SUSRIS periodically shares perspectives from columnists in Saudi Arabia and around the Gulf. For your consideration we are pleased to provide a recent column by Samar Fatany who contributes regularly to Saudi Gazette. Fatany recently published “Modernizing Saudi Arabia,” a comprehensive and insightful review and chronicle of reforms accomplished in recent years and the challenges ahead to modernize the Kingdom. In December SUSRIS talked with Ms. Fatany about her book about reform in the Kingdom and why she chose to open with a chapter on countering extremism:
“This is the main issue people need to learn about if they are to understand Saudi Arabia. The Saudi government has pushed for modernity since the 1960s with King Faisal. However, there were always obstacles and resistance from the fundamentalists within the society. For example, girls education was resisted very strongly as was the introducing of television and so on. King Faisal was killed because of the resistance of extremists. Then after the attack on the Grand Mosque in Mecca in 1979 we have seen how the hardliners have slowed progress in Saudi Arabia. The government had to give in to their demands even though the people who did the attack were arrested or killed. It had an influence on the direction of the country.
“When King Abdullah came to the throne eight years ago he addressed many of the restrictions that existed because of the extremists’ influence in society. Women in particular were given more freedom. They have been put in leadership positions like the 30 women members of the Shura Council. There are more job opportunities and there is a long list of improvements.
“So I felt it was very important to start the book, the first chapter, analyzing this aspect of change. It was important to the struggle to stop the influence of the extremists and their control over the society. Theirs has been a mindset that made it very difficult for the government to initiate reforms and to modernize the Kingdom.
“The population in Saudi Arabia is mostly young people. It is the influence of these people, of these religious ulema, who have influence on society. Whatever they say, given their influence and control over education and the judiciary, makes it very difficult to change the mindset and to modernize and influence change within the society.
“So there has been a confrontation between the reformers and the progressive thinkers with these hardliners who refuse to give a chance for modernity. They label anything that is a different or anything that is a modern lifestyle as un-Islamic. They are not un-Islamic. So the confrontation continues.”
Today we provide for your consideration a recent column by Samar Fatany on the National Dialogue process and the role it has “to integrate perspectives of traditional Islam with those of contemporary rights.”
Training Imams in Saudi Arabia to Counter Extremism
By Samar Fatany
A new 10-year strategy for the King Abdulaziz Center for National Dialogue will soon be launched according to the Center’s Secretary General Faisal Bin Abdul Rahman Al-Muammar as reported in the local press. At a press conference held on the sidelines of the “Messages in Dialogue” project, the secretary general highlighted three important initiatives to revamp the role of the Center, namely, reviewing cooperation with institutions that have not adhered to the Center’s objectives, providing more professional training in dialogue to build bridges of understanding with other cultures and training imams to deliver Friday sermons that are in tune with modern times.
This strategy could be a major development which could influence change and put an end to the ongoing conflicts between Islamic factions and restore Islamic tolerance among the faithful. Ethnic conflicts are the reasons behind the civil wars that are raging in Iraq, Syria and elsewhere in the Muslim world. Constructive dialogue is very much needed to facilitate reconciliation and control sectarian differences that have destroyed homes and killed innocent Muslims.
Many Saudis were beginning to doubt the role of the Center and its ability to build a constructive dialogue both within the Kingdom and abroad, a dialogue that could influence the use of the correct form of Islamic discourse based on tolerance and moderation. So far the Center has not been able to deal effectively with cultural, political, economic and other national challenges. Our society remains divided on major issues of reform making it very difficult for the country to move forward and prosper.
Having said that, we cannot discredit the role of the Center in its attempt to provide a platform for the discussion of different views and new ideas for the rejection of extremist ideology that continues to influence many in Saudi society today.
Faisal al-Muammar said the Center has launched a three-year program to train a large number of Saudis in dialogue. This initiative could strengthen the channels of communication and intellectual dialogue with organizations and individuals within the Kingdom and abroad.
Over the past several years, many Saudi men and women have engaged in National Dialogue forums, addressing extremism and moderation, national unity, women’s rights, youth issues, the relationship with non-Saudis and non-Muslims, and the education system in the Kingdom. Unfortunately, the forums were mainly dominated by hardliners and the few progressive thinkers who attended were unable to influence moderate thought in order to tackle current issues of national and global concern.
