Hell, Heaven, Potentates, Priests and Politicians and the Business of Religion–Coping with Uncertainty

July 28, 2016

Hell, Heaven, Potentates, Priests and Politicians and the Business of Religion–Coping with Uncertainty

by  Dr. Lim Teck Ghee

[R]eligion has an “autoimmune disease”, a critical flaw … that leads to its misuse…. The disease’s two main symptoms are “God intoxication”… and “God manipulation”.

From ‘Religion’ , Brook Wilensky-Lansford’s review of “Putting God Second: How to Save Religion from Itself”, The New York Times Book Review, July 17, 2016, p. 26.

The only constant is change. It’s the most basic fact of human existence. Nothing lasts, nothing stays the same. We feel it with each breath.

From birth to the unknown moment of our passing, we ride a river of change. And yet, in spite of all evidence to the contrary, we exhaust ourselves in an endless search for solidity. We hunger for something that lasts, some idea or principle that rises above time and change. We hunger for certainty. That is a big problem.–Adam Frank


Malaysians watching with bewilderment and dismay as politicians, ulamas, and evangelists expound the superiority of their religion and promise milk, honey and paradise for their followers, and the fires of hell for those who do not belong, shouldn’t be surprised. The antics of these fire and brimstone practitioners follow a well trodden pattern going back hundreds if not thousands of years.

Any basic course on religion run not by graduates from religious institutions but by reputable scholars would teach about the history of the estimated 6,000 religions of the world, the differences, commonalities and patterns, and associations with cultural and ecological features, especially political.

Using scientific evidence, logic and rationality, such courses can help put into proper perspective the so-called universal truths and answers peddled by the religious books and scriptures of the literate Abrahamic religions, as well as the other absolutist claims made by them.

My design of a course on “Comparative Religion 101” will begin by pointing out that the idea of an ultimate creator responsible for all living things on earth, including man, is one common to many of the established religions found in the different parts of the world. It would also make the argument that the origin and spread of religion is inextricably connected with the quest for authority, power and followers.

The search for a supreme maker goes very far back in history. We do not have a precise dating for it. However, some idea of how far back it goes can be obtained if we look at the history of evolution.

Irrefutable scientific evidence has shown that the physical and behavioral features shared by all people originated from ape-like ancestors and that these evolved over a period of 6 million years. The ability to walk upright evolved over 4 million years ago.

Other important human characteristics such as a complex brain, ability to use tools and capacity for language have developed more recently. More advanced traits such as complex symbolic expression, art, cultural diversity, etc. emerged over 100,000 years ago. With this emergence came ideas and beliefs of hell, heaven and the worship of gods, goddesses, spirits, deities and other man-created objects or points of veneration to facilitate the ascent to a better existence after death.

What Happens After Life’s End?

Questions and answers about where we come from and where we go after the end of life on earth have been voiced in all kinds of ways without any resolution. Archaeological evidence suggests that early man such as the Neanderthals who can be dated to over 50,000 years ago had some sort of preoccupation with death. They were self-conscious beings and were likely to have an awareness of death and the meaning and implications of death. Such consciousness has continued unabated and unresolved with modern man; it will remain unresolved until all humans die off – whenever that may come about.

Most if not all religions have been especially concerned with man’s destiny after death. They probably began with some notion of an Underworld as an abode for the dead. Evidence from ancient burial sites and rituals also indicates concern with ensuring that the spirits of the dead were appropriately sent off or they would not rest peacefully which explains the presence of priests and other before and after-death guides and experts.

A parallel role in society was performed by soothsayers, seers, oracles and diviners who were seen as able to foresee the future by magical and other means. The roles of priests and diviners and oracles were often integrated in the ancient religions. Predicting the near and distant future as well as promising some form of paradise after death proved a lucrative and privileged undertaking for those who belonged to these occupations.

From its earliest too, priestly and equivalent personages have exploited man’s sense of insecurity and fear of the supernatural and made it their powerful ideological tool. This modus operandi served the needs of its founders and prophets who could then impose on their tribes their understanding of ‘truth’, ‘hell’, ‘heaven’, ‘light’, ‘darkness’, and ‘paradise’ and their solutions to human anxieties.

These ‘holy men’ can be considered to be among the world’s first politicians. They still are. Women priests have been relatively sparse in history except in matrilineal societies. Perhaps if they had become dominant, it could have made a difference to the history of the world.

Mountains rise, mountains fall: change is constant.

Yuri Cortez/AFP/Getty Images

Above the witch doctors, shaman, priests and similar personages holding positions in the little or great religions of the world have been the chiefs, lords, emperors, sultans, caliphs, sovereigns and other similar potentates standing at the highest rung of their society. Whether it is with pre-Homeric Greek religion, Judaism, Christianity, Hinduism, Buddhism, and Islam, the religious systems of the world can be seen not only as providing explanations for our earthly existence. They also provided strategies for managing the distribution of political and socio-economic power.

Today, despite the advancement of science and knowledge, the gullibility of the believers of religion continues as also its exploitation by the leaders and charlatans of religion.

In the past primitive societies were petrified and mystified by natural phenomenon such as thunder, lightning, floods and earthquakes. Modern science has demystified these phenomena and enabled us to conquer our fears about this aspect of the unknown.

In contrast to the fear of unknown nature, some primitive societies were relatively stoic about death. Hunter gatherer societies such as the Hazda, for example, have no particular belief in an afterlife, and the death of an individual means a straightforward end to their existence.

It is paradoxical that such societies rather than our modern ones seem to come closest to the current scientific position regarding the mind–body dichotomy which sees consciousness as derived from and/or is reducible to physical phenomena such as neuronal activity occurring in the brain. The implication of this premise is that once the brain stops functioning at brain death, consciousness ceases to exist.

Dr. Lim Teck Ghee

Acceptance of a straightforward end to life – that humans, on death, simply become part of the earth, sea or river that we evolved from without any further afterlife – would, however, run against the world wide industry that is organized religion, and the political and religious elites who exploit and benefit from it.

Rafidah Aziz, CC TOO and Civil Servants of Yore–The Handling of Deviant Muslims

July 19, 2016

Rafidah Aziz, CC TOO and Civil Servants of Yore–The Handling of Deviant Muslims

by KJ John


I remember, in 1992, some of us made an official fence-mending trip to Australia after Dr Mahathir Mohamad earned the ‘recalcitrant’ label. Our then-international trade and industry minister led the trip. In Perth and Canberra, one of the questions asked by the journalists of the minister was, “Are you a fundamentalist?”

MITI Minister Rafidah Aziz –“An Intellectual and an Intuitive Scholar who understood concepts and ideas”–KJ John

Minister Rafidah Aziz was a lecturer and was supposed to pursue a Colombo Plan scholarship for a doctorate when the then-PM, Hussein Onn, invited her to join his cabinet as Parliamentary Secretary based in the Finance Ministry. She never looked back.

Being also an intellectual and an intuitive scholar, she understood concepts and ideas well. So, most journalists who asked questions without much thought usually got their pound of flesh taken, too. She is the same with journalists as with officers; whether in Malaysia or overseas. Most unassured journalists or officers cannot handle her.

Fundamentalist Muslim

While the words ‘fundamentalist Muslims’ were the phrase of the day then, today’s words are ‘radical Islam’, or even extremist Muslims. Now, if we do not know the factual difference between these concepts; we are going to have serious problems, or as two of our Muslim scholars who are professionals wrote: “We are on the slippery slope and road to anarchy.”

Minister Rafidah was not only smart but was usually a teacher as well with officers and journalists, even though she did never suffer fools. Therefore, she answered the Australian journalist’s question by first explaining that most average Muslims in Malaysia were fundamental Muslims; which means, they believe in the fundamentals of Islam. But she also always clarified that they were not extremist Muslims. What is the difference?

