Riyadh, Asharq Al-Awsat- Moderate Saudi cleric A’ed ِAl Qarni lent his support to the call from Sheikh Abdullah bin Mani, member of the Higher Ulama Council, to hold dialogue between Israeli sects to reduce hostility between them. In an interview with Asharq al Awsat newspaper, al Qarni spoke about the outcome of the Riyadh Book Fair, women and the Danish cartoons of Prophet Mohammed.
Q: The seminars at the recent International Book Fair in Riyadh and the choice of books on display created controversy. How do you evaluate the book fair?
A: The Riyadh Book Fair had positive and negative points. It was well organized and well attended. Nevertheless, it also witnessed uproar during some of the seminars and was not adequately covered by the media.
Q: What is the problem if book fairs include books that belong to different schools of thought? Should criticism not take place in the open? Are there any benefits to banning books?
A: It is important to protect thoughts and opinions because we have a message that rejects apostasy. Dialogue with those who hold opposing views is an indisputable principle and should take place without violence. Books are different; some defame the Prophet and this is rejected. Others can be corrected and a dialogue can be established with their authors.
Q: The seminar on censorship witnessed a heated debate in the Book Fair. How do you assess it?
A: It was wrong not to refer to literature in the dialogue. This is why the heated exchange occurred.
Q: Do you support abandoning the censorship of books or reducing it? What can this censorship achieve in an open world where information is exchanged freely?
A: I support the intellectual censorship of what insults our principles and traditions, but this should not be exploited in removing what we do not like or what we are personally opposed to, regardless of right and wrong. When censorship is not useful, the alternative is to argue and challenge opposing views.
Q: What are the commonalities between your book “La Tahzan” (Don’t Be Sad) and Banat al Riyadh (Girls of Riyadh)?
A: La Tahzan is popular amongst the public and it appears that the subject it examines is relevant and sadness is a problem individuals face throughout the ages. It addressed readers with candor and simplicity. For its part, Banat al Riyadh, uncovered what has previously been hidden. Every book has its own readers, no matter how many.
Q: Would you agree that a large section of Saudi society yearns for the courage that you have shown?
A: If courage does not advocate lies and falsehoods, then it is welcome.
Q: What remains from the clashes of the 1990s? Did the religious center admit analyses of modernity?
A: Memories remain. The religious middle ground includes ulama and beginners. Its rules are different as it examines modernity.
Q: Is it possible to rebuild the relationship between modernists and Islamists within the changing understanding of modernity and its courses?
A: It is possible to repair the relationship through dialogue and by coming together under one umbrella. We are a nation with a message and not the Tamil Tigers or any other revolutionaries.
Q: How do you see the image of a committed Muslim? Does he still feel cut off from a world where freedom and rationality are expanding in all directions?
A: The image of the devoted Muslim is pure because he is in the right. It is impossible to generalize: some are moderates and some are extremists. The first are acceptable but the second are rejected.
Q: Why do devout individuals turn to violence?
A: If the pious are mistaken in their reading and understanding of texts, they will turn to violence, whether in Islam, Judaism or Christianity.
Q: Do you see that some devout individuals are terrorized in society?
A: Some extremists might fear society or authority.
Q: Is it a feeling of weakness towards the west’s current supremacy?
A: Yes. One of the reasons of extremism is the west’s oppression and its antagonistic practices against Muslims in Palestine, Afghanistan and Iraq.
Q: Where did devout religious individuals fail in their relationship with women?
A: Some religious individuals failed when they deprived women of their legal rights, insulted them and oppressed them.
Q: Do you consider that the absence of women played a part in the negative portrayal of our society?
A: Women are not absent but they have been deprived of many of their legal rights because some people have misunderstood religious texts.
Q: What is religion’s position on love? Is the space for it reduced as prohibitions increase?
A: Love has an important role to play in religion, starting with the love of God in every Muslim. Love can take different forms. Our Islamic heritage is full of texts where love is expressed. The problem stems from those who go too far or insult religion. The right way is to understand religion.
Q: Do you forbid young men and women from reading romantic novels?
A: Novels, if they do not vilify our principles and do not call for immorality are permissible. Every nation and every religion has restrictions and red lines. There is no absolute freedom except in one’s imagination.
Q: How do you evaluate the response in the wake of the publication of the cartoons of Prophet Mohammed?
A: The reaction of Muslim people worldwide was fantastic and strong, such as withdrawing ambassadors and the economic boycott. However, the error was in attacking the property of others, which occurred in some countries.
Q: What should Denmark do to compensate Muslims?
A: Denmark should apologize for insulting the Prophet and undertake not to repeat the action.
Q: What is your reaction to the use of violence and incitement against foreigners by some people?
A: This was wrong. We should not use these methods.
Q: What about the consensus amongst Muslims on the need to defend the Prophet Mohammed irrespective of their sects and nationalities? Can this reaction be developed further?
A: The unanimity is welcomed. It also sends a message to those who insulted the Prophet that the Ummah cannot accept an attack on its sacred symbols.
Q: What is your opinion of the preacher Amr Khaled’s visit to Denmark? Did he break the consensus or open a gap in the wall of silence?
A: I have already shared my point of view with Amr Khaled and Tariq Al Suwaidan. I told them I disagree with their actions because they did not study their position.
Q: Do you fear extremists will take hold of the Muslim voice under the pretext of defending the Prophet?
A: It is possible that some extremists might exploit the anger of Muslims but the moderate center is always the winner.
Q: Do you preach opinions or texts? Do disagreements with you lead to accepting different opinions?
A: I preach opinions and my understanding of texts. I do not claim to represent texts. I might be right or I might be wrong. Disagreements can occur over principles such as those denying one of the basic elements of Islam or on less important matters. In that case, I respect divergent views.
Q: Have you ever attempted to initiate a dialogue with those who disagree with you?
A: I have sat down with people whose opinions I do not share. I accept criticism and respect points of views. I am ready to establish a dialogue with those who oppose me. I am ready to admit to making a mistake and am self-critical and this is because I read and think on a daily basis.
Q: Does the Salafi school of thought fear critique?
A: The Salafi School is mostly moderate. It accepts and practices criticism. However, there are extremists who criticize others and forget themselves. Individuals should speak the truth using peaceful measures.
Q: Why was the project to diffuse sectarian tensions amongst Muslim not realized?
A: I support Sheikh Abdullah bin Mani in his call for an open dialogue between Sunni, Shiaa and Sufi Muslims. We should meet and refer our differences to the Quran and the Sunna.