Saudi Arabia’s efforts to embrace ‘moderate Islam,’ while highly praiseworthy, entail many risks to the kingdom’s stability. The shift is a crucial part of the massive transformation under way in what is, by definition, a deeply conservative country. Complicating matters for the Saudi regime is that it has to effect such radical change as the surrounding region continues to descend into chaos. This ambitious move away from its historic Salafist interpretation of Islam, which has given rise to extremism throughout the world, could have implications far beyond Saudi Arabia’s borders.
Speaking at an Oct. 24 economic forum in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia’s soon-to-be king, Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman, told the gathering that his country was on the path to “moderate, open” Islam and declared war on extremist interpretations of the religion. “We are returning to what we were before — a country of moderate Islam that is open to all religions and to the world,” remarked the crown prince. The 34-year old royal and de facto ruler of the kingdom — given that his father, King Salman bin Abdulaziz, is at an advanced age and ailing — went on to say, “We will not spend the next 30 years of our lives dealing with destructive ideas. We will destroy them today. We will end extremism very soon.”
This is a highly ambitious project. The Saudi state was built on the ultraconservative Salafist reading of Islam, which has enabled the growth of religious extremism — particularly the phenomenon of jihadism, which the Saudis have used to advance foreign policy objectives. The crown prince’s remarks indicate that the Saudi regime is trying to alter its very nature, which is a very positive development.
Finding the Right Speed
It is important to note that the Saudis have been working to reform their religious foundations for some time. Indeed, Riyadh has been engaged in this process since the early years after al-Qaeda’s attack on the United States on Sept. 11, 2001. So what is different now?
Thus far, the monarchy has been cautious in changing the role of religion in the state and society. Under the former King Abdullah, who was at the helm for 20 years, the kingdom experienced considerable change, particularly by increasing space for women. But these changes occurred gradually, in order to avoid rocking the proverbial boat and upsetting the kingdom’s religious and tribal establishments.
Now, the kingdom’s new leader is intensifying and accelerating the reform process. At the heart of these reforms is the need to change the nature of the state’s ideology, which is why the crown prince is falling back on the highly contested notion of ‘moderate Islam.’ Beyond broad strokes, the Saudis (like all other Muslim as well as non-Muslim actors) probably are not clear on what they mean by ‘moderate Islam,’ much less how they will go from the current state of extremism to moderation. But the prince has made it loud and clear that the kingdom cannot wait decades for this to happen.
However, such sweeping changes are multi-generational. It is safe to say that there is great enthusiasm for the kind of change that the prince envisions among younger Saudis, who form a large segment of the country’s population. But the ultraconservative establishment that has historically been the kingdom’s pillar of stability is not going to go quietly into the night on this. Attempts to alter the religious fabric of society anywhere usually leads to conflict.
Exacerbating matters for the Saudis is that their intensifying internal ideological/political struggle comes at a time when the country is weakening financially. It was only a couple of days ago that the International Monetary Fund noted that for Riyadh to balance its books the price of oil must be set at $70 per barrel, though the medium-term forecast places prices in the $50-60 per barrel range. In essence, the two pillars of stability of the Saudi state – religion and oil – are in flux. And outside the kingdom, the Saudis’ strategic environment is becoming perilous. The growing turmoil in the Arab world is enabling the empowerment of Saudi Arabia’s arch nemesis, Iran.
Ironically, Iran and Saudi Arabia have both been exploiting the religious extremism that has been part of the fabric of Saudi Arabia and is now threatening the stability of the broader region. In this way, the kingdom is caught between the “self” and the “other”: It has to simultaneously defend against a strengthening Iran while sorting out its own domestic pandemonium. In fact, the only way any state can deal effectively with external threats is if it enjoys internal stability.
The Saudis can do very little on the economic front, because improvement there is a function of market forces. The crown prince’s reform initiative, which entails diversifying the country’s economy and reducing its dependence on oil, is not something that can happen in the short term and will be a Herculean task in the long term. Before economic reform can occur, social change must occur — which brings us back to the issue of ‘moderate Islam.’
A small group of scholars engaged in the study of ideological and behavioral transformation among radical, extremist actors has argued that the term ‘moderate Islam’ confuses more than clarifies; nevertheless, most everyone else continues using it. Its continued use has a lot to do with the lack of alternative terminology. Largely, the term remains useful in that it allows the one employing it to speak of a kind of Islam without extremism. Beyond this, ‘moderate Islam’ is what noted Scottish philosopher W.B. Gallie referred to as a contested concept: what it is depends on who is explaining it.
Like most other human notions, ‘moderate Islam’ is also relative, because it is discussed in relation to ‘extremist Islam.’ Neither extremism nor moderation is a well-defined concept. Put differently, there are as many different “extremisms” and “moderations” as there are parties discussing the ideas.
Saudi Arabia has long argued that jihadism is a “deviant” creed and very distinct from the Salafist ideology of Arabia developed by the kingdom’s ideological founder Muhammad bin Abdulwahhab in the 18th century. The crown prince’s call for ‘moderate Islam’ and denunciation of extremism is not just a new way of making this kind of distinction. He is acknowledging that the Saudi state ideology is the problem and needs overhauling, as is evident from the recent profound changes regarding the role of women in the kingdom. But he realizes he cannot completely abandon the foundations of the state and hope to succeed, which is why he is connecting his ‘moderate Islam’ project with the Saudi state’s 18th-century roots. Elsewhere in his remarks, he argued that extremism in the kingdom really took off after the establishment of the Shia Islamist regime in Iran in 1979 and the subsequent energizing of Sunni Islamist trends.
However, his comment about wanting to return the kingdom to a ‘moderate Islam’ that tolerated other religions and once flourished in the Arabian Peninsula only makes sense if he is referring to the pre-Salafist era (prior to the mid-18th century). But for him to realize his vision of ‘moderate Islam’ in the kingdom, that moderation undoubtedly will involve an evolution of Salafism as we know it today. Change is the most permanent feature of human societies, and Saudi Arabia is no exception. What we don’t know is the magnitude and velocity of change — or, more importantly, what Saudi Arabia under a ‘moderate Islam’ will look like.
Regardless, transformation within the kingdom will be a slow organic process — one that the rest of the world can only influence in extremely limited ways. The United States has an imperative to fight Islamist extremism and terrorism. However, and this is going to very difficult, it must be done in a manner that does not subvert political reform in Saudi Arabia. To succeed in the struggle against Islamist radicalism, the discourse in Washington must become much more nuanced than the current state of affairs, wherein the term ‘moderate Islam’ is casually thrown around and which works to the advantage of our Islamist enemies. Conceptual clarity is a prerequisite for the United States to develop a robust strategy to effectively deal with this challenge.
Kamran Bokhari is the Director of Strategy and Programs at the Center for Global Policy. He also is a senior analyst with the intelligence firm Geopolitical Futures, and a Fellow with the Program on Extremism at George Washington University’s Center for Cyber & Homeland Security. The views expressed herein are the author’s and do not necessarily reflect those of CGP.