Saudi women at the Amex Luxury Expo in Riyadh.
Credit Sergey Ponomarev for The New York Times
For most of
his adult life, Ahmed Qassim al-Ghamdi worked among the bearded enforcers of
Saudi Arabia. He was a dedicated employee of the Commission for the Promotion
of Virtue and the Prevention of Vice — known abroad as the religious police —
serving with the front-line troops protecting the Islamic kingdom from
Westernization, secularism and anything but the most conservative Islamic
that resembled ordinary police work: busting drug dealers and bootleggers in a
country that bans alcohol. But the men of “the Commission,” as Saudis call it,
spent most of their time maintaining the puritanical public norms that set
Saudi Arabia apart not only from the West, but from most of the Muslim world.
offense was Ikhtilat, or unauthorized mixing between men and women. The
kingdom’s clerics warn that it could lead to fornication, adultery, broken
homes, children born of unmarried couples and full-blown societal collapse.
Mr. Ghamdi stuck with the program and was eventually put in charge of the Commission
for the region of Mecca, Islam’s holiest city. Then he had a reckoning and
began to question the rules. So he turned to the Quran and the stories of the
Prophet Muhammad and his companions, considered the exemplars of Islamic
conduct. What he found was striking and life altering: There had been plenty of
mixing among the first generation of Muslims, and no one had seemed to mind.
So he spoke
out. In articles and television appearances, he argued that much of what Saudis
practiced as religion was in fact Arabian cultural practices that had been
mixed up with their faith.
no need to close shops for prayer, he said, nor to bar women from driving, as
Saudi Arabia does. At the time of the Prophet, women rode around on camels,
which he said was far more provocative than veiled women piloting S.U.V.s.
said women had to cover only their faces if they chose to. And to demonstrate
the depth of his own conviction, Mr. Ghamdi went on television with his wife,
Jawahir, who smiled to the camera, her face bare and adorned with a dusting of
It was like
a bomb inside the kingdom’s religious establishment, threatening the social
order that granted prominence to the sheikhs and made them the arbiters of
right and wrong in all aspects of life. He threatened their control.
Ghamdi’s colleagues at work refused to speak to him. Angry calls poured into
his cellphone and anonymous death threats hit him on Twitter. Prominent sheikhs
took to the airwaves to denounce him as an ignorant upstart who should be
punished, tried — and even tortured.
I had come
to Saudi Arabia to explore Wahhabism, the hyper-conservative Saudi strain of
Sunni Islam that is often blamed for fuelling intolerance around the world —
and nurturing terrorism. I spent weeks in Riyadh, Jidda and other cities
speaking with sheikhs, imams, religious professors and many others as I tried
to peel back the layers of a closed and private society.
Western visitor, Saudi Arabia is a baffling mix of modern urbanism, desert
culture and the never-ending effort to adhere to a rigid interpretation of
scriptures that are more than 1,000 years old. It is a kingdom flooded with oil
wealth, skyscrapers, S.U.V.s and shopping malls, where questions about how to
invest money, interact with non-Muslims or even treat cats are answered with
quotes from the Quran or stories about the Prophet Muhammad.
woven into daily life. Banks employ clerics to ensure they follow Shariah law.
Mannequins lack heads because of religious sensitivities to showing the human
form. And schoolbooks detail how boys should cut their hair, how girls should
cover their bodies and how often a person should trim his or her pubic hair.
is meant to be a complete program for human life, interpretation is key when it
comes to practices. The Saudi interpretation is steeped in the conservatism of
central Arabia, especially regarding relations between women and men.
most women wear baggy black gowns called Abayas, designed to hide their forms,
as well as veils that cover their hair and faces, with only thin slits for
their eyes. Restaurants have separate sections for “families,” meaning groups
that include women, and for “singles,” which means men.
mix in private, and men and women can usually meet in hotel lobbies with little
problem. Others do not want to mix and see gender segregation as part of their
cultural identity. In some conservative circles, men go their whole lives
without seeing the faces of women other than their immediate family — even
their brothers’ wives.
kingdom, all other religions are suppressed. Not only are there no public
churches, there is no Church’s Chicken. (It is called Texas Chicken in the
kingdom.) When asked about this, Saudis deny that this reflects intolerance.
