Detained Saudi womens’ activists branded as traitors – The Globe and Mail

So much for MBS’s efforts to present an image of reform:

Just weeks before Saudi Arabia is set to lift its ban on women driving, the kingdom’s state security said Saturday it had detained seven people who are being accused of working with “foreign entities.” Rights activists say all those detained had worked in some capacity on women’s rights issues, with five of those detained among the most prominent and outspoken women’s rights campaigners in the country.

Pro-government media outlets have splashed their photos online and in newspapers, accusing them of betrayal and of being traitors.

The women activists had persistently called for the right to drive, but stressed that this was only the first step toward full rights. For years, they also called for an end to less visible forms of discrimination, such as lifting guardianship laws that give male relatives final say on whether a woman can travel abroad, obtain a passport or marry.

Their movement was seen as part of a larger democratic and civil rights push in the kingdom, which remains an absolute monarchy where protests are illegal and where all major decision-making rests with the king and his son, Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman.

Some state-linked media outlets published the names of those detained, which include Loujain al-Hathloul, Aziza al-Yousef and Eman al-Najfan.

Rights activists who spoke to The Associated Press on condition of anonymity for fear of repercussion say Madeha al-Ajroush and Aisha al-Manae are also among the seven detained. Both took part in the first women’s protest movement for the right to drive in 1990, in which 50 women were arrested for driving and lost their passports and their jobs.

All five women are well-known activists who agitated for greater women’s rights. Several of the women were professors at state-run universities and are mothers or grandmothers.

The Interior Ministry on Saturday did not name those arrested, but said the group is being investigated for communicating with “foreign entities,” working to recruit people in sensitive government positions and providing money to foreign circles with the aim of destabilizing and harming the kingdom.

The stunning arrests come just six weeks before Saudi Arabia is set to lift the world’s only ban on women driving next month.

When the kingdom issued its royal decree last year announcing that women would be allowed to drive in 2018, women’s rights activists were contacted by the royal court and warned against giving interviews to the media or speaking out on social media.

Following the warnings, some women left the country for a period of time and others stopped voicing their opinions on Twitter.

As activists were pressured into silence, Saudi Arabia’s 32-year-old heir to the throne stepped forth, positioning himself as the force behind the kingdom’s reforms.

Human Rights Watch says, however, the crown prince’s so-called reform campaign “has been a frenzy of fear for genuine Saudi reformers who dare to advocate publicly for human rights or women’s empowerment.”

“The message is clear that anyone expressing skepticism about the crown prince’s rights agenda faces time in jail,” said Sarah Leah Whitson, Middle East director at Human Rights Watch.

Last year, Prince Mohammed oversaw the arrests of dozens of writers, intellectuals and moderate clerics who were perceived as critics of his foreign policies. He also led an unprecedented shakedown of top princes and businessmen, forcing them to hand over significant portions of their wealth in exchange for their freedom as part of a purported anti-corruption campaign.

In an interview with CBS in March, he said that he was “absolutely” sending a message through these arrests that there was a new sheriff in town.

Activists say writer Mohammed al-Rabea and lawyer Ibrahim al-Mudaimigh, two men who worked to support women’s rights campaigners, are also among the seven detained. Al-Mudaimigh defended al-Hathloul in court when she was arrested in late 2014 for more than 70 days for her online criticism of the government and for attempting to bring attention to the driving ban by driving from neighbouring United Arab Emirates into Saudi Arabia.

Those familiar with the arrests say al-Hathloul was forcibly taken by security forces earlier this year from the UAE, where she was residing, and forced back to the kingdom.

In recent weeks, activists say several women’s rights campaigners were also banned from travelling abroad.

Immediately after news of the arrests broke, pro-government Twitter accounts were branding the group as treasonous under an Arabic hashtag describing them as traitors for foreign embassies.

The pro-government SaudiNews50 Twitter account, with its 11.5 million followers, splashed images of those arrested with red stamps over their face that read “traitor” and saying that “history spits in the face of the country’s traitors.”

The state-linked Al-Jazirah newspaper published on its front-page a photo of al-Hathloul and al-Yousef under a headline describing them as citizens who betrayed the nation.

Activists told the AP that some in the group were arrested on Tuesday and at least one person was arrested Thursday. They say the detainees were transferred from the capital, Riyadh, to the city of Jiddah for interrogations where the royal court has relocated for the month of Ramadan.

Activists say it’s not clear why the seven have been arrested now.

via Detained Saudi womens’ activists branded as traitors – The Globe and Mail

Iran’s Leader Is Worse Than Hitler and Wants to Spread Islam to America, Says Saudi Prince Mohammed bin Salman

Bit rich given the considerable Saudi funding provided in many countries to support their fundamentalist strain of Islam. Will that stop?:

The heir to the Saudi throne has lambasted Iran, saying its Supreme Leader is the first side of a “triangle of evil” along with the Muslim Brotherhood and extremist Islamist groups like Isis.

In an echo of former U.S. president George W. Bush’s 2002 reference to Iran’s supposed role in an “axis of evil,” Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman told The Atlantic that Ayatollah Ali Khamenei was akin to Hitler and headed a regime that wanted to spread “extremist Shiite ideology.”

The crown prince added that if Tehran got its way, “the hidden Imam will come back again and he will rule the whole world from Iran and spread Islam even to America,” referring to the final savior of humankind according to Iran’s Twelver Shia faith.

He said: “The second part of the triangle is the Muslim Brotherhood, which is another extremist organization. They want to use the democratic system to rule countries and build shadow caliphates everywhere… And the other part is the terrorists, al-Qaeda, ISIS, that want to do everything with force.

