Awakening Islam: Religious Dissent in Contemporary Saudi Arabia
Awakening Islam: Religious Dissent in Contemporary Saudi Arabia

Awakening Islam: Religious Dissent in Contemporary Saudi Arabia

Jun 2, 2011

Stephane Lacroix gives a penetrating account of the political and religious dynamics of Saudi Arabia, one of the most opaque of Muslim countries and the birthplace of Osama bin Laden.


JOANNE MYERS: I'm Joanne Myers, director of Public Affairs Programs, and on behalf of the Carnegie Council, I'd like to thank you all for joining us for what should be a very enlightening discussion about how Saudi Arabia became entrenched in the militant Islam that for the past decade has been the defining feature of global politics. Our speaker, Stéphane Lacroix, is an assistant professor of political science at Sciences Po and a specialist on Islam. For most of us, Saudi Arabia is cloaked in mystery, especially when it comes to understanding its politically oriented religious discourse. Even so, most political scientists would agree that the religious influence emerging from Saudi Arabia has been one of the key factors in the spread of Islamist movements throughout the world. Yet few can describe the evolution and path of that influence. In Awakening Islam, Professor Lacroix opens a window into the political and religious dynamics of Saudi Arabia. In writing about the Saudi brand of Islam and its recent past, our speaker focuses on the origins of the Islamic movement known as Sahwa, or the "Islamic Awakening" as it is often known, and explains how this movement gave rise to the radical version of Islam within the Saudi religious establishment. Stéphane's research is based upon seldom-seen documents in Arabic, in which he is fluent, numerous travels throughout the country, and interviews with an unprecedented number of Saudi Islamists across the ranks. The results provide unique insight into a closed culture and its potent brand of Islam, the sort which has been exported across the world and which remains dangerously misunderstood. His investigation begins in the 1950s, when Islamic militants first started to flee Egypt to Saudi Arabia. He writes that in order to escape persecution, thousands of Islamist militants from Egypt, Syria, and other Middle Eastern countries found refuge in Saudi Arabia, where they were integrated into the core key state institutions and society. Once there, these individuals, who were mostly members of the Muslim Brotherhood, spawned a social movement called the Sahwa. This movement blended political activism with local religious ideas. Eventually, these individuals ran afoul of the government, but not before its members enmeshed themselves in Saudi society and bequeathed to the world two very different, and very determined, heirs: one, the Islamo-liberals, who seek an Islamic constitutional monarchy through peaceful activism, and the other neo-jihadis, supporters of bin Laden's violent campaign. The recent social history of the Saudi kingdom is fascinating, and at times even frightening. But I believe that after listening to Professor Lacroix's presentation you will have gained a new perspective of the changes that Saudi Islamism has undergone in the early 21st century. Please join me in welcoming our guest today. Professor Lacroix, we are very much looking forward to your presentation.


