By Jamal Khashoggi
23 February 2016
Saudis are witnessing a devastating war between conservatives and liberals, who accuse each other of being enemies of the state. I choose to withdraw from this absurd conflict. I cannot forget the image of a government official watching on TV representatives from the rival camps trading accusations and claiming to have Saudis’ best interests at heart. The official would laugh and say: “Let them fight and burn each other.”
Both sides are burning their country amid this power struggle, preferring to fight about matters that have been settled by younger countries, rather than solve more pressing problems. The timing is inappropriate because the kingdom is waging a war on two fronts. The public is concerned about security and the economy as they gradually feel the burden of the cost of wars and falling oil prices.
Meanwhile, a social issue erupted over a girl standing on a sidewalk and confronted by a member of the Commission for the Promotion of Virtue and Prevention of Vice, who asked her to cover her face. She argued with him, ran away, fell on the floor and was dragged by her feet. Such an incident may have happened before, but in the era of social media someone recorded it and made it public.
The press, which broke ties with the Commission long ago, criticized it harshly. The religious movement condemned the press in response, believing that were it not for the Commission, Saudi society would become corrupted.
Although the Commission is a governmental department under the authority of the Council of Ministers, it also represents a popular movement that would impose its vision of an ideal society nationwide if it had the choice. Members of this movement are known for their intolerance, and the government had to issue dozens of directives and regulations to curb their zeal. Yet they remain enthusiastic and self-righteous and believe that they do not have to justify themselves.
Saudi society should be able to take advantage of the cultural, doctrinal and legislative diversity of Islam
In another incident, the movement defamed famous TV host Ali al-Alyani by claiming he was drinking alcohol, using pictures of him handcuffed with bottles next to him as proof. Many others could have been arrested for drinking, but for point-scoring purposes it was necessary for the culprit to be a famous media figure. Medical tests proved his innocence but the harm was done, increasing the anger and war of words between the two camps.
The religious side accused the media of causing enmity and division, while the media accused the Commission of violating the sanctity of homes and spying on people. Everyone called for religious forgiveness, even though they did not abide by it when fighting.
A few years ago, during the reign of late King Abdullah, the Council of Ministers called for “consolidating the people’s right to disagree.” This has not yet been realized. It is time to establish a system that protects the right of people to disagree, and is based on Sharia rather than common law.
Saudi society should be able to take advantage of the cultural, doctrinal and legislative diversity of Islam. It can be compared to a huge, rich library where we can find the solutions to our current problems. However, we are still focusing on one shelf only.
Until then, I recommend that my colleagues stop writing and debating news related to the Commission and our identity, because such articles are increasing tensions, and there is nothing more to add to the arguments. The decision-maker has listened and it is time to hear the verdict.
These pauses, which will sooth tensions, might be beneficial to everyone. Issues of identity, rights and freedoms will turn from a conflict between movements to a problem that must be directly settled between the state and citizens. I will take my own advice - this will be my last article about the Commission.
Jamal Khashoggi is a Saudi journalist, columnist, author, and general manager of the upcoming Al Arab News Channel. He previously served as a media aide to Prince Turki al Faisal while he was Saudi Arabia's ambassador to the United States. Khashoggi has written for various daily and weekly Arab newspapers, including Asharq al-Awsat, al-Majalla and al-Hayat, and was editor-in-chief of the Saudi-based al-Watan. He was a foreign correspondent in Afghanistan, Algeria, Kuwait, Sudan, and other Middle Eastern countries. He is also a political commentator for Saudi-based and international news channels.