Paul L. Heck (January 4, 2018)
If you don’t live in a cave, then you know big changes are afoot in Saudi Arabia. The crown prince, Mohammed Bin Salman, has opened the door to all kinds of development.
But what does it portend?
There are three narratives. The first two have made it into the press, the third not yet.
The first is about liberalization. That satisfies the western ego. The second is about patriotism, firing up people in the kingdom to be real citizens and not just rely on oil wealth. The western mind gets this narrative even if skeptical that it’ll happen.
The third is about the staying power of religion. That narrative escapes the western press. After all, who would be so silly to think that religion helps explain what’s coming down the pipe? (It wouldn’t be the first time the press has failed to help us see how religion impacts global developments.)
We’ll get to these three narratives, especially the third, but it first needs to be said that people in the kingdom are speaking of the fourth state. Just as France has had its five republics, so the House of Saud has passed through multiple phases since its birth in the 18th century. The current state, the third, took shape over the course of the twentieth century: a combination of religious mission, tribal strength, oil wealth, and supportive western allies.
But the current developments point to a new era. So, we’re on the cusp of the fourth state, with three narratives competing to make sense of it.
The first is the liberalization narrative. Women will drive. Cinemas will open. Modern concerts will take place. This is window dressing, but it titillates the western fancy. It’s not insignificant that young men and women now flirt for the first time on the upscale Tahlia Street in downtown Riyadh without fear of the religious police, whose power is now downgraded.
The western ego finds satisfaction in this narrative. It’s a latent euphoria: The first signs of a liberal society! They can’t resist our western ways!
How easily we deceive ourselves when it comes to our own glory.
The second narrative is about planting the seeds of patriotism. This narrative is more compelling and much more complex than the first. The idea is that the kingdom has long been about religion above all else. It was as if the nation had dissolved in the religion. Rulers of the nation were to promote the religion, even if in a way that suited their interests. Religion was to pervade society. After all, the nation existed to please God, nothing more and nothing less.
Religion was central to the kingdom from the beginning, but according to this narrative, it only really became important to the House of Saud during the last decades in the face of regional threats to its sovereignty, above all in the form of the expansionist Shi‘ism of Iran.
But according to this narrative, all that results in blow-back. You teach your people to put religion above all else, they may well call you to task when you fall short of the ideal. And that’s what happened. Youth imbibed loyalty as a religious concept, not a patriotic one. And so it made as much sense to die defending the cause of Islam in a faraway country as it did in the kingdom.
This worked for the rulers, for example, when it came to battling the Soviets in Afghanistan, but it boomeranged when jihadists returned to the kingdom to condemn its rulers for their religiously compromising alliances with the Americans and other infidels.
And so, by this narrative, all this requires recalibration. A substitute is needed for this hyper-loyalty to religion. And what better than a dosage of patriotism. Saudi Arabia first!
That would mean orienting religion to the national good. It’s hardly a new idea. The nation is not a modern construct despite what pundits say. People have long lived together for the common good. That’s why they have local allegiances, and it’s at that level that religious values get played out. (It’s called the subsidiarity principle.) And no nation should be asked to be the religion. A localized reorientation of religion will be good for the kingdom and for Islam overall.
There is something real to this narrative, much more so than the first. There does seem to be a concerted plan to foster national feeling. Let me give you some examples.
They’ve remade old castles into museums that display the national heritage and the great sacrifices made by the Saudi founding fathers to unite the nation. One exhibit at the national museum in Riyadh features pre-Islamic civilizations in Arabia, including Christians and Jews. There are even a few idols on display, something inconceivable a few short years ago.
The point is to show, quite rightly, the rich cultural heritage of Arabia. All kinds of peoples have inhabited Arabia, giving it civilizational value in its own right. And there are now archaeological projects across the country that will help us better understand the rise of Islam and its close relation to other cultures and religions that have flourished in Arabia. There’s also a noticeable surge in tourist brochures about the nation’s varied climates and diverse landscapes. All this puts the nation in mind, less so the religion. Tourism in the KSA? It’s going to happen!
More powerful is the sense of a nation at war. History shows there’s no better way to strengthen national identity than through war. That might not have been the aim in battling Houthi rebels in Yemen, but it is a byproduct of the struggle. We see the tragic toll of the war on the people of Yemen, but those in the kingdom see it differently. A television program, “The Knights of the Nation,” interviews wounded soldiers who express pride in risking life in defense of the nation. The hero is the soldier for the nation, less so the soldier for God. And the fact that Houthis launch rockets onto Saudi soil only makes defense of the nation all the more urgent.
