March 6, 2012 saw the opening of the annual international book fair in Riyadh, held under the aegis of the Saudi Culture Ministry. Security presence was heavy, in order to prevent disruptions by the religious police, as happened in last year's fair, and also at this year's Janadriyah, an annual Saudi festival of culture, heritage and arts organized by the National Guard. In the last few years, these culture events have become one of the numerous major points of contention in the struggle between the Islamists and liberals in Saudi Arabia.
Saudi Preachers: The Book Fairs Exhibit Books that Insult Allah and the Prophet, and Undermine the Truths of Islam
On March 11, 2012, a group of 70 Saudi preachers issued a fatwa regarding book fairs, which said: "In recent years, our country has been cultivating various book fairs, local and international, which exhibit the most useful books in the fields of shari'a, literature, economics, social [studies], etc. However, a small group [of people] wants to use these book fairs, or [at least] some of them, as a means to introduce perverted literature [into Saudi Arabia]. [These people] have poisoned the event[s] with the aim of legitimizing ideological anarchy in [Saudi] society – anarchy that is deceptively termed 'openness towards [other] cultures.'"
The fatwa complained that the international book fair is uncensored and therefore exhibits books that undermine the truths of Islam by questioning the Koran; insulting Allah, the Prophet and his Companions, and discussing deviant and pagan religions, as well as books about sex and various abominations. Moreover, it said, the fair allows gender mixing.
Liberal Saudi Columnist: "Nobody Has the Right to Keep People from Reading Whatever They Want"
Conversely, liberal Saudi columnist Turki Al-Dakhil published a number of articles in the Saudi government daily Al-Watan denouncing those who oppose the book fair and the Janadriyah festival. His March 13 column attacked the preachers' fatwa: "The communiqué issued the day before yesterday by 70 preachers regarding the [international] book fair focuses on small details of the fair, and presents it as one in which all the books contradict the [Islamic] faith and shari'a. But such details do not reflect the whole [picture]. The fair includes many books in the domains of development, literature, law and history. It is a mistake to reduce it to a [controversial] statement in some poem or story. The fair is much more than that."
Al-Dakhil warned against the danger of allowing the clerics to force their personal views on society, saying: "The preachers have a right to object to and even boycott [the fair], but I object to [the notion of] measuring all social activities by their ideological yardstick. This is an error, and a dangerous one. It is an error because people are different, and society is not composed of millions of preachers. There are also jurists, historians, engineers and doctors. Therefore, fighting [to ban] every kind of book except one means a lack of openness and variety. The communiqué is [also] dangerous because it expects Saudi Arabia, its society and its citizens to go against reality. Nobody has the right to keep people from reading whatever they want. Allah commanded us to be reasonable and realistic. Our duty to ourselves and to our minds is to read whatever we want, [each] according to his values and degree of piety... The communiqué goes against [the spirit of] the times, against history and against the demands of life [in today's world]... Must we turn our country into a copy of the Taliban [state]? [No,] we must march forward with [the rest of] the world, according to our values and religion..."
In another article in Al-Watan, Al-Dakhil stressed the importance of pluralism to social development: "The strength of Saudi society [lies in] the debate we are holding among ourselves... Some of our [cultural] events, such as the book fair and the Janadriyah festival, have become issues of contention. [But] despite their negative aspects, I believe that, in the long term, they benefit society. Peoples that do not live in [a state of] ideological and social ferment are [as good as] dead..."
Yet another article in the series criticized Saudi clerics who oppose cultural and social openness and set themselves up as society's moral guardians, without possessing the necessary religious knowledge. Al-Dakhil said that these clerics "have not joined the march of history."