Monday, July 11, 2016

A Saudi Morals Enforcer Called for a More Liberal Islam. Then the Death Threats Began.

For most of his adult life, Ahmed Qassim al-Ghamdi worked among the bearded enforcers of Saudi Arabia. He was a dedicated employee of the Commission for the Promotion of Virtue and the Prevention of Vice — known abroad as the religious police — serving with the front-line troops protecting the Islamic kingdom from Westernization, secularism and anything but the most conservative Islamic practices.

Some of that resembled ordinary police work: busting drug dealers and bootleggers in a country that bans alcohol. But the men of “the Commission,” as Saudis call it, spent most of their time maintaining the puritanical public norms that set Saudi Arabia apart not only from the West, but from most of the Muslim world.

A key offense was ikhtilat, or unauthorized mixing between men and women. The kingdom’s clerics warn that it could lead to fornication, adultery, broken homes, children born of unmarried couples and full-blown societal collapse.

For years, Mr. Ghamdi stuck with the program and was eventually put in charge of the Commission for the region of Mecca, Islam’s holiest city. Then he had a reckoning and began to question the rules. So he turned to the Quran and the stories of the Prophet Muhammad and his companions, considered the exemplars of Islamic conduct. What he found was striking and life altering: There had been plenty of mixing among the first generation of Muslims, and no one had seemed to mind.

So he spoke out. In articles and television appearances, he argued that much of what Saudis practiced as religion was in fact Arabian cultural practices that had been mixed up with their faith.

There was no need to close shops for prayer, he said, nor to bar women from driving, as Saudi Arabia does. At the time of the Prophet, women rode around on camels, which he said was far more provocative than veiled women piloting S.U.V.s.

He even said women had to cover only their faces if they chose to. And to demonstrate the depth of his own conviction, Mr. Ghamdi went on television with his wife, Jawahir, who smiled to the camera, her face bare and adorned with a dusting of makeup.

It was like a bomb inside the kingdom’s religious establishment, threatening the social order that granted prominence to the sheikhs and made them the arbiters of right and wrong in all aspects of life. He threatened their control.

Mr. Ghamdi’s colleagues at work refused to speak to him. Angry calls poured into his cellphone and anonymous death threats hit him on Twitter. Prominent sheikhs took to the airwaves to denounce him as an ignorant upstart who should be punished, tried — and even tortured. [...]

The primacy of Islam in Saudi life has led to a huge religious sphere that extends beyond the state’s official clerics. Public life is filled with celebrity sheikhs whose moves, comments and conflicts Saudis track just as Americans follow Hollywood actors. There are old sheikhs and young sheikhs, sheikhs who used to be extremists and now preach tolerance, sheikhs whom women find sexy, and a black sheikh who has compared himself to Barack Obama.

In the kingdom’s hyper-wired society, they compete for followers on Twitter, Facebook and Snapchat. The grand mufti, the state’s highest religious official, has a regular television show, too.

Their embrace of technology runs counter to the history of Wahhabi clerics rejecting nearly everything new as a threat to the religion. Formerly banned items include the telegraph, the radio, the camera, soccer, girls’ education and televisions, whose introduction in the 1960s caused outrage.[...]

For Saudis, trying to navigate what is permitted, halal, and what is not, haram, can be challenging. So they turn to clerics for fatwas, or nonbinding religious rulings. While some may get a lot of attention — as when Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini of Iran called for killing the author Salman Rushdie — most concern the details of religious practice. Others can reveal the sometimes comical contortions that clerics go through to reconcile modernity with their understanding of religion.

There was, for example, the cleric who appeared to call for the death of Mickey Mouse, then tried to backtrack. Another prominent cleric issued a clarification that he had not in fact forbidden all-you-can-eat buffets. That same sheikh was recently asked about people taking photos with cats. He responded that the feline presence was irrelevant; the photos were the problem.

“Photography is not permitted unless necessary,” he said. “Not with cats, not with dogs, not with wolves, not with anything.”

The government has sought to control the flow of religious opinions with official fatwa institutions. But state-sanctioned fatwas have provoked laughter, too, like the fatwa calling spending money on Pokemon products “cooperation in sin and transgression.”

While the government seeks to get more women into the work force, the state fatwa organization preaches on the “danger of women joining men in the workplace,” which it calls “the reason behind the destruction of societies.”

And there are fatwas that arm extremists with religious justification. There is one fatwa, still available in English on a government website and signed by the previous grand mufti, that states, “Whoever refuses to follow the straight path deserves to be killed or enslaved in order to establish justice, maintain security and peace and safeguard lives, honor and property.”

It goes on: “Slavery in Islam is like a purifying machine or sauna in which those who are captured enter to wash off their dirt and then they come out clean, pure and safe, from another door.” [...]

The problem, he said, is that tolerance for opposing views is not taught in Saudi society.

“Either follow what I say or I will classify you, I will hurt you, I will push you out of the discussion,” he said. “This is anti-Islam. We have many people thinking in different ways. You can fight, but you have to live under the same roof.”

His wife had no problem with mixing or with women working, but did not like that Mr. Ghamdi had caused a scandal by making his views public. The royal family sets the rules, and it was inappropriate for subjects to publicly campaign for changes, she said.

“He has to follow the ruler,” she said. “If everyone just comes out with his own opinion, we’ll be in chaos.”[...]

The first irony of Mr. Ghamdi’s situation is that many Saudis, including members of the royal family and even important clerics, agree with him, although mostly in private. And public mixing of the sexes in some places — hospitals, conferences and in Mecca during the pilgrimage — is common. In some Saudi cities it is not uncommon to see women’s faces, or even their hair.

But there is a split in society between the conservatives who want to maintain what they consider the kingdom’s pure Islamic identity and the liberals (in the Saudi context) who want more personal freedoms. Liberals make cases like Mr. Ghamdi’s all the time. But sheikhs don’t, which is why he was branded a traitor.

The second irony is that this year, Saudi Arabia instituted some of the reform Mr. Ghamdi had called for.

It had been a rough year for the Commission. A video went viral of a girl yelping as she was thrown to the ground outside a Riyadh mall during a confrontation with the Commission, her abaya flying over her head and exposing her legs and torso. For many Saudis, “the Nakheel Mall girl” symbolized the Commission’s overreach.

Then the Commission arrested Ali al-Oleyani, a popular talk show host who often criticized religious figures. Photos appeared online of Mr. Oleyani in handcuffs with bottles of liquor. The photos were clearly staged and apparently had been leaked as a form of character assassination. Many people were outraged.

In April, the government responded with a surprise decree defanging the religious police. It denied them the power to arrest, question or pursue subjects, forced them to work with the police and advised them to be “gentle and kind” in their interactions with citizens. [...]

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