Thursday, March 14, 2013

The ROHM Incident

This was not published in the newspaper. A personal blog post:

Why yes, I'm referring to the Royal Opera House Muscat fiasco that erupted last week in Oman. Unless you've been living under a rock (or in Salalah!), you're well aware of the fact that a couple of weeks ago during an American jazz performance one of the Muslim band members recited verses from the Holy Qur'an. The ROHM sensibly issued an official apology the next day assuring the public that the person involved in the recital did so only out of love for his religion and had no intention of mocking Islam.

Within hours, details of the incident began circulating online. The matter was even escalated to Oman's Grand Mufti, the highest religious authority in the country for his opinion. Horror turned to outrage very quickly and soon enough busloads of the devout from various parts of Oman arrived at the ROHM to peacefully protest while clutching copies of the Qur'an. On the second evening of protests this past Friday the riot police were sent in to cordon off the area and disperse the crowd.

After the protesters refused to leave, arguments with security forces soon escalated to violence. The photos that have been circulating online this week show pious Omanis with blood trickling down their faces clutching their Qur'ans. Other photos show them being loaded into buses on their way to an undisclosed detention centre. Not a pretty sight.

If you are new to the Muslim world, you're probably baffled and wondering why this was an issue in the first place. You might even be thinking the whole incident is ridiculous.

Let me enlighten you. Many parts of Oman are still very conservative and we take our religion seriously. Reciting verses from the Quran during a musical performance is an offence to many who feel it violates the sanctity of our holy book. Because all residents in Oman fully respect this, such incidents are extremely rare. Therefore, when an incident does occur we are unable to deal with it. It is outside our comfort zone. To be honest, even I would have felt extremely uncomfortable had I been in the audience at the time.

As a Muslim woman born and raised in a conservative family, I fully understand why so many Omanis were furious and felt the need to go out and protest. On the other hand, there are many of us who can also see that the Muslim band member had no intention of offending anyone. In fact, he probably thought we would be delighted. As far as I'm concerned, the whole issue is a complete misunderstanding that should have been forgotten the next day. I am a great fan of the Royal Opera House and don't see for the life of me why they were being blamed for the incident, or why blame is needed at all!

However, a couple of other things have been bothering me. As many of you know, Oman restricts freedom of assembly both in law and in practice. Any public gathering of ten or more people requires government approval. As ridiculous as this law may seem, authorities have taken it very seriously after the Arab Spring protests, hence the dozens of Omanis serving jail time right now for 'illegal gathering'. (PS: this law exists in many countries)

Laws aside, Oman is a Muslim country. From a human rights and religious perspective, those protesters had every right to speak out. They may have broken a controversial law, but they were only expressing what they felt was their love for Islam and did not constitute a threat to this country's security. The photographs of the clashes with the riot police were extremely disturbing and do nothing for Oman's image in the international human rights arena.

There is one other issue that I find a little worrying. Delicately put, Omanis in general don't seem to be getting worked up about the right things. They could have been out on the streets protesting against drugs, rape, female genital mutilation, or even the horrifying reports of sexual and physical abuse of medical interns at local hospitals that were brought to light last week. Are we turning a blind eye to serious issues taking place in our country that are more deserving of our attention and action?

I know it's horrifying to some for a woman to be expressing her opinion so bluntly on such a sensitive issue. Nevertheless, it is only expected for opinions to vary and I am entitled to my opinion. On a final note, I think last week's incident is yet another healthy lesson for Oman that open dialogue and free speech are needed in order to bring issues out into the open and work our way towards a better future. Your thoughts?


  1. I absolutely 100% agree. Although I DO think the religious protesters would be better directed to offer nasiha to the band member than protest but hey.

    We have alot of issues worth classhes with police over more than misunderstandings. The news about medical interns (while not surprising in the context of the study) and FGM are alot more serrious and no one cares that much do they?

