Will Saudi Arabia endeavor to globally re-programme Muslims?


By Dr. M. A. Mohamed Saleem

Since King Salmanbin Abdul-Aziz Al Saud came to power in 2015 Saudi Arabia has seemingly become aggressive domestically and internationally. This new posture is mostly attributed to Mohamed Ibn (son of) Salman (MBS) who cleverly has manipulated his father to elevate himself to crown prince sidelining many others(-including the one already designated to succeed Salman-). They had more claims to that position through a consensual selection mechanism that the Royal inner circle had adopted over many decades. Ironically since inception,King Salman, an ailing octogenarian, had relied on MBS to run his affairs and,by default, MBS has now become the dominant decision maker in the country. The consensual arrangement for transferring power, enforcing Islamic values as a common binding factor across all tribes and assuming custodianship of the holy shrines in Mecca and Medina have thus far provided the Saudi Arabian monarchs relative stability and respect globally for the country as the leader of all Sunni Muslims.

Prior to the advent of Islam Saudi Arabia had always been a bitterly feuding tribal society. Islam in the 7th century ushered in a period of relative peace and harmony throughout the region. Over time, the religious rigour had degenerated and paganist tribal rivalries resurfaced. Mid17th Century witnessed a reformer Muhammad ibn Abd al Wahhab calling people to revert back to unadulterated practices of Islam. He secured the allegiance of a tribal leader Al-Saud to spread this (alWahab’s) reform message, and such combination of forces led to stricter interpretation of the Islamic laws. To preserve religious purity it was reasoned to eschew contacts with people of all other faiths, and had provided the rallying point for unifying different fighting factions in the country. To forge loyalty and exercise authority Saudi rulers had coveted support of the spiritual leaders and the ulema(religious scholars). Economic position however did not allow the country to undertake wide scale reform missions, and for all purposes,the changes introduced by Wahabism had largely been confined to the Arabian Peninsula. Muslims returning annually from Haj (pilgrimage) prior oil booty recall how the people of Saudi Araba lined up on either side of the streets leading to the two holy cities expecting handouts from visiting pilgrims, a large number of them then were from the Indian sub-continent. Back in their respective countries the pilgrims showed no signs being influenced by Wahabism.

Saudi Arabian history changed mainly by two events in the seventies. Iranian revolution of 1979 against the Shah of Iran,spearheaded by the Ayatollahs (clergy), consolidated people’s power against a dictatorial regime. As an alternative people enthusiastically embraced theocracy and Islamic resurgence under Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini. Iranian revolution sent shock waves worldwide and Saudi rulers, in particular, panicked and realized the importance of reverting back to Islamic principles in a stricter form (perceived by Wahabism) as a counter weight to rival the prospects of Iran exporting Shia (revolutionary) version of Islam.By this time Saudi Arabia has also become a principal beneficiary of post 1973 Yon Kippur related oil embargo that opened up immense flow of immense petro dollars and provided ample material resources to export Wahabism globally. Special programmes were encouraged to train preachers, build mosques and madarasas (theological schools) and globally propagate Saudi version of religious reform. Dedicated religious police units empowered with additional punitive powers monitored societal reforms, check any form of dissent and enforce policies propounded on the recommendation of how the Saudi ulema interpreted the Islamic laws.

Special dress codes and gender segregation in public places were enforced, freedom of expression was curtailed, alcohol and intoxicants were banned, music and entertainment were prohibited, and questioning authority was considered a punishable offense. Although such ‘constraints’ were unique in Saudi Arabia compared to other Muslim countries in the region the new wealth-flaunting Saudi society continued to support global propagation of Wahabism.

Like many other countries Sri Lanka had also noted remarkable changes after the middle east opened up for foreign workers. Muslims, particularly women, returning from Saudi Arabia invariably adopted Saudi dress code. Sri Lankan Muslims also came under pressure from the Saudi-sponsored preachers propagating Saudi sanctioned do’s and don’ts as pre-requisites for Muslim identity. Increasingly, Muslims were talked into preferring seclusion from other communities, and Sri Lankan non-Muslims found such a behavioral changes of Muslims to beat variance with what they had known given their many centuries of friendly association with the Muslims.

Ever since MBS came to prominence he has shown signs of hastiness and lack of rationality. In 2015 he started an unprovoked war against the impoverished southern Muslim neighbour Yemen which has created the worst humanitarian crisis, and exacerbated the human suffering by blockading evenhumanitarian aid reaching the needy people. He also instigated a siege against another Muslim country Qatar on a flimsy excuse, clipped the wings of the religious authority that had long functioned as a principle support to governing the country. Recently he instigated arrest of the fellow members of the ruling family on corruption charges despite allegations levelled against him of helping himself with state funds. All these are justified as needed to his (MBS)societal transformation initiative. Many speculate that the actions of MBS smacks attempt to consolidate his authority by eliminating potential claims for power from other family members and any backlash from the displeased factions.

MBS seems to bank support for his actions from the goodwill that he seems to have earned from President Trump and Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu. Recent pronouncement by President Trump to recognize Jerusalem as capital of Israel seems to suggest softening of Saudi position given the new relationship that MBS has forged with USA and Israel. Admittedly, changes propounded by MBS are highly celebrated by the unemployed, restless and bored youth (under 30 years) who make up 70% of the rapidly increasing population and are aspiring to join the modern world.

Saudi Arabia is now experiencing economic problems given its oil dependency and stagnating oil market. A new ‘vision 30’ blueprint MBS introduced recently to modernize Saudi economy and society anticipates a greater role for young women and men integrated into the workforce. According to MBS Saudi Arabia so far has projected it as a conservative and religion driven society. Drastic changes to mimic Dubai style development may be unthinkable unless what the crown prince(MBS) has promised to do becomes a reality. In a recent interview MBS vowed to return the country to "moderate Islam" which is open to world and other religions and asked for global support to transform the hardline kingdom into an open society. According to MBS the ultra-conservative society, particularly over the past 30 years has been "not normal", and he blamed the rigid doctrines that have governed the Saudi society as a reaction to the Iranian revolution. What he meant by moderate Islam is reverting to what prevailed before 1979 which, according to him, was open to the world and all religions. Although the scale and scope of reforms MBS anticipates is unprecedented in the country’s modern history measures he has recently taken to weaken the authority and role of religious police and the ulema point to the seriousness of his plans. This means that MBS is also acknowledging that Saudi Arabia should not have globally been sponsoring its brand of Islam over the last three decades.

Fundamentally, Wahabism does not encourage political involvement. However, in many parts of the world, wherever theological reforms occurred with Saudi support have led to some form of intolerance, extremism and violence. Reflections of this can be seen even in Sri Lanka. Saudi Arabia now seems to recognize the ‘fallacy’ of the ‘hardline Islam’ it had advocated for its people over the past 30 years. As MBS has called world support for his reform programme it is logical to expect him to also re-programme Saudi religious overseas propaganda machines to alter the focus that will reflect the new vision of ‘moderate Islam’. As MBS has now publicly pressed the restart button aiming a ‘moderate course’ for his own people he may as well be having reform plans for Muslims in other countries if Saudi Arabia wishes to continue its religious leadership. Should Muslims in other parts of the world expect such a reprogramming, and how will those Muslims respond to getting re-programmed?

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