The Good news, the bad news, and the ugly news

  • The good news is: Samar is free. Social media and new activism FTW! Now that she has been released, we should keep up the momentum and direct our energy to another person who has been imprisoned for the past four months: Mukhlif bin Daham Al-Shammary, a human rights activist in the EP.
  • Also good news: a tip by Saudi intelligence officials helped Americans discover a terrorist plot to send explosives from Yemen to the United States by courier.
  • The bad news is: Sand Gets in My Eyes, one of my favourite blogs by expats living in Saudi Arabia, has been blocked last week. I’m not sure exactly how the censors think, but I don’t see why would they do such thing. Not that they are particularly smart and/or selective about what they choose to block. You can help by filling the unblock form here.
  • Since no knot is being tied, I will consider this bad news, too: Asmaa has a nice post on the dilemma of young Saudis who want to get married. Well, she specifically talks about her cousin, but I think many of us can relate to what is happening with him. Probably most of you already know how I feel about the way people get married back home.
  • Finally, here is the ugly news: the Saudi religious establishment issued a fatwa today saying it is not permissible for women to work as cashiers in supermarkets. Apparently, female cashiers are haram.
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Kill Me Now

For someone who would probably enjoy the lifestyle of a caveman, Shaikh Abdul-Rahman al-Barrak has an impressive ability to occasionally make news headlines with his ridiculous, albeit dangerous, fatwas. His latest fatwa called for opponents of the kingdom’s strict segregation of men and women to be put to death if they refuse to abandon their ideas.

Some people think the best way to deal with this fatwa is to simply ignore it, because the more media attention it gets the more weight it will carry. I disagree. It might be true that al-Barrak is an old man who is still living in the past, but failing to address his fatwa might lead to serious consequences. This guy has a loyal following who admire him and regard his opinions highly.

What if one of his enthusiastic fans decided to act upon this fatwa and killed somebody? What if someone from those who spoke in favor of mixing like justice minister Shaikh Mohammed al-Eisa, Shaikh Ahmed al-Ghamdi, or Shaikh Ahmed Bin Baz got killed over this?

That is unlikely to happen, but it remains a possibility nevertheless. As Ebtihal Mubarak tweeted earlier today, “there is a huge number of unemployed men who are agitated, and it’s easy to rally them using the argument that the government is focusing on women and mixing of genders while ignoring them.”

I think all those concerned should speak out against this fatwa and denounce al-Barrak. The official religious establishment, namely the Council of Senior Ulema, should take a stand and make a statement here. But based on their recent history with the mixing at KAUST drama, I’m pretty sure they won’t say a single word about this.

I hate to repeat myself, but here is what I said two years ago when al-Barrak released another one of his insane fatwas:

I can imagine that neither the government nor the official religious establishment would speak out on this issue, but if they fail to address this properly then they should stop whining about extremism and how terrorists are simply a “misguided group.” It is this kind of dangerous messages that feed extremism and donate fuel to terrorists to continue their lethal destructive acts. Keeping silent and later blaming “external influences” for what happens here will be a hard sell…

So Much for Free Thinking

During the few days after the inauguration of KAUST, some Saudis complained that the coverage of the event in the international media focused too much on the fact that it is the first time for a university in Saudi Arabia to have coed classes. Those have argued that KAUST has much more to offer to the country than mixing of the sexes, which could be true, but whether we like it or not, the issue of mixing was at the heart of the debate that accompanied the official launch of KAUST, and the opinions seemed divided between those who have a problem with it and those who don’t.

People at both ends of the sociopolitical spectrum have expressed their views on the issue in the media and on the web, but one influential voice was notably absent from the discussion. The absent voice I’m talking about here is that of the official religious establishment, especially the Council of Senior Ulema which holds the highest religious authority in the country and includes the most prominent clerics in its membership. Although notable, this absence was unsurprising at all. It has always been a common practice of the official religious establishment to keep silent when it finds itself in a confrontation with the political will of the ruling family. Some call it pragmatism, some call it hypocrisy. Your call.

shethri_2So it was business as usual, until Shiekh Sa’ad al-Shethri has spoken, and suddenly all hell broke loose. Al-Shethri, who is one of the youngest members of the Council, criticized mixing at KAUST during a fatwa show on al-Majd TV saying “mixing is a great sin and a great evil.” He also wanted a religious committee to look into the studies being conducted at the university and their compatibility with Shariah Law. Again, no surprise here: everybody knows exactly how conservatives feel about the relative freedom in the new campus, like how men and women can intermingle freely and the fact that women are not forced to wear abayas or cover their hair.

