November 10, 2008
Extremist Sheikhs, Liberals Clash in Saudi Arabia over Freedom of Expression on Satellite Television Channels
Recently, a number of Saudi clerics have issued fatwas enjoining the public to kill owners of satellite TV channels, television show hosts, and liberal intellectuals. On March 16, 2008, Sheikh ‘Abd Al-Rahman Al-Barak issued a fatwa accusing two liberal Saudi authors of heresy and calling to kill them.(1)On September 10, 2008, Sheikh Saleh Al-Luhaidan, head of the Saudi Supreme Judiciary Council, issued a fatwa sanctioning the killing of satellite TV channel owners if they persisted in airing “inappropriate” programming that is morally corrupting.(2) (full report at Memri)

Four days later, member of the Supreme Judiciary Council Sheikh Saleh bin Fawzan Al-Fawzan issued a fatwa calling to kill the hosts of astrology programs on television, since, in his opinion, they “practice black magic – which Islam regards as a crime whose perpetrators must be put to death by the sword, and whose bodies must not be wept over.”(3)
A few days later, Sheikh Abdullah bin Jibrin, a former member of the Directorate of Religious Research, Islamic Legal Rulings, and Islamic Propagation and Guidance, called for the firing, excommunication, and flogging of intellectuals who disparage and humiliate clerics in their articles and television interviews.
Bin Jibrin’s call was a response to a debate between Saudi liberal ‘Abdallah bin Bakhit and Saudi Council of Senior Clerics member Salah bin Fawzan Al-Fawzan, in the pages of the Saudi daily Al-Jazirah . As part of the debate, bin Bakhit wrote an article accusing clerics of encouraging extremism and terrorism through fatwas that prompted young people to wage jihad.(4) Bin Bakhit’s statements were supported by other Arab columnists, who contended that not only was the Saudi religious establishment encouraging extremism and terrorism, but that it was also seeking to curb freedom of expression.
Some of the clerics’ fatwas were also condemned by senior religious officials, such as Saudi Grand Mufti Sheikh Abd-Al-‘Aziz Aal Al-Sheikh and Shura Council member and Justice Ministry advisor Sheikh ‘Abd Al-Muhsin Al-‘Obikan, as well as by a Saudi Justice Ministry member, a Shura Council member, and numerous Arab intellectuals and columnists
Following are some reactions to the fatwas, from Saudi and other Arab newspapers:  
Sheikh Al-Luhaidan: Kill the Owners of Satellite TV Channels, As the Law Prescribes

In a September 10, 2008 radio broadcast, Saudi Supreme Judiciary Council head Sheikh Saleh Al-Luhaidan issued a fatwa sanctioning the killing of hosts on satellite TV shows, on the grounds that they “contributed to moral corruption and promoted internal strife.” Al-Luhaidan contended that “a person must be prevented from sowing internal strife, and that if he did not desist [from this harmful practice], it was permissible to kill him…” He wrote: “If the harm caused by the propagandists of corruption cannot be avoided… through meting out milder punishments than death, the law permits their killing…”(5)
In a September 14, 2008 interview with Saudi television, Al-Luhaidan stated that his words had been taken out of context. He explained that his fatwa referred only to the owners of the channels that aired programming inappropriate for Ramadhan, and that he had suggested that they face trial. He said: “My words have been taken out of context. I meant to say that the owners of [TV] channels must obey Allah and must refrain from airing any [programming] that corrupts morals – such as, for example, [the practice of] magic, or shows that contain obvious heresy and promote licentiousness and wantonness, or satire that is inappropriate to the month of Ramadhan, [because] it mocks the clerics and [Saudi] religious police officials…
“If the owners of these channels fail to obey government orders and persist in corrupting the public with their broadcasts, the law permits the government to kill them. Naturally, the judge does not just draw a sword and kill whoever he wishes. First, a complaint must be filed by an appropriate party. [Then] the judge [studies the complaint and] passes a verdict… then he presents [his verdict] to the relevant elements for a thorough examination…”(6)
Al-Luhaidan’s fatwa was supported by several clerics. In an interview, Saudi Supreme Judicial Council member Sheikh Saleh bin Fawzan Al-Fawzan told the Saudi daily Al-Madina : “…Those who broadcast the practice of magic on satellite television and who have been proven to be wizards – they are beyond doubt guilty of the serious crime of violating the Koran and the Sunna. [Furthermore,] there is a general consensus among the Muslims that if a heretic is discovered to be a wizard, he must be put to death by the sword.”(7)
In an Al-Madina interview, Dr. Muhammd Al-Nujaimi, Islamic legislator and lecturer at the King Fahd Security College in Riyadh, said, in a similar vein, that Al-Luhaidan’s fatwa was legitimate: “The fatwa is clear, and Sheikh [Al-Luhaidan] has elucidated the legal issue involved. If anyone asked the court [for an explanation of this issue], he would be given the same answer… [Al-Luhaidan meant] that the owner of a channel that broadcasts magic must be imprisoned and fined, but that if he persisted in his actions, he must be punished by death…”(8) 
Sheikh Al-‘Obikan: The Fatwa Sanctions the Spilling of Human Blood

