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New Saudi writers offer form of Islamic liberation theology

A new generation of Saudi writers is blending Islam and global values for freedom and dignity in calling for reform.
Visitors look at books during the Riyadh Book Fair at the International Exhibition Center in Riyadh, March 7, 2013. REUTERS/Susan Baaghil (SAUDI ARABIA - Tags: SOCIETY) - RTR3EOPA

No matter how much Saudi Arabia spends on public relations campaigns, for the foreseeable future, its name will probably remain associated with exporting radical Salafist-Wahhabi thought. Its religious tradition stands accused of encouraging terrorism, radicalizing Arab societies, inflaming sectarian conflict and widening the gender gap. Its religious education system and petrodollars have been held responsible for a wide range of conflicts and confrontations across the Arab region and beyond. Stories about its exceptional women occasionally appear to brighten its dark image, but such stories have a short shelf life. The more the government tries to improve the country's image, the more the effort appears contrived and staged for public consumption.

Yet, there is real hope emerging among a new, young and not yet widely known generation of writers who are challenging the fundamental principles of the Saudi religious tradition — namely, dominant Salafist thought. They offer revisionist interpretations of conventional wisdom that promise to inject pluralism into a monolithic worldview long dominated by consent rather than contest. These writers have been invigorated by events across the Arab world during the last three years and have responded to the challenges of a changing political map by producing pamphlets and books in which they articulate new interpretations of the role of Islam in contemporary society. They are not activists, but their ideas circulate among a wide audience, thanks to new media. They publish their books in Beirut, where a Saudi-owned publishing house has been established. Some of these writers are trained in religious studies, while others are aspiring academics and journalists.

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