The real surprise, at least to me, came in how al-Shethri’s comments were received. The large number of articles written in response to the comments and the aggressive tone of these articles were nothing short of staggering. It started with a strongly-worded editorial by Jamal Khashoggi in al-Watan daily, who said al-Shethri would not be where he is if it was not for the support of King Abdullah, and therefor he should not speak publicly against the King’s university. Two dozens of articles in the local media followed Khashoggi’s steps and echoed pretty much the same idea, all attacking al-Shethri and telling him to keep his mouth shut.

This verbal assault was interesting to watch, but also sad. The so-called liberals proved they are no better than their opponents when it comes to taking cheap shots to gain political capital. The fact that both parties use the card of official support against each other is pathetic. Liberals claim the King is on their side and that their opponents are standing in the way of reform and development. Conservatives make the same claim regarding the King and accuse their opponents of being a novelty who try to destroy the very basis on which this country was founded. No constructive debate whatsoever, just a shouting match where everyone is a loser.

I believe there are at least two conclusions to make from this hoopla. First, free thinking does not yet exist here, especially not amongst the conservatives and not even amongst the so-called liberals. Second, opposing the royal will is still a red line that shall not be crossed by those who wish to continue climbing the ladder of influence. Al-Shethri was sacked from his position in the Council of Senior Ulema last night by a royal decree.

Unhappy Birthday

As someone born and raised in Saudi Arabia, I am quite familiar with the kind and amount of hostility Wahhabi teachings hold against the display of joy in most aspects of daily life because they view such display in contradiction with the piety and solemnity that is required in a Muslim. This can be explained by their obsession over superficialities and their disregard of all things mortal. The hostility is clearly seen in their attitude towards celebrating occasions such as birthdays, anniversaries, etc.

So when I heard Sheikh Salman al-Awdah speaking on his TV show last week on the permissibility of such celebrations I was sure that he would get a lot a of heat for that statement. Al-Awdah, a former poster boy of Sahwa, has been increasingly distancing himself from the official religious establishment of the country, promoting more tolerant fatwas and opinions that obviously deviates from orthodox Wahhabism. His new approach gained him some popularity with the public, but not much from the old guard who seemed to ignore him.

This time, however, they think that he has gone too far. The matter of birthdays and anniversaries, silly and insignificant as it may sound, was just too much for them that the Grand Mufti himself came out saying “such a call is against righteousness.” Other scholars such as Sheikh Abdullah Al-Manie said al-Awdah made a mistake and urged him to retract what he had said.

The Wahhabis’ rationale (if you can call it that) for their contempt of celebrating birthdays and anniversaries is because they consider it to be in imitation of non-Muslim practices, but they don’t go out of their way to explain what is exactly so un-Islamic about it. The lame excuse of imitating others is xenophobic, but that is of course not surprising because xenophobia is very characteristic of Wahhabism.

Although the official religious establishment here is disturbingly zealous when it come to such trivial matters, they don’t mind twisting and zigzagging for political gain. For instance, until recently, marking the national day which falls on the 23rd of this month, was a big no-no. Then, and for reasons that I leave to your imagination, they said it is ok to dignify the day provided you won’t call it “Eid.” It seems to me like a mere technicality, but what do I know?

How to Feed Extremism?

barrakAbdul-Rahman al-Barrak is a cleric who can be described as “extreme” but that I guess would be a nice way to put it. Earlier this week he released a fatwa against two columnists in Al Riyadh newspaper saying they should be tried for apostasy for their “heretical articles” and put to death if they don’t repent. Abullah bin Bejad and Yousef Abal-Khail, the two writers, are understandably terrified. Bin Bejad asked the government to protect him, and Abal-Khail said if this was allowed to pass, “it will be chaos.”

This incident is disturbing and sickening, but it is nothing new for extremists in this country to try to intimidate and terrorize those who have different views of religion, society or any other matter in life. They have done it in the past with intellectuals like Turky Al Hamad and others, and luckily no one got killed, at least till now.

However, what is more worrying to me is the fact that the likes of Abdul-Rahman al-Barrak and Nasser al-Omar are still able to get away with fatawa like this one. Al-Barrak in his most recent fatwa said the government should hold the newspapers and publishers to account, when in fact he is the one whom the government should hold to account for his calls to hate and violence.

Moreover, I believe that the official religious establishment, as the highest religious authority in the country, should take a clear position on this issue, and if they are not willing to do that because, as I may expect, some of them might agree with the fatwa, those who belong to the establishment and disagree with the fatwa should denounce and reject it.

I can imagine that neither the government nor the official religious establishment would speak out on this issue, but if they fail to address this properly then they should stop whining about extremism and how terrorists are simply a “misguided group.” It is this kind of dangerous messages that feed extremism and donate fuel to terrorists to continue their lethal destructive acts. Keeping silent and later blaming “external influences” for what happens here will be a hard sell, and hey, I got some news for you, we are not stupid. No more.