There are delicate issues, among them the idea of taxes. The plan to diversify state revenue means Saudi Arabia will be tax-free no more. The change will begin this year with a value-added tax, and a tax on income will no doubt follow in due time. And if people accept taxes, they’ll want a say in political decisions. Taxation without representation has a history.
But it’s not clear what that will mean for Saudi Arabia. People don’t suddenly take up citizenship skills overnight, especially when they’ve largely been taught to be loyal to the religion. Taxation without representation in 21st-century Saudi Arabia won’t mean what it meant in 18th-century America.
For the moment, the people seem to be with the crown prince. Most of the population is middle class, and what middle class in history hasn’t been pleased when the elite fall, even if it’s at the command of the ruler and with the goal of consolidating his own power.
He’s sidelined the more reactionary voices in the religious establishment. He’s imprisoned the fabulously wealthy on corruption charges, a number of whom belong to his own ruling clan. Going forward, he’s going to have to partner more with the people as his base in place of his own clan. According to the second narrative, that means robust citizenship is soon to follow.
And that’s what we want to believe, and it may well happen, but the more likely scenario in the coming years is that patterns of patronage will remain intact. On the other hand, there’ll be a readiness for business ventures and startups, especially now that stores and companies won’t be required to close during prayer time. (The decision, I was told, is soon to be issued.)
But citizenship in its modern sense isn’t really fashionable anywhere in this post-modern moment. Why should we expect people in Saudi Arabia suddenly to embrace the idea and to think about the nation and its welfare night and day when the rest of the world is going global?
(I’m well aware of the surge of racial nationalism in many places across the world today. But business is still very much in globalization mode, despite the counter forces.)
Patterns of patronage will likely remain intact even with a greater emphasis on Saudi Arabia as a nation first along with a religion, rather than a religion first along with a nation.
The challenge for the crown prince is not to figure out how to get people to be responsible citizens. The real challenge is to help people in the kingdom envision how they see themselves in this globalized moment, not through religion in the sense of spreading Islam across the world and fighting and dying against infidels, but through a business dynamism that middle-class youth in Saudi Arabia won’t need much prodding to embrace. They’ve got innate talents in that realm!
In short, it won’t be difficult to orient the religious energy towards a global business dynamism.
But this is where we get to the third narrative, the one that western minds generally fail to grasp because they assume that religion is a problem to be overcome.
But the third narrative assumes the staying power of religion…for the good.
Here’s how it works in a nutshell. Religious energy is not going away. (History shows it never does, not here, not there.) And it’s not going to be contained within the nation, certainly not a global religion such as Islam. However, the third narrative means that this religious energy can be channeled in the direction of a dynamic relation the kingdom seeks to forge with varied actors across the globe.
I’m not suggesting this is the way it’s all going to happen, but the first narrative is a mirage and the second is incomplete. We can’t overlook the staying power of religion.
I can best explain it by recounting two meetings I recently had with well-known figures in Riyadh. The two both kindly welcomed me into their homes and engaged me in lively conversation, but they’re very different. The first is Sheikh ‘Abdallah al-Mutlaq, a senior figure in the religious establishment and a member of the royal court. The second is Ustadh Ibrahim al-Bulihi, a scholar independent of all institutions who enjoys a significant following throughout the Gulf.
Let me begin with al-Bulihi. He’s not against religion, but in his view, it needs to be privatized. A key aspect of his thought is the idea that we’re all culturally programed from childhood. All of us: American, Canadian, Arab, Chinese, European, French, Hispanic, and so on.
As a result, we see our cultural ways as absolutes, and so we make a religion out of them or project them onto our religions. In other words, we’re all living a culturally mediatized ignorance. And it’s almost impossible to get out of it, whether you’re a commoner or part of the elite. The only way is through knowledge. Once you begin to acquire knowledge, you begin to see the truth of things. It’s like Plato’s story of the cave. You don’t know that you don’t know.
For al-Bulihi, the West has generally figured this out. The West lives according to knowledge and bases its values and institutions on knowledge, confining the myths of culture and religion to the private sphere. But, as al-Bulihi alleges, his part of the world doesn’t get it. It’s still living by the myths of cultural and religious superiority, not by knowledge. That’s how they’ve been programmed, and so that’s what they’ll live for and, if necessary, die to defend.
