Saudi’s ‘reforms’: Interview with Dr. H.A. Hellyer

The Saudi Arabian Crown prince, Mohammed bin Salman, recently declared that the kingdom sought a ‘return’ to the ‘moderate Islam’ of pre-1979. The international media understandably paid a great deal of attention—but how significant is this? Martin Chulov, the Guardian’s Middle East Correspondent, asked our non-resident senior fellow, Dr HA Hellyer, some questions about it—the Center is pleased to provided an edited transcript of their conversation below.

“How seriously should we take the claim that Saudi’s basic religious approach of purist Salafism or Wahhabism dates back to 1979?”

So, if MbS were to claim that purist Salafism (often pejoratively described as Wahhabism by its opponents) is less than forty years old, that would simply be untrue. It dates back to the days of Muhammad bin Abdul Wahhab, which goes back more than 270 years. If the claim is that Wahhabism was expressed in a gentler way in its pre-1979 version than post-1979—perhaps, but that does not make it any more mainstream vis-a-vis historically normative Sunni Islam. At a time when we’re reminded of the Protestant reformation of 500 years ago, it’s important to remember the huge opposition Martin Luther received by Catholic scholars of the time—bin Abdul Wahhab received a great deal of opposition from normative Sunni scholars of his age; the year of 1979 is crucial in understanding how the Saudi state was restricting or loosening the amount of space the religious establishment hadnot in terms of the religious basis of that establishment.

What can we expect from the Saudi religious establishment, which is rooted in that same purist Salafi/Wahhabi approach, and which has been so essential to the past forty years? Are they going to go quietly? Can they?

That all depends on how this is packaged. There are a minority of scholars in the wider Saudi establishment that want to re-integrate Saudi religious thought into a more normative Sunni mainstreambut that would mean essentially disregarding bin Abdul Wahhab’s teachings and that of his successors. There are people like thatthey are real, and they are influentialbut they are a minority. The majority, I don’t think, are particularly interested in doing that. The question will then become how much can MbS, via his domestic reform program, can achieve by way of negotiation on various points that pertain to social issues. But a change of philosophical levels, where the Saudi religious establishment is no longer Wahhabi? That would be a monumental shift, and I’m not sure MbS is all that interested in taking that up. If the establishment is politically quietist, and succumbs to the social reform program, that will probably suffice. So we are likely to see Wahhabi preachers and the like backing up, retrackingbut just in terms to their attitudes on social issues that the government wants to push reforms on. It won’t be the result of an internal philosophical shift, I don’t think.

But can a base that has been indoctrinated with teachings that could objectively be described as ‘extremist’ be expected to pivot towards a new way of practising and thinking?

You have, for example, very conservative Muslim communities in places like eastern Yemen, or the jungles of Javabut they are not extreme, and would not be given to extremism. But they are conservativeand if we were to expect a non-conservative religious approach to take root in Saudi, I think we’re day-dreaming. But the question is how much such a society can genuinely revert to a more normative religious outlookespecially over a short period of time. There are still scholars across the kingdom that uphold that kind of more mainstream approachconservative, but more open to engaging with change. But, again, how much of that is really going to attempted herethe approach thus far seems to be about restraining the more radical impulses, rather than getting into the root of where that comes from. The government is leveraging loyalty to the state to push through social reformsnot a religious reinterpretation that gets at the root of what is ahistorical about the Wahhabi heritage.

What do you make of the center they’re setting up to examine, certify hadithsand set them against historical, contextual backdrops from the time they were uttered. Can this work? And how would it set this body apart from other centers of Islamic thought?

I think this center is being somewhat misrepresented. It’s not supposed to be a ground-breaking enterprisebut just a summarisation or compilation of what has already gone before in Islamic intellectual history, but which seems to have been ignored. Contextualisation of this nature is hardly neweven if contemporary Muslim societies at large are not particularly aware. Religion in Saudi and much of the Arab world is an identity issueliteracy of this nature is not particularly widespread. So, in that regard, I’m not sure there is particularly much we can expect, though if the center does its work according to the stringiest academic standards, it certainly won’t hurt. But more likely than not, it’s not going to get the root of anything more than justifying state policy. In that regard ‘success’ is kind of nebulous. It’s not meant to be a new center of religious authorityso I am not sure what the key take-away is supposed to be. In the end, it will either be used to legitimize the government’s policies, in which case it is a politically driven, rather than religiously or intellectually driven enterprise; or it can be something far more intrinsic which relates to the internal disassociation of Saudi religious interpretation with purist Salafism/Wahhabism. I’m not expecting much of the latter.

Would this kind of political involvement in religious discourse, on the side of the Saudi state, hurt the Saudi religious establishment’s religious credibility, whether in Saudi or worldwide? [this question was from the Atlantic Council, rather than the Guardian]

I think that there are already hard-core loyalists of the government, and such individuals and groupings (particularly, for example, the Madkhali grouping of purist Salafis, who are generally quietists) are probably going to tolerate a great deal indeed by the Saudi ruling establishment, pursuant to their doctrinal support for the ruler. But recent weeks have shown that the new establishment is rather concerned about complete loyaltyand the failure to show that can have very deleterious circumstances.

The flip side, on the other hand, is that some followers of the Saudi purist Salafi establishment worldwide may find the instrumentalisation of religion by the state in such a brazen fashion too much to tolerate. But the truth is that few if any religious establishments in the Arab world today have much in the way of independence.

Image: Photo: Saudi Arabia's Deputy Crown Prince and Defense Minister Mohammed bin Salman (2nd L) takes his seat to meet with U.S. Defense Secretary James Mattis and his delegation in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia April 19, 2017. REUTERS/Jonathan Ernst