Friday, March 10, 2006

Lessons of Riyadh Book Fair

By Dr. Khaled Batarfi

This year’s Riyadh Book Fair was eventful — mostly unwelcome
events, though. Somehow, the fundamentalists found in it an
opportunity to flex their muscles and prove a point. They
wanted all to know that no matter how far we progress on the
road of women and minority rights, speech and press freedoms,
democracy and all, they are still in a strong position of
influence. But they went too far, this time.

According to press reports, members and volunteers of the
Commission for the Prevention of Vice and Promotion of Virtue
were in force everywhere. In the family days, where single men
are not allowed, they were the exception. Carrying sticks and
wielding religious authority, they went around telling women
to cover their faces, wear “abayas” (black cloak) over their
heads in one piece, rather than two — head scarf and body
cover. In some instances, they told salesmen in bookstands not
to smile or joke when talking to women. A man holding the hand
of his half-blind wife was told not to show affection in

When people tried to argue, in peaceful way, (there was no
alternative anyway!), they were harshly told to just follow
orders. Women were telling them that in Islam there are
different schools of thoughts. Only one says women should
cover their faces. Salesmen were trying to explain that they
are supposed to be nice to customers. A husband argued that he
was holding the hand of his wife, not a girl friend. Besides,
he explained, with her eye troubles, she could easily lose her
way in the crowded place. Nothing worked with these people.
They felt they were there to perform a strict divine duty, not
to convince people or convey messages.

During the same event, a number of Saudi intellectuals were
harassed, verbally, and almost physically. The fundamentalists
came early on, occupied most of the hall, and went on the
offensive as soon as the lecture started.

In the main lecture hall, a former minister and a number of
intellectuals were attacked for their known liberal views.
Then an aggressive group surrounded them threateningly. They
had to be rescued by security. In the women’s section, another
intellectual was threatened and verbally abused. One female
writer was taken home in tears.

These people didn’t come to listen, learn and discuss. They
came to teach lessons and make statements. They were not
prepared to take other views into consideration, or allow for
the possibility of misunderstanding, miscommunication or even
errors on their side. They were dealing with people from
positions of authority and influence — university professors,
schoolteachers and mosque imams.

This can’t be good, especially in such a gathering. In this
time and place, when the whole country is moving toward
modernity, globalization, democracy and reforms, we still have
people going around with sticks and unquestionable authority
to enforce their narrow view of the world. They only represent
a minority of the Muslim world but behave as though there is
no Islam but theirs.

As a result we get people doing what they are told regardless
of what they believe: Women wearing what they must at home and
something entirely different abroad, youth following the
strict rules when watched, and breaking all when alone; and a
whole society in a state of schizophrenia. We don’t have
cinemas but our satellite dishes can bring us the world’s best
and worst. We can’t mix in public, but many go from one party
to another. Single men cannot enter malls, but they find ways
to meet with girls behind closed doors. Banned books and
intellectual materials can always be had via the Net and from
neighboring countries, such as UAE, Bahrain, Kuwait, Jordan,
Egypt and Yemen.

This is why most visitors to book fairs in Arab countries come
from Saudi Arabia. We hunt books that should have been
available at home, without having to travel around to get

We can’t go on like this. You can’t drive down two crossed
road at the same time. Either you decide to open your windows
to the winds or to live in a closed underground cave. You are
part of this world or you are not. Since you don’t have an
option anyway, better be serious and sincere about it.
Islam is about freedom and choice. You become Muslim with your
own free will. Then you choose to understand the message
according to any interpretation of the multiple madhabs and
their different schools of thought. To reduce the entire faith
to the narrow interpretations of a single school is simply

The experience of Riyadh Book Fair should alarm us. These
people crossed the most revered Islamic lines and they deserve
to be punished. We should make sure that no one else dared to
cross them again.