I think he has a rather exalted image of the West. He did express concern when I said the West has lost confidence in itself and is experiencing a moment of atonement for its past sins—from genocide to colonialism. He quickly retorted: Don’t think the West is the only one with such a history. Be proud you’ve moved beyond lethal attitudes. We haven’t. Youth here are still taught to despise this life in preference for the hereafter and to hate other peoples in the name of God. Those young people you saw flirting on Tahlia Street? They’re landmines that will explode if prodded.
And, he added, that’s how we program them in our universities. And they lap it up. They proudly think they’re at university acquiring knowledge, but they’re just being programmed.
And they’ll get a bone tossed their way when they graduate—a position in some office in the religious establishment where their own frustration at life will grow because they’re not growing in knowledge, only in ignorance. And then they’ll preach this ignorance to others.
While I disagree with al-Bulihi on many aspects of his thought, our conversation did make me wonder what’s going on in the kingdom’s universities that train the teachers and the preachers. Is it still the old religious formulas? Or a new vision of patriotic duty? Perhaps citizenship skills?
I couldn’t help thinking about all this during a city drive that brought me to the sprawling campus of Imam University, where thousands and thousands of students are trained. Radical change doesn’t happen on US campuses, where our elite get educated in our cultural assumptions. Why should radical change happen in the kingdom’s universities in the coming years? As al-Bulihi said, we’re all programmed. All youth everywhere get on board with their nation’s cultural myths because it gets them a share in power Those are his words. It’s tough to dismiss them entirely.
But the kingdom is looking towards a new era. Liberalization might be on the horizon along with a dosage of patriotic sentiment. But the fourth Saudi state is being launched in a globalized world, and the religious energy of the kingdom actually exists in synergy with that reality. Religious programing won’t disappear from Saudi schools, no less than the cultural loyalties cultivated in our schools will disappear, but what is at stake is the purposefulness of this programing.
It’s not a question of privatization. People aren’t ever going to be silent about their beliefs, whether religious or secular. We know that in our own country. The question is whether the religion of the kingdom will be a launching pad into a business dynamism on the global stage, in which the kingdom’s youth can excel, rather than into battles against infidels.
In other words, the only way the fourth state is going to flourish is if the religious energy of the kingdom works toward global purposefulness, and that means ventures in inter-religious encounter.
The bottom line: People in the kingdom aren’t going to be remade in our image. But like us and like all peoples, they are moved by the spirit of religious struggle (struggle interwoven with a nation’s beliefs), and that includes a struggle where Muslim and non-Muslim meet not to dispute doctrine but to serve God’s creation together.
And this leads to my second meeting, this one with Sheikh ‘Abdallah al-Mutlaq.
I wasn’t quite sure where to begin. After all, when has a Christian ever sat down with a senior figure in the kingdom’s religious establishment? I was mainly interested in asking him how the religious establishment views all the changes now unfolding in Saudi Arabia.
I began tentatively: I’ve noticed lots of development. They’re building a public transport system, complete with city-wide metro. (I certainly wasn’t going to ask him about women driving.)
He quickly interjected: The religious establishment is interested in morals, not in development projects. That’s a worldly affair, not a religious one. I responded: But surely all the developments will impact how people interact in society, no? He was firm: Maybe so, but the religious teachings simply aren’t going to change when it comes to the kingdom’s morals.
In other words, the changes in society are fine, we’ll adapt, but religion isn’t going to change.
A moment of silence, and then he began to ask me questions. It started in the culturally programmed language of the kingdom (and the wider region): What’s your religion? Christians have mistaken beliefs. They think God is one of three gods. They worship a human creature. And they think Mary is God’s girlfriend.
He listened as I explained. (It’s something I’ve been doing for a long time.)
A quick aside: Most of you may have trouble grasping the global import of the discussion that took place. It’s about thinking as religion does. And it’s about what stirs in people’s hearts when they encounter people of other beliefs and cultures. It’s actually big stuff.
The bottom line, I said, is that Christians worship God alone. Where we differ with our Muslim brothers and sisters is in the way God deals with creation. (That’s what’s known as God’s lordship–rububiyyat allah.) But despite differences, Christians and Muslims, along with our Jewish brothers and sisters, all see God’s lordship at work in the world and in our lives. That means we share a deep confidence that God hasn’t abandoned us but is ever calling us to new life together. And that’s what Christians mean when they talk about being children of God. Jesus was the firstborn (e.g. Romans 8:29 and Colossians 1:15), raised by God to God’s very self (something the Qur’an also says about Jesus at Q 3:55 — again, God raising Jesus not just to a high place but to God’s very self), and it was Jesus being God’s child in that sense (and not in any biological sense) that reveals the true nature of our relation with God. And being a child of God isn’t a privileged status. If you accept it, a great struggle awaits you in this world. In fact, you’ll likely be scoffed at and perhaps even persecuted.
