Since his accession to the throne in 2005, Saudi King Abdullah bin Abd Al-Aziz has been viewed hopefully, by many Muslims, as a reformer. With wide contacts in the kingdom, we at CIP shared this optimism.
Abdullah encouraged a positive vision of the Saudi future by, among other actions, creating a department of women's education, headed by a woman. He had supported an interfaith meeting between representatives of all the world religions in Madrid last year, and although it accomplished nothing important, it represented a breakthrough in that Muslims had never before sat down with representatives of the Buddhist, Confucian, Taoist, and Shinto communities, on an equal footing.
Finally and most importantly, Abdullah had taken steps to curb the notorious mutawiyin, usually mislabeled a "religious police" by foreign observers, and to make them accountable for their frequent abuse of ordinary people. In reality, the mutawiyin are not a police agency, but a paramilitary body similar to the Iranian Basij who spy on citizens in totalitarian countries like Cuba and China . The mutawiyin patrol the Saudi streets to enforce the rigid pseudo-moralistic habits prescribed by Wahhabism, the Saudi state religion. They accost couples they suspect of being unmarried; they arrest women who drive vehicles, and beat, with leather-covered sticks, women who allow a thin margin of the abaya, a garment covering the whole body, to slip, exposing an ankle; they harass vendors of allegedly heretical or subversive books; they raid homes where they suspect liquor is consumed; they walk the streets of the holy cities of Mecca and Medina, preventing Shia and Sufi pilgrims from engaging in prayers of which the Wahhabis disapprove… and they kill people.
Limiting the activities of the mutawiyin, and even abolishing the institution altogether, was long seen by progressive Saudis and forward-looking Muslims around the world as a necessary first step for the kingdom to become something approximating a rationally-governed state. Although few reform-minded Saudis imagined the country could suddenly leap from the reactionary utopia of Wahhabism to Western democracy, many hoped that Saudi Arabia could become more like the zone that Saudis call "the crescent of normality" - those countries from Kuwait to Yemen in which non-Wahhabi Muslims, as well as Christian, Hindu, and Buddhist expatriates and immigrant workers (and in Bahrain and Yemen, a few Jews) where people are allowed religious freedom; women are prominent in various professions, dress as they wish, and can drive cars; and other freedoms can be taken for granted.
But in March 2009 the Saudi clock began running backward. Prince Nayef bin Abd Al-Aziz, half brother of Abdullah and interior minister, became second deputy prime minister. Nayef is the embodiment of Wahhabi obscurantism; to cite the most famous example of his extremist behavior, he was the first prominent Saudi to accuse Israel of carrying out the atrocities of September 11, 2001. When it appeared that the mutawiyin would be called to order for their thuggery, Nayef challenged Abdullah by insisting that the Wahhabi militia was a pillar of the state and must not be touched.
Nayef's full brother, defense minister and Crown Prince Sultan, is the official successor to Abdullah. Sultan is the father of the long-established Saudi bagman/ambassador in Washington, Prince Bandar. Abdullah is 84, Sultan is a year younger and was ill enough to require hospital care in New York earlier this year, although official sources insist on his good health; Nayef is in his late 70s. Reformist Saudis are deeply fearful that if Sultan dies before Abdullah, Nayef could become king - seen as a real possibility as bulletins about Sultan's fit condition are immediately discounted as untrue.
Nayef's inheritance of monarchical authority could have devastating consequences for Saudi Arabia , the world's Muslims, and the West. The appointment of Nayef to a higher ministerial post had been interpreted less as a sign that Abdullah was weak than that the anti-reform forces in the kingdom were preparing for a serious conflict in which they would attempt to preserve their power. Recent observations by Saudi progressives and visitors to the holy cities confirm that, with Nayef's increased power, the Wahhabi bigots have resumed their aggressive behavior, and appear poised for a rampage.
Thus, the Cairo-based Arab Human Rights Information Network announced on July 13, "since he took up this post, Nayef has imprisoned reformists without trial, pushing the officials of the kingdom to expand their activities, sending innocent people to jail, without distinction between Saudis, Arabs, Asians, or Africans." Wahhabi rage inside the kingdom, legitimized by Nayef, means a higher level of Al-Qaida and Taliban terror outside its borders, a new wave of which may be visible in the latest bombing in Jakarta .
Jeddah, the commercial capital of the Saudi kingdom, had come to be known as the center of Saudi nonconformism, where women, who never covered their faces in the territory of Hejaz, which includes Jeddah, Mecca, and Medina , before the Wahhabi takeover in the 1920s, had increasingly, of late, cast off the niqab, the face-veil. The mutawiyin were confronted and even beaten in Jeddah's streets, and for some time lay low there. But in Jeddah, the mutawiyin are back, with Nayef's blessing.
According to Jeddawis, Nayef has ordered the mutawiyin to invade the local shopping malls, from which they had previously stayed away, and to raid the city's resorts, searching for alleged violators of Wahhabi "morality." The Jeddah Ghair or "Jeddah is Different" summer festival opened this week, but Saudis are complaining that the event has not been advertised, and that it is being monitored by a considerable force of mutawiyin. As one Saudi reformist commented, "people say 'Jeddah is Different' but many think the Difference is disappearing." U.S. diplomatic personnel claim that the Saudi Ministry of Education now obstructs them from visiting local schools.
The mutawiyin have also expanded their harassment of pilgrims visiting Mecca and Medina . Wahhabism forbids prayers addressed to the Prophet Muhammad (as an alleged imitation of Christians, although the devotion of the latter to Jesus was praised by classical Islamic theologians.) Shia and Sufi pilgrims have been ordered out of the Prophet's Shrine in Medina for praying in the direction of the Prophet's body.
Saudi prince Al-Waleed Bin Talal, a nephew of Abdullah, has not been popular in America since New York mayor Rudy Giuliani correctly returned his attempted gift of $10 million after 9/11. In 2007, Al-Waleed donated $1.48 million to the Islamic Society of North America, the representative institution for "official Islam," oriented toward Wahhabism, in the U.S. But during Abdullah's reign, Al-Waleed also positioned himself as a critic of the establishment, especially its policies toward women. His media company, Rotana, produced a comedy film titled Manahi, which was shown to excited crowds in Jeddah. But in accord with Wahhabi writ, movies are banned in Saudi Arabia; the mutawiyin condemned the film, with Nayef's backing, and on Saturday, July 17, the Jeddah Film Festival, sponsored by Rotana, was cancelled. Such incidents may appear trivial to the outsider, but inside Saudi Arabia, minor frictions may produce great flames of protest.
Discontent with Wahhabi fanaticism and state tyranny has yet to reach the levels seen after the stolen election in Iran . But fear of Nayef, the revived vexations of the mutawiyin, and the sense that their country is moving backward, rather than forward, could drive Saudis to a new path.