As the country seeks to change its international image, new debates over the Kingdom’s future are opening up contentious issues between conservatives and those of more liberal leanings.
Saudi Crown Prince and heir apparent to the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, Mohammad Bin Salman (MBS), saw an ally die last week.
Ali Al-Huwairini was seen by some among the Saudi elite as a liberal and reform-minded individual – a man of his times given the different direction in which MBS sought to chart the absolute monarchy.
Al-Huwairini, a Saudi actor, director, thinker and poet and the first Saudi to earn a degree in filmmaking in Hollywood, was also known for what some considered controversial views on Islamic history, and his passing sparked renewed a debate on the “reforms” in progress in Saudi Arabia.
In one interview in recent years, Al-Huwairini has referred to the Islamic presence in Al-Andalus, which was the Muslim-dominated region of the Iberian Peninsula, as a form of “Arab backwardness”.
Most of the Iberian Peninsula was controlled by Muslims from the 8th to 15th centuries and is widely considered by historians to be one of the golden periods of Islam and a key vehicle for the transfer of knowledge in medieval Europe.
For more than 800 years, Al-Andalus has been a center of knowledge for the Muslim world and Europe. The Iberian Peninsula was eventually reconquered in what is known as the Christian Reconquista – led by several Spanish monarchs – which destroyed much of what had been built, leaving only the famous Alhambra palace standing.
Asked about this period, Al-Huwairini dismissively dismissed any idea that anything significant happened in the area.
“These are aspects of culture that we have no right to be proud of. What can we be proud of? 800 years and you’ve left nothing behind but the Alhambra?” he said.
Al-Huwairini’s interpretation of Muslim expansion in the Iberian Peninsula by “the Arab’s sword” viewed Islamic history from a narrative that some say is akin to “demonize“Islam and Muslims.
“Islam is not expansionist [movement]. Islam is a conveyed message. Transmit Islam and let him accept it to the extent of his ability: do not impose your level of belief on me,” Al-Huwairini said.
Western scholars in recent decades have concluded that Islamic states across the Muslim world rarely, if ever, had policies that forced local populations to convert.
However, Al-Huwairini’s views on Islamic history also reflected a change in the zeitgeist in Saudi Arabia in recent years.
Saudi Arabia has sought to reframe Islam in the Kingdom. More and more Islamic scholars who offer nothing but praise for the new reforms have stopped speaking in public or are behind bars.
According to a analyst, religious identity in the Kingdom has become “incompatible with the vision of current rulers”. In his place, Saudi Arabia’s rising leader cultivated “a new nationalism aimed at securing the rise to power of a younger leadership and reinforcing an accompanying program of sweeping reforms.”
A recent example of new social change in the increasingly less conservative Kingdom is the four-day electronic music festival held in the country’s capital at the end of last year.
Authorities boasted that the festival attracted more than 700,000 visitors in a bid to shape a new image for the country.
In another move that raised some eyebrows, the Kingdom also implemented new rules at the Grand Mosque in Mecca, Islam’s holiest site, which required worshipers to socially distance in a bid to prevent the spread of Covid-19. Again, a rule that apparently didn’t apply at a music festival – the contrast couldn’t have been more stark.
It is difficult to gauge how popular such movements are in a country that is not only the home of Islam, but whose identity and culture are so steeped in faith and conservatism.
But by replacing a top-down form of obedience requirement with a more nationalist one that “demands the loyalty of the people” to the project, according to a Saudi analyst, risks creating new cracks in a society unaccustomed to rapid changes that uproot established social norms.
Source: World TRT