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Al-Qarni apologizes to the Saudi people on behalf of al-Sahwa

Saudi Arabia

How can Saudi Arabia distance itself from Daesh and Sunni extremism in order to benefit from Washington’s protection in its rivalry with Iran? By distancing itself from al-Sahwa, the Islamic movement that shaped present-day Saudi Arabia.


Is Saudi Arabia, now, at the start of Ramadan 2019, turning the page on Islamic conservatism and austerity? Last week, the prominent Saudi cleric Ayed al-Qarni shocked people in the kingdom with a statement during a special Ramadan program on the Saudi TV channel Rotana al-Khalijia. Al-Qarni was one of the leading figures of al-Sahwa (Islamic Awakening) Movement, which promotes a strict interpretation of Islam according to the teachings of Sayyid Qutb, one the founding members of the Muslim Brotherhood. During his TV appearance, al-Qarni apologized to the Saudi people on behalf of the movement.

In response to a question raised by the moderator of the program, al-Qarni acknowledged al-Sawha’s excesses and the negative impact the movement has had on Saudi society. “I apologize to the Saudi society, in the name of al-Sahwa, for the mistakes committed, which contradict the Sharia and the Sunnah, and made people’s lives difficult,” he said.

These words come directly from the mouth of a prominent religious preacher and one of the leaders of al-Sahwa, a movement that has been very influential and contributed to shape modern Saudi Arabia and helped make the country what it is today: a ruthless, theocratic kingdom.

Since the mid-1960s, Saudi society has been subjected to the unforgiving demands of a severe interpretation of Islam enforced by the religious police (al-mutawa) of the Committee for the Promotion of Virtue and Prevention of Vice. But things started to change in March 2015 when Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman (MBS) stripped the committee of most of its power. The religious police could no longer carry out public beatings (using sticks) for simple dress-code violations or arrest people without first filing a proper complaint with the civilian police. More progress was made in September 2017 with the passing of a law (that went into effect in June 2018) allowing women to drive. And in February 2018, sheikh Abdullah al-Mutlaq made a statement saying that “the abaya is not mandatory” for women in Islam and that “90 percent of Muslim women in the world do not wear the abaya”. The stage was set for al-Sahwa’s apology.

Only five years ago, before all of these developments, before King Salman ascended to the throne and Mohammad bin Salman became crown prince, al-Qarni’s statement would have been inconceivable.

Today’s Saudi Arabia is eager to change its image and show the international community that the foundations of the country were not built on an intolerant interpretation of Islam. It wants to show that al-Sahwa movement was just a bump in the road that is now quickly being fixed and that the country is returning to its “normal life”, a narrative that is promoted by MBS in speeches and talks addressing the international community.

These changes are being implemented now because Riyadh feels like it is facing an emergency and running out of time. It has to clean up and improve its image, diving head first into modernization, even if it means copying the model of its archenemy Qatar. After the murder of renowned journalist Jamal Khashoggi in Saudi’s Istanbul consulate, the country faced considerable international pressure. But the United States came to MBS’ rescue and prevented him from being ousted. In return, Saudi is looking to satisfy American demands, chief among them moderating oil prices and combating Islamic terrorism, including the Islamic State (IS). Despite his unpredictable behavior, these are two points on which American president Donald Trump does not waver.

After IS claimed responsibility for the appalling terrorist attacks targeting Catholic churches in Sri Lanka on Easter Sunday, Saudi Arabia is being pushed to distance itself, once and for all, from the dreadful and messy bloodshed. The local press has vigorously denounced the attacks and continuously hammered home that there were Saudis among the victims. Now, al-Qarni’s apologies have completed the circle.

“I read a lot…”
Immediately, reactions began pouring in on social media. Some people said that it’s never too late to apologize. Others argued that the harm has already been done and that belated apologies won’t help to change anything at this point. But the vast majority believed that the Saudi government–or even MBS–had forced al-Qarni, who is widely followed on social media, to make his statement. One internet user shared an altered photo of one man forcing another’s head into a basin of water, implying that this is how MBS convinced al-Qarni to give an apology on TV.

The picture may have been a dark joke, but there is some degree of truth to it. Al-Sahwa’s two other leaders are in prison: Safar al-Hawali was arrested in June 2018, and Salman al-Awdah is being held in solitary confinement, if he is not already dead, as some sources say he is. MBS has locked up many of the kingdom’s other strictest clerics as well, and al-Qarni is one of the few standard-bearers of al-Sahwa to have not been put in jail.

Al-Qarni’s statement may show that Riyadh is now using a different strategy. Instead of locking up conservatives, it may now be looking to force them to adopt the same rhetoric as MBS in advocating for a moderate and tolerant Islam. Ayed al-Qarni concluded his remarks by saying: “I have read a lot, traveled to over forty countries, and today, I am convinced that moderate Islam is what is required”.

These developments come at a time when Iranian backed Yemeni rebels have been able to carry out attacks using armed drones deep inside of Saudi Arabia. The drones were able to avoid Saudi’s US funded missile defense system and strike oil pumping stations on a pipeline, negatively affecting prices in the global market, a serious concern for Washington. Given this context, it has become vital for Saudi Arabia fully distance itself from Sunni extremism if it wants to benefit from American protection in case the threat from Iran were to escalate.

(This article was originally published in French in L'Orient-Le Jour on the 17th of May)

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