As we watch events unfold in neighbouring Egypt, we have become aware of one thing. The politicisation of Islam in everyday government does not necessarily represent the will of all the people. The marriage of religion and politics under the current climate in societies where minorities exist can often lead to turbulent relationships.
Not long after the first Gulf war, a western journalist asked me which direction I thought we in Saudi Arabia would be moving. My answer was quick and short. I told him that going with the prevalent culture and mindset at the time, I felt that we in the kingdom had one foot pushing firmly on the gas pedal, and the other jamming the brake pedal with equal force. “But that’s not going to get you anywhere fast!” he countered.
And for more than a decade or so since that conversation, I believed that my answer of so many years ago had held up credibly in view of the events that had followed. The Gulf war spawned a new breed of rejectionists who became bolder and more vocal in spreading their brand of extremist values and beliefs upon Saudi society. Many Saudis still recollect the harsh and often insipid atmosphere of the 90’s where anything out of the ordinary was instantly targeted as the work of mischief or the ‘white devil’, where innovation and imagination were stifled as being idle and fruitless pastimes, and where one’s interpretation of faith almost had to do a complete makeover time and time again?
There were sermons on anything and everything, and from just about any quarter deeming themselves learned in theology. And they attacked just about every phase of our day to day living. There were objections from different sectors to satellite television, to mobile phones, to the internet, to the presence of women in the business community, to the way we chose to dress or the activities we chose to fritter our time on.
Even what we read or listened to came under their scrutiny. Whether we chose to teach our children English, or afford our daughters physical education was not a matter of choice. It was fought bitterly and opposed. All in the name of religion! There were also so many mixed signals from the business community and the public sector that often rendered us into a state of delusional schizophrenia. And during that period, to many it was agony in existence.
There were many who used their positions of influence and authority to manipulate their perception of a healthy society through their own narrow-minded views. The ruling by a cleric judge in granting a divorce to a lady whose husband chose to introduce satellite television in their home was but one example of such intolerance and injustice. The persistent and personal attacks on a Shura member in that decade from hard-line theologians and their supporters were another. All he wanted to do was to table the issue of driving for women in front of the Shura Council.
Today, the message from the government is loud and clear. We cannot afford to be held hostage to archaic ideas if we are to forge ourselves into a success as a nation. All of us be we men or women have a responsibility towards making this a better place. That is by no means something that contradicts the spirit of Islam.
And while the government has indeed established rules and laws to help move this process forward, there still exists resistance from some quarters against this nation moving forward. Be they individuals or groups, these people are alarmed at the incremental progress that we have come to witness in the last few years.
As we look around us, it has dawned on many Saudis that those intolerant ideas have led us to noticeably lag among the regional GCC countries. One cannot help but admire the amazing transformation in the UAE, from a barren desert just a short while back to a mixture of world class cities in less than a decade. All this was happening while we in Saudi Arabia were bogged down debating whether to allow women to drive!
In an era where our youth are growing fast and savvy, the appeal of such pedantry ideas is rapidly losing ground. They have seen the world, and they want to be a part of its growth. They are willing to work hard and toil for this nation. But they also want to be free from the shackles that curtail their effectivity. They have also come to understand from recent events how the marriage of religion and politics has become purely a game of power grabbing and nothing more.
The presence of extreme ideologies that tend to curb our imagination and snuff our spirit still exists within some individuals, who disdainfully hold up the banner of damnation against anything that does not conform to their values.
But they must gradually be made irrelevant, for else they do all of us a great harm. It is time to take the foot off the brakes, floor the gas pedal and move forward.
Tariq A. Al Maeena is a Saudi socio-political commentator. He lives in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia. Follow him on Twitter at www.twitter.com/@talmaeena.