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Letter from Arabia IV: Primacy of Faith

By David A. Andelman

RIYADH—The sprawling, marble-lined, four-level Al-Faisaliah mall in the heart of the Saudi capital is a ghost-town shortly after 6 o’clock on a recent Wednesday evening. The discreet sign on the locked front door of Harvey Nichols, the local branch of the luxury English department store, reads, “We will reopen after prayers.” Gates are drawn closed on a host of high-end boutiques, even the fast-food stalls in the food court—Subway, Dunkin’ Donuts, McDonald’s. The only signs of life are flocks of women, concealed in flowing black rayon from the tops of their heads to the bottoms of their Manolo Blahniks, that can be seen peeping from beneath their abayas when they walk. In most cases, only their eyes twinkle through the slits as they twitter and flit from group to group. They are awaiting the return of their men.

Suddenly, from the basement, the swarm gathers. Streams of men, many in carefully pressed suits, white shirts and ties, others in more casual sports-shirts and slacks, fill the escalators, fanning out across the floors. The gates part; the doors are unlocked. Prayers are finished. Business resumes. This is the maghrib, at sunset—the fourth of five times each day when Muslims remember God, this time as the day draws to a close. Hours later, the muezzin’s call will again summon them for a final tribute to Allah before they retire for the night. During each of these periods of worship, even the most luxurious of shops are shuttered across the kingdom. For any laggards to the mosque, there are the muttawah—the feared religious police, patrolling in pairs with their lethal lit swagger sticks—urging all men, with barely concealed persuasion, to performing their obligation to Allah and kingdom, their primacy effectively indistinguishable.

These rituals, obligatory for men, all but ignored by women, are among many deeply held beliefs, so much a part of the Saudi soul, that form the immutable foundations of society, life, and nationhood. Beneath a constantly shifting veneer, they have guaranteed a system of autocracy that is virtually unique in the Arab world for its universal acceptance. This system, and the network it has spawned, guarantees peace, stability, and assures that even the most blatant of bloggers and democracy advocates won’t challenge these tenets.

“In Saudi society, there is confusion between religion, tribal tradition, and politics,” the noted dissident imam, Salman bin Fahd bin Abdullah al-Ouda, tells visitors to his home in Jeddah. “These three things are tied together in one knot that is hard to break.”

Certainly there is an increasing number of young people anxious to break at least some of these ties. Al-Ouda, for instance, was imprisoned for a time nearly 20 years ago for accusing the government and senior ulema of not doing enough to protect the legitimate Islamic rights of Muslims. Today, he believes it’s essential to de-link Islam from some of what he sees as its more perverted practices like banning women from driving. By adopting what would appear, at least, to be a somewhat progressive stance, he has acquired nearly 1.3 million Twitter followers. He acknowledges, in response to a question from a visitor who has seen little real change in the fundamental values of Saudi Arabia over the past decade, that he has reconsidered many of his long-held views. But not his belief in the primacy of Islam.

Blogging for God

Other popular bloggers like Ahmed Al Omram, a Columbia Journalism School graduate from the Eastern capital of Damram, who blogs as SaudiJeans, and with 35,000 followers tweets as @ahmed; the political standup comic Fahad Albutairi with 350,000 followers; and Raneen, who describes herself as “Ready for a Renaissance,” are all searching for a new form of dialogue in this ancient kingdom, while adhering to basic values.

“Saudi society is a mixture of cultures, some Muslim and some tribal and some political,” al-Ouda continues slowly, choosing his words carefully in Arabic, the only language he will speak to visitors, though he asks if we would prefer he autograph his book in Arabic or English. He pauses briefly. “People become like one version of a book printed into a thousand copies. So people wear the same clothes, worship in the same way, and eat the same food. There are so many things that have been generalized to people in this society.”

Still, even many bloggers who consider themselves in conversation as pressing for a new and more modern nation, especially one that recognizes the rights of women, have been known to participate in the circle-the-wagon mentality in times of trouble. Few are prepared to challenge many of the social and political or especially religious foundations of society—the supremacy of shariah law and the king.

“OMG! #Saudi Crown Prince Nayef passed away today. RIP. I'm a little shocked. [God bless his soul],” tweets Aiyah Saihati under the handle @YOUTHPOWER. In a separate tweet, she continues, “My condolences to Princess Joharah bint Nayef and the entire family for their loss. God bless you and bless our beloved country.”

Prince Nayef, younger brother to King Abdullah and second in line to the throne, had served for more then a quarter century as the dreaded Minister of the Interior and controlled the muttawah. Known as the dark knight of the royal family, the potential of his succeeding the king was viewed with great trepidation by many modernists and youths who feared a return to an even more rigid, less tolerant regime.

What is most frustrating today to everyone from Sheikh al-Ouda to a number of the most widely followed bloggers, is simply the pace of change and the fact that all too often the basics of Islam are confounded with tribal traditions that remain beyond the modern world.

If there is one challenge to the Kingdom, and especially its friends abroad who strive to parse each such challenge, it is its ability to move gently into the 21st century, with its feet still planted firmly in the traditions of the 17th.

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For David A. Andelman's previous Letters to Arabia: I, II, III

David A. Andelman is Editor of World Policy Journal. He last visited Saudi six years ago. This visit was made under the auspices of the IRP Gatekeeper Editors program of the International Reporting Project.

[Photo courtesy of MoH911]

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