September 3, 2020 Special Dispatch No. 8918

Saudi Columnist's Call For Separation Of State And Religion Sparks Public Debate

September 3, 2020
Saudi Arabia | Special Dispatch No. 8918

In the recent months, several articles were published in the Saudi press dealing with issues of secularity and the civil state.  Prominent among them were two columns by liberal journalist Wafa Al-Rashid in the daily 'Okaz, in which she called to adapt religious perceptions to the spirit of the times and not be afraid of concepts such as secularism, civil state or the separation of religion and state. In the first of these columns, from January 26, 2020, Al-Rashid wrote that the discourse on secularism in the Muslim world is characterized by hypocrisy, because Muslims ban secularism in their own countries and accuse its proponents of heresy, but at the same time welcome the secularism of the West, which is the basis of its tolerance towards members of all faiths, including Muslims. Al-Rashid emphasized that separating religion from the state does not mean abolishing religion or fighting it, and that this notion in fact conforms to certain ideas in the Quran. She urged Muslims to read the religious sources with an enlightened eye and reform their perceptions and interpretations of religious texts.

In her second column, from June 14, 2020 Al-Rashid came out against the conservative circles that oppose the separation of religion and state and insist on burying their heads in the sand and ignoring any reality that contradicts their views. She called to embrace change, religious enlightenment and the application of reasoning in religious interpretation, in order to bring the young generation closer to Islam.

Al-Rashid's articles sparked reactions from Saudis on Twitter, with some users supporting her but most of them attacking her articles and condemning 'Okaz for allowing her to publish them. These users accused Al-Rashid of spreading deviant and radical ideas that undermine the foundations of the Saudi kingdom and  jeopardize its national security, and even called to punish her and the daily.

Among those who wrote against secularism was also Saudi journalist 'Ali Batih Al-'Omary. In a June 14 column in the daily Al-Yawm he came out against writers in Saudi Arabia and the Gulf who advocate secularism, which he said is a notion alien to Islam that emerged in Europe in response to circumstances that do not exist in Arab societies. Al-'Omari also cast doubt on the motivations of these writers, wondering if their ideas do not stem from hostility to Islam or from a desire for attention. 

This is not the first time the issue of secularism has been at the center of a public debate in Saudi Arabia. In 2016, many in the kingdom came out against the Education Ministry's plan to launch a project called Immunity, meant to "inoculate" schoolchildren against radical ideas, including Islamist extremism but also liberalism, secularism, atheism and Westernization.[1]

This report reviews the Saudi discourse on secularism in the recent months.

Saudi Journalist Wafa Al-Rashid: The Separation Of Religion And State Conforms To Ideas In The Quran; Islam Must Be Adapted To The Spirit Of The Age

In her January 26, 2020 column, headed "Is the Secularist an Infidel?", Wafa Al-Rahsid wrote: "Will you exclude me from the fold of the [Islamic] faith  if I ask whether a secular person is an infidel? Will I be slandered tomorrow, because I stuck my hand into a hornets' nest? Does the very question constitute a terrible afront to your principles? Do I have to describe secularism in negative terms when I speak of it and refer to its proponents as infidels, to avoid being excluded from the fold of the faith?

Wafa Al-Rashid (source: 'Okaz, Saudi Arabia)

"[Opponents of secularism,] do you not benefit from the values of secularism in your daily lives? These values, which compel [non-Muslim] countries to treat [all] religions equally, turn you into the first proponents of Muslim rights in the West… You are the first to support secularism when it benefits Muslims, and the first to curse it and call it heresy when it benefits their opponents, or if it treats them equally to the minorities that live with them in their Muslim countries. Imagine that some non-Muslim state forbade Muslims to perform their religious rituals. Do you know what would happen? Hundreds of thousands of Muslims would take to the streets and rise up, demanding to enforce secularism in that country and to receive the same rights as the members of other religions…

"Is that hypocrisy? Is it a contradiction? And are these principles or interests? [These people are effectively saying], 'Don't apply [secularism] in our countries, [but] we demand to apply it in yours.' Is it true that Islam cannot coexist with secularism? Does the separation of religion and state mean a war on religion? The separation of religion and state does not mean abolishing or fighting religion, for religion exists, and people follow it, [even] in secular countries. In a secular [country] a person is entitled to worship his God however he chooses, but he is not entitled to impose his religious beliefs on the rest of society.

"If we reexamine the position [of Islam], and renew our religious perception to match the principles of justice and equality between all human beings,  we will find that the separation of religion and state [actually] conforms to some ideas in the Quran, which clearly and unequivocally opposes coercion. [The Quran says] 'there is no coercion in religion' [2:256], 'you are not over them a tyrant' [50:45], and 'you are only a reminder, you are not over them a controller' [88:21-22].

