By P.K.Balachandran/Daily Mirror
Colombo, December 21: In the last few years, Saudi Arabia has been slowly but steadily transforming itself from being a medieval anachronism to being a modern country under the tutelage of Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, popularly known as MBS. The determined assertion of State power over religion under the Crown Prince has put the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia (KSA) on the path to becoming a fully modern country by 2030 but without losing its Islamic identity.
Wahhabism, a puritanical form of Islam founded in Arabia in the 18 the. Century is still the official creed of the KSA and Sharia is the basic law. But the de facto ruler, Crown Prince MBS, has acquired ascendency over the clerics and the latter accept his reforms. However, MBS has taken care to see that the changes made are incremental and measured, so as not to upset the applecart. Cumulatively, the piecemeal changes add up to a lot, say Yasmine Farouk and Nathan J.Brown, in their paper entitled: Saudi Arabia’s Religious Reforms Are Touching Nothing but Changing Everything ( Carnegie Endowment for International Peace June 2021).
MBS has enabled women to drive, has thrown open public jobs to women and has allowed Hollywood and Bollywood-style public entertainment which could be watched by men and women together. Mariah Carey as well as Bollywood stars Salman Khan and Shilpa Shetty have performed to raving Saudis. The official Twitter account of The Boulevard Riyadh shared a video of Salman’s performance and captioned it thus: “This night was not like any other night. We lived it with Bollywood star Salman Khan and DA-BANGG stars… with their songs and reviews that amazed everyone.” With the regime loosening its cultural grip, local artistes are also blooming, albeit in a small way.
Under MBS, Wahhabism is being made to yield to a milder, liberal and tolerant version of Islam, despite threats from radical groups like the Islamic State (IS) or Daesh as it is known in the Arab world). Earlier this month, KSA banned the Tablighi Jamaat saying that it is “one of the gateways to terrorism.” MBS has said that KSA’s religious doctrine is no longer “committed blindly to Wahhabism or to any certain school or scholar.”
Personnel changes are being used to bring about new thinking. Previously powerful actors are being overruled. Their structures are being remolded but not abolished. Under the new system, political authority has a decisive voice instead of the religious voice. The monarchy and not the religious establishment dictates public policy. This has led to the removal of impediments to political, social, and economic changes.
Of course, there are charges of authoritarianism and ruthlessness, with the savage murder of internationally-known journalist Jamal Kashoggi coming in for particular condemnation. But in defense of MBS, it is said that democratic niceties are unsuited to the task of bringing about rapid changes in a deeply feudal and rigid social, religious and political order within a decade as per Vision 2030.
Wahhabism Not Cast in Stone
Fortunately for MBS, the Wahhabi order is not as change-resistant as it is thought to be, point out Farouk and Brown. Historically, the Wahhabi movement has evolved through interactions with other approaches and through internal competition. Today’s changes follow the same logic of political adaptation as in the past, the researchers say.
Council of Senior Scholars
Under MBS, religious structures are more directly linked to the Royal court and tend to sanction what the latter decides. The “Council of Senior Scholars” which is the apex of KSA’s religious structure, allowed women to drive when the State decided to do so in 2018. Similarly, the Council has taken the lead in denouncing the Muslim Brotherhood when the regime dubbed that movement as a terrorist threat. The Council’s own regulations suggest that its first and foremost task is to “advise the ruler when requested.” Taking the initiative to advise him proactively is only a secondary concern.
However, MBS sees the utility of keeping ultraconservative figures in their positions in the Council. It has allowed the State to keep them on the leash, Farouk and Brown say.
In October 2020, a Royal decree made the Attorney General a member of the Council of Senior Scholars. The Attorney General is not an Islamic scholar but his presence ensures that what the Council says is in accordance with State policy and within the legal system of the State. The move was a de facto downgrading of religious power vis-à-vis State power.
Ministry of Islamic Affairs
The Ministry of Islamic Affairs plays a major role in directing clerics. The current Minister of Islamic Affairs, Sheikh Abdullatif Al-Asheikh, is one of the main figures of the new Saudi narrative on purported religious centrism. “Even before his appointment as Minister, he completely adopted the Saudi political leadership’s religious discourse, adding political zeal to his dual credibility as a son of the official Establishment and a member of the al-Sheikh family (of al-Wahhab),” Farouk and Brown point out. His background gives him authenticity and credibility.
The authors say that the authorities have sacked or marginalized Imams who oppose social liberalization; instigate strife by praying against specific individuals, countries, and sects; or discuss politics. Successive regulations have been adopted to limit preaching in the Kingdom’s mosques only to Saudi and full-time Imams who have come under the strict supervision of the Ministry of Islamic Affairs. Friday sermons are standardized and digitally monitored across the Kingdom to weed out ultra-conservatism. Official and unofficial scholars face systematic pressure to religiously legitimize the socioeconomic and political transformations underway.
The Ministry of Islamic Affairs oversees Quranic and charity associations; printing of copies of the Quran and religious manuals; managing the King’s special guests for pilgrimage visits; spearheading Islamic international cooperation; and organizing domestic and international public events.
Importantly, in 2016, the ministry suspended its overseas proselytism activities while redefining its regulatory framework.
MBS’ ambitious “Vision 2030” agenda gives special attention to the Kingdom’s legal environment to attract domestic and foreign private investments and top-flight foreign residents, Farouk and Brown point out. The Ministry of Justice plays a crucial role in reaching this objective. It is expected to integrate and implement an increasing number of economic laws through its commercial courts, but it also must be flexible in applying foreign arbitration and court decisions against Saudi entities. Saudi judges also are expected to accept that there will be special jurisdictions in the country’s Special Economic Zones. All these economic plans require attitudinal changes and a new religious/cultural orientation among Saudis.
Primacy of Public Interest
For sure, the preambles of new regulations and legal decisions continue to assert that Sharia is the “reference bedrock” of Saudi regulations, and Vision 2030 still refers to the Quran as the state’s constitution. “Yet a new legal doctrine seems to be materializing. As before, the public interest (as defined by the country’s rulers) will continue to govern the interpretation, application, and scope of religious teachings, but such determinations are now being made in such a way that the interpretation of Sharia is effectively (though not doctrinally) defined by Saudi law,” Farouk and Brown assert.
Religious vs National Identity
There is a heightened emphasis these days, on giving KSA a “national”, identity and not merely an “Islamic” identity. As per MBS’ vision, Saudi Arabia has to be seen by its citizens and the world at large as a “nation” rather than as the “home of Wahhabism.”
“History is being rewritten in schoolbooks and reconstructed by way of cultural projects to minimize the presence and role of the founder of Wahhabism. The history of the State is henceforth meant to be the history of the military conquests and Ottoman-style State formation led by the man who gave the country his family’s name, Abdulaziz Ibn Saud,” Farouk and Brown say.