Saudi modernizing: A big challenge to Muslim world

Crown Prince Mohamed bin Salman’s (MBS) impulsive and hasty modernization programme has come as a surprise and created confusion among Sunni Muslims all over the world. Saudi Arabia will always be special for all Muslims-Shia or Sunni- because, it is where God Almighty revealed his message of peace (Islam) to Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him) and where the two holy shrines in Mecca and Medina are situated, the congregation points of reverence during the annual Haj pilgrimage. Over the past four decades, Saudi Arabia projected a global leadership for the Sunni Muslims, and succeeded in thrusting on them its own version of Islam as understood and advocated by religious scholars, internally coached and coaxed in the footsteps of the 18th century religious reformer Abd-al-Wahab.

Following the revolution against the Shah of Iran staged by hardline clerics in 1979, and siege of the holy shrine in Mecca in the same year by some radical Islamists protesting against a perception that Saudi Arabia was moving towards relaxing grips on Islamic laws, Saudi rulers felt compelled to take a very hardline religious stance. With the inflow of enormous petro dollars from the early eighties, Saudi Arabia doled out much as 4 billion dollars a year to export its ‘form of Islam’, mobilize/train preachers, build mosques and quranic schools whose remit was to totally immerse the laity in Wahhabism and weed out un-Islamic, and any other cultural colourings/theological accretions, that had allegedly crept over the years into religious observances. Saudi-sponsored changes established roots in many countries, and even in Sri Lanka; Muslims increasingly opted to be in seclusion much to the consternation of other communities, which until then have had a very close relationship with the Muslims.

Saudi Wahhabism, although puritanical, had relied on the tribal warlord Al-Saud to spread the message, and it fundamentally became the uniting force for all fighting tribes to come under one flag. For many centuries the Muslim fraternity had looked up to Al-Azhar University in Egypt for leadership and ruling in case of religious disputes or clarifications. Since the eighties, the axis largely shifted to Saudi Arabia, and anything that came out of Saudi with financial backing,in the name of Islam, was presented to the Sunni Muslims as ‘sacred’ and worthy of emulation. Aggressive rhetoric of paid preachers was also conducive for radicalization and to recruit support for globally spreading the ‘Wahabi’ ideology peacefully or forcefully, resorting to violence when deemed necessary.

Saudi modernization programme led by Crown Prince MBS has taken a position that the Islam his country has been advocating is not acceptable, and counterproductive to pursue a modernizing course. For an open economy and foreign investment to thrive, MBS argues that the country needs an enabling environment which should include pop music, night clubs, theaters, casinos, fashion parades, free mixing of the sexes etc., and less visible signs in the country that may be construed by foreign investors and tourists as overly Islamic. Saudi modernization push for ‘diluting’ Islam is being systematized on two fronts: (a) public proclamation that what the country has been following so far is hardline Islam, and it has to give way to moderate Islam, which will, according MBS, entail going back to what was practiced prior to 1979 (b) dismantling the machinery responsible for strictly enforcing the hardline Islamic laws and ideologies.

In the name of protecting Islam, the Saudi government had promulgated policies in conjunction with the country’s supreme religious council, and used a special branch of religious police to enforce them. This included stopping all mundane activities at the call for prayers five times a day, and penalizing those (particularly Muslims, even foreigners working or visiting the country) who disregard the prayer-call. Women are barred from driving, deprived of holding public positions or appearing in public places without being accompanied by a rightful male guardian and, women attired in loosely fitting head-to-toe black claddings. Although not strictly adhered to in other Muslim countries in the region, such practices are portrayed by Saudi-sponsored preachers (Asia in particular) as attributes of a ‘good’ Muslim. Women adapting the Saudi style dress code have been frowned upon, particularly in non-Muslim majority countries in the west and, even in Sri Lanka, some groups have expressed concerns claiming that more women dressed in black outfit is a tacit sign of Islamization.

Recently Saudi Arabia sponsored Jazz events and cinemas, and opened up for international artistes to perform in the country. These events are being enthusiastically encouraged by the Kingdom’s Entertainments Authority, despite the Grand Mufti (highest religious authority) expressing displeasure at such events. This shows the serious and aggressive programme that MBS has ventured into to modernize Saudi Arabia to rival, or even supersede the Dubai model by 2030. For every public entertainment show tickets were sold out well in advance, indicating the excitement and apparent support for ‘modernization’ of the country that had remained deprived/starved of such amenities.

Every country has the right to follow its own course of development, and many world leaders have praised MBS for his ‘courageous’ actions to transform Saudi Arabia. Seemingly, by establishing a special relationship with Jared Kushner (Trump’s son-in-law), and through him, access to Trump and Netanyahu, MBS may have also softened the Saudi position on Palestine and tacitly supported (-as claimed by many analysts-) Trump’spronouncement of Jerusalem as the Capital of Israel. This has, however, raised many questions among Muslims in other countries where Saudis have had great influence over the past three decades. To keep the leadership position of ‘modernizing’, Saudi Arabia may attempt to launch another global programme to re-educate Muslims and undo what Saudis had been advocating over the past several years. If this happens, very soon there may be a fresh crop of Saudi-sponsored preachers parading around justifying a message of moderation, which may give rise to a clash for supremacy between the old school hard liners and new moderates.

Alternatively, Saudi Arabia may discontinue funding, particularly in Indonesia, India and Pakistan, which are the lead beneficiaries so far from the Saudi-sponsored Islamic programmes hoping that, the hardline organizations may run out of steam and fall in line with the new Saudi position. This may also lead the fund-starved organizations and preachers to turn somewhere else (for leadership/sponsorship) and fill in the space the recent events in Saudi Arabia have created, particularly in the Sunni Muslim world. The recent meeting in Dec 2017 of the 51 Muslim countries in Istanbul, Turkey, gives an indication that Muslims are losing faith and, given the softening of Saudi position towards Israel it may take a very long time before Saudi can regain the trust of the Muslims. Before the oil boom, Saudi Arabia was only a destination point for pilgrimage, and this may turn out to be the only future connection the Muslims will like to have, given what is happening currently in Saudi Arabia. This also fits into what MBS wants to achieve in promoting his modernization programme, that is, to take his COUNTRY back to its state prior to 1979.

Globally today China is positioning itself to fill in the space vacated by America, under Trump’s America First propaganda, wanting to be a country only for Americans. Who will fill in the space created in the Muslim world when Saudi Arabia relinquishes leadership it has enjoyed for many years? Turkey or Iran? Either way, Muslims will face many challenges. How to protect the true spirit of the Religious (Islamic) Precepts from being manipulated (adulterated) by power hungry Politicians/Rulers assisted by pilable Preachers to serve their greed; which has led to so much of Muslim bashing and hatred? Instead, how to make pristine (religious) precepts as the template for guiding practitioners (of those precepts) towards a peaceful world of co-existence, where everyone has an unquestionable right to life, space and shelter will be the biggest challenge.


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