‘We Live in a Society Where the Word “Liberal” Is Considered an Insult’

By: Ben Hubbard for the New York Times

Friday prayer at the Fahed bin Saidaan mosque in Ryadh. CreditSergey Ponomarev for The New York Times

BEIRUT, Lebanon — Many Muslims around the world chafe at the power that oil wealth and control of the holy sites givesSaudi Arabia to shape how their faith is interpreted. But for Saad, from Karachi, Pakistan, what’s more enraging is the support the kingdom receives from the West.

What pains me, and other liberal Muslims around the world, to see is the unending all-weather friendship between the proponents of this extreme ideology and the pluralistic western governments, the self-proclaimed ‘guardians of freedom’, to the detriment of the entire moderate Muslim world. How do you square that circle?

website, was one of a flood of emails, Twitter posts and comments I received from readers around the world sharing their own views about the kingdom, or comparing their experiences with mine.

Here are some of the notable responses, including some from Saudis:

Some Saudis See a Conspiracy

Some Saudi readers reacted angrily to the article, saying they are proud of how their country practices and promotes their faith. Others said the article was a part of a Western conspiracy to malign the kingdom, or that I did not make clear that there is diversity of religious views among Saudi citizens.

Another reader criticized my use of the term Wahhabism to refer to the austere Saudi interpretation of Islam.

Many Saudis argue that the cleric who founded the movement, Mohammed ibn Abdul-Wahhab, did not add any new tenets to Islam but instead helped to purify it by stripping away what he considered non-Islamic practices. Saudis use the term, as do Western and Arab academics, to describe the faith as it is propagated by the Saudi state.

Other Saudis criticized the way the article was presented to Western audiences.

The reader, Faisal bin Farhan, who describes himself on Twitter as a businessman from Riyadh, added that Saudi women who appear on state television do so regularly with their faces showing. “Why portray this as something super unusual?” he asked.

How Unique Is Saudi Arabia?

Some American readers drew comparisons of Wahhabism in Saudi Arabia to conservative interpretations of other faiths practiced around the world — including in the United States.

A reader from Concord, N.H., said in an email that Wahhabis in Saudi Arabia reminded him of conservative evangelical Christians in the United States.

And Ginny, from Pittsburgh, wrote on The Times’s websiteabout similarities that she sees between Saudi Islam and Orthodox Judaism, noting that both segregate men and women and both mandate that women dress modestly. Some Jewish communities, she said, even have their own version of Saudi Arabia’s Commission for the Promotion of Virtue and the Prevention of Vice.

There are informal ‘modesty police’ in some sects of Judaism who have been known to throw stones at women and girls and heckle them for having skirts that are too short, or wearing pants.

She acknowledges that women are not treated exactly the same in Judaism as they are in Islam, but adds:

It seems unfair to me to select Islamic customs which seem too strict for our cultural tastes and not acknowledge similar ones which are accepted in our society. Jewish customs are not viewed with the opprobrium with which we describe Islamic ones.

Andrew Workman, of Lancaster, Penn., grew up in a family with Amish and Mennonite roots, and he later earned a master’s degree in Islamic Studies from McGill University. He said in an email that he was interested in the similarities between the different traditions, beyond what he called the “lazy beard and technology comparisons.”

 Muslims in Saudi Arabia and Mennonites in American seek to apply scripture to daily life, he said, leading to surprising cultural similarities.
“I used to live in the Gulf, and once in a mosque in the suburbs of Muscat I thought to myself that this felt closer to home than living in another part of the U.S.,” he wrote, recalling his time in the capital of Oman, Saudi Arabia’s neighbor.

A Society Closed to Change

One Saudi who emailed me privately said he is gay, but “in the closet,” and did not want his name used. He said that my article illustrated the forces that keep Saudi culture so closed.

We live in a society where the word “liberal” is considered an insult by many and it’s often either proceeded or followed by the word “secular.” Most times, change is shot down because it’s viewed as nothing but “Westernization” of our society. But in my opinion, change is change. It shouldn’t matter if other societies embraced it first.

Fond Memories of Living in the Kingdom

Many foreigners who had lived and worked in Saudi Arabia wrote to share their own stories about life there.

Jim Murray made many friends in Saudi Arabia when he worked as a teacher on military bases in the kingdom in the 1970s and 80s, though he encountered very few women.

 Mr. Murray, who is from Minnesota, once attended a wedding in a rural part of the country, where his party was welcomed with a volley of gunfire, he said, and he ate rice and meat with his hands. He also made his own booze, out of raisins, sugar, oranges and yeast.
 He emailed me his recipe for “Arabian moonshine” with a warning:

(1.) Thou shalt not give the wine to a Saudi national or a Muslim expatriate. (2.) Thou shalt not profit by selling the wine. (3) Thou shalt not stagger nor reel about in public in an intoxicated state. To Your Health!

Jarrett Hedborg, an interior decorator from Los Angeles, worked in Saudi Arabia over the course of two decades and became close with members of the educated, westernized elite.

I got to know many Saudi people and one thing you say, or imply, is totally incorrect. Saudis are PARTY PEOPLE! I have never been to as many dinner parties as in Saudi Arabia.

A former American diplomat who worked in the kingdom said in an email that the Saudi Arabia I described in the article jibed with his experience. He shared the story of a colleague of his who went scuba diving in the Red Sea with a group that included a Saudi woman who did not let cultural restrictions stop her from diving.

 “There she was, 40 feet below the surface scuba diving in her abaya,” he wrote. “How dangerous, how defining.”