It is inescapable, however, that the al-Saud need to curb the corrosive power of the religious establishment and lead the kingdom towards a form of modernity that its religious heritage can sustain. And the most feasible way forward is to enlist Islamist progressives.
This loosely connected group of Islahiyyun or “reformers” has rediscovered the thinking of Islamic revivalists and reformers of more than a century ago, and turned it into a devastating critique of Ibn Abdul Wahhab.
Encouraged by Abdullah, the newspaper al-Watan (the nation, or homeland) became a forum for this debate, as did internet discussion groups, such as Muntada al-Wasatiyya, set up by the dissident Islamist Mohsen al-Awajy.
This still embryonic force has already achieved three major changes. First, the groups have presented their demands collectively, instead of petitioning individually at the majlis or court of the prince. The turning point was a 2003 petition signed by leading Islamist reformers and liberals. Second, the document proposed allowing diversity in matters of faith and politics – in a country where uniformity on both has long been imposed. And third, it broke the taboo about speaking against Wahhabism, and implied that it was this distorted form of Islam that was preventing Saudi Arabia from becoming a successful modern state all its citizens could easily support.
It is important to realise that the petition, titled “A vision for the present and future of the homeland”, draws on sources of renewal that are and will remain Islamic and, in important ways, Islamist. However alien this fusion of religion and politics may seem to secular westerners, it is key to any possibility of change, because it provides reformers with an authenticity and a legitimacy that deflects charges of foreign influence and intrusion. Sheikh Abdulaziz al-Qassim, a former Saudi judge and reformer, is an authority on this. “Al-Qaeda and the clergy are essentially doing the same thing in different ways – putting pressure on the House of Saud for being less devout than it should be. This paralyses reform,” he tells me. “The only way out is to dilute the link with Wahhabi fanaticism.
“The only way forward is to win the legitimacy of society itself – through political reform that does not depend on the approval of the clergy. If you make society part of reform you can overcome the clergy. It is the only way.”
The demands of the Islamist reformers include free elections, freedom of expression and association, an independent judiciary, a fairer distri bution of wealth, and a clearer foreign policy arrived at through open debate – in short, a constitutional monarchy, if nowhere near a bicycling monarchy. “We are limiting our demands to very specific issues, and reiterating the al-Saud’s right to stay at the top of the tree,” says Mohsen al-Awajy. “They think it’s for tactical reasons, but the fact is there is no real alternative.”
Just how fundamental it is that liberals and Islamists take on Wahhabism cannot be overstated. But the liberals are an infinitesimal minority, tainted in the eyes of the masses with corruption and decadence. As one senior prince puts it, with a certain melancholy: “We liberals sit around a bottle of scotch and complain to each other, and then, the next morning, do nothing. Yet if we don’t get real progress, economically, socially and politically, we are going to be in a terrible mess in five to ten years.”
He, at least, shows an awareness alien to much of a bloated royal family that affects not to understand where a privy purse ends and a public budget begins, and continues to squander fabulous public wealth. Military spending, for example, is about three times the average for a developing country and is used as a mechanism for distributing power and wealth within the top ranks of the House of Saud – which is more than 5,000 princes strong.
No wonder that it is the Islamist reformers, numerically and ideologically, who are the real force for change. They can credibly argue that they intend no separation between mosque and state, but a redefinition of the relationship between the al-Saud and the al-Sheikh.
“Saudi Arabia has to be an Islamic state; it is the birthplace of Islam. The question is which Islam?” says Jamal Khashoggi, editor of al-Watan and adviser to Prince Turki al-Faisal, the former Saudi intelligence chief and ambassador to Washington and London. “The alliance should be between the state and Islam, not between the House of Saud and the House of al-Sheikh.”
Awajy, whose candour lost him his job as a university professor, argues: “The contract between the two houses is no longer in the interests of the Saudi people; if we tolerated it in the past it does not mean we will in the future. Real reform cannot take place within the Wahhabi doctrine.”
The Wahhabi establishment has pumped the poison of bigotry into the Saudi mainstream throughout the existence of the kingdom. After the attacks of 11 September 2001, it became impossible to ignore that its ideas and al-Qaeda’s were pretty much the same. It is hard to imagine how the House of Saud will survive unless it breaks decisively with these ideas. Or, as one Saudi reformer put it: “If this clerical establishment is incapable of imagining the solutions we need to modern problems, then the answer is clear – we have to find another establishment.”
Friday, May 15, 2009
Ali Alyami of the Center for Democracy and Human Rights in Saudi Arabia sent me David Gardner's interesting article about Wahabism in Saudi Arabia from the current issue of The New Statesman. An excerpt: