Connect with us

Middle East

Saudi religious moderation: How real is it?

Dr. James M. Dorsey

Published

on

Meet Mohammed bin Abdul-Karim Al-Issa, the public face of Saudi crown prince Mohammed bin Salman’s version of moderate Islam.

A 54-year old former justice minister, Mr. Al-Issa, one of a younger generation of Islamic scholars willing to do Prince Mohammed’s bidding, has been doing the rounds internationally and making all the right moves to project the de facto Saudi leader as the spearhead of efforts to counter ultra-conservatism at home, fight political and militant Islam across the globe and promote the crown prince as a tolerant leader bent on fostering inter-faith dialogue.

Mr. Al-Issa’s moves also serve to strengthen ties with US President Donald J. Trump’s Evangelist voter base and shape an environment that legitimizes Saudi Arabia’s close cooperation with Israel.

In his latest move, Mr. Al-Issa is this week convening a four day international conference on moderate Islam as  head of the Muslim World League, once a prime vehicle for the kingdom’s global promotion of anti-Shiite, anti-Iranian ultra-conservative strands of Islam, and a member of the Supreme Council of Ulema, Saudi Arabia’s highest religious authority.

Breaking with past Saudi religious and political tradition, Mr. Al-Issa has reached out to Jewish and Evangelist communities. He called during a speech in October at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, widely viewed as pro-Israeli, for a Muslim-Christian-Jewish interfaith delegation to travel to Jerusalem to promote the cause of peace despite the fact that Israel and Saudi Arabia do not have formal diplomatic relations.

Mr. Al-Issa has defended Prince Mohammed’s reforms such as the curbing of the powers of the kingdom’s religious police, the lifting of the ban on women’s driving and the nurturing of modern-day entertainment such as cinemas and concerts.

He has rejected the use of violence, including against Israel, acknowledged the Holocaust, denounced the efforts of Holocaust deniers, and announced that he would next January become the most senior Islamic cleric to visit Auschwitz on the 75th anniversary of its liberation.

Mr. Al-Issa laid out his approach in an interview with Le Monde two years ago. “All religious institutions must modernize their speech, to make it compatible with the times,” he said.

No doubt, Mr. Al-Issa’s moves help reshape an environment in which religious intolerance and prejudice was the norm and still is widespread. Yet, critics charge that his efforts to project Prince Mohammed as a religious reformer do not go beyond speech and symbolism and constitute a public relations effort rather than true change.

It, moreover, remains unclear, how effective Mr. Al-Issa’s efforts are. They certainly help the Trump administration defend its unconditional support for Prince Mohammed, including its willingness to shield the kingdom from accountability for its conduct of the war in Yemen and the killing last October of journalist Jamal Khashoggi on the premises of the Saudi consulate in Istanbul. Saudi Arabia insists Mr. Khashoggi was murdered by rogue operatives.

Yet, some of Mr. Al-Issa’s well-connected interlocutors during his visit to Washington said they came away from discussions with him not sure what to think. Likewise, a Saudi intellectual rhetorically asked Saudi Arabia scholar Stephane Lacroix during an interview: “How can one take Mohammed al Issa’s statements seriously when religious bookstores in Riyadh are full of books advocating the exact opposite?”

Malaysia, one of the kingdom’s associates in countering extremism has taken a similarly critical view of the its efforts. Malaysian defense minister Mohamad Sabu last year closed the Saudi-backed King Salman Centre for International Peace (KSCIP) in Kuala Lumpur following criticism that the kingdom with its ultra-conservative interpretation of Islam may not be the right partner.

In a recent article discussing the limits of Prince Mohammed’s reforms, Mr. Lacroix, pointing to the arrests of Islamic thinkers critical of the kingdom’s ultra-conservative Wahhabi traditions and the suppression of all debate, concluded that “this makes MBS’s religious reforms look more like a public relations stunt than a genuine transformation.” Mr. Lacroix was referring to Prince Mohammed by his initials.

Mr. Lacroix’s conclusion is enhanced by the fact that there is little that would suggest fundamental reform of religion involving tolerance at a practical rather than a talking heads level beyond the countering of extremism at home and abroad, a key Saudi interest, and the social changes Prince Mohammed has so far introduced to polish the kingdom’s tarnished image and further his plan to diversify its oil-dependent economy and create badly needed jobs.

If anything, Prince Mohammed’s reforms appear to be designed to shave off Wahhabism’s rough edges, project a more moderate image, and promote at home and abroad in countries like Kazakhstan, Algeria and Libya an ultra-conservative interpretation of Islam that preaches absolute obedience to the ruler. Prince Mohammed’s crackdown on all forms of dissent enforces the principle.

By the same token, Prince Mohammed has done little to push reform since lifting the ban on women’s driving and enhancing their professional and sporting opportunities. The kingdom’s male guardianship of women has been softened at the edges but remains firmly in place.

Scores of young Saudi women have recently employed devious tactics to escape family abuse and leave the kingdom to seek asylum elsewhere. Saudi Arabia, rather than cracking down on domestic abuse and abolishing the guardianship system, has sought to prevent women from fleeing and force the return of those who made it abroad.

By the same token, the kingdom has yet to take steps that would put flesh at home on the skeleton of its notion of religious tolerance.

Christians, Jews, Buddhist and Hindus continue to be banned from building houses of worship despite the fact that archaeologists have found evidence of the existence in the time of the Prophet Mohammed of a 7th century synod near Jubail and the fact that older residents along the Saudi border with Yemen vividly recall interacting with a Jewish community.

After brutally cracking down on rebellious Shiites in Saudi Arabia’s oil-rich Eastern Province, Prince Mohammed has moved quickly to rebuild the levelled town of Awamiyah. Shiites, nonetheless, accounted for the majority of the 37 people beheaded in April in a mass execution.

Mr. Al-Issa’s Supreme Council of Ulema has no Shiite clerics among its members nor do Shiite judges sit on the benches of national courts or serve in the police force or as ambassadors.

The risk for Prince Mohammed is that religious moderation like economic reform that trickles down could become an issue on which his ability to deliver will be a litmus test of his reforms.

A recent poll of Arab, including Saudi youth, showed that two thirds of those surveyed felt that religion played too large a role while 79 percent argued that religious institutions needed to be reformed. Half said that religious values were holding the Arab world back.

Said Mr. Lacroix: “If religious reform is only a push from above and not the result of genuine social debate, it is easily reversible.”

Dr. James M. Dorsey is a senior fellow at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies, co-director of the University of Würzburg’s Institute for Fan Culture, and the author of The Turbulent World of Middle East Soccer blog, a book with the same title, Comparative Political Transitions between Southeast Asia and the Middle East and North Africa, co-authored with Dr. Teresita Cruz-Del Rosario and three forthcoming books, Shifting Sands, Essays on Sports and Politics in the Middle East and North Africaas well as Creating Frankenstein: The Saudi Export of Ultra-conservatism and China and the Middle East: Venturing into the Maelstrom.

Continue Reading
Comments

Middle East

Turkish Strengthened Parliamentary System

Muratcan Isildak

Published

on

“Corrected” or “enhanced” system of parliamentary debate, thoroughly sat on Turkey’s agenda in recent days. There are two reasons for this. First, it is unclear what, all from a single source power is collected, brought Turkey no balance-point of the current regime where there is no monitoring mechanism. Of democracy, of freedom, which abolished the rule of law, both inside and outside the war which, as all institutions of workers pouring connected to a single person, the economy of bottoming out, which is a record level of unemployment, inequality of well increase as a Turkey. Undoubtedly, the first step to get out of this darkness and tidy up the wreckage is to get rid of the one-man regime called the “Presidential Government System”. The question then arises of what kind of management system to replace. The second reason is the increasing signs that the MHP-backed AKP government is about to end. A transition period will begin after the end of AKP rule. But where is the transition? This question should be discussed and an answer should be sought.

The parliamentary system has led to the domination of the majority over the minority in Turkey. Since there are no mechanisms to prevent the executive from dominating the legislature, the power is meeting in the hands of the prime minister, who is the head of the ruling majority party. The end of the independence of the judiciary, the silencing of the press, the pressure on the opposition, the arbitrary administration all took place in the parliamentary system.

Such a new democracy changes the focus of politics. The subject of politics, political parties cease to be party heads, but become the people themselves. However, in order to create a grassroots popular movement, people need to unite within the framework of a project and not be a “mass”, but turn into a “people” that decide their future. Such “people” make decisions about their own problems and demand that governments implement these decisions. Such a people does not leave their future to the rulers, they take control of their future. Such a people becomes the engine of change in society, creates a libertarian, egalitarian, new society.

One of the most important features of participatory democracy is that it is based on equality. Equality in income distribution as well as in participation can be achieved in this way. We have seen the concrete application of this in the example of Porto Allegre in Brazil.

There are many different models of participatory democracy. These models cover a wide spectrum, from the budgeting powers of local units to different decision-making platforms. It is necessary to discuss these and, according to the results, the construction of local democratic institutions. 

However, no matter what model is adopted, participatory democracy has some unchangeable basic principles:

Participation is open to all who live in that place.

Participatory democracy institutions are independent from the state. The aim of the system is to realize a power sharing between representative democracy institutions and local democracy institutions. Representative democracy institutions will lose their power as they will transfer some of their powers to local institutions. 

But considering that representative democracy is not working well anyway, this weakening is not a loss for democracy.

Informing the public correctly. For this, there is a need for effective use of social media as well as the prevalence of freedom of expression and press in the country.

Participatory democracy leads to deepening democracy and creating a culture of participation. However, the main problem here is that the people adopt this culture with an active citizenship awareness. Successful pilot project implementations are required for this.

Let’s not forget that my imagination of the future determines what we will do now.

Continue Reading

Middle East

The Battle for Jerusalem: Turkey’s Erdogan stakes his claim

Dr. James M. Dorsey

Published

on

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan didn’t mince his words at this month’s opening of parliament. In his first assertion of a claim to a lost non-Turkic part of the Ottoman empire, Mr. Erdogan declared that Jerusalem is Turkish.

“In this city, which we had to leave in tears during the First World War, it is still possible to come across traces of the Ottoman resistance. So Jerusalem is our city, a city from us,” Mr. Erdogan said.

He went on to say that “the current appearance of the Old City, which is the heart of Jerusalem, was built by Suleiman the Magnificent, with its walls, bazaar, and many buildings. Our ancestors showed their respect for centuries by keeping this city in high esteem.”

Mr. Erdogan was referring to the 16th century Ottoman sultan, a sponsor of monumental architectural development, who is widely viewed as having protected his Jewish subjects.

In July, Mr. Erdogan described that month’s return of Hagia Sophia in Istanbul, a sixth century Orthodox-church-turned-mosque-turned-museum, to the status of a Muslim house of worship as paving the way for the “liberation” of Jerusalem’s Al-Aqsa mosque, Islam’s third holiest site.

Mr. Erdogan’s office released a month later a four-minute video clip suggesting that Turkey’s quest for leadership of the Islamic world was as much a military and nationalist endeavor as it was a religious drive. Laced with martial music, the clip meshed religious and Ottoman symbolism.  Entitled Golden Apple, the clip ended with a panorama view of Al-Aqsa.

The president, who embeds his often raw nationalism in a religious mantle, can have no illusion that Jerusalem would return to Turkish rule.

Yet, by putting forward his claim, Mr. Erdogan hopes to put his quest for leadership of the Muslim world on par with that of one Turkey’s staunchest rivals, Saudi Arabia. The kingdom is home to Islam’s two most sacred cities, Mecca and Medina.

Rather than seeking to regain lost Ottoman territory, Mr. Erdogan is staking a claim to custodianship of Jerusalem’s Haram ash-Sharif or Temple Mount and Al Aqsa mosque compound that currently rests with a Jordanian-controlled religious endowment known as the Waqf.

The president escalated his rhetoric at a moment that the Palestine Authority has reached out to Turkey as well as Qatar in the wake of the normalization of relations between Israel, the United Arab Emirates and Bahrain and a series of statements by prominent Saudi and other Gulf leaders taking President Mahmoud Abbas’ administration to task for squandering opportunities for peace with the Jewish state.

Mr. Erdogan’s claim adds to Jordan’s worries that Israel, in the wake of the formalization of its ties to Gulf states, could support Saudi ambitions to join the Hashemite kingdom, if not replace it, as the holy site’s administrator.

Israel Hayom, Israel’s most widely read newspaper that is supportive of Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu, quoted an unidentified Arab diplomat as saying that Saudi funds were needed to counter Turkish influence in Jerusalem.

“If the Jordanians allow the Turks to operate unhindered at the Al-Aqsa Mosque compound, within a matter of years their special status in charge of the Waqf and Muslim holy sites would be relegated to being strictly ‘on paper,’” the diplomat was quoted as saying in June.

Raed Daana, a former director of preaching and guidance at the Al-Aqsa Mosque Directorate, said in 2018, in the wake of US President Donald J. Trump’s recognition of Jerusalem as Israel’s capital, that Saudi Arabia had secretly invited Palestinian Muslim dignitaries in a bid to garner support for a Saudi role in the Waqf.

Mr. Daana attributed the secrecy in part to a refusal to accept the invitation by a number of Palestinian religious figures.

Jordan last year increased the number of members of the Waqf from 11 to 18 in a bid to give it a more a more Muslim rather than exclusively Jordanian  flavour and to fend off attempts by regional powers to muscle their way into the body.

The new members included officials of Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas’ Palestine Authority as well as figures with links to Turkey and Gulf states like Sheikh Ekrima Sabri, a former grand mufti of Jerusalem and Holocaust denier who has defended Mr. Erdogan’s militancy regarding Jerusalem; and Mr. Sabri’s successor, Muhammad Hussein, who had close ties to the United Arab Emirates until he last month barred Emiratis from visiting Al Aqsa in protest against the UAE’s recognition of Israel.

Mr. Erdogan has in recent years been laying the groundwork for his claim with millions of dollars in donations to local Islamic organizations as well as Turkish religious activists and pilgrims in Jerusalem whom Israel has accused of instigating Palestinian protests.

Turkey’s Directorate General for Religious Affairs (Diyanet), that is part of Mr. Erdogan’s office, lists Al-Aqsa as a site for the umrah, the lesser Muslim pilgrimage.

Israeli sources say Turkey’s cultural center in Jerusalem as well as a Turkish renovated coffeeshop two minutes from the city’s Western Wall that is adorned with Turkish and Palestinians flags as well as portraits of Mr. Erdogan and Ottoman Sultan Abdul Hamid II serve as a meeting point for activists and pilgrims.

“Turkey is working diligently to deepen its involvement and influence on the Temple Mount, in the Old City of Jerusalem, and in east Jerusalem neighbourhoods. It is encouraging welfare-religious (dawa) activities…aimed at drawing the Palestinian public toward the Turkish-Islamic heritage and at weakening Israel’s hold on the Old City and east Jerusalem,” said conservative Israeli journalist and analyst Nadav Shragai.

Continue Reading

Middle East

Kingdom’s journey from ultra-conservatism to ultra-modernism

Abdul Rasool Syed

Published

on

Saudi Arabia, currently, is undergoing a phenomenal metamorphosis; a country widely known for its ultra-conservative posture is now gradually moving towards liberalism. It is witnessing a remarkable transformation in its socio-economic-cultural contours. The kingdom, once influenced and controlled by orthodox clergy, did not let women come out of their domestic confines but, now, the situation has diametrically changed. It has allowed the womenfolk incredible latitude to not only come out of home but also to travel abroad independently. They are, thus, supposed to contribute to country’s socio-economic development by working shoulder to shoulder with men. Economy, too, is being diversified; the kingdom is jettisoning its chronic dependence on oil revenues and is moving towards rapid Industrialization. Acculturation, once regarded as taboo by Saudi society is now, being appreciated bit by bit.

