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  • » 04/27/2010, 00.00

    SAUDI ARABIA

    Head of the religious police in Mecca, men and women can pray together



    Ahmed al-Ghamdi says that the strict separation between the sexes that exists today did not exist at the time of Muhammad. Conservatives respond harshly: a fatwa says that he "must be killed." The official Saudi news agency reports his removal and a few hours later deletes the story. The issue also has economic implications.

    Riyadh (AsiaNews) - The Saudi official news agency, SPA, had reported his dismissal only to delete all reports a few hours later, a fatwa says "he should be killed," the Grand Mufti has denied his authority to speak about Islamic law. He, Ahmed al Ghamdi (pictured), head of the religious police in Mecca, the first holy city of Islam, confirms his convictions: men and women can pray together and meet freely, even if only in public.

    The episode has been strictly censored by Saudi Arabia, monitored by the Commission for the Promotion of Virtue and Prevention of Vice, the official name of the muttawa, the religious police. Of which Ghamdi is a senior official.

    The question of the possibility of men and women “mixing” - in public, never in private - has for weeks been at the centre of a debate between scholars and politicians. Thus, the Saudi newspaper The National, has devoted a long article to the story, recalling the words of the Justice Minister Muhammad al Issa who warned against confusing public promiscuity, which he believes is allowed by Islam, with meetings in private between men and women who are neither married nor related by kinship, which is prohibited.

    The problem is not merely one of religious tradition, it also has economic implications. The ban has in fact heavy negative influences on women's employment and foreign investment since it requires gender division even in the offices of international companies.

    So, since December, when Ghamdi first spoke out on the issue, the question has occupied newspapers and television programs. A debate which is due to the climate of moderate reforms that King Abdullah is introducing into the country in an attempt to modernize it.

    But the reaction of conservatives has been very hard. If Ghamdhi argues that the division did not exist at the time of Mohammed his opposers cry of violations of Sharia and apostasy. Sheikh Abdulrahman Al Barrak has issued a fatwa which says that promiscuity "as supported by modernists" is prohibited because it allows "the sight of what is forbidden and prohibited conversations between men and women." Anyone who facilitates such promiscuity is an infidel", and if not retracted "should be killed".  And finally, anyone who allows his daughter, sister or wife to work with men or to attend a mixed school is guilty of "a kind of prostitution".

    On Sunday, the case seemed closed. The Commission's website published a statement from its Chairman Sheikh Abdulaziz al-Humain according to which Ghamdhi had been replaced. The statement was picked up and reported by SPA.  Soon after, however, the agency wrote that the news was to be "deleted and not used".

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    See also

    24/05/2008 SAUDI ARABIA
    A film festival in a land without movie theatres
    The event marks a significant step in Saudi Arabia where movie theatres are banned and DVDs are censored. Unusually for a place like Saudi Arabia, men and women were in the same hall, albeit separated by a glass partition.

    25/09/2009 SAUDI ARABIA
    First Saudi university to allow men and women together
    The new King Abdullah University of Science and Technology opens in a town not far from Jeddah. According to the university’s charter, Saudi Arabia’s religious police will not be allowed to operate on its premises but women will be allowed to drive. By next year, 817 students from 61 countries should be enrolled.

    26/09/2011 SAUDI ARABIA
    Riyadh: even women can vote. But only in four years
    King Abdullah announces on television that women have the right to vote and be elected to municipal councils. He added that some may be called to the Shura Council, an advisory body of the sovereign.

    02/08/2005 SAUDI ARABIA
    King Fahd laid to rest amidst tight security and public indifference
    Dignitaries from 36 countries attend the funeral, but locals shrug off the event: "He didn't do anything for us".

    26/01/2007 SAUDI ARABIA
    Riyadh should “stop religious persecution of Ahmadis”
    In an open letter to the king of Saudi Arabia, Human Rights Watch calls for an end to the wave of arrests, detentions and deportations against the Ahmadi community, which is considered heretical by Islamic extremists.



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