They compare their country to the Vatican, saying it is a unique place for
Muslims, with its own rules.
spoke with were upset by the kingdom’s increasingly troubled reputation abroad
and said over and over that they supported “moderate Islam.”
exactly did they mean by “moderate Islam”? Unpacking that term made it clear
how wide the values gap is between Saudi Arabia and its American ally. The
kingdom’s “moderate Islam” publicly beheads criminals, punishes apostates and
prevents women from travelling abroad without the permission of a male
ask about gay rights.
calls for jihad, what I heard were religious leaders insisting that the
faithful obey the state. The Saudi royal family is terrified that the jihadist
fervour inflaming the region will catch fire at home and threaten its control.
So it has marshalled the state’s religious apparatus to condemn the jihadists
and proclaim the religious duty of obedience to the rulers.
it was once common, I heard little disparaging talk about Christians and Jews,
although it was open season on Shiites, whose faith is frequently bashed as
part of the rivalry with Iran.
Saudis who suggested I was an infidel were children.
Saudi journalist proudly introduced me to his 9-year-old daughter, whom he had
put in private school so she could study English.
your name?” I asked.
“My name is
Dana,” she said.
“I am 9.”
she switched to Arabic.
have that in Saudi Arabia,” she said. “That’s an infidel holiday.”
her father asked where she had learned that, and she fetched one of her
government-issued textbooks, flipping to a lesson that listed “forbidden
holidays”: Christmas and Thanksgiving. Birthdays had been part of the same
time, I met a religious friend for coffee, and he brought his two young sons.
When the call to prayer sounded, my friend went to pray. His sons confused that
I did not follow, looked at me wide-eyed and asked, “Are you an infidel?”
thing many Saudis will tell you about Wahhabism is that it does not exist.
no such thing as Wahhabism,” Hisham al-Sheikh told me the first time we met.
“There is only true Islam.”
is that fewer people have a purer Wahhabi pedigree than Mr. Sheikh, a direct
descendant of the cleric who started it all.
early 18th century, Sheikh Mohammed ibn Abdul-Wahhab called for a religious
reformation in central Arabia. Feeling that Islam had been corrupted by
practices like the veneration of saints and tombs, he called for the stripping
away of “innovations” and the return to what he considered the pure religion.
an alliance with a chieftain named Mohammed ibn Saud that has underpinned the
area’s history ever since. Then the Saud family assumed political leadership
while Sheikh Abdul-Wahhab and his descendants gave legitimacy to their rule and
managed religious affairs.
proved potent among the warring Arabian tribes, as Wahhabi clerics provided
justification for military conquest in some cases: Those who resisted the House
of Saud were not just enemies, but infidels who deserved the sword.
Saudi state was destroyed by the Ottomans in 1818, and attempts to build
another failed until the early 20th century, when King Abdulaziz al-Saud
undertook a campaign that put him in control of most of the Arabian Peninsula.
king faced a choice: to continue expansionary jihad, which would have invited
conflict with the British, or to build a modern state. He chose the latter,
even crushing a group of his own warriors who refused to stop fighting.
the alliance between the royal family and the clerics has endured, although the
tensions between the quest for ideological purity and the exigencies of modern
statehood remain throughout Saudi society.
forward to 2016, and the main players have transformed because of time and oil
wealth. The royal family has grown from a group of scrappy desert dwellers into
a sprawling clan awash in palaces and private jets. The Wahhabi establishment
has evolved from a puritan reform movement into a bloated state bureaucracy.
of universities that churn out graduates trained in religious disciplines; a
legal system in which judges apply Shariah law; a council of top clerics who
advise the king; a network of offices that dispense Fatwas, or religious
opinions; a force of religious police who monitor public behaviour; and tens of
thousands of mosque imams who can be tapped to deliver the government’s message
from the pulpit.
