Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman at the Islamic Summit of the Organization of Islamic Cooperation in Mecca, Saudi Arabia, on May 30. (Bandar al-Galoud/Saudi Royal Palace/EPA-EFE/Shutterstock)

A recent appearance on Saudi television by Aidh al-Qarni, one of the kingdom’s most well-known Salafi clerics, generated significant local and regional attention. Aidh al-Qarni used the interview to apologize to Saudis “for the mistakes that were not related to Islam and for the extreme fatwas” of the activist Sahwa movement of clerics of which he had long been a member. Al-Qarni was not included in the September 2017 sweeping arrests that targeted his fellow clerics, such as Awad al-Qarni (not to be confused with Aidh al-Qarni) and Salman al-Awdah.

Activist Salafi clerics in the region condemned the interview, while supporters of the Saudi government, including the high-profile comedian Nasser Al Qasabi, applauded it. The former saw the interview as al-Qarni abandoning the decades-long Islamist opposition movement within the kingdom; the latter welcomed al-Qarni’s apparent conversion.

These events raise questions about the changing nature of Saudi religious circles. These questions arise in the broader context of Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman’s (MBS) accumulation of power in Saudi Arabia, which has come at the expense of rivals and opponents, including royal family members, wealthy business executives and human rights activists. The al-Qarni interview is stark evidence that one major potential source of internal disquiet — the kingdom’s decades-long religious “opposition” — has been cleaved in two.

The Sahwa clerical opposition

The Sahwa movement of religious figures, which emerged in the 1960s, operates outside direct government control. The movement initially looked to counter the liberalization of Saudi society. It later took a political turn and found its strongest voice criticizing the hosting of U.S. troops on Saudi soil following the 1991 Persian Gulf War. Saudi authorities at the time jailed many Sahwa clerics, fearing that they would stoke public dissatisfaction with the ruling family’s ties to the United States.

Once released, the Sahwis continued their activism, albeit without overtly questioning the legitimacy of the country’s rulers. Sahwa clerics generally supported the recent revolutionary movements in Egypt, Syria, Libya and Tunisia, at times at odds with the kingdom’s foreign policy. Al-Awdah applauded the Arab Spring uprisings in Libya, Tunisia and Egypt, and criticized Egypt’s post-revolution, Saudi‑backed military rule.

The rise of Mohammed appears to have prompted a divide in the Sahwa movement. The regime has appropriated for itself the term “moderate Islam” while demonizing the Sahwa movement for promoting extremism. The Saudi state’s definition of “terrorism” has been broadened to include not only violent extremist groups such as the Islamic State and al-Qaeda but also Islamist movements such as Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood. The fact that Sahwa members are affiliated with or hold sympathies for the Brotherhood makes the movement a threat to the Saudi state in the eyes of its rulers.

Al-Qarni’s interview was a full-throated endorsement of the Saudi state, arguing that the Sahwa’s decades-long propagation of the umma — a united international community of Muslim believers — erroneously undermines the primacy of the nation-state. MBS’s geopolitics cares little for the Palestinians or other groups of international Muslim concern such as the Uighurs, just as it opposes political reforms in other Arab states. Al-Qarni’s subordination of the umma to the domestic state gives Mohammad the religious cover to pursue a nationalist agenda.

Contesting moderate Islam

Of the crown prince, al-Qarni said in his interview, “I am with Islam that is moderate, open […] as called by the crown prince, Mohammed bin Salman.” He went on to praise MBS’s efforts to purge extremism in his quest for “moderate Islam.”

It is not always clear what MBS means by “moderate Islam.” Many of the Sahwa clerics arrested in 2017 are, for the most part, less fundamentalist than others outside the movement, including the loyalists who populate the official clerical establishment in the kingdom.

Al-Awdah, the most prominent of the imprisoned clerics, participated in King Abdullah’s National Dialogue in 2003, advocating religious tolerance. He is far more accommodating toward the kingdom’s Shiite minority than are most loyalist clerics. Al-Awdah has consistently cautioned against traveling to fight in Afghanistan, Iraq and Syria for non-locals. His treatment vs. that of al-Qarni suggests that the recent clerical division has nothing to do with moderates and conservatives and everything to do with domestic politics.

The abandonment of the Sahwa movement

Al-Qarni is not the first Sahwa cleric to distance himself from past activism. Another popular cleric, Muhammad al-Arifi, responded to Saudi Arabia’s diplomatic dispute with Qatar by attacking Qatar and urging it to end what he described as interference in the political affairs of other countries. Al-Arifi had previously been known for close relations with Qatar and its emir. Like the Qatari government, he sympathized with Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood. Now al-Arifi poses for photo opportunities with MBS.

Al-Qarni and al-Arifi have not abandoned the Sahwa movement out of nowhere. In recent years, they have softened their activism by concentrating their sermons and lectures on personal acts of worship and the spiritual aspects of Islam, avoiding contentious issues. Lately they seem to have shifted gear from this careful quietism to overt support for MBS.

There are two possible explanations for al-Qarni’s abandonment of Sahwa activism. The first is that he is a genuine convert to the cause of the ruling family and its establishment clerics, and repentant for past fundamentalism. The second is that he fears the crackdown on members of his movement and is acquiescing to authority in self-preservation. Whatever the true reason, al-Qarni’s support of MBS helps to legitimize the regime’s crackdown on activist clerics officially declared as subversive enemies of the state.

MBS controlling the religious sphere

Determined to present himself as the face of “moderate Islam,” women’s rights and economic progress, MBS’s move to control religious discourse in Saudi Arabia is part of his broader centralization of power.

The new political environment in Saudi Arabia under MBS targets dissenting voices, evident in the arrests of female activists, opposition clerics and journalists. The crown prince allows room for loyalist clerics but none for clerics who refuse to endorse him publicly.

Until MBS’s rise to power, the state responded to dissident clerics such as al-Awdah with a carrot-and-stick approach, at times suppressing the Sahwa, but at others giving them room to air carefully constructed criticism. Now, even clerics who do not comment on political issues, and are perceived as loyalists, have been targeted. In August, Saleh al-Talib, the imam (leader) of the Great Mosque of Mecca, was arrested for allegedly preaching against “un-Islamic” practices. His sermon was taken as an implicit criticism of Mohammad’s social liberalization policies. In the past, mild and implicit censures by loyalist clerics were tolerated. Now, overt support is demanded from all clerics.

Raihan Ismail is a lecturer at the Australian National University and an Australian Research Council DECRA fellow. She is the author of “Saudi Clerics and Shi‘a Islam” (2016), Oxford University Press.