Anybody who has kept record of the numerous confrontations King Abdul Aziz Bin Saud, the founder of Saudi Arabia, engaged in with opponents of modernization, could fill a book of hundreds of pages. The battle of the telegrams [between the king and his opponents] alone is enough to fill a book.
There was the battle to transform the principality into a state, the Imam into a monarch, and secondary identities into an inclusive national identity. After the famous battle of Al Sabla , King Abdul Aziz managed to neutralize the ultra-conservatives and create a truly modern state.
The following generations think that what King Abdul Aziz did was undemanding and not that much of an achievement. But the truth is it was not at all as easy as some might think. How did King Abdul Aziz face the ultra-conservatives, both urbanites and Bedouins, at such an early stage of transforming into a state? It reached the point where King Abdul Aziz decided to hold a general assembly in Riyadh to which he invited leading figures of all segments of society and presented to them the reality of religious rebellion with which the Ikhwan was opposing him. He even went as far as offering to give up the throne during the discussions, but attendees all responded by saying they would back him.
King Abdul Aziz was succeeded by King Saud who waged the battle of education for girls – a great battle that contributed to the progress of society and the state. Then came King Faisal who, with determination, confronted all ultra-conservatives, among whom were clerics, preachers and commoners who engaged in counter propaganda. Whoever has read Abdullah al Washmi’s book entitled ‘Fitna al Qowl bi Ta’lim al Binat’ would have found a complete record of this great battle and the names of the clerics, preachers and even writers who were against the idea of incorporating girls into a regular, educational system. But the decision was finally taken and the controversy came to an end. Saudi girls were then granted the right to an education.
The same could be said about the battle of emancipating slaves and the opening of the first national television station…time passed but the ultra-conservatives kept on drawing and shooting arrows from the bow of fanaticism whenever a decision regarding development or administrative or educational modernization was made. We all witnessed the battle of the merger of the General Presidency of Girls’ Education [and the Ministry of Education] a few years ago.
From when the idea of the King Abdullah University of Science and Technology (KAUST) first came about until it became a great edifice and was launched recently amid a large international presence, there have been inflammatory statements that call for the destruction of society issued by preachers and clerics from all sorts of religious institutions, claiming that this institution is a Westernized university that practices coeducation and hires infidel experts!
Those who have been following the Saudi press recently would have noticed the relentless stream of criticism from one prominent cleric who paid no attention to anything except that male and female students will study together as part of this great university project. This is the chronic state of obsession with virtue creeping in once again.
The protesting voices of the early zealots faded away over time, and so will the voices of their successors. Just as the early clerics had prohibited listening to the radio and watching television before becoming famous through both forms of communication, and just as those who had opposed girls’ education later enrolled their daughters in schools, we will see those who protest against the establishment of KAUST today pushing and shoving tomorrow to enlist their children there. History repeats itself, but we would be making a big mistake if we hindered national development just to appease those who act fanatically.
Those protesting voices will not suddenly disappear. Let’s just hope that eventually these people will one day see how wrong they are.