September 21, 2006 Inquiry & Analysis Series No. 294

Debate on Reform in Saudi Arabia

September 21, 2006 | By L. Azuri*
Saudi Arabia | Inquiry & Analysis Series No. 294

In late May 2006, an Islamist Saudi website published a statement condemning the reformists in Saudi Arabia. The statement, which was signed by 61 Saudi sheikhs, including university presidents, professors, attorneys, judges, educators and businessmen, warned that a "junta" had taken hold of the Saudi media and was acting in the service of external enemies in order to "Westernize" Saudi society - thus endangering society and its Islamic values. The statement called on the Saudi rulers to deny members of this "junta" positions of influence, and called on religious leaders to thwart the junta's plans.

The statement provoked angry responses from many Saudi columnists. Some pointed to what they called the statement's extremism, associating it with the Islamist movements that have made significant headway in Saudi Arabia in the last few years, and even noted similarities between the ideas expressed in the statement and some of Osama bin Laden's ideas. Other columnists expressed concern about the fact that the list of signatories included presiding judges and Education Department officials.

The following are excerpts from the statement, and from the critical reactions to it:

Excerpts from the Statement

*A Deviant Junta Has Taken Hold of the Saudi Media and is Endangering Islamic Society and Its Values

The anti-reform statement, published May 23, 2006 on the Saudi Islamist website "Nur Al-Islam" ( ), read:

"...We warn the nation against the junta, known for its deviant Westernizing tendencies, that has managed to influence decisions and to take over some institutions that have great influence on [Saudi] society's identity and future. Our country is subject to pressures and foreign scheming, and this junta has become the eyes and ears of the foreign enemy and a tool in its hands, relying on its support and achieving its goals. This junta is a very great danger to [Saudi] society. It is waging a campaign against [our] morals, working to give a bad name to Islamic values, and [trying] to change [our] society's identity. In addition, it is making an accelerated effort to dry up the sources of good [in society], to drag it into various kinds of deviancy, and to take it away from religion by curtailing [the authority of] religious institutions and cutting down the religious curricula in state and popular educational institutions...

"The reform that is necessary, and through which [we] can mend both matters of religion and the matters of this world, can only be achieved through adherence to the dictates of shari'a and its principles on reform - and not through the false claims made by those who corrupt our society...

"It is a measure of Allah's grace that all society opposes [this junta's] Westernizing program... This society has proven that it is aware [of the danger in] this program, no matter how much [the junta] has taken hold of the media platforms in the press and in the [media], no matter how many sick writers they have enlisted in favor of their patently Westernizing program, and no matter how much they have tried to impugn religious scholars, preachers, and judges in the eyes of the ruler in an attempt to keep them away from him and to keep him from hearing their message of reform. This junta is a small circle [of people], the majority of whom live in isolation and estrangement from their society; but in spite of this, they speak in the name of the majority and in the name of society…"

*"Since Women Have Great Influence on Society, [the Junta] Has Craftily Made Efforts to Westernize Them, Using the Patently Fraudulent Slogans of 'Women's Rights,' 'Liberating [Women] From Their Shackles' and 'Progress'"

"Since women have great influence on society, [the junta] has craftily made efforts to Westernize them, using the patently fraudulent slogans of 'women's rights,' 'liberating [women] from their shackles,' and 'progress' - all this in accordance with their deviant culture. They shed tears over women's current condition, and have not settled for just playing on their emotions, but have even dragged them into their [illusions] and deceit. Unfortunately, they have deceived some of the women, and used them as a tool in implementing their schemes...

"Since the media and its platforms [in Saudi Arabia] have considerable influence - whether constructive or destructive - they have tightened their control over it, and it has begun to express only their false opinions, with rare exceptions. Our media, at this stage, when it is in their hands, does not express the views of society, and does not reflect its identity; rather, it is directed towards undermining [Islamic] values and morals...

"They are acting like true hypocrites: They brandish deceptive slogans in order to market them via the media, yet act contrary to these slogans more than anyone else. They purport [to speak in the name of] patriotism, yet it is they who estrange themselves from the nation to the greatest degree, and act so much to lead its people astray. They maintain contacts with foreigners, and these contacts become known through these countries' embassies and through the Western media. It is they who write [for the Westerners] about the situation in the country, and write them reports on the school curricula and on [the status of] women. At the same time they [also] slander the 'ulama, claiming that the 'ulama support terror, and take advantage of the country's sensitivity to foreign criticism. Then they use these reports from the foreign media, to arouse fear in the country and among its leaders about the consequences of adhering to the Islamic way of life.

"These transparent and ignominious methods are well known to all, and our society today is aware of the danger inherent in the actions of this junta. They purport to respect the opinion of the other and to call for dialogue, but none are more extreme than they... Some of them say heretical things, stand by them, and do not retract them, and [others] promote abominations in their poems, stories, and writings. The writings of some of them are rife with heresy and atheism, and openly call for secularism, without hiding it. Some of them have established a satellite [television] station for the purpose of corrupting society's morals. Most of them were educated by atheist, communist, and pan-Arab parties. Some of them are senior [journalists] who hold managerial positions in some newspapers, and slander every shari'a institution in the country and every other positive aspect in society..."

