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As Saudis celebrate their national day on September 23 they are reminded of their status among other Arab nations, including those of the Arab Spring revolutionary club, which are not faring well at the moment. As much as progressive Saudis crave freedom and human rights, they are not willing to commit to a revolutionary strategy that would push the country to protracted civil unrest. As a result, reform efforts focus on expanding the narrow margins of freedom of speech in the country to include more voices.
This is no easy task in a country that frames its social and political discourse within a religious context. Reformists arguing their case are systematically shunned and sidelined by religious conservatives in the name of adhering to Islam and preserving Saudi culture. They quickly accuse most reformers as being I’lmania, which is a concept akin to that of separation of church and state. It is used as a synonym for being ungodly. After all, it is easier to demonize those with differing opinions than to engage on the merit of their arguments.
Only recently with the advent of Twitter have Saudi liberals been able to participate in a national discussion that goes beyond the framing set by religious forces. These reformers, especially those using their real names, show courage on social media by risking the wrath of the government and the religious establishment.
Saudis are challenging a lifelong system of indoctrination in formal schooling from teachers and textbooks that promote religious intolerance and suspicion of the ‘other.’ Although Saudi school textbooks were criticized for religious intolerance a few years ago, Western interest in following up on the Saudi government’s declared textbooks reform has waned.
Educational indoctrination makes youth vulnerable to the ideology of terrorist masterminds, who encourage them to sacrifice their lives for “God.” The groundwork has already been laid in years of schooling. Terrorists need only to methodically manipulate the narrative by emphasizing injustice and suffering of Muslims around the world, then call for action on the basis of personal and religious duty.
Saudi Arabia has been burned by terrorism over the years. The Al-Saud royal family faces a self-inflicted dilemma in its insistence on legitimizing their governance of this vast and fragmented country on religious grounds. Saudi Arabia’s few political detainees are mainly reformers who publicly called for a constitutional monarchy.
The monarchy seems to prefer dealing with security threats versus shaking its foundation for governance. This requires the ruling family to walk a tightrope of appeasing the religious establishment while suppressing those who question its legitimacy.
Short of a serious restructuring of the country’s political and educational systems, Riyadh needs to continue to manage the fallout of its textbook problem, which typically spills over to the general public in Friday sermons. As if being indoctrinated in schools in not enough, Saudis listen to fiery, emotional sermons that move some of them to “gift” their lives as human bomb fuses in Syria, Iraq, Afghanistan, Yemen and Syria.
These galvanizing sermons have created such an image problem that the government decided to require imams to apply for a permit to give a politically charged sermon and to punish those who do not comply. The Saudi Gazette’s latest report cites that the Ministry of Islamic Affairs “has noticed some imams focused on sensitive political topics related to the ongoing political incidents in a number of Arab countries” and has “dismissed a number of mosque imams in six cities after they delivered sermons that touched on sensitive issues of a political nature…The rulings affected 18 imams in total.”
At least the royal court has considerable leverage over imams, as it pays their salaries, but it cannot control young religious zealots who claim Hisba. This Islamic doctrine is grounded in commanding what is morally right and forbidding what is morally wrong, making it the responsibility of each Muslim to do something or say something to correct whatever is contrary to Islam.
This exponentially spreading phenomenon is manifesting itself in the actions of individuals who take it upon themselves to disrupt or spoil any events or activities they believe do not agree with Islam. They consistently reference religious texts or principles as the basis for their actions, which they believe provides a legal authority and immunity from prosecution despite their sometimes aggressive style.
This trend is seen frequently and occurred at the large annual book fair organized by the government and in smaller venues such as cultural centers. The latest significant event affected by Hisba was the screening of the first Oscar-nominated Saudi feature film in the foreign language category, “Wadjda”. In acquiescence to the Hisba campaign against showing the movie, a Riyadh cultural center abruptly announced postponing the film after its first showing, citing technical issues according to news reports.
The movie is directed by a Saudi woman and highlights the struggles of women and girls in the patriarchal kingdom. It is unusual for an Oscar-nominated film to be prohibited from public showings in the country of origin. Saudi Arabia does not have public movie theaters; they are banned. And cultural centers have no capacity to receive the general public for such a movie.
Liberal Saudis took to the Twitter-sphere voicing their opposition to the ban and sparking a discussion on the issue. In the public sphere, Hisba activists and their official counterparts, known unofficially as the religious police, continue to suppress any expression that contradicts their narrow interpretation of Islam.
Year after year, Saudis test their freedoms as the calendar approaches February 14 – Valentine’s Day. The color red becomes suspect as couples celebrate their love. Stuffed teddy bears, heart-shaped chocolate and red roses become the target for religious police as shop- keepers feed the temporary black market from their back doors and loading docks.
More liberal voices are gaining ground, particularly on social media. Their fight is not for a blanket Western-style freedom of expression, but to broaden language used in Saudi Arabia to go beyond the religious context. Once such a language is accepted then reformers can engage in a dialogue over rights and responsibilities, leading to discussions on the right to celebrate love, the virtues of filmmaking, and constitutional monarchy, among other pressing issues. Saudi Arabia does not appear to be close to joining the Arab Spring club but it is definitely enjoying the breeze it created.
Walid A. Jawad is an Atlantic Post contributor, based in Washington, D.C.