STEPHANE LACROIX: Thank you very much. Ladies and gentlemen, it is a great pleasure to be here. I would like to thank the Carnegie Council for the invitation. A week ago, an eminent product of Saudi Islamism made the headlines, Osama bin Laden. He had turned global since the mid-1990s, and Saudi Arabia was only one of his many targets. And yet, his primary Islamist socialisation was firmly rooted in the Saudi Islamist field. As a teenager and a young adult, Osama had, like so many in his generation, been part of what is referred to in Saudi Arabia as the Sahwa movement, from the Arabic al-Sahwa al-Islamiyya, the "Islamic Awakening." Later, after the Sahwa had spearheaded the most significant episode of Islamist protest in the kingdom's history in the early 1990s, bin Laden would constantly claim the Sahwa's legacy, arguing that its failure to reform the Saudi monarchy by peaceful means was the reason why he had decided to embrace violence. For anyone studying the domestic politics of Saudi Arabia, the Sahwa is one of the most important actors to observe. It is by far the largest and best organized Islamist group in the kingdom with, arguably, hundreds of thousands of members. It is not just that. It is the largest and best organized nonstate group in the kingdom, far ahead of the tribes. The common misconception considers the tribes to still have political relevance in today's Saudi Arabia. They do have social and cultural relevance, but politically they don't have relevance anymore. The Sahwa is the movement that matters on the ground in terms of mobilizing people. The book I am presenting here contains a lot of information about the history and development of the Sahwa. I gathered this information, as Joanne said, through field work in Saudi Arabia and meetings with members and former members of the Sahwa. Unfortunately, I will not be able here to go through all of this incredible history, for lack of time. But there are a few key features of the Sahwa which explain its nature and politics, which I would like to share with you. The first feature is that the Sahwa is that it is initially what I have called an imported Islamism. Its history starts when thousands of Muslim Brotherhood militants were coming to the Kingdom mainly from Egypt and Syria, but also from other countries, from the 1950s to the 1970s. At the time there were Arab nationalist regimes in those countries, and they were persecuted and were fleeing to Saudi Arabia. As they came, they were largely co-opted by the Saudi state, which turned them to a great extent into a bureaucratic and intellectual elite. They were put in charge of some of the main sectors of the state, including the education system, where they drafted the curricula, they became the universities' new deans, and they taught all disciplines from sciences to religious studies. There was one exception, which we will come back to, in religious studies, which was the Creed ('aqida in Arabic) which is very central to Wahhabism and which the Wahhabi sheiks kept for themselves. But the Muslim Brothers taught all other religious subjects, including jurisprudence. Important Muslim Brotherhood figures who took part in this movement include Muhammad Qutb, who was the brother of Sayyid Qutb. They were jailed together in Egypt in the mid-1960s. He was freed in 1971, just after Nasser died in Egypt and President Sadat came to power and freed the Islamist militants who were jailed. Muhammad Qutb later left Egypt and became a professor at Umm al-Qura University in Mecca. Other big names include Muhammad al-Ghazzali, who was also from Egypt, a prominent member of the Muslim Brotherhood; Sayyid Sabiq, who was one of the main references in jurisprudence among the Brotherhood. There were also prominent members from Syria. Abdulfattah Abu Ghudda would be one of the big names. Another individual was Muhammad Surur Zayn al-'Abidin. We are going to come to him later on. He was not very famous when he was in Syria, but he became extremely famous when he came to Saudi Arabia. The presence of the Brotherhood at the core of the Saudi state led to a major development in contemporary Islamic thought, the encounter and later hybridization of the two major forms of Islamic fundamentalism that have existed since the 18th century: Wahhabism on the one hand; and Islamism, as represented by the Muslim Brotherhood, on the other hand. To understand the significance of this encounter and hybridization, let me say a word about each of those two fundamentalisms. As far as Wahhabism is concerned, its focus is the purification of the Muslim Creed, in Arabic the 'aqida. The essence of the Creed, according to Abd-al-Wahhab, has to be Tawhid—the oneness, the uniqueness, the transcendence of God. But for Abd-al-Wahhab, Tawhid is not only the belief that there is only one God and that Muhammad is his prophet, as in the Muslim profession of faith. For Abd-al-Wahhab this also means worshipping only one God without associates or intermediaries. This excludes from the Muslim religion most of the forms of Islam that were practiced in his time and that remain practiced today. Sufism, for instance, is not Islam for Abd-al-Wahhab, because the Sufis worship their saints and this is a violation of Tawhid. Shi'ism is not Islam for Abd-al-Wahhab because the Shias worship the imams, the descendants of 'Ali, and again this contradicts Tawhid. Abd-al-Wahhab's message is thus centered essentially around the idea of Islamic religious orthodoxy, which is achieved by fighting against non-Wahhabi currents within Islam. Politically, Abd-al-Wahhab's position is minimal. What he believes is that in order to apply and enforce his religious reform, he needs a political arm. This is why he allied himself with Prince Muhammad Ibn Saud, which led to the establishment of the first Saudi state in 1744. This explains why in Saudi Arabia, as we know it today, the deal between the ulama, who are the descendants of Muhammad bin Abd-al-Wahhab symbolically, and the princes-the deal between the two groups is the following: as long as the princes enforce Islamic orthodoxy on society and strive to spread Wahhabism outside the kingdom, then the ulama, the Islamic scholars, are ready to leave the princes a lot of autonomy in running the country, without interfering with their political decisions. This explains why the Wahhabi ulama have been ready to accept such decisions as the alliance with the United States, when King Abdul-Aziz and President Roosevelt agreed on this alliance in 1945 on the USS Quincy on the Red Sea. The conception of the Islamic state in Wahhabism is very different from the one upheld by the other major school of Islamic fundamentalism, that of the Muslim Brotherhood. For the Brotherhood, the Islamic state, which is at the core of their message, is a state based on Shari'a alone, Shari'a meaning Islamic law. This means a state where the rulers would have very little political autonomy because religion would provide all the legal answers. This is especially true of the more radical members of the Brotherhood, the disciples of Sayyid Qutb, who