Is Saudi Arabia Turning Against Wahhabism?

Published April 10th, 2018 - 10:31 GMT
Saudi crown prince Mohammed bin Salman in London. Picture /AFP
Saudi crown prince Mohammed bin Salman in London. Picture /AFP

By Eleanor Beever

Crown Prince Mohammed Bin Salman has challenged many a Saudi orthodoxy since his rapid ascent to power. But none have won him as much praise on the international stage as much as his wrestling with the kingdom’s Wahhabi religious establishment, and his promotion of what he calls “moderate Islam”.

The Prince has argued that the ultra-conservative religious rule that Saudis have been living under is a product of the events of 1979, rather than the “real Saudi Arabia”, or the authentic spirit of Islam.

A panaromic view of Riyadh designed to reflect the new reforms the Saudi Kingdom is experiencing (Shutterstock)

Wrestling with Wahabism

The House of Saud’s alliance with Wahhabism dates back much further than the 1970s, right back to the founders of both institutions. In 1744, the puritan Islamic scholar Muhammad ibn Abd al-Wahhab sought the protection of the ruler of al-Diriya, Muhammad ibn Saud. In exchange for providing the religious legitimacy that ibn Saud would need to rule, Abd-al Wahhab was assured that the House of Saud’s expanding kingdom would practice Wahhabism. 

New glitters under new leadership (Shutterstock)

1979 was indeed a significant year. That year was not only the end of a period of fairly neutral relations between Saudi Arabia and Iran, and the establishment of Iran’s Shiite Islamic theocracy. It was also the year that Saudi extremists took over the Grand Mosque in Mecca. This was a few years after the assassination of the reform-minded King Faisal, who had sought to reduce the power of Wahhabist clerics in the kingdom.

The House of Saud was vulnerable after King Faisal’s assassination. They felt that if they were to retain the support of the Wahhabist clerical establishment, and by default their religious legitimacy, they would not only have to abandon the liberalisation began by King Faisal. They would have to go further, and match the extremist hijackers’ religious conservatism.

Dismanteling hardline doctrine

From then on, Saudi Arabia acquired its reputation for uncompromising religious orthodoxy, backed up by grim punishments for those who disobeyed. The royal push for rigid Wahhabi Islam extended to missionary work. Saudi Arabia has funded enormous numbers of religious schools abroad to promote this hardline doctrine. And the consequences have been felt the most outside of Saudi borders.

In places like Pakistan, where there is limited education outside of the madrassas for those without money, Wahhabism has come to have a symbiotic relationship with militancy. It has bolstered violent agendas, and been used to legitimise violence to young madrassa students. But after 9/11, and the 2003 bombings in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia began to worry it had unleashed an ideology it could not control.

Thus Prince Mohammed is not the first Saudi royal to try and disentangle the House of Saud from the Wahhabi yoke. Wary of rising violent extremism, the late King Abdullah had attempted to staff the clerical councils with younger, more liberal scholars. He even opened up some positions to clerics outside of the Wahhabi and its parent Hanbali school of Islamic jurisprudence. But his successor King Salman and the young Prince Mohammed have gone much further, much faster. The Committee for the Promotion of Virtue and the Prevention of Vice, which oversaw the feared religious police, was stripped of its powers to arrest in 2016.

And the more that Prince Mohammed’s status as the kingdom’s new power broker was cemented, the more confident he grew in taking on the Wahhabi establishment. Concerts, cinemas, gender-mixed public events and permission for women to drive followed in 2017, after years of being banned. Moreover, he is pushing a degree of inter-religious tolerance that has been absent from Wahhabi discourse for a long time.

In the driving seat (Shutterstock)

The new head of the Muslim World League, the kingdom’s principal missionary organization, is Mohammed al-Issa, a comparatively liberal Wahhabi cleric. He has denounced Holocaust denial, met Pope Francis in support of inter-faith relations, and is overseeing the relinquishing of the Muslim World League’s control of the Great Mosque in Brussels.

The latter has been seen as a sign of the Kingdom’s commitment to changing its image as a global exporter of Islamic fundamentalism. Perhaps most damningly of all, in his recent interview with The Atlantic, the Prince effectively denied that Wahhabism was the dominant religious force in the kingdom, and that the ideology played a significant role in the Saudi national character.

The shift towards tolerance and greater religious liberty is a welcome change. But even positive change has consequences, and this is especially so when liberalizations are brought about by repressive measures. Islamist clerics who expressed their opposition to the new measures have met unpleasant fates. For instance, the preacher Sheikh Abdel Aziz al-Tarifi was arrested in 2016, shortly after a Twitter thread in which he objected to the religious police being stripped of their powers of arrest. In the thread, he accused Saudi rulers of trying to “appease apostates”. He is still in prison.

Turning the tide 

Whatever one’s opinion on Islamism, the dangers of oppressively shutting out Islamist sympathies should be a lesson already-learned by Arab leaders. As scholar Shadi Hamid has described, violently repressing theocratic sympathies does not make them go away, and in fact risks further radicalizing those sympathies. It is certainly strange to see the ideological tide turn in the Kingdom. Whereas secular bloggers previously seemed to be the bigger threat requiring imprisonment, now pro-establishment Islamists are being clamped down on. But this clampdown on tweeting clerics has resulted in the microphone being passed to the jihadists.

Researcher Cole Bunzel has written that, in this atmosphere of oppression, “…the jihadis, operating in the largely ungoverned space of the internet, have acquired something of a monopoly on religious dissent in Saudi Arabia.”

In the recent past jihadists were hard-pushed to convince their followers that Saudi Arabia was insufficiently conservative, (though this did not stop them trying). But now that Prince Mohammed is talking unabashedly of “moderate Islam” whilst locking up dissenters, Al Qaeda and ISIS are able to sell this message far more convincingly.

Prince Mohammed’s reforms will be welcomed by many, particularly younger Saudis and the international community. But they can also be spun as an act of sacrilege by fundamentalists who see moderation as a dilution of the faith. And this banishment of all dissent to the secretive world of jihadist chatrooms could come back to haunt the kingdom. Colin Clarke, an expert in security and terrorism at the RAND Corporation, told Al Bawaba: 

“Inevitably, anytime fundamentalists are forced to the margins or underground, there are going to be some second and third order effects. By forcing groups to operate in the shadows, clandestinely, it inadvertently forces them to become more organized and disciplined, in order to survive. So in many cases, these groups are actually strengthened organizationally, and become more cohesive in the long run.”

It would be an own-goal indeed if an otherwise-positive effort to encourage tolerance and promote some civil liberties pushed non-violent Islamists into business with jihadists. As Bunzel describes, Al Qaeda is now painting itself as the defender of imprisoned Islamist clerics, (including one who previously referred to Al Qaeda as “deviant and extremist”).

Some resistance to religious reform is inevitable. But the best friend of liberalization, however gradual, is its own practice. Whilst the House of Saud is unlikely to be brought down by jihadist attacks in the near future, it should learn the lessons of history if it wants to avoid empowering the very force it claims to be fighting.


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