Jamal Khashoggi is a Saudi journalist and author.
Last week before an enthusiastic crowd at an investment conference, Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman looked angry when he vowed to “crush extremists” and bring back “moderate Islam” to the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia. He promised, “we will destroy them, now and immediately.” During the same conference, he announced an ambitious $500 billion free zone that will transform a region the size of Massachusetts into a high-tech, futuristic hub.
The crown prince is reflecting the anger and frustration of many Saudis who have longed to shake off the influences that have so negatively impacted the country. We were waiting for a leader who realizes that extremism, both economic and social, is bad for the country. City states like Dubai, which only just started on its journey to global prominence in 1980, puts into perspective just how much the kingdom, the largest economy in the region, has lost in the past 40 years.
I know why the young Prince Mohammed is so agitated. Salafi Wahhabism, a reform movement within Islam, was prevalent in the country, turned even more anti-modern and xenophobic after two political earthquakes struck the kingdom in 1979 – the first was when Salafi extremists seized the Grand Mosque in Mecca, one of the holiest sites in Islam. The second was Ayatollah Khomeini’s seizure of power in Iran. In Saudi Arabia, the pernicious influence of this 18th-century puritanical streak can be found everywhere: state-sanctioned religious police can intervene even in people’s private lives; educational curricula warn of the kafir or infidels; TV preachers opposed to the rights of women and minorities, and the banning of goods like chess and Barbie dolls.
Prince Mohammed is right to go after extremists. But he is going after the wrong people. Dozens of Saudi intellectuals, clerics, journalists, and social media stars have been arrested in the past 2 months — the majority of whom, at worst, are mildly critical of the government. Meanwhile, many members of the Council of Senior Scholars (“Ulema”) have extremist ideas. Sheikh Saleh Al-Fawzan, who is highly regarded by Prince Mohamed, has said on Saudi TV that Shiites are not Muslims. Sheikh Saleh Al-Lohaidan, also highly regarded, has given legal advice that the Muslim ruler is not bound to consult others. Their reactionary opinions about democracy, pluralism or even women driving, are protected by royal decree from counter argument or criticism.
How can we become more moderate when such extremist views are tolerated? How can we progress as a nation when those offering constructive feedback and (often humorous) dissent are banished?
There is a popular Twitter handle (@m3takl_en) that exposes the arrests and provides information on the individuals who have been detained in the kingdom, many for several weeks without any charge. There you can find their views — from YouTube and on websites. They are mainly in Arabic, and I can assure you that most are in favor of pluralism and diversity within Islam which traditional Wahhabism totally opposes: They call for open-mindedness, allowing entertainment, allowing women to drive and believe in the rights of minorities; some even went as far as to support ending male guardianship of women, which is still a highly controversial topic. In short, most hold views that would make them ideal partners for Prince Mohammed’s ambitious agenda.
So, why were they arrested? The only possible explanation is that they also called mildly for political rights. It’s true, some are traditional Wahabi Muslims who share the ideas of the scholars of the state-protected official council yet, unlike their peers, they voice their objections to the crown prince’s reforms. Even though I disagree with them, they have the right to express their views, as long as they are not calling for violence.
Can we really present a compelling image of a modern society, complete with robots, foreigners and tourists when Saudis, many miles from “Neom,” are silenced? Is this truly “modern” Arabia?
“I’m one of 20 million people, I’m nothing without them,” said the crown prince as he launched his “Neom” vision for futuristic Saudi Arabia. The 72 intellectuals who have been in jail without charges, and many more who are banned from travel, likely wonder if they and others like them are now outcasts in their own country.