On a different note, Shura Council member and Justice Ministry advisor Sheikh ‘Abd Al-Muhsin Al-‘Obikan stated: “A member of the judiciary, and especially of a [country’s] highest-ranking judiciary body, should not issue a general verdict on criminal issues which are subject to the judge’s discretion, and which are assessed based on the category and gravity of [a particular] crime, and on the responses of the accused.  Moreover, such issues must be scrutinized by the court… The broadcasting of moral decadence by some satellite TV channels is a crime of the utmost gravity… whose perpetrators deserve a punishment proportionate to the crime that they have committed…
“[However,] this fatwa may [also] be granting legitimacy to terrorists, who capitalize on every fatwa that sanctions the spilling of human blood – which is forbidden [by Islam]. Relying on this particular fatwa, or any other, similar fatwa, some of them may set out to kill people and destroy satellite television facilities. [Furthermore,] this fatwa is pointless if the channels in question are located in countries that do not follow religious law. [For all I know,] this fatwa may even be playing into the hands of the enemies of Islam and of Saudi Arabia, [by encouraging them to] target Islam and Saudi Arabia.”(9)
More recently, Al-‘Obikan proposed the establishment of an independent religious body for overseeing the issuing of fatwas and would be for all Muslims worldwide. He said that this body, which should include at least 100 Muslim clerics representing all Islamic schools of thought, would examine every fatwa in depth before it could be issued.(10)
An survey on the question of centralized religious legislation showed that most of the approximately 17,000 Muslim respondents favored the establishment of a unified body to oversee the issuing of fatwas. The survey suggests that such a body would be expected to preclude other elements from issuing fatwas that could sow confusion among Muslims.(11)

Saudi Intellectuals Are Accused of Heresy

On September 16, 2008, Sheikh ‘Abd Al-Rahman bin Nasser Al-Barak posted, on, a fatwa accusing Saudi liberal writers ‘Abdallah bin Bajad Al-‘Otaibi and Yousef Aba Al-Khail of heresy for articles they had published in the Saudi press. Al-Barak wrote: “Whoever holds that a non-Muslim is not an infidel… is guilty of a grave sin – rejection of Islam… He must be put to death, since he has renounced Islam…”(12)
Al-‘Otaibi was accused of heresy following a January 7, 2008 article he wrote in the Saudi daily Al-Riyadh accusing clerics for overinterpreting the hadith and of distorting the key principles of Islam.(13) The accusation against Aba Al-Khail was for a September 16, 2007 article in Al-Riyadh claiming that Islam contained no accusations of unbelief against Jews, Christians, or members of other religions. Aba Al-Khail also wrote that according to Islam, these groups would be saved on Judgment Day.(14)
Al-Barak’s fatwa condemning the two liberal writers was backed up by administrator Muhammad Al-Habadan. In an article posted on the website, Al-Habadan wrote: “We call on religious scholars and leaders to carry out the task entrusted to them – that is, to come out against this mutinous group, to bring it to trial, and to implement the full weight of Allah’s law, in all its justice and integrity, against it. This [is essential] in order to protect the nation from the damage being caused by [this group], and to eradicate [the evil altogether]…”(15) 
Al-Barak’s fatwa also gained the approval of 20 Saudi clerics. In an announcement posted on, the clerics said that the fatwa’s legitimacy was rooted in the Koran and the Sunnah, and that Aba Al-Khail and Al-‘Otaibi must stand trial.(16) The fatwa was also praised by Saudi columnist Muhammad ‘Ali Al-Harfi in the Saudi daily Al-Watan . Al-Harfi argued that Al-Barak was fully entitled to voice his opinion, under the principle of freedom of expression, and that his demand that the two writers stand trial was legitimate.(17) 
Saudi Grand Mufti Defends the Liberal Writers

In a July 14, 2008, interview with the London daily Al-Hayat, Saudi Grand Mufti Sheikh Abd-Al-‘Aziz Aal Al-Sheikh warned against accusing Saudi columnists of heresy, and said that “accusing intellectuals of heresy was not a religious principle.” He suggested that before a columnist was accused of heresy, his true intentions in writing a particular article should be ascertained beyond any doubt.(18)

Al-‘Otaibi Responds to the Fatwa

In an interview with the Alarabiya website, Al-‘Otaibi asserted that despite the fatwa accusing him of heresy and inciting to his murder, he would on no account stop writing and voicing his opinions. He called Al-Barak’s ruling against him medieval, saying that it jibed with the ideology of Al-Qaeda, whose leaders were instigating the murder of intellectuals and statesmen, and added, “This fatwa spreads anarchy in society and renders the functioning of the state institutions ineffectual.”(19)

Saudi Intellectuals: Yes to Freedom of Expression

On March 30, 2008, 91 Saudi intellectuals posted, on, a statement protesting against Al-Barak’s fatwa. The statement read: “Threatening intellectuals with takfir [accusations of heresy] – and the incitement to murdering them that is implicit in [such threats] – hinders the dynamics [of the evolution of] thought, science, and literature in the country… We demand that society categorically oppose this policy, and that official elements forcefully stand up to those who adopt it, in order to safeguard the security of society as well as the right of its citizens to freedom of expression, which presupposes a plurality of opinions.”(20)
Also, 100 Algerian intellectuals issued a petition condemning Al-Barak’s fatwa, and expressing anger at the dangerous spread of “jihadist accusatory salafism” that seeks to outlaw any other views and to accuse of heresy anyone holding such views. Algerian newspapers also wrote against “extreme Saudi Wahhabism,” saying that accusing intellectuals of heresy was worse than putting them to death.(21)

