When I first visited Saudi Arabia, I headed to a restaurant with a group of colleagues. When we arrived, it had closed for prayer time. If you’re already inside, you can carry on your meal. But you cannot enter if prayer has started; instead, you must wait outside. This rule was reinforced by the Mutawa (religious police), cruising the streets urging stragglers like ourselves to go to prayer.
When I visit Saudi I have to declare my religion and denomination on my visa application. I cannot wear religious symbols or proselytise, but I am permitted a Bible for personal use. There are no churches for me to attend, though Christian services do take place on Fridays in embassies, and there are some small Christian house groups. We are very far off from religious integration within Saudi society, but there is not complete indifference.
Things are changing. Even the famed Mutawa have now had their wings severely clipped. Saudi is in the midst of an economic and social revolution. The heir to the throne, Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, known by the moniker MBS, is driving the effort to move Saudi from oil-dependency into a diversified economy. He has launched a range of reforms called Vision 2030, including a planned $100 billion share sale of Saudi Aramco, the national oil company.
Most interesting of all was the announcement last week that he will lead his country back to “moderate Islam”. I think that one inspiration for such moderation is the 14th-century Muslim philosopher of history Ibn Khaldun (1332-1406), arguably the founding father of sociology. Reflecting on the dynamics of society and history, Ibn Khaldun explained that empires rise and fall in relationship to the people’s sense of asabiyyah, or social cohesion. When a society begins to lose this, it becomes increasingly sedentary and weakened, and new social groups overthrow the old order.
This notion of social cohesion is central to understanding the way that authority is exercised in Saudi. The political philosophy of Saudi is a political theology underpinning a clan-based theocratic state. But this theocracy is not the clichéd image conjured up by hysterical Western commentary. It is more deeply rooted in Ibn Khaldun’s explanation of social cohesion. MBS wants to forge a new social contract. But forget Hobbes and Rousseau, and think Ibn Khaldun, and you’ll begin to unlock how this return to moderation may well come about.
We need to talk about moderation, because of how Islam has erupted in geopolitical influence since the 1979 Iranian revolution and 9/11. Max Weber’s secularisation thesis – the theory that as societies progress they become less religious – has proven woefully inadequate. There are better ways to talk about the issues. I have had many interesting theological discussions with Saudis about Islam. Foreign visitors with me are usually very squeamish when they are present, because there is an expat mantra that you don’t discuss Islam in Saudi. They need not be offended on behalf of Saudis. I have learned a lot from my Saudi contacts, and I believe this has been mutual.
Since 2005, Saudi has been involved in inter-religious dialogue globally, holding an international conference on “dialogue” in Mecca with 500 international Muslim scholars. In 2007 the late King Abdullah met Benedict XVI at the Vatican. This led to an agreement by the Saudi, Austrian and Spanish governments to establish the King Abdullah bin Abdulaziz International Centre for Interreligious and Intercultural Dialogue (KAICIID). This was inaugurated in Vienna in 2012, with representatives from major world religions and the Holy See as a founding observer.
This is significant for global interfaith relations, but leaves untouched the absence of other religions in Saudi due to the belief that the Arab peninsula should be for Muslims only. The experience of the United Arab Emirates, where Christians enjoy much more freedom, suggests this view can be challenged, but we are still a long way off from extending a collaborative hand to Christians in Saudi.
For MBS, effecting such change means maintaining social cohesion based on Islamic identity, so there are four things we should look out for. First, there will be small hints signalling change. Second, expect increasing diplomatic religious dialogue. Third, if moderation takes hold, there will be an easing of other religious practices. Lastly, any
Christian dialogue and change will likely be directed through relationships with the Vatican and regional Catholic Church structures, rather than other denominations.
What the Saudis do want, and I hear this from a lot of young Saudis, is to keep their religious faith and identity, and avoid some of the excesses of Western secularism. MBS has insisted on the importance of education. If these young Saudis are to be believed, then moderation will come about gradually and social cohesion maintained, though this still leaves the economic questions to be answered. Weber’s thesis doesn’t help us here, and Western social and political scientists would do well to study Ibn Khaldun. It’s not just the Saudis who need moderation in understanding Islam.
Dr David Cowan is an author and critic. His new book The Coming Economic Implosion of Saudi Arabia: A Behavioural Perspective (Palgrave Macmillan) is due out in 2018
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