“I believe that the Iranian supreme leader makes Hitler look good. But the supreme leader is trying to conquer the world. He believes he owns the world. They are both evil guys. He is the Hitler of the Middle East,” he added.

The wide-ranging interview will be seen as the latest move by the royal to present a different image of his country. In November he ordered a crackdown on businessmen and officials accused of corruption, which has reportedly recovered 100 billion dollars in financial settlements, although critics said it was a purge of his rivals to consolidate power.

Women will also be allowed to drive for the first time in the kingdom, although the country’s guardianship laws, which he describes as only “customs,” which restrict women’s freedoms, remain in place.

The crown prince insists his country is part of a group of moderate Muslim nations which include Jordan, Oman, Kuwait and the United Arab Emirates which are, in his view, countries based on the founding principles of the United Nations whose values are at odds with those of the “evil triangle.”

But Salman puzzled his interviewer when he denied that Wahhabism, the austere fundamentalist strand of Islam which is the bedrock of the country, even existed in Saudi Arabia.

“No one can define Wahhabism. There is no Wahhabism. We don’t believe we have Wahhabism. We believe we have, in Saudi Arabia, Sunni and Shiite. We believe we have within Sunni Islam four schools of thought,” he said, adding that Shiites held many positions of power in government and society.

He said he has no religious objections to the right of Israel to exist, and that his concerns were solely about the fate of the holy mosque in Jerusalem and the rights of the Palestinian people.

“I believe that each people, anywhere, has a right to live in their peaceful nation. I believe the Palestinians and the Israelis have the right to have their own land. But we have to have a peace agreement to assure the stability for everyone and to have normal relations.

“We have religious concerns about the fate of the holy mosque in Jerusalem and about the rights of the Palestinian people. This is what we have. We don’t have any objection against any other people.

“Our country doesn’t have a problem with Jews. Our Prophet Muhammad married a Jewish woman. Not just a friend—he married her. Our prophet, his neighbors were Jewish. You will find a lot of Jews in Saudi Arabia coming from America, coming from Europe. There are no problems between Christian and Muslims and Jews. We have problems like you would find anywhere in the world, among some people. But the normal sort of problems,” said the crown prince.

via Iran’s Leader Is Worse Than Hitler and Wants to Spread Islam to America, Says Saudi Prince Mohammed bin Salman

Giving up control of Brussels mosque, Saudi Arabia sends a signal

Positive step. Even if Salafism does not necessarily lead to violence, it is extreme and intolerant and not conducive to integration (as are most fundamentalist strains of religions):

Saudi Arabia has agreed to give up control of Belgium’s largest mosque in a sign that it is trying to shed its reputation as a global exporter of an ultra-conservative brand of Islam.

Belgium leased the Grand Mosque to Riyadh in 1969, giving Saudi-backed imams access to a growing Muslim immigrant community in return for cheaper oil for its industry.

But it now wants to cut Riyadh’s links with the mosque, near the European Union’s headquarters in Brussels, over concerns that what it preaches breeds radicalism.

The mosque’s leaders deny it espouses violence, but European governments have grown more wary since Islamist attacks that were planned in Brussels killed 130 people in Paris in 2015 and 32 in the Belgian capital in 2016.

Belgium’s willingness to put its demands to oil-producing Saudi Arabia, a major investor and arms client, breaks with what EU diplomats describe as the reluctance of governments across Europe to risk disrupting commercial and security ties.

Riyadh’s quick acceptance indicates a new readiness by the kingdom to promote a more moderate form of Islam – one of the more ambitious promises made by Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman under plans to transform Saudi Arabia and reduce its reliance on oil.

The agreement last month coincides with a new Saudi initiative, not publicly announced but described to Reuters by Western officials, to end support for mosques and religious schools abroad blamed for spreading radical ideas.

The move towards religious moderation – and away from the extreme interpretation of Islam’s Salafi branch that is espoused by modern jihadist groups – risks provoking a backlash at home and could leave a void that fundamentalists try to fill.

But Saudi Arabia’s recent moves on religion are seen by Belgian diplomat Dirk Achten, who headed a government delegation to Riyadh in November, as a “window of opportunity”.

“The Saudis are disposed to dialogue without taboos,” he told Belgium’s parliament last month after the mission was hastily put together after the assembly urged the government to break Saudi Arabia’s 99-year, rent-free lease of the mosque.

But he also cautioned: “Some do not, or barely, admit that this form of Salafism leads to jihadism.”

Details of the mosque’s handover are still being negotiated but will be announced this month, Belgian Interior Minister Jan Jambon told Reuters.

The diplomatic contacts, led by the countries’ foreign ministers, were intended by Belgium to prevent what Jambon called an “exaggerated response” from Saudi Arabia — indicating the Belgian government had sought to ensure there was no diplomatic backlash.

This, he said, was “under control” following a visit to Belgium last month by Saudi Foreign Minister Adel al-Jubeir.

Before Saudi Arabia took control in the late 1960s, the Grand Mosque was a disused relic of the Great Exhibition of 1880 – an Oriental Pavilion.

Saudi money converted it to cater to migrants from Morocco invited to work in the country’s coal mines and factories. It is run by the Mecca-based Muslim World League (MWL), a missionary society mainly funded by Saudi Arabia.

Concerns about the mosque grew as militant groups such as Islamic State started recruiting among the grandchildren of those migrants, many of whom say they still feel they do not belong in Belgian society, opinion polls show.

Belgium has sent more foreign fighters to Syria per capita than any other European country. Belgian officials now suggest the Muslim Executive of Belgium, a group seen as close to Moroccan officialdom, should run the Grand Mosque.

