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Saudi King’s Reform Step vs. Crown Prince’s Ambitious Wahhabism

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The Saudi Arabian monarchy is now led by two counterposed figures: the reforming King Abdullah and the fanatical Wahhabi crown prince Nayef. Recent incidents in the kingdom, although at first glance minor, may indicate the approach of a significant confrontation between modernizing and retrogressive tendencies in the royal family.

Abdullah of Saudi Arabia

On December 28, the Saudi newspaper Al-Watan announced that by order of King Abdullah, women wishing to run as candidates or to vote in municipal elections scheduled for 2015 will not require approval of a male relative, designated a “guardian” or mehram.

Fahad Al-Anzi, a member of the all-male Shura Council, an appointed consultative body that serves currently as Saudi Arabia’s approximation of a parliament, said the decision was a royal decree. It cannot be challenged. But as noted by the Associated Press, “Despite the historic decision by the king to allow women the right to participate in the country’s only open elections, male guardian laws in Saudi Arabia remain largely unchanged. Women cannot travel, work, study abroad, marry, get divorced, or gain admittance to a public hospital without permission from a male guardian.”

While abolition of a requirement for male guardianship in elections removes only one impediment to Saudi women’s equality, it is an obstacle at the top of the system. Once women can vote and compete for public office without the consent of a guardian, similar restrictions on their lives presumably could be rescinded more easily.

Joined to the royal family, the ultra-fundamentalist Wahhabi interpretation of Islam is the state sect and the second leg on which the regime stands. The House of Saud and the House of Ibn Abd Al-Wahhab, the 18th-century founder of Wahhabism, have intermarried through the centuries.

It is therefore unsurprising that King Abdullah’s reforms have proceeded by small steps. If Abdullah, at 87 and ill, is to use his waning years to modernize his country, he must do so against Wahhabi clerics as well as intra-royal opposition. The king has now, as it were, pushed a single pawn forward in a chess game with Nayef, the champion of the Wahhabis and Abdullah’s presumed successor. Even as crown prince, Nayef continues to direct the ministry of the interior, controlling the police and anti-terrorism activities, and supporting the morals patrols (the notorious mutawiyin).

His anti-terrorism program has been praised by Barack Obama, who commented on Nayef’s rise to the post of crown prince at the end of October, “We in the United States know and respect him for his strong commitment to combating terrorism.” But Nayef holds that as long as Al Qaeda in the Arabic Peninsula (AQAP) stays quiet on Saudi territory, its adherents should be “corrected” and rehabilitated. Abdullah Al-Asiri, an AQAP member, killed himself in 2009 while attempting to murder Nayef’s son, Prince Muhammad Bin Nayef, who is deputy minister of the interior and Nayef’s chief assistant in anti-terrorism. In reaction, Nayef commented benignly, “This incident will not change this policy by which we open the door for those who repent.” Nayef’s benevolence may represent a failure to perceive AQAP terrorists as determined enemies.

King Abdullah is at least nine years older than Nayef. Abdullah’s popularity with his subjects, thanks to his reforming reputation, has mainly spared the Saudi state the turmoil that has affected the rest of the Middle East for the past year. In November, a brief protest by Shia Muslims in the country’s Eastern Province led to four demonstrators being killed by police. Saudi authorities, with considerable justification, blamed agitation among the Shias on Iran. But the regime deflected any wider discontent by raising public sector minimum wages and paying a two-month bonus to state employees in 2011.

Last year’s budget also allocated 60,000 new jobs to Nayef’s interior ministry. And in an apparent bid to line up the Saudi Wahhabi clerical class behind him, Nayef, beginning before his appointment as crown prince, sponsored a series of conferences on religious issues. In September, while still only a prince, Nayef appeared to support King Abdullah’s ameliorative course, by hosting an international parley of Islamic scholars to condemn takfir, in which Muslims are declared to be apostates from their religion, and vulnerable to murder and pillage, based on doctrinal differences. Nayef read a welcoming address by King Abdullah that condemned takfir as an abusive practice, the growth of which the conference blamed on errors in the Saudi educational curriculum.

On December 28, however, now-Crown Prince Nayef opened a conference on “Salafism” – the cover name used for Wahhabism – at the Imam Muhammad Bin Saud Islamic University in Riyadh, typically known as “the terrorist factory.” In publicity leading up to the event, university representative Ahmed bin Yousif Al-Darwish admitted, to the authoritative Arab News, the problem of an “extremist Salafism,” characterized by “terrorism and murder . . . extremism or takfir,” with which the kingdom does not wish to be identified.

Nayef inaugurated the seminar. He declared that “Saudi Arabia would continue to follow the Salafist ideology,” and “denounced those who create doubts about” the doctrine. But the conference agenda included other, bolder claims by the Wahhabis. A certain Ibrahim Bin Nasir Al-Humoud argued, as described in the Arab News, that “the most distinctive feature of this approach is that it is divine. He stressed that this divine approach is so obvious that it does not need interpretation.”

Sheikh Badr Al-Hassan Al-Qasmi dispensed with the “Salafi” camouflage by presenting an encomium to Muhammad Ibn Abd Al-Wahhab, the progenitor of the cult. A Moroccan philosopher, Ahmed Bou Oud, told the “Salafism” colloquy that criticizing the Saudi state religious dogma was “tantamount to belittling Islam itself.”

A woman named Muneerah from the Princess Noura University in Riyadh, founded as the Riyadh University for Women in 1970 and relaunched on a grandiose scale by King Abdullah in May 2011, proclaimed that Wahhabism does not rely on any particular interpretation of Islamic jurisprudence, but is present in all of them. In other words, all believing Muslims are presumed to be, or must declare themselves as, Wahhabis.

Muneerah also asserted that “Salafi” doctrines date back 1,300 years, to the early days of Islam, a ridiculous anachronism, since the term “Salafi” was used very rarely by Muslim authors – and never in reference to an ideology – until the 19th century. It was then adopted by modernist reformers, who did not engage in violence against Muslims or non-Muslims, unlike the “Salafis” today. The term “Salafi” was appropriated by Saudi Wahhabis in recent decades, reflecting the repulsion many Muslims feel toward the Saudi Wahhabi legacy of violence, devastation, and religious infiltration of non-Saudi Muslim communities, from the Balkans to India.

Such fantasies wipe away the history of Islamic intellectual diversity in favor of a single credo that permits no reflection, criticism, or elaboration of principles. In Saudi media coverage of Nayef’s theological summit, the customary praise for King Abdullah was missing. The aim of the convocation was clear: to reinforce the power of the Wahhabi clerics, their control of religious affairs, their influence on all other aspects of public life in Saudi Arabia, and their loyalty to Nayef. King Abdullah’s latest reform gambit has been matched, at least rhetorically, by an aggressive strategy of defense from Crown Prince Nayef. 

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