By James M. Dorsey
A public apology by a prominent Salafi scholar sheds a light on Saudi crown prince Mohammed bin Salman’s version of ‘moderate Islam,’ his effort to shape the Middle East and North Africa in his mould, and the replacement of religion with hyper-nationalism as the source of his legitimacy.
Claiming to speak in the name of the Sahwa or Awakening movement, Aidh al-Qarni, one of the kingdom’s most popular religious scholars, broke with the Muslim Brotherhood-linked group’s past call for political reform and instead wholeheartedly endorsed Prince Mohammed’s undefined notion of an Islam that would be free of extremism.
“I would like to apologize to Saudi society for…the extremism, the violation of the Qur’an and the Sunnah, the violation of the tolerance of Islam, the violation of the moderate and merciful nature of Islam. I support today the moderate and open-to-the-world Islam that has been called for by crown prince Mohammed bin Salman,” Mr. Al-Qarni said, wearing a Salafi-style chequered red and white headdress.
More than simply a declaration of support for the Saudi leader, Mr. Al-Qarni’s apology provided ideological justification for Prince Mohammed’s so far only partially successful efforts to ensure that regional states are ruled by governments of his liking, refusal to condemn assaults on Islam like in China’s north-western province of Islam, and crackdown at home that potentially has put some of his past colleagues on death row.
Mr. Al-Qarni was not among Islamic scholars that have been detained, many of them in a crackdown in September 2017. Those arrested and potentially facing execution included some of the kingdom’s other most popular reformist preachers such as Salman al-Audah and Mr. Al-Qarni’s namesake, Awad al-Qarni.
Charges against the two men, as well as author and broadcaster Ali al-Omari, include stirring public discord, inciting people against the ruler, public support for imprisoned dissidents and alleged ties to the Brotherhood and Qatar. A Saudi-United Arab Emirates-led alliance has been boycotting Qatar economically and diplomatically for the past two years.
Mr. Al-Omari, a former United Nations Goodwill Ambassador for Youth and Humanity, is a member of the Qatar-based International Union of Muslim Scholars founded by controversial scholar Yusuf al-Qaradawi. Mr. Al-Qaradawi is widely believed to be a major spiritual influence within the Brotherhood.
Mr. Al-Qarni’s endorsement of Prince Mohammed and reports that two of his colleagues may be executed came as Human Rights Watch rang alarm bells about the fate of Murtaja Qureiris, an 18-year old who could face a similar fate.
Mr. Qureiris was arrested when he was 13 for participating in 2011 in a bike protest in eastern Saudi Arabia three years earlier when he was 10 years old.
Mr. Qureiris was charged with belonging to a terrorist group, helping to construct Molotov cocktails, shooting at security forces and participating in a protest at the funeral of his brother, who was killed in an allegedly violent demonstration.
Mr. Al-Qarni didn’t do his former colleagues any favours by asserting that Qatar was funding Saudi scholars. “Of course, people get money… Saudis went there (Qatar),” Mr. Al-Qarni said, refusing to identify who he was referring to.
‘Qatar Papers,’ a recently published book in France, purportedly based on hitherto unpublished documents, asserted that the Gulf state was funding numerous mosques and individuals in Europe associated with the Brotherhood.
A TV series broadcast during this year’s Ramadan, when programs get their highest ratings, provided background music for Mr. Al-Qarni’s apology.
Rewriting history through the eyes of a Saudi family, Al-Asouf (Winds of Change) blames the Sahwa for some of the region’s most momentous events, including the 1979 Iranian revolution, the occupation by militants of the Grand Mosque in Mecca that same year, and the 1981 assassination of Egyptian President Anwar Sadat because of his signing of a peace treaty with Israel.
In line with Prince Mohammed’s assertion that Saudi Arabia embraced a more moderate form of Islam prior to the events of 1979, Al-Asouf suggests that Sahwa’s ultra-conservatism bolstered by its hostility towards the West, misogynist attitudes towards women and intolerance, influenced a generation of Saudis.
