James M. Dorsey
apology by a prominent Salafi scholar sheds a light on Saudi crown prince
Mohammed bin Salman’s version of ‘moderate Islam,’ his effort to shape the
Middle East and North Africa in his mould, and the replacement of religion with
hyper-nationalism as the source of his legitimacy.
speak in the name of the Sahwa or Awakening movement, Aidh al-Qarni, one of the
kingdom’s most popular religious scholars, broke with the Muslim
Brotherhood-linked group’s past call for political reform and instead
wholeheartedly endorsed Prince Mohammed’s undefined notion of an Islam that
would be free of extremism.
like to apologize to Saudi society for…the extremism, the violation of the
Qur’an and the Sunnah, the violation of the tolerance of Islam, the violation
of the moderate and merciful nature of Islam. I support today the moderate and
open-to-the-world Islam that has been called for by crown prince Mohammed bin
Salman,” Mr. Al-Qarni said, wearing a Salafi-style chequered red and white
simply a declaration of support for the Saudi leader, Mr. Al-Qarni’s apology
provided ideological justification for Prince Mohammed’s so far only partially
successful efforts to ensure that regional states are ruled by governments of
his liking, refusal to condemn assaults on Islam like in China’s north-western
province of Islam, and crackdown at home that potentially has put some of his
past colleagues on death row.
Al-Qarni was not among Islamic scholars that have been detained, many of them
in a crackdown in September 2017. Those
arrested and potentially facing execution included some of the kingdom’s other
most popular reformist preachers such as Salman al-Audah and Mr. Al-Qarni’s
namesake, Awad al-Qarni.
against the two men, as well as author and broadcaster Ali al-Omari, include
stirring public discord, inciting people against the ruler, public support for
imprisoned dissidents and alleged ties to the Brotherhood and Qatar. A
Saudi-United Arab Emirates-led alliance has been boycotting Qatar economically
and diplomatically for the past two years.
Al-Omari, a former United Nations Goodwill Ambassador for Youth and Humanity,
is a member of the Qatar-based International Union of Muslim Scholars founded
by controversial scholar Yusuf al-Qaradawi. Mr. Al-Qaradawi is widely believed
to be a major spiritual influence within the Brotherhood.
Al-Qarni’s endorsement of Prince Mohammed and reports that two of his colleagues
may be executed came as Human Rights Watch rang alarm bells about the fate of
Murtaja Qureiris, an 18-year old who could face a similar fate.
Qureiris was arrested when he was 13 for participating in 2011 in a bike
protest in eastern Saudi Arabia three years earlier when he was 10 years old.
Qureiris was charged with belonging to a terrorist group, helping to construct
Molotov cocktails, shooting at security forces and participating in a protest
at the funeral of his brother, who was killed in an allegedly violent
Al-Qarni didn’t do his former colleagues any favours by asserting that Qatar
was funding Saudi scholars. “Of course, people get money… Saudis went there
(Qatar),” Mr. Al-Qarni said, refusing to identify who he was referring to.
Papers,’ a recently published book in France, purportedly based on hitherto
unpublished documents, asserted that the Gulf state was funding numerous
mosques and individuals in Europe associated with the Brotherhood.
A TV series
broadcast during this year’s Ramadan, when programs get their highest ratings,
provided background music for Mr. Al-Qarni’s apology.
history through the eyes of a Saudi family, Al-Asouf (Winds of Change) blames
the Sahwa for some of the region’s most momentous events, including the 1979
Iranian revolution, the occupation by militants of the Grand Mosque in Mecca
that same year, and the 1981 assassination of Egyptian President Anwar Sadat
because of his signing of a peace treaty with Israel.
with Prince Mohammed’s assertion that Saudi Arabia embraced a more moderate
form of Islam prior to the events of 1979, Al-Asouf suggests that Sahwa’s
ultra-conservatism bolstered by its hostility towards the West, misogynist
attitudes towards women and intolerance, influenced a generation of Saudis.
Mr. Al-Qarni’s apology and Al-Asouf’s messaging, Adil al-Kalbani, a former imam
of the Grand Mosque and often straight-talking member of the kingdom’s
ultra-conservative religious establishment, who has seven million followers on
Twitter, made a 180 degrees U-turn on his past statements that supported severe
restrictions of women’s rights and denounced Shiites as apostates.
one of the kingdom’s major taboos, Mr. Al-Kalbani denounced gender segregation
in mosques as “a kind of phobia,” arguing that in the era of the Prophet
Mohammad, men and women prayed together.
unfortunately we’ve become paranoid to the level that in a mosque, a place of
worship, it’s as if women are in a fortress,” he said. “They’re completely
isolated from the men, not seeing or hearing them except through microphones or
lines, Mr. Al-Qarni sought to provide religious justification to Prince
Mohammed’s policies. The crown prince’s concept of moderate Islam, involving
absolute obedience to the ruler, was one red line. The interests of Saudi
Arabia as defined by Prince Mohammed was another.
“I went and
pledged allegiance to the King and swore on the Qur’an and the Sunnah. I went
on the night of the 27th (of May) to Mecca and pledged allegiance to Mohammed
bin Salman. You pledge allegiance for better or for worse… I declare here that
I am now one of the swords of the state,” Mr. Al-Qarni said.
that Saudi Arabia was being targeted by Iran, Turkish president Recep Tayyip
Erdogan and the Muslim Brotherhood, Mr. Al -Qarni’s definition of the kingdom
as a red line appeared to break with Sahwa and the Saudi past religious embrace
of Islam’s concept of the ummah, the global community of the faithful.
words of Saudi Arabia scholar Raihan Ismail, Mr. Al-Qarni was rejecting the
notion of the ummah because it “undermines the primacy of the nation-state.”
so, Mr. Al-Qarni was attempting to provide religious cover for Prince
Mohammed’s apparent endorsement during a visit to Beijing earlier this year of
China’s crackdown on Turkic Muslims and his apparent support for a US plan to
resolve the Israeli-Palestinian conflict that is widely believed to favour
Israel and deny Palestinian aspirations.
Gargash, the minister of state for foreign affairs of Saud Arabia’s closest
ally, the United Arab Emirates, hailed Mr. Al-Qarni’s apology as an important
step “as we close the door to the stage of extremism and the employment of
religion for political purposes.”
Gargash’s comments put a finger on differences in the approaches towards Islam
of Emirati crown prince Mohammed bin Zayed and his Saudi counterpart.
opposed to political Islam, UAE Prince Mohamed rather than the Saudi crown prince
has been the driver in support by the two Gulf states of anti-Islamist forces
across the Middle East and North Africa.
Prince Mohammed’s notion of moderate Islam, although projected as a break with
Saudi Arabia’s past propagation of ultra-conservative strands of Islam that
critics charged contributed to breeding grounds of violence, amounts to a form
of conservative political Islam that is designed to bolster his autocratic
regime rather than reform the faith.
dissident Saudi scholar Madawi al-Rasheed asserted that the kingdom’s decision
to recently convene three Gulf, Arab and Islamic summits during Ramadan in the
holy city of Mecca was “nothing but utter Islamism.”
Al-Rasheed argued that the summits exposed “the contradiction in the recent
Saudi push to ban and criminalise Islamism. The three conferences are not being
held to discuss theological matters, but to seek support for Saudi Arabia’s
king over serious, controversial and divisive political crises,” she said.