Clerics square off over gender mixing

Published Date: May 06, 2010 

RIYADH: Conservative Muslim Saudi Arabia's battle over men and women freely 
mixing rages as a powerful Islamic judge rebuked a hardline cleric over his 
attacks on anti-segregationist reformers. In a column published on a website 
for judges, Riyadh criminal court judge Sheikh Issa Al-Ghaith lashed out at 
cleric Abdul Rahman Al-Barrak for his sweeping condemnation of anyone 
advocating lifting the country's draconian Islamic laws against fraternization 
between unrelated men and women.

What does it mean to issue fatwas (Islamic edicts) that are difficult to 
implement and statements which make people go away?" Ghaith said. "Anyone who 
disagrees is accused of hypocrisy and branded a hypocrite," he said of 
conservatives' views. While Ghaith did not mention him by name, it was clear he 
was speaking about Barrak, one of the country's leading conservative scholars, 
who in February labelled opponents of gender segregation as infidels who should 
be killed.

On Monday, Ghaith expressed similar sentiments in a direct response to a letter 
Barrak wrote last week that mixing constituted rebelling against god. The 
letter was addressed to Ghaith, Justice Minister Mohammed al-Issa and the head 
of the Mecca religious police, Sheikh Ahmed al-Ghamdi, whose open pro-mixing 
stance got him fired and then mysteriously reinstated in late April. Barrak 
called for the three to "Fear God! Do not be keys to evil." He said they should 
resist the "so-called liberation of women," w
hich he likened to colonialism.

In other countries, he said, "This rebelling against God's rules leads to 
widespread mixing between men and women, the worst of which is seen in 
education and places of work. It is also manifested in the opening of cinemas, 
and dancing and singing halls." The exchange reflected rising tensions between 
religious conservatives, who dominate justice and education in the oil-rich 
kingdom, and increasingly vocal reformers who want to end the ultra-strict laws 
controlling women.

Under Saudi Arabia's harsh Wahhabi version of Islam, women are not allowed to 
go out without guardians; unrelated men and women cannot go to restaurants 
together; they are separated in offices; and women are not permitted to drive. 
But the debate was ignited last year when King Abdullah inaugurated a new 
international science university near the Red Sea commercial city of Jeddah 
where men and women students and faculty freely work together.

The debate was spiced up on Friday when numerous newspapers published a 
photograph of the king surrounded by three dozen women at a conference held 
several weeks earlier. Ghaith said on Monday that Barrak was "raising discord" 
and "inciting brother against brother," invoking the king in his argument. "We 
are an Islamic state and Islamic law is applied to all walks of life. Our ruler 
King Abdullah has done his duty well. So we are required to listen and obey," 
Ghaith said. _ AFP

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