The response to threats against Abdullah Bejad al-Oteibi exposes a shifting balance between moderate and extremist versions of Islam in Saudi society.
Riyadh, Saudi Arabia
In his youth, Abdullah Bejad al-Oteibi was devoted to a doctrinaire version of Islam. He regarded those who disagreed with him as unworthy Muslims.
But during a government crackdown on religious militants in the 1990s, Mr. Oteibi spent time in prison, then traveled outside Saudi Arabia. Today, he says he believes in a more open-minded, moderate Islam and is an outspoken critic of extremists. In a recent article in Ar Riyadh newspaper, for example, he wrote that some clerics, to advance their own interests, make Islam more complicated and uncompromising than it actually is.
Unlike his past articles, this one drew an unusually harsh response from the hard-line religious community. Sheikh Abdul Rahman al-Barrak declared that Oteibi's "heretical" ideas meant that he should be brought to court and asked to recant. If he refused, \Sheikh Barrak said, he should be put to death – an outcome, he added, that no Muslim would mourn.
While he counted on strong reaction to his piece, Oteibi says, "I never expected that it would get to ... the level of blasphemy and death . I thought that after [Al Qaeda's] crimes in our country, this should be a red line."
Barrak's so-called "death " against Oteibi and another Saudi writer, Yusuf Aba al-Kheil, shocked many Saudis. Despite the extreme conservatism of Islam in this country, it is rare for a religious scholar to publicly call for someone's execution because of his writings.
The controversial and the swift condemnation it drew from Saudi and other Arab intellectuals offer a look into the shifting balance between extremist and moderate versions of Islam in Saudi society today. It is a delicate balance that, for the time being, appears to be tipping ever so slightly towards the moderates.
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