November 9, 2017

Mohammed bin Salman’s Plan to Moderate Islam in Saudi Arabia

People pray at an open air makeshift mosque in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia.(AP Photo/Amr Nabil)
by Annelle R. Sheline

On October 24, Saudi Arabia’s Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman (MbS) announced that his country would “return to moderate Islam.” In an interview with The Guardian, he attributed Saudi Arabia’s adoption of hard-line Sunni Wahhabism to the 1979 Islamic Revolution in Iran, an event that in his words, Saudi leaders “didn’t know how to handle.” The statements by MbS elicited considerable commentary because the kingdom’s global promotion of Wahhabism is seen as a significant factor in the adoption of extremist interpretations of Islam. The prospect that Saudi Arabia would promote moderate Islam raises hopes that extremism could decline if it lost a major source of ideological inspiration and funding.

It is noteworthy that MbS made his statement during an investment conference announcing the launch of a new economic zone on the Red Sea. The kingdom’s efforts to encourage greater private sector development and economic diversification come at a time of low energy prices and stagnant growth. MbS is aware of the need to improve his country’s image to better target investors who might otherwise avoid the kingdom. However, as skeptics have noted, promoting moderate Islam is no small feat. It requires significant restructuring of religious institutions and changes in educational curriculums as well as reshaping long-held cultural or tribal traditions.

Governments Lack Religious Credibility

MbS’ statement reflects a view held by many regimes across the Middle East, that the state’s control and transformation of religious and other institutions enable it to promote a moderate form of Islam that can lead to the reduction of extremism. The meaning of moderate Islam is of course context dependent: In Morocco, the regime emphasizes Moroccan Islam as moderate, while in Jordan the monarchy highlights the idea that “true” Islam is itself moderate, based on Quranic verses such as 2:143, which states that God created Muslims to be a “moderate nation” (al-umma al-wusata). In Oman, official religious discourse focuses less on the notion of “wasatia” and instead highlights “tolerance, understanding, and coexistence” (al-tasamuh, al-tafahum, al-taeysh). The United Arab Emirates appointed a minister for tolerance as a component of its efforts to combat extremism. However, because these initiatives are implemented by state institutions, they tend to lack credibility with some of the more conservative segments of society.

Based on interviews conducted by this author in 2015 and 2016 in Jordan, Oman, and Morocco, for example, if individuals have a question about Islam, they are more likely to search the Internet for the opinion of a sheikh whom they consider knowledgeable; two popular sites for religious opinions are and both run by Saudi sheikhs (though, the sheikh who runs the latter has been reported to have been arrested). Typically, people with a religious question are more likely to turn to independent figures they see as fully committed to Islam, and not potentially compromised by their affiliation with a ruling regime.

While MbS has begun to define what he means by promoting moderate Islam in the Saudi context, such as through the recently established Global Center for Combating Extremist Ideology and by reining in religious police, top-down efforts by the governments of Jordan, the UAE, and Morocco to target extremist ideology using a discourse of “moderation” have had mixed results in the short term.

Saudi Loss of Prestige

If MbS succeeds in implementing policies designed to moderate Saudi Arabia’s official religious discourse and permitted practices, he may undermine the credibility of Saudi Arabia as a religious leader for some hardcore conservatives who may prefer to adhere to what they consider the most “correct” or orthodox interpretation of Islam. Saudi Arabia’s current religious prestige is due in part to its successful, decades-long campaign to educate Muslim populations all over the world that Wahhabi Islam is this “correct” form of Islam. Based on its control of Mecca and Medina and funded by immense oil wealth, the kingdom has used religious schools, training centers for clerics, and satellite television channels to transform how many Muslims view their religion. Following the inculcation of beliefs that equate conservativism with piety, the Saudi regime may have difficulty convincing those who adhere to an orthodox or fundamentalist interpretation of Islam that a more “moderate” form represents the closest adherence to their faith. If the Saudi regime maintains a sustained campaign to promote moderate Islam as more “correct” than Wahhabi Islam, it may succeed in the long term. However social movement theory predicts that more extreme ideologies can undermine moderate positions due to the negative radical flank effect. In the short term, more extreme individuals or movements may compete with Saudi Arabia as the key source of religious leadership.

Muslim publics are aware of pressure from the West to “moderate” Islam, which many see as an effort to alter their religion in accordance with Western norms and culture. Based on research in Jordan, state-led attempts to moderate Islam are often seen as capitulation to Western pressure, whereas leaders who reject the notion of moderate Islam often explicitly do so to demonstrate defiance of the West.

Extremism is Outside the Control of the Saudi Government

Although MbS’ statement indicates that extremism is something the Saudi government can control, the Saudi government, like many others, struggles to contain acts of violence by extremist individuals. The same year as the Islamic Revolution in Iran, Saudi insurgents seized the Masjid al-Haram, or Grand Mosque, in Mecca, calling for the overthrow of the monarchy. After a two-week siege, the government retook control of the mosque, killing and injuring over 800 insurgents and civilians. MbS attributed his country’s adoption of hard-line Wahhabism to the Islamic Revolution, however it was after the Grand Mosque seizure that the Saudi regime implemented more stringent religious policies, such as shuttering cinemas and enforcing strict gender segregation.

The attacks of September 11, 2001 offered another wakeup call, with the United States pressuring the Saudi regime to contain extremism in view of the fact that 15 of the 19 hijackers were Saudi. With a shared interest in preventing both domestic and international acts of violence, the Saudi government became a key ally in the War on Terror.

More recently, a Saudi official admitted the kingdom had financed Wahhabi Islam abroad, but stated that these initiatives are no longer receiving funding, a shift that affirms MbS’ influence on the government’s new direction.

Serving a Domestic Agenda

No doubt, MbS is aware that his efforts to encourage moderation will encounter resistance, but he may have an underlying agenda: sidelining powerful Saudi clerics he views as a group that will stand in his way of opening up Saudi society and restructuring the economy. Blaming extremism on the hard-line clerics associated with the Sahwa (awakening) allows MbS to reduce these individuals’ standing. MbS’ statement may have been intended to signal the House of Saud’s movement away from the Wahhabi ulama whose support has long been crucial to maintaining the kingdom’s ruling status quo. The regime has curtailed the influence of the ulama and solidified control, through projects from centralizing the role of the House of Saud in the national narrative, to rescinding strict religious edicts such as the ban on women driving and curbing the authority of the religious police. MbS has orchestrated several of the recent reforms that shift power away from the clerics. The large number of arrests of senior ministers, businessmen, and members of the royal family on November 4 on charges of corruption is unprecedented and goes beyond an effort to consolidate power. Further, it goes far beyond restructuring religious institutions by redefining the system of governance in the kingdom.

Over the past two decades, many Arab governments have implemented policies intended to encourage moderate Islam. Nevertheless, acts of violence committed by radical individuals persist, and the ideological appeal of groups like the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant continues to challenge stability in the region. The struggle of these governments to inculcate a narrative of moderate Islam provides insight into the obstacles likely to stand in the way of Saudi success.

Annelle R. Sheline is a PhD candidate in the department of political science at the George Washington University, and the director of the Undergraduate Scholars Program at the Elliott School of International Affairs. Her dissertation compares efforts by Arab monarchies to use state control of religious institutions to reduce extremism.