Saudi author and journalist Fahd Al-Ahmadi, who writes a column for the government daily Al-Iqtisadiyya, recently sparked a heated debate among Saudis on Twitter by proposing a change to the Saudi national flag. The flag in its present form features the shahada (the Islamic declaration of faith, "There is no god but Allah and Muhammad is His messenger") and beneath it a sword. Al-Ahmadi proposed to remove the sword, arguing that it does not suit the current age and also goes against the spirit of the Quran, which states that there is no coercion in religion. He also proposed that removing the sword will help to rebuff claims that associate Islam with violence. He added that many countries have changed their flags over the years, and that the Saudi flag itself has gone through several permutations, some of which did not include the sword.
The Saudi flag
Al-Ahmadi's tweets evoked many responses, most of them rejecting his view. Saudi activists, including Prince Sattam bin Khaled Al-Sa'ud, stated that the sword does not stand for violence at all but is a historic symbol representing justice and might, and that it should not be removed just to please others. Some noted that the sword is an important symbol in Saudi culture and heritage and even features in state ceremonies, such as the sword dance performed in honor of foreign dignitaries. Yet others noted that swords and other warlike symbols - including as the cross, which is associated with the Crusades - have featured for centuries in the flags and seals of many Western countries and have not been removed. One even claimed that Al-Ahmadi's claim that some versions of the Saudi flag did not include the sword is a lie.
Conversely, a few Saudi Twitter users supported Al-Ahmadi's call to remove the sword from the flag, suggesting to replace it with a palm tree or a representation of the Kaaba.
It cannot be ruled out that Al-Ahmadi's suggestion is a test balloon to probe the Saudi public's response to this idea, as part of the kingdom's bid to appear tolerant and peaceful in the eyes of the new U.S. administration and in order to rebuff criticism of its human rights record.
The following are excerpts from Al-Ahmadi's tweets and from the responses to them.
Journalist Fahd Al-Ahmadi: The Sword Should Be Removed From The Saudi Flag In Order To Rebuff Claims Against Islam
In a series of tweets on January 27 and 28, 2021, journalist Fahd Al-Ahmadi called for the removal of the sword from the Saudi flag. In one tweet, he included images of the changes made to the Saudi flag since 1744 and wrote: "I propose that the sword be removed from the Saudi flag. First, it does not suit the current era. Second, it is incompatible with [Quranic] verse [2:256] 'There is no compulsion in religion. Third, doing so would rebuff the claims attributing violence and murder to Islam. This with the knowledge that the Saudi flag has been changed six times, and that two versions did not include a sword, as can be seen in the [attached] images.
Al-Ahmadi later tweeted: "Consider this carefully, friends. Changing a flag is standard practice. The Religion [of Islam] has never been characterized by the sword and beheadings." In another tweet he said: "Five countries completely changed their flags in the past 20 years: Libya, Venezuela, New Zealand, Georgia, and Myanmar. Russia too gave up the Soviet Union flag with the hammer and sickle, and over 20 countries of the British Commonwealth changed their flags at different times."
In another tweet, Al-Ahmadi responded to a tweet by an account called Hashtag KSA that included images of the changes made to the Saudi flag and claimed that the sword represents justice: "This is nice tweet, but note that justice is represented by the scales, not the sword. The sword stands for the Islamic conquests of our Arab history, yet other cultures may have other interpretations."
Al-Ahmadi's response to the tweet by Hashtag KSA .
Saudis On Twitter Against Al-Ahmdi's Proposal: The Sword Is Part Of Our History; Islam Was Spread By Preaching And By The Sword
Al-Ahmadi's proposal to remove the sword from the Saudi flag provoked heated responses, some from current and former Saudi officials. One notable response came from Saudi Prince Sattam Bin Khalid Aal Saud, who rejected Al-Ahmadi's claim that removing the sword will improve the image of Islam. He wrote: "The sword is one of the symbols of strength and justice, a fundamental part of our history. Do not forget that our kings raise [the sword] during the 'ardah dance as an expression of power, strengt, and honor. Many of the world's leaders have participated in the ceremony, raising the sword [themselves]. Does that mean they were advocating violence? By this logic, we should change our names, our history and the Saudi emblem, lest we be accused of being violent, as you suggest."
Sattam Al-Saud's tweet
A Twitter user going by "Al-Saud History," who has over 300,000 followers, responded to Al-Ahmadi's tweet which presented previous iterations of the Saudi flag, including the first version from 1744, which featured a crescent moon. The user wrote: "First, the crescent has never been part of the Saudi flag, in any of the state's three [forms]. Second, The sword which you [Al-Ahmadi] propose should be removed [from the flag] hints at strength, justice and the safeguarding of the country of Tawhid [God's oneness], the land that [stand for] the direction of the prayers of all Muslims..."
Writer Dr. Mohamad Al-Hadla, who describes himself as a security consultant, similarly said that the sword has always been a Saudi Islamic symbol, and that it was the sword, among others things, that spread Islam: "The Saudi flag is the most respected flag in the world, because it includes the statement of Tawhid [the oneness of God], which contains all goodness, justice, love and peace. Anyone claiming that [the Saudi flag] did not initially include the sword of justice and shari'a is a charlatan trying to make Saudis doubt their symbols. Islam was not spread with branches from the date palm, but with preaching, words of wisdom and with the sword – used against anyone violating shari'a."
