Saudi Arabia Raising Level Of Dialogue And Freedom Of Discussion – OpEd
By Arab News
By Ali Bluwi
Given the status of books, studies and researches, we saw the vital cultural interactions that the Kingdom has witnessed over the last few days.
These interactions indicate that the reform project — sponsored by Custodian of the Two Holy Mosques — has been on track in a gradual, yet wise way.
During the 27th Janadriyah Festival, women’s strong presence was seen. Some expected that some of the cultural activities included in the festival would invite the wrath of some religious figures. Yet, the appointment of Sheikh Abdul Latif bin Abdul Aziz Al-Sheikh as head of the Commission for the Promotion of Virtue and Prevention of Vice led to the rectification of the course of the commission. The Sheikh’s statements were clear from the get-go. He said that they did not need volunteers to control the tools of the work on the ground. The decision was very important as it addressed the flaw that hurt the commission. This was true especially with those who were known as lacking discipline. They might have done that with good intentions but without knowledge of the borders of the mandate of the commission. The Sheikh’s visit to the book fair sent a message to those who called for boycotting the event. In a signal that the commission does not adopt the boycott call, he said, “everyone sleeps on the side that makes him feel comfortable”.
This change has contributed to raising the level of dialogue and the freedom of internal discussion free of religious or official censorship. It also reinforced the status of the commission particularly when the head of the commission talked about the need to attract talents. Additionally, the head of the commission clarified that their methodology is based on the Promotion of Virtue and Prevention of Vice. In his words, the commission is not against society. In fact, the closeness of the head of the commission to decision makers and security officials has made him more capable to understand the necessity to restructure the work to be in line with the original objectives.
During a question-and-answer session at the Marriott, some officials had to be on alert to defend the positions that they hold. Dr. Maisa’ Khawajah was a great moderator of the strongest session, about Arab intellectuals and changes. Poet Jiries Samawi, who attended the session, expressed his admiration of the cultural vitality that Saudis enjoy. He said what he had watched today compelled him to reconsider his previous impressions. The session on fighting corruption was hot especially when one of the intellectuals called on fighting corruption as long as the commission enjoys the direct support of the king.
A week later, the second Saudi intellectual forum was held. Despite the fact that the critical side was present, the language of the cultural discourse was new. They called on the Ministry of Culture to implement the recommendations of the first forum. The attendance was by and large independent from any religious pressure. And yet, they confirmed that the Saudi principles offer moral and ethical dimensions that formulated their personalities and identity. Simultaneously, they argued that they must have a connection with the future and its tools. Interestingly, the Saudi cultural discourse is quiet because it has never been polluted with ideologies or political manipulations. During the book fair for 2012, we noticed the soft rather than the harsh presence of religious men. Moreover, religious men shared their experience in literature and culture.
On the side of the book fair, Dr. Rashid Al-Khion — who came from southern part of Iraq — gave an interesting lecture. He said that he never conceived that there would be seminars on political Islam with such depth with no differences although differences in opinion are a good matter. Even though, he faced some questions that were based on cultural and religious knowledge. In fact, researchers on political Islam confirmed that this field is relevant to politics while Salafism is about the Holy Qur’an and Sunnah. Meaning, Salafism has a better and more accurate understanding for Islamic religion. One of the participants took issue with Dr. Khion’s logic in distinguishing religion with political Islam and radical Islam. He argued that Islam is one.
Earlier this year, Custodian of the Two Holy Mosques met members of the national committee for dialogue. In a succinct way he told them he was seeking their experience and knowledge in running the affairs of the state to help. He said modestly that he was in the service of the people. He praised their work and hoped that this would be part of his holistic project for reform. Noticeably, the king’s significant words were in line with the series of decisive measures regarding the Saudi state and its society. The king issued a royal decree to allow for women to take part in municipality election and to be members of the upcoming Consultative Council. Additionally, he established the anti-corruption commission that belong to the Royal Court directly. For the commission to be taken seriously, the king ordered all state and governmental departments to answer the commission without delay.
It is worth mentioning that a researcher in one of the research centers in London and a specialist in the Arab region came to Riyadh and met a great number of journalists, intellectuals and businessmen. He asked me how the Kingdom was coping with the changes. I told him that the Kingdom is developing in an accelerated way at economic, educational, media and cultural levels. There are some grand industrial cities and there is a new bureaucratic spirit in the state. More importantly, there is a possibility in presenting any case before the king. The same researcher communicated with me quite often and I told him that he needed to read the anthropological history of the tribe and the state and how values change. There is a margin for pluralism in opinion but there are some principles that no single Saudi will ever compromise. Here I refer to loyalty to Islam, the state, and its political position.