Abdullah al-Hamed, the well-known former professor of literary criticism and Arabic literature, and a bold and controversial Islamic thinker, was addressing a gathering at a friend’s home in Jeddah about “civil society” and the “social contract,” invoking the work of philosophers from Hegel to Ibn Rushd (Averroes). Despite his clarity of expression, mastery of his subject and obvious enthusiasm, much of what he said went over the heads of his audience. I confess, at least, that it went over my own head, lest I accuse others present of poor intellectual capacity.
We Saudis never come across these terms or thinkers in the course of our long years of schooling. Neither are they common topics of discussion in our political discussions or in our newspapers. My inadequate understanding of them did not assist in reading an extraordinary interview published with Hamed in the local paper Al-Madina, in which he employed similar and even more obscure terminology.
But one remark he made during the interview was crystal clear: “No matter how much people pray and fast,” he declared, “they will be devoured by the whales of the Atlantic if they don’t pay heed to the civil values in Islam.” That was not only clear, but timely too. And had he referred to the “whales from the other side of the Atlantic,” his message would have been more unambiguous still.
But something that happened one recent Friday gave me an unanticipated insight into Hamed’s enlightening thoughts. I had gone to the local mosque for communal prayers, as Muslims do, and was waiting for the imam to appear. The minutes passed, and the time approached 1pm, beyond the normal time for starting worship. Our imam was nowhere to be seen. Members of the congregation began looking at each other, puzzled but powerless. Some left the mosque, hoping to catch what remained of the service at another mosque down the road.
It then struck me that what was happening perfectly embodied one central point that Hamed had made: “In the absence of civil society, people lose the spirit of leadership and initiative, and sit around helplessly waiting for someone to guide them.” So I summoned whatever courage I could, stood up, and said something like: “Brothers, we are all at fault if we do not fulfill this religious obligation. Is there no one among us who can deliver a sermon, when, if we Arabs are famed for anything, it is for our rhetoric and eloquence?”
I approached a notable from a family renowned for religious scholarship and suggested that he be our imam, but he declined. I turned to a bearded young man who looked as though he was capable of preaching, but he suggested I give the sermon. But I was bareheaded, and some schools of thought do not permit prayers to be led by a bareheaded imam. Someone else proposed we perform the noon prayer without a sermon, but the majority disagreed. Finally, the muezzin, a young lad, remembered that there was the text of an old sermon left in some corner of the podium, so he found it, and gave it to our new imam. It was about the obligations of kinship, a topic of which Friday prayer leaders never seem to tire, perhaps because it is an area in which most of us are found wanting.
Our new imam did a good enough job of delivering his first-ever sermon, and the service was duly performed, enabling all to fulfill their religious obligation. Everyone went home as normal, after purchasing a watermelon or a pack of tomatoes from the vendors at the mosque door, oblivious to the fact that they had just illustrated in practice Hamed’s point that the absence of civil society leads to an absence of initiative.
It is heartening that there are people around like Hamed. He once fell foul of the state. In the wake of the Gulf War, he contributed to the movement demanding the introduction of major reforms in the country, which caused considerable controversy at the time. That phase passed, for better or worse. He lost his university job and was briefly imprisoned. But one thing that is distinctive about the Saudi government is that it is not repressive and does not bear grudges. He was soon active again in helping shape public opinion, publishing articles some of which clashed with the prevalent religious current and speaking freely at the public gatherings.
It is this political tolerance in Saudi Arabia that justifies saying that any differences that arise within the country are between members of a single family. Perhaps that is what explains the lack of any genuine opposition or dissident currents outside the country. To quote Dr. Mohsen al-Awwaji, who also played a role during that period and went though a harsher experience than Hamed’s: “So long as I can speak my mind freely at public gatherings and to senior officials inside the country, I will not leave my homeland and lose touch with my reality and my people.”
There is positive and fertile ground for reform in Saudi Arabia, and the Saudi leadership can make use of it as it comes under attack from far-right forces in the United States that are ideologically wedded to Israel.
The worst thing about this attack is its ambiguity, and the way the US administration switches roles with these extreme forces. But while one can debate whether America wants to dismember the kingdom, as the administration’s hawks aspire, or merely “contain” it, as the doves profess, neither position is new. And while it is true that the kingdom is too strong to fall prey to the machinations of self-styled experts in New York and Washington (and let’s not forget Tel Aviv), it’s also true that it can do without the “nuisance” they cause. It is bound to have a negative impact. At the very least, it makes life harder for the director of the Public Investment Authority as he seeks to present the kingdom to the world as an investment target that can compete with other emerging markets, in line with the policy of liberalization adopted by Crown Prince Abdullah well before the ill-fated Sept. 11.
It would be easy for Saudi Arabia to rally all the leading forces in society, including the intelligentsia, the enlightened religious current, and the business community, against this American “nuisance.” This has in fact started to happen, in a voluntary, spontaneous way.
Many Saudi businessmen and graduates from US universities have become true champions of their country in US circles with which they are familiar. The work they do is honest and objective. They are not the official media that employ “propaganda” methods and suggest that “all’s well” in the kingdom. They concede that there are things wrong and reforms are needed, but they rebut American over-statements that go to the point of accusing the kingdom of nurturing or financing terrorism. Such charges wouldn’t stand before an American court in normal times, but America these days is not in a normal state.
These Saudi patriots can be relied on to defend the country and the state, but they need institutions to work within. They are not comfortable working within formal state institutions, which are “official” and subject to guidance from above. Their strength and credibility stems from their independence, and that is why they are so effective when they present a different image of Saudi Arabia to the one currently being conveyed to Americans. Their energies and talents can only be used to the full by institutions of civil society, and it is high time such institutions are not only permitted, but actively encouraged and supported to assume a future role in national life.
The kingdom is a relatively developed country in many respects. The proportion of educated people is high, and there are no controls on the use of advanced information and communications technology. Saudis don’t need permission to use the internet via satellite, whereas in some Arab states authorization from security agencies is required just to buy a fax machine. The use of computers is also spreading in all walks of life. The Education Ministry is currently working to link all schools to the internet. And Saudi industry is advanced, producing goods that are viewed as high quality.
But just as the state in the mid-1970s encouraged a massive modernization drive aimed at updating the kingdom’s physical infrastructure, services, industrial output, and economy, it now needs to do the same to modernize the kingdom from within: its thought, its system of government, and its administrative, educational and legal structures.
Most important of all is allowing a strong civil society to come forward and act as a further defensive barrier against the approaching assault from the “whales of the Atlantic,” as Hamed put it.
Jamal Ahmad Khashoggi is a Saudi political analyst and the deputy editor in chief of Saudi Arabia’s English-language Arab News. He wrote this commentary for The Daily Star