Extremities in science are those who fall outside of two standard deviations of the mean. Please review your basic statistics if you do not follow my argument. Within the normal distribution curve; the middle majority can be divided into two halves, i.e. those who are the early majority and those who are the late majority to any new idea for change. Both groups are fundamentalist Muslims as defined earlier; but they cannot be called extremists.

Extremists are those who take an extreme view of the interpretation of the fundamental precepts of Islam; as in, they are literalists in terms of interpretation of scriptures. They do not believe and argue against any philosophical view of the particular verses of scripture. Theirs is a single and closed interpretation as per their source of authority as interpreters of their scripture.

In that view, only ‘experts’ can interpret scriptures; all others are not qualified. Sounds to me like the Catholic Church before the Copernican revolution.

Finally there are always the radicals in every faith system. Who then are they? These are really anarchists who condemn the entire human enterprise and want to see it destroyed for the promise of what lies ahead; in their view and vision of the other world and for eternity.

They fully and truly believe such in their hearts and minds. They then can also become self-appointed caliphs to usher in their version of their ‘kingdom of God’. They want to see their view of the world established, by the force of their will. It is always a contradiction in terms.

Do we have deviants in Malaysia?

More than 95 percent of Malaysian Muslims are Sunnis and of the Shafie sect in terms of interpretation. Then there are Ismailis, Shiites and Ahmadiyaa. These all however only make up less than 5 percent of Muslims in Malaysia. All Muslims, by official records, make up 62 percent of all Malaysians.

Now, based on the normal distribution curve of Muslims, I suspect about 90 percent belong in the middle majority category and I would call the majority the urban Malay Muslims. These are about equally divided between literalists while the other half are Muslims who consider that verses can be philosophical with their interpretation of and practice of Muslim Scriptures. I would label them conservatives and moderates in terms of interpretation of scripture.

Nonetheless, all 90 percent of them are progressives in terms of interpretation of all Muslim Scriptures in a modern world and view.

Who then are the deviants? In my view, these are pseudo-scholars of Islam but who push their own versions of truth by the sheer use of force of their interpretation but safeguarded by the false idea that only experts of the Quran and Hadith are qualified as interpreters.

They put aside rationalism or the capacity of the human mind to reason and make choices about right and wrong, and instead prefer to assert blind obedience to one set of interpretations; only theirs.

The majority of Malays are not deviant, by any means of differentiation and regardless of who does the classification of typologies. The reality is, however, that in the modern world it is the noisy minority who get heard and voices are amplified. Statistically, these deviants make up less the 2 percent of the entire population of Malay Muslims.

Terrorism in Malaysia

Between the years 1948-1960, Malaysia fought against the most militant form of deviants deploying terror that the nation state has ever seen. There were militant Malayans who were committed to communist ideals and standing against colonialism. That period of war against these terrorists was called and declared ‘The Emergency’.

The government representatives then finally met with Chin Peng and they signed a peace accord to officially end that war in 1989. My question to the inspector-general of police (IGP) today is: if our war against communists are over, who then is your new terrorists? Who is the prime target of the Royal Malaysian Police for today and tomorrow? Are you serious about focussing only on the political opposition?

Dear IGP, in the mid-1970s, I used to take our Administrative and Diplomatic Service (PTD) Officers at the National Institute of Public Administration (Intan) to their one-week training at the Police College in Kuala Kubu Baru (KKB). One of the most exciting lecturers was none other than CC Too. I was privileged to have met him in KKB then.

My question to the new Royal Police College is and the IGP is: which room, or library, or which hall in Police College is named after this great man? If none, just please tell me why?

CC Too was born as  (Tan Sri) Too Chee Chew. In January 1957 he was awarded the Member of the British Empire (MBE) and the Panglima Setia Mahkota (PSM) in 1986 which carried the title of Tan Sri. He was head of the Psychological Warfare Division of the police. If anyone Malayan ever was singly responsible to “win the war of hearts and minds in Malaya”, it would be him. We should never forget him for our Merdeka.

He also served as a consultant to the US military at Fort Leavenworth, and in the Vietnam War and also for the Korean War. Do we therefore really need to go to US to learn about how to deal with home-grown radicals and deviants who are deviants, Mr IGP? Please let us honour the man, understand his methodology and apply them to again get rid of deviants from Malaysia.

KJ JOHN, PhD from The George Washington University, Washington  DC, was in public service for 32 years having served as a researcher, trainer, and policy adviser to the International Trade and Industry Ministry and the National IT Council (NITC) of the government of Malaysia. The views expressed here are his personal views and not those of any institution he is involved with. Write to him at kjjohn@ohmsi.net with any feedback or views.

The Evils of Theocracy

July 17, 2016

 Shafiqah Othman Hamzah

The Evils of Theocracy



UMNO’s showy Muslims

What is a theocracy? A theocracy is a government in which God or a Higher Being is seen as the supreme ruler and government officials are regarded as divinely guided. In a theocracy, religion or faith plays the dominant role.

While I am perfectly aware that constitutionally, Malaysia is a secular country, it makes me uncomfortable to see the attempts certain elitists have made to slowly turn our beloved country into a theocracy. They started by demonising the terms “secularism” and “pluralism”; two ideas that promote the harmonious co-existence of different faiths and beliefs.

This is all an attempt to establish an Islamic caliphate while failing to realise that Islam has never provided a blueprint for what an Islamic state should be. Even when the Prophet was the leader of Medina, he never claimed that it was a divine rule. He ruled based on principles of justice and equity, and that was as Islamic as an Islamic state should be.

Perhaps theocracies can work in minor-scaled governance, but a country under theocratic rule is bound to fail and history has shown us that many times.

Since a theocracy sees no separation between government and religion, your religion becomes your government and your government becomes your religion. Political religion must die because people should be able to stand against their government without being seen as standing against religion.

I do not and will never support a theocratic government, not because I do not believe in Islam as a way of life, but because it has been proven time and time again that religion has been used as a pretext for conflict and oppression.

At the heart of every religion is the aim to cultivate spiritual well-being and inner values such as kindness, honesty, patience, and forgiveness; all values that promote unity. However, when religion becomes institutionalised and politicised, it becomes an ultimate evil.

Theocracy heavily excludes religious pluralism, something which is essential to a multi-cultural and multi-religious country like Malaysia. Where religion is supposed to promote the idea of humility, theocracies promote the idea of superiority whereby one religion is better than the rest.

There is absolutely nothing wrong in believing that your religion is the Divine Truth, but giving it precedence over all other faiths by law automatically creates a society filled with xenophobia, intolerance and hostility.

Religion is submission to a Higher Being. A theocracy, even though it claims to be religious, is submission to a government, no more no less. Especially in Malaysia, people should be allowed to point out foul politics without being seen as attacking Islam.

Religion being used in politics is nothing new, even in Islamic history, such as the Umayyads (the largest theocracy in history) prosecuting, and even executing, the Qadaris, who stood against their tyranny, by using the ideology of the Jabriyyah who justified their rule as divinely sanctioned.

Religion was used as a tool to silence anyone who was against the government or their plans. Some examples of that being done today would be when a JAKIM sermon says that anyone who defies the government will be damned by God, or when Pahang Mufti Datuk Seri Dr Abdul Rahman Osman called DAP kafir harbi for opposing hudud.

Ever since we were young, we were taught not to question religion, so when we grew up, we blindly accept the religious rulings and sayings made by the elites. What we were not allowed to question was not religion per se, but the version of the religion practised and propagated by the ruling party.

In a society that stigmatises rational thinking, a theocratic government is especially dangerous because they can very easily control its people.

Not only does a theocratic government give precedence to one religion, it gives precedence to only one version of that particular religion. In the case of Malaysia, that version would be mazhab Shafie of Sunni Islam. We end up not only discriminating against other religions but also our own brothers and sisters in faith who do not follow the same version of Islam. This is against the inclusive spirit of Islam itself.