Although the Saudi government has denied any role in the Sept. 11, 2001 attacks against the United States which killed more than 3,000 people, 15 of the 19 airplane hijackers who carried them out were from Saudi Arabia and linked to late Al Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden, the plot’s Saudi-born mastermind.

Bin Laden was a follower of Wahhabism, the original strain of Salafism which has often been criticized as the ideology of radical Islamists worldwide. Yet many of Islamic State’s positions are far more radical than Wahhabism, the ultra-conservative branch of Islam dominant in Saudi Arabia and founded by 18th century cleric Mohammed ibn Abd al-Wahhab.

A classified report by Belgian security agency OCAD/OCAM in 2016 said the Wahhabi branch of Islam promoted at the mosque led Muslim youth to more radical ideas, sources with access to the report said.

“The mosque has influence to spread this hateful ‘software’,” a senior Belgian security source said. “Nobody paid attention for decades.”

Belgium’s parliament said what it preached was “a gateway or even a predisposition to a more combative Islam that is violent”, calling in October for an end to the Saudi lease.

The same month, immigration minister Theo Francken tried to expel the Grand Mosque’s Egyptian imam of 13 years, calling him “dangerous”, but a judge reversed that decision.

But Belgian security sources say there is no proof imams at the Grand Mosque preached violence or have had links to attacks.

Some who went to fight in Syria had studied there but men are more prey to recruiters for militant groups online and on the streets of underprivileged boroughs such as Molenbeek, in Brussels, where some of the Paris attackers lived, they say.

Tamer Abou El Saod, who was appointed director of the Grand Mosque in May, says there are problems over the way it is perceived but denies it espouses a fundamentalist version of Islam. He says he is ready to work with Belgian officials.

“There are changes happening already and there are even more changes coming in the very near future,” he told Reuters.

Belgian leaders say they want the mosque to preach a “European Islam” better aligned with their values – a familiar refrain across Europe following the Islamic State attacks of the last few years.

But it is unclear who will operate the sprawling mosque complex, which receives about 5 million euros ($6 million) a year through the MWL which has for decades promoted a hardline interpretation of Islam at dozens of institutions worldwide

The MWL has recently adopted a more conciliatory tone. In just over a year since being appointed, its secretary-general, Mohammad bin Abdul Karim al-Issa, has met with Pope Francis and taken a public stance against Holocaust denial. Issa told Reuters in November the organization’s new mission was to annihilate extremism.

For Saudi Arabia, the mosque is a chance to prove it is turning over a new leaf after years of accusations it turned a blind eye to – if not actively endorsed – extremist ideology.

Crown Prince Mohammed has already taken some steps to loosen ultra-strict social restrictions, scaling back the role of religious morality police, permitting public concerts and announcing plans to allow women to drive this summer.

The changes, however, may be too late since most militant groups that emerged at some point from Saudi networks have grown independent, says Stephane Lacroix, a scholar of Islam in Saudi Arabia.

“That this is going to solve the problem of radical Islam because if the Saudis change, everything’s going to change: It’s not the case,” he told Reuters.

Source: Giving up control of Brussels mosque, Saudi Arabia sends a signal

Saudi Shura Council approves citizenship amendment study | GulfNews.com

Inching forward:

History could be in the making in Saudi Arabia after the Shura Council cleared the first hurdle by approving a study of two proposals to amend the citizenship law and allow women to pass on the Saudi citizenship to their children.

The proposals were initially submitted by three members in the previous term — Haya Al Manee’, Thuraya Abaid and Wafa Teeba — and taken up by two current members — Latifa Al Shaalan and Atta Al Subaiti.

Following a heated debate at the council on Tuesday, 63 members voted in favour of the amendments, ensuring that they are passed. They now go to the security committee that will present a final report to be discussed by the council at a later stage.

During the discussion on Tuesday, Shura member Fahd Al Enezi, a legal expert, said he vehemently opposed the amendments, resorting to religion to highlight his argument.

“Children must be attributed to their fathers, not to their mothers as is clearly stated in our religion,” he said. “A Saudi woman has the option to marry a non-Saudi. It is her choice. However, the citizenship is not her option and she is aware that her children will not obtain the Saudi citizenship.”

However, Faisal Al Fadil, also a legal expert, said that citizenship is a human right within the religion and is part of the fight against discrimination.

Mohammad Al Ali used economic arguments to call for defeating the proposals.

“Saudi Arabia is basically a desert nation and the quantity of water is limited,” he said as he presented virtual statistics about the high population in case Saudi women passed on their citizenship to their children, Saudi daily Okaz reported on Wednesday.

Abdullah Al Harbi warned of a waste of resources.

“Most of those born to Saudi mothers are competent and not giving them the Saudi citizenship is a loss to an efficient segment in the Saudi society, especially that they grew up in the kingdom and were educated here,” he said.

“Most countries allow women to pass on their citizenship, including in some Arab countries that have high population figures but whose economic development standards do not keep up with those of Saudi Arabia.”

He said that granting the citizenship would alleviate economic burdens for families and ensure promises of a brighter future for the children.

The issue of residency permits and entry visas required from non-Saudis living in the kingdom hampers the academic progress of the sons and daughters studying abroad since they have to go back to Saudi Arabia before their expiry, he said.

“The sons and daughters who are born in Saudi Arabia and grow up here develop strong links to their family and the Saudi society. Such attributes instill in them a sense of allegiance and belonging. However, if they are treated after graduation from colleges as foreigners, they are bound to face a multitude of hurdles even if they are top of their classes,” Al Harbi said.

Iqbal Darandari said she fully supported the amendment proposals.

