The existing religious controversy surrounding the legitimacy of demonstrations and protest marches reflects a hidden political debate, and the possibility of major future political choices.
The Council of Senior Scholars in Saudi Arabia, the largest official religious body in the kingdom, issued a detailed fatwa in which it condemned the demonstrations in the country, with language akin to an urgent statement, and a clear religious stance warning against the Kingdom descending into political chaos.
The position adopted by the Council, together with a number of Saudi sheikhs who issued their fatwas in newspapers and Saudi websites, was met with an opposing religious stance by those who support the demonstrations, protests and marches. Some Islamists issued fatwas to legitimize demonstrations, or provide pretexts for when they would be acceptable, stating that the right to protest was as natural as rainwater. In doing so, such Islamists were recently supported by the Kuwaiti sermonizer Hamid al-Ali, who is also well known for his enthusiasm for al-Qaeda, and Salafi Jihadists.
In Egypt, controversy has also arisen, and continues to intensify, regarding the nature and role of religious institutions. Selim al-Awa, a key figure in the Muslim Brotherhood’s intellectual current, has published a book on the subject under the title “The Impasse in the Religious Establishment”, in which he criticizes al-Azhar’s failure to support the Muslim Brotherhood’s vision, regarding the role which official clergymen are supposed to perform (rather than being restricted to education, the judiciary, preaching and public speaking, and leading the prayers in mosques).
An apparent struggle is being waged now for leadership of both the fatwa tendency, and religious institutions in the Islamic world. The opposition Islamist current, especially the Muslim Brotherhood of course, seek to draw the balance of religious institutions towards their vision. However, government authorities and states, or “Wali al-Amr” – as they are called in doctrinal terms – believe that Islamic scholars and religious institutions should help to aid stability, but be entirely dedicated to education, the judiciary, public sermons and so on.
The two late prominent Saudi figures, former Grand Mufti Abdulaziz ibn Abdullah ibn Baz, and Islamic scholar Muhammad ibn al-Uthaymeen, were perhaps the most prominent figures to have administered and protected religious stability, and curtailed Saudi hardliner religious currents. These two men issued clear fatwas and stances ruling against demonstrations, at a time when protests against the state were at their peak, following Saddam Hussein’s invasion of Kuwait. However, the situation has now changed dramatically after the emergence of the internet and other communication tools. Here we see old hawks transforming into peaceful doves, and then changing their stances to switch back again when it suits them, despite their feeble wings and worn feathers.
In brief, the religious stance regarding the permissibility, or illegitimacy, of demonstrations and other such issues does not matter in this context. What matters here is that we go beyond the doctrinal surface, into the political essence. Masses of Islamists are eager to return to the old uprisings in the 1990s, but this time using Twitter as their tool of opposition, rather than cassette recordings of revolutionary messages, which were common during that period.
The story here is not one of innocent fatwas, but rather of political stances. Those who are in support of stability, and seek to avoid Libyan fire or the Egyptian political wilderness, will claim that demonstrations should be forbidden. Those who advocate revolutions, and opening the door to the unknown, will say it is permissible to demonstrate.
This story also has nothing to do with preserving human rights. Hamid al-Ali is certainly not an advocate of greater individual freedoms, nor is he a fan of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Nevertheless, in his recent stance, we see him suddenly overwhelmed with enthusiasm for such principles.