Separating religion from politics is a Saudi necessity first and foremost

Saudi Arabia has chosen to cut its ties with political Islam.
Sunday 15/04/2018
A Saudi man walks as he reads from the Koran in a mosque in Riyadh. (Reuters)
On the path of change. A Saudi man walks as he reads from the Quran in a mosque in Riyadh. (Reuters)

When Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman bin Abdulaziz spoke of returning his country to the era before the religious “renaissance” — before 1979 — he mentioned mechanisms that apply, not just to Saudi Arabia, but to the entire world.

The crown prince hailed the return of the Saudi kingdom to a more moderate and tolerant version of Islam after four decades of bathing in extreme doctrines. Thus, Riyadh has made it known that it has given up using religion as one of its foreign policy tools.

Four decades ago, Saudi Arabia relied on the religious establishment to protect its political system and counteract the “evils” of Nasserite doctrines blowing from Yemen. It gave a free hand to an extremist version of Sunni Islam seeking to stop the spread of an equally extremist version of Shia Islam from a rising Islamic Republic of Iran.

Saudi Arabia and its religious institutions also became involved in the international anti-communist and anti-atheism efforts, especially after the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan in December 1979.

It would be unfair to claim that the religious “renaissance” of the 1970s was a purely Saudi product. Several local, regional and international factors converged to push the religious agenda in Saudi Arabia amid concentrated international efforts focused on bringing down the “evil” empire in Moscow.

At that time, Western capitals did not look at jihad in Afghanistan as a foe to be dealt with by military force. On the contrary, it was hailed by top liberals and the free world in general as legitimate resistance.

So, when the Saudi kingdom opted for religious “renaissance” as a guiding culture and ideology, it was in keeping with the prevailing cultural values of the West as defined by the Cold War.

By opposing the Khomeini regime in Iran and its policy of exporting its revolution, the Saudi kingdom was not really standing out from the rest of the free world. For Riyadh, Iran represented three dangers. First, it was revolutionary, which did not sit well with conservative Arab regimes. Second, it was a republic, which again did not sit well with monarchies in the region. Third, it was a religious state based on an ideology that arrogantly challenges the version of Islam prevalent in Saudi Arabia and Riyadh’s legitimacy as guardian of the Islamic faith.

We can see now that the so-called renaissance in Saudi Arabia was dictated by strategic and political needs and was backed by the international community as an essential component of the Western world’s strategy in confronting communism and religious revolutions.

Riyadh and its religious renaissance were part of the means for getting rid of the Soviet Union through Afghanistan and of Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini’s doctrines through the Iran-Iraq war.

However, by the time Iraq invaded Kuwait and especially after September 11, 2001, the world’s priorities and strategic choices had changed.

In Crown Prince Mohammed’s view, abandoning political Islam in all its forms inside and outside the kingdom tells the world that Saudi Arabia will no longer serve as an incubator for jihadists that major powers can manipulate to their advantage.

For its own reasons and irrespective of any strategic alliances in the region, Saudi Arabia has chosen to permanently drop the lid on political Islam and its concomitant ideological and cultural components. The kingdom is to be returned to that version of Islam that preceded the revolution in Iran and the war in Afghanistan.

Saudi Arabia has chosen to cut its ties with political Islam but it knows that other capitals in the region have not done so. Crown Prince Mohammed has articulated the Saudi vision and choices using concepts and terminology in tune with modernity and far removed from extremist ideologies of the past.

Previously, the kingdom’s extraordinary resources were used to export extremism all over the Islamic world. Now, those resources will be used to export the values of tolerance, moderation, peace, stability and development.

Saudi Arabia stands to do that not as a favour to the rest of the world but as a necessity to protect the transformations inside the kingdom, the region and the world. Saudi Arabia will thus join the majority of the 1.6 billion people around the globe practising a moderate version of Islam while the current Saudi revolution stands to affect the rest of the Islamic world.

The new Saudi vision pulls the rug from under those educational and cultural institutions, charities and proselytising organisations specialising in spreading Islamic extremism. There is no longer room in Riyadh for mixing religion with politics.

Even when the mullahs’ regime in Tehran relies on religious ideology to present itself as a political match to the Saudi model, Riyadh has chosen to drop politics from religion and leave the latter free of political contamination.