Targeting Islamic scholars from Malaysia to Tunisia, Saudi Arabia puts itself in the bull's eye

Targeting Islamic scholars from Malaysia to Tunisia, Saudi Arabia puts itself in the bull's eye
Comment: Saudi Arabia's decision to ban the Qatar-based International Union of Muslim Scholars has sparked political controversy in Malaysia, Tunisia and beyond, writes James M. Dorsey.
6 min read
28 Nov, 2017
MbS claims to be moving the kingdom away from its embrace of ultra-conservatism [AFP]
By declaring the Qatar-based International Union of Muslim Scholars (IUMS) a terrorist organisation, Saudi Arabia is confronting some of the world's foremost Islamic political parties and religious personalities, opening itself up to criticism for its overtures to Israel, and fuelling controversy in countries such as Malaysia and Tunisia.

In a statement earlier this week, Saudi Arabia charged that IUMS was "using Islamic rhetoric as a cover to facilitate terrorist activities". The banning of IUMS goes to the heart of the Gulf crisis that pits a UAE-Saudi-led alliance against Qatar and is driven by United Arab Emirates Crown Prince Mohammed bin Zayed's visceral opposition to any expression of political Islam.

The UAE for several years has sought with little evident success to counter IUMS' influence by establishing groups like the Muslim Council of Elders and the Global Forum for Prompting Peace in Muslim Societies as well as the Sawab and Hedayah Centres' anti-extremism messaging initiatives in collaboration with the United States and the Global Counter-Terrorism Forum.

The ban appears to have been designed to position Saudi Arabia as the arbiter of what constitutes true Islam and marks the next phase in a four-decade long, $100 billion campaign waged by the kingdom. This campaign aims to counter Iran by spreading Sunni Muslim ultra-conservatism, that often served as an ideological inspiration for jihadist philosophy - an iteration ultra-conservatives have condemned.

IUMS "worked on destroying major religious institutions in the Muslim world, like the Council of Senior Scholars in Saudi Arabia and Al-Azhar in Egypt," one of the foremost institutions of Islamic learning, charged Abdulrahman al-Rashed, a prominent Saudi journalist and columnist for Al Arabiya.

The ban appears to have been designed to position Saudi Arabia as the arbiter of what constitutes true Islam

Al Arabiya's owner, Waleed bin Ibrahim al-Ibrahim, was among the kingdom's top media barons arrested in Saudi Arabia, in Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman's recent purge of members of the ruling family, senior officials, and businessmen in the name of anti-corruption.

"The terrorism project hiding under Islam launched its work around the same time organisations which issue extremist fatwas (religious legal opinions) were founded. Like al-Qaeda and IS, these jurisprudential groups said they refuse to be local as they view themselves as global organisations that cross borders. The most dangerous aspect of terrorism is extremist ideology. We realise this well now," Mr Al-Rashed said.

The Council of Senior Scholars, despite having endorsed Prince Mohammed's reforms in a bid to salvage what it can of the power-sharing agreement that has granted his ruling Al Saud family legitimacy since the kingdom's founding, is a body of ultra-conservative Islamic scholars.

Read more: Saudi coalition blacklists Islamist groups, individuals in Qatar boycott escalation

Various statements by the council and its members critical of aspects of Prince Mohammed's economic and social reform since his rise in 2015, suggest that support among its scholars is not deep-seated.

Prince Mohammed recently vowed to move the kingdom away from its embrace of ultra-conservatism and towards what he described as a more "moderate" form of Islam.

Speaking to The New York Times, Prince Mohammed argued that at the time of the Prophet Mohammed, there were musical theatres, an absence of segregation of men and women and respect for Christians and Jews, who were anointed People of the Book in the Quran. "The first commercial judge in Medina was a woman! Do you mean the Prophet was not a Muslim?" Prince Mohammed asked.