“True faith is to be fair to all people,” she said. “There are children born here in Saudi Arabia to Saudi mothers. They grew up here and they know no other land. Where will they go if they do not have the citizenship?”

Darandari said that everyone should feel they are accountable before God for not assisting people.

In her argument, Noora Al Musaad said there was a deep need for endorsing the amendments.

“Most countries across the world allow mothers to pass on their citizenship to their children,” she said. “What we now have is a form of discrimination.”

via Saudi Shura Council approves citizenship amendment study | GulfNews.com

Why the sartorial choices of Salafi clerics sparked a debate on morality in Nigeria | M&G

Another illustration of the harm that Saudi Arabia has caused in spreading Salafism:

The innocuous photos of two Nigerian Islamic clerics shopping and relaxing in London sparked a fierce debate on social media platforms in northern Nigeria in early December 2017. The photos were quite unremarkable. One showed the two men sitting on a park bench; another showed them in a clothing store wearing cowboy hats. In both, they were dressed in suits. And they were wearing gloves and scarves to protect themselves from London’s cold, wet weather.

The pictures caused a fierce online debate about piety, hypocrisy, morality, the sartorial prescriptions of Islam, and the tyranny of religious authorities in Muslim-majority northern Nigeria. The violent Islamist group, Boko Haram, is active in the region, which has become a hotbed of extremism.

So, why were these ordinary images so controversial? Why did they spark heated debates among educated northern Nigerian Muslim men and women?

The answer is simple. The two men are Salafi clerics, members of a clerical order that has come to wield outsized influence over Muslims in northern Nigeria. The clerics act as enforcers of an increasingly puritan Islamic order. They are uncompromising in defining what is moral and permissible and what is haram or sacreligious. They often equate Muslims’ engagements with modernity and Western ways of life with immorality and sinful innovation or bid’ah.

This leaves them open to charges of hypocrisy when they appear to make choices seen as contradicting their teachings. And this is what happened in London. The two clerics were wearing what in northern Nigeria is considered western dress. This touched off debates between two camps of young Muslims: those who resent the growing intrusion of the clerics into their lives and are eager to criticise their adventures in a Western city, and those who continue to look on the religious figures as revered exemplars of piety.

Wahhabism and the roots of Salafi Puritanism

The Islamic sect to which the two clerics belong heightened the controversy. Sheikh Kabiru Gombe and his mentor, Sheikh Bala Lau, are prominent clerics of the Izala sect, the most visible face of a growing community of Nigerian Salafism, a branch of Sunni Islam which holds to a strict, uncompromising doctrine.

Leaders of the sect are gaining popularity and displacing mainstream Sufi clerics in the region. They accuse traditional Sufi Muslims of hobnobbing with modernity and failing to practice Islam in its pure form. Sufis are vulnerable to these accusations because their creed focuses on individual mystical paths to God rather than on outward, political and authoritarian expressions of piety.

This difference has led to an increasingly intense contest between the two sides. The photographs of the two clerics catapulted the contest onto social media, blogs and web forums.

The personalities and profiles of the two clerics contributed to the intensity of the debates.

Sheikh Gombe is known in the region for his ultra-radical Salafi theological positions  and pronouncements. He has made his voice heard in local and foreignsettings, capturing the imagination of some young Muslims in northern Nigeria. He presents an argument that being a pure Muslim means eschewing association with Western modernity. He is against modern and Western institutions such as secular film making, mixed gender socialisation and goods such as Western clothes. All, he argues, can pollute the piety of Muslims.

In my ongoing research on the historical roots of Boko Haram in northern Nigeria I call the rise of this branch of Islam the Salafi Islamic wave. Tracing its roots, I have found that it began with the slow but well-funded arrival of Wahhabism in northern Nigeria in the 1980s and 1990s. Wahhabism is the puritan strain of Sunni Islam birthed in Saudi Arabia by Muhammad ibn Abd al-Wahhab.

The Wahhabi-Salafi’s most dominant organisational umbrella was – and still is – the Izala sect, which was founded in 1978 in Jos, Nigeria, by followers of the late Sheikh Abubakar Gumi.

At the time Gumi was travelling throughout the Muslim world and spending time in Saudi Arabia as a member of both the Supreme Council of the Islamic University in Medina and the Legal Committee of the Muslim World League. He returned to Nigeria in 1986 and was recognised as the spiritual leader of the Izala anti-Sufi reform movement. The movement’s following expanded dramatically under him.

The Izala group set up schools and the best graduates were sent – on generous Saudi Arabian scholarships – to the University of Medina to study Islam under a Wahhabi curriculum with a tinge of ultra-radical Salafism. They returned in the 1990s and inaugurated a new Salafi era in northern Nigerian Islam.

In the 2000s, Medina-trained Salafi clerics, backed by Saudi money and patronage, succeeded in upstaging the old Izala clerical order through a mix of youthful charisma, theological novelty and populism. They began entrenching their strict moral code conforming, according to them, to the Islamic Sharia law.

Beyond photos and suits

Western culture and lifestyle dominate popular culture in Nigeria. For many young Muslims in northern Nigeria, Salafism’s prescriptions and prohibitions are suffocating, particularly for those who want a more pragmatic engagement with a Western lifestyle. Many believe they can pursue these lifestyle choices and still practice their religion.

But Salafi clerics and their followers see no acceptable compromise. They are increasingly making themselves custodians of public morality. They routinely condemn conduct that they associate with decadent, permissive western modernity. For example, they dictate what northern Nigerian Muslims can and can’t wear.

The debate around the two clerics was therefore not a trivial conversation about the dress and the recreational choices of two Salafi clerics. The photos were loaded with symbolism and contradictions. Participants in the online debate used the opportunity to criticise – or excuse – the perceived tyranny and hypocrisy of a powerful Salafi establishment. And to express personal anxieties and fears.

