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Series of fatwas spur Saudi king to impose curbs

world Updated: Oct 11, 2010 00:48 IST
Saudi Arabia

The ideology that reigns in Saudi Arabia comes into plain view on the website of the Council of Senior Religious Scholars, where boys and girls sharing a swimming pool causes "mischief and evil" and bringing flowers to a hospital patient is to be discouraged because it's a foreign custom that "imitates Allah's adversaries."

And those fatwas come from the government-appointed body of clerics who are the guardians of the kingdom's ultraconservative Wahhabi school of Islam. But there's also a world of independent clerics issuing their own interpretations, often contradictory, through the web, TV stations and text messages.

Now King Abdullah is moving to regain control over this abundance of fatwas. Under a royal decree issued in mid-August, only the official panel may issue fatwas that answer every question of how pious Saudis should live their lives.

The result: In recent weeks, websites and a satellite station where clerics answered questions have been shut down or have stopped issuing fatwas. One preacher was reprimanded for urging a boycott of a grocery chain for employing female cashiers.

The question on the minds of some Saudis is whether any of this points the way to a more liberal code. Saad Sowayan, a Saudi historian and columnist, thinks it does. "The state wants to take the lead in shaping public opinion and this serves the issue of secularism and modernity," he said in an interview.

But many of the powerful clerics on the council are themselves hard-liners. Beyond strict edicts on morality, they reinforce a worldview whereby non-Muslims and even liberal or Shiite Muslims are considered infidels, and their stances on jihad, at times differ only in nuances from al-Qaeda's.

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