Text of report by London-based newspaper Al-Quds al-Arabi website on 1 October
[Commentary by Madawi al-Rashid, "A writer and academic from the Arabian peninsula: absent links within the call to flog society"]
It is very nice when a Saudi intellectual awakes and mounts the back of the steed of acute criticism of society. By doing this, he consecrates his role as a discerning eye that penetrates the hidden negatives and exposes what lies behind the scenes in order to present a realistic picture of the prevailing culture and current social practices.
The awakening has come abruptly under the influence of both domestic and foreign pressure, which drove some persons to stand at the forefront of the critics and direct their arrows at numerous religious, traditional, and social ideas that had been accepted as sacrosanct but that are actually heavy burdens and threaten to produce terrible consequences. Today we can see novels, plays, comic shows, and articles by writers of all affiliations that strive to flog society and crucify i! ts current and former symbols and reveal its sicknesses. These persons' criticism focuses on specific issues: The first is religious extremism, the second, tribalism, the third bigotry, the fourth some people's overbearing attitude, the fifth the disparaging way in which women are viewed, and the sixth is favouritism. Add to this many other social ills that those intellectuals list and describe their adverse effect on society.
This continuous and escalating criticism still avoids an important target, which is surrounded by a halo of sanctity that lies beyond the scope of open or even implied criticism that can be expressed by indirect hints. This lost link in the current Saudi trend of criticism is the political leadership, which the current flow of criticism leaves untouched.
The intellectuals that I am talking about believe that the social ills about which they speak exist in a great void and are not influenced by the government's decisions and planned policie! s. However, if we examine the alleged social ills and explore their ca uses and the reasons they are so deeply embedded in society, we will discover that they proceed directly from the political authority itself or are the outcome of domineering central policies that are nurtured and developed to serve clear and open political objectives.
Let us start with what is called religious extremism. Is this extremism not a direct result of long decades of oppression, prevarication, and the exploitation of religion to entrench the political authority's legitimacy, which actually lacks any historical legitimacy except deception in the name of religion followed by conspiring against this religion and stabbing it in the heart according to each era's political whims and requirements?
Is the purported extremism not the result of a prolonged process of domestication that the political authority arranged for the purpose of entrenching domination from the top and suppressing an independent religious discourse and preventing it from giving voice to i! ts rejection of injustice and despotism? Is the alleged extremism not a reaction to decades of distorting natural development and the normal course of affairs, resulting in a form of extremism that is a strong response that opposes evasiveness and the taming of human beings? Is it not a reaction to a political project that sought the aid of religion at the beginning and is now fighting it because it has produced phenomena that the leadership does not like?
Society is being flogged for its backward tribalism and expressions of narrow identity, which are considered contrary to the concept of patriotism, a concept that is currently promoted. Is it not better to ask why tribal identities and narrow affiliations have survived for so long? Does not this narrow identification mirror a situation in which cultural openness and open human interactions in both the intellectual or economic fields have been discouraged, thus perpetuating narrow interactions based on the tribe?
The political authority smothers these civil arenas of interaction. It seeks to infiltrate them and make them compliant so that they will become an effective tool in promoting the political authority's own project and not an independent space that houses independent political blocs. Does not the political authority itself ban all assemblies that include labour associations, political parties, and civil institutions? When these spaces of open human interactions are absent, societies close up on themselves and stay imprisoned within narrow private and tribal links.
The intellectuals of Saudi society are flogging the tribes for their backwardness and stubborn resistance to becoming extinct without noticing who strengthened the tribes and maintained their existence until they grew into social afflictions according to the claims of those who profess to be cultured critics. The political authority has not only encouraged the tribes' continued existence but infiltrated them and made them compliant to it in order to use them in its war agains! t an independent society.
As to bigotry and the overbearing attitude, they are types of behaviour that the political authority encouraged and used to combat social action. The authority nurtured these two characteristics while at the same time speaking deceptively about justice, equality, and an alleged Islamic brotherhood. It did so by obvious tactics, elevating some people above others and giving them extensive responsibilities not because they were the most suited for the positions they were given but because they proved that they had an excellent aptitude to be domesticated and to prostrate themselves before the authority while others resisted the authority's tempting rewards.
