Saudi Arabia is entering a new era, or perhaps a more accurate phrase would be an era of enlightenment. This is not a case of Saudis being “unenlightened” until now, but instead an awakening from a slumber from the past 38 years.
Against our better judgment, we had allowed a segment of our society to dictate a moral code that did not fit with our identity as Arabs or as Muslims. We lost a generation — my generation — to the fear of being judged as not good Muslims because we enjoy music, literature and popular entertainment. So, many Saudis put aside those small pleasures to demonstrate that we were pious and our devotion to Islam could not be questioned.
The new era that I write of is unrecognized today because fanaticism has become the image of Islam to non-Muslim nations. Daesh and Al-Qaeda command media attention for their crimes against humanity while the true Islam, the peaceful Islam, is silenced by the hysteria of passing legislation to ban hijabs, burqas and minarets from cities, and even proposals from some European far right political parties to ban the Qur’an and deport law-abiding Muslims from their countries.
In Saudi Arabia our view of our religion is quite different. Recently the government held its annual book fair in Riyadh. Two very important events occurred at the fair that bear examination.
First, the Committee for the Prevention of Vice and Promotion of Virtue, otherwise known as the religious police, was present not as an enforcement agency to demand strict adherence to their version of Islam, but as a participant with an information booth. Five or 10 years ago, the religious police would have swept through the fair with their sticks, tearing up books, swatting foreign book publishers and authors, and smashing musical instruments in their freakish zeal to practice their definition of Islam. Today, this crude behavior has virtually disappeared as committee members perform volunteer work to aid book fair guests and explain their role to guide Muslims along the right path.
The second event at the fair involved a lone Saudi who took it upon himself to disrupt a concert given by the fair’s country guest of honor, Malaysia. He upturned their microphone and scattered musicians off the stage as he ranted and raved about the sin they were committing by playing music. A video of the incident has gone viral. This poor soul may earnestly believe that playing and listening to music is a sin. But the new generation of Saudis are taking a different approach that one man’s right to loudly proclaim his piety ends at the tip of another man’s nose. It is not up to him to impose his righteousness on others. This individual was expecting applause and appreciation for standing up to perceived sinners only to be greeted by silence and pitying looks by onlookers.
The contrasts of these two episodes point to the challenges Saudi Arabia is facing today. We have a government willing to allow their people to flourish with new ideas and a new way of living their lives, but society hasn’t quite caught up with the idea. And while it may be a struggle for my own generation to rise above a limited view of the world imposed upon us over four decades — as we have seen with this poor fellow at the fair — today’s youth have no such constraints.
Saudi society today is more educated and increasingly becoming more tolerant and emphasizing moderation. The religious discourse among young Saudis in private conversations and public forums has taken on a “live and let live” philosophy. Saudis are rebelling against the barbarian, loud extremist behavior ingrained in our society since 1979 when breaking musical instruments and creating chaos at public venues were deemed somehow appropriate in religious conservative circles. These individuals behaved in such a manner in the name of religion even if it was not part of the religious establishment.
Recently Tawfiq Al-Sudairi, the deputy minister of Islamic Affairs in Saudi Arabia, expressed his disapproval of the “political interpretation of Islam” by arguing that it is a “self-serving interpretation.” He argued that extremism is more dangerous than terrorism. Political Islam today has influenced many Muslims’ religious paths. Political Islam as a theory has ignited uprisings across the Middle East and North Africa.
Certainly there are plenty of young men and women who view political Islam as the right path. We can not deny the hundreds of young people from the Middle East, North Africa and Europe who pledge their flawed and demented version of Islam to Daesh. But these people are a handful in contrast to the burgeoning renaissance of art, music and literature created by Saudis. A renaissance that is public and with the support of the Saudi government through its General Authority of Entertainment, which is bringing A-List acts to the Kingdom and in some cases funding arts projects created by young people.