"Today, the differences between [various Islamic] jurisprudents, sects and organizations, who bitterly fight each other in the name of religion, have become clear. Which of them, I wonder, has a monopoly over the truth and can impose its perception on the others? Did [one of the streams] receive a mandate from God that makes its religious perception the correct one and entitles it to force this perception on others? Did [the Second Caliph], 'Umar bin Al-Khattab, commit an act of heresy in the 17th or 18th year after the Hijra when he stopped applying the Quranic punishment for theft [the amputation of the thief's hand]? Or did he apply judgement and make a [new] ruling in the spirit of Islam, while treating the Quran as a source of authority from which one can take what suits the times and the circumstances, in order to protect the nation? [Quran 39:55 says], 'And follow the best of what was revealed to you from your Lord.' This implies that… there are [things that are] 'less good' in the Quran itself, namely those that do not suit the times. 

"[Quran 28:4 says]: 'Pharaoh exalted himself in the land and made its people into factions, oppressing a sector among them.' The Quran commanded [us] to be just, and describes Pharaoh as a tyrant because he oppressed a religious minority that lived in his land, the Children of Israel, and did not treat them the same as the other [sectors of] society. I wish those who oppose secularism on the grounds that it contravenes religion would understand that they represent only their own personal opinion about religion, or the opinion of a few jurisprudents, and that 'whoever wills - let him believe; and whoever wills - let him disbelieve' [Quran 18:29].

"Let [people] believe or disbelieve; leave them to their Creator. Stick to what is explicitly stated in the Quran. Be enlightened and enlighten our youth with a religion that [can] coexist with the changing reality and all its aspects, without rigidity or stagnation. It is impossible to open up to the world without accepting its [different] religions and beliefs. I do not question the motives of those who disagree with me or the value of their faith. [But] times have changed and we must act as 'Umar bin Al-Khattab did and apply judgement, for all the solutions can be found in the Quran and in the Sunna of the Prophet."[2]

Wafa Al-Rashid: There Is Need For Enlightened Perceptions, Flexible Interpretation Of Religion

In her June 14, 2020 article, which focused on the concept of the civil state, Al-Rashid wrote: "Is the civil state a completely non-religious state? Has secularism ever been possible in the history [of the Muslim world, and is it possible] today, given the governments of the Muslim world? These are basic and central questions in a debate that has been ongoing for years, and has not yet been settled. Some have decided to stop talking about it and start implementing [secularism] without calling it by name, so as not to provoke those who bury their heads in the sand in order to avoid facing reality –  [a reality] that has proved to everyone that there is no place in it for their rigidity. These [closed-minded people] have no place among the generation that has chosen to live a life of liberty, dignity, justice and [freedom of] choice. Their dominance has no place among the young people who connect to the world by the press of a button and  keep up-to-date on everything that is happening in it, young people who cannot be hijacked and disconnected from reality.

"What Iran and Egypt experienced has proved to the world that the Islamists and the Muslim Brotherhood are led by ideological [agendas], and are busy eroding regimes in order to assume power themselves. However, they forgot to prepare themselves for [the task of] governing. We witnessed, on [television] screens around the world, the bloodshed and riots that occurred under Islamist rule in Iran, Lebanon and Egypt, whereas civil states are the ones that protect [human] dignity. A famous author [Farag Foda][3] was assassinated for saying this. In a debate with Islamists he said the following famous lines: 'It is thanks to the civil state that you can debate with us here and then leave this place with your head still connected to your shoulders, whereas religious states behead their opponents.' When the young man who assassinated [Foda] was caught,  he said he had done it because [Foda's] books called for heresy and atheism. When the interrogating officer asked him which book he was referring to, the killer replied: 'I haven't [actually] read any of his books, because I can't read or write.'    

"How long will we continue to shun enlightenment and change? I refer to religious enlightenment, which adapts itself to reality and to the mentality of the young, who have rebelled and distanced themselves from us because we are no longer like them, we no longer speak their language or understand their dreams…

"Some people may condemn my statements, and say that our young people are just fine and that there is no truth in what I am saying. But I am addressing the other part [of society], those who are not afraid to call a spade a spade and who realize that we have alienated [the young people] around us because some people insist on refusing to apply reason, extrapolate [from religious texts] and  change texts that are not explicit but are given to our [interpretation].'"[4]

Twitter Debate Between Supporters Of Wafa Al-Rashid And Others Calling To Punish Her

Wafa Al-Rashid's columns sparked some positive responses on Twitter. Saudi academic Noura Al-Hudaib wrote in response to her first column, which focused on secularism: "This article is clear to whoever reads it with his mind, rather than his heart. Understanding the depth of its ideas requires considerable awareness and tolerance. Well done!"[5] Another Twitter user wrote in response to Al-Rashid's second column, which focused on the civil state: "Nice article. Whether we like it or not, a civil state is no longer an option but a necessity, so that all societies [can] survive while following the laws and general values of the state."[6]

Tweet by user "Salim2308"

