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A Difference of Timing Between Two Societies - ASHARQ AL-AWSAT English Archive
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The social scenes in Saudi Arabia and Kuwait are highly paradoxical.

In Kuwait, where parliament, democracy, political groups, loud voices and theatrical history and arts all exist, a group of MPs and a host of Islamic sheikhs have called on the public to support the Saudi cleric, Sheikh Mohammed al Oraifi. This sheikh was denied entry to Kuwait for fear of stirring up sectarian conflict after he launched a verbal attack on the Shia religious scholar and Marja, Grand Ayatollah Ali al Sistani, according to the government’s latest version of the story.

I read the statement published by the Kuwaitis in their press. The majority of them are not well known but their statement aims to serve one purpose: to rally support for Sheikh al Oraifi from a sectarian standpoint. This religious backing was further strengthened by verbal political manoeuvres made by Islamist MPs like Walid al Tabtabaei who said that the whole issue is between the Iraqis and the Saudi cleric, so what has it got to do with Kuwait? Meanwhile, other Islamist MPs are sharpening their tongues to grill the government about the ban on Sheikh al Oraifi’s entry.

Firstly, every country has the right to deny entry to anyone it thinks will cause problems in the country and could harm its security. That is why the Kuwaiti government, in the past, denied entry to Iranian Shia cleric Mohammed al Fali on grounds of inciting conflict between the two sects and delivering heated anti-Sunni speeches in a small-sized country that is already brimming with sectarian fanaticism particularly in recent years. The ban on al Fali entering the country had Kuwaiti Shia circles fuming with rage but now al Fali’s supporters are celebrating the equalizer in this sectarian match with their rivals.

This is quite worrying, and the government, any government in the world, cannot just sit and watch a bloody match between fanatics take place without taking action as this is likely to tear the country apart. The easiest solution would be to prevent both sides from colliding as a kind of temporary disengagement. But this is not enough by any means and will most probably cause further mobilization in both camps to strike back and score the decisive goal before the referee blows the whistle indicating the end of the match and the end of social harmony as well. Rioting spectators who were not satisfied with the final scores would then fly off the handle and go around burning and breaking things, hitting people and acting mad, as custom has it with football hooligans.

Unfortunately, Shia and Sunni masses, in Kuwait and elsewhere, are busy settling historical scores and trying to show which out of the two camps is more rightly-guided. They are trying to demonstrate what happened over 1400 years ago despite the fact that our problem is to do with today and with issues related to building nations, the creation of collective intellectual and social apparatus and restoring the concepts of patriotism and citizenship. These concepts have been ripped to shreds because of sectarian, tribal, regional and ethnic tensions. Talking about a common national bond in countries like Iraq, Yemen, Somalia or Afghanistan today has become an object of ridicule and sometimes even of bitter resentment.

Back to the case of Kuwait, what can we understand from students seeking to outmanoeuvre their mentors? Many potential theologians in Kuwait take pride in gaining knowledge from Saudi scholars, and this signifies the validity of the methodology. However, they did not stop at disputing the ban on allowing Sheikh al Oraifi to enter Kuwait, as this is an issue that could be understood within the context of Shia-Sunni exchanges, very much like the situation in neighbouring Iraq; rather, those theologians have now started to debate a far more important issue that is not related to sectarian violence in any way, and that is the issue of women.

First of all I would like to say that I am totally aware that a large part of Saudi Islamist potential theologians support every strict hard-line proposal and oppose every new tolerant one. However, this is clear within the Saudi situation. What is unclear here is the vehement response from Kuwaiti Islamists to the concept of independent interpretation by Saudi sheikhs. It is very odd.

Everyone in Saudi Arabia has observed the positive and exciting interaction within the ranks of top sheikhs and theology students over the issue of women, their role in society and the lifting of restrictions imposed upon them. This reached its peak with the statements made by Sheikh Ahmed Bin Qassem al Ghamdi, Director of the Committee for the Promotion of Virtue and the Prevention of Vice, Mecca Province (CPVPV). Not only did he make statements about the issue of women, but he also conducted a comprehensive study about the concept of free mixing [between the sexes] which has been the pretext of many campaigns against women that advocate constricting women and their role and their opportunities in education and development.

Sheikh al Ghamdi made a remarkable contribution to the issue of free mixing [between the sexes]. He argued that free mixing is a created and “contrived” concept in Islamic jurisprudence and therefore he cannot pass judgment on it whether prohibiting or permitting it. There is no specific judgment given to the act of free mixing [between the sexes] but it is the particularities and circumstances surrounding this act that render it either permissible or prohibited.