*The Nation Expects the Rulers "To Stand as an Impenetrable Bulwark Against These Corrupting Currents of Thought Which Aim to Spread Vice in the Country"

"The nation as a whole, and in particular those promoting [true] reform [i.e. the religious conservatives], expect the rulers to stand as an impenetrable bulwark against these corrupting currents of thought, which aim to spread vice in the country and among the people. They must repulse everyone whose [dedication to] religion and loyalty are in question... and keep them away from positions of authority, media platforms, and platforms of instruction.

"The responsibility that lies with the 'ulama of Islam is great, and it includes the obligation to make value judgments, to express opinions, to warn, [and] to command good and to forbid evil. Both those who hold official positions and those who do not [hold such positions] have equal responsibility, and they must fulfill it. [They should] advise the rulers and call on the entire public [to do] what is good for the country and for the people, and warn them about the surrounding dangers and the [heretical] tendencies that lead [people] astray, for the 'ulama's statements, sermons, and fatwas have already had great influence in thwarting the scheme of these hypocrites.

"We call on the general public to expose the disgrace of this scheme, to warn against this Westernizing program and against being deceived by it... Finally, we call on this deviant junta to [return] to the right path, and likewise [we call on] all those who followed them or were deluded by them to make sincere repentance..." [1]

Saudi Columnists Criticize the Statement

*The Statement of the 61 Sheikhs is Reminiscent of bin Laden's Call to Murder Intellectuals

Reformist Saudi columnist Mashari Al-Dhaidi wrote in the London daily Al-Sharq Al-Awsat: "The question is not whether [people] have or do not have the right to publish statements and to collect signatures, but rather whether the publication of such statements, using such language and with such incitement, is acceptable. We must take into account the fact that the accusations [made by the authors] of the statement, and their characterization of [the intellectuals] who disagree with them, amount to incitement to murder [intellectuals]. [Under the influence of this statement] the [public] might remain indifferent to the - hypothetical - possibility that some excitable youth might take the statement [literally], translating the words into deeds, and might think that it is his duty [according to] shari'a to grant the people and the country a respite from one of these 'prophets of heresy.'

"Osama bin Laden's latest statement [of April 23, 2006], which incites to murder intellectuals, poets, and authors, is not far distant from [the sheikhs' statement] at all. On the contrary, there is some overlap between the imagery in bin Laden's statement and [the imagery] used in the statement of the 61 [sheikhs]. There is incitement against the same figures, but while bin Laden mentions people by name and explicitly urges 'to kill' them, the 61 [sheikhs], in insinuation that sounds very much like a pronouncement, describe them as being despicable hypocrites, and urge 'to fight' them and to speak harshly against them, as was done to the hypocrites in Medina in the Prophet's time. That is to say, the difference [between bin Laden's statement and the sheikhs' statement] is one of tone, not of type." [2]

*The Sheikhs' Statement is Part of the Continued Spread of Political Islam in Saudi Arabia

Qinan Al-Ghamidi, former editor of the Saudi daily Al-Watan, wrote: "It is clear that the signatories [to the statement] think that they are the only ones who understand Islam, and that the millions of Saudis - the prominent figures as well as regular citizens - should adopt this understanding of theirs. [They think that] whoever strays from this understanding does not properly understand the religion, to say the least... These statements are a healthy phenomenon, since they reveal opinions and insights which need to surface and to be discussed openly...

"[The signatories to the statement] represent the ideology of extremism and fanaticism which is a natural part of the expansion of political Islam in the [Saudi] kingdom that has been going on for more than a quarter of a century. It is likely that the ideas and aims of political Islam, which exploits religion in order to achieve its goals, were behind the statement of the 61 [sheikhs], and, before that, [behind] the statement of the 130, and later [behind] the statement of the 14 doctors. [3] It is likely that they are all innocent - that this current [of political Islam] deceived them, exploited their sentiments and their natural [propensity] for religion, and thus brought them to the extremity at which they have arrived - [that is,] to a limited understanding of religious tolerance and [to the belief] that this [limited] understanding must be forced on others in any possible way...

"We have an historic opportunity to understand the views, the ideas, and the goals of this [Islamist] current, [now that they] are on public display, and then to discuss and debate them on the various platforms and in the appropriate forums, which need to hear their voice and to argue with them and to present [arguments that are] stronger than theirs, until they understand the danger towards which they are leading their country and their homeland - a danger which lies in the ideology they have adopted. This is what we must do on a national scale. Pushing them away and setting preconditions [for engaging them in dialogue] will [only] deepen the tragedy." [4]

*Most Signatories to the Statement Are Educators

Attorney 'Abd Al-Rahman Al-Lahem wrote in the Saudi daily Al-Watan: [5] "Freedom of expression is one of the fundamental rights of man, and no one can dispute it or curtail it. Everyone has [the right] to express his opinion in complete freedom through legitimate channels. However, the exploitation of a particular issue in order to stir up the streets with extreme language, using religion in order to impugn the beliefs of others, and accusing anyone who disagrees with you of having turned away from religion... and of striving to spread corruption and abomination - these are things that cannot in any way be included under freedom of expression. This [kind of rhetoric] only excites the emotions of the youth, who understand, out of all this charged atmosphere, only the sharp angles and the total solutions that are likely to lead us to a new wave of accusations of apostasy...

