Saudi Arabia's anti-protest fatwa is transparent
The official Saudi religious scholars' fatwa banning mass demonstrations, issued on 6 March, is a lengthy but, for the Muslim reader, a transparent document. It embodies the balancing act that has become necessary for the royal family to maintain its authority.
Saudi subjects desire social reform profoundly, and most of them trust King Abdullah to lead them on the path of change. The Saudi monarchy and the religious authorities with which it is allied must channel such demands through existing "Islamic" means of redress, generally consigned to the heading of "consultation".
But the sixth paragraph cites a hadith, or oral comment, of the prophet Muhammad that includes a severe threat against internal dissent: "The Prophet again said: 'He who wanted separate affairs of this nation who are unified, you should kill him with [the] sword whoever he is' (narrated by Muslim)." "Muslim" was Muslim Ibn Al-Hajjaj, an early collector of hadith, recognised by Sunnis as authoritative.
The Council of Senior Scholars praises itself for loyalty to Islam and its own "wise leadership", then calls on the Saudi people to "increase cohesion" and "strengthen intimacy" in the country. It "affirms the necessity of mutual advice, understanding and co-operation in righteousness and piety, and in prohibition of evil and hostility".
It also claims a secular legitimacy for the state of Saudi Arabia: the identity of the kingdom, its "progress and prosperity", have been "obtained … with legal secular means". This cannot appear as anything but dissonant considering that the Saudi state has no official secular institutions, and that it asserts (in the same fatwa) that its governance is founded exclusively on the Qur'an and mainstream Islamic tradition.
This contortion, however, reflects the central weakness of the fatwa: the claim that Saudi subjects are "one group". The Saudi Shia minority counts for at least 15% of the country's census of 26 million people. But additionally, between a fifth and a quarter of the Saudi population is made up of foreign workers, from such countries as Pakistan, Sri Lanka, the Philippines and South Korea, who are employed in domestic and other menial positions, and a notable contingent of westerners serving as technicians and managers in the energy export sector. None of these people, although born outside Saudi Arabia, are exempt from Saudi legal and moral restrictions. Finally, although barely perceived by outsiders, Saudi Arabia includes an unknown but important number of indigenous non-Wahhabi Sunni Muslims, who adhere to banned pre-Wahhabi legal traditions, as well as spiritual Sufis, whose study and practice were prohibited until recently.
The fatwa continues by praising the unification of Saudi Arabia based on the alleged guidance of Qur'an and Islamic tradition. It points to unspecified "foreign influences [and] parties", whom it condemns as motivated by polytheism ("be not ye among those who join gods with Allah"), and by a wish to further split the Islamic global community into competing sects. This may be interpreted as a criticism of Christians, who Muslims view as setting up Jesus as a divine figure alongside God. But it is more likely directed against Shia Muslims, who the Saudi clerics see as Iranian agents that, in religious matters, dilute Islamic monotheism. This may confer blame on Saudi Shias prominent in recent protests in the eastern province of the kingdom, where Shias are a majority.
Only then does that fatwa get to the meat of the matter:
"The council hereby reaffirms that only the reform and council that has its legitimacy … may bring welfare and avert evil, whereas it is illegal to issue statements and take signatures for the purposes of intimidation and inciting strife … Since the kingdom of Saudi Arabia is based on the Qur'an, Sunnah, the pledge of allegiance [to the ruler], and the necessity of unity and loyalty, then reform should not be by demonstrations and other means and methods that give rise to unrest and divide the community."
The meaning is clear: reform measures may proceed, but will be dictated from the royal and clerical heights of power, while dissident discourse and circulation of petitions will be treated as inimical to order and incitement to disorder. Petitions by Saudi notables aiming at social reform are now reported frequently in Saudi media. But demonstrations, discouraged in the succeeding phrase, have so far not been widespread.
As it nears its conclusion, the fatwa states:
"The council affirms prohibition of the demonstrations in this country and [that] the legal method which realises welfare without causing destruction rests on mutual advice."
In this way, the Saudi clerics wish to uphold a social peace based on conformity and repression while holding out the promise that change will take place through consultation between the rulers and the ruled, ie "mutual advice". In some ways this is a surprisingly moderate document. It deals with dissent and opposition by vague appeals to Islamic principles and does not introduce detailed allegations of foreign conspiratorial interference in the life of the kingdom. It identifies reform as a positive value that will be achieved through existing institutions. But this is certainly not the only possible Islamic analysis of the situation in the kingdom; and it may neither convince, nor satisfy the Saudi people, including Shias, non-Wahhabi Sunnis and the millions of foreigners who have expended their labour in the service of the kingdom.