Saudi Arabia Steps Away from, but Does Not Repudiate, Religious Extremism

March 25, 2020 | Ilan Berman
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For its entire history, the Saudi state has been wedded to an austere and stringent form of Islam known as Wahhabism, and has used its wealth and influence to disseminate it among Muslim communities the world over. In doing so, Riyadh did much to abet the rise of radical Islam in the 20th century. The kingdom began to shift gears in 2003, after it became a victim of jihadist terror. But greater changes have come since the reforms of Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman, which began in 2016. Ilan Berman writes:

Today . . . the Saudi government appears to be making a major effort to strike a more moderate religious tone globally. This is visible in the kingdom’s attempts at dialogue, with Saudi religious officials taking pains to engage other Muslim governments and movements that they had previously ignored or denigrated. It can also be seen in Saudi religious authorities’ official interfaith outreach, such as the recent delegation of imams, headed by the Muslim World League’s Secretary-General Mohammad al-Issa, that traveled to Auschwitz to commemorate the 75th anniversary of the liberation of the Nazi death camp by Allied forces at the end of World War II.

These overtures, however, do not constitute an outright repudiation of Wahhabism on the part of the House of Saud. Indeed, in his now-famous April 2018 interview with Jeffrey Goldberg of the Atlantic, the crown prince refused even to acknowledge the existence of this creed, let alone its role as a driver of the kingdom’s foreign policy in decades past. Similarly, Saudi academics and officials are uniformly defensive when discussing the country’s role in the promotion of extreme Islam abroad, describing the kingdom’s well-documented exportation of Wahhabism over the past several decades as a “misunderstanding” or a conspiracy theory cooked up by the country’s enemies, like Iran.

Given these circumstances, the Saudi government’s recent turn on religion falls short of a fundamental change of heart or ideological reorientation. It is, rather, best understood as what scholars have termed a “course correction”—one designed, above all, to show the world a kinder, more inclusive side of the regime. Yet, whatever its limitations, this shift is nonetheless exerting a pronounced influence on the country’s domestic counterterrorism efforts.

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