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Open discussions/ Gulf Cultural Club

Muted Modernists

Professor Madawi Al-Rasheed **

“Muted Reformists” is the title a new book by Hurst Publishers written by Madawi Al-Rasheed, Visiting Professor at the Middle East Centre at the London School of Economics. The political dynamism of this most controversial kingdom are yet to be explored and comprehended by its adversaries and allies alike. Its ambition for regional dominance. The speaker will present an insight into the intriguing links between politics and religion in light of the emerging menace of the extremism of Al Qa’ida, ISIS and Wahhabism.


Open discussions/ Gulf Cultural Club



Muted Modernists


Professor Madawi Al-Rasheed **


“Muted Reformists” is the title a new book by Hurst Publishers written by Madawi Al-Rasheed, Visiting Professor at the Middle East Centre at the London School of Economics. The political dynamism of this most controversial kingdom are yet to be explored and comprehended by its adversaries and allies alike. Its ambition for regional dominance.  The speaker will present an insight into the intriguing links between politics and religion in light of the emerging menace of the extremism of Al Qa’ida, ISIS and Wahhabism.


18th November 2015



Chairman: Before starting the programme I have been asked by a member of the audience that we should have a minutes silence for those who were killed in different parts of the world. Globally everywhere there has been a minute of silence for the people killed in Paris but I am sure you may remember just a day before 40 people were killed in Beirut. If you are driving to the airport near Earls Court there is a big bill board saying hashtag pray for Paris.

Yes of course we must all pray for Paris but you will also recall not long ago earlier this year there were 150 school children who were killed and there was no hastag pray for Peshawar at that time. So there appear to be some kind of double standards. And it is not only myself and others who have commented that perhaps white lives matter more than non white lives.


This has always been the case historically. Whenever European imperialism has gone and also in America the blacks living there were lynched for doing minor things whereas an American who may have been a Klu Klux clan member. Deaths have occurred even in 2015 all over the world so I would request a minutes silence for wherever people have died. Not due to Islamic fundamentalists but due to criminals who perpetrate this kind of crime on humanity.


I think it is a very opportune time that we have a learned scholar to talk about a particular regime, a particular government, a particular monarchy in a part of the world which for the last 30 years has been fuelling, supporting, funding and giving inspiration to what we are seeing from Paris to Peshawar. All kinds of terrorist activities, whether it is in Somalia, Nigeria or Malaysia.


The sad situation that has been created by this particular regime which as all of you will recall was inspired by our government, our British government back in the 30s when the Wahabi regime came to power in hijaz. What has happened is that over the last 30 years the amount of petro dollars that have been spent to twist the minds of the people to create  those schisms.


A lot of journalists and commentators talk about  that the Shias and the Sunnis have been at each others throats for centuries. But the truth is that is not the case. If one looks at  history, if one looks at how people have been living in different countries whether it is in India, Pakistan or the Middle East, wherever  the  Shias and Sunnis have lived together and intermarried. That is not the issue. What has happened over the last 30 years is that  the power of Al Azhar University diminished and Medina became the centre where the future Islamic scholars were trained and they came with the line of Whabbism preaching  that they have the truth in their hands and anyone who follows some other thinking needs to be eliminated and annihiliated.


The precursor to all that was Al Qaeda but then you have an  even uglier face to what Al  Qaeda was in the form of Daish or what some people call the Islamic state. So today’s speaker will talk about muted modernists. Not only are they muted, they are completely silent about change that may occur in that part of the world. She has written a book published by Hirst publishers about the muted modernists. I introduce Madawi Al-Rasheed.


I just want to remind our dear guests that it takes courage for any particular leader, especially one who has been a regular speaker from this rostrum, Jeremy Cobyrn to challenge the Saudis. He called for the release of Sheikh Nimr. Not many leaders would have the courage to talk about this. He is the leader of a very important political party and hopefully the future prime minister of this nation has the courage to raise the bar to a higher level. Now even our foreign secretary is talking about whether armaments should be sold to the Saudi regime.


Madawi Al-Rasheed: My thanks to the Gulf Cultural Club for inviting me to share some ideas about my latest book. The idea of this book came immediately during the first signs of the Arab uprisings in 2010 and 2011.  I wanted to capture what was going on in Saudi Arabia at a time when the Arab world from  Morocco to Oman was moving towards something that all of  us hoped would be very positive and would have brought an end to authoritarian.


