The letter "X" soon may be banned in Saudi Arabia because it resembles the mother of all banned religious symbols in the oil kingdom: the cross.
The new development came with the issuing of another mind-bending fatwa, or religious edict, by the infamous Commission for the Promotion of Virtue and Prevention of Vice — the group of senior Islamic clergy that reigns supreme on all legal, civil, and governance matters in the kingdom of Saudi Arabia.
The commission's damning of the letter "X" came in response to a Ministry of Trade query about whether it should grant trademark protection to a Saudi businessman for a new service carrying the English name "Explorer."
"No! Nein! Nyet!" was the commission's categorical answer.
Well, never mind that none of the so-called scholars manning the upper ranks of the religious outfit can speak or read a word of English. But their experts who examined the English word "explorer" were struck by how suspicious that "X" appeared. In a kingdom where Friday preachers routinely refer to Christians as pigs and infidel crusaders, even a twisted cross ranks as an abomination.
So after waiting a year, the Saudi businessman, Amru Mohammad Faisal, got his answer: No. But, like so many other Saudi businessmen who suffer from the travesties of the commission, he seemed more baffled than angry. He wrote letters to Saudi newspapers to criticize the cockamamie logic. An article he wrote appeared with his photograph on some Arabian Web sites. It sarcastically invited the commission to expand its edict to the "plus" sign in mathematics and accounting, in order "to prevent filthy Christian conspiracies from infiltrating our thoughts, our beliefs, and our feelings."
This would have been funny had it not been so sinister.
The Saudi commission has shaped life and death: declared jihad against Soviet soldiers in Afghanistan, banished women from public life, and forced piety at the tip of the whip and the sword. Its edicts have hindered business, education, travel, women's rights, and life itself, creating a fertile ground for terrorism and producing the 15 Saudis who participated in the September 11, 2001, attacks — and many others like them.
Among the commission's deeds is the famed 1974 fatwa — issued by its blind leader at the time, Sheik Abdul Aziz Ben Baz — which declared that the Earth was flat and immobile. In a book issued by the Islamic University of Medina, the sheik argued: "If the earth is rotating, as they claim, the countries, the mountains, the trees, the rivers, and the oceans will have no bottom." Another bright light of the commission, Sheik Abdel-Aziz al-Sheikh, recently stopped a government reform proposal aimed at creating work for women by allowing them to replace male sales clerks in women's clothing stores. Sheik al-Sheikh damned the idea, saying it was a step "towards immorality and hellfire." The underlying logic is breathtaking: Women are more protected by buying their knickers from men! Over the years, the commission has rendered Saudi Arabia a true kingdom of darkness. Movie theaters are banned, as are sculptures, paintings, and music, and the mixing of sexes in public.
The commission really has it in for women. They must don the all-enveloping veil, or niqab, in public; they cannot drive themselves nor ride anywhere without a male guardian, and they cannot travel alone domestically or abroad.
The commission also excels at banning the construction of houses of worship — other than mosques — even though the majority of the 8 million expatriates working in the kingdom come from Christian, Hindu, and Buddhist faiths. Indeed, celebrating a private Sunday Mass inside a home could lead to jail, public lashings, and expulsion.
One of the most criminal travesties committed by the commission's foot soldiers, the Mutawaeen, or religious police, was dramatically reported by the muzzled Saudi press itself on Friday, March 15, 2002, when the Mutawaeen forcibly prevented girls fleeing a burning school from leaving the building because they were "improperly dressed."
The day after, the Saudi Gazette newspaper quoted witnesses as saying the police stopped men who tried to help the girls, warning the men: "It is sinful to approach them."
Of the 800 teenage pupils in Mecca, 15 burned to death and more than 50 were injured. Yet, the commission and its royal enablers thrive.
Correction from January 19, 2007:
2003 was the year the Saudi Arabian Commission for the Promotion of Virtue and Prevention of Vice issued an edict banning the letter "X." The timing of the edict was misrepresented in a column on page 1 of the January 15 Sun.