have a much more utopian idea of the Islamic state and that the Islamic state should be based on Qutb's concept of the hakimiyya, the sovereignty of God in political affairs. In Saudi Arabia, the majority among the Brothers who came in the 1960s and 1970s were Qutbists, because this was the dominant brand among the Brotherhood in Syria and Egypt at the time. At the same time, in order to contrast the two fundamentalisms, one could tell that the Brothers have very little interest in promoting Islamic religious orthodoxy. They are ready to work with other Muslims, be they Sufis or Shias, as long as they are united by one common political goal. This would explain why the Muslim Brotherhood defended or supported the Islamic revolution in Iran in 1979, although the Islamic revolution had been made by Shi'ites, because again they agreed on the same political goal, so, regardless that Khomeini was a Shi'ite, they supported it. The Wahhabis wouldn't support it. In a sense, then, Wahhabism is fundamentally a movement of religious reform while the Muslim Brotherhood is fundamentally a movement of political reform. This is what, in a sense, would make them easy to combine. The encounter and hybridization of Wahhabism and the Muslim Brotherhood's ideology mainly took place within the education system, which was run by the Muslim Brothers, but where the Wahhabis maintained a monopoly on the teaching of the Creed. This led to the development of a distinct ideology and movement. This is what is referred to in Saudi Arabia as al-Sahwa al-Islamiyya, the "Islamic Awakening," or the Sahwa which I am talking about today. In a nutshell, Sahwis subscribe to the Wahhabi conception of Creed but to the political conceptions of the Muslim Brotherhood. Because the education system is put to a large extent at the service of this ideological project, the educational system in Saudi Arabia serves as a vehicle for the spread of Sahwi ideas. Muslim Brotherhood and Wahhabi authors are taught to students, and students are encouraged to take part in extracurricular activities, such as the summer camps or the communities for raising Islamic consciousness, where they receive more activist teachings. This means that by the 1980s, the Saudi education system would have produced an entire generation of Saudis trained and socialized in the ideology of the Sahwa. This generation is generally referred to in Saudi Arabia as "the generation of the Sahwa," jil al-Sahwa in Arabic. Of course, this is not to say that everyone is an Islamist militant in this generation. Some people are just broadly influenced by the Brothers' ideas and the worldview of the Sahwa. Others would subscribe more systematically to the ideology. And others would become part of much more organized activist, semi-clandestine networks, where you have a hierarchy, you have leaders, and you have distinct practices. These networks are known in Saudi Islamist parlance as jama'at Islamiyya, Islamic groups. There are two major jama'at islamiyya in Saudi Arabia. The first is generally referred to as the Sururi jama'a. They are called as such—Sururi comes from Muhammad Surur Zayn al-'Abidin, who was a Syrian Muslim Brotherhood figure who came to Saudi Arabia in the 1960s. He is said to have had an influence on this network, hence the name. In English we can call them the Sururis. The other main network that developed at the time among the jama'at islamiyya are known as the Al-Ikhwan, "the Brotherhood." It's the same name as the Muslim Brotherhood. This network—and this is confusing—uses the same name, but it is organizationally different from the Muslim Brotherhood as they exist in other countries. They are a Saudi phenomenon. They are linked to Sahwa as a Saudi movement, but they use the same name as "the Brotherhood" outside. The relationship between the Sahwa and the Saudi state has always been extremely ambiguous. On the one hand there is something clearly subversive in the Sahwa's teachings and rhetoric. The Sahwa's adherence to the political conceptions of the Brotherhood, especially those of Sayyid Qutb, make them fundamentally critical of the Saudi state and some of its political decisions, because they consider them as a violation of the Shari'a. Again, the alliance with the United States is a key bone of contention. We'll come back to this. At the same time, though many Sahwa members are used to speaking out against the Saudi state in private, their leaders have traditionally publicly stressed and subscribed to the idea that the Saudi state is an Islamic state and that it should be supported. This position is obviously linked to the organic relationship that the Sahwa maintains with the Saudi state. Many of its leaders work for the Saudi state. They recruit their members from the institutions of the state. They thus benefit from considerable resources. This makes the Sahwa unique in the sphere of Islamist movements. Whereas Islamism elsewhere has emerged and developed on the margins and largely against the state, Saudi Islamism developed and spread out of state institutions. This is why in the book I call this form of Islamism, "state Islamism." But the fact that it is a state Islamism has put considerable constraints on the degree of activism that the Sahwa has been able to exercise against the state. The main test happened in the early 1990s. That was the height of what is referred to as the insurrection of the Sahwa (intifadat al-Sahwa in Arabic). It was the only moment in the last 50 years when the Sahwa turned against the Saudi state. This was linked to a number of developments inside and outside of Saudi Arabia. Two can be mentioned here because they are the most important. First, there was the relative frustration of the Sahwa youth after the price of oil came down in the mid-1980s. This restricted work opportunities for those young people who had been socialized in the ideology of the Sahwa. Second, there was Saddam Hussein's invasion of Kuwait on August 2, 1990, and the king's decision to call on Western troops, and especially American troops, to come to Saudi Arabia to protect the kingdom from what King Fahd thought would be an Iraqi invasion. This was the implementation of the 1945 agreement that I mentioned earlier. This question of the alliance with the United States had always been a bone of contention between traditional Wahhabism and the Sahwa. Traditional Wahhabi sheiks considered foreign policy to be the domain of the princes and that if the princes considered it to be necessary for the common good of the country to have the Americans, then it was okay. Sahwa leaders, in contrast, refused it for the simple reason that they considered it a violation of clear Shari'a principles. The American presence in Saudi Arabia turned into a major issue in this period. The Sahwa was transformed into open critiques of the regime. The Sahwa used its networks to mobilize tens of thousands of young people who attended fiery sermons, distributed opposition pamphlets, and even demonstrated on a few occasions. This episode of confrontation between the state and the Sahwa lasted