I, and I am sure a lot of you, were seriously disappointed  at the turn that these uprisings have taken. I think we can say that we are disappointed at how these uprisings turned into some civil wars and  invited more foreign intervention. Some of them succeeded but then they were reversed – that is what happened in Egypt. Others turned into serious civil wars such as what is going on in Syria. Most of these uprisings invited foreign intervention. In Libya NATO was participating. In Syria regional powers are taking part in aggravating the situation in additional to the usual international players.


In the Arabian peninsula where everybody thought it was a quiet region where the citizens are satisfied because these are wealthy countries: governments distribute oil wealth in order to appease the population we were all surprised that it started in Bahrain and then it  moved to Oman and Saudi Arabia not to mention Yemen which is still an ongoing wound.


My book wanted to see what the developments were among a substantial section of Saudi society – namely the Islamists. Saudi Islamists have a very bad reputation in the world. They are thought of as  radical, extremist, violent people. This image came in 1979. For the first time they took up arms and went into Mecca in what as known as the siege of the Mecca mosque in 1979.


So from that moment they have had this image that associates most of them with terrorism. However if you look beneath the surface as I did in this book, I discovered that there are other currents within  Islamism that are actually very civil and very peaceful. So the title of the book is Muted Modernists. Muted means that they are silenced in ways that do not allow them to express political opinions. The extreme form of the silencing is in the image that you see  here.  A group of them who are associated with establishing a civil and political rights movement called Hassib which takes its name from Arabic: Jamiat Al Hukuma Al Huquk Medaniya wa Sisayya fi Saudia (The Association for Civil and Political Rights in Saudi Arabia). This represents the extreme form of silencing – all of the people you see in the picture are in prison in Saudi Arabia and I will explain why. So that explains the first part of the title ‘muted’.


Then ‘modernists’. Many people in the  West and some Muslims and Arabs would not associate ‘Islamism’ with ‘modernism’. What do they mean by modernism when we use the world. Modernism as we use it in academic books and articles means an attempt to reinterpret foundational Islamic texts so that they correspond or solve existing, contemporary problems. So modernism in this context among Muslims means that they go back to the original sources. They re-interpret them in ways that solve contemporary issues.


This is exactly what this group of people that had been put in prison in Saudi Arabia  have done. All they did was to look at the foundational Islamic texts and derive from them some kind of reinterpretation to solve political problems. So in their discourse one thing that you have to be aware of is that those people  are functioning within a Salafi context and the domination of the Saudi Wahabi tradition.


So they have come out of that tradition and  looked at the Islamic sources in ways that allowed them to solve problems. I will give you one example. In 2010 – 2011 as you will all remember there were a lot of peaceful demonstrations  in Tunisia, in Egypt, in Saudi Arabia itself, neighbouring Bahrain and Yemen and other places.


From the official Saudi – Salafi Wahabi tradition demonstrations are haram. They are banned because they create public disorder and lead to the destruction of the public interest of Muslims. So the Saudi religious establishment bans demonstrations. Those people who I am talking about use the idea of ‘rahat’ – that is a group of people coming together. They think that his demonstration, if it is peaceful, is a form of ‘nasiha’ that is form of advice to the rulers of the Muslim community.


On nasiha, on advice, the Saudis established Wahabi tradition insists that not everybody could give this kind of advice to the ruler. Only the ulema – that is the religious scholars – are endowed with the ability to give advice to the rulers. And when they do give advice this advice  it should be in secret. You do not publish it on the internet, you do not publish it in newspapers. You do not tell others about it simply because they want to protect the persona of the ruler from any kind of public opinion. They want to shield the ruler so that he continues with his policies. And they also exclude what they call the al alam, the  unimportant, the rest of us.


Therefore there is an element of monopoly over who should give advice to the ruler in secret. So those people who I look at, the modernists, argue that the ruler, the dictator  may or may not listen to the secret advice. He may actually get the advice and put it in the bin and he is not under any pressure to act in accordance with this advice to correct his policies.


So what these modernists say is that going into the street as a group of people peacefully, saying that we object to your policy on a particular issue is a form of advice. So what they do  is that they use Islamic concepts such as the old, established concept of advice to the ruler and reinterpret it in order to imbue this advice or this concept with modern meaning that suits modern times. This is just one example.


