There are moments in life when the sound of motion, no matter how low, makes itself herd. Its echo in the distance makes it seems much bigger than its actual size. In these moments, society ears become very sensitive and ready to listen, even to the sound of silence, for silence can sometimes become audible.
In instances such as these, everyone becomes busy classifying and categorizing, with events turning into a barometer to assess the characters and beliefs of others, and their position on the intellectual map.
In these days, the winds of the North are blowing across the Arab World, leaving behind an altered landscape. Saddam Hussein has been captured by the US military from his hiding hole in Iraq . Syria has withdrawn, suddenly, from Lebanon , its rich backyard. The streets of Cairo have been, nosily, filled with demonstrations, with member of the “Kifayah” (Enough is enough) movement. Talk of reform in politics and education, and good governance, in line with the recommendations of the United Nations’ “Arab Human Development Report”, has also spread in the region. Governments are now being assessed on the above mentioned criteria.
To be honest, these reforms, or at least part of them, are not merely a response to US demands. Rather, they precede these pressures and stem from local needs and desires. However, we shouldn’t underestimate US efforts to transform the Arab World, which have given new impetus to local concerns. As such, the US has activated the winds of change, without which anchored ships in the region would’ve remained stationary.
For example, if one were to read about the story of reforms in the Ottoman Empire during the reigns of Sultan Selim III (1789-1807) and reached its zenith during the reign of Sultan Mahmoud II (1808-1839), known as the Tanzimat, he will realize that the process of reform is complicated and caused by a combination of external factors, such as European pressure, and internal problems.
Among the results of change sweeping the Arab World, are Jordan ’s latest efforts to modify its education curricula, especially the topic of Islamic Studies, to ensure the teaching of openness and moderation. The committees overseeing this change prefer the term “improvement” rather than “reform” or “change”, but what matters most is that there is, indeed, room for improvement.
Kuwait is also in the midst of a heated dialogue on the issue of educational reform which has been transformed into a battleground where traditional allies, in the Arab and Muslim Worlds, now square off. This is, also, the case in arguments about the status and role of women in society, and discussions on a variety of issues from political rights to driving.
As I’ve already mentioned, the current situation in the Arab World is one of intense excitement and lurking in the shadows, with some groups trying to define their enemy. In their opinion, times like these are times of war and intellectual invasion, where Islam is being threatened by the West and the fighting is imminent.
In this atmosphere, anyone who holds an opinion, no matter how technical, on the position of women, education, or any matter of public interest, becomes prone to attacks, sometimes viciously. The examples are many and very sad. Among the funniest I’ve come across is the story of a Kuwaiti MP from the Salafi movement (following the methods of early Muslims, or Orthodox Islam) who, surprisingly, supported the rights of women to be granted their political rights, during a debate in the Kuwaiti Parliament, against the party line. With his vote not determining the outcome, the MP could’ve remained silent on the issue. Instead, he chose to lend his support to the opposing camp and was severely reprimanded as a result. The most humorous part of the situation was the large number of poems that were written, ridiculing the MP, some of which I’ve seen.
A few days ago, in Saudi Arabia, Sheikh Safar Al Hawali, a prominent symbol of the Islamic movement and the revivalist trend in the Kingdom, was rushed to hospital after suffering from a brain hemorrhage, amidst much concern from the authorities and sections of the public. His illness has become a new point of discord between warring parties in Saudi society who are in conflict on intellectual issues, the scope of reform, and the future of the Kingdom. The case has become the latest in a long line of contentious issues that have split Saudi youths in two main groups, with one blaming the other of distorting the education and thinking of a large portion of young people, and the other religious revivalist camp rejecting this and, in turn, accusing its detractors of being a minority with no popular support.
Dr. Al Hawali is considered, rightly so, as the most prominent symbol of the resurgent camp in Saudi Arabia , at present.
He has written a number of books, given many lectures, spent time in jail, and clashed with the Kingdom’s authorities. He is depicted by his supporters as a symbol of the religious revival in Saudi Arabia and a representative of the collective.
Most intriguing, however, are the ramifications of Dr. Hawali’s ill health, and the accompanying polarization of Saudi society.
Will this conflict benefit the Kingdom? I personally do not believe it is either good or bad, for it is a normal occurrence we don’t need to judge. It is standard in all societies that the public disagree, amongst themselves, on symbols, events, reality, the future, plans, ideas, visions, and choices.
Saudi society is at once, rich and complex, full of vitality, and multilayered. Clearly, any section which seeks to impose its own perspective and understanding of religion should not do so by force, as this can only lead to provocation and resistance from the rest of society.
In conclusion, I feel it is important to mention that we shouldn’t fear for the identity of Saudi society or its basic principles. As long as we hold our existence dear, we will not be harmed by any reform, change, amendment, or even the elimination of a few details in our lives. After all, details are additional, sometime useful, and in other times, harmful. Problems occur when we become incapable of distinguishing between the details and the basics, in which case we can be easily led astray.