In Saudi, if you would like to be dismissed and have everything you write or say never taken seriously, all you have to do is to declare yourself a liberal or secularist. That’s it. You’re done. You might as well be screaming in a thunder storm.
However being called by someone else secularist or liberal is not as serious. People here throw these terms around like insults directed at others they disagree with. Liberal and secular are dirty seven letter words in Saudi Arabia. Youtube abounds with Arabic videos of extremist sheikhs stating that Muslims who adopt liberalism and secularism are infidels, donkeys, dogs, pigs…etc. My favourite is one in which a documentary showing beetles eating cattle dung is dubbed over and written commentary is added simply to say that liberals are like these beetles in infesting society with crappy morals.
There is no clear definition of liberalism and secularism in Saudi. However in a dichotomy they seem to be the opposite of being a God-fearing decent person. For example, Saudis who believe that sciences and math should be the focus of the school day and not Islamic studies get categorized as secular. If they think that the PVPV should be merged with the police then they most definitely have secularist tendencies. Any type of idea related to keeping up with the rest of the world is deemed secularism. Insinuating that the ban on women driving goes against basic human rights, will brand them liberal. Liberalism in particular, bubbles down to nonconformity to the version of Islam that had its rules set in stone in the 1980s by Shiekh bin Othaimeen. To many Saudis, whose only view of the outside world is Hollywood’s version on their TV screen, these terms equal society’s decadence and widespread uncontrollable immorality. The very word liberal in Arabic is actually a loanword from English. So you can just imagine how it puts Islamic fundamentalists off. One time I was having tea with a distant older cousin and she told me that she had never been to Al Faisaliah and Kingdom Tower (major hotels and shopping malls in Riyadh) because she was told that ‘liberals’ go there. She was under the impression that this meant it would be like being in Europe and that unrelated men and women would sit with each other and chat openly. That they would dress in a Saudi version of sleazy. She said she did not want that influence on her daughters. She also said that sometimes she would ask to be driven by just to see the fancy cars and women with their faces uncovered. This is her impression of what liberals do and there are many in Saudi like her.
However the concept itself is not foreign in Islamic history. The three basic principles of Liberalism, equal rights, freedom of speech and tolerance are the very essence of what the Prophet Mohammed (PBUH) taught those who lived in his era. Sadly in modern times it has been buried deep by the same people who prohibit normal interaction between men and women in the name of “prevention of sin” (سد الذرائع ).