More moderate religious scholars, scientists, thinkers and academics should be included as participants in the dialogue between different segments of the Saudi community in order to change the negative mindset and intolerant attitudes.
There should be a united effort to build a cohesive society that can overcome religious differences. It is time that we engage the youth, social media activists, human rights activists, reformers and progressive officials to influence the values of moderation, fairness and social justice. Ultra-conservatives and extremists should not be allowed to dominate and speak for everyone.
Dialogue participants can play an important role in projecting our rich culture and way of life. They can clear up the misconceptions that have created a divide between East and West. It is time we train our dialogue participants to utilize social media networks to counter extremist networks and cultivate trust and understanding with the global community. There is also a crucial need to provide a constructive dialogue with the coalition of educators, writers and book publishers who came together after 9/11 to confront teachings of hatred, contempt and damaging stereotypes that can be found in religious school classrooms.
Hopefully, the new strategy can help contain extremism and sedition within Saudi society. It needs to come up with an innovative program of cultural dialogue to influence change and provide a common ground where moderation and harmony can flourish. The Center should strive to energize the role of inter-sectarian dialogue to encourage rapprochement between Muslim sects and correct the misconceptions that have misguided many Muslims today. More Muslim scholars should be engaged in dialogue to reach beyond the hypothetical rhetoric and attempt to reach the masses in order to address the spread of sectarian violence that is destroying the Muslim world.
Faisal al-Muammar also announced that the Center is planning to provide training for imams who give Friday sermons in collaboration with Imam Muhammad Bin Saud Islamic University. Such a plan to train imams to deliver more effective Friday sermons is a step in the right direction. It is about time we renew religious speech to be in line with modern times, without compromising or distorting the principles of our faith. The current style of religious speech does not address the challenges that young Muslims are facing today.
Friday sermons have, unfortunately, failed to connect with people’s needs and concerns. The National Dialogue Center must play a bigger role in training imams to integrate perspectives of traditional Islam with those of contemporary rights. The Center has a responsibility to activate the social debate between ultra-conservatives and moderates to address the current political and traditional controversies that are a threat to our social fabric and undermine the progress of our country.
This article was first published in the Saudi Gazette on Feb. 1, 2014
About Samar Fatany
Former Head of the English Service and Chief Broadcaster at Jeddah Radio Station, which is affiliated to the Ministry of Culture and Information, Saudi Arabia. She has introduced many cultural, religious and current events programs over a period of 30 years. Samar Fatany has conducted many interviews with prominent local and international political personalities. She has participated in the media coverage of many regional and global economic conferences. She has made significant contributions in social awareness campaigns and participated in global interfaith dialogue events. In her previous books, Saudi Perceptions and Western Misconceptions, Saudi Women Towards a New Era, and Saudi Reforms and Challenges, Fatany has addressed the threat of extremism, and highlighted the new era of empowered women in her society. She has also covered the many challenges facing Saudi Arabia and projected the ongoing reform movement in the desert Kingdom. Fatany is an active member of several local organizations, including the Committee for International Trade, CIT, Riyadh, and the Committee for International Relations, IRC, and the Committee for Youth Forums of the Ministry Of Foreign Affairs promoting youth diplomacy and supporting youth initiatives in Saudi Arabia today. She is currently a writer and columnist for the Saudi Gazette.
- The World is Watching, Saudi Modernization: A Conversation with Samar Fatany – SUSRIS – Dec 9, 2013
- Commentary | Welcome Measures to Reform Saudi Judiciary – Fatany – SUSRIS – Dec 2, 2013
- Commentary | USSaudiForum Outreach: Interfaith Dialogue – Fatany – SUSRIS – Oct 13, 2013
- Commentary | Forum Highlights US-Saudi Business, Education Opportunities – Fatany – SUSRIS – Oct 7, 2013
- Commentary | A Saudi ‘White Ribbon’ Campaign Is Needed – SUSRIS – Apr 14, 2013
- Commentary | Lessons for a “Saudi Dream” – Fatany – SUSRIS – Feb 26, 2013
- King Abdullah Scholarship Students Recognized – Fatany – SUSRIS – Aug 2, 2012
- A Resolute Call to Empower Women – Fatany – SUSRIS – Mar 8, 2011
- Interfaith Dialogue Shared in Chicago – Fatany – May 16, 2010
- A Visit to Rural America – Fatany – Aug 9, 2005