The call to
prayer sounds five times a day from mosques and inside of malls so clearly that
many Saudis use it to organize their days.
after the sunset prayer,” they would tell me, sometimes unsure what time that
was. So I installed an app on my phone that let me look up prayer times and
buzzed when the call sounded.
And so it
was, after the sunset prayer, that I met Mr. Sheikh, a proud sixth-generation
descendant of Mohammed ibn Abdul-Wahhab.
He was a
portly man of 42 who wore a long white robe and covered his head with a schmag,
or checkered cloth. His beard was long and he had no moustache, in imitation of
the Prophet Muhammad, and he squinted through reading glasses perched on his
nose while peering at his iPhone.
We sat on
purple couches in the music-free lobby of a Riyadh hotel and shared dates and
coffee while he answered my questions about Islam in Saudi Arabia.
“I am an
open-minded person,” he told me early on.
clear that he hoped I would become a Muslim.
had been defined by the religious establishment, but he proved to be a case
study in the complexity of terms like “modern” and “traditional” in Saudi
Arabia. He had memorized the Quran at a young age and studied with prominent
clerics before completing his doctorate in Shariah, with his thesis on how
technology changed the application of Shariah.
Now he had
a successful career and a host of religious jobs. He trained judges for the
Shariah courts, advised the minister of Islamic affairs, wrote studies for the
clerics who advise the king and served on the Shariah board of the Medgulf
insurance company. On Fridays, he preached at a mosque near his mother’s house and
welcomed visitors who came to see his uncle, the grand mufti.
travelled extensively abroad, and when he found out I was American he told me
that he loved the United States. He had visited Oregon, New York, Massachusetts
and Los Angeles. On one trip, he visited a synagogue. On another, a black
church. He had also visited an Amish community, which he found fascinating.
of his lived in Montgomery, Ala., and he had spent happy months there, often
visiting the local Islamic centre. The hardest part, he said, was Ramadan,
because there were few eateries open late that did not have bars.
“All I had
was IHOP,” he said.
Islam did not forbid doing business or having friendships with Christians or
Jews. He opposed Shiite beliefs and practices, but said it was wrong to do as
the extremists of the Islamic State and declare takfir, or infidelity, on
came to birthdays, which many Saudi clerics condemn, he said he did not oppose
them, although his wife did, so their children did not go to birthday parties.
But they had celebrations of their own, he said, showing me a video on his
phone of his family gathered around a cake bearing the face of his son
Abdullah, 15, who had just memorized the Quran. They lit sparklers and cheered,
but did not sing.
He was on
the fence about music, which many Wahhabis also forbid. He said he had no
problem with background music in restaurants, but opposed music that put
listeners in a state similar to drunkenness, causing them to jump around and
bang their heads.
something better,” he said. “You can listen to the Quran.”
of what differentiates Saudi Arabia is the place of women, I wanted to talk to
a conservative Saudi woman, which was tricky because most would refuse to meet
with any unrelated male — let alone a non-Muslim correspondent from the United
States. So I had a female Saudi colleague, Sheikha al-Dosary, contact Mr.
Sheikh’s wife, Meshael, who said she would meet me.
But I asked
Mr. Sheikh’s permission.
“She is very
busy,” he said, and changed the subject.
Sheikh met Ms. Dosary at a women’s coffee shop in Riyadh, where women can
uncover their faces and hair.
marriage to Mr. Sheikh had been arranged, she said. They met once for less than
an hour before they were married, and he had seen her face.
hard for me to look at him or to check him out as I was so shy,” she said.
cousins. He was 21; she was 16. He agreed to her condition for marriage that
she continue her studies, and she was now working on a doctorate in education
while raising their four children.
disputed the Western idea that Saudi women lack rights.
believe we are oppressed because we don’t drive, but that is incorrect,” Ms.
