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If Saudi Arabia Reforms, What Happens to Islamists Elsewhere?


By Kamel Daoud

November 16, 2017

Some time ago, an Algerian cartoonist known as le Hic summarized the situation in Saudi Arabia with a few harsh strokes of his pen: In a drawing, the Saudi king announces his resolve to combat terrorism while pointing a gun at his own head. The entire Saudi paradox was distilled into that cartoon: The country produces, sponsors, shelters and feeds the Islamism that threatens its foundations and its future.

How could this be? One has to go back nearly three centuries to begin to answer this question. Around 1744, a tribal chieftain, Muhammad ibn Saud, formed an alliance with an ultraconservative preacher named Muhammad ibn Abd al-Wahhab and created the first monarchical state on the Arabian Peninsula. On the one hand, there was the Saud family, governing the country by right of blood and succession; on the other, there was Wahhabism, an ultra-puritanical and extreme version of Islam it called the original Islam. A family and a clergy — the whole welded together over the decades as much by oil revenues as by the legitimacy deriving from proximity to Islam’s holiest sites.

But Wahhabism is also, of course, one of the matrices of global jihadism today: an ideological and financial source of the Islamists’ power and their constellation of fundamentalist mosques, television networks dedicated to sermonizing, and various political parties throughout the Muslim world. Saudi Arabia feeds the hand that is killing it, little by little, and other countries as well.

It took the West being heavily hit by Islamist terrorism for it to appreciate fully the measure of this menace, long camouflaged. Indeed, even as Saudi leaders were shaking hands and smiling at their Western counterparts, they were hosting preachers advocating jihad to the hundreds of thousands of people gathered in Mecca for the annual pilgrimage. Today, everyone sees through the facade better.

Reform in Saudi Arabia now seems necessary — and yet, at the same time, impossible. How will the royal family manage to reject the clergy’s support, stop the financing of fundamentalist networks and bring about nothing short of several revolutions regarding social rights? The kingdom’s stability is at stake and, as a consequence, that of the entire region, too.

The appearance of the man known as the “iron prince” — Mohammed bin Salman, the 32-year-old heir to the throne — suggests that there may be a solution to the Saudi problem. Young, fiery, seen as a reformer, the crown prince has been making a splash since his father placed him at the forefront of the political scene about two years ago. He is proposing, for example, another kind of economic model than the one, built around oil and gas, that prevails today, and has announced development megaprojects and plans to open up the country to tourism unconditionally.

The prince, nicknamed “M.B.S.,” even seems willing to try the unthinkable: granting women the right to drive or go to sport stadiums, eventually reopening cinemas and, above all, putting pressure on the clergy and announcing the review and certification of the great canons of Muslim orthodoxy, including the hadiths, the collection of the Prophet Muhammad’s sayings.

All this is a risky proposition. What is happening in Saudi Arabia today, especially considering the recent purges against the old guard, resembles both a palace revolution and a religious upheaval. In addition, these changes coincide with the Saudi government’s renewed warnings about the Iranian menace and its rapprochement with Israel. What kind of revolutionary is this prince? Some see in him instead a man guided by an American hand, commissioned to clean up the region.

Whatever the real effect of these changes in Saudi Arabia, they already are being felt elsewhere. If this country, the motherland of fatwas, undertakes reforms, Islamists throughout the world will have to follow suit or risk winding up on the wrong side of orthodoxy.

In Algeria, for example, the hard-liners’ discomfort is subtly palpable. On social media, the conspiracy theory seems to prevail: M.B.S.’s stunt is seen as the product of an American injunction. But conservative newspapers and Islamist editorial writers — generally keen on all matters Saudi and quick to comment on any slight against Islam — are mostly quiet this time, or timid in their defense of Wahhabism. In mosques as well, silence dominates.

Islamists in Algeria belong to one of two camps. One, supposedly ancestral and pure, claims kinship with Saudi Arabia and the Fatwa Valley. It is troubled by M.B.S.’s reforms, fearing they may signal an end to its financing and a blow to its legitimacy.

The other camp is of the Muslim Brotherhood stripe and close to Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s Turkey; the Islamist political parties it has formed are tolerated by the Algerian government. But its members, too, are worried: If Saudi Arabia reforms, they will lose their mantle of tolerant Islamists and their position on Algeria’s political chessboard. The Saudi crown prince, by casting himself as more moderate than moderates elsewhere, is pulling the rug from under their feet.

And so all manner of Islamists are feeling the anxiety of being orphaned. The moderate camp, blindsided, may try to play catch-up with the prince. But the fundamentalist camp, bereft of its familiar markers, may turn against the Saudi kingdom to claim a new kind of legitimacy — and wage a sort of holy war against the holy land.

Kamel Daoud is the author of the novel “The Meursault Investigation.” This essay was translated by John Cullen from the French.