RIYADH // The question of the hour for those who watch the winds of change in Saudi Arabia is this: will Sheikh Ahmed al Ghamdi keep his job or not? Mr al Ghamdi, 47, is head of the Mecca branch of the Commission to Promote Virtue and Prevent Vice, otherwise known as the religious police. Ever since he publicly questioned Saudi Arabia's strict gender segregation in December, there have been rumours that he would be sacked.
Those rumours looked to be correct on Sunday when the Commission announced on its website that Mr al Ghamdi was being replaced. But a few hours later, the press release was removed and the state news agency, which had also posted the release, advised that it had been cancelled. The back-and-forth on Mr al Ghamdi's status is part of an unprecedented public row among Saudi religious scholars over what has been a pillar of this society for decades - its far-reaching ban on the mixing of men and women in public places.
For several weeks now, the ban has been a hot topic of newspaper columns and television talk shows, with both ultraconservative and moderate sheikhs weighing in on an issue that is increasingly on the front burner as Saudi Arabia seeks to diversify its economy. The debate reflects the more open atmosphere that has emerged since King Abdullah bin Abdul Aziz came to power. But what is especially noteworthy this time is that those expressing more moderate views are not backing down under fierce hardliner criticism, including a fatwa recommending they be executed.
During a speech in Taif this month, " Mr al Ghamdi said: "You can write in the newspaper from my own mouth that I still hold to the view I expressed on [gender segregation], and I won't go back on it, and I'll continue to repeat what I wrote." Mr al Ghamdi seems to be relishing his maverick role. In recent interviews he has also questioned the need to close shops during prayer times, and asserted that Muslims need attend congregational prayer at the mosque only on Fridays, while praying privately on other days.
Some Saudis say the controversy swirling around Mr al Ghamdi underscores how the division between conservatives and moderates has grown deeper. "So now, people are more frank," said a civil servant, adding that if Mr al Ghamdi had said the same thing 10 years ago, "he would be definitely finished with his job within a day." Mr al Ghamdi became a key figure in the debate when he wrote a two-page article published in the newspaper Okaz in December arguing that men and women mixing in public is natural and was an accepted practice during the Prophet Mohammed's time.
Those who oppose public mixing are not on solid religious ground, he wrote, because Islamic law, or sharia, is silent on the matter. Moreover, it is "dangerous" to associate a term like "mixing" with sharia, he added, because it gives "a fake idea merit", and thus reflects negatively on Islamic law. Mr al Ghamdi also said the widespread practice of having female servants in Saudi homes "contradicts" the religious argument that mixing is forbidden.
He was not the first Saudi religious scholar to say such things about public mixing. Weeks before Mr al Ghamdi's Okaz piece, Muhammad al Issa, the justice minister, warned against confusing public mingling, which he said is permissible in Islam, with private meetings between unrelated or unmarried men and women, which are forbidden. But Mr al Ghamdi's remarks made bigger ripples because of his position with the commission, whose agents patrol malls, restaurants, universities and other public places to make sure men and women are not mingling.
The furore set off in conservative circles by Mr al Ghamdi's arguments is even more intense within the commission, which is already coping with rising public criticism of its sometimes aggressive behaviour and with a fierce internal debate over its policies. The political observer Abdullah al Shammary said that right now,"there is something like a revolution inside the commission. There are huge discussions about its role."
Ultraconservative supporters of the status quo hit back at Mr al Ghamdi and others who questioned the mixing ban with a fatwa calling them "apostates". Sheikh Abdulrahman al Barrak, who is in his 70s, said in his fatwa that public gender mixing "as advocated by modernisers" is prohibited because it allows "sight of what is forbidden, and forbidden talk between men and women". Anyone who facilitates such mixing "is an infidel" and if he does not retract his position "must be killed", Mr al Barrak wrote on his website in February.
For good measure, the sheikh added that anyone who allows his daughter, sister or wife to work with men or attend mixed-gender schooling is guilty of "a type of pimping". It is not only hardliners who are unhappy. Saudi Arabia's Grand Mufti, Sheikh Abdul Aziz al Sheikh, is also upset with Mr al Ghamdi. the newspaper Al Madina reported that Mr al Sheikh informed Mr al Ghamdi that he had no authority to speak on issues regulated by Islamic law, such as the responsibility to attend congregational prayers. The mufti said in his sermon last Friday that anyone who questioned that responsibility is "leading people to hell".
The eventual outcome of the debate on mixing is not just crucial for the credibility of the Saudi religious establishment. It is also vital for the kingdom's development, since the ban on public mingling is seen by many as a major barrier to modernising the economy and a reason for high unemployment among women. Fawziah al Bakr, a King Saud University professor, said; ""This is hindering society from going forward." Not only are women treated as inferiors, she said, but "you always have to have double buildings and double management".
Many outside experts believe that economic realities will be the most influential factor in breaking down sex segregation, especially as more women enter the job market. But in such a religious society it is important that social change be seen as compliant with Islam. Clerics like Mr al Ghamdi are offering that rationale. "It should be understood that moderation and flexibility are some of the basic principles of Islam," he has said. "Moderation and flexibility signify righteousness. They are the middle way."