Prince Salman al-Saud wants to take Saudi Arabia towards a moderate version of Islam. This is one of the most profound policy statement ever made in the Middle-east.
We like to take this statement on its face value and think that this thinking is based on realization of changing power equations, threat perceptions, socio-economic, technological and global values, and thus needs to be taken more seriously.
If this statement is sincere in toto, then it is a groundbreaking development in the history of the world and Islam, because the polity and Jurisprudence in traditional Islam (both Sunni and Shia) always give pre-eminence to people of orthodox Islamic values. The more orthodox a person, the more eminence and social and political power he enjoys.
Here the Saudi Ruler seems diluting this and seems more accommodating to basic common minimum rights of people of other faiths as well. This is no mean achievement. For a traditional Islamist it is blasphemous. The House of Saud is under attack by conservative Islamists who see the kingdom’s global policies at odd with the Islamic doctrine. They are also wary of Kingdom’s friendship with United States and Europe.
Salman al-Saud told Guardian, “What happened in the last 30 years is not Saudi Arabia. What happened in the region in the last 30 years is not the Middle East. After the Iranian revolution in 1979, people wanted to copy this model in different countries, one of them is Saudi Arabia. We didn’t know how to deal with it. And the problem spread all over the world. Now is the time to get rid of it.”
It is an important admission. This is also an indictment of America lead world order which has failed to promote equitable value based rights in Islamic world for petty gains.
But critics are quick to point out that Prince Salman can’t disown the Kingdom’s responsibility and role in nurturing Wahabi extremist ideology. The Wahabi Sunni thought that is emerging as a big destabilizing force for the world and the house of Saud enjoyes close interdependent relationship that dates back to 1744 AD; this was further cemented in 1932 when modern kingdom of Saudi Arabia came into existence.
The Prince also said, “We are simply reverting to what we followed – a moderate Islam open to the world and all religions.” This would be a big shift from the aggressive Dar-ul-Islam Ideology that wanted to bring non-Islamic land under the rule of Islam.
This has grown exponentially during last 30 years when radical wahabi school increased global pan-islamic reach in assistance of Saxo-American cold war policy. This acceptance is also an indictment of America lead world order which has failed to promote equitable value based rights in Islamic world for pecuniary gains. It is also true that Saudi Kingdom has been making such statements as a routine public relation gesture meant for internal and external consumption and the pace of reforms are very sluggish.
How the Sunni Islamic clergy and faithful followers will take this dilution of their core ideology and power? The counter strategies of Shia hardliners with deep Iranian strategic - civilizational roots and ambitions; the ambitious Turks and Israel shall be the real test for the grit, determination and statesmanship of the Prince.
Prince Salman al-Saud wants to introduce economic and cultural reforms for combating Islamic extremism. The proposed economic and social transformation though economic zones and liberal social life is patently western approach which is going to create deep fissures among the social fabric of Islamic society. His leadership test would be how he raises the society to real egalitarian values within Islamic tradition.
Now the real test of this intent would be the ethnic, cultural, civilizational aspirations of minorities (like Kurds, Yezidi, Christians etc.) of the region. Does this mean that now onwards in such cases, ethnic, cultural and local- nationalist grounds would take preponderance over Islamic jurisprudence? If this is so then, won’t it create dissonance and discord among the Sunni Islamic fraternity whose interests are still aligned with that order?
The vision of Prince is laudable. However the world would definitely wait for action before betting on him. But it is becoming increasingly clear that the rising incidences of Islamic extremism in Europe and USA are bringing pressure on the Saudi Kingdom to rein in these forces.
If Prince is sincere in his views, how far he succeeds shall depend upon variables that are incalculable and beyond anyone’s control. However Prince Salman al-Saud deserves appreciation for such a bold statement. History will remember him as a wise visionary, perhaps trapped in unwise times and unfavorable circumstances.