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 fatwa. I thought that after [Al Qaeda's] crimes in our country, this should be a red line."
Barrak's so-called "death fatwa" 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 fatwa 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.
Under King Abdullah bin Abdul Aziz, Saudis have been allowed to write and speak more freely, which has given moderates greater opportunities to advance their views. Some Saudis say this has caused consternation among hard-liners, and may explain why Barrak and his supporters felt a need to dramatically express their opinions.
"They cannot pick a fight with the government anymore, so they resort to picking a fight with the liberals ... to show themselves and others that they ... can still be an opposition," says Saudi political analyst Adel al-Toraifi.
But others, such as Abdul Hamid al-Ansari, former dean of Islamic Law at Qatar University, believe that Saudi religious hard-liners still have the upper hand in the kingdom. "This fatwa," Ansari wrote on the reformist website, AAFAQ.org., must be seen in the context of the intellectual conflict raging between the followers of Salafist – fundamentalist – inflexibility and the advocates of change and reform. It constitutes a most serious attack on the reformists."
Barrak's declaration comes at a time when the government is taking steps to demonstrate its commitment to a moderate, nonviolent form of Islam. Last month, King Abdullah called for an interfaith conference among Muslims, Jews, and Christians, saying that Saudi clerics support the idea. And university officials have announced plans for an international conference of scholars next year to discuss moderation as an Islamic value.
The Saudi government's tolerance of free expression still has limits, however. Popular blogger Fouad Farhan, who had been critical of officials, was released Saturday after almost five months in detention without charges.
"These kinds of fatwas are going out [of style]," Toraifi said of Barrak's declaration. "You don't see a rallying [around it]; it's not like in the '80s and '90s."
The early 1990s were years of increased political opposition as several conservative Islamist leaders, using cassette tapes and formal petitions that drew widespread support, demanded political reforms in the wake of the 1990-1991 Gulf War.
Oteibi, who works for a think tank in Dubai, replied by e-mail to questions from the Monitor. He regards Barrak's fatwa, he wrote, as a sign that the extremist camp, having "found itself under a huge pressure, especially after 9/11," feels "that its domination of society has subsided."
The fatwa, he added, was "the latest weapon they used ... to regain this domination."
Aba Al Kheil, the other Saudi writer, drew rebuke from Barrak for an article questioning the common Muslim view that Jews and Christians are unbelievers.
In a telephone interview from Bureida, a town north of Riyadh noted for its religious conservatism where he works for the finance ministry, Aba Al Kheil noted that Barrak's supporters appear to be coming under pressure since the fatwa appeared, because they "started making excuses" for the cleric, saying that he wasn't attacking the writers, only their ideas.
Barrak did not mention Oteibi and Aba Al Kheil by name in his written opinion, posted March 14 on his website. But their articles were presented to the elderly scholar by his followers when they asked his opinion.
Aba Al Kheil said the fatwa is evidence "that there are many Islamic intellectual movements in Saudi today." But the response it generated, he added, shows that "there are a lot of moderate people and thinkers out there who are against" clerics labeling their intellectual opponents as apostates, a capital crime under strictly applied interpretations of Islamic law.
The writer was referring to statements denouncing the fatwa from more than 90 Saudi intellectuals and almost 100 other Arab thinkers in Egypt, Bahrain, and the United Arab Emirates. "[T]his fatwa is nothing but dark intellectual terrorism" by those who "think that Islam is exclusive to them and that they should be allowed to kill others," the Arab writers' statement said.
"We are trying our best," it added, "to make people understand the difference between Islam ... and some actions of some Muslims who give Islam a bad name."
The Saudi intellectuals called fatwas like Barrak's "a real threat to the modernization movement." They asked "official institutions to take a stern stand against them."
The government did not comment publicly. But Saudi Arabia's most senior religious leader, Grand Mufti Sheikh Abdulaziz al-Sheikh, extolled "the middle way" in Islam during remarks at a recent university seminar.
The mufti warned against "preachers of darkness" and said that "fanatical zeal cannot be considered part of religion, even if they [extremists] falsely pretend to be devout," Asharq Al Awsat newspaper reported.
The impact of Barrak's declaration was muted by the fact that he holds no official position in the Saudi religious establishment and is viewed by many as a marginal leader. Aba Al Kheil called the fatwa "merely an opinion of another citizen." Nevertheless, Barrak is revered among his followers, and 20 other clerics declared support for him against attacks by liberals with "polluted beliefs," Reuters reported. Some Saudis also say that Barrak has sympathizers in the ranks of government-appointed sheikhs. Aba Al Kheil and Oteibi both said they will continue to write despite the challenge from Barrak, whom Oteibi called "an old blind Saudi cleric ... [whose] closest students are the most important ideologues of Al Qaeda in Saudi Arabia."
His fatwa, Oteibi wrote, illustrates that "radicalism [extremism] ... will never accept to be incapacitated." But it will not win the battle for Saudi minds "because those opposed to them are out there and will not be silenced by any means."