Hence bigotry and overbearing attitudes persisted not because some people are born arrogant and deprived of the sense of equality but because the political authority nurtured them through suspect actions, discrimination, and incomplete development projects? Is not the political authori! ty the chief sponsor of the festivals of tribal pride during which the participants boast of their lineage, their camel herds, and their poets? Is it not the political authority that distributes largesse to some people depending on personal relations that are founded on loyalty and subservience? And all this is done within an economy that pretends to be open and centralized.
Regarding the criticism levelled at the disparaging outlook on women and their long neglect, it is timely criticism but it still lacks the same absent target of criticism. Is it not the political authority itself that measures religious piety by the extent to which women are oppressed and sidelined?
After it lost the masks that it had borrowed from the original religious concepts, the political authority found no other target but women to oppress in order to prove to the world that it governs in accordance with God's revealed shari'ah. It continues to prevent women from driving their own cars. It imagines that by doing so, it can convince the entire Muslim worl! d that it alone clings to shari'ah. We have examined the ten actions that render a Muslim person's faith null and void but a woman driving her own car is not one of them.
The Saudi political authority ignores one of these ten acts that void a person's faith including the concept of allegiance and disavowal, which has become a subject of debate in political circles both in the West and the rest of the world. Instead it flaunts its piety by continuing to prevent women from driving, a ban that continues to revolve in a vicious circle with advocates and critics of the whole idea continuously debating the issue. As long as the government measures its piety by this subject, the debate will continue to be barren and wearisome.
Is it not the political leadership that keeps the controversial issue alive in order to exhaust society and distract it from more fateful issues? It collects signatures, contacts international news agencies, spends money on talk shows, and then s! its back and watches as the people become preoccupied with minor issue s and in this way keeps them from fighting the real battle to win their basic rights. Meanwhile women continue to be deprived of free movement just as they are deprived of representation in the very institutions that claim to protect them and preserve their rights including education, the judicial branch, and political representation. The government, meanwhile, prefers to stay aloof from the ongoing debate. It watches the controversy from a distance as if it does not concern it and in this way it strike two birds with one stone.
First it ensures that it stays distinct from the rest of the Muslim world, which allowed women to drive a long time ago, and pretends that this world is morally dissolute and has abandoned Islamic principles and that only the Saudi authority adheres to them to the greatest degree. Its other objective is to occupy women with demanding the right to drive in an eternal debate. As a result the women wage a marginal social war in which they lose the! ir credit because they are involved in a barren controversy.
The intellectuals criticize favouritism and corruption but their criticism shows a lack of real courage. They flog society and crucify small people for engaging in practices that they did not invent. These small people engage in these practices because they see that the persons at the pinnacle of power, who are supposed to be their role models, are expert in the arts of corruption and bribery. These great persons' exploits remain hidden at home but are fully exposed abroad. Since we believe that the small people learn from the great ones and try to imitate them in numerous ways, we cannot find an explanation for the corruption phenomenon except that it is an extension of the practices of the great members of society.
When we see how the newspapers expose only minor people who are guilty of corruption, we realize that the intellectuals in our media are involved in a process of obvious hypocrisy that mak! es their criticism of society laughable.
The calls to flog socie ty, reveal its secrets, and expose its defects are insufficient attempts. This makes us doubt the seriousness and usefulness of this criticism especially as it avoids calling things by their real names. Many of the bizarre practices that are being criticized these days are the outcome of a central authority that carries out acts of exclusion, oppression, and intimidation. It sidelines some and gives preferential treatment to others.
In the current equation this central authority is the strong party. Society is the weak one.
Only a society that is strong, has powerful institutions, and is confident of its abilities can welcome criticism and the flogging that can correct its course. In such a case intellectuals would play an important role in correcting defects and carrying out the desired reform.
We are asking here about the usefulness of flogging society when society itself is being crucified.
Source: Al-Quds al-Arabi website, London! , in Arabic 1 Oct 07