Oct 28 2007
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Saudi hard-line campaigns persist, despite the advance of reform
Elements of Saudi officialdom are still pursuing a repressive approach to religious matters, even as King Abdullah presses forward with liberal and moderating policies.
While judicial reform, the construction at the site of a first co-educational university and prominent clerical condemnations of jihadism signal the continuation of King Abdullah Bin Abdelaziz's steady reformist programme, Saudi Arabia continues to witness repression and harassment of Shia communities in the Al-Hasa oasis in the east.
At least 250 people have been arrested in a crackdown on Shia religious and cultural activities, at the behest of the conservative regional governor, Prince Badr Bin Mohammed Bin Jallawi Al-Saud.
Zealous interrogators even accused one detained prayer group leader of trying to organise an Iraqi-style militia. The episode shows how even as the official Wahhabi religious establishment and elements of the conservative Al-Sahwa Al- Islamiya (Islamic Awakening) movement edge towards the moderate ideological positions encouraged by King Abdullah, hard-line forces continue to wield influence and control in parts of the Saudi state machine.
In early October, Grand Mufti Sheikh Abdelaziz Al-Sheikh issued a fatwa warning Saudis against participation in jihad abroad and advising them to take care over the use of money they donated. Two weeks previously, Salman Al-Awdah, one of the most prominent Sahwa clerics, had issued a public denunciation of Osama Bin Laden on his Islam today website and on the television show he presents on MBC.
This creates an awkward context for the agenda being promoted by King Abdullah. He seeks to preserve the role of theWahhabi clerical establishment in regitimising the rule of the Al-Saud. But at the same time he is trying to foster an official acceptance that many citizens adhere to other strands of Islam, Shiites, Ismailis and adherents of the Maliki strand of Sunni Islam.
However, conservative hard-line attitudes still command a substantial following inWahhabi clerical circles and this limits the pace at which the King can move. Sometimes change must be camouflaged by more publicly asserted policy goals.
The new co-educational King Abdullah University of Science and Technology which will open in 2009 at Thuwal, near Jeddah is being promoted as a centre of academic excellence rather than a model of social modernisation. The authorities have refrained from announcing whether men and women will be taught together.
Similarly, judicial reform should impose more structure and discipline on the sharia-based court system. A central website for the publication of fatwas is intended to give prominence to the pronunciations of senior establishment clerics, reducing the scope for individual judges to make hard-line 'rogue' rulings.
Reformers hope to see the King appoint a moderniser to head the new Supreme Court.
All these measures are being promoted by the authorities in non-confrontational terms, as a way of offering investors a more independent and systematic implementation of business and administrative law.
Strands of Wahhabism
The Wahhabi clerical leadership is fragmented. It is not enough for King Abdullah to secure the support of the most officially senior ulemas, because they constantly risk being outflanked by more radical or purist alternative voices.
TheWahhabi movement was a key partner of the Al-Saud rise to national power, helping to forge a strong state to replace the weakening of traditional tribal structures. However, it also encompasses a strong tradition of dissent.
The late 1920s saw an Al-Ikhwan uprising, whose followers believed the developing Al-Saud state had neglected its religious duties. The regime crushed the rebels and sought to counter the risk of repeat episodes by co-opting the Wahhabi ulemas into the state's structure, as salaried public employees.
Decades later, faced with the 1979 occupation of Makkah's grand mosque by radicals led by Juhayman Al-Utaibi, a descendant of an original Ikhwan member, the Al-Saud repeated this strategy. After crushing the rebels militarily, they sought to forestall the risk of renewed religious opposition by reinforcing the role ofWahhabism within the state, tying the government machine to conservative ideology, expanding the role of religious education and the Mutawwa (moral police), and encouraging the recruitment of young Saudis to fight as mujahideen against the Soviets in Afghanistan.
This history has produced three main strands of modern Wahhabi clerical thinking - the establishment, the supporters of radical jihad and the sahwa movement. However, the credibility of the salaried clerical leadership, headed by Grand Mufti Sheikh Abdelaziz Al-Sheikh, has been weakened by a perception that they are in the pocket of the government.