He then asked: But do you Christians accept the prophecy of Muhammad as we accept the prophecy of Jesus son of Mary? This question is one I’ve heard from Muslim friends countless of times. In my experience, Muslims ask the question not because they don’t grasp the complexity of Christians acknowledging a new revelation after the Gospel, especially one that includes a strong critique of Christians. Rather, they know that people in the West (often wholly equated with Christianity by Muslims) have long maligned Islam’s prophet as a way to exalt the West over Islam. Needless to say, it’s a very sensitive issue for Muslims.
He listened patiently as I patiently explained. (A spirit of fellowship was in the room.)
Christians have different views on the matter.
I began by noting that in the 7th century the Christian King of Ethiopia gave refuge to some of the first Muslims fleeing persecution in Mecca. And that king, a Christian, recognized the common origins of the two communities.
I then got into the Second Vatican Council and its view on other religions, including recognition of Muslims as fellow believers in God. I got into details that are too elaborate to recount here.
Christianity knows different concepts of prophecy. (Thomas Aquinas treats the question at length.) The key concept is prophecy that points to our recreation as children of God, and that was revealed in the mission of Jesus, but there are other kinds of prophecy. And in daily life, when engaging Muslims, many Christians easily speak of Muhammad as a kind of prophet who called people to ethical reform.
But I didn’t want to give the wrong impression: The Church, I said, hasn’t made any statement on the prophecy of Muhammad. And some say it’s not the Church’s role to do so.
The discussion went on for one hour until it was time for him go to his next meeting.
As we parted ways, he remarked: You’ve told me things I’ve never heard before.
I don’t want to dramatize the point. His views of Christianity haven’t changed. But there was a certain opening to the possibility of inter-religious solidarity amidst our differences. We can learn from one another. I even suggested that some of his students spend a year at Georgetown University, where I teach, or even consider pursuing a master’s degree with us. I’d happily mediate.
There’s so much to gain, I said, from doing so, and so much to lose from not doing so. He nodded in agreement.
How might this spirit of cross-religious and cross-cultural encounter be part of the new era in Saudi Arabia?
I realize many won’t get the point I’ve just made. Discussion of fine points of doctrine? What use could that have?
It’s actually a first step to remove fears, suspicions, and animosities from our hearts, and that’ll open new horizons of friendship and cooperation. That seems to be in the plans for the fourth state. One sign is the King Abdallah Center for Inter-religious Relations. I hope it’s more than fanfare and meetings for big whigs but a real forum for cultivating the spirit of fellowship I experienced in my meeting with Sheikh ‘Abdallah al-Mutlaq—a common desire to understand and to live in solidarity even amidst differences.
Last October, a prominent Islamist scholar from Morocco, Ahmed Raissouni, who had taken refuge in Saudi Arabia some years back after running afoul of the authorities in his home country, wrote a piece entitled “Saudi Islam: Once Flourishing, Now in Collapse.” It’s clear from the title that he’s not happy with the crown prince’s plans and thinks it spells doom for Islam.
I strongly disagree. The new era is going to be a renaissance for Islam in the kingdom, serving to build bridges across cultures and religions. But there has to be someone on the other side, ready to extend a hand and help complete the bridge. Religion in Saudi Arabia isn’t going away, but it depends on all of us to seize this opportunity along with partners in the kingdom. They’re ready. Are we? I for one want to be part of a process where religion helps make all things new again.
There’s a hadith (a saying of Muhammad) that speaks to all this. I’ll summarize it.
Among God’s servants are people (unas) who love one another with the spirit of God (ruh allah), even though not related by blood, and they share their possessions. There’s a light on their faces, and they don’t fear what others fear nor sorrow at what saddens others. They love one another in God because God cast into their hearts a pure love for God the Exalted.
That thing that the hadith says God casts into our hearts, Christians would call it grace.
More to the point, the hadith speaks of people. That means Christians and Jews (and others) along with Muslims. If the fourth state wants to flourish, this is the hadith that’ll best guide it. Religion isn’t going away, not in the kingdom and not in the West, not anywhere. And it’s not going to be contained. What purpose will it serve? The answer depends on all of us.