Saudi fatwa against liberals raises fears of violence


Saudi Arabia is one of the few countries that rules by strict application of Islamic law, giving clerics a powerful position in society, but Islamists fear that liberal reformers are gaining ground under the rule of King Abdullah.

Responding to an online request for a religious edict, or fatwa, Sheikh Saleh al-Fozan said last month: "Calling oneself a liberal Muslim is a contradiction in terms … one should repent before God for such ideas in order to be a real Muslim."

The fatwa said that liberal in this context meant "freedom which is not subject to the bounds of sharia (Islamic law) and which rejects sharia laws, especially concerning women…".

"He who wants freedom with only the controls of man-made law has rebelled against the law of God," it said.

Fozan was recently forced to issue a clarification in Saudi newspaper al-Riyadh after Islamists hailed the fatwa as a declaration that liberals are infidels. He said pronouncing someone an infidel was a separate issue in Islamic law.

Such declarations, called takfeer in Arabic, are sensitive because al Qaeda militants fighting U.S.-allied governments in Saudi Arabia, Iraq and elsewhere in the region use the idea to justify their campaign of jihad, or holy war.

"Radicals say ‘Sheikh Fozan has issued the fatwa and we should act accordingly’, which is a little alarming," said Hamza Mozainy, a well-known critic of the Saudi system, referring to Islamist Web sites that welcomed the fatwa.

Novelist Turki al-Hamad, a long-time target of Saudi Islamists, also said the fatwa could lead to violence.

"Even if his (Fozan) intention is not calling for violence, the implication is violence," Hamad said.

Saudi Arabia’s religious establishment has for long focussed its attention on the word "secular", which most Saudi reformers now avoid, but "liberal" has gained currency in its place.

Liberal and Islamist reformers both call for parliamentary elections limiting the desert country’s absolute monarchy.

But many liberals also want to see clerical influence rolled back, with, for example, Saudi Arabia’s religious police force disbanded and an end to strict gender segregation.

"When they hear ‘liberalism’ they perceive it as a form of moral corruption. They don’t know it’s a whole philosophy concerning freedom of the individual," Hamad said.

"These fatwas are a kind of defence mechanism against this spreading idea."


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