Sheikh said, adding that driving would be a hassle in Riyadh’s snarled traffic.
are respected and honoured in many ways you don’t find in the West,” she
is a descendant of Sheikh Abdul-Wahhab and said proudly that her grandfather
had founded the kingdom’s religious police. “Praise God that we have the
Commission to protect our country,” she said.
of Islam in Saudi life has led to a huge religious sphere that extends beyond
the state’s official clerics. Public life is filled with celebrity sheikhs
whose moves, comments and conflicts Saudis track just as Americans follow
Hollywood actors. There are old sheikhs and young sheikhs, sheikhs who used to
be extremists and now preach tolerance, sheikhs whom women find sexy, and a
black sheikh who has compared himself to Barack Obama.
kingdom’s hyper-wired society, they compete for followers on Twitter, Facebook
and Snapchat. The grand mufti, the state’s highest religious official, has a
regular television show, too.
embrace of technology runs counter to the history of Wahhabi clerics rejecting
nearly everything new as a threat to the religion. Formerly banned items
include the telegraph, the radio, the camera, soccer, girls’ education and
televisions, whose introduction in the 1960s caused outrage.
trying to navigate what is permitted, Halal, and what is not, haram, can be
challenging. So they turn to clerics for Fatwas, or nonbinding religious
rulings. While some may get a lot of attention — as when Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini
of Iran called for killing the author Salman Rushdie — most concern the details
of religious practice. Others can reveal the sometimes comical contortions that
clerics go through to reconcile modernity with their understanding of religion.
for example, the cleric who appeared to call for the death of Mickey Mouse,
then tried to backtrack. Another prominent cleric issued a clarification that
he had not in fact forbidden all-you-can-eat buffets. That same sheikh was
recently asked about people taking photos with cats. He responded that the
feline presence was irrelevant; the photos were the problem.
is not permitted unless necessary,” he said. “Not with cats, not with dogs, not
with wolves, not with anything.”
government has sought to control the flow of religious opinions with official
fatwa institutions. But state-sanctioned Fatwas have provoked laughter, too,
like the fatwa calling spending money on Pokemon products “cooperation in sin
government seeks to get more women into the work force, the state fatwa
organization preaches on the “danger of women joining men in the workplace,”
which it calls “the reason behind the destruction of societies.”
are Fatwas that arm extremists with religious justification. There is one
fatwa, still available in English on a government website and signed by the
previous grand mufti, that states, “Whoever refuses to follow the straight path
deserves to be killed or enslaved in order to establish justice, maintain
security and peace and safeguard lives, honour and property.”
It goes on:
“Slavery in Islam is like a purifying machine or sauna in which those who are
captured enter to wash off their dirt and then they come out clean, pure and
safe, from another door.”
we were having coffee, Mr. Sheikh answered his cellphone, listened seriously
and issued a fatwa on the spot. He got such calls frequently.
had been about where a pilgrim headed to Mecca had to don the white cloths of
ritual purity — an easy one. The answer, in this case, was Jidda. Others were
harder, and he demurred if he was not sure. Once, a woman asked about fake
eyelashes. He told her that he did not know, but thought about it later and
decided they were fine, on one condition: “that there is no cheating involved.”
for example, could put them on before a man came to propose.
after they get married, they’re gone!” he said. “That is not permitted.”
Mr. Sheikh took me to see his uncle, Grand Mufti Abdulaziz al-Sheikh.
a vast reception hall near the mufti’s house in Riyadh, with padded benches
along the walls where a dozen bearded students sat. In the centre, on a raised
armchair, sat the mufti, his feet in brown socks and perched on a pillow. The
students read religious texts, and the mufti interjected with commentary. He
was 75, Mr. Sheikh said, and had been blind since age 14, when a German doctor
carried out a failed operation on his eyes.
said I could ask him a question, so I asked how he responded to those who
compared Wahhabism to the Islamic State.
all lies and slander. Daesh is an aggressive, tyrannous group that has no
relation,” he said, using another term for the Islamic State.
