James M. Dorsey
May 28, 2019
Mohammed bin Abdul-Karim Al-Issa, the public face of Saudi crown prince
Mohammed bin Salman’s version of moderate Islam.
old former justice minister, Mr. Al-Issa, one of a younger generation of
Islamic scholars willing to do Prince Mohammed’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,
fight political and militant Islam across the globe and promote the crown
prince as a tolerant leader bent on fostering inter-faith dialogue.
Al-Issa’s moves also serve to strengthen ties with US President Donald J.
Trump’s Evangelist voter base and shape an environment that legitimizes Saudi
Arabia’s close cooperation with Israel.
latest move, Mr. Al-Issa is this week convening 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
with past Saudi religious and political tradition, Mr. Al-Issa has reached out
to Jewish and Evangelist 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.
has defended Prince Mohammed’s reforms such as the curbing of the powers of the
kingdom’s religious police, the lifting of the ban on women’s driving and the
nurturing of 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.
laid 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.
Mr. Al-Issa’s moves help reshape an environment in which religious intolerance
and prejudice was the norm and still is widespread. Yet, critics charge that
his efforts to project Prince Mohammed as a religious reformer do not go beyond
speech and symbolism and constitute a public relations effort rather than true
moreover, remains unclear, how effective Mr. Al-Issa’s efforts are. They
certainly help the Trump administration defend its unconditional support for
Prince Mohammed, including its willingness to shield the kingdom from
accountability for its conduct of the war in Yemen and the killing last October
of journalist Jamal Khashoggi on the premises of the Saudi consulate in
Istanbul. Saudi Arabia insists Mr. Khashoggi was murdered by rogue operatives.
of Mr. Al-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 Mohammed al Issa’s statements seriously
when religious bookstores in Riyadh are full of books advocating the exact
one of the kingdom’s associates in countering extremism has taken a similarly critical
view of the its efforts. Malaysian defense minister Mohamad Sabu last year
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 Mohammed’s reforms, Mr. 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.” Mr. Lacroix was referring to
Prince Mohammed by his initials.
Lacroix’s conclusion is enhanced by the fact that there is little that would
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, and the social changes Prince Mohammed has so
far introduced to polish the kingdom’s tarnished image and further his plan to
diversify its oil-dependent economy and create badly needed jobs.
anything, Prince Mohammed’s reforms appear to be designed to shave off
Wahhabism’s rough edges, project a more moderate image, and promote 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
Mohammed’s crackdown on all forms of dissent enforces the principle.
By the same
token, Prince Mohammed 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 at the edges but
remains firmly in place.
young Saudi women have recently employed devious tactics to escape family abuse
and leave the kingdom to 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
By the same
token, the kingdom has yet to take steps that would put flesh at home on the
skeleton of its notion of religious tolerance.
Jews, Buddhist and Hindus continue to be banned from building houses of worship
despite the fact that archaeologists have found evidence of the existence in
the time of the Prophet Mohammed 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 Mohammed 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.
Al-Issa’s 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 ambassadors.
for Prince Mohammed is that religious moderation like economic reform that
trickles down could become an issue on which his ability to deliver will be a
litmus test of his reforms.
poll of Arab, including Saudi youth, showed that two thirds of those surveyed
felt that religion played too large a role while 79 percent argued that
religious institutions needed to be reformed. Half said that religious values
were 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.”