The debate about modernity, Islam, and morality has migrated to online platforms because the internet is relatively anonymous. This has given both sides greater freedom to express their views. The debate encapsulates the ongoing ideological struggle in northern Nigerian Islam between those who live and defend a modern lifestyle, and those suspicious of Western modernity and the unmediated influence of Western education and culture.

via Why the sartorial choices of Salafi clerics sparked a debate on morality in Nigeria | News | Africa | M&G

Worries about Malaysia’s ‘Arabisation’ grow as Saudi ties strengthen

Of note in Malaysia as elsewhere in Southeast Asia:

Malaysia’s growing ties to Saudi Arabia – and its puritan Salafi-Wahhabi Islamic doctrines –  are coming under new scrutiny as concerns grow over an erosion of traditional religious practices and culture in the multi-ethnic nation.

A string of recent events has fueled the concern. Hostility toward atheists, non-believers and the gay community has risen. Two annual beer festivals were canceled after Islamic leaders objected. A hardline preacher, accused of spreading hatred in India, has received official patronage.

The government has backed a parliamentary bill that would allow harsh sharia punishments, such as amputations for theft and stoning for adultery. And after religious officials supported a Muslim-only laundromat, Malaysia’s mostly ceremonial royalty made a rare public intervention, calling for religious harmony.

Marina Mahathir, the daughter of Malaysia’s longest serving prime minister, Mahathir Mohamad, publicly lashed out at the government for allowing the “Arabisation” of Malaysia.

Marina, who heads the civil rights group Sisters in Islam, told Reuters Saudi influence on Islam in Malaysia “has come at the expense of traditional Malay culture”. Her father, 93, now heads the opposition alliance.

Saudi Arabia’s fundamentalist Wahhabi beliefs have strongly influenced Malaysia – and neighboring Indonesia – for decades, but have strengthened considerably since Najib became prime minister in 2009 and began cozying up to the kingdom.

The relationship came under a harsh spotlight when nearly $700 million wound up in Najib’s bank account in 2013. Najib said it was a donation from the Saudi Royal family, rebutting allegations it was money siphoned from the 1MDB state investment fund he had founded and overseen. Malaysia’s attorney-general cleared him of any wrongdoing.

The trend toward a politicized brand of Islam in Malaysia, a middle-income emerging market, has alarmed Malaysia’s non-Muslims, including ethnic Chinese who comprise a quarter of the population and dominate private sector commerce. It is also a concern for foreign investors, who account for nearly half the local bond market and have invested $8.95 billion in project investments in the first nine months of this year.

The government denies actively promoting Wahhabi-style Islamic conservatism.

Najib has been largely silent about the recent religious controversies. Critics have accused the prime minister, whose governing coalition lost the popular vote in the last general election but retained a simple majority in parliament, of playing on fears that Islam and Malay political power will be eroded should the opposition win. An election is due by mid-2018.

ELECTION CALCULATIONS

Militancy has also been on the rise in Malaysia, which from 2013 to 2016 had arrested more than 250 people with alleged ties to Islamic State, many of whom were indoctrinated with hardline interpretations of Islam.

After the visit of the Saudi monarch this year, Malaysia announced plans to build the King Salman Centre for International Peace to bring together Islamic scholars and intelligence agencies in an effort to counter extremist interpretations of Islam.

The center, which is being built on a 16-hectare (40-acre) plot in the administrative capital of Putrajaya, will draw on the resources of the Saudi-financed Islamic Science University of Malaysia, and the Muslim World League, a Wahhabi Saudi religious body.

Saudi Arabia has long been funding mosques and schools in Malaysia, while providing scholarships for Malaysians to study in the kingdom. Many of them find employment in Malaysia’s multitude of Islamic agencies, said Farouk Musa, chairman and director of the moderate think-tank, Islamic Renaissance Front.

One of the most worrisome doctrines they preach in multi-cultural Malaysia is ‘al-w ala’ wa-al-bara’ or ”allegiance and disavowal“, Farouk said. ”This doctrine basically means do not befriend the non-believers (al-kuffar), even if they are among the closest relatives.

”We have never heard of Islamic scholars forbidding Muslims to wish Merry Christmas before, for example. Now, this is a common phenomenon,” he said.

The adoption of Arab culture and interpretations of Islam is a result of greater exposure to Middle Eastern people and universities, said Abdul Aziz Kaprawi, a member of the Supreme Council of Najib’s political party, the United Malay National Organisation.

“The extensive usage of social media also accelerated the external influence on the locals,” he told Reuters.

The government is not promoting Wahhabism but rather the doctrine of “wasatiyyah”, or moderation and balance, to accommodate Malaysia’s multi-cultural society, said Abdul Aziz, who is also a federal deputy minister.

CROWN PRINCE‘S REFORMS?

Karima Bennoune, the United Nations Special Rapporteur for cultural rights, expressed concern in a report after her September visit to Malaysia about the deepening involvement of religious authorities in policy decisions. She said this was influenced by “a hegemonic version of Islam imported from the Arabian Peninsula” that was “at odds with local forms of practice.”

She also expressed concern about “the banning of books, including some about moderate and progressive Islam, in the country when the government extols these very concepts abroad”.

Marina Mahathir said religious departments, staffed with Saudi graduates, “are now consulted on absolutely everything, from movies to health and medicine to insurance, all sorts of things that they do not necessarily have any expertise in”.

The kingdom also exerts leverage over Muslim-majority countries such as Indonesia and Malaysia through the quotas it gives to countries for the number of pilgrims they can send on the Hajj, one of the five pillars of Islam that all capable Muslims must perform at least once in their lives.

