April 13, 2017 Special Dispatch No. 6875

Saudis Criticize Government's Leniency Towards Preacher's Incitement-Filled Sermons

April 13, 2017
Saudi Arabia | Special Dispatch No. 6875

In recent months Saudi media, and Saudis on social media, have been in an uproar over Saudi cleric Saeed bin Farwah, his controversial sermons, and the Saudi authorities' responses to them. In the first of these sermons, delivered June 19, 2015, bin Farwah had attacked Nasser Al-Qasabi, a Saudi comedian, TV personality, and star of the hit TV show Selfie,[1] calling him an "infidel" and expressing his wish "that Allah leave no bone unbroken in the body of that piece of filth."



Following this sermon, social media users expressed their objections to the cleric using the hashtag "Saeed bin Farwah calls Nasser Al-Qasabi an infidel." Al-Qasabi sued bin Farwah for slander, and the Saudi Ministry of Islamic Affairs launched an investigation of bin Farwah.[2]

On October 31, 2016, Saudi and Arab media reported that bin Farwah had been convicted of making statements against and condemning Al-Qasabi, and sentenced him to 45 days in prison.[3]

Even after bin Farwah's conviction, a month later, on November 29, 2016, another of his sermons was posted to YouTube; in this one, he harshly criticized fathers who send their daughters abroad to study pharmacology and medicine. This, he said, was the same as pimping out their daughters, whom he referred to as prostitutes.[4] Outrage against bin Farwah again erupted in the country, and the media featured numerous op-eds condemning him; on Twitter, there was intense commentary under the hashtag "Saeed bin Farwah slanders society." The cleric was also included in Twitter polls on "the worst personality of 2016," and was the winner of one of them.[5]

On November 30, the day after this second sermon was posted, Saudi Chief Mufti Sheikh 'Abd Al-'Aziz Aal Al-Sheikh condemned bin Farwah, and called on the Ministry of Islamic Affairs to make preachers like him aware of their mistakes, or to remove them altogether.[6] The ministry, for its part, stated that this was an old sermon, from about six years ago, and that steps had been taken at that time against the imam who had allowed bin Farwah to deliver it. The ministry also stressed that bin Farwah is not a ministry-appointed preacher and is not authorized to deliver sermons as an official shari'a preacher.[7]

As the commentary against bin Farwah raged on social media, on January 15, 2017, a Saudi appellate court overturned his October 2016 slander conviction, because of his good reputation and because he is a religious figure – and also because in his criticism of Al-Qasabi, he never mentioned him by name. The court ordered a retrial, and on February 16, 2017, the original conviction was reinstated.[8]

A particularly strong reaction to bin Farwah's sermons took the form of a cartoon showing a preacher vomiting green bile all over the heads of the worshippers, who in turn thank him for his statements. The cartoon was published on November 11, 2016, following the posting on YouTube of the sermon against girls studying pharmacology and medicine, and was disseminated on Twitter after bin Farwah's conviction was overturned.

Preacher vomits on congregants, and one says to him: "May Allah repay you with kindness" (Makkah, Saudi Arabia, November 30, 2016)

Some of the articles in the Saudi press on bin Farwah's sermons notably criticized the Saudi establishment's leniency towards him, and also criticized Saudi society for enabling bin Farwah and others like him to operate freely. His light sentence for his statements against Al-Qasabi, they said, could encourage others to do likewise; they added that there was no place for his ilk in the mosque pulpits during Friday prayers.

Following are excerpts from several articles on this controversy:

Criticism Of Saudi Court: Bin Farwah's Light Sentence Is No Deterrent – And Will Only Encourage Others

In a November 3, 2016 article in the Saudi daily 'Okaz, Saudi journalist Ahmad Al-Zahrani criticized the brevity – only 45 days – of bin Farwah's prison sentence for slander, and argued that this sentence did not reflect the severity of his actions. Not only did it pose no deterrent, he added, it could even embolden others to follow in bin Farwah's footsteps. He wrote: "Early this week, it was reported in the dailies and on television that a mosque preacher in the 'Asir region had been sentenced to 45 days in prison after being convicted of denouncing and cursing the artist Nasser Al-Qasabi. [The preacher] called [Al-Qasabi] names that do not befit a Muslim, such as 'infidel,' and also delivered a virulent sermon [against him]... The imam of the mosque [bin Farwah] merely denied having been convicted of anything in this affair.

"Some might say that an artist is a public figure, and that it is only natural that his artistic activity should be subject to criticism. This is true, and moreover, [artists] measure the success of anything they do in terms of how much of a reaction it triggers, including anger. This is not the problem. The problem is the venue where the attack [on the artist took place, namely a mosque. The attack] included highly offensive remarks, some of which amounted to slander and to excluding [Al-Qasabi] from the fold of the religion. According to the Mosque Document issued by the Ministry of Islamic Affairs,[9] sermons delivered from a mosque pulpit must be limited to preaching and to guiding people on the right path, and must avoid sectorial or political issues, as well as insults to individuals, whether explicit or implicit...

