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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 continued…