Edgard Garrido / Reuters A member of Amnesty International places photos of prisoners in Saudi Arabia on the grass during a demonstration for the release of Saudi blogger Raif Badawi, February 20, 2015.

Saudi Arabia's Modern Islamists

And Their Forgotten Campaign for Democracy

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

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