In the 1990s, the charismatic Grand Mufti SheikhAbdelaziz Bin Baz did endorse the deployment of US troops to Saudi Arabia against Iraqi attack in 1990 but was also careful to engage in gentle opposition to the government on some issues. This protected his credibility.
But since Bin Baz's death in 1999 and that of his successor, Sheikh Bin Al-Uthayman in 2001, the official clerical leadership has come to be widely viewed as a compliant tool of the government.
The Sahwa movement's independent clerics have voiced the cause of a more purist and less biddableWahhabism. But even the Sahwa clerics have moved away from overt oppositionist criticism of the Al-Saud.
In the early years of this century, this allowed the sirens of radical jihadism to gain prominence for their more outspoken positions. Clerics such as Sheikh Shuaybi,Nasr Al-Fahd, Ali Al-Khudayr and Ahmed Al-Khalidi accused those who refused to support violent jihad of being apostates.
However, the militants' bombing campaign of 2003 became a defining moment. Leading Sahwa, including Al-Awdah and Al-Hawalli, joined establishment ulema in signing a statement condemning the May 2003 Al-Qaeda attack on a residential compound in Riyadh. Meanwhile, the radical preachers who had supported jihad found themselves in jail and later engaged in a humiliating televised recantation of their earlier defence of militancy.
Since then, the Sahwa's continued retreat from overt criticism of the government has theoretically left ideological space for radical preachers to survive. But the tough policing tactics of the Ministry of Interior, under Prince Nayef Bin Abdelaziz, limit their practical capacity to operate.
The Sahwa movement: independent but no longer outspoken
Al-Sahwa Al-Islamiya (Islamic Awakening) has gradually developed since the 1960s, initially concerned with reasserting a return to purist, austere Wahhabi traditions. After the confrontation in Makkah in 1979, the government gradually came to see the Sahwa as a relatively "safe" voice of influence over younger Saudis who might otherwise have been drawn to more radical thinking; the movement was therefore tolerated.
Official attitudes changed in the early 1990s after Salman Al-Awdah, one of the most influential Sahwa, became a strident critic of the government. His views chimed with the traditions of oppositionism traceable back to the Ikhwan rebellion and they had great appeal to those Saudis who felt the Al-Saud regime had become marred by corruption and was over-dependent on its military alliance with the United States. Al-Awdah and Safar Al-Hawalli were jailed for several years and released only in 1999 - an experience that served only to enhance their standing among the government's conservative critics.
But since their release the Sahwa have gradually adopted a more moderate public stance, no longer taking up positions that threaten to question Al-Saud legitimacy. In 2004, Al-Awdah and Al-Hawalli were among 35 clerics who signed a petition attacking the exiled Islamist dissident Saad Al-Fagih for organising a peaceful public demonstration by his supporters in Riyadh.
Al-Awda has subsequently repeated his criticism of those who engage even in verbal criticism of the regime - and he hosts a discussion programme on MBC, a television station owned by Prince Abdelaziz Bin Fahd Al-Saud and not noted for its criticism of the government. This may have reduced his influence among potential Islamist opponents of the government. The cleric's recent denunciation of Bin Laden may have less influence among those susceptible to Al-Qaeda ideology than it would have done in the days when he was seen as a credible critic of the Al-Saud regime. However, Al-Awda retains a measure of independence from the government, partly because he is from a wealthy Najdi family in Buraydah, in the north central region of Qassim.
Al-Hawalli is similarly well-regarded as an Islamic scholar, but hails from the much poorer Asir region in the south, as does a third prominent Sahwa scholar, the highly cultivated Ayidh Al-Qurni. The Najdi middle class tends to look down on southerners. Al-Hawalli, moreover, has recently suffered from poor health. He has been outspoken in comments about Saudi Arabia's Shiites, although he has also argued that the Shia should be allowed to set up their own schools.
© Gulf States Newsletter 2007
© Copyright Zawya. All Rights Reserved.
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