Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman has vowed to modernize the country. (Fayez Nureldine/AFP/Getty Images)

Saudi Arabia’s most conservative Islamists are reeling from a loss of influence that has left them confused about their place in a country where they once wielded much clout.

Long a swaggering force, these conservatives now tiptoe on social media outlets like Twitter. In mosques and at community gatherings, they reluctantly criticize recent changes they stridently oppose, such as the easing of social boundaries between men and women.

The architect of their turmoil is Mohammed bin Salman, Saudi Arabia’s young and hard-charging crown prince. His vows to modernize the country have included curbing the influence of the conservatives known as Salafists, who adhere to a strict form of Islam they say is modeled on the way it was practiced during the time of the prophet Muhammad in the 7th century and the generations that immediately followed.

His ambition has put Mohammed in conflict with a powerful Salafist network, which constitutes the most coherent political force outside Saudi Arabia’s ruling family, analysts say. To keep its members quiet, Mohammed has used both intimidation and accommodation.

Popular Salafist clerics known for their independence have been jailed. But Mohammed has embraced others, including clerics who have opposed greater rights for women and espoused other hard-line views.

“We don’t know what’s happening,” said a 50-year-old man from the capital, Riyadh, who considers himself a Salafist.

Speaking after a recent evening gathering of like-minded Saudis at a relative’s home, he fretted that he and his fellow Salafists were condemned to become like the Amish in the United States, sequestered from a permissive society because of their strict views. “It’s like we’re becoming strangers.”

Salafists are puritanical religious revivalists who support a strict imposition of Islamic law. They include conservatives who focus on preaching, Islamists who call for political freedoms and a small minority that advocates violence against those they consider heretics. Many have brid­led at social changes in Saudi Arabia that have allowed concerts and other events where men and women mingle.

The crown prince’s balancing act has prompted debate over whether Mohammed is more interested in bringing about a tolerant state or in consolidating power by neutralizing possible challengers.

His supporters say the crown prince has proved his commitment to moderating Saudi ideology by curbing the influence of the religious police, who enforced moral codes like gender segregation — sometimes by beating violators with sticks. He has also reformed the Muslim World League, an umbrella group for Saudi charities founded in the 1960s that Saudis have used to propagate their strict ideology around the world.

“This time, there is no way to return to the past,” Saud Al-Sarhan, the secretary general of the King Faisal Center for Research and Islamic Studies, wrote in a recent essay. “There is a clear desire to break with all kinds of political Islam, Sunni and Shiite alike, both by leaders and by the populace, who see the most extreme version of these same Islamist ideologies in the monstrous death cult of the so-called Islamic State.” The center is chaired by a member of the royal family, Prince Turki bin Faisal Al Saud, who is often called upon by the Saudi leadership to publicly explain its thinking.

But critics say there are also signs that Mohammed is accommodating the hard-liners, pointing to the state’s recent arrest and public shaming of some of Saudi Arabia’s most prominent women’s rights advocates. And some of the Salafists the authorities have arrested could have helped with the state’s fight against intolerance and extremism.

“They target the moderate Muslims and keep the extremists close,” said Abdullah Alaoudh, whose father, Salman al-Awda, a popular cleric and advocate for political reforms, has been jailed since September.

Alaoudh, a postdoctoral fellow at Yale Law School, noted that the Saudi government had enlisted Awda after the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, to help counter extremism — choosing a cleric whose reputation for independence added legitimacy to the fight.  

Under Mohammed, the Saudi authorities are “trying to strike a balance between liberals and conservatives, as they’ve always done,” said Stephane Lacroix, a professor of political science at Sciences Po in Paris. But now, the methods are “much more brutal” than under previous Saudi rulers, he said. “It is what I’d call a balance of fear.”

Several Salafists said they thought the arrests last September were intended to send a message that Mohammed’s changes are not open to negotiation or critique. “They made a lesson of them to the others,” said the 50-year-old Salafist in Riyadh. “Don’t talk too much.”

The man and several other Salafists interviewed for this report spoke on the condition of anonymity because they feared that the authorities might arrest them or otherwise retaliate.  

Reacting to change

The man spoke on a recent evening at a relative’s house in a residential neighborhood of the capital where a dozen or so Salafists gathered as rounds of tea and desserts were served.

 “We don’t take our beliefs from the government,” said the man, suggesting that it was gatherings like these, where Salafists discussed religion, that were seedbeds for Saudi ideology. The state should focus on other things, like the economy, he added.   

