JEDDAH, 14 November 2005 The controversial case of Muhammad Al-Harbi, a Saudi high school teacher accused of mocking religion, came to a surprising end on Saturday. Al-Harbi was sentenced to three years in prison and 750 lashes 50 lashes per week for 15 weeks. The lashes are to be given in the public market in the town of Al-Bikeriya in Al-Qassim.Puts the debate about ID in Kansas into perspective, doesn't it?
A number of 12th Grade students, along with some teachers from the same school, filed a lawsuit a year-and-a-half ago against Al-Harbi. He was accused of mocking Islam, favoring Jews and Christians, preventing students from performing ablutions. He was also charged with studying witchcraft. At the time, he was a chemistry teacher at Al-Fowailiq High School in the town of Ein Al-Juwa in Al-Qassim.
This is a very cruel sentence, Al-Harbi told Arab News. He explained over the phone that the students who filed the lawsuit had failed the monthly chemistry test. They asked me to give them the exam again and when I refused, they went to the principal to complain but he upheld my decision, he explained.
According to Al-Harbi, the students actions were triggered by some Islamic studies teachers who used the students anger at Al-Harbi and convinced them to file the lawsuit.
The reason for the Islamic studies teachers action has its roots five years ago when Al-Harbi joined the staff of Al-Fowailiq High School after graduating from King Saud University in Riyadh. Based on his academic record and extracurricular activities, the school principal appointed Al-Harbi as school activities organizer.
Deeply disturbed by the explosions at the Al-Hamra Compound in Riyadh in 2003, Al-Harbi felt it his duty as an educator to enlighten his students and warn them of terrorism and its consequences. He went to great lengths by talking to students, hanging anti-terrorism signs around the school and speaking against terrorism.
The Ministry of Education has recently ordered all schools to lecture students on the dangers of extremism and terrorism in general, but I was a step ahead of their decision, said Al-Harbi.
Apparently Al-Harbis actions and comments against terrorism upset a number of Islamic studies teachers known for their fundamentalist beliefs. After the Al-Hamra blast in Riyadh, Al-Harbi copied an article, Cavemen Go to Hell written by Saudi columnist Hammad Al-Salmi in Al-Jazirah newspaper, attacking terrorists and extremists. Al-Harbi posted the article on the school bulletin board but it was ripped off and torn to pieces.
The teachers, as one of the students fathers admitted to Al-Harbi, used to visit students in their homes, encouraging them to disobey Al-Harbi and calling him names. One of the Islamic studies teachers stopped Al-Harbi in a morning school assembly from speaking against Abdul Aziz Al-Muqrin, identified by the Saudi government as a terrorist and who was on the governments list of wanted terrorists. The teacher told Al-Harbi that Al-Muqrin was a Muslim and that no matter what he had done, no one should speak against him.
They told the students that I studied under secular teachers and thus Im not to be trusted in any subject except for chemistry, said Al-Harbi.
Abdul Rahman Al-Lahem, Al-Harbis lawyer, told Arab News that the sentence was illegal. Any case that has to do with sacrilege must be heard in a special religious court and not in a regular one, he explained. The judge heard them individually and did not give the defendant the right to interrogate the witnesses, said Al-Lahem. He also refused to acknowledge Al-Lahem as the defendants lawyer. Al-Lahem will appeal the verdict 10 days from the date of the original sentence.
Strangely, the judge did not question anyone from the school except for the students and the teachers who filed the lawsuit. I asked the court to talk to the principal and anyone from the school, but the judge refused, said Al-Harbi.
One of the charges made against Al-Harbi was that he praised disbelievers. Al-Lahem said that this was a very broad statement without an exact meaning.
Another accusation made by the students and the teachers is that Al-Harbi mocked bearded men since many religious people are bearded. That is just ridiculous, Al-Lahem said, pointing out that Al-Harbi himself has a beard.
When Arab News called the school principal, he refused to make any comment beyond saying that he had been told by higher authorities to say nothing to the media.
The physical education teacher at the school, however, said he had known Al-Harbi as a decent, respectable, cooperative individual. One of the students came to me today and told me that they really missed their chemistry teacher, he said.
The Ministry of Education has transferred Al-Harbi from his teaching job to an administrative one at the governorate educational office in Ein Al-Juwa. When he contacted the ministry and asked why he was being moved, Al-Harbi failed to get a clear answer.
I fear that while Science teachers can be sentenced to long prison terms with torture for, amongst other things "Studying Witchcraft", at the behest of Religious instructors, we have a very large gap between Islam and the West. But a gap that shouldn't be narrowed by us becoming more like them. A gap of perhaps 450 years.
Well, at least it's "constroversial". There may be hope, at least, in the long term.