Another example is the concept of jihad. We all talk about jihad. Even people who do not know about jihad at least know the word by now for sure. So what is their position on jihad? For example Abdullah Al Hamad, one the main figures who established Hassem this civil society organisation wrote extended treatise of jihad and its meaning in modern times.


He distinguishes between two types of jihad. He says that there is one type that is incumbent on every Muslim capable individual and this is the jihad with the arms. When a Muslim country is actually invaded or attached by an outsider and there is no argument or reinterpretation of that.


But  there is something else called peaceful jihad and this peaceful jihad for him is to struggle to correct to injustices, a struggle to allow society to have a say in its own future and decide on its resources. This jihad which he invokes encompasses a whole range of activities that are actually congruent with a modern civil disobedience. He says that this is incumbent on everybody in the community to for example check on corruption in government, mobilise against the unlawful detention of political prisoners and especially prisoners of conscience, to correct injustices. And this ‘jihad silmi’ is a ongoing process that should actually take place all the time. It cannot be suspended because it is geared towards the wellbeing of the community that lives under a particular government.


Another concept for example Abdullah Hamid and his colleagues invoke is the concept of rebellion against the ruler and the Saudi-Whabbi-Salafi scholars  strength  meaning of  the concept of rebellion against the ruler which is a very important concept in Sunni Islamic theology.


How do they interpret it the official religious scholars? They interpret any kind of act that undermines the persona of the ruler as a rebellion. So for example if you start sending tweets saying that there is corruption and we should take these cases of corruption – there are some responsible people for that and criticise the royal family that will be taken as a form of rebellion against the ruler.


If you publish an article or a book or you fall people to demonstrate that will be interpreted as a form of rebellion. So the official wahabi tradition takes the original armed rebellion against the ruler and extends it to include a whole range of political activities and examples as I said could be hunger strikes, demonstrations which could be a kind of mobilisation among the people.


So what Abdullah Hamid says  it first of all let us discuss the legitimacy of the ruler. So you are not allowed to rebel against a legitimate ruler. But how is a legitimate ruler? The legitimate ruler is the one who established his rule by conquest, by violence, by force becomes a legitimate ruler.


There are other concepts that are used and reinterpreted in order to stretch their meaning. A final example is the concept of wali al amr. The guardian. It is very  difficult to translate into English but basically it means the person who is in charge of you. If you are a child your father could be wali al amr because he is in charge of you until you become an adult.


If you are a woman in Saudi Arabia you never become an adult because you are always going to have a guardian. So if you do not have a legal persona you are  not a legal person but at another political level the wali al amr is the one who is in charge of the Muslim community. In Saudi  Arabia we do not just have one- we have many so in the plural they are wallat al amr.


Abdullah Hamad in particular interprets this concept. He says al ummah is wali al amr and the way it should govern is through its representatives. So he is actually calling for elections to elect representatives of this community of Muslims that live in Saudi Arabia. There is no national assembly or elected parliament or anything like that. What Saudi Arabia has is an appointed shurah council whose members are appointed by the king because   he knows better than everybody else.  Abdullah Hamad got into trouble because he said al ummah is the guardian and through its representative it exercises its right to be the guardian over its resources, over it  wealth, over the destiny of its people.


The kind of modernism that I am talking about is not really just a small group of activists who got in trouble for starting or founding a human rights and civil and political rights organisation in 2009. The group itself consists of university professors, lawyers, lecturers and activists.


The interesting thing is that they went through several trials between 2010 until 2013 which led to all of them being put in prison and the charge was almost unbelievable.  One of the charges against this group is that they  agitate and talk to the Western media simply because Abdullah Hamad used to communicate with Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International.


Another charge is that they undermine the personality of the king. There are a series of charges against them and the most important one is establishing a civil society as in Saudi Arabia they are not allowed to do that without permission. They called for permission, they demanded permission but they were not granted.


So this is just one group that I talk about in the book and look at their ways of reinterpreting  foundational Islamist texts in order to make these texts correspond and solve real problems. They had a particular issue with the Ministry of the Interior simply because they took the cause of prisoners of conscience who are detained without charges for a very long period of time. Some of them even serve prison sentences and after the end of the prison sentence they remain in prison.


