For years, Saudi Arabia worked tirelessly to export Wahhabism, its home-grown strain of intolerant Islam, to Muslim communities worldwide. It poured many billions of dollars into funding mosques, schools, and cultural organizations that promoted Islamist extremism — an extremism capable of turning murderous, as Americans learned on Sept. 11, 2001, when 19 Al-Qaeda terrorists, 15 of them Saudi citizens, murdered thousands of people.
Given the link between Saudi Arabia’s monarchy and the rise of radical Islam, Muhammad Al-Issa might not be your idea of a typical Saudi cleric.
The 55-year-old secretary general of the Muslim World League, a graduate of Imam Muhammad bin Saud University with a degree in comparative Islamic jurisprudence, has become a leading exponent of moderate Islam. Al-Issa vigorously criticizes religious extremism and vocally supports interfaith cooperation. He has been hailed by Cardinal Timothy Dolan, the Catholic archbishop of New York, as the “most eloquent spokesperson in the Islamic world for reconciliation and friendship among the religions” and extolled by the president of the Mormon church, Russell Nelson, as “a peacemaker [and] a bridge-builder.”
Especially notable has been Al-Issa’s insistence on condemning hate crimes against Jews, including the lethal synagogue shootings in Pittsburgh and Poway, Calif. In January he led a Muslim delegation to Auschwitz, then published a column calling Holocaust denial a “crime” that should appall true Muslims. This month, speaking from Mecca to an online conference on anti-Semitism, he said he had made it his “mission to work with my brothers and sisters of the Jewish faith” to advance inter-religious harmony, and “to confront the extremists … falsely claiming inspiration from our religious texts.”
Clearly it is significant that a Saudi religious leader and politician (Al-Issa was his country’s minister of justice from 2009 to 2015) is impassioned in defense of religious tolerance and so strongly opposes “political Islam,” or Islamism — the supremacist doctrine that all societies must be ruled by uncompromising Islamic law. Al-Issa’s moderation and open-mindedness are 180 degrees removed from the totalitarianism of the Taliban, ISIS, Nigeria’s Boko Haram, or the hard-line regime in Iran.
Yet Al-Issa’s views haven’t prevailed in his own land, either. Saudi Arabia is among the most unfree nations on earth, particularly for religious minorities and dissenters. Dissidents, reformers, and human-rights activists are frequently arrested, imprisoned, or brutalized. The grisly murder of Jamal Khashoggi in the Saudi consulate in Istanbul shocked the world. There have been real reforms in Saudi Arabia in recent years, but the country is still far from anything resembling Al-Issa’s vision of openness.
Winston Churchill described Russia in 1939 as “a riddle, wrapped in a mystery, inside an enigma.” But, Churchill added, “perhaps there is a key.” If the same is true today of Saudi Arabia, perhaps the key to its internal contradictions is that Islamism is in retreat — not just in Saudi society, but across much of the Muslim world.
Writing in the Globe four years ago, Daniel Pipes, president of the Middle East Forum, suggested that there were two weaknesses that might bring about an unraveling of the Islamist movement. One was internecine fighting among Islamists themselves — the classic dynamic of one-time allies turning on each other as they compete for dominance. Of that there have been examples aplenty, such as the falling out in Turkey between Recep Tayyip Erdoğan and the religious leader Fethullah Gülen, or the bitter clash in Iran between Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei and former President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.
But “the bigger peril for the movement,” Pipes wrote, was rising unpopularity — “as populations experience Islamist rule firsthand, they reject it.” He pointed to the widespread antipathy of ordinary Iranians to the theocratic regime in Tehran, and to the massive demonstrations in Egypt against the Muslim Brotherhood government of Mohamed Morsi in 2013.
Today, there is a profusion of indications that Islamism is losing its grip.
“Across the Arab world people are turning against religious political parties and the clerics who helped bring them to power,” the Economist reported in December. In Iraq, Lebanon, and other Muslim-majority countries, the Arab Barometer polling network finds a notable drop in trust for Islamist political parties and a declining share of Arabs who think religious leaders should have influence over government. The Turkish analyst Mustafa Aykol writes that there has been a backlash to Islamism in the form of “a new secular wave breeding in the Muslim world.” Another Turkish scholar, sociologist Mucahit Bilici, concludes: “Today Islamism in Turkey is associated in the public mind with corruption and injustice.”
The 2019 Arab Youth Survey, a study of 3,300 men and women between 18 and 24 in the Middle East and North Africa, found that two-thirds believe “religion plays too big of a role in the Middle East” and 79 percent believe that “the Arab world needs to reform its religious institutions.”
This may be what is unfolding, ever so gradually, in Saudi Arabia: a halting shift to moderate Islam in what was the world’s foremost exporter of radical Islam. There are no guarantees; this may be only a lull between storms. But the rise of so outspoken a Saudi moderate as Muhammad Al-Issa offers reason for encouragement. For decades, Saudi Arabia peddled a version of Islam that was repressive and narrow-minded. Let us hope it now works just as assiduously to promote Al-Issa’s message of tolerance, peace, and empathy, and thereby cultivate the very best in Muslim tradition.