Arrest of Saudi Arabian royals will send state down reformist path, serve as role model for Islamic clerics

Saudi Arabia's sweeping arrests of 11 princes, including the billionaire investor prince Alwaleed bin Talal, four ministers and tens of former ministers is set to send the Saudi state down a reformist path.

It also signals a line of thought Sunni Islamic clerics would follow.

This transformation will have major implications for India, where the flow of Saudi money has spread Wahhabism—a form of Islam which insists on a literal interpretation of the Quran—among Muslims. Burqas, rarely seen in India's towns and villages three decades ago, are everywhere now. The liberty of Muslim women in India is in peril due to the spread of Wahhabism.

File image of Saudi Arabia's Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman. AP

File image of Saudi Arabia's Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman. AP

A coup is described as a violent and illegal seizure of power by a military and political group opposed to the government. But these arrests, carried out by the Saudi government on allegations of corruption, are a kind of 'coup' against potential challengers from among the Saudi royals. These arrests followed the deaths of two princes—Mansour bin Muqrin and Abdul Aziz—within 24 hours in suspicious circumstances. The Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman is not only King Salman's son, he is also his top advisor. These arrests cement his grip on power.

In this essentially negative exercise, the saving grace is the crown prince's reformist credentials. At 32, he is still young and if misfortune should not befall him, he will succeed his father and govern Saudi Arabia for more than half a century. Under King Salman, Saudi Arabia permitted girls to take physical education classes. Women are now allowed to drive and enter sports stadiums to watch football.

Such reformist measures are part of the crown prince's vision 2030 which aims to allow women into labour force, open tourism sector to all nationalities and develop 50 islands as tourism hubs where women can wear bikinis. These are bold reforms.

In recent decades, Indian society has been affected by Wahhabism, a corpus of orthodox ideas rooted in Islam, but promoted through Saudi money. Saudi funds coming into India are used to build mosques and madrassas which promote an extreme form of orthodox Islam.

Islamic clerics have taken control of the lives of Muslims. Women who used to work as peasants in fields, under the Wahhabi influence, began wearing burqas. Intellectually and socially, Indian Muslims began distancing themselves from their non-Muslim neighbours.

Three types of Saudi money is pouring into India: One, money earned by Indians working in Saudi Arabia, a portion of which is donated to mosques. Two, rich Saudis privately donating to Indian clerics visiting Saudi Arabia, especially during Ramzan. Three, the Saudi government promoting Sunni clerics to build mosques and madrassas to check the Iranian influence through Shia institutions.

Diplomatic cables released by WikiLeaks in 2015 revealed that "the government of Saudi Arabia itself pledged donations to nine such [Wahhabi] institutions located across different states, including Uttar Pradesh, West Bengal, Kerala and Maharashtra. Saudi Arabia pledged 4.5 million Saudi Riyal (SR) to different institutions in Kerala."

According to the Intelligence Bureau, about 25,000 Wahhabi clerics from Saudi Arabia and other countries visited India from 2011 to 2013. Their events were attended by 12 lakh people.

An estimated Rs 1,700 crore of Saudi money was infused into India's religious sector over those three years.

Such Saudi money strengthened Wahhabi version of Islam, undermining the Sufi and peasant version of Indian Islam. Saudi money cannot be totally stopped, but the Indian government can monitor and regulate its flow: For example, forcing madrassas, mosques and all non-Muslim religious institutions to register as NGOs, obtain a PAN card and file quarterly reports.

There is reason to believe that the Saudi state will acquire liberal traits under the influence of crown prince and his father King Salman. In addition to the pro-women reforms, Saudi Arabia recently established a united fatwa council. In May, the UAE also set up a fatwa council whose purpose is to promote a moderate version of Islam.

According to a 21 October report in Pakistani Urdu daily Roznama Ummat, the Saudi fatwa council will represent all Islamic sects and try to reconcile their theological differences, in addition to resolving problems faced by non-Muslims. Though these fatwa councils are not fountains of European Enlightenment, the government control on them can force clerics to tow a moderate line.

The British historian Lord Acton said: "Power tends to corrupt, and absolute power corrupts absolutely."

This maxim also applies to Islamic clerics, who rely on charity. To continue their religious activities, Islamic clerics need money from Saudi Arabia. The majority of them, therefore, will follow the Saudis in word and deed.

In Pakistan, even the fundamentalists adopt the stance propagated by the Pakistan Army. Make no mistake about it, the clerics will bow their heads before the crown prince. And after the arrests in Saudi Arabia, the Islamic clerics in India have had two reactions: Silence or supporting the crown prince.

Noted Islamic clerics such as Maulana Tahir Mahmood Ashrafi of the All Pakistan Ulema Council have publicly stated that the arrests were "a step in the right direction", according to a report in the 6 November edition of the Roznama Express. In India, the Patna-based Urdu daily Roznama Sangam, noted in a 7 November editorial that dozens of Islamic clerics in Saudi Arabia were arrested recently and the crown prince "has given such statements against the clerics of Saudi Arabia that no one had previously mustered the courage and nerve to say." Roznama Sangam, which leans towards Islamism, refrained from strongly criticising the crown prince.

After the 9/11 attacks, George W Bush pressed for democracy within the Islamic world. Not many people will acknowledge this, but it is Bush's singular contribution that Saudi Arabia permitted men to vote and stand in the 2005 municipal elections and women to vote in the 2015 elections.

Reform is the only path open to Saudi Arabia. Because the Saudi state under King Salman and the crown prince is likely to follow a path of liberalisation—if not liberalism—one can be sure that it can shed its orthodox past and emerge as a role model for Islamic clerics, most of whom are not educated in the sciences, humanities and liberal arts.

Imagine this: Ten years from now, if the crown prince can establish a small synagogue, church and or temple in Saudi Arabia as a token of Islam's pluralism, it will be consistent with Islamic teachings on coexistence and transform Muslim minds not just in India but globally. Islamic clerics will welcome it. Since the holy mosques are situated in Mecca and Medina, Islamic clerics across the world look up to the Saudi government to give them a sense of direction.

A modern Saudi state will be better prepared to engage with governments and is in the interest of Muslims, who suffer the most from radical Islam. Islamic orthodoxies have spread in Indian society because of Saudi Arabia, which is why its transformation must be encouraged by all countries.


Updated Date: Nov 07, 2017 15:45 PM

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