This could all start to change if Saudi Arabia’s powerful Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman succeeds in returning the Saudi kingdom to “a moderate Islam,” which he says was practiced before 1979.

He has already scaled back the role of religious police, permitted public concerts and announced women will be allowed to drive.

The kingdom has also set up an authority to scrutinize uses of the “hadith” – accounts of the sayings, actions or habits of the Prophet – to prevent them being used to justify violence or terrorism.

Source: Worries about Malaysia’s ‘Arabisation’ grow as Saudi ties strengthen

Women need to play a role in ‘restoring’ Saudi Islam: Sheema Khan

Sheema Khan challenges the patriarchy (and the Friedman puff piece on MBS):

In a wide-ranging interview with Thomas Friedman of the New York Times, Saudi Arabia’s Prince Mohammed bin Salman (a.k.a. “MBS”) discussed, among other topics, the recent anti-corruption drive and liberalization of Saudi society. Call it a kinder, gentler form of authoritarianism – with a progressive touch. Notably, MBS refused to address his country’s interference in Lebanese politics or its unconscionable scorched-earth policy in Yemen.

Nonetheless, Mr. Friedman was effusive of MBS’s plans to veer Saudi Islam to a “moderate, balanced Islam that is open to the world and to all religions and all traditions and peoples.” The Prince calls it a “restoration” of the faith to its origins – namely the Prophetic period in the early 7th century. This has the potential to reverse the puritanical strain (Wahhabism) currently at the heart of Saudi society, where, for example, a woman is under male guardianship from cradle to grave.

The late Sunni scholar Abdul Halim Abu Shaqqa chronicled in his comprehensive study of the Koran and authentic traditions of Prophet Muhammad, Muslim women were far more engaged in society during the Prophetic era. They had more rights and opportunities to build a vibrant society, in partnership with men, than many contemporary Muslim cultures (including Saudi Arabia).

Mr. Friedman believes this “restoration” project “would drive moderation across the Muslim world.” In fact, most of the Muslim world has soundly rejected Wahhabism. Yet, the deeply entrenched patriarchy of Saudi society finds parallels in many Muslim countries.

While MBS has promised to grant Saudi women more liberty, his top-down approach towards “restoration” of Islam raises a number of questions.

Will the man who allowed women to drive, allow them a place to drive the “restoration” as well? Or will it be a vehicle steered exclusively by men, with women seated as passengers, while men alone navigate women’s role in society?

Women’s voices and perspectives will be essential if there is to be any meaningful reform of contemporary Muslim cultural practices.

In her groundbreaking book “Domestic Violence and the Islamic Tradition,” UBC Professor Ayesha Chaudhry makes it abundantly clear that the “Islamic tradition” – beginning a few centuries after the Prophetic era to the precolonial era – reflected worldwide patriarchy of the times. The hierarchical paradigm was unambiguous: God (or Allah) at the top, followed by men below, then by women subordinate to men and finally slaves below women. This view shaped pretty much all religious discourse – from Koranic exegesis to Islamic jurisprudence.

Ismail ibn Kathir, a 14th-century Sunni scholar whose works still carry great influence, was unequivocal. “The man is better than the woman,” he wrote in his authoritative commentary of the Quran. By no means was he alone. Prof. Chaudry’s meticulous research shows how devastating this paradigm was in relation to domestic violence. All Sunni scholars and jurists advocated beating a “recalcitrant” wife – specifying when, how often, where on her body, with either one’s fists or a sturdy object, and so on. The Hanafi school of jurisprudence was the harshest, allowing a husband the leeway to beat his wife as he saw fit, so long as he didn’t kill her. The book is a painful read, but should be read by those interested in reform.

The problem is that much of this patriarchal Islamic tradition – developed by male medieval scholars – is still taught uncritically in many Muslim seminaries and reflected in a number of Muslim cultures, where male privilege reigns.

Muslims must take a critical look at this tradition in light of contemporary norms. Like Abo Shaqqa, Prof. Chaudhry points out the obvious: Domestic violence advocates were/are unable to reconcile the fact that the model for all Muslims, Prophet Muhammad, never once raised his hand. He rebuked those who did.

The postcolonial period had ushered in a more egalitarian view, in which men and women are on the same moral plane before God. However, this approach has had uneven acceptance. Very rarely will men give up their privileged position to be on equal footing with women.

Yet Muslim women still insist on gender justice. Contemporary female Muslim scholars, such as Prof. Chaudhry, Amina Wadud, Asma Barlas, Ziba Mir-Hosseini and Asma Lamrabet, have challenged patriarchal interpretations of the Koran, thereby providing women with exegetical tools to confront male privilege rooted in theology.

Elsewhere, Muslim women in India are challenging the patriarchy entrenched in Muslim institutions, through education and legal reform. There are now female judges to solemnize marriages and adjudicate divorces, thereby restoring balance to proceedings which were exclusively presided by men.

If MBS really wants to return to a “moderate, balanced” Islam, he must include the perspectives of women on equal footing.

Anything less will be a whitewash.

via Women need to play a role in ‘restoring’ Saudi Islam – The Globe and Mail

I will return Saudi Arabia to moderate Islam, says crown prince | World news | The Guardian

An ambitious cultural transformation. Long needed but hard to underestimate the likely resistance to change among some. And unclear whether it will extend to their promotion of Salafism/Wahabism abroad.

The reference to a return to “moderate Islam” is somewhat questionable; when I lived there, about 30 years ago, it was anything but moderate and the mutawa (religious police) had a pretty free hand:

Saudi Arabia’s crown prince, Mohammed bin Salman, has vowed to return the country to “moderate Islam” and asked for global support to transform the hardline kingdom into an open society that empowers citizens and lures investors.

