Sheikh Aid al-Qarni – one of the leaders of the Al-Sahwa al-Islamiyya (“Islamic Awakening”) radical movement – apologized publicly on a Gulf television channel earlier this month for the excesses he and his fellow members in Saudi Arabia committed in the ’80s and ’90s. He admitted that they had made grievous mistakes in attempting to impose their extremist religious views and forcing the government to acknowledge the supremacy of the sages of Islam, thereby damaging the fabric of the country. The government had indeed taken far-reaching steps to enforce strict religious observance in order to appease the group.
“We were wrong,” Qarni said, “in contradicting the Koran and the Sunna and misrepresenting the tolerance of Islam, thus causing hardship to the faithful. Islam is a religion of peace, confidence and mercy,” all things he said he failed to understand when he was young. Life, he continued, has since led him to change his views, and he now believes in the moderate Islam open to the world of Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman (MBS).
What remains to be seen is whether that rather startling belated apology leads to some soul-searching in the Arab world.
The Sahwa movement was triggered by two vastly different events: First was Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini’s takeover of Iran in August 1979. The extremist religious regime led by Islamic clerics aspired to impose Shia Islam on the Arab world. Though Khomeini’s Iran belonged to the minority Shia stream, the creation of a religious regime inflamed the imagination of millions of Sunnis, some of whom even converted to Shia.
Three months later came the second event, when Sunni fanatics stormed the Great Mosque of Mecca, taking hundreds of people hostage and calling for the fall of the House of Saud. The dynasty had let in Western culture and, according to hard-liners, harmed the sanctity of Islam. The kingdom had adopted a fairly liberal attitude, with television showing women in Western attire, and opened cinemas and concert halls to men and women.
Failing to quell the rebellion after a two-week siege, the Saudis demanded help from France, since technicians from that country had participated in the mosque renovation some years before. The battle was ultimately won but there were more than a thousand casualties. In an effort to appease conservative elements, then-King Khaled decided to give in to some of their demands. Cinemas and concert halls closed, women were forbidden to drive and no longer appeared on television in Western clothes, and the modesty police were given an extended mandate.
These two upheavals led several Saudi clerics, including Qarni, who was close to the Muslim Brotherhood, to launch the Islamic Awakening movement based on the two most extreme schools of Islam: Saudi Wahhabism and the Muslim Brotherhood. The first promoted stringent observance of religious prescriptions; the second, which originated in Egypt, introduced the notion of takfir – branding a society as infidel and chastising it through jihad, that is violence, to bring it back to “the rightful Islam” and unifying it under a caliphate.
THUS DID the Brotherhood bring back the notion of political Islam, which had been weakened by the demise of the Ottoman Empire and the abolition of the caliphate by Mustapha Kamel in 1924. Awakening demanded a greater role for Islamic clerics in the administration of the country, and a tightening of Islamic prescriptions as a bulwark against the growing influence of the West. It also opposed the presence of American troops in the Arabian Peninsula.
In his May interview, the Saudi preacher did not content himself with an apology but went on to attack Qatar, Recep Erdogan’s Turkey and the Muslim Brotherhood for their attempts at targeting Saudi Arabia. He claimed that former Qatari ruler Hamad ben Khalifa al Thani together with Al Jazeera tried to persuade him to speak against his country, but when he realized “the scope of their enterprise,” he severed all ties with them and came home to apologize to his people and disavow the praises he had heaped on Erdogan.
It should be remembered that Qarni often appeared on Al Jazeera to talk on religious issues, spouting extremist themes taken from the Brotherhood and thus helping Qatar in its fight against the Saudi regime. Qarni concluded by affirming his belief in the moderate Islam promoted by MBS to further his vision for Saudi Arabia. Even before expressing his apology, he had said he was in favor of women driving, adding that the rulers of the country had received the blessing of Islamic sages for the move.
