The Crown Prince of Saudi Arabia, First Deputy Prime Minister Mohammad bin Salman bin Abdulaziz Al Saud has announced at a forum for foreign investors in Riyadh that Saudi Arabia wants to switch to “a more moderate Islam.”
“All we're doing is going back to what we were: a moderate Islam that is open to all religions and to the world and to all traditions and people,” he noted adding that “70% of the Saudi population is under the age of 30.
“In all honesty, we will not spend 30 years of our lives dealing with extremist ideologies. We will destroy them today and immediately,” he said.
EAD asked experts to comment on how seriously these words should be treated while the state ideology of Saudi Arabia now is Wahhabism.
Professor at Moscow State Linguistic University, expert in Islam studies Roman Silantyev believes that “the focus on Wahhabization of the whole world put by Saudi Arabia at the turn of the 20th and 21st centuries stopped being politically profitable, Riyadh has realized it and is trying to change the situation.
“Such things used to happen in history of various countries. Let me remind of the first decades of the USSR, when Moscow was financing expansion of Communism around the world and even established a special foundation for it, the Comintern. Hhowever, by the end of 1930s Stalin realized the organization was harming the USSR image, which was followed by a purge in Comintern, and then, in 1943, it was dissolved. So, Saudi Arabia is trying to get rid of the reputation of a country that exports Wahhabism. For this aim, it started gradually oppressing the most radical imams,” the expert says.
Orientalist Igor Pankratenko finds several reasons behind the statement made by the Saudi crown prince. “First of all, the ruling dynasty is constantly facing conflicts with the most conservative part of the spiritual leadership who do not hesitate criticizing intentions of the monarchy to modernize the country and openly calls any reforms ‘offence against traditions’,” the expert believes.
“Conservative clergymen have become an obstacle on the way of the Vision 2030 strategy; they cause a serious damage to the image of Riyadh in the eyes of its key ally, Washington. Well, the U.S. has never been confused by some aspect of behavior of its strategic partners (‘a son of a bitch, but he's our son of a bitch’). However, times change, and now, apart from loyalty, it needs that some certain conditions are observed,” says Pankratenko.
According to him, the statement made by Mohammad bin Salman is a kind of Black Spot for the conservative clergy.
“It is a clearly articulated message that in case they continue confronting the reforms, the authorities will just put them aside in the political life and do their best to make them more marginal. One has to admit, such a decisive action could not have come at a better time. More than 70% of the people are the youth the ‘Little Prince’ was talking about. They are burdened by the archaic social relations that the conservative clergy call to preserve. Well, Islam is a value for young Saudis and the New Arabs, but they want it to be more modern, granting more freedoms and introducing elements of the western consumerist society. Mohammad bin Salman who is acting with approval of his king father has all the opportunities to get astride this strive for change and achieve fundamental reforms in the state ideology. Moreover, a significant part of the ruling elite has come to understanding of the need for modernization, which automatically although with certain reservations makes them supporters of the prince’s idea and his Vision 2030 strategy,” concludes Igor Pankratenko.
Expert at the National Strategy Institute, editor-in-chief of the Muslim World journal Rais Suleymanov says one must not jump into conclusions: “Clearly, the Saudis have an image of a country that supports Islamic radicalism all over the world: through education of foreign students in their high schools, dissemination of fundamentalist literature, financing Islamic educations institutions in other countries, support of terrorist groups via a network of charity foundations. This image is very harmful to the Riyadh reputation. However, one must not expect that Saudi Arabia would abandon Wahhabism as its state ideology,” warns the expert. He sees “willingness to make Wahhabism less appalling as an ideological doctrine, reduce the level of radicalism and add some gloss of certain moderateness.”
“It is absolutely unclear what the prince means talking about a more moderate Islam,” he stresses. “A recent permission for women to drive in Saudi Arabia does not mean that they are becoming legally equal with men in other fields,” continues the expert. Only then one can trust Saudi Arabia’s words about its willingness to be open to all other religions, when Christian churches and synagogues open in the country. “Meanwhile, even Shiite Muslims are persecuted there, and foreign Christian workers practicing their religious rites are out of question,” Suleymanov continues.
It is worth mentioning that the statements that Saudi Arabia is going to combat religious radicalism appeared after an international counter-terrorism center was inaugurated in Riyadh on May 21 with participation of Donald Trump, which makes the sincerity of the intention look doubtful.
EADaily Middle East Bureau