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Opinion: Sheikh Ghamdi’s Victory | ASHARQ AL-AWSAT English Archive 2005 -2017
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A screengrab taken from a video released by the Middle East Broadcasting Center (MBC) on December 14, 2014, shows Sheikh Ahmed al-Ghamedi (R) sitting next to his wife Jawaher bint Ali at an undisclosed location, as they speak to Dubai-based Saudi MBC television, in a programme broadcast. (AFP PHOTO / MBC / HO)

The size of recent stock market losses, a fall in oil prices for the first time in years, Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) massacres, terrorist attacks in Riyadh and its suburbs, and football fever have all faded in Saudi Arabia this week, overshadowed by a single story. Sheikh Ahmed Al-Ghamdi appeared with his unveiled wife on television. According to local Saudi standards, this is tantamount to a nuclear bomb going off and the story soon grew into a controversy that continues to rage.

This may seem like a silly issue in any other Muslim country, but in Saudi Arabia it has shocked and angered many, while the strong reaction came as a surprise to those who supported Ghamdi’s move. The event thus confirms that there are severe divisions within Saudi society. Some threatened to sue Ghamdi—what for, I don’t know—while others hailed him as a modernizing pioneer whom history will immortalize. The certain truth is that Sheikh Ghamdi has shocked Saudi public opinion and forced people to reconsider their views once again.

Although many before him have made such a move, he’s actually the first cleric to do so. It was on Badria Al-Bishr’s show on MBC television that Ghamdi defiantly appeared with his wife who was not wearing the customary face veil. Ghamdi has held influential religious posts and seems to have accepted that he will be challenged by rivals accusing him of hypocrisy.

Truth be told, what’s new is not only the sheikh’s boldness in defying traditional norms, but also the existence of space which allows the transmission of forbidden messages. This can been seen in the courage of media figures and in the engagement of many youths, sheikhs, and ordinary men and women in the controversy. Ghamdi’s move has created a new atmosphere and environment for debate.

Saudi social concerns are still at the forefront and come before political issues, although many try to play them down because they believe they are illusory. Thus, they don’t admit, or rather fail to recognize, the nature of the social changes that accompany each generation, the role of technology in daily life, as well as that of finance, education and travel. All of these are important aspects of change that influence society regardless of how many continue to resist this change.

How do we measure social change and influence? I think that attempts to ascertain these things have been insufficient so far, as little research and few polls have been conducted, and what has been published often lacks the credibility to enable us to understand and evaluate what’s happening, and whether it’s just superficial or real social change.

Sheikh Ghamdi has succeeded in dragging those who oppose him into the arena—he wants a public forum. There are many fora in the country, like local universities that alone have more than 700,000 students representing the next generation, a generation that is immersed in social networking and able to follow and take part in public debates much more easily than people have done before.

Therefore, modernization, not inactivity, is the natural process here. Dialogue occurs in a healthy atmosphere as long as it has not been banned and as long as those engaged in the controversy only seek to gain the support of public opinion, rather than impose their own opinions on the public.