hen Mohammed bin Salman became Saudi Arabia’s crown prince this month two years ago, he announced an aggressive crackdown against extremist clerics, pledging to return the kingdom to the “moderate Islam” he said was hijacked by hard-liners in 1979. “We will not waste another 30 years of our lives dealing with extremist ideas,” he told a forum later that year. “We will destroy them today.”
Over the past two years, however, the majority of the clerics that the crown prince has targeted have been anything but extreme. Many of those whom Mohammed bin Salman has sent to languish in prison have long records of advocating the type of reform and religious moderation he purports to support. Meanwhile, religious hard-liners and known critics of his supposed reform plan continue their work in Saudi Arabia unimpeded.
In September 2017, dozens of clerics, along with other journalists and academics, were arrested by Saudi security forces. Over the next year, according to an Arab official close to the Saudi government, 5,000 other clerics were quietly summoned and forced to give pledges that they would not criticize the government. Contrary to how the crown prince framed his crackdown in the West, the campaign did not target extremist views. Instead, the government is simply going after those who could challenge his policies and potentially mobilize the masses against his rule.
The kingdom’s highest religious body, the Council of Senior Scholars, exemplifies this double standard. The 21-member council is tasked with advising the king on religious matters by issuing religious edicts known as fatwas. The members are handpicked by the king and paid a salary by the government. Among this largely ultraconservative religious body, at least two members have stirred controversy for their extremist ideologies.
Saleh al-Fawzan, known to be highly regarded by the crown prince, said in 2017 on state TV that Shiites are not Muslims. Saleh al-Lohaidan, who headed the judiciary until 2008, once said that owners of media outlets that broadcast anything that violates religious and moral norms should face the death penalty for apostatizing from Islam.
Unlike the moderate figures and intellectuals arrested in 2017, clerics like Lohaidan are known to be close to Mohammed bin Salman. Lohaidan has issued multiple fatwas saying that Muslims are not allowed to protest or even publicly criticize rulers as this would lead to rebellion that would in turn justify rulers’ violent response. In 2017, Abdulaziz al-Sheikh, the grand mufti of Saudi Arabia, issued numerous fatwas and statements preaching the virtues of obedience to existing authorities and submitting to their policies without question. In 2016, he said that it is “binding upon the believer to love the ruler, defend him, and not insult him.”
These weren’t the only ultraconservative state-sponsored clerics who helped portray Mohammed bin Salman’s crackdown against dissent and religious moderation as an effort to curtail religious extremism. Like Lohaidan, other clerics close to the state have gone to great lengths to discourage the population from criticizing the country’s rulers. In a widely circulated video, a cleric named Abdulaziz al-Reis said that even if the ruler drank alcohol and had sex live on TV “for 30 minutes a day”—both major sins in Islam—no one was allowed to rebuke him publicly. Such rebuke would be considered an incitement against the ruler.
These views contrast sharply with the moderate beliefs of many of the clerics and scholars who have ended up in jail. Abdullah Almalki, a religious academic, argued that the sovereignty and free choice of the people must have precedence over any desire to implement sharia and that justice and free choice must be the pillars of any political community. Saudi authorities, feeling threatened by such discourse, arrested him in September 2017 and then referred him last year to court for a secret trial. The Washington Post columnist Jamal Khashoggi, who hinted at these topics from afar, was gruesomely murdered and dismembered at the Saudi consulate in Istanbul last October. Others who have advocated for more popular participation in politics, democracy, or human rights have also been arrested.
This trend is also personal for one of us: Abdullah’s father, Salman Alodah, has a long record of public statements advocating religious tolerance. He spoke against calls of jihad in Iraq, Syria, and elsewhere, called for democratic change, supported the empowerment of women, fought against discrimination, and respected the religious minorities who are marginalized in the kingdom.
On Sept. 10, 2017, Alodah was arrested. During his interrogation, he was not questioned once on his beliefs or religious activity, but about a post he made that year on Twitter (where he has more than 13 million followers) about the Saudi-led economic blockade against Qatar. He now possibly faces a death penalty not because he is an extremist but rather, as Khashoggi once put it, because of his progressive views.
The Saudi government continues to actively promote and fund the likes of Fawzan while arresting, harassing, and torturing moderate voices, feminists, and intellectuals. In some cases, the government is pushing for the death penalty in secret trials that lack any semblance of due process or independence from political influence.
This policy blurs the population’s concept of terrorism and criminalizes any civil protest or assembly. The equation of real extremism cases with peaceful activism is a practice enshrined in multiple state laws, such as the counterterrorism law that criminalizes activism and labels criticism of government policy as an act of terrorism. So whenever the Saudi government claims to be fighting terrorism, it is hard to tell if it means fighting violent extremism or peaceful activism and self-expression. A Saudi politician last month on social media pledged that feminists would be added to the country’s terrorist list soon.
The outside world should see the crown prince’s policies in context. What Mohammed bin Salman has been doing for the past two years has little to do with fighting religious extremism. He is targeting critics and weakening independent discourse that historically pushed back against terrorism, all the while empowering extremist clerics who legitimize his repressive campaign. This policy may temporarily silence critics, but it is creating an environment where extremism is likely to grow in Saudi Arabia.
Authors: Ola Salem and Abdullah Alaoudh (Foreign Policy)