Debate over intellectual freedoms and rights in Saudi Arabia

Fahad Suleiman Shoqiran

Published: Updated:

The Riyadh Book Fair has reflected modern social phenomena, stirred debate among different movements and created a social, intellectual and media frenzy for over a decade and a half. The debate in Saudi Arabia is of a cultural nature, as the political situation has been settled through the royal family’s mandate that has enjoyed wide popular support and approval for about 300 years. The society has thus been spared of political chatter, unlike other Arab countries that are fruitlessly pre-occupied with it as they neither progressed on the developmental front nor changed on the political level.

The Riyadh Book Fair is much more than an event to sell books. It’s an annual event to showcase differences and discuss debatable matters. The fair’s events, for instance, included discussions on women’s work and driving of cars.

The fair also acts as a mirror that exposes new trends in society and expresses the crisis which it is going through to overcome backwardness. Some try to push the society backwards and fear Western progress and intellectual developments. In recent years, discussions have tackled issues like terrorism, the Islamic Sahwa movement, women and the limits of their presence and books and their critique.

However, this year’s debates are a bit different. The social media phenomenon pervades this year’s fair following its ingress into society and the world of the media. Reality has been hijacked by this social media phenomenon, thus imposing a serious debate about writing standards particularly after a “social media star” recently published a book and printed 10,000 copies of it. The debate is mainly about the freedom to write and whether such writings, which detail tweets or spin yarns, should be printed by publishing houses.

Writing books have always been an act carried out by an intellectual elite on the basis of their profound experiences. Man writes down experiences in his search for immortality. A book thus lives forever which is why many writers have voiced their desire to live longer to finish their work.

Cheering for ignorance and trivializing theories

Many intellectuals defend social media “celebrities” who write books as they view the latter as a “product” which is released in the market and then declines as social interests change. They believe even ignorant people have the right to write books regardless of the content. They basically defend the “right to write” and not the quality of the content created.

There are thus two conflicting opinions: One that “sanctifies books” and believes they are the product of great knowledge and a culmination of a great existential experience and another that “sanctifies freedom” and believes that the former elite is outdated and has not kept up with the youths’ new interests.

There’s clearly a wave that trivializes everything, not just writing books. This is not just about the dangerous “social media phenomenon” and its products. Those who were once considered intellectuals fell into the trap of cheering for ignorance and despising knowledge either by trivializing theories or discussing matters, such as politics and culture, which require great deal of experience before one can address them. The controversy stirred by the “social media star” who published a book, comes within a general context of madness. The old saying “There will come a time when man’s mind will be crippled” is so true.

This article is also available in Arabic.
Fahad Shoqiran is a Saudi writer and researcher who also founded the Riyadh philosophers group. His writings have appeared in pan-Arab newspaper Asharq al-Awsat, Alarabiya.net, among others. He also blogs on philosophies, cultures and arts. He tweets @shoqiran.

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