A RECURRENT news item in Malaysia is raids carried out by religious authorities in implementing fatwa and state laws on morality and personal sins. The most recent is that by the Federal Territory religious authority (Jawi) on a transgender fundraising dinner, which it claimed was actually a beauty contest, and therefore, unlawful for Muslims to organise and participate in.
Such raids are carried out by the enforcement staff of state religious departments, resembling the moral police in Saudi Arabia, with the assistance of the police force, to execute arrests and detentions.
It is interesting to note that, according to a Reuters news report, Saudi Arabia has decreed that its moral police will no longer have the power of arrest over personal sins and cannot take the law into their own hands. Instead, they are required to be gentle and friendly towards law breakers.
It is a significant indicator that the kingdom is seeing winds of change blowing through the land, especially among young, well-educated men and women.
Many of these people are graduates of Western universities and are children of the elite and ruling class, who have brought their ideas of reform into public debate, especially on social media.
Recently, Saudi Arabia announced a major economic reform, Vision 2030, aimed at liberalising the economy and transforming it to be less dependent on oil.
Analysts expect the ambitious economic plan to work, and for the private sector, especially foreign investors, to participate in the economy, there needs to be social and political changes as well, with more personal freedoms, especially for women and with rights of dissent and representation for the people.
It appears that Saudi Arabia is moving towards a more liberal society, with tolerance for different political, social and religious views. It is also possible that instead of the rigid, conservative Sunni interpretation of the Quran and the Hadiths, Saudi ulama will use reason and intellect, as proposed by progressive Islamic scholars, to give flexibility to religious laws to move with the times.
Hopefully, Saudis can deal with economic issues and the expectations of the new generation.
We hope its economic transformation programme will be accompanied by social and political reforms. If this happens, the liberal trends emanating from the spiritual centre of Islam will reverberate across the Muslim world. Then, we may see a change in the way religion is used in determining lifestyles and moral standards, as well as fatwa and syariah laws. NST