Since 9/11, the role played by, and the link between, Saudi Arabia and radical Islam were topics of discussion among many intellectuals. Some voices blamed Saudi Arabia for all problems of radical Islam and demanded a weakening of its ruling regime or the royal family. Careful examination of the interplay of powers in Saudi Arabia reveals three fundamental forces: the progressives, the regressives, and the terrorists.
The first power — the progressives — want to bring the country to the path of modernity. This group draws predominantly from the royal family and some progressive intellectuals. The progressives managed to allow women to reach the highest levels in education, to allow non-Shariah-compliant Western banking systems to work in the country, and to permit the installation of the Internet and satellite dishes that bring TV news and movies from all over the world directly to Saudi houses.
This group was supported as a political power by the Wahhabi system, yet managed to bring those elements of modernity. But the progressives could not bring more change in the society, as they were resisted by the second group, the regressives.
The regressives are primarily the Wahhabis and their allies. This group controls many areas in the education and legal systems, and promotes the following: Subjugation of women to men. Suppression of religious freedom (which manifests itself as the killing of apostates). Prevention of non-Muslims from having their religious books or temples in the country. Cruel punishments, such as stoning to death, for having extramarital sexual relations. Violent jihad on the part of the Muslim nation against non-Muslim nations
This group considers wars to spread Islam a responsibility of the Islamic umma (nation), rather than an individual responsibility. It does not condone terrorist acts, but teaches violent theological foundations.
The third power-wielding group are the terrorists, who consider declaring war against non-Muslims as a personal responsibility, and thus conduct violent acts such as explosions and suicide bombings. This group — if it were to take power — will make Saudi Arabia like Afghanistan under the Taliban.
It is fair to say that the Saudi royal family is not the Taliban. The Taliban does not allow women to have education, does not permit satellite TVs or any other sign of modernity. This difference between the Saudis and the Taliban is mainly due to the relentless efforts of the progressives, who managed to make progress in certain areas of Saudi society but could not make the same in other.
The complexity of the issue makes solving this problem delicate.
Weakening the royal family could deprive the country of the progressive voices that managed to take some positive steps to modernize the country. Weakening the current Saudi regime could simply allow the second and third groups to take over the country and make it more like a Taliban and al-Qaida model. On the contrary, supporting the enlightened elements within the royal family is pivotal to avoid a collapse into such a system.
The progressives are not currently in full control and are opposed by the other two. Implementing uncalculated changes in Saudi Arabia could be disastrous.
One issue is that Saudi Arabia is seen by its population and many other Muslims as the leader of the Islamic world. This puts the progressives in a difficult situation, as any change in the Saudi society toward modernity must be justified by the religion. This could be seen as bad news by many, but as good news by those who know how to give religious justification to values of liberty and modernity. Islamic texts can be understood in many ways.
For example: The second Islamic ruler (or Caliph), Umar Ibn Al-Khatab (who is considered one of the closest disciples to Prophet Muhammad and one of the top 10 righteous people in Islam, who were given a “guarantee to enter the paradise”) banned the Islamic law of amputating the hands of thieves. This happened in the early history of Islam (“Aam Al-Ramada”) when poverty exceeded certain limits. Umar simply looked at the spirit of the religion of having mercy and justice, and gave this a priority over applying the literal text of the Quran. The progressive elements of the Saudi royal family can use such an approach (and others) as a model to bring religious justifications for changing the country gradually toward more modernity.
The power interplay within Saudi Arabia necessitates a wise approach to bring the country toward modernity without creating instability. The enlightened elements in the royal family and in Saudi society managed to educate women, allow TV and Internet, and are starting interfaith dialogue via the outreach of king Abdullah. In addition, the progressives were recently trying to stop underage marriage, allow women to drive, and supported a Saudi TV Program (“Tash Ma Tash”) that is critical of some aspects within the Saudi society. One of the most controversial phrases used in this program to critique traditional education was “We speak about the Saudi person and you speak about the Muslim person.”
The change in Saudi Arabia needs to be gradual to avoid instability, but progressive. It must have some element of religious justification in order to be effective. Islamic texts and history can allow this to happen.
Dr. Tawfik Hamid is the author of "Inside Jihad." He was a former associate of Dr. al-Zawahiri (second in command of al-Qaida) and currently he is a reformer of Islam. To know more about Hamid please visit www.tawfikhamid.com. Hamid's writings in this blog represent only his thoughts and not the views of the institute where he works.
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