for four years. It was eventually crushed by the regime, who jailed many of the protest leaders. An analysis of the reasons why the protests failed is especially interesting. When in 1993 the state started to use repression against the protest movement, many of the Sahwa's mid-ranking members and figures started to fear the loss of the very favorable position that they occupied within the system. And so, within a few months, most of the organized networks of the Sahwa stopped backing the protest and they started preventing their members from attending opposition events and rallies. Soon the leaders of the protest were isolated, and eventually they were arrested. Some of these leaders' names you may have heard if you have read about Saudi Arabia in this period. Salman al-Ouda was one of the leaders. Safar al-Hawali was another one. Nasir al-'Umar was another one. The point here is that the incestuous relationship between the Sahwa and the state represented a considerable obstacle to the Sahwa's transformation into a real opposition movement. When talking about these organized semi-clandestine networks that I mentioned earlier, one could argue that the Saudi state knows about them. If I can know about them as a scholar, Prince Nayef as minister of interior knows about them as well. So one can wonder why they were left to exist and not dismantled. What I could argue is that the Saudi state believes that they are actually a very efficient way of controlling the Islamist youth and there is no reason to dismantle them because they are playing a role within the system. Since the mid-1990s and the end of this episode of protest, the largest part of the Sahwa has officially abandoned all opposition, and it returned to its former ambiguous position in its relationship to the Saudi state. There have been a few exceptions, with some Sahwis supporting bin Laden's call for global jihad. Bin Laden claimed the Sahwa legacy and tried to explain that his global jihad was the continuation of what the Sahwa had been doing in the early 1990s. But if you look on the ground, actually very few members of the Sahwa followed this line of view—hundreds maybe, but not more. On the other hand, you had former Sahwis joining a movement going in a completely different direction, which was in favor of constitutional monarchy, and they continued their peaceful activism while asking for the transformation of the system. But most of the Sahwa returned to the status quo with the state. They have since then, in particular, resisted the pressure of other Islamist groups, and especially of the jihadis, to support them. After 9/11, for instance, the major leaders of the Sahwa condemned the attacks and they refused to support bin Laden, which led bin Laden and some of the jihadis to criticize them in return. This doesn't mean that the Sahwa's power has diminished. It is of course very difficult to know what is those groups' influence on the ground in Saudi Arabia because there are no reliable public polls or anything. But in 2005 there were municipal elections in Saudi Arabia. This was unique. This had not taken place since the 1930s. This was a fantastic way to have an idea of what public opinion is, for whom Saudis would vote. In all of the districts of the cities the Sahwa networks presented candidates. Those two networks that I mentioned, the Sururis and the Ikhwan, presented a candidate each in most of the districts of the cities. I should add that they didn't present themselves as such, because organized networks are a taboo. So everyone who is in the networks or in the Islamist milieu would know that this is the Sururi or Ikhwan candidate, but of course he wouldn't have on his poster "Ikhwan candidate" or "Sururi candidate." This is something the people knew but didn't talk about. But what is extremely interesting is that in most of the districts these candidates were elected. If you add the percentage that the Sururi and the Ikhwani had, it would generally go between 60 and 80 percent, whereas you would have 40 other candidates sharing the remaining 20 to 40 percent. This shows the extreme mobilizing power that the Sahwa continues to have. It is the only group that is organized, that is able to mobilize people, and can bring people to vote. Today, with the Arab revolutions spreading in the region, the Sahwa is at the center of all attention in the kingdom. Like in other countries, the last few years in Saudi Arabia have seen the rise of a new generation of Sunni political activists who want democratic change and who do not feel bound by old political allegiances. Because the Sahwa has been for decades the main vehicle of political socialization in the kingdom, many of these young political activists have a Sahwa background and have spent time with the group. But they have left it, partly because they were dissatisfied with the movement's ambiguities. In a sense, the profile of these young political activists represent a new phenomenon. I would say in the last five years they have started to rise in Saudi Arabia. Their profile is very similar to the Sixth of April Movement in Egypt. Like the Sixth of April Movement in Egypt, they could act as a trigger for change in Saudi Arabia. The Sixth of April Movement organized the first demonstration on the 25th of January, this movement of young people who were connected through Facebook. These young political activists in Saudi Arabia have the same profile. But if these young political activists are the Sixth of April Movement, then the Sahwa occupies the same position as the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood. It will not start the protest, but the protest can't succeed without its support. This is what we see in Egypt—the Brotherhood didn't start the protest on the 25th of January, but eventually they joined, and in a way it's because the Brotherhood joined it that it succeeded. There is a moment when you are having a sustained protest against the state, and you need networks, you need organized people; you cannot just rely on Facebook. So there is a moment when you need these groups. In Saudi Arabia the situation is the same. Should the young political activists want to really challenge the state, they will eventually need the support of organized groups, and this would be the Sahwa. The young political activists and the regime seem to be very aware of this. What fueled the young activists' hope of possible Sahwa support was a petition that was issued in late February. This petition was called "Towards a State of Rights and Institutions." In this petition 25 leading Sahwa figures, including Salman al-Ouda, whom I mentioned earlier, called for democratic change. Their demands were framed in very conservative language. For instance, they would call for what they called "responsible freedom of expression." Liberals would say, "What do you mean by 'responsible freedom of expression'? Do you put constraints on freedom of expression?" For the Sahwa, however, this was something unprecedented. They called for elections in the country. They called for a parliament. You have a