Yaşar Yakış
Dec 01 2017

Moving towards moderate Islam in Saudi Arabia

Far-reaching steps by Saudi Arabia’s Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman will probably occupy the headlines for some time. It has the reform dimension, including the attempt to introduce moderate Islam; another dimension pertaining to the retrieval of illicit gains of some members of the royal family, business community, ministers and ordinary citizens; and it has implications for international relations. Several articles are needed to analyse the details of each of them. The present article will focus only on the subject of moderate Islam that he is planning to introduce.

The crown prince intimated to Thomas L. Friedman of The New York Times some clues of what he has in mind on the subject of moderate Islam, telling him that Islam was derailed in Saudi Arabia when, after the seizure of Qaba by the extremist insurgents in 1979, the rulers (his uncles) decided to mobilise Wahhabi clerics to demonstrate that nothing was missing in the faithful adherence of the Saudi regime to the true Islam.

If the target were only to go back to pre-1979 Saudi Arabia, the reform would remain modest, because, women were not allowed to drive even at that time; men and women were not allowed to visit the zoo on the same days of the week; music and cinema was forbidden; the top Saudi cleric Abdul Aziz bin Baz used to insist that the world was flat and that the sun was turning around the earth, and that anyone who denied this was a heathen. Fortunately, the crown prince promises much more than going back to the pre-1979 era.

Attempts to introduce moderate Islam had also been made in the past, the boldest being by the King Faisal bin Abdul Aziz (1964-1975). He was the biggest reformist among the 48 male children of the King Abdul Aziz. He was vocal and emphatic on the question of the need for a revival in Islam. He said in a public speech: “O my Muslim Brothers! We want a revolution and an Islamic revival, not tainted by nationalism or racism or political considerations”. He did not stop there. He introduced modern and secular reforms that led to the installation of television in Saudi Arabia in 1965, though the broadcasting of female voice was not allowed in radio or television for several years. His Turkish-origin wife, Queen Iffat (Iffet), made tremendous contribution to her husband’s memorable work, especially in the field of education of girls.

This reformist King Faisal bin Abdul Aziz was assassinated in 1975 for reasons that remain obscure, but the most reasonable explanation is that the assassin was avenging the death of his brother Prince Khalid bin Musaid, who was killed in 1966 by a policeman when he was leading a demonstration to protest his uncle King Faisal’s initiative to introduce television to Saudi Arabia.

This historical background does not mean that it is not timely to make a new attempt to introduce moderate Islam in Saudi Arabia, because the country has made tremendous progress in the last 50 years. The number of students who have studied at Western universities is now in the hundreds of thousands. The progress achieved in the field of telecommunications goes beyond imagination. Therefore, any initiative to open up this opulent society to the world should be encouraged and congratulated. However, the challenges are still very great, because there is a huge segment of Saudi society that may raise strong opposition to any type of moderation in Islam.

The difference of the reforms that the crown prince plans to introduce is that it is a top down initiative while in other Arab countries the same process has been bottom up. This feature of the reform may become an asset if it is handled with care. While many Saudi citizens support the initiative as a long over-due reform, there may be others who would oppose it for a variety of reasons.

Financial measures taken by the government must have made several individuals hit by them unhappy, as well as many others who depend on such unhappy individuals. Hopefully, the prudence that has a proverbial place in Saudi culture will find a way to make the necessary fine-tuning when it becomes necessary.