The challenge of religious speech in the kingdom
NOWADAYS, or at any point in the near future, the Saudi religious institution is expected to face a big challenge: Whether to continue with its usual solemnity and prestige gained over the past decades or to lose much of its former credibility, acceptance and influence over Saudi citizens. This discussion of such a sensitive and critical issue requires an objective and systematic methodology by identifying the problem, its reasons, and exploring potential solutions.
As for the problem, religious speech in the Kingdom no longer conforms to modern life and issues. Today, life is totally different from the life at the time of the Prophet (peace be upon him) and his companions, so it is inappropriate to try to implement rules and follow a lifestyle that occurred centuries ago without considering the rapid and unprecedented changes of modern living. The status of Saudi women and youth including the restrictive rules and constant effort to monitor and control their life is just one example of the issue.
Certainly, there are many reasons behind such a big challenge. The quicker rhythm of life has created a new generation that favors new ways of thinking and questions many social and cultural traditions. The growing impact of information via the Internet and new forms of communication is causing our citizens to learn about other cultures and consider other ideas that may call into question the traditional religious dogmas.
Current religious speech also is unlikely to be as well accepted by young people as in the past, since it relies on rigid ideas and customs. A new generation living in the 21st century is less likely to accept religious ideas without question. Further, the doctrines imposed on the thinking and minds of the Saudis by the religious institution together with the mono-opinion and the deliberate and constant attempts to remove others (or other schools of thought) from expressing their opinions freely is likely to seem intolerable to the new generation of Saudis who spend most of their time on the Internet and have access to watch all world TV channels.
However, despite the above, any challenge which may negatively affect the role of the religious institution within the Kingdom should not be welcomed for two reasons. First, such institution has been the main and central pillar of Saudi society upon which our political institution has depended from the period of the rule of King Abdul Aziz, the founder of Saudi Arabia, until the period of the rule of the Custodian of the Two Holy Mosques King Abdullah. Thus, all aspects of Saudi life depend upon this institution, especially since the Kingdom is the center of Islam and the site of the two holy mosques. Secondly, although Saudi Arabia has achieved much success in many areas, the Kingdom is still not well developed as far as more independent establishments or institutions willing and able to lead and govern Saudi society are concerned. Instead, the Kingdom is based upon only two institutions: One political and the other religious. There are no other institutions that can currently contribute to the advancement of the country. The country needs actual and fundamental change now.
Saudi Arabia now has a golden opportunity to deal with these issues through three significant strategic actions:
First, the government is now required to intervene to build and/or rectify the course and speech of religious institution to make it conform to modern life and lift the control, domination and guardianship imposed on the Saudi people by religious authorities. The recent royal order by King Abdullah to limit the authority to issue fatwa (religious edicts) to members of the Council of Senior Religious Scholars is really a positive step forward. It is hoped that other resolutions will soon follow, including a renewed emphasis on respecting the freedom, privacy and choices of the Saudi people. There should no longer be any opportunity given to those who want to continue to control the thinking, minds and life of Saudi citizens in an unacceptable manner that clearly conflicts with the reality and challenges of this age. Undoubtedly, such a way of distorted thinking is not Islam, as Islam promotes freedom, peace and respect of others.
Secondly, it is high time to start building real political institutions in order to provide long-term stability to the country, instead of just having two institutions, and to participate in building and developing the Kingdom in order to promote democracy and freedom of speech and expression as in other countries of the world.
Finally, it is now time for reconsidering the pace of building our civil society institutions and putting aside the wrong notion that such institutions will be a potential threat to the country. In reality, such institutions can be the main partner with the government in all its decisions and can reduce the government’s huge burden and responsibility by being part of constructive decision-making and problem solving.
— Dr. Khalid Alnowaiser is a Saudi lawyer and columnist. He can be reached at [email protected]