call for the separation of powers. They called for transparency. This was a new development. This led some of the young political activists to think that the Sahwa could become an ally eventually. If you look at the signatories, Salman al-Ouda was one of them. He is a big name. Many of the other big names didn't sign it. So it was still representative of just one faction of the Sahwa, and it was far from representing the whole group. Yet this prompted the regime to react to try to appease the Sahwa. A lot has been said about the hundred billion dollars package that King Abdullah announced. On March 18, King Abdullah announced that he was giving $100 billion to different sectors of society, to support young people, to support the unemployed, etc. But what is interesting is that if you look at the way the money was divided, you actually have a lot of money for religious institutions, and especially those institutions that are known to be Sahwa strongholds, especially circles for the memorization of the Koran. You also have money going to the religious police where the Sahwa is found in great numbers. This was trying to respond to Sahwa criticism. Another of the measures that were taken and that you could interpret in that same way is the censorship of several books during the Riyadh Book Fair, books that had been criticized by Sahwa leaders or sheikhs as "un-Islamic." The books were banned. Another thing that you can interpret within that same framework is the decision not to have women participate in the forthcoming municipal elections. The municipal elections were announced for September 2011. Liberals expected that women would participate. It was not the case. Women were declared not to be participants. Again, I see this as a concession to the Sahwa. The Sahwa, in return, when in March calls for demonstrations in Saudi Arabia were issued—these were calls for a demonstration on the 11th of March launched through Facebook. We can go back to these calls. I'm a bit skeptical about them. Nobody really knew where they originated. Still, when these calls were released on the Internet, the Sahwa criticized them, condemned them, never called for any demonstrations. What is even more, many of the Sahwa figures came out to say that even demonstrations as a means to demand political change were wrong. So the very idea of using demonstration as a political tool was wrong. This again was a response to what the state had been giving. So you have a bargaining relationship between the Sahwa and the state. And so, if we look at the Sahwa reaction towards these calls for demonstrations, we can see that they have largely remained loyal until now. This has led the young political activists to change their strategy. Instead of focusing on political change, these young activists have now chosen to concentrate on another issue, which is the issue of political prisoners. It is said that in Saudi Arabia there are as many as 5,000 political prisoners. This includes all these people who were jailed after 2003, who were accused of terrorism but were not tried, so they were not given a trial. They would include them in their definition of political prisoners. On this issue, in particular, what is interesting is that you do have a consensus. That is, the young political activists have been able to gain support of the Sahwa. In late April, you did have a petition signed by big figures of the Sahwa, much bigger ones than the February petition, who called for the release of political prisoners, or at least for political prisoners to be given a fair trial. The reason why they would do this is probably because among these 5,000 people you have a great number of Sahwa followers who were accused of jihadi sympathies and were arrested after 2003. So they are defending their own followers in a way. But what is interesting is that the young political activists have found this issue as a way to find common ground and to campaign on this issue. If you look now on Facebook, you now have all these campaigns for political prisoners. There is one name that has emerged recently. It's very interesting. It's a man called Khalid al-Juhani. On March 11, there were calls for demonstrations in Saudi Arabia. The Sahwa condemned them and said demonstrating was wrong. Eventually, nobody showed up for these demonstrations, but one person did. He was Khalid al-Juhani. He showed up because he knew that there would be cameras from the BBC, al Jazeera, and all the channels. He showed up alone in front of the huge police presence. He started to speak, first in English and then in Arabic. He explained that he wanted reform and things could not go on that way and this country was a big prison, so even if he was arrested that wouldn't matter because he would go from the big prison to the small prison, but that wouldn't change his life because he was living in prison. So he had a very critical speech of the Saudi government. This was filmed by BBC and al Jazeera cameras, then was put on YouTube, and became a major hit in Saudi Arabia. Everyone saw this video. Khalid al-Juhani got arrested after saying this. On the BBC film it's interesting, you see Khalid is leaving, driving his car, and then you see the police following him. The BBC reporter says, "I tried to call him two hours later and his phone didn't answer. I have been trying to call since and he never answers." So everyone assumes that Khalid has been arrested. Now there is this campaign on Facebook called "Where is Khalid?" That is actually gaining quite a bit of support from different groups. They are trying—again to take the comparison with Egypt—to turn Khalid into a Saudi Khaled Said. Some of you are familiar with the case of Egypt. Khaled Said was that man who was killed by the police in June 2010, and his killing was filmed, or there were photos of him after he was killed. He became a name around which many of the reformers in Egypt started to rally, saying, "We have to defend the memory of Khaled Said who was killed by the police." One of the groups that called for the demonstration on January 25 was the "We Are All Khaled Said" group. So Khaled Said has become one of the martyrs of the Egyptian revolution. His was one of the names that was used to generate support. The Saudi young political activists are trying to do the same with Khalid al-Juhani. The question is, will this work? For the moment, it is gaining momentum on Facebook. But again, Facebook and real life are two different things. You do have Sahwa support. Will the Sahwa decide to support this and put its weight on this case? Though nothing is impossible, I'm not really sure. The recent events have taught us to avoid making predictions. But still, history shows that, despite its persistent ambiguities, I don't think the Sahwa would easily be ready to abandon its alliance with the Saudi state. So, in a sense, should the Sahwa play a role in the current political dynamics, I expect this to be rather a counterrevolutionary role than a revolutionary role, and the young political activists will be disappointed. That is my conclusion. Thank you.

