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New winds from Arabia

There are signs that Saudi Arabia is moving away from a Wahabist vision of Islam towards one that includes dialogue.

Updated: February 27, 2014 5:03 am
It is difficult to overestimate the influence Saudi Arabia wields in the broader Muslim world, particularly in lands far away from the Arab centre — South and Southeast Asia, in particular. It is difficult to overestimate the influence Saudi Arabia wields in the broader Muslim world, particularly in lands far away from the Arab centre — South and Southeast Asia, in particular.

The ongoing visit of Saudi Crown Prince and Defence Minister Salman bin Abdulaziz al-Saud to New Delhi is likely to bear all the hallmarks of the usual Saudi royal visit: a large delegation filling up five-star hotels, business leaders paying their respects to visiting ministers in hopes of securing petro-dollar contracts, political leaders rolling out the reddest of red carpets and the sprinkling of Saudi charity largesse to local causes.

The crown prince, in a sense, represents this familiar image of the senior Saudi royal on tour. But look again and listen closely to what the crown prince and King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia are saying, and you’ll see something new and profoundly important for the Muslim world, particularly South Asia. The prince lands in India after previous stops in Pakistan and Japan. During those visits, he consistently laid out a vision of Islam that includes dialogue and cooperation while eschewing extremism and conflict. While this message may seem trite, the messenger is not trivial, and the words have been backed by significant actions.

It is difficult to overestimate the influence Saudi Arabia wields in the broader Muslim world, particularly in lands far away from the Arab centre — South and Southeast Asia, in particular. If any outside state can influence South Asian Islam, it is Saudi Arabia. Unfortunately, for far too long, in the 1980s and 1990s, Saudi Arabia’s influence was negative. They funded madrassas in Pakistan that ultimately spawned the Taliban. Saudi-funded organisations such as the World Assembly of Muslim Youth (WAMY) and the Muslim World League (MWL) propagated a narrow, literalist interpretation of the faith from India to Indonesia, which failed to understand the many colours and complexities of a cosmopolitan Islam in practice.

Even the more liberal institutions supported a revivalist political Islam. In 1979, the first ever “service to Islam” prize, given by the relatively moderate King Faisal Foundation, was given to Abul Al’a Maududi, the South Asian theologian and political Islamist who founded Pakistan’s Jamaat-i-Islami party and who inspired Islamist thinkers from Egypt to Iran, including those who ultimately advocated violent insurrection.

Maududi died in 1979 — a fateful year for the Islamic world. The 1979 Iranian Revolution ushered in a rigid theocracy on a population more in tune with the ambiguities of Sufi poetry. That same year, the Soviet Union invaded Afghanistan, spawning a jihad that inspired tens of thousands of Muslim fighters to travel there. The Iranian Revolution, in particular, spooked the House of Saud. Even worse, the seizure of the Grand Mosque of Mecca in that same year by a group of militants pushed the Saudi leadership into full defensive mode.

In response, as if to show their true Islamic colours, the ruling al-Sauds robustly supported some of the more radical currents in Afghanistan and embraced Osama bin Laden’s jihad of the 1980s. At home, they handed over the education ministry and judiciary to narrow-minded Wahabist preachers. In order to push back Arab nationalist currents, Saudi Arabia had, for years, been importing Muslim Brotherhood teachers and professors from the Arab world. This Wahabi-Brotherhood duo made for a toxic mix at home. Out of that poisonous crucible, 15 Saudi hijackers emerged to follow in the violent vision of bin Laden and crash those planes into America’s twin towers on that terrible Tuesday in September 2001, and ultimately challenge the Saudi state violently from 2003-06. That Wahabi-Brotherhood mix also infected Saudi-funded pan-Islamic institutions active across South Asia.

What a difference a decade makes. King Abdullah has used his near-decade on the throne to confront what he calls Islamic “deviants”, who use violence and intolerance to promote conflict. He has not only called for a dialogue of faiths, but pushed some of Saudi Arabia’s leading religious scholars to lead the effort. This is critical: after all, it’s easy to put liberals on CNN to talk of dialogue, but forcing Wahabi theologians to shake hands with priests and rabbis at international conferences is far more powerful. A close reading of King Abdullah’s speeches reveals a man deeply troubled by Islamic “deviancy” and deeply moved to counter it.

The king has launched an extraordinary initiative, the King Abdullah bin Abdulaziz International Centre for Interreligious and Intercultural Dialogue, based in Vienna, Austria, which hosts men and women of faith from Islam (both Shia and Sunni), Judaism, Christianity, Hinduism, Buddhism and other faiths to engage in serious interfaith dialogue. The king has also become what some call the “Education King”, leading one of the world’s most ambitious scholarship programmes, with some 1,50,000 Saudi students studying in universities across the globe. At home, new universities have proliferated, including the prestigious King Abdullah University of Science and Technology, which the king has called a “House of Wisdom” that harks back to Islam’s golden age of enlightenment and cosmopolitanism in the ninth through 13th centuries.

What’s more, you can tell much about a man by his appointments. The king has appointed an unprecedented 30 women to the Majlis al-Shura, a consultative council, and virtually all of his appointments of leading ministers have been reformists and technocrats. For both the king and the crown prince, their closest advisers tend to be cosmopolitan men of the world, rather than rigid Wahabist thinkers, though both are widely seen as pious — a critical factor of “legitimacy” in a society that is still conservative.

The king has also reached out to Shia leaders in substantive ways, but unfortunately, Saudi society and media have not followed: there is still far too much anti-Shia sentiment among ordinary Saudis, and few Saudi intellectuals have mustered the courage to push back against this current. Saudi Arabia, as home to the holiest mosques of Islam, might be considered the heart of the Islamic world, but its demographic heart is in South and Southeast Asia. The drying-up of Saudi petro-dollars for radical groups over the past decade has been good for South Asia. It is vital that these new winds blowing from Arabia prove to be more than a temporary change in temperature.

Afshin Molavi

The writer is a senior research fellow at the New America Foundation, Washington DC, and a fellow at the Johns Hopkins University School of Advanced International Studies.

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