The saddest thing about Malaysia is that our governance is at a constant tug-o-war between secular and theocracy, and we’re slowly losing to the latter.I have always believed in using religious values in politics but do not politicise religion.

I salute and admire those who have fought long and hard to save Malaysia from ever going down the same road as the likes of Iran. This is a fight we should not be giving up anytime soon. So who’s with me?

Rejoinder: Exposing Isma’s theocratic acrobatics–The Sheer Hypocrisy of it all

Farouk A. Peru


I was most unsurprised to see that the confused racist/Islamofascist group, ISMA, had responded to my fellow MMO columnist Shafiqah Othman Hamzah.

Shafiqah had  an article on the evils of theocracy where she exposed the pretences of the Islamic priestly class. What did surprise me, however, was how ISMA defended its case. ISMA declared that Islam is not consistent with a theocracy and proceeded to paint a rosier than rosy picture of Shariah. It then proceeded to call our Constitution “Islamic constitutionalism”! These arguments were nothing more than theocratic acrobatics, as far as I am concerned, and their shambolic nature needs to be exposed.

A Model Incorruptible Malaysian Muslim courting Wahhabism. No wonder he has many young rent seeking fans who share his “Cash is King” political philosophy–Din Merican.

The author of this essay calls herself a “Wanita Isma activist.” Norhidayah begins with a snarky remark to Shafiqah, claiming she “googled” her definition of “theocracy.” Shafiqah chose a literal definition of the term but it was not an impractical one. It was a definition wholly consistent with the attitudes and practices of the Islamic priesthood who see themselves as walking deities on Earth even if they do not explicitly say so. They even style themselves as warith al-anbiya (inheritors of the Prophets) claiming that Prophet Muhammad (pbuh) had deemed them so.

Norhidayah, on the other hand, chose to distance herself from a literal definition, preferring to look towards European history for hers. From that tradition, she found definitions by historians and policies and practices by the Catholic Church which she equates to as theocracy, something which is “not consistent with Islam.” Let us analyse these policies and practices one by one.

The first of these is that the Catholic Church broke its adherents down to castes and classes, the nobility and the peasant. Does this not occur under the Islamofascist Shariah law? Of course it does but under another guise.

Under the classical theory of the Islamic State (which Daesh is fighting for today), non-Muslims cannot participate fully in society. They cannot be judges nor even soldiers let alone leaders of states. Not only that, they cannot even marry Muslims without first converting to Islam. Therefore Norhidayah’s argument is totally invalidated here.

This man has a RM1 billion budget to play around with

The second policy and practice led to the position of wealth and power for the priestly class. They were wealthier and more powerful than kings, says Norhidayah. I would respond with the following: Malaysia is not even a theocracy now, as Norhidayah would admit, yet our ulamas have tremendous wealth and power. Even our pendakwah bebas can drive luxury cars and command five-figure fees for their lectures (so much for following the Sunnah of austerity!). JAKIM, the ultimate ulama organisation, has a budget of a billion ringgit and yet cannot or will not produce its accounts. That is a heady dose of power. So how are Muslims different from the Catholic Church?

Norhidayah’s rosy view of Shariah is either utterly delusional or an audacious lie. Next, she claims that Islam operates under the parameters of given texts. Hence, Islam cannot be considered a theocracy because rulers cannot operate on their own whim claiming to be acting on God’s behalf.

Who does he think he is, this Islamic simpleton?  Harussani is a danger to Malaysia.To think that  the erudite HRH The Sultan of Perak entertains him.

Let us accept her premise for now before we deconstruct it below. If rulers cannot operate on their own whims and Islamic texts are considered divine, who is doing the ruling? The answer would be “God.” Therefore, by Norhidayah’s own reasoning, Islam is quite literally a theocracy. God has the power. But it’s not really God who is ruling.

Norhidayah also seems to forget the glaring factor of interpretation. She quoted the hadith of Muadh ibn Jabal which claims that Muslims are to rule with the Quran and Sunnah. This is technically incorrect. Muslims are forever bound to rule by their interpretation of the two. There is far from a single volume of Shariah codes which all Muslims follow. And Muslims are not restricted by them either.

In Shariah law, there are mechanisms through which one may “remove” the boundaries of Shariah. For example, the sole legitimacy of Islam (Quran Chapter 3 Verse 19). Some scholars see this verse as “abrogated” by verses which acknowledge the validity of other faiths (2/62 and 5/69).

Therefore, they were not “bound” by the Quran. They simply manipulated it to suit their political agenda, the way ISMA is doing so today. Had they been bound by it, they would have to formulate an interpretation which harmonises the two ideas but instead, they simply cancelled out what did not suit them. My own understanding is that the word “Islam” is simply the path to peace, present in all religions.

Lest we forget: this man who first declared that Malaysia is an Islamic state and Anwar Ibrahim supported him before he was unceremoniously removed by his political mentor in 1998. UMNO and PAS politicians are the same. So, “Those who live by the sword, shall die by the sword”.  –Din Merican

So is Malaysia a theocratic or religious country? We need to consider the following – under the theocracy we are considering (the classical Islamic one), there is no half way point. Either you are fully Islamic (that is, operating fully under Shariah law) or you are not Islamic at all. That is why PAS whose ulama are all from the same mindset strives to establish their Negara Islam. It is indeed all or nothing for them. That is the only way they can find employment.

Therefore with that thinking, Malaysia is currently a secular nation. As Shafiqah asserted though, we are experiencing a creeping theocracy. The current stage we are in is on the level of psychological influence. The increased number of Malay-Muslims who are followers of Islamofascist scholars have increased. And this is what we need to reverse if we are to retain our sovereignty.



Malaysia: Playing with Religious Extremism Fire

July 5, 2016

Malaysia: Playing with Religious Extremism Fire

by Michael Vatikiotis


People attend a candlelight vigil for the victims of the July 1 terrorist attack in Dhaka. © Reuters

The holy month of Ramadan saw terrorist attacks claimed by the Islamic State take almost 400 lives around the world. The targeting of Bangladesh and Malaysia in particular has revived fears that with IS under military pressure in Syria and Iraq, its shadowy planners are looking at resorting to the old al-Qaida model of networked terrorist cells operating in Muslim-majority Asia.

This means that in addition to the many thousands of foreign fighters who made their way into the ranks of IS in Syria and Iraq returning home with the motivation and the skills to carry out terrorism, it is possible that IS has begun helping them recruit and organize spectacular attacks.

 Although evidence of a formal shift in IS strategy toward Asia remains sketchy, there is no shortage of conducive social factors and permissible environments for the incubation of a new wave of Islamic extremism. For the first time, even Singapore has posted official warnings that an attack may be imminent.

Islamic militancy is a strong undercurrent in the Muslim-majority states of the region, fueled by social and economic injustice and well-financed Wahhabi and Salafist teachings. The recent surge in tension between religious communities — Buddhist against Muslim in Myanmar, Sunni against Shia in Indonesia — has helped highlight perceived threats to Muslims that lend impetus to militant teachings.

A club in Puchong, on the outskirts of Kuala Lumpur, was the target of a grenade attack on June 28. © Reuters

Ethno-nationalist struggles in southern Thailand and the southern Philippines remain unresolved and offer permissible environments for Islamic extremist thinking and ideology. The failure to establish a productive dialogue process in southern Thailand or to make progress on implementing a comprehensive peace agreement in Muslim Mindanao is fast alienating a generation of youth who are open to extremist views.