Questions and Answers

QUESTION: Thank you very much. Today's Wall Street Journal referred to the Salafis in Egypt and their role in the burning of the Coptic Christian church about 24 hours ago, and possibly also the events in Alexandria about five or six weeks ago. Just so I understand a little bit, the word Sahwa, which I'm not really familiar with, is that the movement or ideology which the Salafis espouse? Also, what are your views on the Salafi movement in Egypt? STEPHANE LACROIX: It's a very good question. There has been a lot of interest in the Salafis, for sure. I am myself currently writing a book on the Salafis in Egypt, so it is a subject I am particularly interested in. What is distinctive about the Sahwa is that it is a mix between Wahhabism and the Muslim Brotherhood's ideology. It's 50/50. It's a phenomenon that is in a sense unique. What you have in other cases is pure Wahhabi groups or pure Muslim Brotherhood groups, generally many of these which would be called Salafi. Salafi, in a sense—and this is the reason why I refused to use the word; I didn't use it here; I sometimes use it but I didn't use it here—it is confusing, because everyone calls himself a Salafi. Even modernist reformers of the late 19th century called themselves Salafi, because in a sense Salafism simply means fundamentalism. The Salafs in Arabic are the ancestors, the first Muslims. So Salafis are the ones who claim to emulate the first Muslims. Any fundamentalist says that he is going back to the fundamentals—that is, to the Islam of the early Muslims. Hassan al-Banna, the founder of the Brotherhood, called himself a Salafi. The Wahhabis call themselves Salafis and other groups call themselves Salafis. So it is a label that encompasses groups of different political obediences or who have different political conceptions. In Egypt, among the Salafis you do have more or less politicized Salafi groups. You have groups that refuse politicization and who just do preaching, you have groups who are politicized but refuse violent actions, and then you have groups who are politicized and advocate violent action. So it's a whole spectrum. The groups that have been talked about in the press are some of these politicized Salafi groups that exist in Egypt. You could compare them to the Sahwa, in the sense that they also have had the same influence of the political conceptions of the Muslim Brotherhood. But what is distinctive in Egypt is that the Salafis are not very organized; it's a very loose movement of people who sometimes have sheikhs but are not part of a movement like the Brotherhood, which makes them very difficult to control. So in a way, when you look at the statements that the Salafi leaders have been issuing in Egypt, you see that they are trying to calm down the situation. They are very doctrinal in their rhetoric, and yet they sincerely believe that the situation needs to be calmed down. They are certainly very anti-Christian. But at least they have this idea that what is happening is not good for the movement at the moment. They first have to gain momentum. It is detrimental to the Salafi movement at the moment to have these kinds of events happening. So what happened is that many members or individuals who are on the margin of the Salafi movement in Egypt are doing these kinds of things, because the leaders of this movement in the end have very little power over their own troops. This would be different from the Sahwa in Saudi Arabia, which is much more organized. That is how you would distinguish the two. If you look at the Egyptian movement, to sum it up, you have a movement that is clearly sectarian and clearly anti-Christian in many ways—or much more than the Brotherhood at least, if you compare the two—and whose probably biggest problem is that it is not organized, so it is not even able to control its own troops. QUESTION: Michael Schmerin. The current Saudi regime is led by two very elderly people, both in their late eighties. What is going to happen when they expire, which could happen at any time in the near future, given their health, and the relationship with the Wahhabis, who have let them run the country, and this Muslim Brotherhood which is now embedded throughout the universities in terms of taking over the country? Do you foresee the royal family continuing once the current leaders are gone? STEPHANE LACROIX: By "those two" you meant the mufti and the king, or you meant the king? QUESTIONER: The king and his brother, the crown prince. STEPHANE LACROIX: The king and his brother, because the mufti is also very old. So if you look at the head of the religious establishment and the head of the political establishment, they are kind of the same age. But even within the royal family, the leading royals are all above 80. So you are completely right. There is a big question. In a way, the defining moment in the Saudi state is going to come in ten years. If you look at the younger prince, the brothers of the king—in Saudi, power is passed from brother to brother. If you look at the younger brother, the one who has political responsibility, Prince Muqrin, he is 65. So you still have people who are by Saudi standards relatively young. But once this generation expires, then what you do with the next generation is the big question. The Saudis for the moment have not figured out anything. What is clear and obvious is that this system cannot continue with the next generation because in this first generation you have 50 sons of Abdul-Aziz. Power has been passing within a group of 50 brothers. But in the next generation you have probably 500 with different fathers. So it is very difficult to know who will inherit power. There is no rule for the moment. So this is going to be a defining moment. It's interesting, when you talk with some of these young political activists that I have been talking to in Saudi Arabia who want democratic change, they say, "This is our opportunity. We know that the Saudi state is really strong. We know that it will be very difficult for any change to come from outside the state. So change will have to come from within. But what we know is that there is a moment when this defining moment approaches, once this first generation of princes is about to expire, there is going to be a lot of competition because everyone will want to promote his sons or will want to promote his branch." So they say: "One of them will probably want to align himself with reformist groups in society because he will see that this could help him in his struggle against his brothers, to distinguish himself by appearing as a reformer." What they believe is that at some point there may be opportunities if the elite in Saudi Arabia is going to be increasingly divided. They could find some ally within the royal family who would eventually be ready to implement the change that they are calling for. But again, the royal family for the moment hasn't shown that it has any idea of what it is going to do to pass to the next generation. For the moment there is still time, but ten or 15 years from now it is going to be a defining moment in Saudi Arabia for sure. QUESTION: What do the Sahwa really want? What are they waiting for? STEPHANE LACROIX: They are extremely divided. It's just like