You might remember Ahmed Qassim al Ghamdi as the Saudi cleric who stirred up a storm of controversy in 2014 by appearing on a popular television talk show alongside his wife, who didn’t cover her face with a veil, and stating the full-face veil for women in the country is not imperative in Islam.
Shortly after the interview, al Ghamdi told a local newspaper that he had started receiving death threats for his wife's TV appearance.
However, in a recent interview with The New York Times, the cleric revealed the repercussions for his progressive religious views went beyond threatening phone calls.
For those unaware, al Ghamdi wasn’t always as liberal as he is now. In fact, he was once the head of the much-feared religious police force, called the Commission for the Promotion of Virtue and Prevention of Vice, or simply Haia or Hayaa, which is responsible for making sure citizens do not violate Islamic code of conduct in public.
Although al Ghamdi was in charge of what is considered the most powerful law enforcement squad in the country, it was this position that made him question the hard-line customs and traditions of his society. To find answers, he turned to religious scriptures — the Islamic holy book Quran and the accounts of the lives of Prophet Muhammad and his companions.
“What he found was striking and life altering: There had been plenty of mixing among the first generation of Muslims, and no one had seemed to mind,” the Times stated.
Al Ghamdi also discovered some members of the morality police were abusing their position by unnecessarily targeting people over non-issues.
“Often, people were humiliated in inhuman ways, and that humiliation could cause hatred of religion,” he stated.
He tried to report the officers and also started writing articles to fight misleading traditions, especially the ones pertaining to gender segregation in public. But he was soon forced into early retirement for his vocal opposition. Later, he began also delivering Friday sermons at a Mecca mosque, which got him a monthly government stipend. But because of his progressive beliefs, he was soon asked to stop coming.
Following the controversial TV appearance with his wife, al Ghamdi received condemnation and death threats. Things got to a point that a group of men showed up at his door, saying they wanted to “mix” with his family’s women. Al Ghamdi’s sons had to call the police.
Although the consequences of al Ghamdi’s defiance to discriminatory customs have been grim, he hasn’t lost hope. He is currently unemployed, but publishes regular newspaper columns, mostly for foreign publications.