There is also a resurgence of archipelagic regionalism gaining prominence in mostly Muslim maritime Southeast Asia. Since last year, a specific Malay-speaking unit within IS, known as Katibah Nusantara, has amassed a force of 500-plus fighters hailing from Malaysia, Singapore, Indonesia and the Philippines. Katibah Nusantara’s social media presence is conducted in Malay, and its messaging openly solicits the “Nusantara” region — an old term for the Malay world. This group is an embryonic terrorist network that will become a conflict driver when it returns to the region.

Balancing Act

Inevitably, there are calls for harsher security measures. A new anti-terrorist law in Indonesia seeks to increase the period of detention of suspects without trial from one week to six months. However, this plays into the hands of conservative political forces that would use the terrorist threat to roll back democratic space and legal certainty in the region.

A far more effective, but admittedly challenging approach would be for governments and societies in the region to address the underlying factors generating the potential appeal of transnational Islamic extremism.

The first priority is for states to accept responsibility for the careful management of relations between religious communities. Growing tensions between religious minority and majority groups have accompanied the general trend toward more open, democratic politics. In Indonesia, political parties have sought to exploit these tensions, rather than tamp them down, in the quest for votes. In Myanmar, Buddhist nationalism was exploited in the run up to last year’s democratic election, resulting in violence against Muslim communities.

A protester wears a “Jihad The Only Solution” T-shirt in Kuala Lumpur on Jan. 23. © Reuters

In Malaysia, the government has carelessly allowed conservative Islamic views to upset the country’s delicate ethnic and religious balance. Just a week or so before the first IS attack in Malaysia, a leading member of the Islamic clergy declared that non-Muslim members of a leading opposition party could be slain because they opposed the imposition of the Islamic criminal code.

Second, greater attention must be paid to the external sponsorship of religious education. The virtually unfettered access to funding from Wahhabi foundations in Saudi Arabia has cultivated less tolerant conceptions of Islamic faith in the region. This in turn exposes young Muslims to an austere, exclusivist version of Islam at odds with the traditionally moderate and open-minded brand of mostly Hanafi-school Islam practiced in Southeast Asia for hundreds of years.

This is not simply about promoting moderation or balancing religious and secular curricula, but speaks to the need to actively recover the region’s distinctive adaptation of Islamic dogma and teaching, which over centuries has enabled Muslims and non-Muslims to coexist harmoniously. In the 1980s, Indonesia’s Ministry of Religious Affairs considered adapting Islamic law to the specific Indonesian context; today, Islamic scholars in Indonesia and Malaysia are arguing for the replication of laws and conventions that governed society in 7th century Arabia.

It is too late to simply make rhetorical appeals for moderation. There is an urgent need to control or shut off the foreign funding and preaching that, even in prisons where extremists are held, conducts the poisonous message of hatred toward nonbelievers and the isolation of Muslim communities.

Thirdly, for Muslim areas of southern Thailand and the Philippines, the absence of a credible political dialogue and meaningful political empowerment for the populations in question creates a real risk that difficult (but ultimately resolvable) ethno-nationalist conflicts will be displaced by barbaric terrorism dominated by groups with whom dialogue is far more problematic.

Growing Impatient

Unfortunately, the approach taken by central governments in Bangkok and Manila to date has prioritized the safeguarding of territorial sovereignty at the expense of either meaningful dialogue or sincere commitments to autonomy.

They reap what they sow: The Moro Islamic Liberation Front, which has negotiated in good faith with successive Manila governments for almost 20 years, is awaiting passage of an implementing law through Congress so that a mutually agreed model of special autonomy can be implemented in Muslim Mindanao. Meanwhile, according to the group, thousands of young Muslim Moros grow impatient with the absence of a peace dividend and are susceptible to extremist ideology streaming through their smartphones and tablets.

On the nearby islands of Sulu and Basilan, a network of well-armed criminal gangs inspired by al-Qaida 15 years earlier use IS propaganda and alleged affiliation to inspire a new generation of militants — though mainly in the interests of making money by kidnapping innocent sailors and tourists. The alleged complicity of local government and security forces in this lucrative business makes it hard to imagine an effective campaign to prevent IS from establishing a beachhead in the area.

Taken altogether, smarter approaches to social and education policy, as well as the political management of marginalized people, can make it more difficult for IS to recruit or sponsor its violent messengers of hatred.


The biggest obstacle to making the rapid adjustments needed is that Southeast Asia, where more than 300 million Muslims reside, is still very much a sum of its parts. No Malaysian government will take kindly to being told about the dangers of giving conservative mullahs free rein; no Myanmar official appreciates being told how to treat Muslims better; no Thai government wants to be pushed into a sincere political dialogue to end the conflict in southern Thailand.

Until the region takes a truly collective view of its own security and starts to put aside selfish concerns of sovereignty in the interests of the common good, it seems only a matter of time before Southeast Asia once again becomes a significant target of terror.

Michael Vatikiotis is the Asia regional director of the Centre for Humanitarian Dialogue.

A Saudi Morals Enforcer Called for a More Liberal Islam

July 12, 2016

A Saudi Morals Enforcer Called for a More Liberal Islam. Then the Death Threats Began.

Saudi cleric, Ahmed Qassim al-Ghamdi, wants genders to mix and women to drive – but he is being attacked for it

For most of his adult life, Ahmed Qassim al-Ghamdi worked among the bearded enforcers of Saudi Arabia. He was a dedicated employee of the Commission for the Promotion of Virtue and the Prevention of Vice — known abroad as the religious police — serving with the front-line troops protecting the Islamic kingdom from Westernization, secularism and anything but the most conservative Islamic practices.

Some of that resembled ordinary police work: busting drug dealers and bootleggers in a country that bans alcohol. But the men of “the Commission,” as Saudis call it, spent most of their time maintaining the puritanical public norms that set Saudi Arabia apart not only from the West, but from most of the Muslim world.

A key offense was ikhtilat, or unauthorized mixing between men and women. The kingdom’s clerics warn that it could lead to fornication, adultery, broken homes, children born of unmarried couples and full-blown societal collapse.

For years, Mr. Ghamdi stuck with the program and was eventually put in charge of the Commission for the region of Mecca, Islam’s holiest city. Then he had a reckoning and began to question the rules. So he turned to the Quran and the stories of the Prophet Muhammad and his companions, considered the exemplars of Islamic conduct. What he found was striking and life altering: There had been plenty of mixing among the first generation of Muslims, and no one had seemed to mind.

So he spoke out. In articles and television appearances, he argued that much of what Saudis practiced as religion was in fact Arabian cultural practices that had been mixed up with their faith.

There was no need to close shops for prayer, he said, nor to bar women from driving, as Saudi Arabia does. At the time of the Prophet, women rode around on camels, which he said was far more provocative than veiled women piloting S.U.V.s.

He even said that while women should conceal their bodies, they needed to cover their faces only if they chose to do so. And to demonstrate the depth of his own conviction, Mr. Ghamdi went on television with his wife, Jawahir, who smiled to the camera, her face bare and adorned with a dusting of makeup.

It was like a bomb inside the kingdom’s religious establishment, threatening the social order that granted prominence to the sheikhs and made them the arbiters of right and wrong in all aspects of life. He threatened their control.

Mr. Ghamdi’s colleagues at work refused to speak to him. Angry calls poured into his cellphone and anonymous death threats hit him on Twitter. Prominent sheikhs took to the airwaves to denounce him as an ignorant upstart who should be punished, tried — and even tortured.

Challenge of Understanding

I had come to Saudi Arabia to explore Wahhabism, the hyper-conservative Saudi strain of Sunni Islam that is often blamed for fueling intolerance around the world — and nurturing terrorism. I spent weeks in Riyadh, Jidda and other cities speaking with sheikhs, imams, religious professors and many others as I tried to peel back the layers of a closed and private society.