"The hearings for determining the sentence in Al-Qasabi's case continued for about a year and a half, and the term of imprisonment imposed [on bin Farwah] does not exceed the duration of his detention for questioning. Moreover, the convicted man [bin Farwah] may be pardoned and released after serving [only] half of his sentence, especially considering that he knows the Koran by heart and is considered a virtuous person. The sentence [handed down] cannot be described as a deterrent; in fact, it may prompt others to stage similar attacks. The strangest aspect of the entire affair is that the video [of the sermon in which bin Farwah accused Al-Qasabi of unbelief] has not been removed from YouTube, which will encourage thousands of people to look for it and to listen to it again. After all this, is it accurate to say that Al-Qasabi won this lawsuit?"[10]

Saudi Writers: More Aggressive Steps Should Be Taken Against All Extremist Preachers

The bin Farwah sermon that was posted on YouTube in November 2016, about fathers sending their daughters abroad to study pharmacology and medicine and which referred to these fathers as pimps and the daughters as prostitutes, also sparked widespread reactions in the Saudi press.

A few days after the sermon appeared on YouTube, in a December 4, 2016 article, senior Saudi journalist and former Al-Arabiya TV director Turki Al-Dakhil expressed his satisfaction at the Saudi mufti's condemnation of bin Farwah but criticized the Ministry of Islamic Affairs and Saudi society itself for their reactions to the sermon. Bin Farwah's preaching style, he said, should not be repeated again and again in Saudi mosques. He wrote: "The extremist discourse has run into trouble after the honorable mufti Sheikh 'Abd Al-'Aziz Aal Al-Sheikh made his statements – which [themselves came in the wake of] sweeping public outrage at a sermon by a fanatic who described male and female [students] sent [to study] medicine and pharmacology [abroad] and their families in terms unfit for printing in the paper. Despite this, the preacher stuck [to his guns] and did not heed [the outrage].

"We have had three decades of monopoly of the pulpits and weekly castigation of the public. Every Friday, a worshipper is admonished, reproached, and castigated... Our mistake is that we continue to submit to these warmongering, inciting, chastising sermons.

"There are times when the preacher is passionate and annoyed that people listen submissively, not out of respect for the sermon but [out of respect] for the Prophet [Muhammad's] commandment – that is, that those who do not heed Friday sermons will not be rewarded [in the afterlife] for attending them. Deputy Minister of Islamic Affairs Tawfiq Al-Sudairi believed that the preacher [bin Farwah] has deviated from the ministry's path and absolutely does not represent it. But this begs the question: How was this man given the opportunity to speak several times, in this same style, which deviates from [the norms of] manners and culture?!

"The mufti's comments were timely. The pulpit must be defended against zealotry and invective. This is especially true because the public devotes itself to worshiping God on Friday in an attempt to grow closer to Him, and seeks a worthy sermon... or preaching delivered in a purely religious manner, not in catastrophic political and ideological language."[11]

Saudi journalist Sa'd Al-Dossari likewise criticized the ministry's actions vis-à-vis bin Farwah. In his column in the Saudi daily Al-Jazirah, he stressed that sermons like bin Farwah's are not isolated incidents, and called to put an end to them. He wrote: "There is nothing new in the appearance atop a pulpit of a man who distorts religion and society and who creates a scandal that turns [everyone] against us, inside and outside Saudi Arabia. Therefore, we must urgently find a comprehensive solution to this phenomenon. The Ministry of Islamic Affairs must take harsher steps against anyone showing signs of extremism...

"Several days ago, the [chief] mufti spoke his mind about those who take advantage of the pulpits, saying that they are committing a grave action and that they do not comprehend [the gravity] of their actions, and calling for their removal. As for the Ministry of Islamic Affairs – it says every time that it took the steps necessary – [yet] we do not know the nature of these steps, their effectiveness as deterrents, and whether they are sufficient to end this serious phenomenon, as the mufti referred to it...

"The fear is that some, perhaps unintentionally, take the implementation of [deterrent] measures lightly. As a result, these same extremists dismiss the obligation to obey [these measures], and shortly thereafter they are back in another affair that is even more extreme."[12]



[1] For more on the TV show, which aired during Ramadan in 2015 and dealt with current events in Saudi society such as extremism, domestic violence, and Saudi youths joining ISIS, and the media stir it caused, see MEMRI Inquiry & Analysis No. 1176, 'Selfie' – Satirical Saudi TV Show Sends Shockwaves Through The Kingdom, July 16, 2015.

[2], June 20, 2015.

[3], October 31, 2016; Al-Quds Al-Arabi (London), October 31, November 1, 2016; Eremnews, October 31, 2016.

[4], November 29, 2016.

[5], December 24, 2016;, January 23, 2017.

[6], November 30, 2016.

[7], December 1, 2016.

[8] 'Okaz (Saudi Arabia), January 15, February 16, 2017.

[9] The document sets out the roles of mosque employees, the requirements they must meet, and the terms of their employment. Al-Riyadh (Saudi Arabia), June 23, 2013;, August 15, 2014.

[10] 'Okaz (Saudi Arabia), November 3, 2016.

[11] 'Okaz (Saudi Arabia), December 4, 2016.

[12] Al-Jazirah (Saudi Arabia), December 6, 2016.

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