However, the majority of responses on Twitter were negative. Saudi Prince Sattam bin Khalid Al-Sa'ud tweeted in response to Al-Rashid's first column: "This kind of thinking opens the way for the Muslim Brotherhood to resurface, for it is the one that has derived the greatest benefit from secularism, and Turkey is the best proof of this. We [Saudis] follow the correct religion, which opposes these deviant ideas that stray from the right path. Praise Allah, our leaders, from the days of the founder [of Saudi Arabia, King Muhammad bin Sa'ud] until today, have always persisted on this path."[7]

Saudi user Ahmad Al-Shehrie wrote in response to Al-Rashid's second column: "Religion does not require renewal. It is only people's hearts that need a renewal of their faith."[8]

Harsh criticism was also directed at the 'Okaz daily for allowing Al-Rashid to express these views. Some Twitter users responded with the hashtag "'Okaz – a platform for the depraved." Among them was user Saif Al-Qahtani, who wrote in response to the first column: "Wafa Al-Rashid's article on the separation of religion and state in [the daily] 'Okaz, the platform of the depraved, contains a clear call to come out against the general [Saudi] values and system of government, as set out in [the kingdom's] Basic Laws.[9] The journalist and the paper thus had the temerity to harm the security and sovereignty of the homeland. They must be held to account and punished."[10]

Saif Al-Qahtani's tweet

Hamad bin 'Abd Al-'Aziz Al-'Ateq, a mosque preacher in the Al-'Azizia neighborhood of Riyadh and an advisor in the city's department of Islamic affairs, likewise protested the publication of the column. Addressing the editor of 'Okaz, he tweeted: "This article calls for the secularization of the state. It contravenes Saudi Arabia's Basic Law and the Law of Publication and Publishing, which state that [the kingdom's] constitution is the Quran and the Sunna. Therefore, you must remove it, renounce it and hold those responsible [for its publication] to account."[11]

Saudi Writer: No Reason To Import The Alien Concept Of Secularism That Does Not Suit Our Culture

On June 14, the day Al-Rashid's second column was published, journalist 'Ali Batih Al-'Omary published in the daily Al-Yawm a column headed 'No to Secularism,' in which he wrote: "One of the cultural and ideological problems in our world is a fascination with foreign cultures and the demand to incorporate them into our Arab and Gulf societies, even though our surroundings and values are different. From time to time, texts are published expressing a demand for secularism. I do not understand what motivates a writer in the Gulf or in Saudi Arabia to demand the secularization of a country whose constitution explicitly states that the Quran and the Sunna are its sources of authority. What is missing in our noble and vibrant state of Saudi Arabia that we should turn to secularism? What has secularism done for Muslim and Arab countries that succumbed to it, such as Turkey and Tunisia?  We, praise Allah, are experiencing growth and prosperity and have a strong economy that earned us membership in [the forum of the world's 20 strongest economies], the G20.

'Ali Batih Al-'Omary (Source:

"Arab books commonly define secularism as 'the separation of religion and state.' This definition does not reflect the full meaning of secularism, which applies to individuals, [not just to states]. It is more accurate to say that [secularism] separates religion from life. It does not recognize the importance of religion in the life of the people, and seeks to turn people's attention away from the world to come and have them focus exclusively on this world – whereas Islam takes an interest in both. Secularism emerged in Europe and moved to the east under the influence of Western colonialism… It emerged [in Europe] as a rebellion against the influence of the clergy, since the church opposed change at the time and life became stagnant. While Europe was going through this period, known as the Dark Ages, the Islamic east was experiencing scientific [progress] and enlightenment.   

"The reasons that led Europe to [embrace] secularism and rebel against religion do not exist in the Arab societies, since Muslim clerics do not have absolute authority. Islam denounces extremism and backwardness, and the values of Islam are valid at all times and can incorporate every change [in circumstances]. So why should we embrace secularism and import an idea that is not compatible with our culture and religion?!

"Sometimes I suspect… that the writers of these texts [calling for secularism] are hostile to our Islam and misunderstand it, for Islam is completely different from Christianity. Sometimes I think that the purpose of their writings is to take revenge on society, or that they are [just following] the adage, 'Oppose [the prevailing] opinion and become famous'…"[12]


[2] 'Okaz (Saudi Arabia), January 26, 2020.

[3] Prominent Egyptian writer and thinker Farag Foda (1946-1992) advocated the separation of religion and state and was assassinated by Islamists for his progressive views.

[4] 'Okaz (Saudi Arabia), June 14, 2020.

[5], January 26, 2020.

[6], June 14, 2020.

[7], January 26, 2020.

[8], June 14, 2020.

[9] In 1992 Saudi Arabia passed the Basic Law of Government, the fist article of which stipulates that the Quran and the Sunna are the constitution of the Saudi State. 

[10], June 26, 2020.

[11], January 26, 2020.

[12] Al-Yawm (Saudi Arabia), June 14, 2020.

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