Visitors to the 4th Riyadh International Book Fair browse through a collection of books earlier this month.
Visitors to the 4th Riyadh International Book Fair browse through a collection of books earlier this month.

New-look book fair backfires on writers

JEDDAH // Saudi Arabia's attempt to show itself as progressive by inviting Arab thinkers to a book fair was beset with controversy after the religious police tried to exert their authority over the event. The international book fair, which ended last week, followed a Saudi government reshuffle that included the appointment of a new, more liberal minister of culture and information. The religious police, nervous about the unprecedented level of openness, increased its presence at the book fair and even tried to impose strict rules of segregation, in defiance of the ministry of culture's orders. The book fair, in its fourth year, had been criticised by leading Saudi scholars for hosting the Moroccan philosopher Mohammed Abed al Jabri, who has questioned parts of the Quran and the authority that religion has on society. Mr al Jabri believes that intellectuals should share the religious authority with grand muftis. Speaking at the book fair he accused religious groups of trying to monopolise religious authority by restricting the role civic groups played in defending Islamic beliefs. Saudi's grand mufti, Sheikh Abdul Aziz Al Ashaikh, called Mr al Jabri ignorant and one "who needs to be guided", during a TV show on Friday. In response to a caller who was angry at the decision to allow Mr al Jabri to speak at the fair, the grand mufti said that in the future, ignorant people would not be invited. Another leading scholar, Sheikh Abdul Rahman al Barrak, issued a religious edict warning people against Mr al Jabri's views of Islam and the Quran. At the book fair, religious police prevented Halima Muzaffar, a female Saudi writer, from signing books for male readers and arrested two novelists who had tried to approach her for an autograph. The religious police detained the Saudi novelists Abdu Khal and Abdullah Thabet for questioning after they attempted to get Muzaffar's autograph after they were told not to speak to her directly. Muzaffar, who had permission from the ministry of culture and information to sign autographs for both sexes, said she was allowed to continue signing books for men the following day. But she accused the religious police of trying to humiliate her because she had been critical of their behaviour. She said she was the only woman at the fair for whom the police made it difficult to interact with men and that it was not the first time she had been prevented from reaching out to the public. The arrests were the first altercation between intellectuals and the religious police after the replacement of its conservative chief with a more moderate one. The switch was part of a major cabinet reshuffle in February by King Abdullah, who dismissed leading conservative religious figures in an effort to moderate the religious authority in the kingdom. The arrests and the strong presence of the religious police at the book fair sparked some concern among visitors and raised concern over whether the religious police, which has a long history of conflict with intellectuals, can cope with the new era of openness. "I felt like I was wearing an explosive belt, not signing books," said Muzaffar, describing how it felt to be surrounded by five security men, six policemen and two of the religious police. "If any first-time female writer was surrounded by this many policemen, she would be discouraged from appearing in public again or possibly frustrated from writing at all," said Muzaffar, who has chastised the religious police in her weekly columns in the Al Watan daily. The religious police are responsible for, among other things, enforcement of dress codes, mandatory observance of prayer times and segregation of the sexes. Both Saudi novelists were released on the same day without being charged. Muzaffar published an article in Al Watan following the arrests, explaining what happened. The next day, the head of the religious police in Riyadh, Sheikh Abdullah al Shithri, said the Commission for the Promotion of Virtue and Prevention of Vice, which runs the religious police, was not against women participating in intellectual gatherings. "As long as the facility is available for women to participate without creating problems, such as plenty of room and space, then there is nothing against their participation," Sheikh al Shithri said in a statement. Khal, one of the two detained novelists, told Al Watan: "It seems that the relationship between the [religious police] and the intellectuals is based on animosity and hostility and perhaps that is shown from the fashion in which they treated us." Mahmoud Traouri, a Saudi novelist, however, attributed what happened to personal animosity between the religious police and certain intellectuals. Khal and Muzaffar are both known for their critical views on the religious police. Khal has said his criticism is directed at ending the religious police's monopoly on safeguarding Islamic values. Muzaffar has said the religious police should be held accountable for their actions.

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