"The positive aspect in this statement is that it answers many questions that have surfaced in the last few years concerning the education system and its curriculum. Did the curriculum contribute to the heightening of the extremist atmosphere, or does [this atmosphere] exist in our society and find expression, naturally, in our curriculum?... If we examine the names of the signatories to the statement and their [professional] positions, we find that most of them have a role in education, or have held such a role in the past. Moreover, [we find that they are involved] in the most sensitive stage of education - the university [education] - where students have already reached the stage of willingness to accept ideas and to embrace ideologies. So how can we be angry or amazed by our students' tendency towards extremism and towards embracing extremist and exaggerated ideas, [when] their studies are, or were, supervised by this kind of group? Is it conceivable that a professor who belongs to this group could teach his students values such as dialogue, tolerance, acceptance of the other, and coexistence with someone who disagrees with them?!..." [6]

*Presiding Judges Are Among the Signatories to the Statement

Columnist Muhammad bin 'Abd Al-Latif Aal Al-Sheikh wrote in the Saudi daily Al-Jazirah: "It is not surprising that only 61 people out of millions of Saudis signed an extremist, irresponsible, and caustic statement like this one. There are extremists everywhere in the world. We are not the only ones suffering from this extremist group of people. [But] the point that I want to make here is that two of the signatories to the statement are judges: 'Abdallah bin Nasir Al-Suleiman, a judge at the Supreme Court in Riyadh, and Muhammad bin Suleiman Al-Mas'ud, a judge at the Supreme Court in Jeddah - both of whom, according to the statement, are still presiding... This demonstrates the gravity of the situation in our judicial institutions. [We have reached] the point where a judge - in whom the ruler has put his trust, and who is expected, in light of his public role, to be objective and to stay clear of such polemics and of political parties and blocs - [turns into] a member of [this] bloc..." [7]

*"The State and the People Have Decided to Enter the 21st Century While Adhering to the 'Middle Way'"

Reformist columnist Hussein Shubakshi wrote in the London daily Al-Sharq Al-Awsat: "Publishing statements in order to express certain positions is a positive step in itself, and it is undoubtedly preferable to someone strapping on an explosives belt, videotaping himself before committing an act of terror, [and then] exploding himself, taking innocent civilians with him. But the larger problem arises when a statement includes an explicit and blatant lie, an outright fabrication and despicable deception. This is exactly what occurred with the recent statement that was published by a group [of people] sharing a common extremist view, [who want] to impose their approach by force, through a narrow and feeble understanding of what they believe to be Islam...

"As for the topic of Westernization, it is best to call things by their name. The state and the people have decided to enter the 21st century armed with the wasatiya [the 'middle way'] in religion and in knowledge. They should not heed the call of those who want to bury them in centuries-old caves.

"As for the topic of al-walaa wal-baraa, to which they urge us to adhere: [8] They have their own approach, which contradicts the biography of the Prophet Muhammad, who conducted a dialogue with the Christians in his mosque, and had [good] relations with his Jewish neighbors. It is surprising that they call for al-walaa wal-baraa when they themselves drive American 4x4s, and some of them call one another on cell phones made in Finland, America, Korea, Sweden, and Japan, not to mention the fact that they publish their ideas on websites that belong to [people of] every group, color, and religion..." [9]

L. Azuri is a Research Fellow at MEMRI.


[2] Al-Sharq Al-Awsat (London), May 30, 2006.

[3] The statement of the 130 doctors and sheikhs, published on March 31, 2006, opposed women's employment outside the home, and generally opposed gender equality based on the claim that the shari'a designates men to be superior to women. For the text of the statement, see:

The statement of the 14 doctors, published on January 28, 2006, called on heads of medical schools to ensure that male students examine only male patients and female students examine only female patients. For the text of the statement, see:

[4] Al-Watan (Saudi Arabia), June 4, 2006.

[5] 'Abd Al-Rahman Al-Lahem represented Professor 'Abdallah Al-Hamid, 'Ali Al-Damini, and Dr. Matruk Al-Falih, who were arrested on March 16, 2004 for the crime of agitating for a constitutional monarchy in Saudi Arabia. They were charged with using Western terminology in their calls for political reform. 'Abd Al-Lahem was arrested in early November 2004 for criticizing the way the case was being conducted, and he publicly called for the release of his clients. All four were granted amnesty by the king in August 2005. Al-Yawm (Saudi Arabia), August 9, 2005.

[6] Al-Watan (Saudi Arabia), May 30, 2006.

[7] Al-Jazirah (Saudi Arabia), June 4, 2006.

[8] Al-walaa wal-baraa is a Wahhabi concept meaning absolute mutual loyalty among Muslims and absolute detachment from heretical Muslims and non-Muslims.

[9] Al-Sharq Al-Awsat (London), June 6, 2006.

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