The Shoura Council last week defeated a proposal to adopt a law promoting respect for other religions and religious symbols. The proposal that would have had the blessings of the Arab League was opposed by 77 members and supported by 33.In his reason for voting against the proposal, one member told Al-Watan newspaper that the negative effects might outweigh the positive ones as it would give legality to nonmonotheistic religions and consequently it would allow the building of houses of worship for those religions in Muslim countries.The proposal was surely influenced by the Danish cartoon crisis that recently resurfaced. If we look at the consequences of approving such a proposal, we will see that it would have been an important step forward. It simply proposes respect for other religions and tolerance for those who practice them. The proposal suggests simply that people in the world need to learn to live together and to accept each other for what they are and that people must also remember that respect and tolerance work both ways.
A few days earlier, there was a report that Sheikh Abdul Rahman Al-Barrak had issued a fatwa against two Saudi writers, Yousef Aba Al-Khail and Abdullah bin Bejad. Their articles which were published in Al-Riyadh newspaper questioned the Sunni Muslim view that is standard in Saudi Arabia that adherents of other faiths should be considered unbelievers. Al-Barrak called them infidels and said they should repent or be killed: “Anyone who claims this has refuted Islam and should be tried so that he can take it back. If not, he should be killed as an apostate from the religion of Islam,” Sheikh Barrak was quoted by Reuters as saying in his March 14 religious edict which was published on his website. Let us be clear — the two articles were entitled “The Other in the Islamic Balance” and “The Islam of the Shariah and the Islam of Struggle.” Their thrust was that Islam does not denounce non-Muslims as infidels. One writer argued that early Islam did not consider people of different beliefs to be “infidels” as we now understand the word. He cites Qur’anic verses that support his argument. He reacted to the fatwa by saying that its aim was to prevent him from stating his opinion and to frighten people away from interpreting the text themselves. The other writer argued that Islam at its core was a peaceful religion that does not hate “the other” and that it is “merciful toward all mankind.” He added that people have used religion down through the ages as a tool in disputes in order to give themselves and their beliefs sanctity.
The fact that those writers offered a new understanding of a difficult issue is good; at least it opened up the subject for discussion and one expected the discussion to be civilized. Unfortunately as has become the habit of some, their only response is to denounce the holders of opposing views as infidels — no reasoned argument, no logic, no historical precedents. Simply denounce. It is sad that coverage of this matter in the Saudi papers has been so feeble; it went unreported apart from a few comments. Writers should be aware of the danger of such a fatwa and should leap to the defense of others, even if they do not agree with what the other writers have said.
What the Shoura member and the two writers propose amounts to the same thing — respect for, and acceptance of, other religions and communities. This is something that the sheikh evidently failed to understand. For him it is blasphemy even to suggest something different, and his only answer was a fatwa that was a death sentence. One of the writers has said that the sheikh is not representative of the mainstream. And while he may not be particularly influential, he could certainly “inspire” one of his followers to carry out the sentence of death. One of the writers says he is going to sue the sheikh even though he acknowledges the futility of doing so.
The problem is not simply with one sheikh and one fatwa; it is the tendency to rule out discussion and argument altogether. That is why this is no trivial, pedantic internal discussion. There are wider implications. In an atmosphere of menacing threats, it is hard to see how serious discussions of issues can flourish and, at the same time, we see very clearly the central difficulty that Saudi society has with the outside world.