  2. Dear Susan,

    as sad as it seems but I think all the other issues are not being taken to the streets because people don't feel affected. They either don't see those problems as theirs or worse blame the victims of it.
    Drugs: They are haram, if people take them - their problem.
    Rape: surely the female or male victims have invited the intrusion through their inappropriate behavior. Also their families shouldn't have let them go out/work in mixed gender settings/wear sensual clothes or make up etc. in the first place
    harassment and abuse of medical interns: same as the above.
    FGM: well, it's still sunnah. and if really it helps keeping girls and women chaste... in the end men are circumcised as well.
    I'm pretty sure that a majority of people will argue something along those lines and further argue that with better religious education and more parental control, stricter sex segregation etc. (fewer women in public) most of these problems could be solved.
    But the Opera house has been a thorn in many religious people's flesh since a long time so an incident like the Quran recitation was the right opportunity for them to protest against the whole undertaking without criticizing the Sultan for bringing classical music to Oman in the first place (and spending a considerable amount of money on a thing which many people judge haram instead of pumping it into more welfare projects.)
    My personal humble opinion. Don't take offense please.

    1. It's misogynistic, highly offensive, contradictory, and a backward (and wrong) view of women in Islam that doesn't comply with Omani values.

    2. FGM is NOT sunnah!!! who told you that?? It's haram

    3. you have to be careful with your use of the word "haram". Only a few very specifically named things are haram. al-khitan is not one of them. I'm not endorsing the practice, I'm saying we should keep our terms straight.

      As for the Sunna, this is from Sahih Muslim:

      [ ش ( الفطرة ) قال أبو سليمان الخطابي ذهب أكثر العلماء إلى أنها السنة قالوا ومعناه أنها من سنن الأنبياء صلوات الله وسلامه عليهم وقيل هي الدين ( الختان ) هو في الذكر قطع جميع الجلدة التي تغطي الحشفة حتى تنكشف جميع الحشفة وفي الأنثى قطع أدنى جزء من الجلدة التي في أعلى الفرج ( والاستحداد ) هو حلق العانة سمي استحدادا لاستعمال الحديدة وهي الموسى والمراد بالعانة الشعر الذي فوق ذكر الرجل وحواليه وكذلك الشعر الذي حوالي فرج المرأة ( وتقليم الأظفار ) هو تفعيل من القلم وهو القطع ]

    4. Sorry, my last contribution included a comment on the Sunna, not a saying from the Sunna itself. For the sake of clarity, here is something from al-Bukhari:

      حَدَّثَنَا يَحْيَى بْنُ قَزَعَةَ حَدَّثَنَا إِبْرَاهِيمُ بْنُ سَعْدٍ عَنْ ابْنِ شِهَابٍ عَنْ سَعِيدِ بْنِ الْمُسَيَّبِ عَنْ أَبِي هُرَيْرَةَ رَضِيَ اللَّهُ عَنْهُ عَنْ النَّبِيِّ صَلَّى اللَّهُ عَلَيْهِ وَسَلَّمَ قَالَ الْفِطْرَةُ خَمْسٌ الْخِتَانُ وَالِاسْتِحْدَادُ وَنَتْفُ الْإِبْطِ وَقَصُّ الشَّارِبِ وَتَقْلِيمُ الْأَظْفَارِ

      We can interpret the word as we wish, and it should be clear from the comment that I posted earlier that some have interpreted it to include girls.

      Here is a very vague tradition from Abu Daoud:

      أن امرأة كانت تختن بالمدينة فقال لها النبي صلى الله عليه و سلم " لا تنهكي ( أي لا تبالغي في الخفض يعني ختان النساء . هامش د ) فإن ذلك أحظى للمرأة وأحب إلى البعل "

      This is pretty vague, and there are of course all sorts of arguments about what he meant; but a common opinion from what I have heard, mostly from women physicians in Egypt speaking on the subject and on that particular saying of the Prophet, is that what he meant was "Don't cut too much." That is, he didn't say "Don't cut at all."

      I must reiterate that I am not in any way endorsing the practice. But if we are to make progress on the issue, emotional responses will get us nowhere. Others will defend the practice just as emotionally, and then we will have gotten precisely nowhere. We need to face the issue as it is.