They took up the cases of prisoners who are tortured and as a result they exposed what goes on in Saudi prisons. As a result of that the charges against them were put and the court sentenced the founders to between ten and 15 years in prison. They are very old people. One a judge called Suleiman Rushidi was 75 years old and he was put in prison for 15 years and after that there is a ban on a travel for another 15 years. This has become a very common sentence in these particular cases.


The language those people use, the writing has spread in Saudi Arabia and there are some young intellectuals who are actually taking this discourse and fortunately outside prison but at the moment they are very careful. So I will just name a few who you might have heard of. There is Abdullah  Maki, Mohammed Abdul Karim and there is Mohamed Al Hamari.


So in the book I look at their thinking and their publications – all of worked on Islamic texts. They tried to find solutions for the problems that they faced. I must say they were really invigorated by the Arab uprisings. They thought the moment is there. Saudi Arabia like other Arab countries is ripe for political change.


Let us talk about democracy. The official Saudi religious view on democracy, the Wahabi tradition. They would argue that this is a Western import. We actually have our own Islamic system. We do not need it. So they reject it outright. There is no way they could be convinced that we could actually have a democratic system.


So what do those thinkers do with the idea of democracy? Even someone like sheikh Salman Al Urda who is a very well known Islamic scholar was very invigorated by the peaceful protests that swept North Africa in 2010 – 2011 and wrote a book on revolutions. So from a Saudi Wahabi tradition you cannot endorse revolutions of this kind. They only revolution they think the had is the Wahabi revolution. So  Al Auda, Abdul  Karim Al Ahmari and all those people have had to deal with the concept of democracy  from an Islamic point of view.


So all of those people who I discuss in the book do not see any kind of contradiction  between democracy and Islam. Mohammed Al Ahamri  actually left Saudi Arabia. He has been living in Qatar for some time. He wrote a book on democracy and how being a Muslim or an Islamist even does not  make you reject democracy. So he look a democracy as a human heritage that is for everybody. Therefore he calls  for a democratic system whereby people elect their representatives. They have a say in how their government is run. He argues that just because it comes from the West we simply cannot justify rejecting it like the Salafis do or some of them do. So for him democracy is better than autocracy or dictatorship and even if it comes from the West we should have it. That is the argument that he puts forward.


What about Shairah? Obviously in Saudi Arabia there is no debate on shariah. There is one interpretation of shariah which is endorsed by the official Wahabi establishment and it is also enforced by the government. So what is the view of those modernists on shariah? There is one author who actually  wrote about shariah and that is Abdullah Al Maki.


There is no way you could discuss whether we should apply shariah or not in Saudi Arabia but he was brave enough in 2011 and 2012 to write about it. He argued that there is no way and it is not legitimate to apply shariah by force. It should be a matter of choice. And this is revolutionary in Saudi Arabia simply because his argument is that God instructs us to pray. If you have somebody torturing someone and forcing them to pray there is no point. Without your free will your prayer is really ridiculous and should not count and it will not count. It is a matter of choice.


He says that if the majority of the Muslim community through its elected parliament decide they want shariah then it is a matter of choice. They chose to do it. But  if it is imposed on people by force then it loses its meaning. This is quite revolutionary in the Saudi context. Al Maliki, Al Ahmari and others have got in trouble from the Salafi ulema and there was quite a lot of debate during the publication of his work between 2010 and 2011 between the hardline salafis and him.


So the interesting thing is that the salafis began to call those groups of liberals ‘bearded liberals’. So if you call for sharriah to be a matter of choice then you are not subscribing to their version that there is no discussion about shariah.  Therefor those people try in different ways to reinterpret  these fundamental foundational Islamic texts in ways that correspond to real realties of the present time rather than those of 1400 years ago.


One therefore has to look at this growing trend in Saudi Arabia with some kind of assessment. So there are some remaining controversial issues and I should list them now. On the position of  other Muslims, mainly the Shia. How do they view them? And the other point is their position on women’s rights from an Islamic point of view?  So let us begin with the first point. How do they view diversity within the Muslim community and the  Shia in particular as they live with them in Saudi Arabia.


