Muslim Unity and Moderate Islam
by James M. Dorsey
Former Saudi intelligence chief Prince Turki Al-Faisal Al-Saud must have gotten his tenses mixed up when he asserted in a recently published memoir that no one should underestimate the political importance of Muslims’ commitment to helping other Muslims.
“No reader of this book should underestimate the moral and emotional commitment of Muslims to help other Muslims; this is a very powerful element in modern politics,” the prince writes in the memoir.
The Saudi royal, a long-standing proponent of reform within the kingdom’s ruling family, was no doubt correct in writing about significant Saudi and Muslim support in the 1980s for Pakistan and the Afghan mujahedeen in their jihad against Soviet forces that invaded the Central Asian state.
It seems difficult to maintain that Muslims still sustain their commitment to assist their brethren four decades later, as Muslims experience one of the worst, if not the worst, post-World War II period of Islamophobia. Anti-Muslim sentiment ranges from the mainstreaming of bias and prejudice to what critics call cultural assault.
Yet much of the Muslim world, either intimidated by China’s coercive economic and diplomatic tactics, or intent on garnering brownie points on a perceived common cause, has shied away from criticism of China’s brutal crackdown on Turkic Muslims in the province of Xinjiang.
Some countries, including Saudi Arabia, have gone as far as to justify what amounts to a frontal assault on a Muslim and Uygur religious and ethnic identity.
To be fair, Saudi Arabia has demanded movement on the Palestinian issue before it follows the United Arab Emirates and three other Arab countries in establishing diplomatic relations with Israel. But Palestinians question whether the kingdom will maintain its position once King Salman surrenders the reins, or is succeeded by his son, Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman (MBS).
The crown prince is expected to attribute greater importance to the potential boost that recognition of Israel would give to Saudi Arabia. And in MBS’s mind, relations with Israel may be one way of compensating for a less-committed US defense posture in the Middle East.
Relations with the United States have been strained by the Saudi conduct of its six-and-a-half-year-old war in Yemen, the 2018 murder of journalist Jamal Khashoggi in the Saudi consulate in Istanbul, and a crackdown on political dissent at home. As a result, the Biden administration has, with few exceptions, boycotted the crown prince in its dealings with the kingdom.
Saudi Arabia’s tarnished human rights record has not just complicated the kingdom’s relationship with the United States and Europe, but also impacted its effort to put its lingering ultra-conservative religious past behind it and project itself as a beacon of a moderate, pluralistic interpretation of Islam.
In doing so, Saudi Arabia is competing with the UAE, Qatar, Turkey, Iran, and Indonesia’s Nahdlatul Ulama to define Islam in the 21st century.
The Saudi-funded King Abdullah International Center for Interreligious and Intercultural Dialogue (KAICIID) struggled since its opening in 2012 in Vienna with its association with a kingdom that violated human rights, especially for women. The murder of Mr. Khashoggi and the brutal crackdown on dissent forced the center earlier this year to move its operations from Vienna to Geneva.
“The irony is … that, as the Gulf governments promote their ‘tolerance’ — which today is a popular commodity in the Gulf — they uniformly do so despite extreme intolerance of political and social pluralism and freedom of political opinion and expression,” noted Khalid al-Jaber, a former Qatari newspaper editor who heads a Washington research group.
Saudi Arabia’s proposition of a more tolerant “moderate” Islam is further called into question by its failure to legalize non-Muslim worship and non-Muslim houses of worship in the kingdom, as well as its equation of atheism with terrorism.
The Houthi-controlled Yemen Press Agency reported that a Yemeni journalist had been sentenced in late October to 15 years in prison for promoting atheism. The dissident Washington-based Gulf Institute said that his case was processed through the judiciary at unusual speed since Mr. Abu Lahoom’s arrest in August.
In an ironic twist, Saudi and UAE exploitation of Islamophobic sentiment to counter political Islam and the Muslim Brotherhood has been most successful in Austria, despite the expulsion of the King Abdullah Center, as well as France.
Anwar Gargash, the UAE minister of state for foreign affairs at the time, defended French President Emmanuel Macron’s new security law introduced in parliament last year, which critics said undermined democratic freedoms by implicitly targeting Muslims.
Mr. Macron “does not want to see Muslims ghettoized in the West and he is right. They should be better integrated into society. The French state has the right to explore ways to achieve that,” Mr. Gargash said.
Dr. James M. Dorsey is an award-winning journalist and scholar and a Senior Fellow at the National University of Singapore’s Middle East Institute.