Adding to Mr. Al-Qarni’s apology and Al-Asouf’s messaging, Adil al-Kalbani, a former imam of the Grand Mosque and often straight-talking member of the kingdom’s ultra-conservative religious establishment, who has seven million followers on Twitter, made a 180 degrees U-turn on his past statements that supported severe restrictions of women’s rights and denounced Shiites as apostates.
Challenging one of the kingdom’s major taboos, Mr. Al-Kalbani denounced gender segregation in mosques as “a kind of phobia," arguing that in the era of the Prophet Mohammad, men and women prayed together.
“Now unfortunately we’ve become paranoid to the level that in a mosque, a place of worship, it’s as if women are in a fortress,” he said. “They’re completely isolated from the men, not seeing or hearing them except through microphones or speakers.”
Drawing red lines, Mr. Al-Qarni sought to provide religious justification to Prince Mohammed’s policies. The crown prince’s concept of moderate Islam, involving absolute obedience to the ruler, was one red line. The interests of Saudi Arabia as defined by Prince Mohammed was another.
“I went and pledged allegiance to the King and swore on the Qur’an and the Sunnah. I went on the night of the 27th (of May) to Mecca and pledged allegiance to Mohammed bin Salman. You pledge allegiance for better or for worse… I declare here that I am now one of the swords of the state,” Mr. Al-Qarni said.
Asserting that Saudi Arabia was being targeted by Iran, Turkish president Recep Tayyip Erdogan and the Muslim Brotherhood, Mr. Al -Qarni’s definition of the kingdom as a red line appeared to break with Sahwa and the Saudi past religious embrace of Islam’s concept of the ummah, the global community of the faithful.
In the words of Saudi Arabia scholar Raihan Ismail, Mr. Al-Qarni was rejecting the notion of the ummah because it “undermines the primacy of the nation-state.”
In doing so, Mr. Al-Qarni was attempting to provide religious cover for Prince Mohammed’s apparent endorsement during a visit to Beijing earlier this year of China’s crackdown on Turkic Muslims and his apparent support for a US plan to resolve the Israeli-Palestinian conflict that is widely believed to favour Israel and deny Palestinian aspirations.
Anwar Gargash, the minister of state for foreign affairs of Saud Arabia’s closest ally, the United Arab Emirates, hailed Mr. Al-Qarni’s apology as an important step “as we close the door to the stage of extremism and the employment of religion for political purposes.”
Mr. Gargash’s comments put a finger on differences in the approaches towards Islam of Emirati crown prince Mohammed bin Zayed and his Saudi counterpart.
Viscerally opposed to political Islam, UAE Prince Mohamed rather than the Saudi crown prince has been the driver in support by the two Gulf states of anti-Islamist forces across the Middle East and North Africa.
In fact, Prince Mohammed’s notion of moderate Islam, although projected as a break with Saudi Arabia’s past propagation of ultra-conservative strands of Islam that critics charged contributed to breeding grounds of violence, amounts to a form of conservative political Islam that is designed to bolster his autocratic regime rather than reform the faith.
Similarly dissident Saudi scholar Madawi al-Rasheed asserted that the kingdom’s decision to recently convene three Gulf, Arab and Islamic summits during Ramadan in the holy city of Mecca was “nothing but utter Islamism.”
Ms. Al-Rasheed argued that the summits exposed “the contradiction in the recent Saudi push to ban and criminalise Islamism. The three conferences are not being held to discuss theological matters, but to seek support for Saudi Arabia's king over serious, controversial and divisive political crises,” she said.
Dr. James M. Dorsey is a senior fellow at Nanyang Technological University’s S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies, an adjunct senior research fellow at the National University of Singapore’s Middle East Institute and co-director of the University of Wuerzburg’s Institute of Fan Culture.