In a statement after Khashoggi’s murder, the White House said “representatives of Saudi Arabia say that Jamal Khashoggi was an ‘enemy of the state’ and a member of the Muslim Brotherhood.” Implying that someone as moderate as Khashoggi was somehow a political threat has hurt the kingdom’s credibility beyond repair.
Saudi Arabia is not only the birthplace of Islam, but the monarchy’s legitimacy is founded on adherence to Islamic teaching. Since the era of King Faisal, the state has been actively engaged in the bureaucratization of the religious establishment, closely controlling what once was a fragmented and somewhat independent community of religious scholars. The state’s authority over religion has served to validate some of its most reprehensible political decisions.
Many royal decisions and pieces of legislation — such as the counterterror law and the cybercrimes law — have rendered any public challenges to official religious scholars’ decisions almost impossible. Independent religious figures who gained popularity in promoting real sociopolitical reforms through Islamic principles are now constantly targeted and excluded from any religious debate.
As a female activist in a deeply religious society, I often had to engage in the religious debate on rights and freedom. Many enlightened and independent religious scholars bolstered our arguments on constitutional reforms, women’s rights and minority rights. Abdullah Al-Malki, who was arrested in 2017 amid the national campaign to end the ban on women driving, has been pushing the boundaries on a range of issues, including gender equality.
During the campaign in favor of women driving, another independent scholar offered me a well-informed religious interpretation that used the same Islamic principle — of the precedence of deterring harm rather than securing interests — that was used in 1990 by the supreme scholar at the time to ban women from driving. Sheik Abdelaziz bin Baz, Saudi Arabia’s supreme cleric who died in 1999, banned women from driving in his 1990 fatwa because he said it may lead women to freely mingle with men who were not relatives, without the necessary precautions. In his interpretation, the independent scholar said that banning women from driving would rather harm their interests and that of their families.
When I pressed, a member of the Committee for Supreme Scholars informed me that they will not revise the 1990 decision, even if permissible under Islam, without a directive from the King. During the campaign to abolish the male guardianship system of 2016, the grand mufti, Sheikh Abdulaziz al-Sheikh, described the calls to end the male guardianship system as a crime against Islam and an existential threat to Saudi society.
The approach of the state to religious reforms is about controlling the narrative. It follows the same strategy of the PR campaigns used recently to promote signs of modernity without tackling the inherent challenges of the restrictive Islamic norms. For instance, by appointing a technocrat, specialized in public administration, instead of an authority in religious studies to run the leading Islamic university in Riyadh, it’s clear the decades-old restrictive interpretations are here to stay, since they won’t be changed by a trained administrator. For that, you would need an enlightened religious scholar, who can offer informed and principled religious interpretations for moderate views of Islam.
It follows the same logic of appointing women in leadership positions without allowing them, or other women in general, to freely advocate against the serious restrictions of their autonomy or legal rights.
Saudi Arabia is at a critical juncture — it needs to promote religious reforms for modernization to take root. But this would be an impossible task without engaging the Islamic reformers who are increasingly targeted. Salman al-Awdah, a leading Islamic figure who has called for constitutional reforms, respect for the religious rights of minorities and transforming the role of the religious police, is currently facing the death penalty for his advocacy.
At the same time, Islamic figures who are against modernization and reforms remain in power. Revered by the crown prince as a father figure, Shaikh Saleh Al-Fawzan, a member of the Council of Senior Scholars, called for the killing of the state’s critics just one month before Khashoggi was killed. He also considers religious minorities, such as the Shiites and Sufis, heretics. Saad Al-Shithri, another member of the committee, who was previously relieved from his position by the late King Abdullah for publicly objecting to a co-ed university, accompanied and guided the crown prince during his most recent tour of Mecca.
Retaining an Islamic leadership role is strategically vital for Saudi Arabia. That’s why, unlike other Islamic countries in the region, Saudi Arabia needs to reconsider the risk of vilifying nonviolent, political Islamic movements that have gained prominence since the Arab revolutions of 2011.
The monarchy’s Islamic leadership role depends on securing the access for Muslims of all affiliations to perform their religious duties. Indiscriminate branding of Islamic movements or members of certain affiliations as terrorists will undoubtedly compromise this role. Exploiting Islam to settle political scores will compromise this leadership.