Saudi Arabia: The King Was not Amused

Political Islam

This month in two consecutive events, the Saudi King and a Saudi woman took on the Wahabi religious establishment. A simple gesture by the king and a poem by the woman set off another clash between the palace, which is trying gradually to take some steps toward liberalization, and an intransigent religious establishment that is fighting them every inch of the way, particularly on issues related to women’s rights.

The feud between some of the most influential Salafi sheikhs and the Saudi King has been brewing for quite sometime. The arrogance of the radicals in the religious establishment reached its peak a couple of weeks ago when the influential sheikh Abd-el-Rahman al-Barrak, who advocates strict segregation of the sexes, issued a fatwa declaring that any person condoning the mixing of the sexes in the workplace or in the educational arena should be killed. As the N.Y. Times’ Maureen Dowd pointed out to the Saudi foreign minister,1 the targets of the Fatwa clearly included the King, who just last year inaugurated his state of the art 10 billion dollars university in Jeddah [KAUST] where men and women study together.2 The King apparently agreed and was not amused. He ordered the sheikh’s website taken down.

The King obviously understood the old adage, “a picture is worth a thousand words”, when he decided to stand behind the mixing of the sexes in an unprecedented open display – complete with photo-op. This past Sunday, he personally received a married Muslim woman, sheikha Moza, the wife of the Emir of Qatar and a socialite known as one of the best-dressed women in the world. The sheikha, who traveled to the Saudi Kingdom unaccompanied by her husband the Emir, was there to discuss educational and social issues related to the Gulf region. The meeting between the sheikha and the King was captured in an op-ed photo showing her – face uncovered – in conversation with the King. The Saudi press described the meeting as historical and it certainly was, in more ways than one.

In the meanwhile, earlier this month during the widely popular TV program, “The Millionaire Poetry Competition” out of Abu Dhabi, a Saudi woman poet, Hassa Helal (known as “Rimeyyah”), surprised the audience and most Arabs in the Gulf region. Helal, covered from head to toe in accordance with Islamic Shari’a, presumably in order to avoid controversy, delivered a poem that was a blistering attack on Muslim Clerics who use Fatwas to incite hate and violence3 (partial translation below). Most observers saw it as a direct challenge to sheikh al-Barrak. In an interview following her performance she stated, “I totally refuse the chaotic atmosphere represented by the increasing number of fatwas that call for bloodshed or are pronounced to achieve personal gain.”
The judges of the competition acknowledged that the poem represents an important timely contribution to society and Helal advanced to the next stage of the competition. The poem was not so well received by some other. It was reported that people on several Islamic sites have called for her head. Upon hearing the news, Helal was quoted as saying “my poem is to protect our nation from these radicals who have made out of us “A country feared by therest of the world.” She also called for women to speak up and fight those who want to marginalize women andstifle their voices.

The fatwa of Al-Barrak also led the Islamist writer Yasser Al-Za’atra to warn the radical sheikhs in the Kingdom. Al-Za’atra pointed to Maureen Dowd’s articles about the status of women in the Kingdom and what he viewed as liberal answers given by the Saudi foreign minister to her questions, as evidence of an unwelcomed trend. Al-Za’atra contends that liberals are supported by the government and gaining power in the Kingdom, a trend he believes must be combated by those he identified as more moderate religious voices.4 He believes that the rigid fatwas, such as the one pronounced by Al-Barrak, are not helping the religious cause he champions. He therefore urged moderate clerics to step-up and make their voices heard. To incite his Moslem audience, he said that the liberals support the biblical passage: render unto Caesar what belongs to Caesar and to God what belongs to God.

Al-Za’atra knows well that such a statement will lead his readers to equate liberals in the Kingdom with the Christian world and therefore put them in a negative light. The battle between liberal voices and radical Moslems will rage on. This month at least, however, there seems to be a strong wind blowing against the radical elements in Saudi Arabia. The poem of Hassa Helal said it all.5

I saw evil stalking from the eyes of their fatwas
In an era when they contaminated the halal with the haram6
I’ve uncovered the face of the truth
Revealing the monster hidden behind the mask
A savage, resentful, barbaric, blinded mind
Wearing a cloak of death under a tightened belt
Howling and terrifying the populace through brutal politics
Preying on every soul yearning for peace
The voice of the truth seeks refuge, and rightness is dying in isolation
In the pursuit of self-interest the one who speaks freely is disgraced…
1 NY Times March 2nd, 2010
2 PI Online Arab Women on the Move: Trends Countertrends – November 1, 2009
3 Source 3/8/2010
4 Al-Jazeera March 18th, 2010 -
5 This is a partial translation.
6 The Halal and the Haram are the common words in Islam for what is allowed and good (halal) versus what is forbidden and bad (haram)

By: Raouf Ebeid - Editor
Published: March 29, 2010

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