October 24, 2018
Riyadh has now formally admitted that Jamal Khashoggi, a Saudi journalist and writer, was killed in their own consulate in Istanbul. Furthermore, it appears a number of Saudi nationals linked to the highest levels of the Saudi leadership were involved. The international community now appears to be split on how best to respond, in terms of the continuation of links with Riyadh. One of the arguments deployed in favour of sweeping this under the rug appears to be that the Saudi Crown Prince, Muhammad bin Salman, is a driving force for ‘Islamic religious reform.’ The lack of literacy in how profoundly wrong that is remains staggering.
It should be noted that the notion that the alternative approach of cutting ties with Saudi Arabia and turning it into a pariah state is a complete red herring. That argument has virtually no support internationally, for a variety of reasons. Nor is it a matter of demonizing Saudi Arabians more generally—judging the nation by this episode is neither justified nor necessary. The real discussion that is ongoing is how stern the reproach should be in terms of existing ties and relationships—not if the relationships should be dismantled altogether.
Writers such as the infamous Thomas Friedman in The New York Times claimed recently that Riyadh was going to advocate ‘Islamic religious reform,’ because Muhammad bin Salman (MBS) had engaged in an economic reform program, and allowed cinemas in the kingdom, as well as ‘permitting’ women to drive. If this is what counts as ‘reform’ the bar has been set extremely low. But it is also particularly misleading when it comes to the idea that MBS is genuinely a religious reformer in any shape or form.
Saudi Arabia with MBS as Crown Prince has not been advocating Islamic religious reform. That frankly would be of great importance, if it were the case. For decades, Saudi Arabia’s leaders have been supporting the exporting of purist Salafism, often referred to as Wahhabism, via various institutions based in the kingdom. The impact of that worldwide has been significant, as it has been trying to chip away at the more normative Sunni mainstream approaches to Islam. Saudi Arabia’s religious institutions have been lopsided in support of educating students in less mainstream approaches at establishments like the Islamic University of Madinah, which was set up precisely to counter more mainstream Sunni Islamic religious institutions regionally and worldwide.
The irony of those who claim MBS is interested in Islamic reform is striking: the closest thing to an Islamic reformation has already taken place. That was due to the efforts of the students of Muhammad b. Abdul Wahhab in the 18th century—and that is what now underpins the Saudi religious establishment. That establishment doesn’t need an Islamic reformation—it needs a counter-reformation.
But none of this is seriously entertained at present. The existing Saudi religious establishment has not been encouraged to engage in a genuine rethinking of its ideas that draws it closer to the normative Sunni mainstream, nor listen to existing Saudi religious scholars who advocate more normative and mainstream approaches. Rather, the establishment has been muzzled. MBS’s ‘reforms’ in this arena are about centralizing power—they are not about restoring the Saudi religious establishment to a normative Sunnism.
It isn’t that mainstream Sunnism has no standing in Saudi Arabia, whether at present or in the past. On the contrary, until quite recently the territory of Saudi Arabia was indelibly connected to that mainstream religious approach, as were, and are, the vast majority of Muslim communities worldwide. To this day, there are proponents of that normative approach in Saudi Arabia. One recent luminary in that regard was Sayyid Muhammad b. Alawi al-Maliki, a remarkably well-known religious scholar of Makka, who passed away in 2004. I recently co-wrote a book on his approach, partially entitled the Path of the Sages of Makka with students of his who drew from the considerable intellectual resources that still existed in Saudi Arabia. While he had a considerable following internationally, however, al-Maliki came under fire from some of the most senior members of the Saudi religious establishment—for advocating normative Sunnism.
But beyond the ineffectual nature of the idea, considering how few in positions of authority are actually interested in reforming purist Salafism, it is actually insidious in supporting autocracy. The underpinning of the argument is basically this: support autocracy, and ignore its abuses, in order to get ‘reform’ in other ways. And the subtext is, particularly on this argument, simply: if you do not support the autocrats, beware of the alternative, which would be much worse.
The reality is: if we do hope for any type of ‘counter-reformation’ or ‘reform’ in religious terms in Saudi Arabia, or any country in the region, then we should hope for two things first. The first is respect for fundamental rights, and the second is the opening of civil society space. There is simply no shortcut that gets around this.
If fundamental rights are assured and the opening of civil society space takes place, then we can begin to imagine a situation where communities in the region can begin to recover from the challenges thrown at them by colonial and post-colonial states. And the innate worth of ordinary Saudi citizens will be given the opportunity to flourish. That invariably will include impact on religious establishments—both more normative ones in places like Egypt, Morocco and elsewhere, as well as Saudi Arabia. But without that surrounding environment, that’s hardly likely. There’s a point to that. Because a less closed civil society space means, inevitably, speaking truth to power—and insecure power doesn’t want that.
But there are no shortcuts in this regard—and no autocrat can escape this, whether in Saudi Arabia, the wider region or far beyond. If there will be any type of real and lasting change in religious education for the better in Saudi Arabia or in any country of the region, there needs to be an opening of space, and a protection of fundamental rights. It certainly will not happen through the emboldening of autocracy—that’s only a recipe for more problems in the short, medium and long-term.
Dr H.A. Hellyer is a senior non-resident fellow at the Atlantic Council in DC and the Royal United Services Institute in London. On Twitter @hahellyer.
The views expressed in this article are the author’s own.