The man, who masterminded this movement of colossal change, is none other than Crown prince Mohammad bin Salman (MBS); He is the real catalyst that is working devotedly and diligently to improve his country’s image nationally and internationally. His ideology is described as nationalist and populist, with conservative attitude towards politics and a liberal stance on economic and social issues.

However, His style of governance came under severe stricture by journalistic community. He has been dubbed as “extremely brutal” by journalist Rula Jabrael and “authoritarian” by Late Jamal khashoggi. On contrary, his move to reform the country has been widely lauded and supported by Saudi populace.

Prince Mohammad is of opinion that his country has been severely harmed by traditional clergy that considered any reformative move as a sin and hence, has kept the country stagnant economically and socially. He emphatically stated at one occasion: “we are returning to what we were before, a country of moderate Islam that is open to all religions and to the world. We will not waste 30 years of our lives dealing with extremist ideas. We will destroy them today.” He later added that Saudi Arabia “will remain committed to the principles “of Islam, “the religion of tolerance and moderation”. The kingdom “will keep on fighting against extremism and terrorism”—a message directly meant to counter the outrageous edicts released by leading clerics against anything they perceived a threat to Saudi society.

The crown Prince took the clergy as a great hurdle in the way of kingdom’s socio-economic development. He, therefore, trimmed its wings of power by stripping it of its policing powers. Instead, the government took the reins into its hands to guide the society. Now, with the passive and emaciated clergy, Prince is aggressively pursuing his agenda of reforms.

“Vision 2030” is the bedrock of Prince Mohammad’s scheme of socio-economic change. Under this vision, he is going to transform country’s economic physiognomy. Vision 2030 aims at steering Saudi’s economy towards more diversified and privatized structure. It expounds goals and measures in various fields, from developing non-oil revenue and privatization of the economy to e-government and sustainable development.

To this end, Bin Salman, in October 2017, at the inaugural conference of Future investment initiative in Riyadh, announced the plan for the creation of NEOM, a $ 500 billion economic zone to cover an area of 26000 sq km on Saudi Arabia’s Red Sea cost, extending into Japan and Egypt.  NEOM aims at attracting investment in sectors of renewable energy, biotechnology, robotics and advanced manufacturing.

 A project to build Saudi Arabia’s first nuclear reactor was also announced by Prince Mohammad in November 2018. The kingdom aspires to build 16 nuclear facilities over the next 20 years. Efforts to diversify Saudi energy sector also include wind and solar energy.

Apart from this, a much awaited high-speed railway line connecting two holiest cities of Islam Mecca and Medina was inaugurated by Mohammad bin Salman (MBS) in last week of September 2018. The Harmain Express is 450 km line travelling up to 300 km/h that can transport around 60 million passengers annually.

In addition, before the outbreak of corona virus, in order to boost tourism industry, the kingdom started issuing e-visas to tourists. It  opened up its borders to fans of live sport, music and culture for the first time with the launch of a new online visa process dedicated to welcoming international tourists.

Moreover, in 2016, Prince Mohammad Bin Salman (MBS) shared the idea for “Green cards” for non-Saudi foreigners with Al-Arabia Journalist Turki Al-Dakhil. In 2019, Saudi cabinet approved a new residency scheme “Premium Residency” for foreigners. The scheme will enable expatriates to permanently reside, own property and invest in the kingdom.

Prince MBS is staunch proponent of women emancipation. He contends that dream of progress and sustainable development cannot be realized unless women become part and parcel of workforce. He, therefore, has brought about many reforms pertaining to the status of women in Saudi society.