His relative, a 42-year-old conservative, recommended that Saudi leaders “read history: the history of countries who fell for forgetting religion. What makes us rich and strong is not oil or gold,” he said.

Estimates of the number of Salafists in the kingdom vary widely, from 100,000 to 1 million or more. Some, like Ali Zaid, a businessman in Dammam, said they were not especially disturbed by changes such as the opening of cinemas or staging of concerts.

His days as a young ultraconservative, preaching what he called “Salafist propaganda,” were behind him: He was in his 40s, had lived abroad and had a family. The changes “are not a big deal,” he said. “You read, you educate yourself. There are other opinions.”

But many others he knew were “very religious and not at all happy,” he said. “They believe they can stand up to these changes. Sometimes they succeed. Sometimes not.”

One 42-year-old Salafist, who works in a mosque in the Eastern Province washing bodies before burial, complained about public celebrations where he saw men and women mingling, and about the increasing number of women who are not covering their hair — “honey pots,” luring men like flies, he said.

“What’s happening could take Muslims away from their path,” he said.

Some had tried to share their complaints with influential figures who sat on a council of senior Islamic scholars, including Sheikh Saad Nasser al-Shithri, who in the past opposed gender mixing at the first coeducational university in the country. 

But no one was sure where clerics on the council stood these days, given their embrace by Mohammed. Shithri did not respond to requests for comment.

“I think there is no way for conservative people to do anything but accept the reality,” Zaid said, speaking at a crowded cafe in the Eastern Province on a recent evening. “Every day, there are changes.”

Reframing extremism

At times, the government has seemed wary of confronting the conservatives too forcefully. In April, for instance, officials apologized for footage aired at a pro-wrestling event in Riyadh that depicted scantily clad women. The arrests of at least 17 activists in recent weeks — including pioneering women’s rights advocates — may also have been a concession to the crown prince’s conservative allies.

At the same time, Mohammed is calculating that ultraconservatives will have less and less influence on Saudi youth, who make up 60 percent of the population, Lacroix said. 

Mohammed has also created a new narrative that sidesteps difficult questions about the indigenous evolution of Saudi Arabia’s strict religious ideology. Instead, he blames the problem of extremist thought on outside forces. While that explanation is “largely historically inaccurate,” Lacroix said, it has allowed the crown prince to enlist clerics in a project to create a more pliant, state-led Sunni Muslim establishment.

That effort was combined with attempts at interfaith outreach by Saudi leaders in the past few months — to Christians and Jews, as well as to Saudi Arabia’s marginalized Shiite Muslims, who are considered heretics by hard-line Sunnis.  

Some of the outreach has been by the Muslim World League. Under the leadership of Mohammad Abdulkarim Alissa, the group has changed its tone.  

Just a few years ago, a counterterrorism conference hosted by the Saudi government and the Muslim World League barely broached the topic of Sunni extremism. But in a recent interview, Alissa was unequivocal, saying that countering the Sunni extremists of the Islamic State and al-Qaeda was the priority. 

'Superficial rhetoric '

In Awda’s case, the ostensible reason for his arrest appeared to be that he refused to tweet in support of a Saudi-led boycott of neighboring Qatar during a feud between the two countries. 

But the Saudi authorities had more urgent reasons to keep Awda out of sight: his popularity and his leading role in the “Awakening” movement, which fuses religious scholarship with political activism — a kind of activity that Saudi rulers find threatening.

Awda had been arrested for political activism before, but since his release in 1999, he had been useful to the Saudi government as a critic of Islamist militants.    

“In media shows after 9/11 he denounced Jihadis and exposed their misunderstanding of the body of Islamic texts on legitimate jihad, emphasising the illegitimacy of globalising the struggle or localising it where it had killed Muslims and non-Muslims,” Madawi Al-Rasheed, a Saudi scholar at the London School of Economics, wrote in her book “Muted Modernists: The Struggle Over Divine Politics in Saudi Arabia.”  

After the Arab Spring uprisings that began in late 2010, Awda’s support for peaceful protests offered “a third way between the two religious positions” — between the extremism of the jihadists and the obeisance of traditional clerics — she wrote. 

Awda’s son said the arrest belied the current talk of reform in Saudi Arabia. “Real reforms, like political reforms, elections, freedom of speech and freedom of assembly, pose a real threat to the superficial rhetoric that the state is presenting,” he said. 

Pointing to the work of his father and his contemporaries, he said, “If you talk about fighting extremism, they have been spearheading the campaign against extremism for two decades.”