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Will They Understand the Message? - ASHARQ AL-AWSAT English Archive
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If you do not grow a beard, use a French perfume, read newspapers edited in London or the Saudi al Watan newspaper over a cup of Turkish coffee, discuss at length Al Qaeda’s activities and listen to Umm Kulthum or Majida al Roumi, or even world music, you might be considered by some people in Saudi Arabia a liberal or a secularist.

Of course, this superficial sort of talk does not appeal to intellectuals and those who understand the history of ideas and the roots of political and social concepts. It would not please students of political thought or philosophy either who seek to name things and differentiate between them.

Yet, this has and continues to take place in Saudi Arabia and other Arab countries: a chaotic classification and a war of concepts, whose principal objective is to cancel out the opposition and classify them, in order to avoid a real discussion about the merits of each person. In this way, people warn of this or that individual because he is a liberal, secularist, pro-American, Masonic, a modernist or even a communist (despite communism being consigned to the relics of history!) and so forth.

It is not surprising that this generalized classification, which brushes over details and intricacies, is like a bullet; once fired, it has the last word on the matter.

People were oppressed and have suffered repeatedly because of this sort of generalization and misuse of labels. Those being pigeonholed have repeatedly tried to resist being categorized and rid themselves of these attributes. However, their efforts have proven futile.

Saudi Arabia has lost many intellectuals, writers, and researchers because of their fear of the categorization militia and the soldiers of classification who go around searching for those with slightly different views in order to frighten them and confuse them whilst shouting, “They are God’s enemies!”

I am speaking about a disease that has taken hold in Saudi Arabia, ever since one voice has seized control over Saudi society and started to categorize those around it. For example, those discussing the position of women have been accused of being morally decadent and pro-western; in some cases, it was alleged they wanted believers to follow their desires! The accused is left with no room to defend himself and explain his position. We all know how social witch hunts take place through Friday sermons and cassette tapes and during social occasions, including weddings, dinner parties, and neighborhood meetings. A single extremist remark can soon develop into a concerted campaign in which individuals are publicly mocked and disparaged to the extent that ordinary citizens, with no ideology of their own, find themselves surrounded by a flood of jeers, from the mosque to his house to the houses of his friends and family, and nowadays to internet forums and television stations. Ordinary citizens are then faced with a choice: either remain silent or join this campaign. Many who are not politically aware, either because they are interested in other matters or do not have the capabilities to be so, (it is not necessary for everyone to be interested in politics), end up adding their support to these smear campaigns.

Herein lies the importance of King Abdullah bin Abdulaziz’s speech last week, in front of the inhabitants of al Qassim, in central Saudi Arabia. What did the King say?

In front of a huge crowd of people from al Qassim, the King praised the “dear” region’s history “from which men looking for security and fortune left in an honest endeavor, before security took hold.” He described them as “the best ambassadors of the nation”.

Nowadays, however, what motivates individuals? Do they act in search of security and fortune or are they spurred by a desire to spread anxiety and increase categorization and spread Bin Laden’s ideas in society?

It seems as if most activists are motivated by the desire to classify and divide people into us versus them.

King Abdullah pronounced his “rare” and clear warning for the sake of national unity and a cohesive social fabric. He clearly stated his outright objection to all categorization that is carried out either “out of ignorance or weak faith”. He stressed that all individuals in Saudi society were “faithful” and refused to doubt the national sentiment of any of them, “unless, there is categorical proof that calls to doubt someone”.

These were the words of a monarch who seeks to protect his people from the dangers of disintegration.

The King’s warning extends to the other side, whose members have taken to classifying those with dissenting views as extremists, fundamentalists and more recently, members of Al Qaeda. This is also dangerous and should stop. I have seen some people act this way in liberal Saudi internet forums.

Does this mean that there is, or should be, only one single intellectual hue in Saudi Arabia?

I believe this is impossible because it is against the nature and the rationale of social development. What we now have in Saudi Arabia are different ideas and opinions on general public matters.

Personally, I see the King’s warning as a yellow card for the transgressors. The King and the state are supporting with one side of the population against another side because the state embraces its entire people and protects them. Individuals might differ between them, this is natural and perhaps even healthy, but there are limits to these disagreements; they should never threaten the peaceful character of the state.

Because some people in Saudi Arabia have erred, the King has interfered in order to return them to the fold. Individuals can say what they like whenever they want but they have to remain within limit. Time will tell if Saudis have understood the King’s message.

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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