All of them so far have not degenerated into the kind of hostility that is dominant amongst the majority of Salafi in Saudi Arabia and the Wahabis. They have avoided talking about creed and creed differences. What they have concentrated on is on some kind of unity that these kind of groups who are not Sunnis co-exist in the Muslim community but they objected to the polticisation sectarian identities: that is on the basis of your  sectarian identity you would call for certain rights.


It is difficult today in  the present climate in Saudi Arabia and elsewhere in the Arab world to call for some kind of unity without incurring the wrath of  multiple groups. It is unfortunate like today you have to take sides. You have to be on a particular side otherwise you are classed as a traitor or you are cast as somebody who is not royal to your group. So sectarian identities are extremely prominent on both sides on both the Sunni and the Shia groups.


One particular author got into serious trouble because he wrote about a avoiding imposing historical incidents and  animosities on contemporary issues. This is Mohammed Al Ahmari. He wrote an article during the Israeli attack on Lebanon in 2016. The article was triggered by some Wahabi, Salafi ulema saying that we should not give charity to southern Lebanon as they are Shia. At the time they were attacked by Israel.


Mohammed Al Ahmari wrote an article saying avoid credial analysis in this political situation. We are facing an attack by Israel and it really doesn’t matter who is at the end of this attack. So because he tried to avoid seeing the  political situation through a religious lens he got into trouble and he was reprimanded by the salafis at the time. At that moment he decided that he has no future living in Saudi Arabia and he left the country.


Another person who has not degenerated into the same kind of sectarian language is Salman  Al Uda. So far he has not invoked on purpose sectarian hostilities although his position was very clear in the Syrian conflict.


One thing that the Hassan people did was to take up the cause of the Arab uprisings. So they supported the Egyptian  and the Bahraini demonstrators in 2014 and regarded the demonstrations in Bahrain as a way to call for rights rather than simply a sectarian  war launched by the Shia and sponsored by Iran. In 2011 they did not see it that way. Now they cannot talk because they are all in prison.


What do we conclude from this book? One thing that I came to in conclusion is that this particular trend of Islamism is more dangerous to the Saudi regime than utter jihadi violence and terrorism. If a government is facing terrorism it is very difficult it is very difficult to get the solidarity of all the people. If they go and bomb the terrorists or capture them it is very difficult to criticise a government doing something like this against jihadis who are  threatening security and lives.


But if the go heavy handed against those people then they actually cannot shoot them and remain  have the moral high ground because they have not done anything wrong. They just mobolised, wrote, and established civil society. Therefore in my view this kind of Islamic modernism offers a third way between the Wahabi-Salafi loyalists and the jihadi violence. As a third way in the middle they present a more challenging situation to the government than the violent ones. They are treated badly, they were put in prison and they are still in prison.


So what does the future hold? As long as those people are not allowed to have a platform  in a free environment to discuss their ideas and enlist others in these ideas the government  feels safe. But if they are allowed to develop perhaps they would become an alternative to the existing violence that has swept not only Saudi Arabia but the region.


So in my view the more the governments restrict the freedom of such people the more we are likely to have a vacuum on the ground and this vacuum is filled by violence. And therefore I think the solution is to have some kind of moderation in the way these governments respond to the challenges of a younger population that is no longer convinced that there is only one way of being Muslim and there is only one way  of governing and being governed as a Muslim.


It is time for some kind of representation of society in Saudi Arabia. This representation is not happening and it is unlikely to happen under the present regime. So I will conclude here and if you have some questions maybe I will be able to answer them.

















*Madawi Al-Rasheed is Visiting Professor at the Middle East Centre at LSE and Research Fellow at the Open Society Foundation.  She was Professor of Anthropology of Religion at King’s College, London  between 1994 and 2013. Previously, she was Prize Research Fellow at Nuffield College, Oxford. She also taught at Goldsmith College (University of London) and theInstitute of Social and Cultural Anthropology, University of Oxford. 

Since joining the MEC, Madawi Al-Rasheed has been conducting research on mutations among Saudi Islamists after the 2011 Arab Uprisings. This research focuses on the new reinterpretations of Islamic texts prevalent among a small minority of Saudi reformers and the activism in the pursuit of democratic governance and civil society. The result of this research project, sponsored by the Open SocietyFoundation Fellowship Programme, appeared in a monograph entitled: Muted Modernists: the struggle over divine politics in Saudi  Arabia (2015 Hurst & OUP)


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