Dr. Mohamad Al-Hadla's tweet
Former Saudi Interior Ministry security advisor Dr. Sa'ud Salah Al-Musaibah tweeted that the sword symbolizes the upholding of Islamic law: "The sword can instill justice, [mete out] Quranic punishments and strike the corrupt and the criminal. It is also [part of] the manly figure [manifested by one's] garb and the [Saudi national dance, the] 'ardah."
Dr. Sa'ud Al-Masaibah's tweet
Saudi general Khaled Al-Mra'eed tweeted: "The sword symbolizes might and justice." To Al-Ahmadi, he wrote: "If you meant changing [the flag to represent] peace, might is what creates peace – not weakness that [ultimately] leads to war."
Saudi Twitter Users: The Cross And The Sword Are On Flags Of European And Western Countries; Changing The Flag To Please Others Indicates Weakness
Opponents of removal of the sword also argued that since swords, other weapons, and the cross, which symbolizes the Crusades, appear on other countries' flags, Saudi Arabia should not alter its flag to please others. For example, Mutlaq Al-Qarafi, a researcher with over 50,000 followers on Twitter, wrote: "...Self-flagellation and the sense that we must change everything to please others [reflects] cultural weakness. Incidentally, many countries have swords, weapons, and arrows in their seals, because they represent historic depth..." To demonstrate this, he included the seals of the states of New York, Massachusetts, Delaware, and Virginia in his tweet.
Other Twitter influencers presented a similar argument. Dr. Fahda Al-'Arifi, who has a Ph.D from King Saud University, tweeted: "Switzerland is a federal state noted for its neutrality – but for centuries its flag has featured a cross. Other countries too have large [crosses on their flags]. For us, the sword symbolizes might... [and with it] we show the world might, tolerance and development... and civilized behavior everywhere and at all times."
Attorney 'Abdallah Al-Ghuinem, attorney and doctor of shari'a, with over 50,000 followers, tweeted: "Most European countries show a cross on their flags, although they are secular; [the cross] hints at the Crusades... Their holy book includes the [word] 'sword' over 200 times, and it has never been amended..."
Dr. Muhammad Al-Ghamidi wrote in the same vein: "The sword on the Saudi flag symbolizes a distinguished Arab heritage... The flags of [other] countries in the world feature similar national symbols. Why then all this useless talk [about] removing it?"
Saudi blogger Mundhir Aal Al-Sheikh Mubarak explained that the flag is too important a symbol to discuss changing: "There are sovereign matters that must not be interfered with by those who have nothing to do with them. The flag is an important symbol for which lives are sacrificed, [and therefore], in my view, there should be no public discussion about it."
Saudi Twitter Users Express Support For Al-Ahmadi: We Should Replace The Sword With Another Symbol
As noted, very few expressed support for Al-Ahmadi's proposal to remove the sword from the Saudi flag. For example, Dr. Sa'd Nasser Al-Hussein, a lecturer at King Saud University, tweeted in response to the proposal: "I agree with you. If the sword is replaced by a date palm tree, [the flag] will be more beautiful. The date palm symbolizes the Arabian Peninsula and represents goodness, security and stability."
Twitter user Musa'id Al-'Oteibi also wrote to Al-Ahmadi: "I agree with you. There may be two views of the flag with regard to the sword on it: [first,] a positive view of the sword as a symbol of justice, and [second,] in light of the change that has occurred in the media landscape and global openness, some may see it as a symbol of violence... I maintain that the date palm must replace the sword, [since] the date palm is a symbol of giving and open-heartedness..."
Businessman Muhammad Al-'Amer, with 20,000 followers, tweeted: "I think that the sword should be replaced with an image of the Kaaba."
* B. Chernitsky is a research fellow at MEMRI.
 The full verse states: "There shall be no compulsion in [acceptance of] the religion. The right course has become clear from the wrong. So whoever disbelieves in Taghut and believes in Allah has grasped the most trustworthy handhold with no break in it. And Allah is Hearing and Knowing."
 Twitter.com/fahadalahmdi, January 27, 2021.
 Twitter.com/fahadalahmdi, January 27, 2021.
 Twitter.com/HashKSA, January 28, 2021.
 Twitter.com/fahadalahmdi, January 28, 2021.
 The 'ardah is an ancient Saudi folk dance that features swordplay. The Saudi king participates in the dance when receiving important guests.
 The emblem of Saudi Arabia features a date palm over crossed swords.
 Twitter.com/sattam_al_saud, January 27, 2021.
 A reference to the belief in the oneness of God, as stated in the phrase "There is no god but Allah" – the first part of the Islamic declaration of faith, which appears on the Saudi flag.
 Twitter.com/Alsaud_History, January 27, 2021.
 Twitter.com/drmohamadalhdla, January 27, 2021.
 Twitter.com/269saud4, January 27, 2021
 Twitter.com/khaledalmraeed, January 27, 2021.
 Twitter.com/MutlaqHPM, January 27, 2021.
 Twitter.com/Dr_Fahdah_Arefi, January 27, 2021.
 Twitter.com/AlghuinemLawyer, January 27, 2021.
 Twitter.com/DrAlghamdiMH, January 28, 2021.
 Twitter.com/monther72, January 27, 2021.
 Twitter.com/saad_alhussein, January 27, 2021.
 Twitter.com/AloteibiMus, January 27, 2021.
 Twitter.com/Alamer_hijla, January 27, 2021.