Filling the Void: Religion and False Consciousness in Saudi Arabia

Postcolonial theory has something for everyone. For those in the Middle East, it provides insight and understanding into the calamities and complexities of the region. However, for those from Saudi Arabia, especially the central region of Najd, such theory might not seem relevant. Najd was hardly colonized by any power throughout the years due to its harsh climate as it’s situated in the middle of the desert. Ottoman military expansionism did not venture to go all the way in and opted to colonize the eastern and western sides of the Arabian peninsula.

However, postcolonial theory seems to be more relevant now than ever before due to the new changes the country is going through. The term “false consciousness”, which was born in Marxist theory but found its niche in postcolonial studies, corresponds to the religio-cultural dilemma of the post-sahwa era in Saudi Arabia.

False consciousness refers to the acceptance of social and cultural constructs as an undeniable truth. In Marxist theory, it demonstrates how members of lower social classes accepted social relations that allowed their own subordination. In postcolonial theory, it shows how certain colonies accepted the culture of the colonizer as their own, only to find out that it wasn’t when the colonizer left. Therefore, false consciousness refers to the misconceptions and misunderstandings that govern people’s consciousness under certain circumstances.

In Saudi Arabia, the strong religious dominance in the past few decades resulted in a saturated religious environment. This had a deep impact on shaping the social and cultural scene in the country. Who we are today is the result of years and decades of strict Islamic interpretation, enforcement and adaptation.

The growing importance of religious scholars touched every aspect of people’s lives. Religion filled a substantial void due to the absence of any form of entertainment in the 1980s and 1990s. The growing demand for “live-fatwa” television programs allowed religious figures to instruct people on how to live their lives by advising them on major and trivial everyday issues. The religious discourse of the sahwa movement did not only fill a void, but also constituted the false consciousness experienced today by the population.

Culture and religion became intertwined that any attempt to change the social or cultural fabric was seen by some as abandoning their own religious identity. This explains why change in the past few years has always been fought aggressively by religious figures as well as conservative Saudis.

The year 2016 was a turning point for the Saudi people. The government decided to curb the powers of the religious police for the first time ever. This was received both negatively and positively by the public. The religious establishment, especially the unofficial sahwa figures, spent years stressing the importance of “promoting virtue” and “preventing vice”, as they encouraged citizens to take an active role in doing so. The presence of the religious police ensured a unified conservative Saudi Arabia. Their absence, on the other hand, allowed more freedom and a more polarized Saudi Arabia.

Members of the religious police (Committee for the Promotion of Virtue and Prevention of Vice) patrolling a mall in Mekkah. (Alriyadh newspaper) 

The establishment of the General Entertainment Authority in 2016 was also a bold step towards reform. This authority was responsible for initiating and organizing entertainment events and venues. News of establishing this new authority was almost surreal to many Saudis who did not believe that such entertainment venues can ever take place in the country.

Questioning the beliefs and ideals that were unquestionable not so long time ago has become a new feature of the new Saudi Arabia. Religious scholars, writers, thinkers and academics challenge these assumptions boldly on social media. The new political climate has finally allowed them room to criticize an era that they could not point a figure at for so long. Before 2016, it was difficult to point out the flaws of the religious discourse without being fiercely attacked.

The debate on religious reform reached its pinnacle when a senior Saudi cleric, Abduallah Al-Mutlaq, declared that the abaya (a long traditional black robe worn by women in Saudi Arabia) is not necessary. Al-Mutlaq’s statement caused a big debate on Twitter between Saudis who welcomed the statement and those who attacked it. Al-Mutlaq stated that a modest attire is still necessary, however, the abaya should not be a symbol for an Islamic dress-code.

For decades, wearing a black abaya was always stressed and enforced on women in the country. In 2002, 15 girls died in a school fire in Mekkah because the religious police prevented their rescue fearing that they were not wearing the abaya. Moreover, the religious police took part in many raids targeting abaya shops that sold some with colored embroidery and confiscating them. Women were also targeted in shopping malls for not wearing a abaya considered appropriate. Schools were filled with posters demonstrating how abayas should be worn, and how not wearing a proper one meant violating Islamic teachings.

A leaflet demonstrating how abayas should be worn. This is evidence that the black robe has always been a symbol of the Islamic dress-code for women until Al-Mutlaq’s statement.

Change has always been slow in Saudi Arabia, until now. Beliefs and principles that are deeply rooted in the Saudi culture are being challenged everyday. For those who have always been critical of the religious sahwa era, what’s happening in Saudi Arabia now is a breath of fresh air. For the conservative faction of the population, the current atmosphere has shaken their belief system and core values. Now that the beliefs of the religious sahwa era are under constant scrutiny and criticism, one wonders what will replace the void that was once filled by decades of false consciousness. It seems that our epistemological crisis of true and moderate Islam has just begun.

2 comments Add yours
  1. interesting article, Eman. You and I know that the opinion of one sheikh, however influential, is unlikely to change dress norms in the country overnight. But a question, without an abaya, the niqab would look rather strange. Do you think that the first effect will be people abandoning the niqab in favour of the hijab? Best regards, Steve R

    1. I think that will be debatable for sometime to come. Some women still believe strongly in wearing a niqab. An influential religious figure, Ahmed Al-Ghamdi, was once interviewed on television alongside his wife who did not cover her face and only wore a hijab. He was trying to make a point that wearing a niqab is not necessary, but he was faced with so much criticism. However, it was more common to wear a niqab twenty years ago than it is today. That is largely due to the younger generation of today as well as a more tolerant understanding of religion.

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