Middle-east Arab News Opinion | Asharq Al-awsat

Saudi Liberalism: Is the Problem in the Name? | ASHARQ AL-AWSAT English Archive 2005 -2017
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Dr Abdullah al-Ghathami came out to criticize liberalism in Saudi Arabia, during an open lecture he gave at the King Saud University in Riyadh.

I watched this lecture in full, which was available online on the King Saud University’s Faculty of Arts website. This recording lasted for around two hours.

For people seeking further information [about this lecture], please refer to the link on this website. As an ordinary observer, I was expecting a calmer approach from the famous Saudi critic, especially as Dr Abdullah al-Ghathami is one of few figures of the Saudi elite who has enriched the scene with his ideas, books, and even his “stories” such as his book detailing the “story of modernity.” I was therefore surprised by Dr al-Ghathami’s approach, especially taking into account his distinguished presence and cultural role in Saudi Arabian academia and the marketplace of ideas.

In my opinion, I did not benefit [from this lecture], even though I was genuinely enthusiastic [to listen to it]. What I heard was no different to what I have heard and read before from the opponents of liberalism in Saudi Arabia over the past few years. It was true that Dr al-Ghathami, because he adopts an academic approach, was careful to ensure that he used academic terms, but the latest findings were no different to the “distorted” intellectual depiction of Saudi Arabian liberalism. In his lecture, he referred to a general and distorted perception of liberalism in Saudi Arabia, portraying it as having reached a dead-end. Al-Ghathami’s latest speech about liberalism merely served to underline the negative image of liberalism in the general perception of Saudi society. This is why al-Ghathami’s latest speech targeting and attacking liberalism was welcomed and echoed by the opponents of liberalism throughout Saudi Arabia, the majority of whom are members of the Islamic Awakening movement, or [religious] conservatives.

At this point, it is necessary to stress that the author of this article is in favor of all the cultural, social, and political phenomena in Saudi Arabia being studied, for we are in desperate need of these kinds of studies. Critiquing and indeed dissecting liberalism is not only permissible, but it is one of the most important duties for any scholar or researcher, including Dr al-Ghathami. As Saudi Arabian writer Abdullah al-Qafari put forward in his recent article in the “Riyadh” newspaper, even defining the term “Liberalism” is problematic in Saudi Arabia, as it is many other countries. This term seems to have developed into an object of popular satire, and a controversial social topic, and has therefore even been criticized and lampooned on satirical television programs such as “Tash ma Tash”. However we expert more than this from scholars and researchers, as they are expected to investigate beyond the standard and oft-repeated definition, and in a professional and analytical manner, seek to reach an understanding, not support or oppose. This is a question of being devoted to an academic approach, but unfortunately this is something that did not happen in this instance, at least in my opinion.

Liberalism is an issue worthy of study, examination and analysis. It deserves to be placed in its historical, social and political context, and to be understood within the developments that have taken place in the Middle East. Specifically, these range from the dawn of the Al-Nahda [Arab Cultural Renaissance] to the end of the Cold War and the birth of the new world order under President George Bush Senior. We must also consider the rise of religious terrorism, which is something that existed before 9/11, contrary to what the opponents of liberalism tend to espouse in order to associate national reform with US foreign policy [following 9/11].

We can recall the acts of religious terrorism that struck Egypt in the 1980s and 1990s, as well as Algeria, not to mention the Al-Ulayya Bombings in Riyadh in 1995. We do not have to go far back in history to recall the Grand Mosque Seizure in 1979 by Juhayman al-Otaibi and his group, or the assassination of [late Egyptian President Anwar] al-Sadat in 1981 at the hands of Egyptian radical extremists.

All these events generated huge questions about the development of religious discourse and its reform in the Arab world. Many Arab intellectuals produced studies, some of them profound and wonderful, on the debates between the state and religion, tradition and modernity, and religious reform in general. This debate developed into a growing trend towards the necessity for political and religious reform. A famous theory soon emerged to the effect that religious intolerance and social rigidity were effects, rather than causes, the results of political despotism and autocracy. Egyptian sociologist and political dissident Saad Eddin Ibrahim was one of the most prominent advocates and defenders of this theory, and he believed that the only solution to this problem was for the immediately implementation of a democratic system, even if this would result in the fundamentalists coming to power. As a side note, we must say that Saad Eddin Ibrahim later distanced himself from this proposal. For his part, we see Dr al-Ghathami categorically putting forward the idea of elections in Saudi Arabia, however these would be elections in social clubs and social clubs alone, even if these elections bring extremists to power [in these social clubs].

The debate surrounding reform and development is an old one in the Muslim world; it almost seems to coincide with the birth of the concept of the Arab nation itself. The questions of freedom, secular and religious reform, and women’s social reform, as well as other issues, were the fundamental fabric of the discourse during the Al-Nahda, particularly that by [Syrian Arab nationalist intellectual] Sati al-Husri, his colleagues, and their students.

Likewise in Saudi Arabia, the question of reform is considered an old one, particularly social, religious, and even political reform. Here we can recall the writings of [Saudi intellectual] Mohamed Hassan Awad and Abd al-Karim al-Juhayman.

A confrontation with the conservative and anti-modernist current soon began, particularly on the issue of women and the fight for female education, during the era of King Saud and King Faisal. The debate around social reform has also been well documented in the Saudi press.

Dr al-Ghathami is well aware of all these issues; he has even addressed some of them in his books. Therefore, is there nothing new to be said about the issue of reform in Saudi Arabia, or is the problem merely in the term “liberalism”?

This underplays the issue somewhat, because the problem does not lie in terms and definitions. Perhaps, Dr. al-Ghathami remembers a story that he himself previously mentioned about the problem that Saudi society has in dealing with the term “modernism” due to the criticisms made by key conservative literary figures.

In his book that deals with the story of modernity, Al-Ghathami recalls an occasion when traditionalists, modernists and media representatives participated in the Al-Janadriyah Heritage and Cultural Festival in 1988. At this time, the conservative critic Mohammad al-Malibari had announced his opposition to the term and indeed concept of modernism, saying that if a more appropriate concept was found, then he would not have a problem with the modernists. This prompted journalist Muhammad Sadiq Diyab to propose to rename this concept, and after much discussion he proposed to rename this “imaginary realism.” Thus, we saw a new term coined, and an old term rejected, in the hope of ending the problem and stopping the criticism and attacks by the anti-modernists. However, of course, this did not happen, because the issue was not a problem of names and terms. These names were just a terminological construct veiling the real dispute regarding modernization and reform, amongst its supporters and opponents.

Let us discard the term liberalism for example. Let us throw it into the fire and re-define it under a new name: enlightenment, moderation, modernization, national reform, rationalism, or any other term you might choose. After a period of time, you would find that the opponents who distorted the first term will have gone on to distort the next!

Let’s save our efforts and confine our discussions to the intellectual and dialectical content of the term, rather than exhausting ourselves in a fruitless struggle over the term itself.

The story is not a tale of names and terms; these issues have been discussed and analyzed in an academic manner. You can examine the validity of the terms with academic discipline, or even discuss them in general, but this must not become a preoccupation.

The story relates to the meaning [of the term], and the differences of opinion, regarding questions of reform and development. This is the core issue.