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Let me begin by saying that I am not against the phenomenon of petitioning politicians. After it has been taking place in Saudi Arabia in the last three years in a remarkable manner. This type of peaceful protest is far superior to acts of sabotage or violence.

These political statements are a show of force; groups who want to re-affirm their presence and show that their political demands enjoy popular support utilize them. Even though this trend has somewhat broken the calmness and stillness of local politics, Saudis should not worry too much about it.

After a flurry of petitions in 2003 and 2004, the Saudi government issued a decree in 2004 prohibiting government employees from affixing their names to any appeal. In the last two months, petitions have returned to their forefront of Saudi politics. 61 individuals, both academics and employees of the state, including Nasser al Omar, Khaled al Ajami and other symbols of the Islamist awakening in Saudi Arabia, signed the latest appeal, entitled “warning and communiqué”.

Distinguished from its predecessors by its sharp language and its gruesome depiction of the current political climate, it reflected the anxiety of the signatories. They sought to convince others of the presence of “a group known for its pro-western stances that has managed to influence decision-making and control some of the most influential institutions, thereby affecting the identity and future of Saudi Arabia.”

As expected, the statement focused on the position of women in society and riled against the officials responsible for corrupting them. “This role was filled by officials whose first concern is to execute western plots, by expanding the number of [jobs] open to women, under the pretense of fighting unemployment and empowering women.”

Of course, their warning would not have been complete without a quick attack on the media. They accused it of being monopolized by certain forces and of expressing distorted views. “This hypocritical gang in our society… what can we expect from them [when] God has warned us from the likes of them…,” it said.

Irrespective of whether political groups should have the right to issue petitions and public statements, we ought to ask ourselves: Is it permissible to release such a communiqué, with its harsh words and near incitement to kill?

Let say for example that a young man was inspired by the statement and decided to put words into action by relieving Saudi society from the infidels’ presence. Is this acceptable? Osama bin Laden’s most recent statement was no more extremist than the one outlined above. In fact, they both use similar language to describe the same people. Bin Laden, however, names them and calls for them to be killed.

I find it difficult to incorporate the above petition into the civil protest category, as I believe it is closer to an incitement for murder. In this case, words were used to promote a culture of violence, as if the signatories were saying, “This war begins with words!”

Some readers might not be aware that the signatories were expressing their opposition to, amongst others, a relatively minor decision to permit women to work in women’s lingerie shops and other relating to the media and education. All these decrees are based on Arab and Islamic tradition and conform to Saudi customs, whilst trying to respond to the changing demands of our era. However, the signatories tried to portray the situation as if Saudi Arabia was renouncing Islam!

Perhaps this is what drove Interior Minister Prince Naif bins Abdulaziz, to say to Okaz newspaper on Monday, “If the [signatories] were experts in Shariaa and Islamic jurisprudence, they would be the first to know which religious rules the government applies because it is based on Islam.”

In effect, two very different visions are competing with each other about how to steer the Saudi ship. It would have been possible to reach a compromise if the debate had remained in well-intentioned circles, far from conspiracy theories and misgivings. This is especially the case because there is no single respected side in Saudi Arabia calling for the undermining of the Kingdom’s culture and identity. The difference is about how to interpret this culture and adapt it to modern times.

Unlike earlier petitions, which reflected the political and cultural pluralism of Saudi society, and were in response to events in Iraq after the fall of Saddam Hussein, the recent communiqué seemed to accommodate only one hue.

Statements are made up of words and words express particular opinions. It is important that these opinions remain within the realm of words and that the government not halt its reform plans or change its pace.

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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