the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt. It's the same kinds of discussions. No one really knows what the Muslim Brotherhood really wants in Egypt. That's the reason why people are worried in Egypt and outside. Because you do have people who are in a way committed to some form of democracy in the Muslim Brotherhood. When you read what they say and what they write, it's pretty obvious. Some of them are willing to turn the Muslim Brotherhood into an AKP. Others who are much more ideological, much more committed to the old framework of the Islamic state, wouldn't abandon this. They don't really know what is meant by "the Islamic state." Nobody really knows what is meant by "the Islamic state." This is the strength and the weakness of Islamism. In a way, Islamism is supported by people because it is a political utopia. Everyone sees the Islamic state as the ideal state he wants to exist. But you certainly have people who are members of the movement who are much more ideological. In the Sahwa, you see the same thing. You would have some who are very committed to the idea of the Islamic state and very utopian in their political vision, but at the same time nobody really knows what they want. And then you have younger members, probably, who are more open to democratic ideals and who would be closer to the younger generation of the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt. So this divide that you see is something that is found within all Islamist movements at the moment. The question is, which of the factions will prevail? This is a really important question for not only the future of Saudi Arabia, but the future of the Middle East to some extent, because Islamists matter. Whether we want it or not, they do. QUESTION: Sondra Stein. Looking at the country through an economic lens, because that has such a powerful effect on religious effect, because of economic reasons people change, how would you describe Saudi Arabia today in terms of economic development, new jobs, the push for change? Where is it in the economic landscape? STEPHANE LACROIX: This is a major problem. The Saudi economy in a way is doing well and in a way it's not. It's generating a lot of money, but it's mainly oil money, and it's not generating jobs. So you have this paradox of a state that is very rich but at the same time is not able to give jobs to many people. If you look at the unemployment rate of the people who are between 20 and 25, it's like 25 percent. It's very high. For the moment, because it's a welfare state, the state has been able to buy people's political allegiance because it provides so many services. In Saudi Arabia you don't pay for anything; the state pays for everything. This is the way the state has been able, for the moment, to sustain or to survive this paradox in a way. But I don't know how long this is possible because this depends very much on the price of oil. That's the first thing. The price of oil for the moment is pretty high, so the state has a lot of resources. But it may not have that many resources all the time. When we look at this period of Islamist dissent that I described, which was after the Gulf War, it was also something that corresponded to the decrease in the price of oil in the mid-1980s. What I show in the book is that the decreases in the price of oil were probably a factor that was as important as the Gulf War in generating dissent, although it was mainly seen by observers as a reaction to the Gulf War and the American troops in Saudi Arabia. What I believe is that the Gulf War was the last straw, but all the factors for dissent and protest were already there. This was the drop of water that made the glass—that's an expression in French; I don't know if you have that in English. Then, at the same time, what we see right now is that in these revolutions that we have been witnessing are not just about bread-and-butter issues. It's also about dignity. That is one of the things that has been heard in the slogans that we've seen, karama, dignity. I remember reading two weeks ago the slogan in the Syria, people saying, "We are not hungry for bread; we want freedom and dignity." In a way, these young people have been talking about the same thing in Saudi Arabia. These young political activists, in comparison to average Egyptian youth, are much better off, they have much better living conditions. But what they say is, "This is not what we want. What we want is freedom and dignity." So in a way, this situation, where 25 percent of the young people don't have a job and even if the state pays for them, they feel it as a violation of their own dignity, that it shouldn't be that way. For the Saudi state, buying political allegiance is not going to work forever. QUESTION: My name is Randy Smith. You speak of the Islamicists and ideology. But isn't the Islamicist a theology? This is a theocratic—all variants are theology, they're not necessarily ideology. And from whence comes the concept of democracy and how is that devoid of an expression of the imposition of Shari'a law? We hear that constantly. How can you then therefore have a democracy concomitant with Shari'a law, which implies an all-knowing ruler? STEPHANE LACROIX: Islam is two things: it's theology and law. That is what makes Islam different from other religions. So it is 'aqida wa Shari'a, as they say in Arabic, which would distinguish, for instance, Islam from Christianity in the sense that Christianity is about theology but it doesn't come with a law for people to rule people's affairs. So these fundamentalisms talk about something different. Wahhabism is interested in theology. It's interested in the belief in God and what it means to believe that there is only one God. For the Wahhabis, there is no belief in only one God without worship of only one God. This is as far as their thinking goes. The Brotherhood is oriented towards law and Shari'a. For them, an Islamic state is a state that implements Shari'a. So, in a way, this state that implements Shari'a is a legal state and not a theological state. QUESTIONER: Right. But all of the modality is indeed theologically infused. STEPHANE LACROIX: It's Shari'a-infused. But Shari'a is not theology. It's probably a discussion on the meaning of words. QUESTIONER: It is a tradition of scripture and a literal scripture. STEPHANE LACROIX: I agree with you. But then what you have is this conception of the Islamic state being debated among the proponents of the Islamic state themselves. QUESTIONER: This is not a democracy [inaudible]. STEPHANE LACROIX: But you would have some people trying to justify that democracy is compatible with the implementation of Shari'a. They would say: First, if you look at the practice—it is all constructed. What is really important to see when you look at— QUESTIONER: There are certainly no natural rights in Shari'a for women. STEPHANE LACROIX: What I'm trying to say is if you look at Islam, you can make any reading you want of Islam in a way. It depends— QUESTIONER [off-microphone and inaudible]: STEPHANE LACROIX: Well, you could argue that this is metaphorical. Some scholars do it. QUESTIONER [off-microphone]: Some Muslims would do it literally. STEPHANE LACROIX: Most of them do, but not everyone does. In the end, what I see when I look at those Islamists and different