pause, he asked, “Why don’t you become a Muslim?”
that I was from a Christian family.
religion you follow has no source,” he said, adding that I should accept the
Prophet Muhammad’s revelation.
religion is not a religion,” he said. “In the end, you will have to face God.”
time I met Mr. Ghamdi, 51, formerly of the religious police, was this year in a
sitting room in his apartment in Jidda, the port city on the Red Sea. The room
had been outfitted to look like a Bedouin tent. Burgundy fabric adorned the
walls, gold tassels hung from the ceiling, and carpets covered the floor, to
which Mr. Ghamdi pressed his forehead in prayer during breaks in our
He spoke of
how the world of sheikhs, Fatwas and the meticulous application of religion to
everything had defined his life.
world — his world — had frozen him out.
his background suggested that he would become a religious reformer. While at a
university, he quit a job at the customs office in the Jidda port because a
sheikh told him that collecting duties was Haram.
graduation, he studied religion in his spare time and handled international
accounts for a government office — a job requiring travels to non-Muslim
clerics at that time were releasing Fatwas that it was not right to travel to
the countries of the infidels unless it was necessary,” Mr. Ghamdi said.
So he quit.
taught economics at a technical school in Saudi Arabia, but didn’t like that it
taught only capitalism and socialism. So he said he had added material on
Islamic finance, but the students complained about the extra work, and he left.
landed a job that he felt was consistent with his religious convictions, as a
member of the Commission in Jidda.
next few years, he transferred to Mecca and cycled through different positions.
There were occasional prostitution cases, and the force sometimes caught
sorcerers — who can be beheaded if convicted in court.
developed reservations about how the force worked. His colleagues’ religious
zeal sometimes led them to overreact, breaking into people’s homes or
someone drank alcohol,” he said. “That does not represent an attack on the
religion, but they exaggerated in how they treated people.”
point, Mr. Ghamdi was assigned to review cases and tried to use his position to
report abuses and force agents to return items they had wrongfully confiscated,
the case of an older, single man who was reported to receive two young women in
his home on the weekends. Since the man did not pray at the mosque, his
neighbours suspected he was up to no good, so the Commission raided the house
and caught the man red-handed — visiting with his daughters.
people were humiliated in inhuman ways, and that humiliation could cause hatred
of religion,” Mr. Ghamdi said.
the head of the Commission for the Mecca region died, and Mr. Ghamdi was
promoted. It was a big job, with some 90 stations throughout a large, diverse
area containing Islam’s holiest sites. He did his best to keep up, while
worrying that the Commission’s focus was misguided.
he looked to the scriptures and the sayings of the Prophet Muhammad for
guidance on what was Halal and what was Haram, and he documented his findings.
surprised because we used to hear from the scholars, ‘Haram, Haram, Haram,’ but
they never talked about the evidence,” he said.
the gravity of such a conclusion for someone in his position, he stayed silent
and filed the document away.
conclusions would, soon, emerge.
time he was rethinking his worldview, King Abdullah, then the monarch,
announced plans to open a world-class university, the King Abdullah University
of Science and Technology, or Kaust. What shocked the kingdom’s religious
establishment was his decision to not segregate students by gender, nor impose
a dress code on women.
followed the precedent of Saudi Aramco, the state oil company, which had also been
shielded from clerical interference, highlighting one of the great
contradictions of Saudi Arabia: Regardless of how much the royal family lauds
its Islamic values, when it wants to earn money or innovate, it does not turn
to the clerics for advice. It puts up a wall and locks them out.
clerics kept quiet out of deference to the king. But one member of the top
clerical body addressed the issue on a call-in show, warning of the dangers of
mixed universities: sexual harassment; men and women flirting and getting
distracted from their studies; husbands growing jealous of their wives; rape.
many corrupting factors, and its evil is great,” said the cleric, Sheikh Saad
al-Shathri, adding that if the king had known this was the plan, he would have
was in fact the king’s idea, and he was not amused. He dismissed the sheikh
with a royal decree.
