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‘Third way’ in Saudi ideas

10 June 2016

Gerald Butt considers diversity of thought in the Arab heartland

Frederic Todenhöfer

Behind the lines: the German journalist Jürgen Todenhöfer with two fighters of the so-called Islamic State who were among the first to capture the Iraqi city of Mosul in summer 2014, in one of the photos by his son Frederic which illustrate his chilling account of the IS mentality — and of the effects of the West’s response — My Journey into the Heart of Terror: Ten days in the Islamic State, translated by A. O. May (Greystone, £17.99 (£16.20); 978-1-77164-224-8)

Behind the lines: the German journalist Jürgen Todenhöfer with two fighters of the so-called Islamic State who were among the first to captu...

Muted Modernists: The struggle over divine politics in Saudi Arabia
Madawi al-Rasheed
Hurst £35
Church Times Bookshop £31.50


ONE country in the Middle East conforms more than others to Western stereotype views of a typical Arab country.

Saudi Arabia has it all: deserts, oil, great wealth, Islam, rich sheikhs, veiled women, and so on. The strict and conservative Wahhabi/Salafi doctrine of Islam, in the land where the sacred cities of Mecca and Medina lie, seems to cast a sinister shadow over a country, where the green shoots of modernity wither. To be fair, the kingdom itself has contributed to the mystery that surrounds it in the popular imagination by being defensive and secretive. It is not a society that likes to open itself up for inspection.

It is easy to imagine, therefore, that Saudi Arabia is a country where rigid Islamic conservatism holds sway, stifling those who might advocate liberal reforms. But such a simplistic view stems from our general lack of understanding of the different complexities not just of Saudi Arabia, but also of Islam itself.

Madawi al-Rasheed, in Muted Modernists, performs an extremely interesting and useful service in introducing us to some of those complexities. Her central point is that there is “more to Saudi Islamism than what is represented in the stereotypical image”. She identifies “a certain intellectual mutation that has been fermenting among a minority of Saudi Islamists” who represent “a third way”. Their aim is to challenge traditional interpretations of Islam in Saudi Arabia which justify repressive government, and to “combine Islam with current political needs”. They are challenging some of the basic tenets of the kingdom, but as Islamists from the inside rather than liberals or jihadists from the outside.

The author introduces the main figures in this movement and their visions of Saudi Arabia’s future. For example, Abdullah al-Maliki, who is in his thirties, challenges the way in which Islam in Saudi Arabia is effectively under state control. “Religious scholars have become a tool within state institutions,” she quotes him as saying. “Without a free space to debate multiple religious opinions, religious discourse in Saudi Arabia stagnated.”

With the help of social media, these Islamist modernists have instigated a debate that has not pleased either the Islamic Establishment or the ruling family. Several key figures have been arrested and imprisoned.

Madawi al-Rasheed herself, a London-based academic, is a well known critic of the House of Saud. The publication of Muted Modernists will do nothing to endear her to the Saudi leadership. But the book is valuable for anyone wanting to understand some of the internal discourse in the kingdom which is obscured from the outside world. Saudi Arabia is much more than the sum of Western stereotypes. It is also a country facing huge internal and external pressures. Change is inevitable. The author’s hope is that “reform within an Islamic framework can be a viable, albeit difficult, agenda in a country that is yet to experience full mobilization in the pursuit of equitable and representative government.”

A democratic Wahhabi state may sound implausible, but there are serious scholars in Saudi Arabia who believe this can be achieved.


Gerald Butt is the Middle East Correspondent for the Church Times.

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