In the past year, the liberal stream in Saudi Arabia, comprising intellectuals, writers, students and women's rights activists, has grown more vociferous in its criticism of the social situation in the country, of the regime, and of the clerics. For example, in March 2012, students at several universities protested over poor study conditions and over regime corruption; the same month, students circulated a petition condemning the authoritarianism of the regime and religious establishment and calling for freedom of opinion and the establishment of civil society organizations; and on May 7, 2012, liberal activists announced "Liberalism Day," an initiative to acquire recognition and acceptance for liberal ideas. In addition, there has been growing criticism of the religious police and its treatment of civilians.
Another new phenomenon, emerging in the city of Jeddah, is that of cafes, aimed mainly at young people, which serve as venues for culture activities and debates conducted in an open and pluralistic atmosphere.
The growing boldness of the liberal stream has aroused the ire of the religious establishment in the kingdom, and caused clerics to warn of a growing wave of "atheism" in the country.
This report will review some of the developments, and the responses of the religious establishment.
New Phenomenon In Jeddah: Cafes Offering Culture Activity, Debates
In the recent months, several Arab websites have reported on a new trend in the port city of Jeddah: young people spend time at cafes that offer free internet access and a library, and host encounters with leading thinkers and writers. Literary cafes are a prevalent phenomenon in the West and also in some Arab countries, but in Saudi Arabia they are a new phenomenon, which the religious establishment is trying to stop.
The Cafes – "A Cultural Haven" For Young People
According to a January 2012 article on Qantara, a website dedicated to dialogue with the Muslim world, sponsored by the German Foreign Ministry, the Jeddah cafes are a haven for anyone who enjoys intellectual exchange and loves the world of books, and is looking for a place with an ideal cultural atmosphere. They encourage young writers, and foster cultural growth by hosting encounters with writers and debates on issues of art, culture, religion and current affairs.
Raed Saleh, a cultural activist at one of the cafes, said: "Our primary goal is to provide a place for young people combining intellectual development and recreation. We hold gatherings at the cafe, since they contribute to the development of [social] awareness and education." The website inshad.com shows photos of Café Andalusia, one of the most well-known and prominent in Jeddah, which hosts meetings with poets and authors. The café has separate areas for families and young people, and offers a library, free Internet access, and a television on which patrons can watch "fascinating educational programs."
Saudi journalist Amira Kashgari told the German Deutsche Welle TV channel: "The cafes are like civil organizations that teach about the culture of the city, and are among the basic facilities that cities, especially major cities, must have. Jeddah cultivates these cafes, which are considered an important phenomenon that should be accepted and supported... The cafes have changed our perception of culture... Young people have begun developing an interest in culture via gatherings, films and cultural meetings, and not just by reading books..."
Kashgari added that women play an important role in the changes occurring in Saudi society: "...This is expressed by their presence at meetings, despite the objections to it... Women can take part in intellectual and cultural debates in an amazing way, which indicates that they hold the key to change in our society, if they only believed it..."
Café in Jeddah.
Reports have also mentioned cafes for women only. Alarabiya.net posted an article on hookah cafes for women in Jeddah and Al-Medina. It claimed that this activity is enjoyable and relaxing, and helps the patrons form friendships and social ties. In 2009, the Saudi daily 'Okaz reported that a Saudi woman named Hissa Al-'Inzi had opened the first women's café in Jeddah, where women can meet without smoking or drinking alcohol, and which features a library and hosts gatherings on culture and women's issues. A commercial posted on Youtube advertises another women's cafe in Jeddah, which includes a meeting and lecture hall, a library, computers with Internet access, and more.
Women's café in Jeddah.
The Religious Establishment Objects To The Cafes
The emergence of Jeddah's cafes has met with objection from the religious establishment. On December 18, 2011, several Arab websites reported that religious police in the city had raided the Jasour café during a debate between young people and a former writer for the London daily Al-Hayat, 'Abdallah Humaid Al-Din. According to the report, the officers broke up the meeting and took Humaid Al-Din to headquarters for questioning. Humaid Al-Din told the e-daily Anhaa that he did not know why the religious police had come to the café.
According to the Qantara website, the incident caused a stir among young people in Jeddah and caused attendance at the cafes to drop. Fata Naqib, who coordinated the meeting at the Jasour café, said in response to the incident: "Dealing with cultural activity by preventing it is not constructive. Young people have energy that must be released in places where it can be [positively] utilized. The dispersal [of the meeting] had an [adverse] effect for a while, but eventually it helped us... learn what steps can be taken [to deal with the authorities]. Young people will remain the moving spirit behind these cafes."
