By Robert F. Worth
April 4, 2014
RIYADH, Saudi Arabia- When this country’s ultraconservative clerics make news, it is often for embarrassing reasons: unleashing Fatwas against soap operas, for instance, or declaring Mickey Mouse to be a “soldier of Satan.”
Lately, however, one of the kingdom’s best-known religious figures, Salman al-Awda, has been making a very different kind of trouble.
Mr. Awda had something akin to a conversion moment during the Arab uprisings of 2011, and since then has become a passionate promoter of democracy and civic tolerance. He has more than 4.5 million followers on Twitter and several million on his regular YouTube broadcasts, making him a significant thorn in the side of the Saudi monarchy. He can be dangerously blunt, at least by Saudi standards, and the government has made its displeasure clear, barring him from print media, television and foreign travel.
“The gulf governments are fighting Arab democracy, because they fear it will come here,” said Mr. Awda, a 57-year-old cleric with a reddish henna-dyed beard and an air of slow-moving serenity. “Look what they have done in Egypt — sending billions of dollars right after the coup last summer. This is a gulf project, not an Egyptian project. And the Saudi government is losing its friends. If it continues on this path, it will lose its own people and invite disaster.”
Many analysts agree with that warning, and see Mr. Awda — who first came to prominence 20 years ago as a hard-line conservative activist — as a populist figure. His broad appeal, in a passionately religious country where most clerics are government-paid flunkies, hints at a slowly rising discontent with authoritarian rule, they say.
Mr. Awda, alone among Saudi clerics, openly welcomed the Arab uprisings of 2011, and even published a book called “Questions of Revolution.” Promptly banned here but widely disseminated on the Internet, the book drew on Islamic texts and history to reach some very unorthodox conclusions: that democracy is the only legitimate form of government; that Islam does not permit theocracy; that separation of powers is required; that the worst despotism is that practiced in the name of religion.
Those principles may sound tame to a Western ear. But for a clergy that has long sanctified absolute monarchy, they are extraordinary, and represent a radical break with the past.
In another departure, the book was written in an accessible style and from a relatively global outlook, citing Islamic jurisprudence alongside Western figures like Machiavelli and Rousseau.
Many Arab liberals still view him with extreme suspicion. In part, this is knee-jerk; they fear that he, and any other Islamist who promotes democracy, is merely using it as a bridge to power. But Mr. Awda’s own history, they say, gives them more reason for distrust.
IN the early 1990s, Mr. Awda was a leader of the Awakening movement of conservative ideologues who criticized their government for allowing American troops to enter the kingdom during the 1991 Persian Gulf war. He was cited approvingly by Osama bin Laden, and he spent five years in prison for inciting rebellion against the monarchy on Islamic grounds.
On his release in 1999, he was far more cautious, and the authorities allowed him to start broadcasting a television show on the Dubai-based MBC network that steered clear of political themes and drew a wide following. It was abruptly cancelled three years ago after he spoke out in favor of the Arab Spring.
To many of his secular critics, he remains an Islamist wolf in disguise. Even his recent liberal turn, they say, merely reflects the miscalculation of an opportunist who expected the House of Saud to fall. They also mock him as a hypocrite. In 2003, they note, Mr. Awda made a personal appeal to the interior minister to rescue his teenage son, who had run away to Iraq to fight the American invaders. (The minister sent a military helicopter to the border and brought the boy home.)
But many others credit Mr. Awda with a genuine personal evolution. He grew up in Buraydah, the kingdom’s fiercely conservative desert heartland, and was educated in a puritanical and xenophobic milieu. His views began to shift during his imprisonment, when he had time to read more widely, according to a memoir he published years later. The violence of Al Qaeda’s terrorist attacks in Saudi Arabia between 2003 and 2005 also appears to have pushed him toward a less absolutist stance.
That gradual broadening mirrors a slow liberalization in Saudi society over the past 20 years. Mr. Awda has a keen ear for the public mood and often casts himself as a paternal guiding figure in his YouTube broadcasts. In the fall, he released a segment titled “Ana Mithlak” — I am like you — showing images of Asian and African immigrants as he intoned a poetic text about the need to respect others.
That may sound anodyne, but the broadcast aired during a government crackdown on illegal immigrants that set off some ugly racist confrontations. To many Saudis, it was in keeping with Mr. Awda’s call for a milder, more inclusive vision for the country.
ASKED about his altered views, Mr. Awda played down the change, saying only that he “sees more clearly” now than he did when he was younger. But there is no question that he is far more convinced of the need for popular participation in government, and willing — once again — to risk the royal family’s anger.
He openly declares his admiration for the democratic inclinations of the Muslim Brotherhood, which is anathema to the Saudi royals. (The government officially declared the Brotherhood a terrorist group last month). On the war in Syria — a subject of enormous concern here — Mr. Awda is withering about his government’s role.
“The Saudi position on Syria?” Mr. Awda said, a hint of sarcasm in his large brown eyes. “Let’s see: the Saudi government hates Bashar al-Assad; hates Al Qaeda; hates certain Salafi groups; hates the Kurds; and hates the groups aligned with Qatar and Turkey. So what does it like?”
Mr. Awda was among the first Saudis to warn that the civil war would attract a ruinous influx of jihadis if it went on too long. Here, too, his view is somewhat less parochial than those of most Saudis, who tend to favor the Sunni side in any conflict. “The sectarian campaign is there from both sides, Sunni and Shia,” he said gloomily.
Perhaps the most trenchant critique of Mr. Awda is that he loves the limelight, and hones his message to appeal to Saudi Arabia’s large youth population. Some critics say he sees himself as a potential successor to Yusuf al-Qaradawi, the 87-year-old Egyptian theologian based in Qatar who has long been a guiding figure to the Muslim Brotherhood.
Mr. Awda shrugs off such speculations, and says he is content with his more modest outreach through social media. The changes that began with the uprisings of 2011 have not run their course, he said, and he expects to witness many more extraordinary events.
“More than any other time in my life, this is an era of surprises,” he said. “You can expect almost anything in the coming years.”