James M. Dorsey
adopted Saudi law on public decency helps define Crown Prince Mohammed bin
Salman’s vague notion of ‘moderate Islam.’
lays bare the pitfalls of his social reforms as well as his preference for
hyper-nationalism rather than religion as the legitimizing ideology of his rule
and his quest for control of every aspect of Saudi life.
indication that Prince Mohammed is walking a fine line, Saudi media reported
that the government was still weighing how to implement the law almost two
months after it was adopted.
is an effort to balance the pressure from conservative elements of society that
accuse the (government) of allowing things to go ‘out of control’. Effecting
social change is an art form — you want to push as fast as possible without
provoking a counter reaction. Not easy!” Ali Shihabi, founder of Arabia
Foundation, a Washington-based, pro-Saudi think-tank, told Agence France-Presse.
comes on the back of a series of reforms in recent years that were designed to
facilitate Prince Mohammed’s plans to streamline and diversify the Saudi
economy and project the crown prince as a reformer.
included the lifting of a ban on women’s driving, relaxation of gender
segregation, enhancement of women’s professional opportunities, the
introduction of modern forms of entertainment and the curbing of the powers of
the kingdom’s feared religious police.
Mohammed also vowed to revert the inward-looking, ultra-conservative kingdom to
a form of moderate Islam he claimed existed prior to the 1979 Iranian
Prince Mohammed’s short-lived reformist image was severely tarnished by the
kingdom’s devastating war in Yemen; the
brutal killing of journalist Jamal Khashoggi; the mass arrest of clerics,
activists, journalists and academics; his failure to lift the kingdom’s male
guardianship system; and the mushrooming number of people fleeing the kingdom,
including dissidents as well as women seeking to escape repressive and abusive
ridicule on social media, the new law defines limits of Prince Mohammed’s
social reforms and creates one more anchor for his repression of any form of
bans men’s shorts except for on beaches and in sports clubs. It also bans
garments with questionable prints that like shorts “offend public tastes.” It
forbids the taking of pictures or use of phrases that might offend public
decency as well as graffiti that could be interpreted as “harmful.”
packages public decency as representing Saudi “values and principles” in a nod
towards Prince Mohammed’s promotion of a hyper-nationalist Saudi identity.
several of its restrictions are more in line with the kingdom’s long-standing
austere interpretation of Islam while others reinforce the crown prince’s
repression of anything that does not amount to an endorsement of his rule or
restrictions on clothing and this month’s closure on opening night of the
kingdom’s first-ever alcohol-free ‘Halal’ disco constitute an apparent effort
to cater to ultra-conservatives who oppose liberalisation of gender segregation
and public religious rituals such as the muted lifting of rules that force businesses
to close during prayers times.
reforms, while significant in and of themselves, stop short of dismantling what
politics scholar Brandon Ives terms ‘religious institutionalism’ or the
intertwining of religion and state through a “plethora of institutions,
policies, and legal codes.”
institutionalism complicates Prince Mohammed’s attempt to replace religious
legitimization of his rule with hyper-nationalism because of its success in
fusing religion with Saudi culture.
and culture are now so intertwined in what it means to be Saudi that it is hard
to separate the two,” said Eman Alhussein, author of a just published European
Council of Foreign Relations report on Saudi hyper-nationalism.
result, some nationalists have joined religious conservatives in calling for
limitations on what is deemed acceptable entertainment and media content.
Alhussein noted that some online critics were cautioning that the promotion of
hyper-nationalism stripped Saudis of their values in a manner that weakens
their loyalty to the regime.
in this increasingly strident form could eventually become a Trojan horse that
undermines the state,” Ms. Alhussein warned.
double edge is enhanced; Ms. Alhussein went on to argue, by the undermining of
the buffer function of the kingdom’s traditional religious establishment. “The
state will now be more accountable for its credibility, and potentially much
more exposed,” she said.
Mohammed’s refusal to tackle religious institutionalism impacts not only his
attempts at consolidation of his power but also his effort to project the
kingdom as an enlightened 21st century state.
prince, in a bid to alter the kingdom’s image and cut expenditure, has
significantly reduced spending on a decades-long, US$100 billion campaign to
globally promote anti-Shiite, anti-Iranian strands of ultra-conservative Sunni
Mohammed has at the same time ordered state-controlled vehicles that once
promoted religious ultra-conservativism to preach tolerance, mutual respect and
inter-faith dialogue instead.
analysis suggests, however, that the kingdom’s U-turn is unlikely to lead to a
clean break with support abroad of ultra-conservatism without the dismantling
of religious institutionalism.
that the domestic pressure that persuades states such as Saudi Arabia and Iran
to support co-religionist rebel groups beyond their borders is generated not by
religious affinity but by religious institutionalism that creates a political
role for religious forces.
arguments appear to be borne out by continued Saudi support for Islamist
militants in Balochistan, the Pakistani province that borders on Iran, as well
as Algeria and Libya and propagation of non-violent expressions of an
apolitical, quietist, and loyalist interpretation of Islam in countries like
Arabia’s new public decency law in effect highlights the limitations of Prince
private conversation last year with the Archbishop of Canterbury during a visit
to Britain, Prince Mohammed reportedly put some flesh on the skeleton of his
vision of moderate Islam.
by the archbishop to allow non-Muslims to open places of worship in the
kingdom, Prince Mohammed responded: “I could never allow that. This is the holy
site of Islam, and it should stay as such.”
Source: Eurasia Review