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The Return Of Saudi Intellectual Sterility

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The Return of Saudi Intellectual Sterility

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By: Badr al-Ibrahim

Published Tuesday, February 21, 2012

With the coming of the Arab Spring, an important change took place in Saudi intellectual and cultural discourse. Highly aware young people came to the forefront and introduced a debate different from the one dominant in traditional Saudi media.

They concentrated on issues such as rights, freedoms, and democracy. Through social networking sites and propelled by the Arab Spring, they achieved a palpable change in the debate over issues known as “public opinion issues.”

However, one of the remarkable consequences of the case being brought against blogger Hamza Kashgari is the organized attempt by the Salafi movement to take things back to square one.

Using Kashgari’s case, the Salafis in effect hit two birds with one stone. The first was to strike a nerve with the public by exploiting their feelings of protectiveness over religious sanctity, and then use this public sentiment against the Salafis’ intellectual opponents.

The second was to reopen the discussion on matters Salafis love to discuss, away from issues such as democracy and freedoms, or even rights.

This is why they have tried to demonize freedom and democracy by invoking religious sanctity and pitting it against these concepts.

The Salafis accuse democratic thought and its proponents of being enemies of God and his prophet, and therefore of inducing atheism.

This game of sterile and unproductive intellectual debate has made a comeback with worthless discussions which usually take on a personal angle.

The discussion at the moment about a conspiracy on religion and morality is a way to recover the thrill of insignificant and superficial battles, which for the last three decades have only produced intellectual sterility.

It is expected that both players in this game, the Salafis and the liberals, will return to it, try to make it more widespread, and attempt to distract public opinion from more significant debates.

The main rules of this game never seem to change no matter how much time passes and how much circumstances change.

First, the discussion is focused on marginal issues. Pivotal issues have taken a back seat. Both sides concentrate on matters that are not highly significant politically or economically, but which are not intellectually awkward for them.

Therefore, discussion of these issues does not require a great amount of effort because debate over such issues never progress.

It is important that this debate simply treads water. The issues under discussion never develop, their discussion is simply a way of getting rid of pent-up energy and no one has any intention of resolving them.

If one issue is resolved, then another is found so that the debate can continue going around in the same circle. These issues are also an indication that society has not progressed. The public’s ignorance is used to address the outside world.

The debate is also used to spread fear and distrust. The liberals fear a complete takeover by the Salafi way of thinking and the Salafis fear the erosion of the role of religion in society.

The debate normally centers on two different concepts of corruption and emancipation. Normally, these are further narrowed down to only include behavioral and social issues, such as women’s social position.

So the Salafi movement is engaged in fighting what it sees as moral corruption, which they claim is a result of moving away from religion and not rigorously implementing religious teachings.

Meanwhile, they do not seem to be at all concerned with the financial or administrative corruption destroying the country, its people, and its resources.

The liberal elite who are locked into this debate are also only concerned with behavioral/social emancipation, represented by women driving cars or allowing cinemas to operate in the country. But political or economic emancipation from the rentier state is never part of the discourse of these elites.

The second rule of the game is mutual exclusion. One of the outcomes of debate between the two sides is the stereotyping of the other to distort their image among the public.

The Salafis accuse the liberals of being anti-religion, anti-morality, and of promoting moral laxity. In turn, the liberals describe the Salafis as the wellspring of terrorism and of being anti-art, beauty, literature, and culture.

In this way, the debate on these marginal issues produces battles which are accusative, often personal, and consist only of exchanging insults.

This culture of exclusion takes precedence over the values claimed by each side. The Salafi movement behaves in a Machiavellian way which goes even further than Machiavelli himself. They take action in contravention of religious principles such as tolerance, the rejection of lying, and of causing harm through words or deeds.

But this is not in contravention of the principles of the movement, which permits almost anything in the name of protecting virtue and defending religion.

The liberals, who go on about freedoms and the right to differ, fail when it comes to Salafis as they reject their opinions and publicly call for them to be silenced.

The third rule is inciting the authorities. As a result of the intellectual sterility between the two sides, they both turn to the authorities to play the role of referee between them.

This is based on the collective understanding of the idea of rivalry, played out in areas that are predetermined, while seeking to garner the opinion of the authorities, and then use it in the battle to score points against the other side.

Inciting the authorities against the liberals and secularists, and accusing them of promoting atheism and being anti-religion are part of the tactics adopted in these battles.

But the liberals (who are mainly state journalists) are no different. For instance they pushed the political authorities to move against Shaykh Saad al-Shathari after he gave his opinion about the mixing of the sexes at King Abdullah University of Science and Technology.

These actions taken by liberals and Salafis against one another, while seeking the support of the political authorities, contribute to lowering the ceiling of freedom of expression and legitimizes all intellectual repression.

Warning against a return to sterile debates and superficial discussions does not mean ignoring what is important and essential in the case of Kashgari. Anyone who adheres to the principles of freedom and democracy, and advocates for a human rights culture, cannot ignore the fierce backlash sparked by the Kashgari case.

It was an attack that gave free rein to inquisition courts to examine the intentions of any writer or blogger, to test people on their faith and morality, and to make accusations of heresy and atheism. Moreover, it may give free reign to issue direct rulings on these matters.

The issue at hand is not marginal. It has to do with the ability of freedom of thought and expression – which does not damage religion as some claim – to confront the freedom of labeling people heretics and to sanction the spilling of people’s blood, which is the only freedom the pedants believe in.

The culture of law, rights, and institutions is definitely at odds with the spilling of blood, arbitrary sentencing, and intellectual terrorism in the name of all that is holy.

It seems essential to defend the values of public freedoms without sinking into futile conflicts where everyone fails because they grind each other down.

The predominance of intellectual futility can only be avoided by the stand taken by the youth who have steered the debate towards issues of freedom, democracy, and human rights and away from the battles whose only aim is distraction.

We can also say that circumstances have changed as a result of various factors. This makes these small and marginal battles, and the attempt to distract the public with them, impossible to maintain in the long term.

Badr al-Ibrahim is a Saudi writer.

http://english.al-ak...ctual-sterility

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