In a study published in instalments, Sheikh al Ghamdi criticized adopting a hard-line policy towards the issue of mixing. The study was carried by Okaz, a local Saudi newspaper and of course it drew both support and protest. This is only natural when it comes to giving an interpretation or a vision that is quite unfamiliar. But the opinion this leading figure of the CPVPV boldly expressed, in a place of great religious significance to all Muslims like Mecca, is very important and has important implications. This is why the interpretations of Sheikh al Ghamdi are still open to serious debate.

It is worth mentioning that al Ghamdi was not the only high-ranking Saudi scholar to voice such a view. A number of other scholars and jurists expressed a similar belief in different terms such as Chief Justice and Sheikh Abdul Latif al Harithi who stated simply and eloquently that “Mixing is a modern concept with a broad meaning. It is not right to declare it as completely and utterly prohibited without considering each and every detail. The term ‘mixing’ is somewhat ambiguous and inaccurate. Therefore, it is hard to pronounce it as prohibited on the whole and in detail. There are those who say that mixing is strictly forbidden, but such a judgment lacks sensibility, scrutiny, deliberateness and evidence. It is imperative to look into the full meaning of the concept, breaking it up and giving every part its appropriate judgment.”

The importance of these views from such elite scholars at this time is that they help tremendously in removing the moral and psychological barriers governing our society and contribute to pushing the wheel of development into motion. On top of all that, they normalize the state of Muslim women in Saudi society and choose the easiest and soundest interpretative judgments for our time. But as always, there are those who dread new horizons and warn against change and consider it evil. And to justify their position, they resort to belittling and distorting such interpretative judgments to keep society in the same state.

Such movement is healthy in a large, vibrant country like Saudi Arabia. Right now we are in the middle of these interpretations and debates that reflect the liveliness of Saudi society and its willingness to interact with the times. However, the situation is quite different in Kuwait whose intelligentsia take pride in its freedom and political image. I believe they have every right to pride themselves on that, but the question that springs to mind is: how is it that Saudi society is moving in a different direction to Kuwaiti society?

In Kuwait, not Saudi Arabia, there are people attacking Sheikh al Ghamdi with regards to the issue of free mixing. They argued that allowing free mixing between sexes is transgression from the right path. In other words, they call for imposing more restrictions on Kuwaiti women at a time when Kuwaiti women have become members of parliament. What kind of intellectual and juristic chaos is this?

Those people want to reduce Islam to a list of prohibitions in a war of legitimacy and virtue and programming the social mentality to make it suspicious and forbidding.

How does the mind suffer such a setback and switch from being enthusiastic about openness and creativity to this deplorable state of sectarian conflict and anger at a study carried out by a Saudi scholar who wants to facilitate matters for Muslim women within the framework of religion?

It is all very strange and paradoxical. A few days ago, I was reading excerpts from Kuwait Magazine picked out by writer Khaled al Zayd, most of which were written by the founder of the magazine, Sheikh Abdul Aziz al Rashid, who established it in 1928. Sheikh al Rashid is a symbol of religious reform in Kuwait and the entire Gulf region along with his mentor Sheikh Yusuf al Qanaei. The latter was a staunch supporter of modernization and reform and a fierce fighter against puritanism and stagnancy. Both Sheikh Yusuf al Qanaei and his disciple Sheikh Abdul Aziz al Rashid faced hardship at the hands of rigorous fanatics to the extent that Sheikh al Rashid had to leave his country for a while after receiving death threats. I read articles in the Kuwait Magazine advocating moderation and tolerance and celebrating poetry, literature and hope for a better future, knowing that they were all written over 80 years ago. I wish Sheikh al Rashid would rise from the dead and see what kind of things the current political leaders are busying themselves with today.

Frankly, the problem is not Kuwait as it is just an example. What is going on in Iraq is much worse. The current incidents taking place on the Shia scene are nothing but a horrific boom of historical malice and legendary notions. Anyone who watches the fundamentalist satellite television stations would be shocked at the amount of brain-numbing material that aims to provoke ill-feeling.

I want to highlight the difference between a society that is heading towards renewal at a relatively slow pace i.e. Saudi society, and a neighbouring society that is standing still and is fearful. My dear readers will have to interpret this paradox by themselves. All I have done is put it on paper. I hope for a better and brighter tomorrow for everyone.

Mshari Al-Zaydi

Mshari Al-Zaydi

Mshari Al-Zaydi is a Saudi journalist and expert on Islamic movements and Islamic fundamentalism, as well as on Saudi affairs. He is Asharq Al-Awsat’s opinion page editor. Mr. Zaydi has worked for the local Saudi press, and has been a guest on numerous news and current affairs programs as an expert on Islamic extremism.

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