Saudi Writers Risk Flogging to Challenge Islamists

Riyadh, Saudi Arabia - For a man just sentenced to 200 lashes and four months in jail by an Islamic court, Saudi academic Hamza al-Mozainy is strikingly cheerful.

The diminutive, twinkle-eyed professor of linguistics was summoned by a Riyadh judge in March after an Islamist colleague said Mozainy made fun of his long beard in a newspaper article.

Dismissing arguments that his court had no jurisdiction in media cases, the judge ordered that he be flogged and jailed for two months -- then doubled the punishment on the spot when Mozainy challenged his authority.

"He said: OK. Instead of 75 lashes and two months, 200 lashes and four months. And you are forbidden from writing for newspapers," Mozainy said.

But the 57-year-old professor is confident he will not serve his punishment. Just hours after the verdict, de facto ruler Crown Prince Abdullah intervened in this latest clash between liberals and religious scholars in the strict Muslim state.

"I left the court and Prince Abdullah issued a strong letter saying this judgment is null, void and baseless and the court does not have jurisdiction over this case," Mozainy said in his small office in King Saud University.

Abdullah's ruling has not been made public but liberals have interpreted it to mean that Islamic sharia courts would not have jurisdiction to try media cases.

Mozainy's showdown with Abdullah Barak, a doctor of Islamic studies on the same campus, was triggered by an article Mozainy wrote about the spread of religious "fanaticism" at his university and across Saudi Arabia, the birthplace of Islam.

Saudi Arabia's puritanical school of Wahhabi Islam has come under international scrutiny after the Sept. 11 attacks in 2001, carried out by mainly Saudi hijackers. Critics say Wahhabi teachings helped foster militant anti-Western sentiment.

"King Saud University used to be the center of enlightenment in Saudi Arabia," Mozainy said. Female students, now strictly segregated even from male teachers, faced fewer barriers and the university hosted social events, music and film, he said.


"I wrote that something happened to the university in the last 20 years with the Muslim Brotherhood coming into the kingdom," he added, referring to an influx of Islamists to Saudi Arabia in the 1960s and 1970s, many of them from Egypt.

"There was an explosive chemistry between a fanaticism here and the Muslim Brotherhood. That introduced a brand of fanaticism which used not to be the case in Saudi Arabia."

In reply Barak said the "enlightenment" Mozainy celebrated was deviation from proper Islam. Mozainy hit back, saying one look at a photo of the bearded Barak was all that was needed to see the forces now guiding Saudi Arabia.

"He and others understood I was making fun of his beard. I was not making fun of him, I was talking about something more abstract than he can understand," said Mozainy. Long beards are seen as a sign of piety in many Muslim countries.

Open challenges to religious figures in Saudi Arabia, where the royal family rule in unofficial alliance with powerful Wahhabi scholars, remain rare. But in January some journalists mocked a scholar who said the Asian tsunami was God's punishment for Christmas "fornication and sexual perversion."

"The last four years have been a springtime. There has been an openness and high degree of freedom of speech," Mozainy said. "We have this openness and we don't want to lose it."

Under pressure from the United States and at home after the Sept. 11 attacks in 2001, Saudi Arabia has launched cautious reforms including an easing of some restrictions on its press.


While Mozainy's case may have been resolved, another writer who incurred religious wrath still waits for a verdict.

Columnist Abdullah Bakheet upset Saudi Arabia's morality police, the Commission for the Promotion of Virtue and Prevention of Vice, when he said they were stopping people watching anything but religiously sanctioned television.

"I went to the market to fix my receiver ... and no one cooperated. They said it is prohibited to deal, or fix or sell any receivers except for al-Majd television receivers," Bakheet said. Al-Majd broadcasts mainly Islamic programs.

Bakheet is due in court next month, facing charges of spreading corruption and immorality.

He hopes the court will accept it has no right to judge him, but says Prince Abdullah's ruling on jurisdiction has yet to be publicly acknowledged.

"No decree has been published officially," he said.

Like Mozainy, Bakheet laces conversation with references to Western writers, comparing his case to immorality charges faced by French author Gustave Flaubert over his novel "Madame Bovary."

Mozainy quotes French existentialist Jean-Paul Sartre and displays a photograph of U.S. activist Noam Chomsky behind his desk -- gestures which set him apart in a country where most office pictures are of the royal family and religious scholars take inspiration from the Koran and Prophet Mohammad.

"Three or four years ago we could not criticize the commission," said Bakheet. "We had to show respect to a 17-year-old if he had a beard. Now it's getting better."

But he said Saudi rulers should be given time to change the deeply traditional country. "This is not a conservative country. It's more than conservative -- it's Taliban."