Saudi Arabia Shuns Hardline Fatwas in Slow Religious Revolution

As an agent of Saudi Arabia’s powerful religious police, Ahmad Alghamdi thought he’d finally found the perfect job. He would order stores to close during prayers, tell men to go to the mosque, and ask women to adjust their veils. He’d previously had short stints as a customs official, accountant, and teacher, but those jobs didn’t sit well with the sheikhs, or religious scholars, whose doctrine he followed.

Yet not long after joining the formidable muttawa in his 20s, he grew disillusioned, he says, with what was a pillar of the kingdom’s establishment. He wasn’t convinced its heavy-handed practices were grounded in Islamic law.

Today, Alghamdi, now 56, is a sheikh who advocates for freedoms that his former superiors had banned, such as allowing men and women to mix in public, or to listen to music, or even to celebrate Valentine’s Day. He can speak without fear of retribution because the kingdom’s de facto ruler, Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, is chipping away at the power of the doctrine known as Wahhabism that has underpinned his family’s rule in the birthplace of Islam. The shift from theocracy to autocracy is dividing Saudis like Alghamdi from those who complain it could undermine the kingdom’s status in the Muslim world.

“This is a revolution that’s long overdue,” says Alghamdi, speaking by telephone from Mecca. “There should be space for religious debate, but not scholars imposing one school of thought on society.”

Religion shaped Saudi Arabia into a place like no other. The nation is home to the two holiest Muslim sites, in Mecca and Medina, and its constitution is the Koran. Wahhabism, a stringently conservative strain of Sunni Islam, defined the kingdom for decades. But it runs counter to Prince Mohammed’s now five-year-old plan to diversify the economy away from oil by 2030.

The crown prince wants to draw foreign investment and build the kingdom’s entertainment and tourism sectors, which face stiff competition from Saudi Arabia’s more permissive neighbors such as the United Arab Emirates. Fatwas (religious edicts) of the kind that Saudi clerics used to issue—inciting hatred against Westerners, claiming that driving can damage women’s ovaries, and banning excavations of pre-Islamic historical treasures—are not in sync with the new goal.

“We cannot grow, we cannot attract capital, we cannot have tourism, we cannot progress with such extremist thinking in Saudi Arabia,” Prince Mohammed said in an interview with a local TV station in April. “If you want millions of jobs, if you want unemployment to decline, if you want the economy to grow, if you want your income to improve, you must eradicate these projects.”

In his quest to tighten his grip on power, Prince Mohammed muzzled opposition voices, jailing women who had lobbied for the freedoms he’s introduced, as well as activists who have been mildly critical of his plans and clerics such as the popular sheikh Salman Al-Odah. Most prominently, the 2018 murder of Washington Post columnist Jamal Khashoggi on the prince’s watch drew international condemnation, hobbling his Vision 2030 plan.

But the changes continue. In the past five years, women have been allowed to drive—ending the only ban of its kind in the world—as well as travel without the consent of a male guardian and serve as special security guards in Mecca.

The government announced in February that it’s working to overhaul the judicial system, which is rooted in Islamic law, by the end of the year, partly to encourage investors long deterred by the perceived arbitrariness of the kingdom’s courts.

The crown prince is introducing the changes that touch on religion “piecemeal,” in contrast to Vision 2030’s public goals and deadlines, according to Kamran Bokhari, director of analytical development at the Newslines Institute for Strategy and Policy in Washington. “He’s almost trying to see what he can get away with, and there’s no discernible pattern for this,” he says.

That strategy has its risks. In May a directive ordered mosques to lower the volume of loudspeakers and switch them off after the call to prayer, instead of broadcasting the full service. Fridays and sermons during the Eid holiday are exempt, though that didn’t stop a storm of protest on social media. The Consultative Council, a body appointed by the king that serves as a quasi-parliament, was going to vote on a proposal to allow shops to remain open during prayers, again, except on Fridays. But the discussion was postponed two hours before it was scheduled to start.

A 25-year-old man who gave his name as Mazen and works in the military says Saudi Arabia is in danger of losing its identity. “Parties that go on for hours with music blaring so loud it keeps people up are now acceptable, but a few minutes of prayers cause noise pollution?” he asks. Saudi businessman Abdulaziz, 32, says it’s now tough to distinguish what should be allowed and what not. “I don’t know if I was on the right path before or whether the new path they are creating is the right one,” he says. “It’s like my head has been hit with an electric shock.”

On a recent visit to a pharmacy in the capital, Riyadh, the pharmacist told a woman he couldn’t dispense medicine because it was prayer time. She insisted; he refused. The reason, he said when asked later, was that he didn’t want to be reported by the religious police.

The declining power of the religious establishment has been evident for a while, though. In 2016, shortly after Prince Mohammed began his meteoric rise to power, he clipped the wings of the muttawa. Agents could no longer arrest people, chase them, or demand their documents. It’s quite rare to see them in malls now, and when they do go they’re allowed only to advise rather than admonish people. In an effort to show their softer side, agents gave out colorful balloons embossed with the commission’s logo to visitors at a book fair in 2019. A lot of their activity takes place on social media, where they urge people to protect themselves against the coronavirus and publish quotes from prominent scholars.

The leadership of Prince Mohammed, 35, comes in greater contrast to the kingdom’s regional adversary, Iran. In June, that country elected Ebrahim Raisi, 60, as president. The hardline cleric was a staunch supporter of the 1979 Islamic Revolution that brought Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini to power.

Indeed, it was that event that became one of the catalysts for the Saudi government to give free rein—and more money—to its religious institutions and export its brand of religion to Europe, Pakistan, and other places. It didn’t want to appear less Islamic than its Shiite rival. By the 1980s, the religious establishment had become so entrenched that it controlled every aspect of social and legal life despite attempts by the late King Abdullah to loosen its grip.

Sheikhs would be consulted on everything from whether a woman could shape her eyebrows to how men should avoid engaging in khilwa, being alone with the opposite sex. Teachers would warn children that their faces would turn black and worms come out of their mouths if they failed to pray five times a day.

In that environment, Alghamdi was seeking to live a model life. In 1988 he joined the Committee for the Promotion of Virtue and the Prevention of Vice, which oversees the religious police, in Jeddah. Soon he discovered that practices such as spying on people or roughing them up after arrest were based on interpretations of clerics. When he complained, he was assigned to a desk job for three years, though he later rose to chief of the Mecca region.

His career started unraveling in 2009, when King Abdullah University of Science and Technology was founded as Saudi Arabia’s first coeducational university. Alghamdi supported it. Amid complaints from hardline clerics, his home was attacked by a group of young men who demanded to mix with the female members of Alghamdi’s family as punishment.

After leaving the force in December 2011, he started to speak out. He used Twitter to respond to followers who wanted to know if it was acceptable for women to pluck their eyebrows or to expose their hands and faces. He said yes to both. When conservatives challenged him to show the face of his wife, he appeared on television with her in 2014. The backlash on social media was brutal, he says.

Alghamdi, who is now retired, dismisses those who say Saudi Arabia is straying from true Islam: “They’re either afraid of change or have personal interests—or want to control society by intimidation.” The question is whether the religious hardliners regain their clout.

©2021 Bloomberg L.P.

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