Saudi and Emirati efforts to define “moderate” Islam as socially more liberal while being subject to an autocratic ruler are as much an effort to ensure the regime’s survival and bolster aspirations to rule the Muslim world as it is an attempt to push back. the challenges rooted in the diverse currents of religious ultra-conservatism.
Saudi and Emirati efforts to achieve religious soft power have much in common even though the kingdom and the United Arab Emirates base their respective campaigns on historically different forms of Islam. The two Gulf States are, moreover, rivals in the battle for the soul of Islam, a struggle to define which aspect (s) will dominate the faith in the 21st century.st century.
The battle takes on increased significance as rivals in the Middle East attempt to reduce regional tensions by managing their differences and conflicts rather than resolving them. Efforts place more emphasis on soft power rivalry rather than the hard power confrontation often involving proxies.
Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates have been propagating “moderate” Islam on the back of major social reforms in recent years that preach absolute obedience to the sovereign and relegate the clergy to the status of the sovereign’s cleric.
The reforms include lifting Saudi Arabia’s driving ban for women, improving professional and personal opportunities for women, limiting the powers of the religious police, and introducing Western-style entertainment.
Last November, the UAE allowed unmarried couples to cohabit, eased alcohol restrictions and criminalized “honor killings,” a widely criticized and religiously conditioned tribal custom that allows one parent to have sex. male killing a woman accused of dishonoring her family.
Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates compete in the Muslim world with Turkish and Iranian Islamist currents mixed with nationalism.
The Gulf states’ moderation of religious practices rather than Muslim theology and jurisprudence is also challenged by some currents of Wahhabism, the ultra-conservative interpretation of Islam on the basis of which Saudi Arabia was founded. founded.
âWahhabism has refracted into three major groups since the early 1990s: a left that has developed a discourse on civil rights, a center occupying official state positions (nicknamed ‘ulama al-sultan’ or religious leader) who put up some resistance to the relaxation of their powers in the social, legal and media spheres, and to a Wahhabi right sympathetic to the jihadist discourse of al-Qaeda and its focus on foreign policy issues Said academic Andrew Hammond.
While Turkey and Iran pose a geopolitical danger, the autocratic monarchical regime is more fundamentally threatened by the religious challenge posed by what Mr. Hammond calls the Wahhabi left and the Wahhabi right as well as the Indonesian Nahdlatul Ulama, the only non-state actor in the battle. for the soul of Islam, which advocates and practices the reform of Islamic jurisprudence and unconditionally endorses the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.
Arrests in recent years of Saudi academics and preachers such as Safar al-Hawali, Salman al-Awda, Sulayman al-Duwaish, Ibrahim al-Sakran and Hasan al-Maliki suggest so.
Implicitly distinguishing with Nahdlatul Ulama, Mr. Hammond argues that Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman’s reforms amount to “defying Wahhabism and not dethroning it”.
The crown prince, since coming to power, has drastically reduced the investment of tens of billions of dollars in spreading religious ultra-conservatism around the world, most effectively in Pakistan and Afghanistan. He also sought to balance Wahhabism with Saudi ultra-nationalism and to eliminate the social rough edges of the austere interpretation of the realm of faith. His enslavement of the clergy and the incarceration of adherents of the Wahhabi left and far right ended a 73-year power-sharing agreement between the ruling Al-Saud family and the clergy.
The left entertained concepts of a constitutional rather than absolute monarchy, called for political liberalization and civil rights, and in some cases endorsed the popular Arab uprisings of 2011 that toppled four Arab autocrats.
The Wahhabi left could be joined in challenging conservative Gulf monarchies and, simultaneously, be challenged by Nahdlatul Ulama once the group expands its activities to target the grassroots of the Muslim world beyond Indonesia, the predominantly Muslim country. the most populous in the world as well as its main democracy. . In his first outreach campaign elsewhere, Nahdlatul Ulama is expected to launch an Arabic-language website before the end of the year that would target the Arab world.
Nahdlatul Ulama’s concept of a humanitarian Islam that embraces the principles of tolerance, pluralism, gender equality, secularism and human rights as defined in the Universal Declaration goes considerably further than the proposals put forward. by Mr. Hammond’s Wahhabi left, perhaps best described as more liberal than an ideological left of a fundamentally ultra-conservative movement.
The Indonesian group’s concept of Islam also contrasts sharply with the Saudi and Emirati notion of autocratic religious moderation which involves no theological or jurisprudential reform but uses “the ruler’s clergy” to religiously legitimize the repressive rule under which the protests, political parties and government petitions are banned and thought is monitored.
“The state strengthened the Wahhabi center by neutralizing the Wahhabi left and right, each of which represented a threat to the authority and legitimacy of the state … As for the civil rights innovations of the Wahhabi left illustrated by al-Awda, it is precisely this speech that the state wants to close, âsaid Mr. Hammond, referring to the imprisoned cleric.
The record of supporters of autocratic religious moderation is mixed at best. While the United Arab Emirates have created a globally tolerant society on the religious level, neither Saudi Arabia nor Egypt, which do not have the means to wage a battle of soft power in the Muslim world but seek to project themselves as a champion of religious tolerance, can make a similar claim.
Prince Mohammed met with Jewish and evangelical leaders. Mohammed al-Issa, the leader of the Muslim World League, long a major vehicle for promoting Saudi religious ultra-conservatism, doesn’t miss an opportunity these days to express his solidarity with other faith groups. Yet non-Muslims remain prohibited in the kingdom from praying publicly or building their own places of worship.
In Egypt, 27-year-old student Patrick George Zaki has been in prison since February 2020, accused of spreading false news and rumors for publishing an article documenting incidents of discrimination against Egypt’s Coptic Christian minority.
Mr Zaki was arrested a year after Ahmed el-Tayeb, the grand imam of Al Azhar, the Egyptian citadel of Islamic learning, signed a Declaration of Human Fraternity for World Peace and Living Together with the Pope Francis during the two men’s visit to the United Arab Emirates. The declaration advocates religious freedom and pluralism.
In contrast, Nahdlatul Ulama general secretary Yahya Staquf recently told Riyanto’s story in a September 11 speech at Regent University, a bulwark of anti-Muslim American evangelical sentiment founded by televangelist Pat Robertson. A member of Nahdlatul Ulama’s militia, Riyanto died guarding a church in Java on Christmas Eve when a bomb exploded in his arms as he was removing it from a bench.
âFor us at Nahdlatul Ulama, Riyanto is a martyr, and we honor his memory every Christmas Eve alongside millions of our Indonesian Christian brothers and sisters,â said Mr. Staquf.