Academic journal article The Middle East Journal

Between Islamists and Liberals: Saudi Arabia's New "Islamo-Liberal" Reformists

Academic journal article The Middle East Journal

Between Islamists and Liberals: Saudi Arabia's New "Islamo-Liberal" Reformists

Article excerpt

The last few years in Saudi Arabia have witnessed the rise of a new trend made up of former Islamists and liberals, Sunnis and Shi'ites, calling for democratic change within an Islamic framework through a revision of the official Wahhabi religious doctrine. These intellectuals have managed to gain visibility on the local scene, notably through a series of manifestos and petitions, and their project has even received support from among the Royal Family. Indeed, the government has since then taken a number of preliminary steps towards political and religious reform. But does this mean that Saudi Arabia is about to enter the era of Post-Wahhabism?

This article will examine a new phenomenon in domestic Saudi Arabian politics, namely the emergence of a constituency made up of former Islamists and liberals, Sunnis and Shi'ites, calling for democratic change within an Islamic framework through a revision of the official "Wahhabi"1 religious doctrine.

Since the end of the 1990s, the Saudi intellectual field has been subject to significant internal developments that have led to the splitting up of its Sunni Islamist component into three main orientations. First are the prominent members of the former al-Sahwa al-Islamiyya ("The Islamic Awakening," the Islamist opposition of the early 1990s), such as Salman al-'Awda or 'A'idh al-Qarni, who have decided to move away from domestic political issues and to restrain their activity to the religious field. In other words, the government has co -opted them and uses them as a substitute for the Council of Senior 'Ulama' (Hay'at Kibar al-'Ulama'), whose legitimacy and influence have suffered a first blow with the Gulf War2 and a second blow with the successive deaths of its two most respected figures, Shaykh Ibn Baz and Shaykh Ibn 'Uthaymin, in 9 1999 and 2001. Second are the Islamists who have chosen to venture into global Salafi-Jihadi politics, acting as ideologues or spokesmen for the new radical trend. Third are those who have taken a middle way. They are the focus of the present study.

As early as 1998, these activists and thinkers began reformulating their calls for political reform in an Islamo-democratic fashion while expressing unprecedented criticism of the Wahhabi religious orthodoxy, thus insisting on the necessity to combine political reform with religious reform. It is on this basis that they have striven to forge alliances with individuals belonging to the remaining (non-Sunni Islamist) components of the Saudi intellectual field, mainly liberals and Shi'ites. Through their efforts, they have managed to create with those a common democratic, nationalist, and anti-Wahhabi political platform, thereby giving birth to a new trend within the Saudi political -intellectual field. This trend thus stands out both because of the novelty of its religio-political discourse and because of the extreme diversity of its proponents, who come from very different generational, regional, and intellectual backgrounds, reflecting in a way the Kingdom's own diversity. While some of these intellectuals refer to themselves as wasatiyyun (advocates of wasatiyya3), tanwiriyyun (enlighteners) or even 'aqlaniyyun (rationalists), most of them agree on defining themselves as islahiyyun (reformists), and, as 'Abd al-'Aziz al-Qasim put it less formally in March 2003, as "a bunch of liberal Islamists... or Islamist liberals."4 Thus, we will use the term "Islamo-liberal reformism" to designate the new trend's intellectual framework, and we will refer to its sympathizers as "Islamo-liberals."

There is no doubt that the tragic events of September 11, 2001 served as something of a catalyst for this Islamo -liberal reformism. Prior to that date, these intellectuals expressed their views informally in private salons, Internet forums and articles in the press. But in the wake of the attacks, they took advantage of the new political climate prevalent in the Kingdom to create a wider consensus on their ideas and to formalize their aspirations into political manifestos and petitions, the most elaborate of which was presented to Crown Prince 'Abdallah in January 2003. …

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