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Pushing the Envelope of Democracy in Saudi Arabia

Pushing the Envelope of Democracy in Saudi Arabia

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Pushing the Envelope of Democracy in Saudi Arabia 

By Asma Afsaruddin

I had the good fortune to participate in a remarkable two-day symposium recently (December 19-20) in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, entitled Shura, Democracy, and Good Governance, under the auspices of the King Faisal Center for Research and Islamic Studies there. 


Shura is the Arabic word for consultation and has historically referred to consultative decision-making in many spheres of life, particularly the political.  The symposium was co-sponsored by the Center for the Study of Islam and Democracy, an inter-faith think tank based in Washington, D.C.   A select group of speakers were invited from various parts of the Middle East and the United States.  What transpired during the formal presentations and subsequent discussions was quite an eye-opener and hopefully a harbinger of future political trends in Saudi Arabia. 


Among the speakers during the opening session were members of the powerful Majlis al-Shura (Consultative Council) who warmly welcomed the foreign participants but also politely expressed their reservations about the congruence between shura and democracy.  It was generally assumed that democracy referred to liberal democracy.  Thus relentless secularization and a strict separation of religion and politics were understood to be integral aspects of the democratic experiment.


However, as became apparent during sessions the following day, democracy as a concept is amenable to multiple, competing definitions.  One could talk about procedural, constitutional and republican democracies, in addition to the liberal.  As one speaker would affirm, several historical features of Muslim political culture consultation, creation of consensus, public ratification and accountability of leaders  render the Islamic milieu quite hospitable to the adoption of modern democratic processes.  Over and over again, participants pointed to the flexibility and diversity within Islamic thought that had in the past been and would continue in the present to be accommodating of socio-political changes.  A number of panelists discussed how even some Islamists in a number of countries were pushing for the adoption of democratic procedures.  One (male) panelist passionately made a plea for reforms concerning womens position in much of the Middle East, pointing to Islams early gender egalitarianism.


I was the only female speaker invited to address the gathering.  When one keeps in mind that women rarely address sexually mixed public assemblies in Saudi Arabia and that they are not allowed to drive or vote, this was not an inconsequential event.  On our first night in Riyadh, we caused consternation among some when the female contingent of our group sat down in the main hall of the auditorium (but discreetly in the back) where the opening ceremony was held.  We were later informed that women were expected to sit upstairs cloistered in a special section.  The minor rumblings caused by our intrusion into the masculine realm hardened the resolve of the (male) conveners from the King  Faisal  Center to continue to seat us in the main hall for the rest of the symposium.  Let the chips fall where they may!  In this highly patriarchal kingdom, our conversations on the prospects for democracy, womens conspicuous presence, and my role as a formal participant spoke volumes about the possibility of change in slow but tangible increments, even on such highly sensitive issues of political enfranchisement and gendered space.


But possibly the most illuminating and heartening aspect of the symposium was the candid nature of the opinions expressed during the question and answer session.  The bulk of the comments from the audience expressed support for the adoption of democratic procedures and a desire to see more social and political changes brought about in the kingdom.  Very few remarks expressed visceral hostility to the conferences premise or to the contents of the papers presented.  One Saudi young man was exceptional in insisting (contrary to historical examples) that shura was not practiced in the early period of Islam and added (mystifyingly) that some of the speakers were contributing to the zionisation of Islam.   


Others discussed the imprecision of the terms Islamist and modernist.  One commentator expressed impatience with getting bogged down in drawing parallels between shura and democracy and complained that most of the participants had forgotten the third element in the title good governance.  Assign elections and ballots, representative government and accountable leadership to whatever rubric you will, he said, if it results in good governance, then that is what we want.  Comments like these were the surest indication that issues of good governance are paramount in the minds of Saudi citizens and that they are eager for outlets to express themselves. 


By providing a respectful and disciplined environment for the airing of such critical and contested issues in a country that is the birthplace of Islam and an important ally of the US, our conference represented a milestone. 


Asma Afsaruddin is chair of the Board of Directors of the Center for the Study of Islam and Democracy and is associate professor of Arabic & Islamic Studies at the University of Notre Dame




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