For the Western visitor, Saudi Arabia is a baffling mix of modern urbanism, desert culture and the never-ending effort to adhere to a rigid interpretation of scriptures that are more than 1,000 years old. It is a kingdom flooded with oil wealth, skyscrapers, S.U.V.s and shopping malls, where questions about how to invest money, interact with non-Muslims or even treat cats are answered with quotes from the Quran or stories about the Prophet Muhammad.

Religion is woven into daily life. Banks employ clerics to ensure they follow Shariah law. Mannequins lack heads because of religious sensitivities to showing the human form. And schoolbooks detail how boys should cut their hair, how girls should cover their bodies and how often a person should trim his or her pubic hair.

While Islam is meant to be a complete program for human life, interpretation is key when it comes to practices. The Saudi interpretation is steeped in the conservatism of central Arabia, especially regarding relations between women and men.

In public, most women wear baggy black gowns called abayas, designed to hide their forms, as well as veils that cover their hair and faces, with only thin slits for their eyes. Restaurants have separate sections for “families,” meaning groups that include women, and for “singles,” which means men.

Saudi women standing on the opposite side of the hall from the men at the Amex Luxury Expo in Riyadh in March. Credit Sergey Ponomarev for The New York Times

Many Saudis mix in private, and men and women can usually meet in hotel lobbies with little problem. Others do not want to mix and see gender segregation as part of their cultural identity. In some conservative circles, men go their whole lives without seeing the faces of women other than their immediate family — even their brothers’ wives.

Inside the kingdom, all other religions are suppressed. Not only are there no public churches, there is no Church’s Chicken. (It is called Texas Chicken in the kingdom.) When asked about this, Saudis deny that this reflects intolerance. They compare their country to the Vatican, saying it is a unique place for Muslims, with its own rules.

Officials I spoke with were upset by the kingdom’s increasingly troubled reputation abroad and said over and over that they supported “moderate Islam.”

But what exactly did they mean by “moderate Islam”? Unpacking that term made it clear how wide the values gap is between Saudi Arabia and its American ally. The kingdom’s “moderate Islam” publicly beheads criminals, punishes apostates and prevents women from traveling abroad without the permission of a male “guardian.”Don’t even ask about gay rights.

Instead of calls for jihad, what I heard were religious leaders insisting that the faithful obey the state. The Saudi royal family is terrified that the jihadist fervor inflaming the region will catch fire at home and threaten its control. So it has marshaled the state’s religious apparatus to condemn the jihadists and proclaim the religious duty of obedience to the rulers.

Another time, I met a religious friend for coffee, and he brought his two young sons. When the call to prayer sounded, my friend went to pray. His sons, confused that I did not follow, looked at me wide-eyed and asked, “Are you an infidel?”

And while it was once common, I heard little disparaging talk about Christians and Jews, although it was open season on Shiites, whose faith is frequently bashed as part of the rivalry with Iran.

The only Saudis who suggested I was an infidel were children.

Once, a Saudi journalist proudly introduced me to his 9-year-old daughter, whom he had put in private school so she could study English.

“What is your name?” I asked.

“My name is Dana,” she said.

“How old are you?”

“I am 9.”

“When is your birthday?”

Confused, she switched to Arabic.

“We don’t have that in Saudi Arabia,” she said. “That’s an infidel holiday.”

Shocked, her father asked where she had learned that, and she fetched one of her government-issued textbooks, flipping to a lesson that listed “forbidden holidays”: Christmas and Thanksgiving. Birthdays had been part of the same lesson.

Another time, I met a religious friend for coffee, and he brought his two young sons. When the call to prayer sounded, my friend went to pray. His sons, confused that I did not follow, looked at me wide-eyed and asked, “Are you an infidel?”

What Is a Wahhabi?

The first thing many Saudis will tell you about Wahhabism is that it does not exist.

“There is no such thing as Wahhabism,” Hisham al-Sheikh told me the first time we met. “There is only true Islam.” The irony is that fewer people have a purer Wahhabi pedigree than Mr. Sheikh, a direct descendant of the cleric who started it all.

In the early 18th century, Sheikh Mohammed ibn Abdul-Wahhab called for a religious reformation in central Arabia. Feeling that Islam had been corrupted by practices like the veneration of saints and tombs, he called for the stripping away of “innovations” and the return to what he considered the pure religion.

He formed an alliance with a chieftain named Mohammed ibn Saud that has underpinned the area’s history ever since. Then the Saud family assumed political leadership while Sheikh Abdul-Wahhab and his descendants gave legitimacy to their rule and managed religious affairs.

That mix proved potent among the warring Arabian tribes, as Wahhabi clerics provided justification for military conquest in some cases: Those who resisted the House of Saud were not just enemies, but infidels who deserved the sword.

The first Saudi state was destroyed by the Ottomans in 1818, and attempts to build another failed until the early 20th century, when King Abdulaziz al-Saud undertook a campaign that put him in control of most of the Arabian Peninsula.

But the King faced a choice: to continue expansionary jihad, which would have invited conflict with the British, or to build a modern state. He chose the latter, even crushing a group of his own warriors who refused to stop fighting.

Since then, the alliance between the royal family and the clerics has endured, although the tensions between the quest for ideological purity and the exigencies of modern statehood remain throughout Saudi society.

Fast forward to 2016, and the main players have transformed because of time and oil wealth. The royal family has grown from a group of scrappy desert dwellers into a sprawling clan awash in palaces and private jets. The Wahhabi establishment has evolved from a puritan reform movement into a bloated state bureaucracy.

It consists of universities that churn out graduates trained in religious disciplines; a legal system in which judges apply Shariah law; a council of top clerics who advise the king; a network of offices that dispense fatwas, or religious opinions; a force of religious police who monitor public behavior; and tens of thousands of mosque imams who can be tapped to deliver the government’s message from the pulpit.

The call to prayer sounds five times a day from mosques and inside of malls so clearly that many Saudis use it to organize their days.

“Let’s meet after the sunset prayer,” they would tell me, sometimes unsure what time that was. So I installed an app on my phone that let me look up prayer times and buzzed when the call sounded.

And so it was, after the sunset prayer, that I met Mr. Sheikh, a proud sixth-generation descendant of Mohammed ibn Abdul-Wahhab.

He was a portly man of 42 who wore a long white robe and covered his head with a schmag, or checkered cloth. His beard was long and he had no mustache, in imitation of the Prophet Muhammad, and he squinted through reading glasses perched on his nose while peering at his iPhone.

We sat on purple couches in the music-free lobby of a Riyadh hotel and shared dates and coffee while he answered my questions about Islam in Saudi Arabia.

“I am an open-minded person,” he told me early on.It was clear that he hoped I would become a Muslim.

His life had been defined by the religious establishment, but he proved to be a case study in the complexity of terms like “modern” and “traditional” in Saudi Arabia. He had memorized the Quran at a young age and studied with prominent clerics before completing his doctorate in Shariah, with his thesis on how technology changed the application of Shariah.

Now he had a successful career and a host of religious jobs. He trained judges for the Shariah courts, advised the minister of Islamic affairs, wrote studies for the clerics who advise the king and served on the Shariah board of the Medgulf insurance company. On Fridays, he preached at a mosque near his mother’s house and welcomed visitors who came to see his uncle, the grand mufti.

He had traveled extensively abroad, and when he found out I was American he told me that he loved the United States. He had visited Oregon, New York, Massachusetts and Los Angeles. On one trip, he visited a synagogue. On another, a black church. He had also visited an Amish community, which he found fascinating.

A relative of his lived in Montgomery, Ala., and he had spent happy months there, often visiting the local Islamic center. The hardest part, he said, was Ramadan, because there were few eateries open late that did not have bars.

“All I had was IHOP,” he said.

He said Islam did not forbid doing business or having friendships with Christians or Jews. He opposed Shiite beliefs and practices, but said it was wrong to do as the extremists of the Islamic State and declare takfir, or infidelity, on entire groups.

