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Saudi Arabia’s Islamic Awakening Could be Facing Its Demise

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Saudi armed forces take part in a parade in Saudi Arabia’s holy city of Mecca during a military drill on August 13, 2018, behind a portrait of the Saudi King Salman. Photo AFP

Al-Sahwa al-Islamiya (‘Islamic Awakening’) – otherwise known as Sahwa – was one of the most powerful social and political movements in Saudi Arabia. Its origins date back to the 1950s and 1960s, when thousands of members of the Muslim Brotherhood fled violent repression across the region, especially Egypt, and came to the conservative kingdom.

Many of them were given prominent positions in universities and government ministries and fostered close relationships with Saudi rulers.

By the 1970s, Sahwa comprised several unofficial religious groups. The two most popular were the Sururis – named after the Syrian sheikh Muhammad Surur Zayn al-Abidin – and the Saudi Muslim Brotherhood, which was never formally affiliated with the mother organization in Egypt.

Dr Saad al-Faqih, a Saudi living in exile in the United Kingdom, who was influenced by Sahwa and now heads the Movement for Islamic Reform in Arabia, stressed that there is no single ‘Sahwa’ ideology since it is a revivalist movement that includes various groups with slightly different viewpoints. Common to them all is that they were inspired by traditional Brotherhood teachings, which state that Islamic rules and morals should govern Muslim-majority countries.

Unlike the Brotherhood, Sahwa maintained its Wahhabi tenets. Its rise to prominence, noted al-Faqih, is rooted in three pivotal episodes in Saudi history.

The first was when a former army corporal, Juhayman al-Otaybi, seized the Grand Mosque on 4 November 1979. At the time, Crown Prince Fahd bin Abdulaziz was attempting to push through major social reforms. The incident forced him to scale back his plans to appease Saudi Islamists and the state-backed clergy.

The Iranian Revolution the same year was another major factor. Al-Faqih said that Iran’s first supreme leader, Ruhollah Khomeini, was a very charismatic figure to many Sunnis in the kingdom. Fearing Iranian hegemony, the kingdom encouraged and sponsored many of the pioneers of Sahwa to propagate an image of a morally apt and benevolent Saudi monarchy.

The third factor, said al-Faqih, is that these pioneers were also instructed to persuade thousands of Muslims to either finance or fight alongside the mujahidin in Afghanistan against the Soviet Invasion.

The cooperation between the Saudi leadership and these pioneers remained strong until Iraq invaded Kuwait in 1991. Fearing Iraq would also attack the kingdom, King Fahd solicited the deployment of American troops on Saudi soil. The move provoked an uproar from prominent Sahwa sheikhs, all of whom were outside the state-backed clergy.

“It didn’t shock people or [the leaders of Sahwa] that Saddam Hussein invaded Kuwait. What shocked them was the king’s decision to let American troops into Arabia, and that the official clergy issued a fatwa granting Saudi Arabia its request,” al-Faqih said. “The kingdom is dominated by a Wahhabi ideology, meaning that seeking help from non-Muslims [should be] forbidden even for self-defence.”

Prominent Sahwa sheikhs like Salman al-Ouda, Safar al-Hawali and Nasir al-Umar were jailed three years later for openly defying the Saudi leadership and calling for radical reforms. After crushing the movement, the Saudi regime maintained a deep antipathy toward the Brotherhood, which it blamed for spearheading a wave of dissent. Sahwa, the regime concluded, had a direct link with the Brotherhood.

That resentment subsided when most of Sahwa’s prominent figures were released in 1999, signalling a possible rapprochement. Stephanie Lacroix, a political scientist and expert on Sahwa, wrote that the death of respected sheikhs in the state-backed clergy created a need for the royal family to ally with Sahwa. By doing so, the House of Saud hoped to win religious legitimacy while sponsoring a campaign against jihadists.

Many Sahwa figures seized the opportunity to combat the growing threat of jihadism while others were preoccupied with preaching against the dangers of liberal societies.

For the most part, the regime had no reason to fear Sahwa until the Arab Spring erupted in 2011. The downfall of the regimes in Tunisia and Egypt compelled dozens of Sahwa figures to sign petitions that called for swift reforms in the kingdom. One petition was called ‘Towards a state of rights and institutions’ while another was titled ‘A call for reform’.

Al-Ouda, who by then had rebranded himself as a moderate, went a step further. In 2013, he published an open letter to King Abdullah calling for reforms.

Although none of the Sahwa leaders supported a call for demonstrations, their political mobilization frightened the regime. The rise of Islamist governments in Tunisia and Egypt compounded their fears, especially after Mohamed Morsi, Egypt’s first democratically elected president and a Muslim Brotherhood member, visited the Iranian capital Tehran in August 2012. Fearing an alliance between the Brotherhood and Iran, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates fervently supported a military coup in Egypt, generating a backlash in the kingdom.

“All the major Sahwa figures signed petitions and statements denouncing the coup, and – in more or less explicit terms – the Saudi government’s support for it,” wrote Lacroix.

Although opposition to the coup was widespread, the reasons behind the opposition differed. Some clerics merely argued that it is forbidden to overthrow a Muslim ruler whereas others rejected the coup on the grounds of championing electoral democracy.

Intent on crushing dissent, Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman (also referred to as MBS) intensified the repression against Saudi Islamists, especially clerics who have long been affiliated with Sahwa.

Al-Ouda was arrested again in September 2017, shortly after publishing a tweet that appeared to call for reconciliation with Qatar. Saudi Arabia blockaded the tiny Gulf state in June 2017 over allegations that it supported terrorism. State prosecutors have since charged al-Ouda with 37 crimes and are seeking the death penalty.

Commenting on al-Ouda’s arrest, Lacroix told Reuters that the crackdown represents a broader attempt to crush Islamists in the kingdom, regardless of whether they oppose the regime or not. While that may be true, the jailing of secular activists as well makes it clear that MBS is attempting to quash all dissent, perhaps out of fear that it could trigger wider unrest.

‘Sahwis are like the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood: they may not start a protest, but it won’t succeed without them,’ wrote Lacroix in Foreign Policy magazine.

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