RIYADH: A cinema theater in Riyadh Park mall after its opening for the general public in the Saudi capital. – AFP

RIYADH: A Saudi television drama that glorifies a period before the rise of religious fundamentalism has evoked nostalgia about the kingdom’s “modern past”-and fury from arch-conservatives sidelined in a much-publicized liberalization drive. “Al-Assouf”, set in the 1970s and aired on satellite broadcaster MBC during the holy fasting month of Ramadan, has emerged as a cultural flashpoint that has pitted hardliners against more moderate proponents of Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman’s reforms. It portrays a different Saudi Arabia-a traditional but tolerant society  where the sexes mingle unfettered, some women blithely pursue lovers and appear unveiled in musical soirees, and the men appear disinterested in controlling what they wear.

That image of Saudi society, dismissed as a distortion by hardliners, chimes with Prince Mohammed’s repeated assertion that the kingdom was a cradle of moderate Islam until 1979, a turning point that marked the birth of radicalism. That year saw an Islamic revolution in arch-rival Iran and a militant siege of Mecca’s Grand Mosque, which the crown prince has said gave conservatives free rein to enforce an austere vision of Islam. Al-Assouf, which portrays the pre-1979 era-widely hailed as Saudi Arabia’s “modern past”-has left conservatives bristling. “To picture a community that accepts the mixing of genders, adultery and children born out of wedlock… is a disaster,” prominent cleric Abdulbaset Qari said in a YouTube video. “They (the show) want to spread immorality, to normalize this culture.”

One Al-Assouf scene showing a young Saudi boy leaning over a neighborhood boundary wall to talk to a girl was widely criticized on social media. “Young children flirting!” tweeted Abdulrahman Al-Nassar, a Kuwaiti cleric popular in the kingdom. “The ugly distortion of childhood in Saudi Arabia.” But moderates, including Al-Assouf’s lead actor Nasser Al-Kasabi, have

fiercely defended the show. “Extremists are against it because they believe it is an attempt to destroy what they built over the next two decades (since 1979), which they refer to as the ‘awakening’,” columnist Abdulrahman Al-Rashed wrote in the pan-Arab daily Asharq Al-Awsat. “They are attacking Al-Assouf because it has cast light on an era that was deliberately made dark. The raison d’etre of the extremists is to extinguish this light.”

‘Second awakening’

The backlash has laid bare what observers call an undercurrent of resentment over the waning influence of arch-conservatives, once a swaggering force with unbridled powers, as Prince Mohammed pursues reforms that mark the biggest cultural shake-up in Saudi Arabia’s modern history. The reforms have ended decades-long bans on women driving and cinemas and allowed mixed-gender concerts, sidelining hardliners who were once the traditional backers of the royal family. Prominent Salafist clerics with millions of followers on social media have  been jailed.

Others who made regular appearances on television have disappeared from the public eye, and some long known for virulently opposing women’s rights have mysteriously come out in support of the prince’s pro-women reforms. Columnists in Saudi newspapers have openly called for abolishing the kingdom’s once-feared religious police, whose powers have been clipped. The modernization drive has been lauded by the prince’s supporters as a “second awakening”, an idea that Al-Assouf appears to promote. “Our communities are in need of an Al-Assouf that is capable of sending us back to our first life, or in the correct sense, our simple life before we changed for the worse,” Ali Al-Zuabi, a professor at Kuwait University, told AFP.

‘Careful dance’

The flagship MBC show, aired daily during Ramadan, was filmed two years ago in Abu Dhabi. The broadcaster said the delay in airing was caused by production reasons, adding that the top-rated show will have two more seasons. The delay had prompted speculation about trouble with censors in the kingdom, which remains wary of antagonizing religious sensitivities despite the liberalization drive. “Modernizing Saudi Arabia may not be a march so much as a careful dance,” Simon Henderson, a Gulf expert, recently wrote for the Washington Institute.

In tandem with reforms, Prince Mohammed has pursued a sweeping crackdown on dissent, most recently arresting several women driving activists, some of whom have been labeled “traitors” by state-backed media. Analysts said the arrests seemed calculated to placate clerics incensed by  the modernization drive, allowing the prince to better position himself against a conservative backlash in advance of the end of the women driving ban on June 24. “How can you achieve moderate Islam when you harshly oppress those who spearhead a moderate discourse in the kingdom?” Abdullah Alaoudh, a Saudi scholar at Yale Law School, told AFP. “Moderate Islam without moderate Muslims?”-AFP