The Saudi regime watched the 2011 Arab Spring unfold across the Middle East with deep unease. As the year progressed, the regime responded by rounding up moderate Islamists because of the potential threat they posed to it. The success of the Muslim Brotherhood in the first Egyptian election alarmed the Saudis particularly since its own Islamists became more energized and vocal. Salman al-Rushoudi, a veteran moderate Islamist, was convicted for possessing articles that I had written on Saudi history and current affairs that had been banned because they offer a critical interpretation of Saudi politics. He had been active since the 1990s in challenging the regime’s interpretations of Islam and, in 2009, helped found a civil and political rights organization called the Saudi Civil and Political Rights Association (better known by its Arabic acronym HASEM).
Since then, Saudi Arabia has used money and diplomacy to thwart the rise of Islamists who are committed to political reform and whose reinterpretation of Islamic texts support democracy, civil society, and human rights. They are the product of an important intellectual movement in Saudi Arabia that began in 2009 after the country experienced a deadly wave of jihadist violence between 2003 and 2008. These Islamists sprung out of the Islamic Awakening of the 1990s, but their line of thinking evolved into a theology that rejects violence and calls for civil society and even democracy to counter radicalism and Salafi-Wahhabi domination within Saudi Arabia. The group initially consisted of Islamists but was later joined by others who had no affiliation to Islamism. Although it is difficult to estimate its size and influence, many young Saudis consider these Islamists a real alternative to Salafist dogma and Saudi royalty, particularly with its resistance to real political reform.
In 2009, al-Rushoudi and several of his colleagues put the movement’s theory into practice by establishing HASEM, one of Saudi Arabia’s first civic organizations, which grounded broad political reform in Islam. One of HASEM’s founders, Abdullah al-Hamid, a professor of Arabic studies based in Riyadh, defined jihad not as a violent terrorist act but as a peaceful struggle against oppression through activism and demonstrations, all of which is banned in Saudi Arabia. Reinterpreting the Koranic injunction to command good and forbid evil, he called for a constitutional monarchy, elected government, independent judiciary, and fair trials for political prisoners.
His colleague, professor Muhammad Fahad al-Qahtani, a non-Islamist activist, likewise rose to prominence for denouncing secret trials, the use of torture in prisons, and the abuses and excesses of Saudi Arabia’s Ministry of Interior. (Several international human rights organizations have documented the use of torture in prisons and solitary confinement for prisoners of conscience, among other abuses that Qahtani documented and posted on the HASEM website.) HASEM also argued that the regime did not represent a truly Islamic government because it simply used Islam to justify repression. It challenged the regime’s rigid enforcement of obedience to rulers, which is based on Koranic verses that instruct believers “to obey God, the Prophet, and those who rule over you.” Loyal Wahhabis interpret this to mean total submission, but HASEM argued that obedience does not entail total submission. In fact, the ruler is beholden to his constituency, which can keep his power in check and scrutinize his policies. This new discourse appealed to many activists, especially those who followed the regular social media postings of HASEM, the news about the trials of its members, and watched its members’ lectures on You Tube. HASEM became an important part of Saudi’s activism scene as it provided a new peaceful way to call for reform. It is difficult to estimate with accuracy how many followers it had, however.
By March 2013, Saudi Arabia had jailed nine of the 11 founders who signed the foundation statement, including several human right lawyers associated with the organization. The courts charged them with “planting the seeds of discord, accusing the regime of being a police state, inciting public opinion against security bodies and the ulema, and most importantly breaking allegiance to rulers.” The Saudi regime gave HASEM activists lengthy prison sentences and banned them from traveling abroad. There are activists who are not associated with HASEM who have been charged similarly for exercising their right to free speech, such as tweeting about the Prophet.
Although HASEM was short-lived as an organization, its principles have endured. In recent years, a number of young modernists, many of whom were trained in traditional Islamic scholarship, have continued to challenge Saudi Arabia’s interpretation of Islam. One figure, Abdullah al-Maliki, 38, rose to prominence after angering the Salafists by publishing articles arguing that sharia cannot be imposed by force, a key component of both Saudi and jihadist rule. He is a researcher who specializes in Islamic studies and is active on Twitter. In Maliki’s opinion, practicing sharia law must be a choice. If God asks believers to pray, he wrote, the prayer is meaningful only if the people do so of their own free will. Forced prayer is not actual prayer. Maliki’s position directly challenged the way the Saudi regime corrals people into mosques at prayer time and forces business owners to close their shops. Maliki noted that this coercive behavior ultimately drives people away from religion rather than making them more pious. In his opinion, regimes that impose sharia do so only to maintain legitimacy.