For this very purpose, he allowed women to drive in the kingdom. Driving licenses are, therefore, being issued to women at a very fast pace; the number of women drivers on the road, according to Saudi officials, is expected to grow to 3 million by 2020. Further, Saudi women may now attend soccer matches and sporting events. Gyms and fitness centers for women are being established. They can also join the military and intelligence services. They are allowed to open their own business without male’s permission and to travel abroad independently without male guardian. In this very spirit, Saudi Arabia appointed its first woman to head Saudi stock exchange.

On entertainment side, Saudi government has established an entertainment authority that began hosting comedy shows, professional wrestling, live music concerts and monster truck rallies.

In April 2017, Prince MBS announced a project to build one of worlds largest cultural, sports and entertainment cities in AL-Qidiya, southwest of Riyadh. The plan includes a safari and a six flags theme park.

Additionally, cultural transformation of the kingdom is also underway. It held its first public concert by female singer in December 2017. And in January 2018, a sport stadium in Jeddah became the first in the kingdom to admit women. In April 2018, the first public cinema opened in Saudi Arabia after a ban of 35 years, with plans to have more than 2000 screens running by 2030.

This all became possible, when clerical hold over the kingdom was eviscerated. The orthodox clergy with its antiquated and rigid doctrines was the biggest obstacle in the way of progress and development of the kingdom. Addressing this issue, Prince MBS said that he aimed to have Saudi Arabia start “Returning to what we were before—a country of moderate Islam that is open to all religions and to the world.” He told the country’s clerics that the deal the royal family struck with them after the 1979 siege of Grand Mosque in Mecca was to be re-negotiated.

The crown prince believes that industrialization and wahhabism are mutually exclusive. The wahhabies are committed to fixed social and gender relationships. These are consistent with an economy built on oil sales, but industrialization requires a dynamic culture with social relations constantly shifting.

 Inter alia, Ayaan Haris Ali, a celebrated author and human rights activist claimed that if MBS “succeeds in his modernization efforts, Saudis will benefit from new opportunities and freedoms, and the world will benefit from curtailing Wahhabi radicalization agenda. A decade from now, the kingdom could look more like the UAE, its prosperous and relatively forward looking neighbor”.

In the end, I would like to quote Prince Mohammad bin Salman who while addressing to packed audience at the Future Investment Initiative forum in Riyadh said that Middle East can be the “New Europe” and that he would like to see the economic transformation of the region happen within his life time. He said: “his ‘war’ was restoring the Middle East to its past glory. “I believe that the new Europe is the Middle East”. “Saudi Arabia in five years, he added,” will be completely different”.

Continue Reading

Publications

Latest

Africa31 mins ago

#EndSARSProtests: A Chronicle of Nigeria’s #BlackLivesMatter

The chilling murder of African-American, George Floyd, back in May, by a couple of ‘white’ police officers in Minneapolis, the...

Eastern Europe3 hours ago

Azerbaijani civilians are under Armenian military attacks: Time to live up to ‘never again’

2020 marks with the global celebration of the 75th anniversary of the United Nations and entering into force of its...

Human Rights5 hours ago

World Bank-UNICEF: 1 in 6 children lives in extreme poverty

An estimated 1 in 6 children – or 356 million globally – lived in extreme poverty before the pandemic, and...

News7 hours ago

Both sides obliged to ‘spare and protect civilians’ over Nagorno-Karabakh fighting

The UN Secretary-General on Sunday condemned “all attacks on populated areas” in and around the Nagorno-Karabakh zone of conflict, as Armenia and...

Environment9 hours ago

New State of Nature report points to persisting pressures on Europe’s nature

European Commission published its latest assessment of the state of nature in the European Union. It provides a comprehensive overview...

Reports11 hours ago

MENA: Trade and Regional Integration are Critical to Economic Recovery in the Post-Covid Era

Trade and integration — within the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) region and with the rest of the world...

Finance11 hours ago

4 Steps to a Successful International Expansion

Doing business internationally is not only a trivial thing nowadays but is also a must for many entrepreneurs who want...

Trending