While the general perception is that “fundamentalist” Wahhabi Islam continues to dominate Saudi Arabia, a closer look at contemporary Saudi society shows that there are forces at work in the Kingdom, which attempt to marginalize Wahhabism, writes French scholar Stéphane Lacroix in an article published in the Spring issue of ISIM Review.
Lacroix refers especially to the growing influence of the so-called “Islamo-liberals,” a heterogeneous coalition of former Islamists and liberals, Shiites and Sunnites. They all share views critical of Wahhabism and are generally inclined to political reformism.
Their open criticism of Wahhabism marks a significant new step in the Saudi environment: critical voices had already emerged, but have sharpened after 9/11. Some develop an Islamic critique of the linkage between Wahhabism and jihadi violence (which has also affected the country), while other ones develop a Salafi (the root tradition from which Wahhabi Islam emerged) critique of Wahhabism, claiming it has become doctrinally rigid. Even more important, there are indications that people inside the Saudi goverment partly support those critical voices, while also advocating some level of political and social reform.
Some of the recommendations expressed by a first national dialogue conference in June 2003 have actually questioned Wahhabi claims to exclusivity as well as some practical implementations of Wahhabi thinking. The fact that no leading Wahhabi scholar was invited to that conference is seen by Lacroix as a sign that the government might now want to marginalize them. Rather than a renunciation of Wahhabism, what may be envisioned is a revision. But the road is thorny, concludes Lacroix, since it would also mean “a radical reformulation of old political alliances both at home and abroad”.
(ISIM Review, Institue for the Study of Islam in the Modern World, PO Box 11089, 2301 EB Leiden, Netherlands; http://www.isim.nl)
— By Jean-Francois Mayer