The interview led to a torrent of reactions, both in the media and on social networks. Qatar called on clerics and media personalities to express themselves forcibly in its defense. It was hinted that it had been a desperate effort by Qarni to avoid being arrested together with his former Awakening companions, and that he would soon join the choir of yes-men singing the praises of the crown prince in order to receive his favors. Others pretended outrage at his choosing the month of Ramadan to show his true face.
Reactions in Saudi Arabia were more muted. One of the better-known Islamic thinkers, Dr. Turk el Hamed, said that Qarni had brought into the open the issue of extremism in radical Islam, to which main Islamic institutions had yet to find an answer. Respected Saudi actor Nasser al Qasabi suggested that Qarni’s former companions should follow suit, adding that the preacher’s short apology was not enough, and that he should write a book to reveal what had been the movement and its methods of action. Failing that, said Qasabi, the interview is nothing but a media gimmick.
For Emirati Foreign Minister Dr. Anwar bin Muhammad Gargash, Qarni’s revelations about the former Qatari ruler proved what all suspected: Qatar engaged in subversive activities against Saudi Arabia.
Al-Sahwa al-Islamiyya ceased to exist in 1995, and its members looked to Qatar and channels linked to the Muslim Brotherhood to go on preaching their hatred to the Saudi regime. They contributed in no small way to the radicalization of Saudi youths who embraced terrorism, turning jihadi in Afghanistan, as did Osama bin Laden, and forming the basis of Taliban and al-Qaeda and other jihadi terrorist organizations.
IT TOOK 9/11 to show the world the extent of their pernicious message. Of the 19 terrorists who took part in the attack on New York’s twin towers, 16 were Saudi nationals. The kingdom expelled the Muslim Brotherhood’s leaders and issued a number of laws to combat terrorism, the last one in 2017. Unfortunately, those laws are routinely used against legitimate opposition.
It was King Abdullah, who reigned from 2005 to 2015, who initiated the first liberal reforms, limiting the powers of the modesty police and appointing younger people with more liberal views to the Ministry of Education, where they amended textbooks accordingly. Gymnastic lessons for girls were introduced, and their participation in international sporting events were allowed, provided they wore head coverings. Mingling both sexes in the classroom was permitted in the new science university he built in Jeddah. Women were given the right to vote and be elected to city councils.
Slowly the restrictions imposed that followed the Awakening were lifted. It was left to MBS to purse the path of reform. The ban on women driving was lifted, cinemas and concert halls reopened for men and women – the latter being also permitted to watch sporting events in open stadiums. In his many declarations to the Western media, MBS calls for implementing a moderate Islam. His “2030” vision for Saudi Arabia includes accelerated modernization for the country together with greater respect of human rights and women’s liberation. In the futuristic city of Neom, which is currently under construction, a different legal system will allegedly be applied, making Western-style living possible.
Yet it does not seem that the crown prince was acting out of ideological considerations. Wahhabism is still one of the mainstays of the kingdom, and MBS himself has not relinquished his authoritarian rule, as was seen in the Khashoggi affair. But he knows that Saudi Arabia cannot rely on oil forever, and that he has to find alternative sources of revenue if he wants the House of Saud to survive. He needs foreign investments to develop industry and hi-tech.
That means presenting to the world a country striding toward modernism and respect for human rights – a necessary condition to get the Saudis to go along with a new deal in which the regime will no longer supply all their needs and they will have to go to work. We are not there yet. Reforms have their limitations: Several women who worked tirelessly for the right to drive were jailed and tortured, and not all have been freed. It is the regime, and more precisely the prince, who will set the pace. Indeed, according to a new law, heavy fines will be levied on anyone who through his behavior offends the values, principles and identity of Saudi society.
What weight, if any, then, should be given to the public repentance of a former radical preacher? Will it indeed lead others to follow? Will it remain a political, personal attempt at currying favor and therefore doomed to be swiftly forgotten? More to the point, can Islam meet modernism halfway?The writer was ambassador to Romania, Sweden and Egypt, and is a senior researcher at the Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs.
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