In an interview with the Guardian, the powerful heir to the Saudi throne said the ultra-conservative state had been “not normal” for the past 30 years, blaming rigid doctrines that have governed society in a reaction to the Iranian revolution, which successive leaders “didn’t know how to deal with”.

Expanding on comments he made at an investment conference at which he announced the launch of an ambitious $500bn (£381bn) independent economic zone straddling Saudi Arabia, Jordan and Egypt, Prince Mohammed said: “We are a G20 country. One of the biggest world economies. We’re in the middle of three continents. Changing Saudi Arabia for the better means helping the region and changing the world. So this is what we are trying to do here. And we hope we get support from everyone.

“What happened in the last 30 years is not Saudi Arabia. What happened in the region in the last 30 years is not the Middle East. After the Iranian revolution in 1979, people wanted to copy this model in different countries, one of them is Saudi Arabia. We didn’t know how to deal with it. And the problem spread all over the world. Now is the time to get rid of it.”

Earlier Prince Mohammed had said: “We are simply reverting to what we followed – a moderate Islam open to the world and all religions. 70% of the Saudis are younger than 30, honestly we won’t waste 30 years of our life combating extremist thoughts, we will destroy them now and immediately.”

The crown prince’s comments are the most emphatic he has made during a six-month reform programme that has tabled cultural reforms and economic incentives unimaginable during recent decades, during which the kingdom has been accused of promoting a brand of Islam that underwrote extremism.

The comments were made as the heir of the incumbent monarch moves to consolidate his authority, sidelining clerics whom he believes have failed to support him and demanding unquestioning loyalty from senior officials whom he has entrusted to drive a 15-year reform programme that aims to overhaul most aspects of life in Saudi Arabia.

Central to the reforms has been the breaking of an alliance between hardline clerics who have long defined the national character and the House of Saud, which has run affairs of state. The changes have tackled head-on societal taboos such as the recently rescinded ban on women driving, as well as scaling back guardianship laws that restrict women’s roles and establishing an Islamic centre tasked with certifying the sayings of the prophet Muhammed.

The scale and scope of the reforms has been unprecedented in the country’s modern history and concerns remain that a deeply conservative base will oppose what is effectively a cultural revolution – and that the kingdom lacks the capacity to follow through on its economic ambitions.

The new economic zone is to be established on 470km of the Red Sea coast, in a tourist area that has already been earmarked as a liberal hub akin to Dubai, where male and female bathers are free to mingle.

It has been unveiled as the centrepiece of efforts to turn the kingdom away from a near total dependence on oil and into a diverse open economy. Obstacles remain: an entrenched poor work ethic, a crippling regulatory environment and a general reluctance to change.

“Economic transformation is important but equally essential is social transformation,” said one of the country’s leading businessmen. “You cannot achieve one without the other. The speed of social transformation is key. It has to be manageable.”

Alcohol, cinemas and theatres are still banned in the kingdom and mingling between unrelated men and women remains frowned upon. However Saudi Arabia – an absolute monarchy – has clipped the wings of the once-feared religious police, who no longer have powers to arrest and are seen to be falling in line with the new regime.

Economically Saudi Arabia will need huge resources if it is to succeed in putting its economy on a new footing and its leadership believes it will fail to generate strategic investments if it does not also table broad social reforms.

Prince Mohammed had repeatedly insisted that without establishing a new social contract between citizen and state, economic rehabilitation would fail. “This is about giving kids a social life,” said a senior Saudi royal figure. “Entertainment needs to be an option for them. They are bored and resentful. A woman needs to be able to drive herself to work. Without that we are all doomed. Everyone knows that – except the people in small towns. But they will learn.”

In the next 10 years, at least five million Saudis are likely to enter the country’s workforce, posing a huge problem for officials who currently do not have jobs to offer them or tangible plans to generate employment.

The economic zone is due to be completed by 2025 – five years before the current cap on the reform programme – and is to be powered by wind and solar energy, according to its founders.

The country’s enormous sovereign wealth fund is intended to be a key backer of the independent zone. It currently has $230bn under management. The sale of 5% of the world’s largest company, Aramco, is expected to raise several hundred billion dollars more.

Source: I will return Saudi Arabia to moderate Islam, says crown prince | World news | The Guardian

New Saudi body to discredit terrorist use of Islamic teachings – The National

While the centre may have some impact in terms of reducing the credibility of those who interpret Islamic teachings to justify violence and thus violent extremism, it will do nothing to minimize the negative impact of fundamentalist Salafism:

Islamic scholars have welcomed a Saudi royal decree to establish a religious centre that will monitor interpretations of Prophet Mohammed’s Hadiths to prevent extremists from using them to justify acts of terror and violence.

The Saudi ministry of information said the King Salman Complex for the Prophet’s Hadiths will become the leading authority on modern day use of the prophet’s teachings, which are used in Islam to govern all aspects of daily life.

Extremist groups have used interpretations to justify heinous acts and urge their followers to wage war in what is an often misinterpreted understanding of “jihad”.

The Saudi ministry of foreign affairs announced that the centre, which will be located in Madinah, will carry out further study the second authoritative source of Islamic teachings “to better understand the meanings of the Hadiths”.

The body, which was announced on Tuesday night, will look to “eliminate fake and extremist texts and any texts that contradict the teachings of Islam and justify the committing of crimes, murders and terrorist acts”.

On Wednesday, Saudi Arabia’s most senior Islamic authority, Grand Mufti Sheikh Abdul Aziz bin Abdullah Al Sheikh, thanked the king for issuing a royal decree to establish the centre.