The Saudi daily Al-Marsad reported recently that the Jasour café, which opened some two years ago, has been closed because it allowed gender mixing, provided books with liberal content contradicting the shari'a, offered a platform for intellectuals, and held activity during prayer times.
On June 27, 2012, the Saudi daily Sabaq reported that the Jeddah religious police had arrested two Sudanese men and three Saudi women for smoking a hookah together at one of the city's cafes.
The Jasour café
Increased Regulation Of Jeddah Cafes
In July 2011, Jeddah Mayor Dr. Hani Bin Muhammad Abu Ras ordered the Department of Licenses and Commercial Control to monitor businesses that provide free Internet access, following complaints received at the municipality regarding violations during Internet browsing. Abu Ras demanded that a committee be established and that searches be conducted of businesses where violations allegedly take place.
Department director Dr. Bashir Abu Al-Najm said: "Department inspections have recently brought to our attention that many violations take place at these cafes. Some don't have a clerk in charge, [and even when there is one,] he is not always present; other cafes employ non-Saudi clerks... who permit small children to enter the premises..."
Saudi Cleric: Jeddah Cafes Spread Atheism
Saudi cleric Khader bin Sanad warned that "atheist cells" are emerging in Saudi Arabia, particularly in Jeddah, because Islamic da'wa is "limited" there. In an interview with Al-Arabiya TV, bin Sanad expressed concern over the absence of a jurisprudence center or shari'a university in Jeddah, and called to establish Islamic universities in the city. He said that certain Saudi writers at the cafes incite youths to question their faith and hold atheist activities, sell them books with forbidden content, and express opinions that poison their minds. He rejected the claim that it is the strictness of the religious establishment in the country that is the actual cause of the spread of atheism among young people.
Saudi Columnist: Supervise Reading Material At Cafes
In his article "Cafes Spreading Atheism" in the e-daily Al-Masdar, columnist Mash'al Al-Jaber wrote: "... Signs indicate that [certain forces] are trying to destroy our faith and spread ideas that question [the existence of] our Creator. [They do this] by exploiting places where young people congregate without supervision... This matter is wicked and grave, and we must not remain silent over it... Our country provides adequate censorship of incoming books and publications. However, with the rapid development of electronic [media], control has become difficult and even impossible, and the Communications Ministry [can only supervise] official publications, [namely] publishers, libraries, and materials entering the country via the various ports...
"However, in the recent period, these measures have been circumvented by the spread of cafes that allow themselves to establish public libraries containing books and other reading and religious materials without any supervision by the Ministry of Communications. Among these cafes are... Aromashi, Jasour, and Andalusia, all in Jeddah... and I do not know whether there are similar ones in other cities.
"The devout have used social networks to warn against the books found [at these cafes] that [negatively] impact tolerant Islamic faith, especially since most visitors to these cafes are young people who have difficulty distinguishing between truth and lies... I call on the state to require cafes [of this sort], which aim to educate their patrons via books and such, to obtain a license from the Communications Ministry...
"I hope that a committee is established soon by the Communications Ministry and the general directorate of the religious police to examine these books and make sure they contain no corruptive foreign ideas aimed at harming our youth – because [young people] are the foundation of the future, and we want their faith to be pure and according to the path of the Sunna..."
Saudi Columnist: The Cafes Are An Important Development In Saudi Arabia
Conversely, columnist Yasser Al-Ghaslan defended the cafes in the Saudi daily Al-Watan: "Despite the unjust attacks on the cafes [that cater to lovers] of culture and dialogue, which have begun to spread in Saudi Arabia, [these cafes] are in fact one of the most important venues for exchanging ideas that our society has seen. [They lead to] an important realization that Saudi society is no [longer] the same human structure, comprised of one spectrum, with one agenda, one interpretation, and one understanding of life...
"How can some accuse these ideological gatherings, even if they do deal with some bold ideas... of [encouraging] atheism and [gender] mixing, [when] groups that spread hatred... and extremism are accused of nothing?... The relative freedom of expression that our society currently enjoys can never lead to the development of the ideology that some describe as total atheism...
"Our society is undoubtedly undergoing a stage of deep thinking and pondering. We must not sabotage these meetings and pluralistic exchanges of opinion. They should remain platforms for an exchange of ideas that benefits [the participants] spiritually and mentally... Each side can present its ideological treasures..."
