Saudi Arabia created a monster by vesting extreme power to their radical clergy- a power that grew many folds over the decades and is now out to bite the hand that fed it all this while.
Saudi Arabia's ruling Al Saud royal family are trying to adjust their relationship with the country's strict Wahhabi school of Sunni Islam as they increasingly view the teachings of some of its ultra-conservative clergy as a domestic security threat.
What is the Wahhabi School of Thought?
The Wahhabi school of thought is an extremely austere and radical one and is Saudi Arabia's dominant faith. The Wahhabies do not take lightly to those who don't practice their interpretation of Islam.
The Saudis have their own reasons to move away from the extremely Wahhabi clergy including the domestic attacks and the involvement of Saudi citizens in jihadist movements, extreme religious practices leading to lack of employment.
But if they manage to break away from the extreme influence of their clerics, the world will benefit as well. Indeed the Wahhabi influence has cause enough damage to the world and humans at large.
Imagine a world without the influence of the strict school of thought:
- No Taliban, Usama Bin Laden or ISIS
- No religious/sectarian intolerance
- Muslim (especially Saudi) women with more freedom, even living within the limitations imposed by Islam
Bye Bye Extremism?
Extremists such as Osama bin Laden, Al-Qaeda, the Taliban and the ISIS are followers of this faith. In the 18th-century, the Saud clan formed an alliance with the puritanical scholar Muhammed ibn Abd al-Wahhab in a bid to conquer the warring tribes of the desert. With time his austere interpretation of Islam became the foundation of the Saudi state. The very same ‘interpretation’ has come back to bite them in the form of the terrorists organized under its umbrella with Abu Bakar Al Baghdadi at the helm as the Caliph of Islamic State.
The Arabs may now be uniting against the Islamic State but their reasons are purely selfish.
No religious/sectarian intolerance
It has long been speculated that Saudi Arabia refrains from addressing extremism by groups such as Al Qaeda, Boko Haram, al-Shabab because they follow Sunni Salafism – an ideology Saudi Arabia is rumored to have been sponsoring for five decades.
Imagine a world without religious and sectarian intolerance. The Muslim world without the debate of whether the Sunni or Shia Islam is the one leading to the right path would not be there. Neither would be the resulting backing of terrorists against one or the other. Imagine no churches blowing up or Hindus being forcibly converted to Islam.
Treatment of Women
Islam allows women to go about normal routines of life as long as they are modestly covered and asks them to refrain from interacting with males not related to them unnecessarily. Under the Wahhabi interpretation, however, women are severely restricted. They cannot interact with men not related to them either by blood or marriage, go out on their own, drive or even visit libraries.
Although Saudi Arabia has made some minor advances on women’s rights in the past few years – such as lifting the ban on sports for girls at schools, permitting women to run and/or vote in municipal elections in 2015 without male approval and allowing them to travel abroad without male supervision – it still has a long – long – way to go.
Saudi Arabia moving away from Wahhabism
Over the past decade the House of Saud has not only put in place measures to control clerics and their sermons, but has started to favor more modern clergy for top state positions.
Saudi rulers are also starting to reform areas once the exclusive domain of the clergy, such as education and law.
"The royal family's legitimacy is mostly based on Islam. Without this, the House of Saud is weak. But, politically, religion gives them the strong legitimacy," says Mohsen al-Awaji, a prominent Islamist activist.
Saudi Arabia's approach to religious doctrine is important because of its symbolic position as the birthplace of Islam, while its oil exports allow it to finance Wahhabi-oriented missionary activity abroad.
But the government now vets clerics in Saudi Arabia's 70,000 mosques, sacking many who disseminate extremism.
Recently a young liberal Saudi cleric and former Mecca religious police chief Ahmed al-Ghamdi faced a lot of fire and was shunned for appearing on television with his wife, whose face was uncovered.
But his move shows just how much things are changing.
"Since 2005, since King Abdullah took power, he brought new ideas for the future," said Mohammed al-Zulfa, a liberal former member of the appointed Shoura Council, which advises the government. Indeed it is under Abdullah that many of the reforms have taken place especially in terms of women. Even though they may yet not be allowed to drive even if their lives depended on it, they are progressing in education as well as economy.
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So the signs of change are there. It is likely that the Saudi government, though deeply influenced by their strict clergy (it did help them keeping the masses in check over the centuries) sees themselves threatened by the ever increasing powers of the radically religious lot and even fear their fate under the likes of a probable Islamic State- A Caliphate that will have no place of worth for the Saudi royals deep in the comforts of their lavish lives.
But will the old school clergy, invested with so much power for so many decades go down without a fight? Or whether the Saudis can look beyond their vested interests and move on? These are two seriously debatable question.