[Marxism] Saudi Prince, Asserting Power, Brings Clerics to Heel
lnp3 at panix.com
Mon Nov 6 09:05:28 MST 2017
(So Wahhabism is being targeted in the crackdown. Interesting.)
NY Times, Nov. 6 2017
Saudi Prince, Asserting Power, Brings Clerics to Heel
By BEN HUBBARD
BURAIDA, Saudi Arabia — For decades, Saudi Arabia’s religious
establishment wielded tremendous power, with bearded enforcers policing
public behavior, prominent sheikhs defining right and wrong, and
religious associations using the kingdom’s oil wealth to promote their
intolerant interpretation of Islam around the world.
Now, Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman is curbing their power as part of
his drive to impose his control on the kingdom and press for a more open
brand of Islam.
Before the arrests on Saturday of his fellow royals and former ministers
on corruption allegations, Prince Mohammed had stripped the religious
police of their arrest powers and expanded the space for women in public
life, including promising them the right to drive.
Dozens of hard-line clerics have been detained, while others were
designated to speak publicly about respect for other religions, a topic
once anathema to the kingdom’s religious apparatus.
If the changes take hold, they could mean a historic reordering of the
Saudi state by diminishing the role of hard-line clerics in shaping
policy. That shift could reverberate abroad by moderating the
exportation of the kingdom’s uncompromising version of Islam, Wahhabism,
which has been accused of fueling intolerance and terrorism.
Bringing the religious establishment to heel is also a crucial part of
the prince’s efforts to take the traditional levers of Saudi power under
his control. The arrests on Saturday appeared to cripple potential
rivals within the royal family and send a warning to the business
community to toe the line.
Prince Mohammed has taken control of the country’s three main security
forces, and now is corralling the powerful religious establishment.
As evidence of that, the kingdom’s chief religious body, the Council of
Senior Scholars, endorsed the arrests over the weekend, saying that
Islamic law “instructs us to fight corruption and our national interest
The 32-year-old crown prince outlined his religious goals at a recent
investment conference in Riyadh, saying the kingdom needed a “moderate,
balanced Islam that is open to the world and to all religions and all
traditions and peoples.”
But such top-down changes will face huge challenges in a deeply
conservative society steeped in the idea that Saudi Arabia’s religious
strictures set it apart from the rest of the world as a land of
unadulterated Islam. Enforcing those changes will also require
overhauling the state’s sprawling religious bureaucracy, many of whose
employees fear that the kingdom is forsaking its principles.
“For sure, it does not make me comfortable,” a government cleric in
Buraida, a conservative city north of Riyadh, said of the new acceptance
of gender mixing and music at public events. “Anything that has sin in
it, anything that angers the Almighty — it’s a problem.”
The government has tried to silence such sentiments by arresting clerics
and warning members of the religious police not to speak publicly about
the loss of their powers, according to their relatives.
All clerics interviewed for this article spoke on condition of anonymity
for fear that they, too, would be arrested for breaking with the
“They did a pre-emptive strike,” one cleric said of the arrests. “All
those who thought about saying no to the government got arrested.”
He acknowledged that many conservatives have reservations about the new
direction but would go along, in part because Saudi Islam emphasizes
obedience to the ruler.
“It’s not like they held a referendum and said, ‘Do you want to go this
way or that way?’” he said. “But in the end, people go through the door
that you open for them.”
The clerics have long been subservient to the royal family, but their
independence has eroded as they became government functionaries and have
been forced to accept — and at times sanction — policies they disliked,
like the arrival of American troops, whom they considered infidels,
during the Gulf War in 1990.
“In a sense, Mohammed bin Salman is trying to fight with a religious
establishment that is already weakened,” said Stéphane Lacroix, a
scholar of political Islam at Sciences Po, the Paris Institute of
Political Studies. “Most of the Wahhabi clerics are not happy with what
is happening, but preserving the alliance with the monarchy is what
matters most. They have much more to lose by protesting.”
The alliance of the clerics and the royal family dates to the founding
of the Saudi dynasty in the 1700s. Since then, the royal family governed
with guidance from the clerics, who legitimized their rule.
The alliance persisted through the foundation of the modern Saudi state
by the crown prince’s grandfather in 1932, giving the kingdom its strict
Islamic character. Women shroud their bodies in black gowns, shops close
periodically throughout the day for prayer, alcohol is forbidden and
grave crimes are punished by beheading.
Public observance of any religion other than Islam is banned, and
clerics run the justice system, which hands down harsh punishments like
floggings and prison for crimes like disobeying one’s father and apostasy.
Human rights groups say the kingdom’s textbooks still promote
intolerance, and conservatives in the education ministry pass their
views along to students.
While the prohibition on the mixing of unrelated men and women is
starting to change, gender segregation remains the norm.
Crown Prince Mohammed, who rose to prominence after his father became
king in 2015, has shown little deference to the traditional religious
establishment while spearheading an unprecedented social opening.
When the government took arrest powers away from the religious police
last year, many Saudis were so shocked that they suspected it was not
real. That change paved the way for new entertainment options, including
concerts and dance performances.
In addition to promising women the right to drive next June, the
government has named women to high-profile jobs and announced that it
would allow them to enter soccer stadiums, another blow to the ban on
mixing of the sexes.
In pushing such reforms, Crown Prince Mohammed is betting the kingdom’s
large youth population cares more about entertainment and economic
opportunities than religious dogma.
Many young Saudis have cheered the new direction, and would love to see
the clerics banished from public life. But the changes have shocked
“Society in general at this time is very scared,” said another cleric in
Buraida. “They feel that the issue is negative. It will push women into
society. That is what is in their minds, that it is not right and that
it will bring more corruption than benefits.”
Like other clerics, he saw no religious reason to bar women from driving
but said he was against changing the status of women in ways that he
said violated Islamic law.
“They want her to dance. They want her to go to the cinema. They want
her to uncover her face. They want her to show her legs and thighs. That
is liberal thought,” he said. “It is a corrupting ideology.”
Still, some find the recent moves encouraging.
“If they have to take serious measures to stamp out the uglier parts of
Salafism that permeate Islam around the world, it could be on the whole
quite a good thing,” said Cole Bunzel, a fellow in the Program on
Extremism at George Washington University.
But a cleric who works in education in Riyadh said he worried that
pushing the conservatives too far could drive the most extreme ones
underground, where they could be drawn to violence.
Precedents for such blowback dot Saudi history.
In 1979, extremists who accused the royal family of being insufficiently
Islamic seized the Grand Mosque in Mecca, shocking the Muslim world.
Later, Osama bin Laden founded Al Qaeda after breaking with Saudi Arabia
over its reliance on Western troops for protection. More recently,
thousands of Saudis have joined the Islamic State for similar reasons.
But precedents also exist of clerics adopting changes they initially
Many fought the introduction of television; now, they have their own
satellite channels. Others resisted education for girls; they now send
their daughters to school.
One cleric said he had not wanted his wife and daughters to have
cellphones at first either, but later changed his mind. The same could
happen with driving.
“With time, if society sees that the decision is positive and safe, they
will accept it,” he said.
Karam Shoumali contributed reporting from Istanbul.
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