When it came to birthdays, which many Saudi clerics condemn, he said he did not oppose them, although his wife did, so their children did not go to birthday parties. But they had celebrations of their own, he said, showing me a video on his phone of his family gathered around a cake bearing the face of his son Abdullah, 15, who had just memorized the Quran. They lit sparklers and cheered, but did not sing.

He was on the fence about music, which many Wahhabis also forbid. He said he had no problem with background music in restaurants, but opposed music that put listeners in a state similar to drunkenness, causing them to jump around and bang their heads.

“We have something better,” he said. “You can listen to the Quran.”

Since much of what differentiates Saudi Arabia is the place of women, I wanted to talk to a conservative Saudi woman, which was tricky because most would refuse to meet with any unrelated male — let alone a non-Muslim correspondent from the United States. So I had a female Saudi colleague, Sheikha al-Dosary, contact Mr. Sheikh’s wife, Meshael, who said she would meet me.

But I asked Mr. Sheikh’s permission.

“She is very busy,” he said, and changed the subject.

So Ms. Sheikh met Ms. Dosary at a women’s coffee shop in Riyadh, where women can uncover their faces and hair. Her marriage to Mr. Sheikh had been arranged, she said. They met once for less than an hour before they were married, and he had seen her face.

“It was hard for me to look at him or to check him out as I was so shy,” she said.They were cousins. He was 21; she was 16. He agreed to her condition for marriage that she continue her studies, and she was now working on a doctorate in education while raising their four children.

She disputed the Western idea that Saudi women lack rights.“They believe we are oppressed because we don’t drive, but that is incorrect,” Ms. Sheikh said, adding that driving would be a hassle in Riyadh’s snarled traffic.

“Here women are respected and honored in many ways you don’t find in the West,” she continued. She, too, is a descendant of Sheikh Abdul-Wahhab and said proudly that her grandfather had founded the kingdom’s religious police. “Praise God that we have the Commission to protect our country,” she said.

A Flurry of Fatwas

The primacy of Islam in Saudi life has led to a huge religious sphere that extends beyond the state’s official clerics. Public life is filled with celebrity sheikhs whose moves, comments and conflicts Saudis track just as Americans follow Hollywood actors. There are old sheikhs and young sheikhs, sheikhs who used to be extremists and now preach tolerance, sheikhs whom women find sexy, and a black sheikh who has compared himself to Barack Obama.

In the kingdom’s hyper-wired society, they compete for followers on Twitter, Facebook and Snapchat. The grand mufti, the state’s highest religious official, has a regular television show, too.

Their embrace of technology runs counter to the history of Wahhabi clerics rejecting nearly everything new as a threat to the religion. Formerly banned items include the telegraph, the radio, the camera, soccer, girls’ education and televisions, whose introduction in the 1960s caused outrage.

For Saudis, trying to navigate what is permitted, halal, and what is not, haram, can be challenging. So they turn to clerics for fatwas, or nonbinding religious rulings. While some may get a lot of attention — as when Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini of Iran called for killing the author Salman Rushdie — most concern the details of religious practice. Others can reveal the sometimes comical contortions that clerics go through to reconcile modernity with their understanding of religion.

There was, for example, the cleric who appeared to call for the death of Mickey Mouse, then tried to backtrack. Another prominent cleric issued a clarification that he had not in fact forbidden all-you-can-eat buffets. That same sheikh was recently asked about people taking photos with cats. He responded that the feline presence was irrelevant; the photos were the problem.

“Photography is not permitted unless necessary,” he said. “Not with cats, not with dogs, not with wolves, not with anything.”

The government has sought to control the flow of religious opinions with official fatwa institutions. But state-sanctioned fatwas have provoked laughter, too, like the fatwa calling spending money on Pokemon products “cooperation in sin and transgression.”

While the government seeks to get more women into the work force, the state fatwa organization preaches on the “danger of women joining men in the workplace,” which it calls “the reason behind the destruction of societies.”

And there are fatwas that arm extremists with religious justification. There is one fatwa, still available in English on a government website and signed by the previous grand mufti, that states, “Whoever refuses to follow the straight path deserves to be killed or enslaved in order to establish justice, maintain security and peace and safeguard lives, honor and property.”

It goes on: “Slavery in Islam is like a purifying machine or sauna in which those who are captured enter to wash off their dirt and then they come out clean, pure and safe, from another door.”

Once while we were having coffee, Mr. Sheikh answered his cellphone, listened seriously and issued a fatwa on the spot. He got such calls frequently.

The query had been about where a pilgrim headed to Mecca had to don the white cloths of ritual purity — an easy one. The answer, in this case, was Jidda. Others were harder, and he demurred if he was not sure. Once, a woman asked about fake eyelashes. He told her that he did not know, but thought about it later and decided they were fine, on one condition: “that there is no cheating involved.”

A woman, for example, could put them on before a man came to propose. “And then after they get married, they’re gone!” he said. “That is not permitted.”

One Friday, Mr. Sheikh took me to see his uncle, Grand Mufti Abdulaziz al-Sheikh.

We entered a vast reception hall near the mufti’s house in Riyadh, with padded benches along the walls where a dozen bearded students sat. In the center, on a raised armchair, sat the mufti, his feet in brown socks and perched on a pillow. The students read religious texts, and the mufti interjected with commentary. He was 75, Mr. Sheikh said, and had been blind since age 14, when a German doctor carried out a failed operation on his eyes.

Mr. Sheikh said I could ask him a question, so I asked how he responded to those who compared Wahhabism to the Islamic State.

“That is all lies and slander. Daesh is an aggressive, tyrannous group that has no relation,” he said, using another term for the Islamic State. After a pause, he asked, “Why don’t you become a Muslim?”

I responded that I was from a Christian family.“The religion you follow has no source,” he said, adding that I should accept the Prophet Muhammad’s revelation.

“Your religion is not a religion,” he said. “In the end, you will have to face God.”

The Unexpected Reformer

The first time I met Mr. Ghamdi, 51, formerly of the religious police, was this year in a sitting room in his apartment in Jidda, the port city on the Red Sea. The room had been outfitted to look like a Bedouin tent. Burgundy fabric adorned the walls, gold tassels hung from the ceiling, and carpets covered the floor, to which Mr. Ghamdi pressed his forehead in prayer during breaks in our conversation.

He spoke of how the world of sheikhs, fatwas and the meticulous application of religion to everything had defined his life.

But that world — his world — had frozen him out.

Little in his background suggested that he would become a religious reformer. While at a university, he quit a job at the customs office in the Jidda port because a sheikh told him that collecting duties was haram.

After graduation, he studied religion in his spare time and handled international accounts for a government office — a job requiring travel to non-Muslim countries.

“The clerics at that time were releasing fatwas that it was not right to travel to the countries of the infidels unless it was necessary,” Mr. Ghamdi said.

So he quit.

Then he taught economics at a technical school in Saudi Arabia, but didn’t like that it taught only capitalism and socialism. So he said he had added material on Islamic finance, but the students complained about the extra work, and he left.

He finally landed a job that he felt was consistent with his religious convictions, as a member of the Commission in Jidda.

Over the next few years, he transferred to Mecca and cycled through different positions. There were occasional prostitution cases, and the force sometimes caught sorcerers — who can be beheaded if convicted in court. But he developed reservations about how the force worked. His colleagues’ religious zeal sometimes led them to overreact, breaking into people’s homes or humiliating detainees.

“Let’s say someone drank alcohol,” he said. “That does not represent an attack on the religion, but they exaggerated in how they treated people.”

At one point, Mr. Ghamdi was assigned to review cases and tried to use his position to report abuses and force agents to return items they had wrongfully confiscated, he said.