office in Mecca, Mr. Ghamdi watched, frustrated that the clerics were not
backing a project he felt was good for the kingdom.
praying about it, he retrieved his report and boiled it down to two long
articles that were published in the newspaper Okaz in 2009.
the first strikes in a years-long battle between Mr. Ghamdi and the religious
establishment. He followed with other articles, went on TV and faced off
against other clerics who insulted him and marshalled their own evidence from
the scriptures. His colleagues at the Commission shunned him, so he requested —
and was swiftly granted — early retirement.
the force, he questioned other practices: forcing shops to close during prayer
times and urging people to go to the mosque, requiring face veils, barring
women from driving.
comment lit a new inferno. A woman once asked him on Twitter if she could not
only show her face, but also wear makeup. Sure, Mr. Ghamdi said, setting off
2014, he was to appear on a popular talk show, and the producers filmed a
segment about him and his wife, who appeared with her face showing and said she
responses came from the top of the religious establishment.
attacked his religious credentials, saying he was not really a sheikh — a
dubious accusation since there is no standard qualification to be one. They
targeted his résumé, too, saying he had no degree in religion and pointing out,
correctly, that his doctorate was from Ambassador University Corporation, a
diploma mill that gives degrees based on work experience “in the Middle East.”
no doubt that this man is bad,” said Sheikh Saleh al-Luheidan, a member of the
top clerical body. “It is necessary for the state to assign someone to summon
and torture him.”
mufti addressed the issue on his call-in show, saying that the veil was “a
necessary order and an Islamic creation” and calling on the kingdom’s
television channels to ban content that “corrupts the religion and the morals
and values of society.”
clerical attacks on Mr. Ghamdi were loud, the blowback from society was more
painful. His tribe issued a statement, disowning him and calling him “troubled
and confused.” His cellphone rang day and night with callers shouting at him.
He came home to find graffiti on the wall of his house. And a group of men
showed up at his door, demanding to “mix” with the family’s women. His sons —
he has nine children — called the police.
dust-up, Mr. Ghamdi had also delivered Friday sermons at a mosque in Mecca,
earning a government stipend. But the congregation complained after he spoke
out, and he was asked to stay home, later losing his pay.
had not broken any laws and never faced legal action. But in Saudi Arabia’s
close-knit society, the attacks echoed through his family. The relatives of his
eldest son’s fiancée called off their wedding, not wanting to associate their
family with his.
with your brother or with me?” Mr. Ghamdi said his sister’s husband had asked
her. “She said, ‘I am with my brother.’” They soon divorced.
Ghamdi’s son Ammar, 15, was taunted at school. Ammar said another boy had once
asked him: “How did your mom go on TV? That’s not right. You have no manners.”
Not a Place
to Speak Up
in Jidda, a university professor invited me to his home for dinner. His wife, a
doctor, joined us at the table, her hair covered with a stylish veil.
recently been married and he joked that they were meant for each other because
she was good at cooking and he was good at eating. His wife chuckled and gave
him more soup.
about Mr. Ghamdi.
I read and what I saw, I think he’s right and he stood up for what he believes
in,” the professor said. “I admire that.”
problem, he said, is that tolerance for opposing views is not taught in Saudi
follow what I say or I will classify you, I will hurt you, I will push you out
of the discussion,” he said. “This is anti-Islam. We have many people thinking
in different ways. You can fight, but you have to live under the same roof.”
had no problem with mixing or with women working, but did not like that Mr.
Ghamdi had caused a scandal by making his views public. The royal family sets
the rules, and it was inappropriate for subjects to publicly campaign for
changes, she said.
