Muted Modernists? Saudi Islamists ‘campaign for democracy’


The Saudi regime watched the 2011 Arab Spring unfold across the Middle East with deep unease. As the year progressed, the regime responded by rounding up moderate Islamists because of the potential threat they posed to it, notes Madawi Al-Rasheed, author of Muted Modernists: the Struggle Over Divine Politics in Saudi Arabia. The success of the Muslim Brotherhood in the first Egyptian election alarmed the Saudis particularly since its own Islamists became more energized and vocal, she writes for Foreign Affairs:

Salman al-Rushoudi, a veteran moderate Islamist, was convicted for possessing articles that I had written on Saudi history and current affairs that had been banned because they offer a critical interpretation of Saudi politics. He had been active since the 1990s in challenging the regime’s interpretations of Islam and, in 2009, helped found a civil and political rights organization called the Saudi Civil and Political Rights Association (better known by its Arabic acronym HASEM).

Since then, Saudi Arabia has used money and diplomacy to thwart the rise of Islamists who are committed to political reform and whose reinterpretation of Islamic texts support democracy, civil society, and human rights. They are the product of an important intellectual movement in Saudi Arabia that began in 2009 after the country experienced a deadly wave of jihadist violence between 2003 and 2008. These Islamists sprung out of the Islamic Awakening of the 1990s, but their line of thinking evolved into a theology that rejects violence and calls for civil society and even democracy to counter radicalism and Salafi-Wahhabi domination within Saudi Arabia.

While regional rivalry between Iran and Saudi Arabia, exacerbated by the conflicts in Syria and Iraq, appears to fuel the flames of prejudice, it may actually serve the regime by facilitating a policy of divide and rule, analyst Malise Ruthven writes for the FT:

Al-Rasheed states, for example, that when someone is detained for alleged blasphemy or radicalism, the support they get largely depends on which camp they belong to. While Islamists protest at the incarceration of their supporters, liberals are liable to confine their protests to those they count as their own. “Entrenched polarisation”, she says, between Islamists and liberals, Sunni and Shia, as well as men and women in Saudi society has “increased divisions to the detriment of common platforms for achieving political reform or human rights for all”.

Some things are changing for the better. About 200,000 young Saudis have been educated abroad on King Abdullah scholarships, for example, while 45,000 have so far benefited from the establishment of the world’s largest all-female university in 2011. Yet such changes will take time to transform a misogynistic culture in which women, contrary to Islamic norms applied elsewhere, are still not permitted to drive. An obvious question arises: will the modest reforms initiated by the late King Abdullah come to be seen, like those of Louis XVI, as the beginning of the end?

The regime continues to carefully monitor these modern Islamist intellectuals and has even jailed some of their lawyers, such as Waleed Abu al-Khair and Fawzan al-Harbi, notes Rasheed, Visiting Professor at the Middle East Institute at the National University of Singapore:

It certainly fears them more than jihadists, since they have shown how Islam and democracy are reconcilable. Furthermore, it is not difficult to denounce and crack down on violent jihadists, whereas the Saudi regime may find it difficult to justify the imprisonment of peaceful activists. The regime worries about nonviolent activism in a country that has had limited experience in civil disobedience, sit-ins, and demonstrations. It certainly does not want society to learn about how peaceful activism can be justified from an Islamic point of view. That is why Western policymakers, interested in seeing Saudi regime change, should take the Saudi modernist project seriously, even if does not closely and fully correspond to Western notions of democracy.


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