He recalled the case of an older, single man who was reported to receive two young women in his home on the weekends. Since the man did not pray at the mosque, his neighbors suspected he was up to no good, so the Commission raided the house and caught the man red-handed — visiting with his daughters.

“Often, people were humiliated in inhuman ways, and that humiliation could cause hatred of religion,” Mr. Ghamdi said.

In 2005, the head of the Commission for the Mecca region died, and Mr. Ghamdi was promoted. It was a big job, with some 90 stations throughout a large, diverse area containing Islam’s holiest sites. He did his best to keep up, while worrying that the Commission’s focus was misguided.

In private, he looked to the scriptures and the sayings of the Prophet Muhammad for guidance on what was halal and what was haram, and he documented his findings.

“I was surprised because we used to hear from the scholars, ‘Haram, haram, haram,’ but they never talked about the evidence,” he said.

Realizing the gravity of such a conclusion for someone in his position, he stayed silent and filed the document away.But his conclusions would, soon, emerge.

Around the time he was rethinking his worldview, King Abdullah, then the monarch, announced plans to open a world-class university, the King Abdullah University of Science and Technology, or Kaust. What shocked the kingdom’s religious establishment was his decision to not segregate students by gender, nor impose a dress code on women.

Kaust followed the precedent of Saudi Aramco, the state oil company, which had also been shielded from clerical interference, highlighting one of the great contradictions of Saudi Arabia: Regardless of how much the royal family lauds its Islamic values, when it wants to earn money or innovate, it does not turn to the clerics for advice. It puts up a wall and locks them out.

Most clerics kept quiet out of deference to the king. But one member of the top clerical body addressed the issue on a call-in show, warning of the dangers of mixed universities: sexual harassment; men and women flirting and getting distracted from their studies; husbands growing jealous of their wives; rape.

“Mixing has many corrupting factors, and its evil is great,” said the cleric, Sheikh Saad al-Shathri, adding that if the king had known this was the plan, he would have stopped it.

But mixing was in fact the King’s idea, and he was not amused. He dismissed the sheikh with a royal decree.

From his office in Mecca, Mr. Ghamdi watched, frustrated that the clerics were not backing a project he felt was good for the kingdom.

So after praying about it, he retrieved his report and boiled it down to two long articles that were published in the newspaper Okaz in 2009.

They were the first strikes in a year’slong battle between Mr. Ghamdi and the religious establishment. He followed with other articles, went on TV and faced off against other clerics who insulted him and marshaled their own evidence from the scriptures. His colleagues at the Commission shunned him, so he requested — and was swiftly granted — early retirement.

Once off the force, he questioned other practices: forcing shops to close during prayer times and urging people to go to the mosque, requiring face veils, barring women from driving.

Each comment lit a new inferno. A woman once asked him on Twitter if she could not only show her face, but also wear makeup. Sure, Mr. Ghamdi said, setting off new attacks.

Then in 2014, he was to appear on a popular talk show, and the producers filmed a segment about him and his wife, who appeared with her face showing and said she supported him.

Harsh responses came from the top of the religious establishment. Many attacked his religious credentials, saying he was not really a sheikh — a dubious accusation since there is no standard qualification to be one. They targeted his résumé, too, saying he had no degree in religion and pointing out, correctly, that his doctorate was from Ambassador University Corporation, a diploma mill that gives degrees based on work experience “in the Middle East.”

“There is no doubt that this man is bad,” said Sheikh Saleh al-Luheidan, a member of the top clerical body. “It is necessary for the state to assign someone to summon and torture him.”

The grand mufti addressed the issue on his call-in show, saying that the veil was “a necessary order and an Islamic creation” and calling on the kingdom’s television channels to ban content that “corrupts the religion and the morals and values of society.”

If the clerical attacks on Mr. Ghamdi were loud, the blowback from society was more painful. His tribe issued a statement, disowning him and calling him “troubled and confused.” His cellphone rang day and night with callers shouting at him. He came home to find graffiti on the wall of his house. And a group of men showed up at his door, demanding to “mix” with the family’s women. His sons — he has nine children — called the Police.

Before the dust-up, Mr. Ghamdi had also delivered Friday sermons at a mosque in Mecca, earning a government stipend. But the congregation complained after he spoke out, and he was asked to stay home, later losing his pay.

Mr. Ghamdi had not broken any laws and never faced legal action. But in Saudi Arabia’s close-knit society, the attacks echoed through his family. The relatives of his eldest son’s fiancée called off their wedding, not wanting to associate their family with his.

“Are you with your brother or with me?” Mr. Ghamdi said his sister’s husband had asked her. “She said, ‘I am with my brother.’” They soon divorced.

Mr. Ghamdi’s son Ammar, 15, was taunted at school. Ammar said another boy had once asked him: “How did your mom go on TV? That’s not right.You have no manners.” So Ammar punched him.

Not a Place to Speak Up

One evening in Jidda, a university professor invited me to his home for dinner. His wife, a doctor, joined us at the table, her hair covered with a stylish veil.

They had recently been married and he joked that they were meant for each other because she was good at cooking and he was good at eating. His wife chuckled and gave him more soup.

I asked about Mr. Ghamdi. “From what I read and what I saw, I think he’s right and he stood up for what he believes in,” the professor said. “I admire that.”

The problem, he said, is that tolerance for opposing views is not taught in Saudi society.

“Either follow what I say or I will classify you, I will hurt you, I will push you out of the discussion,” he said. “This is anti-Islam. We have many people thinking in different ways. You can fight, but you have to live under the same roof.”

His wife had no problem with mixing or with women working, but did not like that Mr. Ghamdi had caused a scandal by making his views public. The royal family sets the rules, and it was inappropriate for subjects to publicly campaign for changes, she said.

“He has to follow the ruler,” she said. “If everyone just comes out with his own opinion, we’ll be in chaos.”

After dinner, a young cleric who works for the security services dropped by. He, too, agreed with Mr. Ghamdi, but would not talk about it openly. The response, he said, is part of the deep conservatism in the clerical establishment that is impeding development.

He often gave lectures to security officers, followed by discussions, he said, and a common question he heard was, “Isn’t the military uniform haram?” Many Wahhabi clerics preach against resembling the infidels, leading to confusion.

He believed that wearing uniforms was fine, and worried that such narrow thinking made people susceptible to extremism.

“It’s like in those American movies when they invent a robot and then they lose control and it attacks them and the remote control stops working,” he said.

The next day, the professor thanked me for my visit in a text message.”I’d like to remind you that any story that would uncover the source may hurt us. I trust your discretion,” he wrote, followed by three flowers.

All that was left, really, was to to speak with the Commission. What did its leaders and rank and file think about all of this? But for a force portrayed as ever-present and all powerful, it proved surprisingly shy.

I could not visit Mr. Ghamdi’s former office because non-Muslims are barred from entering Mecca. So I had multiple contacts ask for interviews with relatives who worked for the Commission, but they all declined to speak. I called the Commission’s spokesman, who told me that he was traveling and then stopped answering my calls.

I even dropped by the Commission’s headquarters, a boxy, steel-and-glass building on a Riyadh highway between a gas station and a car dealership. Its website advertised open hours with the director, so I went to his office, through halls filled with bearded men milling about and slick banners proclaiming “A Policy of Excellence” and “Together Against Corruption.”

“He didn’t come today,” the director’s secretary told me. “Maybe next week.”

On my way out, two men invited me into an office and served me coffee.

“How do you like working for the Commission?” I asked.

“Everyone who chooses this job loves it,” one said. It was the work of “the entire Islamic nation,” and it felt good “to bring people from the darkness into the light.”

The other man had been on the force for 15 years and said he preferred working in the office.

“You rest more in the administration,” he said. “Out there we have problems with people. They call us the religious police. Criminals! Thieves! You never get to rest out in the field.”