Saudi Liberal: Saudi Intellectuals Are Afraid to Write

In an article in the Saudi local paper Sawt Al-Ukhdoud, Saudi liberal Mukhlif bin Daham Al-Shammari wrote: “A Saudi intellectual hesitates to write and to express his opinion for fear of being accused of heresy, [which would make it] permissible to kill him. Accordingly, the least we can do is to stop writing [as well], as a token of solidarity with writers Al-‘Otaibi and Aba Al-Khail, until the fatwa accusing them of heresy is rescinded… Every Muslim is entitled to consider and discuss issues related to his religion and its rituals without anyone’s supervision…”
Al-Shammari continued: “The fatwa accusing columnists Al-‘Otaibi and Aba Al-Khail of heresy… cannot be accepted by any Muslim. Before issuing it, our religious scholars should have conversed with the two writers and asked about any points in dispute – and only then should they have passed their judgment…”(22)

Qatari Liberal: Al-‘Otaibi’s Article Does Not Warrant Accusations Of Heresy

Also opposed to Al-Barak’s fatwa was Dr. ‘Abd Al-Hamid Al-Ansari, former dean of the Faculty of Islamic Law at the University of Qatar. In an article in the Qatari daily Al-Watan, he wrote: “I was astounded by the publication of this grievous fatwa, especially today and in Saudi Arabia, whose society and thought have, in the past several years, developed exponentially… I had read Al-‘Otaibi’s article even before it was published, and found in it nothing that would warrant accusations of heresy… Neither [did I find] anything damaging to religious principles or contradicting common knowledge regarding religion in his other critical articles. How is it possible that a senior cleric hastens to accuse his Muslim brother of heresy based on a mere doubt or misunderstanding? Did this sheikh [i.e. Al-Barak] read the actual article? Or maybe he read only the abstract, and ruled based on that?…”(23) 

A Call to Stop the “Ideological Nonsense”

Al-Luhaidan’s fatwa sparked reactions from numerous Arab columnists, who claimed that such fatwas promoted extremism and terrorism. In the UAE daily Al-Ittihad, columnist Ahmad ‘Abd Al-Malik wrote: “We are at a loss as to what to do with all the fatwas that are that are being issued everywhere, all around us. We do not know how long the Arab society will continue to bow down to beliefs based on accusations of heresy. [Such beliefs] stand in the way of progress, and present life from an [archaic] standpoint that belongs 15 centuries in the past. We cannot imagine what those who issue such fatwas hope to achieve… perhaps to accuse of heresy anyone who advocates equality between people? Has religion placed the Muslims apart and separated them from other religions?…
“Those who issue such fatwas portray Islam as a religion that belongs exclusively to the Arabs. They use descriptive hyperbole to disparage anything not Arab or Muslim. It is into this pitfall that some commentators and propagandists have fallen…
“Islam is not hostile to freedom… and if a person happens to [hold] liberal [views], it does not mean that he is a heretic or an atheist…  Some clerics poke their noses into areas in which they are ignorant – for example, [they discuss] aspects of modern life… that have propelled our societies from darkness to light… 
“Who gave the clerics the right to accuse others of heresy? Do they have divine authorization, in writing, requiring them to issue fatwas accusing others of heresy? Some clerics are responsible for [sowing ideological confusion] and igniting the flame of terrorism in the hearts of the youth, by promising them the 70 virgins of Paradise,’ who await them if they commit suicide and murder innocent people along the way… Why do they confusing the youth with such fatwas, which help neither Islam nor the Muslims one iota… We have no choice but to stop this ideological nonsense, which does nothing for the Arab or Muslim nation…”(24)
Tareq Saif, another liberal, wrote in Al-Ittihad: “This is not the first time that Sheikh Al-Luhaidan has claimed that a fatwa does not correctly represent what he [meant] to say – nor will it be the last. In early May, 2005, [Al-Luhaidan] issued a fatwa on the radio permitting the Saudis to go to Iraq in order to kill Americans, and inciting them to terrorist [activity]. Two days after this fatwa was published in newspapers and aired on satellite TV channels, Al-Luhaidan issued a statement in the Saudi press claiming that his words had been misrepresented, and categorically denying them…
“This issue is much more complex, and more harmful, than we think. If we want to oppose extremism, violence, and terrorism, we must first and foremost deal with the issue from within. It is the fundamental duty of sheikhs, propagandists, and clerics to be, above all, more moderate when issuing fatwas. [Furthermore,] they must oppose – emphatically, convincingly, and without delay – every extremist fatwa or every fatwa that renders obligatory anything against Islam and its laws. Even before all this, [they must] take into account how the Muslim public is likely to interpret a fatwa…”(25)