Saudi clerics' outbursts hurt image of Islam

The head of the Supreme Court says that media officials responsible for airing immoral television programmes could be killed.

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Riyadh // When the head of Saudi Arabia's Supreme Court recently declared that media officials responsible for airing immoral television programmes could be killed, his remarks provoked what has become a familiar response around the world. Ridicule and scorn for Saudi Arabia, and more "proof" for Islamophobes of the "backwardness" of Islam. Sheikh Lihedan's remarks were not the only ones in recent months to trigger a spate of global eye-rolling. In March, Sheikh Abdul Rahman al Barrak declared that two Saudi writers, whom he accused of expressing heretical ideas, should be put to death unless they recanted. Another elderly sheikh, Abdullah bin Jibreen, told an interviewer on Al Majd TV, a conservative Riyadh-based religious station, that journalists "who insult scholars to shame or discredit them or undermine their authority ? should be punished". Sheikh Jibreen's suggested chastisements included "imprisonment for a long time", being "removed from the positions they hold, or ? flogging". There were other less frightening, but sometimes silly, pronouncements that caused non-Muslims to wonder why representatives of such a profound and spiritual religious tradition as Islam concern themselves with trivialities. The most famous was a declaration by a member of the Saudi religious police, officially known as the Commission to Promote Virtue and Prevent Vice, that dog-walking had become an unacceptable "phenomenon" in Riyadh. He demanded enforcement of 14-year-old ban on selling cats and dogs. Then came a Saudi cleric bemoaning the fact that young children have become enamoured of such cartoon figures as Mickey Mouse even though Islamic law stipulates that mice should be killed. Sheikh Mohammed al Munajid told Al Majd TV last month that sharia regards a mouse as "one of Satan's soldiers". According to a translation of Sheikh Munajid's statements by MEMRI, the Middle East Media Research Institute, the cleric then said: "How do you think children view mice today - after Tom and Jerry? Even creatures that are repulsive by nature, by logic, and according to Islamic law have become wonderful and are loved by children. Even mice. Mickey Mouse has become an awesome character, even though according to Islamic law, Mickey Mouse should be killed in all cases." Saudis who do not follow the austere, narrow-minded version of Islam that prevails in their country's religious establishment love to publicise comments such as these to embarrass the clerics. But the press coverage, both in Saudi Arabia and abroad, often disregards some important aspects of religious discourse in the kingdom. First of all, the press almost always refers to any comment from a religious figure as a fatwa. But in most cases, their comments do not rise to the level of a fatwa, and are therefore not worthy of the deference normally accorded such religious opinions. One only has to look at the YouTube video of Sheikh Munajid's Mickey Mouse comment ( v=bnhQjk7T478) to see that it was an offhand remark, perhaps an attempt to make a joke. It was not a researched, carefully worded fatwa. Indeed, a more pertinent criticism of such comments is to ask why sheikhs do not spend their religious capital on more important moral concerns, such as demanding badly needed reforms to the Saudi court system, and urging kindness and justice for the poor, including the expatriate workers who do most of the manual labour in the kingdom. Also, the press rarely notes if the sheikh making the controversial comments is associated with the government or not. Sheikhs Barrak, Jibreen and Munajid, for example, do not hold government jobs. By contrast, Sheikh Lihedan does. And this was why his comments about television executives prompted a rapid government rebuttal. Sheikh Abdul Mohsen al Obaikan, a moderate religious scholar who advises the justice ministry, denounced Sheikh Lihedan's remarks, and said they would encourage terrorists by giving them "a reason" for "taking lives, attacking television stations and targeting the localities where TV owners may be". He made clear that Sheikh Lihedan's statements should not "be considered as the opinion of the Saudi Muslim scholars or even of the state". Lastly, those who publicise controversial remarks by Muslim scholars rarely raise the bigger question prompted by such comments: Who speaks for Islam? Actually, this is the burning ember stoking almost every controversy in Islam in these volatile times. What the ultra-conservative sheikhs - and often their critics too - fail to note is that the voices of authority in Islam have become far more numerous than at any previous time in modern history. Rising education levels of all Muslims in the past 50 to 100 years means that today the realm of who is qualified to interpret Islam's holy texts has expanded greatly. Religious scholars who spend their whole lives poring over ancient scriptural texts used to have unchallenged authority to interpret Islam. Not any more. Today, those clerics are being asked to share that authority with other Muslims in a wide variety of occupations - professors, journalists, artists, film-makers - who have their own ideas about Islam's role in intellectual pursuits, governmental affairs and even just plain everyday life. Muslim clerics generally do not like and even feel insulted by this challenge to their monopoly on interpreting Islam. During the Al Majd TV interview, for example, Sheikh Jibreen said the punishments he recommended for his critics were "so that they can concede to the superiority of scholars and clergymen who are held in high regard in the state and otherwise". And Sheikh Munajid, in a television interview in March that was translated by MEMRI, addressed the question of clerical authority directly. "Some of these heretics say, 'Islam is not the private property of anyone.' So what do they want? ? They say, 'We want to issue rulings.' Someone who is ignorant, who does not know any Arabic, or who has no knowledge of Islamic jurisprudence wants to issue rulings?! They say, 'We reinterpret the texts'," Sheikh Munajid said. "There is a very dangerous conspiracy against the religion of Islam in newspapers and in what these people say," he continued. "A journalist, or one of those low lifes, wants to ? These people are a mixture of western, local and imported ideologies, but they want to express their views with regard to religious rulings. This is the prerogative of religious scholars, not of ignorant people - the prerogative of knowledgeable people, not of fools or heretics." So what to do? The Arab world needs more freedom of speech, not less. So as long as ultra-conservative clerics do not incite violence, they should be allowed to publicly say what they please. Those who disagree with them ought to have the same right. I asked one Saudi government employee recently what he thought King Abdullah felt about Sheikh Lihedan's comments. "Disappointment," he replied. "The king just made a big effort and spent a lot of money to hold an interfaith conference in Madrid as a way to improve Saudi Arabia's image," he said. With one sentence, he added, Sheikh Lihedan destroyed the king's efforts. In a meeting with Islamic scholars in Mecca on Monday, King Abdullah spoke frankly about the challenges facing Islam, saying that "unfortunately, the image of Islam is being tarnished by none other than Muslims themselves". "If we want to be honest with ourselves," he said, "we have to accept this reality that the sons of Islam are the ones desecrating this pure religion. Islam disowns them and disowns anyone who tries to give it a bad name." Of course, he was speaking about suicide bombers and their terrorist handlers. But was he also thinking about others whose words harm Islam?