By Akbar Shahid Ahmed
Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman doesn’t apologize for much. In the past year, his government has massacred civilians in Yemen, kidnapped the prime minister of Lebanon and spent $450 million of unknown provenance on a painting while rounding up hundreds of people for alleged corruption. He’s publicly defended those actions.
But there’s one thing the crown prince is always willing to express remorse about: Islam, or at least the version dominant in his country. “We were victims,” he recently told “60 Minutes.”
Crown Prince Mohammed’s pitch to governments, citizens and, most importantly, investors, explicitly plays on global Islamophobia and many Muslims’ own frustrations about the violence committed in the name of their religion. It neatly identifies Islam as a problem and the prince as the solution. And this summer is supposed to bring a marquee moment for the battle against fundamentalist Islam the crown prince says he’s fighting: On June 24, women will gain the legal right to drive in Saudi Arabia.
But the “reformer” prince’s rhetoric is colliding with the reality of his rule. Since May 15, his government has been arresting human rights advocates — among them some of the most prominent Saudi women activists — in a crackdown that perpetuates long-standing Saudi repression.
The crown prince’s playbook is an old one. For strongmen in the Muslim-majority world, the trope of the scary Muslim is invaluable. It allows them to bond with sceptics of Islam abroad — remember the orb? — and constantly justify their continued rule.
After all, the argument goes, do you really want their people in charge instead? It’s the kind of language Syrian President Bashar Assad proudly uses to declare himself a vital defender of secularism and paint his opposition, including peaceful activists, as essentially too Muslim.
Talk of “moderation” and “modernization” has defined regional rulers seeking to solidify their control since at least the early 20th century. But Muslim leaders became especially invested in that language after the 9/11 attacks prompted global soul-searching about the roots of terrorism, according to Annelle Sheline, a George Washington University doctoral student who studies the way governments in the region brand themselves.
These leaders watched with alarm as members of the George W. Bush administration argued that the key to peace was spreading democracy.
“The Middle East regimes were not so interested in having the spotlight shined on their activities or sharing their power,” Sheline said. Eventually, “the Bush administration was fairly willing to buy into the bill of goods that a lot of Arab regimes were selling, which was that it’s not authoritarianism, it’s Islam, and we need to change Islam.”
So the regimes promised change. The Saudis pledged to cut hate speech from their textbooks. Jordan gathered 200 scholars for a declaration of Muslim tolerance and unity. Around the region, governments expanded their control over what was preached and discussed in mosques. Implicit throughout was the idea that they could identify and enshrine a “correct” Islam for subjects always on the verge of falling for fundamentalists, and that that was all the change the world needed to deal with al Qaeda and its affiliates.
When the 2011 Arab Spring protests exposed how unhappy and marginalized many Muslims remained, the region’s authoritarians were in a bind. Some — like Assad, and Libya’s Moammar Gadhafi — set off nightmarish civil wars. Others tried to be more subtle, working to boost fears internationally about the figures gaining political power for the first time.
“It was like, ‘Oh, good, if we let them have democracy, we have the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt, or else we get war in Syria.’ There’s definitely been this sense that clearly these people aren’t ready for democracy,” Sheline said. She believes that argument is flawed because it doesn’t acknowledge how violent undemocratic regimes inspire more violence in their societies.
Claiming to take big steps toward moderation is especially difficult for the rulers of Saudi Arabia. Crown Prince Mohammed claims the kingdom has only espoused a strict interpretation of Islam since Iran began doing so in 1979. But the truth is that proponents of ultra-traditionalist theology have been allied with the royal family for over 200 years.
Underpinning that alliance is one goal: the survival of a regime in which the al Saud family and clerics close to them are all-powerful. As long as that remains the crown prince’s ultimate priority ― and he authorizes those working for him to punish even the slightest questioning of the system ― any moves away from state-sponsored orthodoxy won’t make his society more stable.
Abroad, too, it’s unclear that the crown prince’s vows of change will help to reduce militancy.
Muslim communities from Indonesia to Kosovo have claimed that Saudi influence is responsible for fundamentalism that never existed previously. Saudi proselytizing did become intense after Iran started challenging its regional dominance, and Crown Prince Mohammed has admitted as much. But Saudi government influence over preachers, books and centres abroad receiving Saudi funding actually started declining before 9/11 and the rise of the Islamic State.
And it’s unclear that reining in the Saudi government’s religious intervention abroad or Saudi individuals’ influence in other countries will magically reshape Islam. Violence and alienation drove people in places like Tunisia and Pakistan to terror groups long before Saudi petrodollars started flowing into their societies; they will continue to do so long after.
None of that is to say the crown prince and his ilk should start advising Muslims to become less tolerant. “To the extent that anybody buys into [Western-backed governments’ ‘moderate’ narrative], that’s good. We’d rather have the government putting out messages around toleration and moderation,” Sheline said of the view among U.S. officials.
But the cracks within Saudi Arabia, a country of 20 million people and the centre of the global trade in energy and weapons, are not going away. Clamping down on intellectuals, stoking nationalism against Iran and calling activists “traitors” won’t heal them. Nor will the flows of foreign capital that Crown Prince Mohammed has identified as his top target.
Real change will require rethinking Saudi “practice” altogether — not just the religious kind.