Censorship does more harm than good

Censorship does more harm than good

Last week a popular Riyadh coffee shop/library that offered tea and coffee to customers, as they browsed hundreds of titles, had its books seized by the representatives of the Saudi Ministry of Culture and Information.
Every book in the cafe was approved and purchased through book fairs in Riyadh and had the endorsement of the Information Ministry when sold at the fairs. The ministry offered no reason for the seizure.
Perhaps the ministry confiscated the books because it sold coffee and tea without a license. But if that were the case, then another government agency would have been involved. The mere fact that the Information Ministry took the books only leads to one obvious conclusion: The content of the store’s stock was suspect.
It boggles the mind that representatives of the ministry, when it comes to censoring reading material that may not be appropriate for Saudi society, apply 1986 rules in 2016. While many Saudis may believe it’s vital to censor books or literature — say on topics such as religious extremism or pornography — it must be said that virtually anything written in any language and any image are available online if you are smart enough to find them. Even for the lazy reader, there are e-books and Kindle available. It makes the cutting out of pages and crudely covering images of women with a magic marker in magazines an anachronism. It’s a silly waste of time.
This is a contradiction in Saudi society that saddens writers, poets and intellectuals. We are not a reading culture and it’s difficult to get the young generation to open a newspaper or an Arabic-language book of fiction. We have many celebrated Saudi writers, but we also have many whose works are banned in the Kingdom. We trumpet our book fairs as a sign to the rest of the world that we are enlightened and literate, but authorities sometimes shut down some sellers’ stalls.
We want to see more female writers, but often complain they write about topics — women’s stories, for example — that invite controversy and are perceived as beyond the bounds of good taste. We fancy ourselves as culturally superior to others, but don’t trust our writers and poets to express the positive and not-so-positive aspects of our culture without some sort of external control.
Now consider our neighbor, the United Arab Emirates: The UAE cabinet declared 2016 as the UAE Reading Year to produce a reading generation. It recently passed legislation to allow workers some time to read during working hours to encourage daily reading habits. It launched an educational campaign during this past Ramadan to distribute 5 million books to children in refugee camps and schools around the world.
Saudi Arabia sends tens of thousands of university students abroad each year to earn degrees in foreign countries, but the knock against Saudis, according to their professors, is they lack critical thinking skills that are often developed by simply reading. We have a public school system that does not adequately prepare students for a university-level education, which, of course, requires an extraordinary amount of reading. Saudis may know how to read but they haven’t grasped the discipline of reading. Taking time out to read each day — sitting in a chair, reading for an hour, and processing the information. What it means to understand the difference between a metaphor and a simile, or how to interpret irony. The motivations and complexities of characters in fiction or what made a man or a woman great in their chosen field in a biography.
There are some bookstores in the Kingdom, which more or less ask its customers to shop for books, perhaps browse by sitting in one of the few chairs available, and then buy the book and leave. Then there are coffee shops, which allow a more relaxing atmosphere for reading. Then you have the best of both worlds, a library-cum-coffeehouse that allows customers to explore the literary world without rushing to the cash register.
If we as a society are to create greatness and a positive environment for learning and understanding the world, it starts with books.
The days of controlling what type of books we should read are long gone. Our exposure to the rest of the world has pretty much put an end to that. So why do we keep beating this dead horse of censorship?

• Sabria S. Jawhar, is an assistant professor of Applied and Educational Linguistics at Languages & Cultural Studies Department, King Saud bin Abdulaziz University for Health Sciences, National Guard Health Affairs (NGHA).
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