Dr. James M. Dorsey
bin Abdul-Karim Al-Issa is the public face of Saudi Crown Prince Muhammad bin
Salman’s version of moderate Islam. A 54-year old former justice minister,
Issa, one of a younger generation of Islamic scholars willing to do Prince
Muhammad’s bidding, has been doing the rounds internationally and making all
the right moves to project the de facto Saudi leader as the spearhead of
efforts to counter ultra-conservatism at home and fight political and militant
Islam across the globe. Issa is doing all he can to promote the Crown Prince as
a tolerant leader bent on fostering inter-faith dialogue.
moves also serve to strengthen ties with US President Donald Trump’s
Evangelical voter base and shape an environment that legitimizes Saudi Arabia’s
close cooperation with Israel.
latest move, Issa recently convened a four-day international conference on
moderate Islam as head of the Muslim World League, once a prime vehicle for the
kingdom’s global promotion of anti-Shiite, anti-Iranian ultra-conservative
strands of Islam, and a member of the Supreme Council of Ulema, Saudi Arabia’s
highest religious authority.
with Saudi religious and political tradition, Issa has reached out to Jewish
and Evangelical communities. He called during a speech in October at the
Washington Institute for Near East Policy, widely viewed as pro-Israeli, for a
Muslim-Christian-Jewish interfaith delegation to travel to Jerusalem to promote
the cause of peace despite the fact that Israel and Saudi Arabia do not have
formal diplomatic relations.
defended Prince Muhammad’s reforms, such as the curbing of the powers of the
kingdom’s religious police, lifting the ban on women’s driving, and nurturing
modern-day entertainment such as cinemas and concerts.
rejected the use of violence, including against Israel, acknowledged the
Holocaust, denounced the efforts of Holocaust deniers, and announced that he
would next January become the most senior Islamic cleric to visit Auschwitz on
the 75th anniversary of its liberation.
out his approach in an interview with Le Monde two years ago. “All religious
institutions must modernize their speech, to make it compatible with the
times,” he said.
Issa’s moves help reshape an environment in which religious intolerance and
prejudice are the norm and remain widespread. But critics charge that his
efforts to project Prince Muhammad as a religious reformer do not go beyond
words and symbols and reflect a public relations effort rather than true
remains unclear how effective Issa’s efforts are. They certainly help the Trump
administration defend its unconditional support for Prince Muhammad, including
its willingness to shield the kingdom from accountability for its conduct
during the war in Yemen and with regard to the killing last October of
journalist Jamal Khashoggi on the premises of the Saudi consulate in Istanbul.
Riyadh insists that Khashoggi was murdered by rogue operatives.
Issa’s well-connected interlocutors during his visit to Washington said they
came away from discussions with him not sure what to think. Likewise, a Saudi
intellectual rhetorically asked Saudi Arabia scholar Stephane Lacroix during an
interview: “How can one take Muhammad al Issa’s statements seriously when
religious bookstores in Riyadh are full of books advocating the exact opposite?”
one of the kingdom’s associates in countering extremism, has taken a similarly
critical view of its efforts. Last year, Malaysian defence minister Muhammad
Sabu closed the Saudi-backed King Salman Centre for International Peace (KSCIP)
in Kuala Lumpur following criticism that the kingdom, with its
ultra-conservative interpretation of Islam, may not be the right partner.
In a recent
article discussing the limits of Prince Muhammad’s reforms, Lacroix, pointing
to the arrests of Islamic thinkers critical of the kingdom’s ultra-conservative
Wahhabi traditions and the suppression of all debate, concluded that “this
makes MBS’s religious reforms look more like a public relations stunt than a
genuine transformation.” (Lacroix was referring to Prince Muhammad by his
conclusion is bolstered by the fact that there is little to suggest fundamental
reform of religion involving tolerance at a practical rather than a talking
heads level beyond the countering of extremism at home and abroad, a key Saudi
interest. The social changes Prince Muhammad has so far introduced polish the
kingdom’s tarnished image and further his plan to diversify its oil-dependent
economy and create badly needed jobs.
anything, Prince Muhammad’s reforms appear to be designed to shave off
Wahhabism’s rough edges, project a more moderate image, and promote – both at
home and abroad, in countries like Kazakhstan, Algeria, and Libya – an
ultra-conservative interpretation of Islam that preaches absolute obedience to the
ruler. Prince Muhammad’s crackdown on all forms of dissent enforces the
By the same
token, he has done little to push reform since lifting the ban on women’s
driving and enhancing their professional and sporting opportunities. The
kingdom’s male guardianship of women has been softened but remains firmly in
young Saudi women have recently fled the kingdom to escape family abuse and
seek asylum elsewhere. Saudi Arabia, rather than cracking down on domestic
abuse and abolishing the guardianship system, has sought to prevent women from
fleeing and force the return of those who made it abroad.
also has yet to take steps that would put flesh at home on the skeleton of its
notion of religious tolerance.
Jews, Buddhists, and Hindus continue to be banned from building houses of
worship despite the fact that archaeologists have found evidence of the
existence at the time of the Prophet Muhammad of a 7th century synod near
Jubail, and the fact that older residents along the Saudi border with Yemen
vividly recall interacting with a Jewish community.
brutally cracking down on rebellious Shiites in Saudi Arabia’s oil-rich Eastern
Province, Prince Muhammad has moved quickly to rebuild the levelled town of
Awamiyah. Shiites nonetheless accounted for the majority of the 37 people
beheaded in April in a mass execution.
Supreme Council of Ulema has no Shiite clerics among its members. Nor do Shiite
judges sit on the benches of national courts or serve in the police force or as
for Prince Muhammad is that religious moderation, like trickle-down economic
reform, could become a litmus test by which to assess his ability to deliver on
poll of Arab youth, including Saudi youth, showed that two-thirds of those
surveyed felt that religion played too large a role while 79% argued that
religious institutions needed to be reformed. Half said that religious values
are holding the Arab world back.
Lacroix: “If religious reform is only a push from above and not the result of
genuine social debate, it is easily reversible.”
Dr. James M. Dorsey, a non-resident Senior
Associate at the BESA Center, is a senior fellow at the S. Rajaratnam School of
International Studies at Singapore’s Nanyang Technological University and
co-director of the University of Würzburg’s Institute for Fan Culture.