Forget the real reforms in Saudi Arabia
Saudi Sheikh Salman al-Awdah, a popular but controversial religious scholar who has mostly been in solitary confinement since 2017, appeared in court this week to hear that his case was adjourned again for four months.
Loaded with more than 30 counts of terrorism, term defined in the broad sense in Saudi Arabia to include adherence to atheism and peaceful dissent, prosecutors are calling for the death penalty.
It was not immediately clear why his trial was postponed, but some analysts suggest the government may have wanted to avoid a high-profile court case at a time when Saudi Arabia is maneuvering to prevent a deterioration in relations with a Biden administration criticism of the kingdom’s human rights record.
the State Department Annual Report on Human Rights identified Mr. Al-Awdah in recent years as one of “at least 120 people (who) remained in detention for activism, criticism of government leaders, attack on Islam or religious leaders, or” offensive “publications on the Internet”.
Mr. Al-Awdah’s crimes would include sedition, agitation of public discord, incitement against the leader, support for imprisoned dissidents and Qatar and the muslim brotherhood. Saudi Arabia designated the Muslim Brotherhood as a terrorist organization in 2014.
Mr. Al-Awdah was arrested after he tweeted his millions of followers for reconciliation with Qatar three months after Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain and Egypt imposed an economic and diplomatic boycott on the Gulf state.
The four countries lifted their boycott in January with no indication that their demands for far-reaching changes in Qatar’s foreign and media policy had been met.
A 64-year-old militant Islamist cleric who abandoned his support for jihadists after his release from prison in 1999, Mr. Al-Awdah denounced Osama bin Laden in the 2000s and became a leading government figure deradicalization program.
Like other academics, writers and journalists, many of whom have been sentenced last year to heavy prison terms, he became a voice for political and social reforms following the popular Arab uprisings of 2011, calling for a humanist interpretation of Islam and reform of Islamic law through recontextualization. He argued that Saudi Arabia should be a democracy rather than a theocracy, embrace pluralism, respect minority rights and allow the emergence of an independent civil society.
United Nations human rights experts described Mr. Al-Awdah, who made no attempt to hide his militant past, as an “influential religious figure who called for greater respect for human rights within Sharia law.”
Saudi academic Yasmine Farouk argues that Mr. Al-Awdah’s past is in fact one of his strengths. “If the Saudi regime was serious about reforming Wahhabi Salafism, Awdah would provide him with a model to do this, while being an essential player in the process. It’s because he’s a man who doesn’t deny his past, ”Ms. Farouk said.
To cast doubt on the usefulness of Mr. Al-Awdah’s past and the sincerity of his reformist views is the fact that he sometimes came back to anti-Semitic views he expressed in his early years.
Nonetheless, his trial as well as the conviction last year of men like researcher and writer Hijazi Abdullah al-Maliki cast a shadow over the Saudi crown prince. Mohammed ben salmanthe assertion that he is guiding Saudi Arabia towards a moderate, vague and undefined form of Islam.
Prince Mohammed’s projection of moderate Saudi Islam is designed to strengthen the kingdom’s quest for leadership in the Muslim world and increase its ability to attract foreign direct investment.
The crown prince and many members of the Saudi elite who have not been targeted by MbS in his crackdown on potential opponents see Islam as a tool to strengthen the ruling family’s grip on power. Family members as well as ultra-conservative religious figures have long advocated an interpretation of Islam that demands absolute and unchallenged obedience from the sovereign.
Citing Islamic jurisprudence, Prince Turki al-Faisal insisted in an editorial as early as 2002 that the kingdom’s rulers have the exclusive right to demand full allegiance and obedience. The prince rejected the claim of a prominent religious scholar that power was shared in the kingdom.
Scholars content themselves with “advising and guiding” rulerssaid Prince Turki, former intelligence chief and ambassador to Britain and the United States, who now heads King Faisal’s Center for Islamic Research and Studies.
The incarceration and condemnation of reformers contrasts sharply with notions of a humanitarian Islam that embraces the United Nations Universal Declaration of Human Rights advocated by Nahdlatul Ulama in Indonesia, the largest Muslim civil society movement in the world. .
The contrast is enhanced, despite significant progress in suppressing hate speech and supremacist concepts Saudi school books, in the differences between Nahdlatul Ulama’s first steps towards reforming Islamic jurisprudence and Saudi approaches that seem primarily utilitarian, rhetorical and symbolic.
Saudi Education Minister Hamad bin Mohammed Al-Sheikh’s announcement this week that the kingdom was in the process of creating “units of intellectual consciousness“in the universities” to promote the values of citizenship, moderation and the fight against the ideas of extremism and decadence “seems mainly designed to reinforce a facade of moderation devoid of concepts of diversity of opinion, pluralism and freedom expression.
Nahdlatul Ulama’s calls for the reform of Islam have moreover has gained ground in the corridors of power in world capitals as well as influential non-Muslim religious communities as Saudi Arabia struggles to polish its image tarnished by the murder of a journalist in 2018 Jamal Khashoggi and the repression of critical voices.
Criticisms by the Biden administration of Saudi Arabia’s human rights record and the conduct of the six-year war in Yemen have complicated the kingdom’s efforts to improve its image, especially in the West.
Saudi Arabia’s image problems have cast a shadow over the kingdom’s quest for religious soft power as well as the foreign direct investment needed to successfully implement Prince Mohammed’s economic diversification plan.
The policy of prosecuting critics and dissidents raises questions not only about the human rights but also important issues for many potential foreign investors, such as the independence of the judiciary, transparency, accountability and the rule of law.
The recent release of Loujain al-Hathloul, while upholding his conviction as well as the release of several other detainees, suggested that the government would go no further by tackling its reputation issues and trying to get off on the right foot with the Biden administration.
Arab News, a widely read English-language Saudi newspaper, updated a 2019 profile of Mr. Al-Awdah last month which described him as a “chameleon clergyman” and one of many “preachers of hate.”
Long managed by the sons of King Salman and the close collaborators of Prince Mohammed, parent company of Arab News, Saudi Arabian Research and Marketing Group, lists two National Commercial Bank investment funds as holding 58 percent of its shares. Government institutions own more than 50 percent of the shares of the bank.
Arab News profile suggested that Mr. Al-Awdah did not change his pre-1999 ultra-conservative and militant views, although he presented himself as a reformer and did not remove from his website religious edicts advocating these views.
Saudi scholar Ms. Farouk said: “Awdah has in fact started a process of de-radicalizing Saudi Salafism and reforming it in an inclusive and bottom-up manner, without relying on state coercion. The credibility he gained by doing so gave him the latitude to legitimately oppose violent resistance to any meaningful process of reforming Islam within the kingdom and elsewhere.
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