      In another comment on this blog, I have brought up the subject of MGM, which I think is equally barbarous. To borrow from another commenter, the young boys who are subjected to such violence are not in a position to agree or disagree with it, either.

      From an emotional point of view, I rather think that there are aesthetic reasons for endorsing the practice of MGM, but that is because where I was raised, only boys of the uneducated lower classes were, as we say, "uncut". And I used to think that they looked barbarous (when I would see them changing clothes in gym class, for example - where else would I see such things? All of my brothers were cut.) But that has nothing to do with the merits of the case, neither for nor against the cutting of boys or for the cutting of girls. QED.

  3. yep.... it makes me remember Spain, in certain way... we are on a huge crisis, dealing with the worst recession since post-civil war in 1939, maybe... but what made the country unite and get to street to manifest and express out massively?... Footbal WC 2010 and EuroCup 2012... I was one of them. Of course it was justified, as it was maybe the only thing that kept spanish pride alive during these troubled times, BUT certainly there's many things to work together and move our national and emotional ...will... than our football team's success. Same happens for arabs, or I must say muslims, in my opinion, and for most westerns... muslims just move and show up when someone seems to "agreed" islam, according to their view. Many times the simple denial of the muslim belief (as it would be common for everyone who believes in smthg else) is considered an insult, and provokes clashes, protests and eventually deaths. But then u got inculture, poverty, sexual harassment, injustice, political corruption, ethnic clash, lack of human rights... and ao many issues to deal with... and that makes muslims do NOTHING, to our eyes. Maybe it's just media who makes it happen that way..... but you will agree that it's quite paradigmatic of how societies can be so weak when they don't stop and thik... it prooves them to be open to be puppeted by those who know how to do it right. I'll reblog this, ok? ... shokran!

  4. I hate to nitpick but one of the problems here in Oman, apart from lack of information, is mis-information. Firstly, the band member did not 'recite'. He did not really sing either - rather 'intoned'. Secondly, the police were sent in on the Thursday as well as the Friday. On the Thursday the mutawas were peacefully protesting outside, the police had fully cordoned off the Opera Hpuse and the unrelated performance inside was completely disrupted. I guess a lot of us who you are trying to enlighten are baffled by why music is considered to be so offensive in the first place. Is this a psrticularly Omani interpretation of Islam? And why was the poor guy's gesture not interpreted in the spirit he so obviously intended? While being unable to sympathise much with such self-important touchiness, it is equally hard to sympathise with those gentle protestors being dealt with so unceremoniously. Taking into account all the other issues you raise, not to mention the recent abductions of Indian children in Muscat, Oman is starting to sound like a pretty worrying place to be. Thank you at least for trying to make some sense of it all. Very discouraging, all round.

  5. @Yehudai30

    Yep, stopping and THiNKING is the way to go. And many who have thought about it think the whole things was a set up from the getgo. It was a very weird thing for a musician to suddenly do, right off his own bat, right?!!!

  6. Just because people might not have feel 'comfortable' with something - including many baffled non-Muslims in the audience - is no justification for such over-reaction. People should really just get over themselves and, as you say, look at some of the deliberately inflicted evil around

  7. felicity fairweatherMarch 21, 2013 at 9:42 PM

    From your account, it appears that the musician 'who offended islam' did not intend to do so -- it could well have been just an unfortunate mistake.
    Seems to me that (as in ALL places and cultures) Oman has its share of 'nut cases' (though I think relatively few). These folks seem quite able to incite others to join them in manufacturing mountains out of mole hills.
    One can only hope that all this kerfluffle will die down and soon be forgotten. I don't know what management of the Royal Opera House Oman can do to prevent future 'unscheduled interruptions' in the official program, but perhaps they need to 'lecture' all future performers that everyone needs to stick to the script while at the Opera House.
    Mean time, thank you for your blog, Susan. Always so informative.
    In peace. yr fan. Felicity

  8. I think you muslims should relax a bit. I don't think that God's worlds are so delicate to be so easily affected by mis-handling. If God is not just men's projection, he can take care by himself of those who offend him, without the help of noisy protesters.

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