Authorities days later banned pilgrims from taking photos and videos in Mecca's Grand Mosque and the Mosque of the Prophet in Medina in line with an ultra-conservative precept that forbids human images. The ban was imposed after Israeli blogger Ben Tzion posted a selfie in Mecca on social media. Non-Muslims are barred from entering the two holy cities.

In a statement, authorities said the ban was intended to protect and preserve Islam's holiest sites, prevent the disturbance of worshippers, and ensure tranquillity while performing acts of worship.

Founded by controversial Egyptian-born scholar Yousef al-Qaradawi, one of Islam's most prominent living clerics and believed to be a spiritual leader of the Muslim Brotherhood, IUMS members include Rachid al-Ghannouchi, the co-founder and intellectual leader of Tunisia’s Brotherhood-inspired Ennahada Party, and Malaysian member of parliament and Pan-Malaysian Islamic Party (PAS) head Abdul Hadi bin Awang.

Mr Al-Qaradawi, a naturalised Qatari citizen who in the past justified suicide bombings in Israel but has since condemned them, was labelled a terrorist by Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain and Egypt in June as part of their diplomatic and economic boycott of Qatar.

The UAE-Saudi-led alliance demanded that Qatar act against Mr El-Qaradawi and scores of others as a condition for lifting the six-month long boycott.

Mr El-Ghannouchi was named one of Time magazine's 100 Most Influential People in the World in 2012 and Foreign Policy's Top 100 Global Thinkers in 2011. He was also awarded the prestigious Chatham House Prize. Mr El-Ghannouchi is widely credited for ensuring that Tunisia became the only Arab country to have successfully emerged from the 2011 Arab popular revolts as a democracy.

'Arab culture is spreading, and I would lay the blame completely on Saudi Arabia,' Marina Mahathir, daughter of former Malaysian prime minister Mahathir Mohamad.

The banning of IUMS has, moreover, sparked political controversy in Malaysia. Karima Bennoune, the United Nations Special Rapporteur for cultural rights, recently noted a deepening involvement of Malaysia's religious authorities in policy decisions, developments she said were influenced by "a hegemonic version of Islam imported from the Arabian Peninsula" that was "at odds with local forms of practice".

"Arab culture is spreading, and I would lay the blame completely on Saudi Arabia," added Marina Mahathir, the daughter of former Malaysian prime minister Mahathir Mohamad.

Critics of PAS  demanded that Mr Bin Awang, a vice-president of the group, "come clean that he does not preach hatred" in the words of former PAS leader Mujahid Yusof Rawa, and called on the government to ask Saudi Arabia for information to back up its charges against the union.

Mr Bin Awang, referring to Saudi King Salman, asserted last week "I return to the Quran (for guidance) although the ruler who is the servant of the Two Holy Cities has forged intimate ties with Israel and the United States, because my faith is not with the Kaaba but with Allah." One of the most sacred sites in Mecca, Muslims turn to the Kaaba when praying.

"Just like Qatar, PAS had tried to ingratiate itself with Iran in an attempt to cover both bases, along with Saudi. Now the chicken has come home to roost, and just like Qatar, global minnows like PAS find themselves caught in the middle between the two Muslim world influencers," said Malaysian columnist Zurairi Ar.

Among other members of IUMS is controversial Saudi scholar Salman al-Odah, who was among clerics, intellectuals, judges and activists arrested in the kingdom weeks before the most recent purge.

With millions of followers on social media, Mr Al-Odah, a once militant scholar, turned a decade ago against jihadis like Osama bin Laden and played a key role in the kingdom's programme to rehabilitate militants, but retained his opposition to the monarchy.

This article was originally published on James Dorsey's blog.

Dr. James M. Dorsey is a senior fellow at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies, co-director of the University of Würzburg's Institute for Fan Culture, and the author of The Turbulent World of Middle East football blog and a just published book with the same title.

Opinions expressed in this article remain those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of The New Arab, its editorial board or staff.