“He has to
follow the ruler,” she said. “If everyone just comes out with his own opinion,
we’ll be in chaos.”
dinner, a young cleric who works for the security services dropped by. He, too,
agreed with Mr. Ghamdi, but would not talk about it openly. The response, he
said, is part of the deep conservatism in the clerical establishment that is
gave lectures to security officers, followed by discussions, he said, and a
common question he heard was, “Isn’t the military uniform haram?” Many Wahhabi
clerics preach against resembling the infidels, leading to confusion.
that wearing uniforms was fine, and worried that such narrow thinking made
people susceptible to extremism.
in those American movies when they invent a robot and then they lose control
and it attacks them and the remote control stops working,” he said.
day, the professor thanked me for my visit in a text message.
to remind u that any story that would uncover the source may hurt us. I trust
your discretion,” he wrote, followed by three flowers.
was left, really, was to to speak with the Commission. What did its leaders and
rank and file think about all of this? But for a force portrayed as
ever-present and all powerful, it proved surprisingly shy.
I could not
visit Mr. Ghamdi’s former office because non-Muslims are barred from entering
Mecca. So I had multiple contacts ask for interviews with relatives who worked
for the Commission, but they all declined to speak. I called the Commission’s
spokesman, who told me that he was traveling and then stopped answering my
dropped by the Commission’s headquarters, a boxy, steel-and-glass building on a
Riyadh highway between a gas station and a car dealership. Its website
advertised open hours with the director, so I went to his office, through halls
filled with bearded men milling about and slick banners proclaiming “A Policy
of Excellence” and “Together against Corruption.”
come today,” the director’s secretary told me. “Maybe next week.”
On my way
out, two men invited me into an office and served me coffee.
“How do you
like working for the Commission?” I asked.
who chooses this job loves it,” one said. It was the work of “the entire
Islamic nation,” and it felt good “to bring people from the darkness into the
man had been on the force for 15 years and said he preferred working in the
more in the administration,” he said. “Out there we have problems with people.
They call us the religious police. Criminals! Thieves! You never get to rest
out in the field.”
man appeared in the doorway and told me that I was not allowed to talk to
anyone. The first man soon left. The second offered me more coffee, then tea,
then forced me to take a bottle of water when I left.
the Hard Way
irony of Mr. Ghamdi’s situation is that many Saudis, including members of the
royal family and even important clerics, agree with him, although mostly in
private. And public mixing of the sexes in some places — hospitals, conferences
and in Mecca during the pilgrimage — is common. In some Saudi cities it is not
uncommon to see women’s faces, or even their hair.
is a split in society between the conservatives who want to maintain what they
consider the kingdom’s pure Islamic identity and the liberals (in the Saudi
context) who want more personal freedoms. Liberals make cases like Mr. Ghamdi’s
all the time. But sheikhs don’t, which is why he was branded a traitor.
irony is that this year, Saudi Arabia instituted some of the reform Mr. Ghamdi
had called for.
It had been
a rough year for the Commission. A video went viral of a girl yelping as she
was thrown to the ground outside a Riyadh mall during a confrontation with the
Commission, her abaya flying over her head and exposing her legs and torso. For
many Saudis, “the Nakheel Mall girl” symbolized the Commission’s overreach.
Commission arrested Ali al-Oleyani, a popular talk show host who often
criticized religious figures. Photos appeared online of Mr. Oleyani in
handcuffs with bottles of liquor. The photos were clearly staged and apparently
had been leaked as a form of character assassination. Many people were
the government responded with a surprise decree defanging the religious police.
It denied them the power to arrest, question or pursue subjects, forced them to
work with the police and advised them to be “gentle and kind” in their
interactions with citizens.
applauded the decision, although he remains an outcast, a sheikh whose
positions rendered him unemployable in the Islamic kingdom.
he keeps a low profile because he still gets insults when he appears in public.
He has no job, but publishes regular newspaper columns, mostly abroad.
end of our last conversation, his wife, Jawahir, entered the room, dressed in a
black Abaya, with her face showing. She shook my hand, exuding a cloud of
fragrance, and sat next to her husband.
experience had changed her life in unexpected ways, she said. And like her
husband, she had no regrets.
our message, and the goal was not for us to keep appearing and to get famous,”
she said. “It was to send a message to society that religion is not customs and
traditions. Religion is something else.”