If it were possible, the general public would pick and choose the religious opinions and fatwas of scholars in the same manner that listeners pick their favorite music on the well-known radio program “As Requested by the Listeners.” Scholars are no less on trial by the public than they are by the rulers, and there are many historical examples of a scholar being put on trail by a ruler, but there are only a few examples of a scholar being tried by the public at large. Perhaps the most prominent and famous example of how a scholar was put on trial by a ruler can be seen in what happened to Imam Ahmed Ibn Hanbal on the issue of the “createdness” of the Quran [The Mihna]. The scholars of the time resorted to equivocation in order to avoid a confrontation with the ruler [Caliph Al-Ma’mun], however when it came for Imam Ahmed Ibn Hanbal’s turn to answer [on the issue of the “createdness” of the Quran] the public played a positive role, for they were waiting pens at the ready for his statement, and this gave him the strength to uphold his [contrary] opinion and endure the torture and humiliation he was subject to as a result of this.
The problem is that following the digital revolution, the public has become obsessed with the large numbers of scholars, preachers and writers across the Arab world and pressure is being exerted on them preventing them from voicing their opinions and convictions. In some cases such convictions are limited to just a few lines of writing, or are only whispered quietly in private. It would be no problem if these opinions were largely confined to judicial issues of no importance to the structure, cohesion, and security of society, for example if this issue was on the religious permissibility of financial underwriting or whether or not it is permissible to listen to music. However the problem arises when a scholar or preacher chooses to remain silent on a fatwa or opinion that has serious consequences [for society].
When Arab countries were facing the threat of Al Qaeda expansion during the past 10 years, during which time Al Qaeda limited its attacks to US interests in Arab countries, condemnation of this was almost non-existent, or at the very least extremely rare, and in most cases such condemnation was locked away and confined to private gatherings. In addition to the fact that attacks such as this are a violation of the country’s agreements and treaties, they also resulted in the death of a number of innocent Muslim citizens. Therefore scholars, preachers, and writers, should have condemned these attacks and denounced them as crimes in a much stronger manner than they did, and this condemnation would have reverberated across the Arab world. By sending a subdued message on such attacks, this conveyed the wrong idea to these terrorists, and they continued with their attacks. In Saudi Arabia, for example, Al Qaeda went beyond targeting US interests, first targeting the institutions responsible for maintaining security in the country, and finally targeting the symbols of the Saudi state itself, such as with the assassination attempt made on Saudi Deputy Interior Minister Prince Mohammed Bin Naif.
These days the sectarian peace in the Middle East region is under threat due to the exchange of statements and insults. I fear that this tragedy will be repeated unless scholars, preachers, and writers intervene and warn against this, as the greatest fire can be started by the smallest spark.
Scholars, preachers, and writers must be aware that they do not belong to themselves and that their audience shares in their gains and losses, and so if their opinions and fatwas are correct then this is in their audience’s favor, however if their opinions and ideas prove to be wrong, then they alone are responsible for the consequences of this. If they make a mistake to the public, they must bear the consequences of this and rectify it. The Arab proverb “there is no gain for you unless you say it [out loud], and there is no gain for us unless we listen” does not just apply to the relationship between the common people and the ruler, but also to the relationship between scholars, preachers, and writers, and the public. The issue of correcting mistakes is also crucially important, for delaying this may –God forbid – have disastrous consequences.