Reforming Faith: Socially Liberalizing Moderate Islam

Saudi and Emirati efforts at socially liberalizing moderate Islam while remaining subservient of an autocratic ruler in Emirati and Saudi Arabia are as much an attempt to save their regimes and boost aspirations for leadership in the Muslim world as they are an effort to overcome challenges rooted from diverse strands and religious ultraconservatism.

Although the Emiratis and Saudi Arabia are trying to get religious softpower, there is much in common between them even though they use historically different forms. Both Gulf states are rivals in battle for Islam’s soul. They must decide what strand will dominate Islam in the 21stcentury.

The Middle Eastern rivals are trying to ease tensions in the region by managing their disputes and conflicts instead of resolving them. These efforts are more focused on soft power rivalry than hard power confrontation.

Saudi Arabia, UAE and other countries promote moderate Islam based on recent social reforms. They preach absolute obedience to rulers and make the clergy subordinate to them.

Saudi Arabia’s ban on women’s driving was lifted. Women’s personal and professional opportunities were increased, religious police powers were reduced, and Western-style entertainment was introduced.

Last November, the UAE allowed married couples to cohabit. The UAE also relaxed alcohol regulations and criminalized “honour killings,” a controversial religiously-packaged tribal custom that allows a male relative (or a man) to kill a woman for disobeying her family.

Saudi Arabia, the UAE and Turkey compete in the Muslim World with Turkish and Iranian Islamist branches of the faith that are laced to nationalism.

Some Wahhabism strands, which is an ultra-conservative interpretation and foundation of Islam, challenge the Gulf state’s state-led moderation rather than of theology or Muslim jurisprudence of religious practices.

“Wahhabism has split into three major groups since 1990: a left which has developed a discourse about civic rights, an centre occupying official positions of state (dubbed ‘ulama al-sultan’ or the ruler’s priests) that has resisted the loosening in their powers within the social, juridical and multimedia spheres, and a Wahhabi-right sympathetic to the jihadist discourses associated with al-Qaeda’s focus on foreign policies,” explained Andrew Hammond.

Turkey and Iran present a geopolitical hazard, but the autocratic monarchical regime is more fundamentally endangered by the religious threat posed to what Mr. Hammond labels the Wahhabi Left and Wahhabi Right as well Indonesia’s Nahdlatul Ulama. They are the only non-state actors in the struggle for the soul of Islam and advocate and practice reform of Islamic Islamic jurisprudence.

This is evident from the arrests made in recent years by Saudi scholars and preachers like Salman al-Awda Salman al-Awda Sulayman al-Duwaish Ibrahim al-Sakran and Hasan al-Maliki.

Mr. Hammond impliedly made a distinction with Nahdlatul Ulama. He claimed that Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman’s reforms “defange Wahhabism rather than dethroning it.”

Since his election, the crown Prince has dramatically reduced the number of billions of Dollars spent on religious extremism around the globe. He is most effective in Pakistan, Afghanistan, and elsewhere. He has tried to balance Wahhabism against Saudi ultranationalism and to shave the rough edges of the Kingdom’s austere faith interpretation. His subjugation, imprisonment, and exile of Wahhabi left- and far-right adherents ended the 73-year-old power-sharing deal between the Al-Saud ruling family and clergy.

The left has advocated the creation of a constitutional monarchy and not an absolute one. They also supported civil rights and, in some cases, endorsed the 2011 Arab revolutions that toppled four Arab dictators.

One way the Wahhabi right could join the fight against the conservative Gulf monarchies is to be challenged simultaneously by Nahdlatul Ulama. The group’s activities will be expanded to include the Muslim world’s largest Muslim-majority country, Indonesia, as well as its most prominent democracy. Nahdlatul Ulama plans to launch an Arabic website to target the Arab community in its first outreach to other grassroots.

Nahdlatul Ulama’s vision of a humanitarian Islam, which includes principles such as tolerance, pluralisms, gender equality, secularism and other human rights as defined within the Universal Declaration, is significantly more extensive than Mr. Hammond’s Wahhabi right, which might be better described to be more liberal than an ideological Left-wing of an fundamentally ultra-conservative movement.

The Indonesian group’s conception of Islam contrasts starkly to the Saudi and Emirati notions of autocratic religious moderateration that includes no theological and jurisprudential Reform but uses ‘the ruler’s clergy’ religionly legitimizes repressive rulers under which protests and petitioning of government are banned.

“The state strengthened the Wahhabi Centre through neutralising Wahhabi left- and right, each of which have been a threat to authority and legitimacy… As to the civic rights innovations made by the Wahhabileft exemplified at al-Awda it is precisely that discourse that the state wants shut down,” Mr. Hammond added, referring the imprisoned cleric.

Proponents and supporters of autocratic religious moderation have a mixed record. While the UAE has established a society that is generally religiously liberal, neither Saudi Arabia or Egypt, which do not have the means to wage a soft-power battle in the Muslim community but wish to present themselves as advocates of religious tolerance, are able to make similar claims.

Prince Mohammed met Jewish and Evangelical leaders. Mohammed al-Issa the leader of Muslim World League, a vehicle that has long been used to promote Saudi religious ultra-conservatism. However, non Muslims are not allowed to worship publicly in the Kingdom or build their own houses.

Patrick George Zaki is a 27-year old student in Egypt. He is being held on false news charges and rumours.

The arrest of Mr. Zaki came one year after Ahmed el-Tayeb – Egypt’s Grand Imam of Al Azhar – signed a Declaration of Human Fraternity for World Peace and Living Together (with Pope Francis) during their visit in the UAE. The declaration supports religious liberty and pluralism.

Nahdlatul Ulama secretarygeneral Yahya Stanquf told Riyanto’s tale in a September 11 speech to Regent University. The university was a stronghold against American Evangelical antiMuslim sentiment founded and maintained by Pat Robertson, televangelist. Riyanto, who was part of Nahdlatul Ulama militia, died while protecting a Java church from an explosion in his arms when he tried to remove it from a seat.

Mr. Staquf said, “To us in Nahdlatul Ulama Riyanto, is a martyr. And we honour his memory each Christmas Eve alongside millions more Indonesian Christian brothers or sisters.”