Scuffles in Janadriyah

High on what they seem to think is a victory in the Hamza Kashgari affair, religious conservatives opened another front by sending some of their young followers to protest against music, dancing and the mixing of men and women in the National Heritage and Culture Festival aka Janadriyah.

It all began when Sheikh Saleh al-Lihedan, former head of the judiciary, said that women should not visit Janadriyah. “My advice to anyone is to dignify their women, their wife, their mother, or anyone under his guardianship by not allowing them to go” to such events, he said.

Few days later, dozens of these religious conservatives, usually called “Mohtasbeen” headed to Janadriyah, where they clashed with security forces there. Few of them have been briefly detained. The incident was repeated the next day, and few other people were arrested as well.

Now some might think that those mohtasbeen are part of the Commission of Promotion of Virtue and Prevention of Vice (CPVPV) aka Muttaween or the Religious Police, but that’s not the case. This group, most of them young men in their late teens and early twenties, act as some sort of unofficial muttawaeen who find things like music, dancing and gender mixing objectionable and believe they have the right to attempt to prevent things like this:

I thought the story ended after the two scuffles on Wednesday and Thursday, but I was wrong. Yesterday, members of the official CPVPV squad in Janadriyah wrote a letter to their boss announcing they would go on strike until their demands are addressed. What are their demands?

  • Increase number of CPVPV squad in Janadriyah to 300 members.
  • Stop playing music on loudspeakers.
  • Provide a 100 female security guards squad to support them.
  • Stop intervention in how to do their job by anyone, including security forces and the national guard.

Ballsy move there, no doubt. It is not everyday that government employees in Saudi Arabia threaten to go on strike. At the end of the letter, they said they were doing this because without addressing their demands they would no longer be able to do their job in a manner that is satisfactory to God first, and to their superiors second. See, these guys are not doing this for the money. They do it because they seek reward from God.

After meetings between CPVPV officials and organizers of Janadriyah, it was decided that starting today and until the end of the festival music will be stopped and the number of CPVPV squad in Janadriyah will be increased to 100. Another small victory for the conservatives.

However, this was not enough for them. Today, a group of 50 clerics led by Abdul-Rahman al-Barrak and Nasser al-Omar released a statement calling on the government to cancel Janadriyah and the upcoming book fair because they “include many violations of Sharia.”

What does it all mean?

I’m not quite sure, but it seems that the tide of the conservative wave that I wrote about last month keeps on rising, and that there are groups and individuals who want to take advantage of this be sweeping everyone and everything in their way.

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Today’s Links

  • AP says that security forces has confiscated books of Abdullah al-Hamed, a well-known reformer, from stalls at Riyadh Book Fair. MOCI, unsurprisingly, denied that they know anything about it.
  • Speaking of security and censorship, rumor has it that starting this Tuesday BBM service will be disabled in Saudi Arabia. CITC has asked RIM to let them monitor the network but it seems unlikely that the Canadian company would allow it.

Today’s Links

  • Riyadh Book Fair was opened yesterday. I’m not planning to go this year, but today I got one more reason not to go: Prince Naif issued a decision banning men and women from mixing at the book fair, as well as banning books deemed incompatible with religion and values. The news was carried by Lojainiat, a conservative website.

Riyadh Book Fair ’09

While I sincerely hope that the Ministry of Culture and Information would drop the word ‘International’ from the name of what has become the most important cultural event in the Saudi calendar, I’m glad that the Riyadh Book Fair is back again. Seeing the crowds celebrate books and reading is heartwarming, regardless of whatever gripes I might have about the organizers and their approach. The book fair is taking place for the first time at the new Riyadh International Exhibition Center on King Abdullah Road, which is much nicer and much bigger than the old exhibition center in Morouj.

If you plan to come, you may want to stop by at our table in booth SA-60 where my friends and I are volunteering to sell the books of fellow blogger Hadeel al-Hodaif who passed away last year. The proceeds will go to charity. We are also taking the chance to promote the Hadeel Prize, which will be launched later this year.

I think the book fair this year is better than the previous ones, except, of course, for the usual kerfuffles by the religious police. After making a scene with Abdou Khal, Abdullah Thabit and Halima Mozaffar on Thursday, they made another scene last night when they decided that saleswomen are not allowed to be there on men’s days. All saleswomen were kicked out. I really don’t see the point of having the religious police in the book fair, but it is obviously part of the compromise deal the Ministry of Culture and Information had to make with the conservatives in order for the book fair to go on.

The Riyadh Book Fair is open until Friday, March 13, from 10 AM to 10 PM. Some days or part of them are open to men only, so make sure to check this page before you drive there. Oh, I forgot that women are not allowed to drive. Never mind. Just go, have fun and enjoy the books. And if you have any recommendations, please do share them in the comments. See you there.