SAUDI ARABIA : RETHINKING ITS SOUL
M. A. Muqtedar Khan
This article was syndicated in North America by Progressive Media Project. It
was published by Al Ahram (Egypt) May 6-12, 2004. The Daily Times (Pakistan)
05.06.2004, The Daily Star (Lebanon) 05.06.2004, The Globalist (USA), Q-News
(UK) June/2004, The Muslim Observer (Michigan) and The Minaret (CA), The
Providence Journal (RI) 05.15.2004, The Saudi-American Forum 05.07.2004.
I have just returned from Saudi Arabia, where I attended an international
conference on terrorism (April 20-22) at the Imam Muhammad University in Riyadh
– the global headquarters of Wahabism.
Imam Muhammad University is the factory where Wahabism is produced and serviced
in Saudi Arabia. A large number of the Saudi clerics are educated and trained
here. Nearly twenty thousand students study the core teachings of Abdul Wahhab,
the founder of the Saudi Salafi movement, which is sometimes derogatorily and
often popularly referred to as Wahabism.
In my previous in visits in1992, 1997 and 2000, I had found the Saudis to be
proud of what they had become. They had covered a distance of nearly seven
centuries on the back of oil in less than thirty years. They were arrogant,
confident and sure of themselves and their place in the Muslim world and on the
But today they are confused, unsure, hesitant, apologetic and willing to
accommodate. Some are belligerent even bellicose. But most people that I
encountered, students, political elite, scholars, businessmen, professionals
and cab drivers, are perplexed by terrorism within Saudi Arabia and by Saudis.
For a society, which was so remarkably free from a culture of self-criticism, I
found the Saudi Arabia of today, more willing to listen; and that is the best
news I have.
The conference itself revealed the extent and depth of rethinking taking place within
Saudi Arabia. I was extremely critical of Wahabism as well as Saudi policies in
closed-door sessions and found the Saudi scholars and the various ministers who
were in attendance, open and willing to listen, sometimes they were in
agreement, sometimes they were baffled, never offended. Some even encouraged me
to speak more.
There were of course the usual number of sycophants and apologists, but even
they seemed apprehensive and willing to question their own beliefs. Several
American and British scholars criticized the lack of critical thinking and
openness in Saudi education and we were all pleasantly surprised when they
responded by asking for help in introducing critical thinking in their
I ran into a member of the Majlis-e-Shura (the Saudi pretense for a parliament)
at a TV studio where I recorded a one-hour interview on Islamic democracy, and
he berated me for not being more critical than I was. I listened to him lambast
the university and Wahhabi clerics for being the source of the problem behind
terrorism in Saudi Arabia. “All they teach,” he said, “is to hate those who are
different.” “We are a country that is economically in the twentieth century and
intellectually in the fourteenth century.” I advised him to speak to his
country and King as he spoke to me, as often as possible and as loudly as
The House of Saud has long relied on the Wahhabi movement for domestic control
and legitimacy and on the US for international security. But after September
11, these two allies of Saudi Arabia are being perceived as antagonistic. The
House of Saud could not have both as allies anymore.
It is now becoming apparent that the House of Saud has chosen America over
Wahabism.It is determined to maintain its relations with the US and is actively
seeking to reform Wahabism and reconstitute the domestic basis of its rule.
The Saudi society is composed of two types of elite; the conservative and
religious elite and the liberal political and economic elite. For decades the
latter had focused on retaining political power and milking the oil cow. In
exchange for freedom to become rich, the ruling elite allowed the religious
elite the freedom to preach. Without a cultural of internal criticism, without
an engaging alternate elite, without the emergence of self-critical and
reflective voices within the religious establishment, the specter of Wahabism
has grown and now is out of the hands of those who nurtured it.
Wahhabi ideas are now so deeply embedded that neither the ruling elite, who had
abdicated their normative responsibilities until now, and the religious elite
who are afraid of what they have created, can rein it in. Any attempts at
sudden reforms may upset the delicate balance within the society and empower
those who have decided to use terrorism to replace both types of elite.
Saudi Arabia needs to push both social and political reforms without
undermining domestic and regional stability. It must fast track its social
reform and maintain a steady progress towards political reform. The promise of
municipal elections must be kept and the momentum towards more representative
and accountable governance must be sustained.
It is time that Saudi Arabia stopped looking backwards for guidance and started
looking forwards. Those who drive by looking in the rearview mirror only are
destined to crash.
Terrorism by extreme Wahhabis, for whom the clerics and the royal family are
not sufficiently Islamic, is once again forging a new social contract between
the religious and the ruling elite. This time the House of Saud and the House
of Abdul Wahhab will not come together to establish Wahhabism, but to dismantle
Wahhabism and replace it with a self-critical, open, more moderate, and softer
form of Salafi traditions.
But before that can happen the moderates within the religious establishment
must prevail over the extremists and be prepared to make significant
compromises – maybe even deviations – in the Wahhabi doctrine and in Wahhabi
institutions. The extremists will then be isolated and can be fought both in
the realm of doctrine as well as in the battlefield.
The staging of the terrorism conference at the Imam Muhammad University and the
seriousness of the dialogue, its high degree of openness and criticism, have
definitely raised expectations. Let us hope that Saudi Arabia can make the
transition without trauma.
Muqtedar Khan is Assistant Professor in the department of Political Science and
International Relations at the University of Delaware. He is also a Nonresident
Senior Fellow at the Brookings Institution. He earned his Ph.D. in
International Relations, Political Philosophy, and Islamic Political Thought,
from Georgetown University in May 2000.
Dr. Khan is also associated with the Center for the Study of Islam and
Democracy and the Institute for Social Policy and Understanding.
He is the author of American Muslims: Bridging Faith and Freedom (Amana, 2002),
Jihad for Jerusalem: Identity and Strategy in International Relations (Praeger,
2004). His forthcoming book is titled Beyond Jihad and Crusade: Rethinking US
Policy in the Muslim World (Brookings Institution, 2004).
Dr. Khan frequently comments on BBC, CNN, FOX and VOA TV, NPR and other radio
networks. His political commentaries appear regularly in newspapers in over 20
countries. He has also lectured in North America, East Asia, Middle East and
Dr. Khan’s column has appeared in The New York Times, The Washington Post, The
Wall Street Journal, Newsweek (Arabic), New York Post, Newsday, Arizona
Tribune, Duluth News Tribune, The Daily Telegraph (London), The Sun (UK),
Jakarta Post, Jordan Times, Manila Times, Outlook India, Palestine Times, Calgary
Herald, The Daily Telegram (MI), San Francisco Chronicle, Detroit Free Press, Detroit
News, Al Ahram (Egypt), Dawn (Pakistan), Daily Times (Pakistan), Hindustan
Times (India), Washington Report on Middle East Affairs, Muslim Democrat, The
Christian Century, Islamic Horizons, The Message, The Globalist.com,
Arab News (Saudi Arabia) Progressive.org,
Beliefnet.com, Arabies Trends, Al-Mustaqbal, Saudi Gazette, and many other
periodicals world wide.