Sheikh Dr Mohammed bin Nasser Al Khazeem, vice president of general affairs at the Holy Mosque in Makkah, meanwhile said the King Salman Complex for the Prophet’s Hadiths will aim to bring the true meaning of the Hadiths to light and curb extremists’ interpretation of them.

“To learn and understand the Hadiths. To liberate people from the darkness of thought, the extremism and misinterpretation of the book of God, and the teachings that have been passed down to us through the Prophet,” he said.

The chairman of the centre has been named as Sheikh Mohammed bin Hassan Al Sheikh, a member of the Council of Senior Scholars, which serves as Saudi Arabia’s highest religious body.

Saudi Arabia has government centres for Islamic study which establish a universal method for teaching Islam both in the kingdom itself and abroad in Saudi Arabia’s many state-sponsored schools.

However, the study of the Hadiths, which number in the thousands and are equivocally interpreted, have often been less studied and been the source of debate since their origins more than 1,400 years ago.

The new centre will be overseen by a council of senior Islamic scholars from around the world, according to the decree, and will look to establish a more international interpretation of the teachings.

Saudi Arabian clerics, who have historically been dominated by Al Sheikh family, are the originators of the Wahhabi doctrine.

Wahhabism offers a stricter version of Islam that looks to the early days of Islam as the ideal by which to govern modern life and teaches the doctrine in its mosques, universities and schools abroad.

Source: New Saudi body to discredit terrorist use of Islamic teachings – The National

Malaysia’s Slide Toward More Conservative Islam | The Diplomat

Another example of the negative influence of Saudi Arabia on moderates within Muslim majority countries:

Saudi Arabia has long seen Malaysia, along with Indonesia, as regional bastions of Islam, and has consistently tied its investment in both countries to Wahhabism – the brand of conservative Islam initially embraced by Muhammad Ibn Saud in 1744 through a pact with Abd al-Wahhab to expand the former’s empire. The pact resulted in support for Wahhabism gaining legitimacy and followers representing themselves as defenders of the true teaching of Islam. This position today is prevalent in Malaysia and Indonesia as a majority of Muslims in both countries conflate conservative Arab culture and practices with Islam, although historically, Southeast Asia has always been more inclined towards a more moderate version of Islam. A “good” Muslim to many in Malaysia is a person who adheres to Arab culture, and practices the literal version of Islam exported by Saudi Arabia. While Islam has been written into the country’s constitution as the religion of the federation, the constitution’s drafters saw only a ceremonial role for the religion. Shortly after independence, Malaysia’s first prime minister, Rahman, informed parliament that Malaya “is not an Islamic state as it is generally understood.”

The United Malays National Organization (UMNO) has dominated politics in Malaysia since independence in 1957, but has found it increasingly difficult to maintain its stronghold on government during the past two election cycles. Although initially rolled out as a strategy to curb the opposition Malaysian Islamic Party (PAS)’s, influence on young middle class Malays, UMNO has come to rely more and more on political campaigning focused on Islam to attract and retain the Malay vote. Many urbanites today worry that this shift will lead Malaysia down the rabbit hole of a stricter, more literal version of Islam instead of the more moderate and tolerant version upon which the nation was founded. In June 2014 while celebrating the 20th anniversary of one of UMNO’s branches, Party President and Prime Minister Najib Razak called on members to emulate ISIS to ensure the survival of UMNO. Quoting an example where ISIS defeated the Iraqi army despite being outnumbered, the prime minister said, “when someone dares to fight to their death, they can even defeat a much bigger team.” The statement was at odds with his support, made clear at various international fora, of a moderate Islam.

Economic inequalities, the government’s pandering to Muslim hardliners, and its silence on racially divisive politics have created a perfect storm – youths unable to compete in an urban setting find purpose in fundamentalist teachings. In the mid-1980s, radical Indonesian preachers Abu Bakar Bashir and Hambali set up a regional network of extremists in Malaysia. Today, the government invites the likes of Zakir Naik, a hate preacher banned in India, and the UK for talks in Malaysia, while it arrests moderates such as Turkey’s Mustafa Akyol.

The ease with which youths have access to fundamentalist thought is cause for concern. According to the Associated Press in spring 2016, authorities in Malaysia have arrested more than 160 for suspected ties to ISIS over the previous two years. Malaysian intelligence reports that about 60 Malaysian youths have been entrenched in ISIS’ ranks in Syria although former Inspector General of Police Khalid Abu Bakar has stated that about 50 Malaysians are looking to return home. If and when they do return, they will find large swathes of rural Malaysia eager to listen to tales of their jihad. Malaysia will inevitably continue down a less tolerant, more conservative path, unfriendly to unbelievers and suspicious of everyone not conforming to a fundamentalist way of life.

The reliance of successive governments on race-based policies to address the long-standing socio-economic inequalities has resulted in more racial and religious tension, thus rendering conservative Islam an attractive vehicle for change. Many are eager to look to Saudi Arabia for paternalistic assistance without much thought for the strings attached to the assistance. The closer Malaysia inches to the Kingdom, the wider the door opens for conservative values which criticize a gold-medal winning gymnast’s attire, call for a ban on a beer festival, and deny social justice and women’s rights. To contextualize how acute the problem is for Malaysia, Pew Research Center’s Spring 2015 Global Attitudes Survey found that only 26 percent of Malaysians were very concerned about the rise of Islamic extremism in the country. The same question yielded 48 percent in Pakistan, 67 percent in Lebanon, and 20 percent in Indonesia.

Source: Malaysia’s Slide Toward More Conservative Islam | The Diplomat