Amidst the current debate and controversy over gender mixing that is taking place in the country, this picture made it to the front pages of some local newspapers today. The picture shows King Abdullah and Crown Prince Sultan surrounded by female participants at the National Dialogue in the southern city of Najran. Although the photo was taken on April 11, it was only published today which may indicate the green light to publish it was only obtained recently. Al-Watan daily published what they called the story of the picture, along with the full names of the women who appear in it.
If someone told me this few days ago, I would have thought it was a sick joke. But then I watched the disturbing video and heard it from the horse’s mouth:
Shiekh (?) Yousuf al-Ahmad from Imam Muhammad bin Saud Islamic University in Riyadh has shamelessly called for demolishing of the Grand Mosque in Makkah and rebuilding it in a way that prevents women from mingling with men during tawaf and prayers.
Al-Ahmad argues that in the past nobody had the means to achieve that but now it can easily be done. The Grand Mosque can be completely demolished, he said, and then rebuilt all over again. Al-Ahmad suggests the Grand Mosque can have 10, 20, or even 30 floors, dedicating some of them exclusively to women.
I have nothing to say, really. I think the absurdity of this whole thing speaks for itself. How did we get here? God, have mercy on us.
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…
Before KAUST, segregation was the norm and mixing was haraam. Then KAUST happened, and suddenly mixing turns out to be okay. Al-Shethri opened his mouth. He was sacked. The others got the message.
The new Minister of Justice explained in detail how segregation is a foreign concept and mixing is actually cool. Sheikh Ahmed al-Ghamdi, head of haya’a in Makkah, gave a lengthy interview to Okaz where he basically said that there is nothing wrong with mixing and those who oppose it are opposing Sharia. Meanwhile, his organization continue to terrorize people in other parts of the country.
Clown Mohammed al-Nujaimi before KAUST was inaugurated stressed the importance of segregation in education, something he described as one of the fundamentals on which the Saudi state was built. Few weeks later, after al-Shethri was sacked, he took a full U-turn.
Problem is, apologists like Jamal Khashoggi now have to make up lies to make this sounds normal. Mixing at KAUST is very restricted, he says, that a Venezuelan student can’t have his Mexican female friend over at his place.
So confusion prevails. In the past we were told mixing is sinful. Now we are told it is alright. Those who don’t want to appear contradicted talk about good mixing and bad mixing. Are we supposed to believe the “mixers,” the “segregationists,” or the “hypocrites”? Such a dilemma…
The media circus launched in the honor of Shiekh Sa’ad al-Shethri and his rather lame comment was full of noise, but one of the rare voices of reason in the midst of the hoopla was that of Khaled al-Dakhil. In his column for Abu Dhabi-based al-Ittihad daily, translated here by the good folks at Meedan, he puts the event in perspective and offers some interesting, intelligent views:
This society has allowed strict religious discourse to shape people’s views and attitudes on issues such as these for decades, even centuries. The consequences of this must finally be faced. It is true also that there is misunderstanding over the issue of gender mixing, and that some people go too far in their complete and utter rejection of it, but once again the way of handling such an issue has played a role in that. This has caused the underlying principles of this confrontation to exist for a long time, and there was no way of avoiding it. It can be said that no-one wanted the row which erupted. The row was inevitably going to impose itself on everyone. It was waiting for the right moment and its justification, and that moment came, and that justification emerged with the opening of the University. The battle in reality was between the religious trend, which emerged due to the influence it had, and the reformist trend, which wanted to review many issues, starting with those which were necessary for the advancement of society.
Al-Dakhil is one of the few true liberal thinkers in this country. That’s why he is unwelcome in Saudi universities and media, which is a real shame, because it’s people like him that our country really needs. Oh, well…
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.
So 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.
For some reason, Arab News chooses not to name KSU when they write about the stifling restrictions Saudi Arabia’s oldest university impose on their female students. Considering how this country is obsessed with segregation, there is no surprise here. And the ironic thing is, they say the university “is supposed to be a place where young women experience greater freedoms.” Says who? Wake up girls! This is freakin’ K of SA you are living in. The university, as you may expect, claim that the point of these restrictions is to protect the students. Again, no surprise. Welcome to Saudi Arabia, where everyone claims moral authority over the rest.
In the other hand, the newspaper chooses to name another university in Riyadh, Imam Mohammed bin Saud Islamic University, which supposedly is even more strict than KSU. It is said that IMSIU is to launch a new college of medicine, but according to Ali Al Mousa in Al Watan daily, the university president could not answer the question of whether female students would be accepted in the new college. Al Mousa tends to cut the president some slack because answering that question might put him in confrontation with the extremists who would, for sure, use the ‘segregation’ card. Let’s wait and see how this drama is going to play out.
And in case you didn’t know, the extremists are not only controlling the campuses in Saudi Arabia, but they also managed to extend their notorious control to the press in neighboring Kuwait, where this article by Dalaa’ Al Mufti was banned from Al Qabas daily, apparently because Al Mufti dared to comment on the ridiculous decision of the Committee for the Promotion of Virtue and Prevention of Vice to spend SR 700,000 on a study that examines the mingling of the sexes and its “harmful effects” on the society. I’ve told you that these people are obsessed, right?