Sunday, March 05, 2006

Lessons of Riyadh Book Fair

(Islam is about freedom and choice. To drive the entire faith into the narrow interpretations of a single school is simply un-Islamic.)

Dr. Khaled M. Batarfi
This year's Riyadh Book Fair was eventful—mostly unwelcome events, though. Somehow, the fundamentalists found it an opportunity to flex their muscles and prove a point. They wanted all to know that no matter how far we progress on the road of women and minority rights, speech and press freedoms, democracy and all, they are still in a strong position of influence. But they went too far, this time.

According to press reports, members and volunteers of the Institution of Promotion of Virtue and Prevention of Vice were in force everywhere. In the family days, where single men are not allowed, they were the exception. Carrying sticks and wielding religious authority, they went around telling women to cover their faces, wear "abaeas" (black cloak) over their heads in one piece, rather than two—head scarf and body cover. In some instances, they told salesmen in book stands not to smile or joke when talking to women. A man holding the hand of his half-blind wife was told not to show affection in public.

When people tried to argue, in peaceful way, (there was no alternative anyway!), they were harshly told to just follow orders. Women were telling them that in Islam there are different schools of thoughts. Only one says women should cover their faces. Salesmen were trying to explain that they are supposed to be nice to customers. A husband argued that he was holding hands with his wife, not a girl friend. Besides, he explained, with her eyes troubles, she could easily lose her way in the crowded place. Nothing worked with these people. They felt they were there to perform a strict divine duty not to convince people or convey messages.

During the same event, a number of Saudi intellectuals were harassed, verbally, and almost physically. The fundamentalists came early on, occupied most of the hall, and went on the offence as soon as the lecture started.

In the main lecture hall, two ministers and a number of intellectuals were attacked for their known liberal or Sofi views. Then a tensed aggressive group surrounded them threateningly. They had to be saved by security. In the women section, another intellectual was threatened and verbally abused. Writer Fawzia Albaker was taken home in tears.

These people didn't come to listen, learn and discuss. They came to teach lessons and make statements. They were not prepared to take other views into consideration, or allow for the possibility of misunderstanding, miscommunication or even errors on their side. Many came from positions of authority and influence. They include university professors, school teachers and mosques' imams.

This can't be good, especially in such event. In this time and place, when the whole country is moving towards modernity, globalization, democracy and reforms, we still have people going around with sticks and divine authority to enforce their narrow view of the world. They only represent a minority of the Muslim World and behave like there is no Islam but theirs.

As a result we get people doing what they are told regardless of what they believe: women wearing what they must at home and extremely different abroad, youth following the strict rules when watched, and breaking all when alone; and a whole society in a state of schizophrenia. We don't have cinemas but our satellite dishes can bring us the world's best and worst. We can't mix in public, but many go from one liberal party to another. Single men cannot enter malls, but they find ways to meet with girls behind closed doors. Banned books and intellectual materials can always be had via the net and from neighboring countries, such as Dubai, Bahrain, Kuwait, Jordan, Egypt and Yemen. It is an indication that most visitors of book fairs in Arab countries come from Saudi. We hunt books that should have been available to us, without having to travel around to get them.

We can't go on like this. You can't drive down two crossed road at the same time. Either you decide to open your windows to the winds or to live in a closed underground cave. You are part of this world or you are not. Since you don't have an option anyway, better be serious and sincere about it.

Islam is about freedom and choice. You become Muslim with your own free will. Then you choose to understand the message according to any interpretation of the multiple mathhabs and their different schools of thought. To drive the entire faith into the narrow interpretations of a single school is simply un-Islamic.

The experience of Riyadh Fair Book should alarm us. These people crossed the most revered Islamic lines and should be punished. We should also make sure that no one else dare to cross them again.