Saudi Liberals Declare "Liberalism Day"
On May 3, 2012, several Arab websites reported that Saudi liberal activists had declared May 7 "Liberalism Day in Saudi Arabia," and assessed that this would deepen the schism between the liberal and religious streams in the country. A communiqué issued by liberal activists stated that this move was "motivated by the shifting circumstances, since, it added, life in Saudi Arabia is marked by a tedious monotony imposed by the religion as a means of controlling the various sectors of society."
Su'ad Al-Shammari, secretary-general of the Free Saudi Liberal Network, said that the purpose of this day was to gain recognition for the liberal stream in Saudi Arabia, and called it an unprecedented initiative in which liberals dared to identify themselves as liberal. Al-Shammari accused the Saudi religious establishment of suppressing the liberal stream and of taking over the curricula, mosque pulpits, fatwas, and the media. She also accused the religious police of invading the public's privacy and said that Saudi Arabia suffered from every conceivable "social ill."
Saudi liberal activist Su'ad Al-Shammari
On March 30, 2012, a website posted a petition signed by 2,442 Saudi youths, mostly students, opposing the iron grip that the regime and religious establishment have on society. The petition stated: "We are a group of young activists who are working to fulfill the goals of the shari'a, which we proudly uphold. We are aware of our rights and obligations, and object to anyone questioning the [level] of our Islamic or our national [commitment]. We also object to any stream speaking for us and claiming a monopoly over the right to educate us, guide us, advise us and be our patron, under the pretext of defending us from ideas that contradict its ideology. [Furthermore,] we object to [any stream] fighting its personal battles against its rivals under the pretext of defending us."
The petition also demanded an end to the exclusion of the other and the power struggles among various streams in the country – struggles that it said were "devoid of faith in pluralism, freedom, civil society, and a homeland that contains us all" – and for inculcating values of dialogue, enabling freedom of opinion, and establishing civil society institutions.
Following the release of the communiqué on Liberalism Day, Saudi websites and forums published anti-liberal comments, along with attempts to kill the initiative. A page titled "Against Saudi Liberals" was launched on Facebook, as well as a page titled "No to Secularism and Liberalism in Saudi Arabia," which presented pictures of prominent Saudi clerics apparently revered by the page initiators. Several Islamic websites likewise published articles against Liberalism in Saudi Arabia.
Saudi Columnist: There Is No Such Thing As "Saudi Liberalism"
In an article on lojainiat.com, columnist Muhammad Ibrahim Fai' claimed that liberals in Saudi Arabia are trying to Westernize Saudi society by distancing it from the values of the religion: "The liberal Su'ad Al-Shammari, who managed to divide Saudi society into a religious stream and a liberal stream... emerged along with a handful [of other activists] whom she calls Saudi liberals, and declared May 7 'Liberalism Day in Saudi Arabia.' They are the first to know that there is no such thing as 'Saudi Liberalism'; there are [only] ideas of 'Westernization' that [these activists] have fallen for and wish to impose on society.
"[These ideas are promoted by] Westernized people, who have begun marketing and spreading them [in the country] under the pretext of 'reform.' [They brought them] from European countries where they studied or were influenced by the culture, after they easily shed many of the values of religion and society and began opposing [these values] as 'close-minded'... and 'backward' and blaming [these problems] on 'religion.' They also called the old values of society 'obsolete traditions'...
"Our group of Westernized Saudis has announced that it is rebelling against the values of religion and society and distancing itself from them... The liberals try to hide behind claims of 'reform'... and behind terms such as 'enlightened,' 'reformist' and '[human] rights activist'. [However,] the truth is that they are not sincere when they speak of reform, since reform takes place while safeguarding religion, customs, and tradition, and not by foregoing them..."
Saudi Clerics: Articles By Liberal Writers On Allah, Muhammad Are Offensive
A number of liberal Saudi columnists recently wrote articles about Allah and the Prophet Muhammad, in a brave attempt to initiate public discussion on subjects considered taboo by the Saudi religious establishment. Saudi clerics, not surprisingly, deemed the articles offensive to Allah and Muhammad. On June 10, 2012, following the publication of these articles, Saudi clerics issued a communiqué warning of a spreading wave of atheism in the kingdom.
