Saudi Prince, Asserting Power, Brings Clerics to Heel

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Time: November 5, 2017

BURAIDA, Saudi Arabia — For decades, Saudi Arabia’s religious establishment wielded tremendous power, with bearded enforcers policing public behavior, prominent sheikhs defining right and wrong, and religious associations using the kingdom’s oil wealth to promote their intolerant interpretation of Islam around the world.

Now, Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman is curbing their power as part of his drive to impose his control on the kingdom and press for a more open brand of Islam.

Before the arrests on Saturday of his fellow royals and former ministers on corruption allegations, Prince Mohammed had stripped the religious police of their arrest powers and expanded the space for women in public life, including promising them the right to drive.

Dozens of hard-line clerics have been detained, while others were designated to speak publicly about respect for other religions, a topic once anathema to the kingdom’s religious apparatus.

If the changes take hold, they could mean a historic reordering of the Saudi state by diminishing the role of hard-line clerics in shaping policy. That shift could reverberate abroad by moderating the exportation of the kingdom’s uncompromising version of Islam, Wahhabism, which has been accused of fueling intolerance and terrorism.

Bringing the religious establishment to heel is also a crucial part of the prince’s efforts to take the traditional levers of Saudi power under his control. The arrests on Saturday appeared to cripple potential rivals within the royal family and send a warning to the business community to toe the line.

Prince Mohammed has taken control of the country’s three main security forces, and now is corralling the powerful religious establishment.

As evidence of that, the kingdom’s chief religious body, the Council of Senior Scholars, endorsed the arrests over the weekend, saying that Islamic law “instructs us to fight corruption and our national interest requires it.”

The 32-year-old crown prince outlined his religious goals at a recent investment conference in Riyadh, saying the kingdom needed a “moderate, balanced Islam that is open to the world and to all religions and all traditions and peoples.”

But such top-down changes will face huge challenges in a deeply conservative society steeped in the idea that Saudi Arabia’s religious strictures set it apart from the rest of the world as a land of unadulterated Islam. Enforcing those changes will also require overhauling the state’s sprawling religious bureaucracy, many of whose employees fear that the kingdom is forsaking its principles.

“For sure, it does not make me comfortable,” a government cleric in Buraida, a conservative city north of Riyadh, said of the new acceptance of gender mixing and music at public events. “Anything that has sin in it, anything that angers the Almighty — it’s a problem.”

The government has tried to silence such sentiments by arresting clerics and warning members of the religious police not to speak publicly about the loss of their powers, according to their relatives.

All clerics interviewed for this article spoke on condition of anonymity for fear that they, too, would be arrested for breaking with the government line.

“They did a pre-emptive strike,” one cleric said of the arrests. “All those who thought about saying no to the government got arrested.”

He acknowledged that many conservatives have reservations about the new direction but would go along, in part because Saudi Islam emphasizes obedience to the ruler.

“It’s not like they held a referendum and said, ‘Do you want to go this way or that way?’” he said. “But in the end, people go through the door that you open for them.”

The clerics have long been subservient to the royal family, but their independence has eroded as they became government functionaries and have been forced to accept — and at times sanction — policies they disliked, like the arrival of American troops, whom they considered infidels, during the Gulf War in 1990.

“In a sense, Mohammed bin Salman is trying to fight with a religious establishment that is already weakened,” said Stéphane Lacroix, a scholar of political Islam at Sciences Po, the Paris Institute of Political Studies. “Most of the Wahhabi clerics are not happy with what is happening, but preserving the alliance with the monarchy is what matters most. They have much more to lose by protesting.”

The alliance of the clerics and the royal family dates to the founding of the Saudi dynasty in the 1700s. Since then, the royal family governed with guidance from the clerics, who legitimized their rule.

The alliance persisted through the foundation of the modern Saudi state by the crown prince’s grandfather in 1932, giving the kingdom its strict Islamic character. Women shroud their bodies in black gowns, shops close periodically throughout the day for prayer, alcohol is forbidden and grave crimes are punished by beheading.

Public observance of any religion other than Islam is banned, and clerics run the justice system, which hands down harsh punishments like floggingsand prison for crimes like disobeying one’s father and apostasy.

Human rights groups say the kingdom’s textbooks still promote intolerance, and conservatives in the education ministry pass their views along to students.

While the prohibition on the mixing of unrelated men and women is starting to change, gender segregation remains the norm.

Crown Prince Mohammed, who rose to prominence after his father became king in 2015, has shown little deference to the traditional religious establishment while spearheading an unprecedented social opening.

When the government took arrest powers away from the religious police last year, many Saudis were so shocked that they suspected it was not real. That change paved the way for new entertainment options, including concerts and dance performances.

In addition to promising women the right to drive next June, the government has named women to high-profile jobs and announced that it would allow them to enter soccer stadiums, another blow to the ban on mixing of the sexes.

In pushing such reforms, Crown Prince Mohammed is betting the kingdom’s large youth population cares more about entertainment and economic opportunities than religious dogma.

Many young Saudis have cheered the new direction, and would love to see the clerics banished from public life. But the changes have shocked conservatives.

“Society in general at this time is very scared,” said another cleric in Buraida. “They feel that the issue is negative. It will push women into society. That is what is in their minds, that it is not right and that it will bring more corruption than benefits.”


Men gather to pray just after sunset, at Al Bujairi square. CreditTasneem Alsultan for The New York Times

Like other clerics, he saw no religious reason to bar women from driving but said he was against changing the status of women in ways that he said violated Islamic law.

“They want her to dance. They want her to go to the cinema. They want her to uncover her face. They want her to show her legs and thighs. That is liberal thought,” he said. “It is a corrupting ideology.”

Still, some find the recent moves encouraging.

“If they have to take serious measures to stamp out the uglier parts of Salafism that permeate Islam around the world, it could be on the whole quite a good thing,” said Cole Bunzel, a fellow in the Program on Extremism at George Washington University.

But a cleric who works in education in Riyadh said he worried that pushing the conservatives too far could drive the most extreme ones underground, where they could be drawn to violence.

Precedents for such blowback dot Saudi history.

In 1979, extremists who accused the royal family of being insufficiently Islamic seized the Grand Mosque in Mecca, shocking the Muslim world. Later, Osama bin Laden founded Al Qaeda after breaking with Saudi Arabia over its reliance on Western troops for protection. More recently, thousands of Saudis have joined the Islamic State for similar reasons.

But precedents also exist of clerics adopting changes they initially condemned.

Many fought the introduction of television; now, they have their own satellite channels. Others resisted education for girls; they now send their daughters to school.

One cleric said he had not wanted his wife and daughters to have cellphones at first either, but later changed his mind. The same could happen with driving.

“With time, if society sees that the decision is positive and safe, they will accept it,” he said.

This article was first published in The New York Times

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