Maliki also supported the separation of mosque and state in certain aspects. The Saudi regime uses the Koran as its constitution, but Maliki upholds the Koran as a sacred text, and as such, believes it has no place in the unholy day-to-day business of governance. That is why he advocates a separate constitution for regulating the government. He envisioned that the constitution would protect the rights of people as well as their property and freedom. He also deconstructs Saudi claims that it practices shura, which involves consultation with the Muslim community over decisions affecting it. For him, shura is a binding Islamic principle that can only be correctly practiced by a national council democratically elected by the community. Shura also permits the removal of an incompetent ruler through referendum—but not through conquest or violence. Like many other young intellectuals, Maliki is not impressed by Islamic organizations like the Muslim Brotherhood, which claims that “Islam is the solution.” For Maliki, sovereignty of the people is the solution.
Hard-line Salafists reprimanded Maliki for his paper, accusing him of diluting Islam to please the West and pejoratively calling him a “bearded liberal.” So far, he remains free, so long as he does not venture into real activism.
Other Saudi Islamist modernist intellectuals are pushing directly for democracy. Muhammad al-Ahmari, 57, who currently runs a research institute in Qatar, is one of the most vocal advocates of democratic government. Ahmari considers democracy a shield against the “Islamization of repression,” that is, using religion to justify political repression. Needless to say, his position collides head on with the Salafi-Wahhabi tradition, which insists that democracy is not Islamic but a foreign and Western-imposed idea. In his book, Democracy: The Roots and Problematics of Application, Ahmari highlights the Islamic principles behind democratic government and argues that it is the most suitable government for human society across cultures and religions. He even praised the election of U.S. President Barack Obama as an example of how democracy could overcome racial barriers. This angered Salafist scholar Nasir al-Omar, who accused him of glorifying the West.
Ahmari has also spoken of a commitment to religious freedom and pluralism, which Saudi Wahhabi clerics forbid. He recalls the expansion of the Wahhabiyya movement in the early twentieth century to Asir, the southwestern region of Saudi Arabia where he was born. As the moment spread, the people there, many of them farmers, were forced to adopt a unified dress code that was unsuitable for their rural way of life. He argues that there is no Islamic justification for insisting on this type of homogeneity. Eradicating cultural differences and forcing people to look and worship in one way is truly un-Islamic, he says.
In many ways, these Islamist intellectuals offer a “third way” of thinking about Islamic governance, which lies somewhere between Salafi Wahhabism, in which clerics are loyal to Saudi monarchy, and the jihadist goal of using violence to overthrow regimes. This third way represents an attempt to commit to Islam while combining it with democratic principles. It remains to be seen whether its advocates move toward adopting Western-style democracy.
Although it is difficult to quantify the appeal of this third way in Saudi Arabia, since many of its most outspoken members are now in jail, its followers have maintained HASEM’s presence online—keeping their Twitter accounts alive and regularly launching hashtag campaigns to remind others of the plight of HASEM’s imprisoned members. HASEM has also gained the support of those in Gulf countries like Kuwait, Bahrain, and the United Arab Emirates where many human rights activists have also faced the same fate as members of HASEM. One Gulf activist even proposed that Abdullah al-Hamid be nominated for the Nobel Prize for his perseverance in defending human rights.
The regime continues to carefully monitor these modern Islamist intellectuals and has even jailed some of their lawyers, such as Waleed Abu al-Khair and Fawzan al-Harbi. It certainly fears them more than jihadists, since they have shown how Islam and democracy are reconcilable. Furthermore, it is not difficult to denounce and crack down on violent jihadists, whereas the Saudi regime may find it difficult to justify the imprisonment of peaceful activists. The regime worries about nonviolent activism in a country that has had limited experience in civil disobedience, sit-ins, and demonstrations. It certainly does not want society to learn about how peaceful activism can be justified from an Islamic point of view. That is why Western policymakers, interested in seeing Saudi regime change, should take the Saudi modernist project seriously, even if does not closely and fully correspond to Western notions of democracy. Western allies of Saudi Arabia should put pressure on the regime to free those peaceful activists. After all, this modernist project, once begun, will be difficult to hold down in the long term, as suppressing it will only strengthen its appeal—and, possibly, push it toward more violent and destabilizing tactics in the future.