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Like many, I have noticed something odd when Arab writers and intellectuals tackle the big question that is asked of Arabs and Muslims—the question of identity and the consequential questions of why terrorists emerge from among us and where the roots of the problem lie?

What is noticeable is as criticism continues, there is much anxiety and reluctance within criticism out of fear of exaggerated “self-flagellation” or self-hatred and that falls under a well-known syndrome called “counter-extremism” pursuant to the known law of physics: to every action, there is an equal and opposite reaction force.

This tendency of “criticizing criticism” occurs under the pretext that “even patience has its limits” and that it should suffice at that point, although we do not know upon what basis and according to which criteria that is determined.

Was the effect of criticism on the requiring body measured so as to conclude that such body does not endure further criticism? Or are they just impressions and particular psychological feelings experienced by those who call for the end of criticism on that point and aiming criticism towards another object…who knows!

Let us be more specific by giving examples, although they are just examples that indicate but do not contain the matter or help frame the “discussion” rather than enclose all subdivisions of the subject.

I will cite Saudi examples only on account of the vitality of the Saudi arena and the existence of examples of the aforementioned idea.

Recently, Sheikh Saleh al Fawzan, a key member of the traditional religious institution, issued a fatwa [religious ruling] stating that those who adhere to liberalism, according to the specifications defined by the “trap” question, are dissidents of Islam and perpetrators of the disbeliever’s contradictions.

The fatwa created much controversy within the Saudi press, which is only natural because the death of morals by denouncing people as non-believers can lead to actual murder by assassination or bombing. The controversy pushed Sheikh al Fawzan to issue a statement that was published in Saudi Arabia’s al Jazirah on June 26 that said that he was answering a question, that he did not denounce people as disbelievers, that he is against the Kharijites and against his fatwa being exploited.

One comment that attracted my attention was written by a notable Saudi writer, Dawoud al Sharian that was published in al Hayat on July 10 and entitled ‘Liberal Terrorism.’

The writer argued that Sheikh al Fawzan’s explanation of his own fatwa would not have been important had it not been for the “Arab and Muslim arena coming face to face with liberal terrorism that is no less hardline, fierce or rejecting of the other opinion than intellectual terrorism that is cloaked by religion.”

In fact, I do not know about this “liberal terrorism” that this writer talks about. Is the limited criticism of the prevailing religious discourse and some of its manifestations, such as the fatwa that denounced liberals as non-believers, considered terrorism?

Where is it possible to refer to real and material terrorism in the Muslim world today? Is it not the terrorism of Islamic fundamentalist organizations and currents that are not only committing their crimes in Iraq but also in Saudi Arabia, and Morocco, which is bracing itself for more al Qaeda attacks these days, and Yemen, which is fighting a war with al Qaeda-linked groups in Mareb Valley. All these are arenas outside Iraq and are Muslim and Arab territories. The victims are civilians. These acts are justified by sermons and religious theories. There is a semi-“al Qaeda” composed of sheikhs and imams who underestimate its actions and divert attention to false battles, such as the battle with secularists, who are ineffectual and satirized by the same Islamist attackers!

So how can one talk about an alleged “liberal terrorism”?

Meanwhile, we see that it is fundamentalist terrorism that strikes and resists international and Arab efforts against it using money, words and arms.

Here is another example in a slightly different context. In recent weeks in Saudi Arabia, there has been a wave of criticism of- and extensive media coverage of-the Commission of the Promotion of Virtue and the Prevention of Vice, especially after recorded incidents of people being beaten or frightened to death. Many commentators demanded that the position of the Commission be reconsidered. To my knowledge, nobody in the press has ever demanded that the Commission be abolished. Rather, they demand that it reforms and amends itself. It is natural that other writers would defend the Commission as a religious stronghold, because the Commission issue is a controversial one that has social, religious and political aspects to it. Therefore it was expected that the debate over it would be part of a wider debate in Saudi Arabia over religious and social reform. This is an indication of a healthy movement of criticism. It is impossible to agree on one opinion, but the process of public debate takes matters to an even level, or rather is supposed to.

However, once again my attention was caught by an article written by Saudi writer Iman al Quwaifili that was published in the Saudi newspaper al Watan on June 28 entitled, ‘Media Issues without Principles.’ From what I understood of the article, the conclusion that she named “media liberalism” was an escalation of her criticism of the Commission because she was permitted this. However, the writer criticized this enthusiasm in coverage because if the purpose of “media liberalism” is to tell citizens that if we conceal the excesses of the Commission because we are concerned about the “human first” – this is the slogan of a Saudi liberal website – then Saudi liberalism is mistaken and has not communicated its message to the human who has issues other than the Commission, such as addressing the major issues of fraud and false plots. Although the writer touched vaguely on her proposed examples, we do not seize the importance of any topic that really concerns the people. But why does an issue become important only by underestimating or distorting the other issue?

Why are matters being swept under the carpet? There are many diverse issues in society, otherwise, we would not have media and writers that specialize in particular issues such as the stock market, health, nutrition or politics or the local writers who are concerned with their regions and cities. According to my understanding, this is a rich diversity rather than a negative discord. Furthermore, I was not sure of the media liberalism the writer discussed, unless all journalists, writers, commentators or Bloggers who tackled the issue of the Commission were from this solemn liberal group!

With my due respect and appreciation of all those who write about the “liberal phenomenon,” “liberal terrorism” or “media liberalism,” and according to my humble understanding and regardless of the meaning of liberalism and the war of terms, I see that the card of fundamentalism is being played in Islamabad’s [Red] mosque, Hamas’s Gaza brigades, and by Mahdi Akif in Cairo, and that the popular frame of mind is remarkably slanted towards proposals made by the political Islamist currents, and that the liberalism that they are talking about is nothing but eclectic voices that also differ amongst themselves and that seek to return rationalism to the social, political and religious Arab discourse and promote the concepts of civilization. However that has yet to become a phenomenon that influences society not to mention its ability to “terrorize” somebody or draft a general agenda for the Arab media. So why do we seek force against it and to please whom?

They are voices that at least try to maintain a margin of difference and a unique space amidst the crowds and noise, and let whoever call it whatever since a name only represents a thing and does not necessarily confine it!

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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