogger Haitham Salman said...

excellent interview
quite insightful

Haitham

February 24, 2006 10:09 PM  
Anonymous Mike Crichton said...

Laysa Arab. Huwa la yatakalam al arabiya, bis yaqul "Lastu qirdik al rakis!" and shakhsun yas'aluhu. Huwa kathib kabir fi ra'i.

(He's not an arab, he doesn't speak the language, only saying "I'm not your dancing monkey" when challenged. He's a fake, IMO.)

Plus, he has a nasty habit of editing people's comments, when he doesn't just delete them so he can have the last word.

May 15, 2006 6:49 PM  
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