A scowling man appeared in the doorway and told me that I was not allowed to talk to anyone. The first man soon left. The second offered me more coffee, then tea, then forced me to take a bottle of water when I left.

Reform, the Hard Way

The first irony of Mr. Ghamdi’s situation is that many Saudis, including members of the royal family and even important clerics, agree with him, although mostly in private. And public mixing of the sexes in some places — hospitals, conferences and in Mecca during the pilgrimage — is common. In some Saudi cities it is not uncommon to see women’s faces, or even their hair.

But there is a split in society between the conservatives who want to maintain what they consider the kingdom’s pure Islamic identity and the liberals (in the Saudi context) who want more personal freedoms. Liberals make cases like Mr. Ghamdi’s all the time. But sheikhs don’t, which is why he was branded a traitor.

The second irony is that this year, Saudi Arabia instituted some of the reform Mr. Ghamdi had called for.

It had been a rough year for the Commission. A video went viral of a girl yelping as she was thrown to the ground outside a Riyadh mall during a confrontation with the Commission, her abaya flying over her head and exposing her legs and torso. For many Saudis, “the Nakheel Mall girl” symbolized the Commission’s overreach.

Then the Commission arrested Ali al-Oleyani, a popular talk show host who often criticized religious figures. Photos appeared online of Mr. Oleyani in handcuffs with bottles of liquor. The photos were clearly staged and apparently had been leaked as a form of character assassination. Many people were outraged.

In April, the government responded with a surprise decree defanging the religious police. It denied them the power to arrest, question or pursue subjects, forced them to work with the police and advised them to be “gentle and kind” in their interactions with citizens.

Mr. Ghamdi applauded the decision, although he remains an outcast, a sheikh whose positions rendered him unemployable in the Islamic kingdom.

These days, he keeps a low profile because he still gets insults when he appears in public. He has no job, but publishes regular newspaper columns, mostly abroad.

Near the end of our last conversation, his wife, Jawahir, entered the room, dressed in a black abaya, with her face showing. She shook my hand, exuding a cloud of fragrance, and sat next to her husband.

The experience had changed her life in unexpected ways, she said. And like her husband, she had no regrets.

“We sent our message, and the goal was not for us to keep appearing and to get famous,” she said. “It was to send a message to society that religion is not customs and traditions. Religion is something else.”





The Theology of Donald Trump

July 9, 2016

The Theology of Donald Trump

by Peter Wehner

SINCE Donald Trump assures us that the Bible is his favorite book, it’s worth asking: Just what is his theology?

After Mr. Trump met with hundreds of evangelical Christians a couple of weeks ago, James Dobson, who is among the most influential leaders in the evangelical world and serves on Mr. Trump’s evangelical executive advisory board, declared that “Trump appears to be tender to things of the Spirit,” by which Dr. Dobson meant the Holy Spirit.

Of all the descriptions of Mr. Trump we’ve heard this election season, this may be the most farcical. As described by St. Paul, the “fruit of the Spirit” includes forbearance, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control, hardly qualities one associates with Mr. Trump. It shows you the lengths Mr. Trump’s supporters will go to in order to rationalize their enthusiastic support of him.

Dr. Dobson (below) is not alone. Jerry Falwell Jr., the president of Liberty University, has praised Mr. Trump’s life as in many ways exemplary and said that he believes that “Donald Trump is God’s man to lead our nation.” Eric Metaxas, who has written popular biographies of William Wilberforce and Dietrich Bonhoeffer, has rhapsodized about Mr. Trump and argued that Christians “must” vote for him because he is “the last best hope of keeping America from sliding into oblivion.”

And should your conscience tell you that Mr. Trump might not be the right choice, Robert Jeffress, the influential pastor of First Baptist Church in Dallas, explains that “any Christian who would sit at home and not vote for the Republican nominee” is “motivated by pride rather than principle.”

This fulsome embrace of Mr. Trump is rather problematic, since he embodies a worldview that is incompatible with Christianity. If you trace that worldview to its source, Christ would not be anywhere in the vicinity.

Time and again Mr. Trump has shown contempt for those he perceives as weak and vulnerable — “losers,” in his vernacular. They include P.O.W.s, people with disabilities, those he deems physically unattractive and those he considers politically powerless. He bullies and threatens people he believes are obstacles to his ambitions. He disdains compassion and empathy, to the point where his instinctive response to the largest mass shooting in American history was to congratulate himself: “Appreciate the congrats for being right.”

What Mr. Trump admires is strength. For him, a person’s intrinsic worth is tied to worldly success and above all to power. He never seems free of his obsession with it. In his comments to that gathering of evangelicals, Mr. Trump said this: “And I say to you folks, because you have such power, such influence. Unfortunately the government has weeded it away from you pretty strongly. But you’re going to get it back. Remember this: If you ever add up, the men and women here are the most important, powerful lobbyists. You’re more powerful. Because you have men and women, you probably have something like 75, 80 percent of the country believing. But you don’t use your power. You don’t use your power.”

In eight sentences Mr. Trump mentioned some variation of power six times, to a group of individuals who have professed their love and loyalty to Jesus, who in his most famous sermon declared, “Blessed are the poor in spirit” and “Blessed are the meek,” who said, “My strength is made perfect in weakness,” and who was humiliated and crucified by the powerful.

To better understand Mr. Trump’s approach to life, ethics and politics, we should not look to Christ but to Friedrich Nietzsche, who was repulsed by Christianity and Christ. “What is good?” Nietzsche asks in “The Anti-Christ”: “Whatever augments the feeling of power, the will to power, power itself in man. What is evil? Whatever springs from weakness. What is happiness? The feeling that power increases – that resistance is overcome.”

Whether or not he has read a word of Nietzsche (I’m guessing not), Mr. Trump embodies a Nietzschean morality rather than a Christian one. It is characterized by indifference to objective truth (there are no facts, only interpretations), the repudiation of Christian concern for the poor and the weak, and disdain for the powerless. It celebrates the “Übermensch,” or Superman, who rejects Christian morality in favor of his own. For Nietzsche, strength was intrinsically good and weakness was intrinsically bad. So, too, for Donald Trump.

Those who believe this is merely reductionism should consider the words of Jesus: Do you have eyes but fail to see and ears but fail to hear? Mr. Trump’s entire approach to politics rests on dehumanization. If you disagree with him or oppose him, you are not merely wrong. You are worthless, stripped of dignity, the object of derision. This attitude is central to who Mr. Trump is and explains why it pervades and guides his campaign. If he is elected president, that might-makes-right perspective would infect his entire administration.

All of this is important because of what it says about Mr. Trump as a prospective president. But it is also revealing for what it says about Christians who now testify on his behalf (there are plenty who don’t). The calling of Christians is to be “salt and light” to the world, to model a philosophy that defends human dignity, and to welcome the stranger in our midst. It is to stand for justice, dispense grace and be agents of reconciliation in a broken world. And it is to take seriously the words of the prophet Micah, “And what does the Lord require of you but to do justly, and to love kindness and mercy, and to humble yourself and walk humbly with your God?”

Evangelical Christians who are enthusiastically supporting Donald Trump are signaling, even if unintentionally, that this calling has no place in politics and that Christians bring nothing distinctive to it — that their past moral proclamations were all for show and that power is the name of the game.

The French philosopher and theologian Jacques Ellul wrote: “Politics is the church’s worst problem. It is her constant temptation, the occasion of her greatest disasters, the trap continually set for her by the prince of this world.” In rallying round Mr. Trump, evangelicals have walked into the trap. The rest of the world sees it. Why don’t they?

Peter Wehner, a senior fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center, served in the last three Republican administrations and is a contributing opinion writer.

A version of this op-ed appears in print on July 5, 2016, on page A23 of the New York edition with the headline: The Theology of Donald Trump.