Everything is difficult and complicated in the Arab world, except the creation of crises. A minute spark is all that is needed for the situation to quickly deteriorate into a full-blown fire.
Last week, a fight broke out between Bahraini deputies and insults flew across parliament. It caused chaos never before seen in the chamber. The “battle” occurred during an extraordinary session when parliament was discussing the budget, which the cabinet had forwarded to parliament.
A Shiaa deputy criticized what he considered the large funds allocated to defense troops, describing it as an army of mercenaries. An MP angrily reacted to his comments. A Sunni MP then asked him to refrain from screaming, because no one was at a “funeral”, a reference to Hussain’s funeral rituals that the Shiaa observe. In turn, the Shiaa deputy responded with an insult and described his colleague as a donkey. The two then argued loudly in parliament and so, a crisis erupted from a situation that could have been quietly resolved!
This was not the first time conflict had erupted in the beautiful and tiny island of Bahrain. In July 2005, angry demonstrators took to the streets in protest of a cartoon published in Al Ayam newspaper, which allegedly criticized Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, and described the paper’s editor-in-chief as a traitor.
In Kuwait, a decision by the Ministry of Waqf (endowment) to ban several books because they allegedly do not promote tolerance, led to a huge crisis. Salafis called for holding a conference “in support” of the banned authors, and sheikhs from outside Kuwait were invited to strengthen the protest and increase support.
In Iraq, last December, the program “Opposite Direction” that features on Al Jazeera created a huge outcry amongst Shiaas; demonstrators descended on several cities and supporters of Ayatollah Sistani took their anger out on Al Jazeera, because of what they saw was an insult to the Grand Ayatollah by one of the guests on the program. Protesters included politicians such as Ibrahim al Jaafari and Abdulaziz al Hakim.
In Egypt, a concerted campaign was launched on the Egyptian government because a young fifteen-year-old student by the name of Alaa failed her secondary school exams for criticizing U.S President George W. Bush and his administration’s policies. The teacher judged her answer to be outside the scope of the curricula and decided to fail her. The matter grew into a full-blown crisis until President Hosni Mubarak personally intervened to defuse the tension.
A few weeks ago in Lebanon, violence erupted in the streets of Beirut after supporters of Hezbollah attacked Christian neighborhoods of the capital, burning tires and blocking roads in protest against a television comedy shown on LBCI television that impersonated the group’s leader, Sayyed Hassan Nasrallah.
In Saudi Arabia, the susceptibility for conflict is very high, especially after the increase in internal challenges and social activity, in addition to the ongoing discussions between different political and intellectual currents, in a country whose inhabitants are not used to being so open. So much so, that a renowned religious figure like Sheikh Saleh al Fawzan has entered the media fray and started writing in criticism of a “deviant” writer or a “misleading” idea. He has defended the religious discourse from those criticizing it or calling for its renewal, as well as those demanding to get rid of what is no longer appropriate for the current era, especially as religious discourse is based on human interpretations in the first place.
However, Sheikh al Fawzan rejected this. Writers who have argued about this and other issues with him have called on him not to impose his opinion on society, under the pretext that he is exclusively in the right. The debate has focused on the reform of religious curricula and the need to put forward a new fiqh (Islamic jurisprudence) of jihad, whereby it becomes restricted to defense and is no longer a need in itself, as the writer Mohammed bin Latif al Sheikh has advocated. He reminded Sheikh al Fawzan that Saudi Arabia was a member of the international community, where relations between countries are based on peace and not war or “jihad”, as the Sheikh says. But Sheikh al Fawzan categorically rejected this suggestion. “If these Ulema (scholars) do not see jihad as necessary and claim that it was not an original obligation and that it was never part of Shariaa, this [consists] a repudiation of what the Quran and the Sunnah indicated on the legitimacy of jihad when one is able to.”
I don’t expect Sheikh al Fawzan to change his mind, but the fact remains that the debate is healthy. Unfortunately, it seems some people in Saudi Arabia do not share this view. Instead, they are of the opinion that a fierce attack is being waged on Islam, by writers and the media, using the discussions currently taking place in Saudi newspapers and on television channels as evidence, to the extent that one person wrote, “confronting these attacks is an obligatory duty and is more important than jihad which God ordered.”
So, a discussion between a Sheikh giving his opinions and others disagreeing with him is transformed into a “crisis” that ought to be confronted!
Prior to this, in Saudi Arabia, a decision to allow women to seek employment in lingerie stores for women also grew into a conflict about modesty and virtue.
The words of a teacher in an isolated village in northern Saudi Arabia, on the importance of fighting the Bin Laden’s ideology and a few words on the beauty of music soon led to a crisis that engulfed Saudi public opinion and in which the highest echelons of power intervened…and so forth and so forth. Why this propensity for conflict?
Is it not possible for us to discuss these issues in any another way? Why do these relatively minor issues come to occupy public opinion?
While I do not know the exact answer, I agree with the Lebanese intellectual Radwan al Sayyed, who said, “It’s true we have a readiness for conflict and hostility. I believe this emanates from our feeling of desperation from a lack of change, therefore it is a desperate cry, just as what is happening here in Lebanon.”
This Arab-wide tense atmosphere is also caused by the presence of a climate of fear and apprehension and the fear of losing a certain status, as is the case in Saudi Arabia, by the reformists or the traditionalists, who are driven by fear and a desire to maintain things as they are.
I believe this propensity for tension and conflict will continue and we will remain its prisoners. It will even increase as we become more desperate about change taking place, or from fear of the very change taking place! Each camp is tense and ready to create a huge problem out of nothing! Such is the situation and it is set to continue, while we await the winds of comfort to blow and enable us to differentiate between what is important and what is not.