The communiqué stated that a "gang of infidels" had dared to curse Allah and Muhammad, and to slight Islamic law, noting the following writers: Hamza Kashgari, columnist for the Saudi daily Al-Bilad, whose recent tweets were perceived as offensive to Allah and Muhammad; Badria Al-Bashar, columnist for the London-based daily Al-Hayat, who defended Kashgari's tweets; Hissa Aal Al-Sheikh, columnist for the Saudi daily Al-Watan, whose tweeted poem praising the voice of a Saudi singer was interpreted as praising the singer's voice above that of Allah; 'Abdallah Humaid Al-Din, another Al-Hayat columnist, who published a book that sparked controversy in Saudi Arabia and which, according to opponents, includes atheistic concepts; and Raif Badawi, owner of the website Free Saudi Liberals, whose recent statements were perceived as disparaging one of the Prophetic Hadiths. Badawi is among the founders of Saudi Arabia's liberal movement. In mid-June, a Saudi human rights activist reported that he had been arrested for unknown reasons. According to reports on several websites, a Saudi court recently sentenced him to five years in prison and fined him three million riyals (approximately US$800,000) for "insulting the divine essence."
Saudi liberal activist Raif Badawi
In the communiqué, the clerics harshly condemned these writers, who they said perpetuate atheist ideas, and called for them to be prosecuted before a religious court, while criticizing the Communications Ministry for permitting their articles to be published.
Sheikh Saleh Al-Fawzan, a member of the Council of Senior Clerics, the supreme Saudi religious body, stated that anyone who commits heresy against Islam and does not recant must be killed. According to Al-Fawzan, freedom of opinion has no place in matters of faith and religion, and the killing of atheists protects the faith against disrespect.
In response to the communiqué, Sheikh 'Abd Al-'Aziz bin 'Abdallah Aal Al-Sheikh, grand mufti of Saudi Arabia and head of the Council of Senior Clerics, dismissed the rumors of atheism spreading in the country. According to him, it is "a harsh claim that requires proof," and generalizations must not be drawn from one wayward individual.
Senior Saudi cleric Sheikh 'Abd Al-Rahman Al-Barrak published an article on Islamlight.net, in which he criticized liberal writers in Saudi Arabia: "... In many Muslim countries, atheism and disrespect towards Allah and His Messenger are not [considered] strange, but their appearance in the Saudi kingdom is indeed strange and frightening. Writers and speakers express these [opinions], and later find people to defend them and search for various interpretations [that exonerate them]... This reflects a worsening of the sickness of heresy against Islam, so much so that some writers in our newspapers argue the limits of heresy, as if defending the atheists who dare [disrespect] Allah and His Messenger with heretical words [of their own] that justify the [atheists'] heresy..."
* Y. Admon is a research fellow at MEMRI.
 'Okaz (Saudi Arabia), May 10, 2009.
 'Okaz (Saudi Arabia), May 10, 2009.
 Al-marsd.com, June 7, 2012.
 Sabaq (Saudi Arabia), July 27, 2012.
 'Okaz (Saudi Arabia), July 19, 2011.
 Al-Watan (Saudi Arabia), July 1, 2012.
 Syrianmasah.net, May 6, 2012. The Free Saudi Liberal Network can be found at http://www.humanf.org:8686/vb/. The website is only intermittently active, apparently due to attempts by the Saudi religious establishment to shut it down.
 Image source: sayidaty.net.
 See MEMRI Special Dispatch No.4516, "Controversy in Saudi Arabia Over Journalist's Tweets about the Prophet Muhammad," February 22, 2012, Controversy in Saudi Arabia Over Journalist's Tweets about the Prophet Muhammad.
 News.swalif.com, June 2, 2012.
 Sabaq (Saudi Arabia), May 8, 2012.
 Humaid Al-Din argued that people should not to be divided into "believers" and "infidels," because "takfir [accusing others of heresy] belongs to a past era. Today, there are those who believe in Allah and those who do not. We must not sentence... the latter to an eternity in Hell." Almokhtsar.com, April 20, 2012.
 News.swalif.com, February 26, 2012.
 Rasid.com, June 19, 2012.
 Al-Quds Al-Arabi (London), July 22, 2012.
 Image source: rasid.com, June 19, 2012.
 Almoslim.net, June 10, 2012. It should be mentioned that similar incidents took place in Kuwait. A criminal court sentenced a Kuwaiti singer to 10 years in prison for insulting the Prophet and his wives on Twitter. Alweeam.com, June 4, 2012. The Kuwaiti parliament approved a draft law permitting to execute those who offend God, the Koran, or the Prophet and his wives. Islammemo.cc, May 3, 2012. However, the Emir of Kuwait, Sheikh Sabah Al-Ahmad, rejected this law. Alshaab.org, June 6, 2012.
 'Okaz (Saudi Arabia), June 11, 2012.