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Wahhabi Internal Contradictions as Saudi Arabia Seeks Wider Gulf Leadership

2:33 PM, May 21, 2012 • By IRFAN AL-ALAWI and STEPHEN SCHWARTZ
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Wahhabi resistance to Abdullah’s reform program is not, however, to be disregarded. Prince Nayef’s apparent concession to women athletes was followed by a stipulation by Saudi Olympic Committee president Prince Nawaf Bin Faysal that official endorsement would be denied to female participants in the Saudi Olympic team.

In further evidence of Wahhabi intransigence, foreign Asian and African women working as domestic servants in Saudi Arabia continue to experience extreme degradation. In April 2011, the Indonesian government instituted a moratorium on immigration by its nationals to Saudi Arabia when a 54-year old grandmother, Ruyati Binti Satubi, a household worker from West Java, was beheaded by the Saudis for murder. Saudi Arabia announced that at the end of April 2012, the exclusion of Indonesian domestic workers would be lifted. When Satubi was executed, 40 Indonesian women faced beheading in Saudi Arabia. By last month, 22 had been repatriated, while 25 more remained under death sentences.

Still, King Abdullah is as persistent in his efforts to expand women’s rights, as the Wahhabi opposition to it continues. Early in May, the king dismissed 81-year-old Sheikh Abdul-Mohsen Al-Obeikan, a Wahhabi adviser considered previously to be close to the monarch. Al-Obeikan had argued openly against improvements for Saudi women, in a radio interview denouncing Westernization and secularism, as “schemes by influential people to corrupt Muslim society by removing women from their natural position.” After his removal, Al-Obeikan issued a Twitter comment in which he warned against “bad advisors” to the royal family.

In 2010, Al-Obeikan was forbidden by King Abdullah from delivering fatwas (which are religious opinions, and not limited to death sentences as in the case of Salman Rushdie) on television. The royal order removing Al-Obeikan from regular broadcasting was described as part of a Saudi campaign to curb media and websites that specialize in “instant fatwas” without the approval of the state clerics in the High Authority of Religious Scholars. But Al-Obeikan had attracted attention earlier that year as the author of one of the more bizarre opinions in Islamic jurisprudence. He claimed that the Wahhabi-dictated separation between unrelated men and women could be avoided if a man drank the breast milk of a woman, establishing a family relationship between them.

King Abdullah’s outreach to Saudi women avoids such weird, Wahhabi schemes, but the transformation of the kingdom will not be accomplished until the Wahhabi sect loses its authority as “official Islam.” As has been visible during the seven years of King Abdullah’s reign, such an achievement will not be easy.

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