interpretations of Islam and what they consider to be the proper Islamic system is that, in a way, everyone tries to read into the Koran what he wants to see in it. Those who want it to be democratic will emphasize certain verses and they will say— QUESTIONER: Who are they? STEPHANE LACROIX: In Saudi Arabia, for instance, you have many names. Abdullah al-Hamid has written many books about this. JOANNE MYERS: We are going to continue this discussion aftewards. QUESTION: Howard Lentner. You mentioned that there was some expectation that women might have voted in the municipal elections but they are not going to. I am wondering if that is indicative of the general status of the women question in Saudi Arabia. I wonder if you'd speak more broadly. Is there any social and political space opening for women or is this pretty indicative of what is going on? STEPHANE LACROIX: Very little. There have been a few symbolic changes taking place. When King Abdullah appointed a vice minister for education it was a woman, hailed to be a change. It was in a way. However, she was vice minister of education for women's education. She was in charge of women's affairs and not a minister in charge of men's affairs. So it was still a women question, not a question that concerned everyone. But the Saudi state has been very good at trying to promote this question, to show that King Abdullah and the people around him are reformers and very active on the question of women. You have the first woman elected to the chamber of commerce, you have the first woman becoming a pilot—so you have all this news coming up in the Saudi press. Saudi public relations is really good at using them to show this image to the West of a society that is changing. When you look on the ground, there is not that much change. It is very symbolic. Again, the Saudis understood that this is a question that matters to the West. So they know how to make these kinds of tiny symbolic changes that they can use. But on the ground there is not much change. A lot were expecting that women would be able to vote in the municipal elections, which in a way would have—municipal elections are not very relevant because municipal councils have very little powers anyway. This would have at least made the issue of municipal elections a relevant issue. For the moment nobody is really interested. There were elected councils six years ago and they never did much. Even when you talk with the people who were appointed there, they still have a hard time explaining to you what their priorities were. Many observers were expecting the king to use this issue at least to show an image of progress on women's rights. The strength of the Sahwa was too much and he couldn't go against it. He felt that, especially in those times of Arab revolutions and of spread of dissent, it would have been very risky to make that kind of decision. If municipal elections had been announced in a different political context, he probably would have allowed women to vote because it was not very significant in the end politically. It would have been symbolic more than anything else. But in this context he couldn't do so. QUESTION: David Speedie, Carnegie Council. First of all, thank you for your very rich and textured presentation. After bin Laden's killing, there have been some religious manifestations of fundamentalism that haven't been typically exhibited in Pakistan in public opinion. Do you see any role, any way, that Saudi Arabia fundamentalist forces might be encouraged to fan the flames in Pakistan? STEPHANE LACROIX: No, I don't think they would. If we talk about the Islamism that I have been mentioning, the Sahwa in Saudi Arabia, it has been very good at disassociating itself from bin Laden, and they have used this also as a chip against the government. They have said, "It's either bin Laden or us, so support us, because in the end we control the youth in Saudi Arabia and you need us to prevent the youth from going to bin Laden. So yes, we're conservative, yes, we're Islamist, but at least you know we're not bin Laden." They have been really good at doing this. The government, in a way, has very much given in to this. If you look at all their efforts, especially after there was terrorism in Saudi Arabia, the Sahwa constantly stood against bin Laden, al-Qaeda, and this ideology. So I don't think they would do this. You have some jihadi groups in Saudi Arabia, but they are much smaller and less organized. I wouldn't consider at least these leaders of the Sahwa who are the main Islamist religious leaders in Saudi Arabia as trying to play that card. QUESTION: Thank you. William Verdone. How much of a threat could Iran be to a stabilizing Saudi Arabia—unless of course Iran implodes first? STEPHANE LACROIX: Iran is seen in Saudi Arabia as the main threat. Saudis are completely obsessed with Iran, more than anything else. The threat that Iran could represent is both an external and internal threat, the internal threat to go through the Shi'ites. I didn't talk about them today because my talk was on the Sunni Islamists. But you also have Shi'ite groups in Saudi Arabia. They are very loosely connected to Iran, and it would be much of an overstatement to consider that they are Iranian agents. However, the Saudi government brands them as Iranian agents regularly as a way to discredit their activism. But they are relatively independent from Iran. Still, if for instance something happened in Iran, there is war involving Iran and other groups, some of these Shi'ites in Saudi Arabia may stand with Iran. Like after the Iranian revolution in 1979, inspired by the Iranian revolution, you had demonstrations in Saudi Arabia. So what happens in Iran matters to the Shi'ites in Saudi Arabia. What I am trying to say is that it would not be automatic. They are sufficiently independent to make their own political decisions. Yet, in certain cases they may want to support Iran, and especially if there was a war involving Saudi Arabia and Iran. So this would be a threat. Of course the other threat is the nuclear one, and Saudi Arabia is extremely worried about this. So Saudi Arabia sees Iran as the biggest worry it has, more than anything else. JOANNE MYERS: I want to thank you for awakening our interest in Saudi Arabia.

You may also like

JUN 17, 2024 Podcast

Linguistics, Automated Systems, & the Power of AI, with Emily M. Bender

In this episode, guest host Dr. Kobi Leins & University of Washington’s Dr. Emily Bender discuss why language matters in the development of technological systems.

JUN 14, 2024 Article

A Conversation with Carnegie Ethics Fellow Sophie Flint

This interview series profiles members of the inaugural Carnegie Ethics Fellows cohort. This discussion features Sophie Flint, a a project manager for Strategic Resource Group.

Left to Right: Nikolas Gvosdev, Tatiana Serafin, Peter Goodman. CREDIT: Noha Mahmoud.

JUN 13, 2024 Podcast

How the World Ran Out of Everything, with Peter S. Goodman

In the final "Doorstep" podcast, "New York Times" reporter Peter Goodman discusses how geopolitics is connected to the goods that end up on our doorstep.

Not translated

This content has not yet been translated into your language. You can request a translation by clicking the button below.

Request Translation