Dr. Muqtedar Khan is
the Director of International Studies at Adrian College. He
earned his Ph.D. in International Relations, Political
Philosophy, and Islamic Political Thought, from
Georgetown University in May 2000.
Khan is presently a Visiting Fellow at the Brookings
Institution. and a Fellow of the Institute
for Social Policy and Understanding.
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ARABIA: RETHINKING ITS SOUL
A. Muqtedar Khan
This article was
syndicated in North America by Progressive Media Project.
It was published by
Al Ahram (Egypt) May 6-12, 2004. The Daily
Times (Pakistan) 05.06.2004, The Daily Star
(Lebanon) 05.06.2004, The Globalist (USA), Q-News
(UK) June/2004, The Muslim Observer (Michigan) and The
Minaret (CA), The Providence Journal (RI)
05.15.2004, The Saudi-American Forum 05.07.2004.
have just returned from Saudi Arabia, where I attended
an international conference on terrorism (April 20-22)
at the Imam Muhammad University in Riyadh
the global headquarters of Wahabism.
Abdullah himself inaugurated the conference to
underscore its importance
Muhammad University is the factory where Wahabism is produced
and serviced in Saudi Arabia. A large number of the Saudi
clerics are educated and trained here. Nearly twenty thousand
students study the core teachings of Abdul Wahhab, the founder
of the Saudi Salafi movement, which is sometimes
derogatorily and often popularly referred to as Wahabism.
plenary on Wahabism. Scholars interacted with Saudi ministers
and faculty of the I. M University.
previous in visits in1992, 1997 and 2000, I had found the
Saudis to be proud of what they had become. They had covered a
distance of nearly seven centuries on the back of oil in less
than thirty years. They were arrogant, confident and sure of
themselves and their place in the Muslim world and on the
today they are confused, unsure, hesitant, apologetic and
willing to accommodate. Some are belligerent even bellicose.
But most people that I encountered, students, political elite,
scholars, businessmen, professionals and cab drivers, are
perplexed by terrorism within Saudi Arabia and by Saudis.
society, which was so remarkably free from a culture of
self-criticism, I found the Saudi Arabia of today, more
willing to listen; and that is the best news I have.
conference itself revealed the extent and depth of rethinking
taking place within Saudi Arabia. I was extremely critical of
Wahabism as well as Saudi policies in closed-door sessions and
found the Saudi scholars and the various ministers who were in
attendance, open and willing to listen, sometimes they were in
agreement, sometimes they were baffled, never offended.
Some even encouraged me to speak more.
Some Foreign scholars who participated:
From left, Dr. Bilal Aybakan (Turkey),
Dr. Jamal Badawi (Canada), Dr. Muqtedar Khan (USA) and Dr. Joe
were of course the usual number of sycophants and apologists,
but even they seemed apprehensive and willing to question
their own beliefs. Several American and British scholars
criticized the lack of critical thinking and openness in Saudi
education and we were all pleasantly surprised when they
responded by asking for help in introducing critical thinking
in their pedagogy.
into a member of the Majlis-e-Shura (the Saudi pretense
for a parliament) at a TV studio where I recorded a one-hour
interview on Islamic democracy, and he berated me for not
being more critical than I was. I listened to him lambast the
university and Wahhabi clerics for being the source of the
problem behind terrorism in Saudi Arabia.
All they teach, he said, is to hate those who
are different. We are a country that is economically in
the twentieth century and intellectually in the fourteenth
century. I advised him to speak to his country and King as
he spoke to me, as often as possible and as loudly as
House of Saud has long relied on the Wahhabi movement for
domestic control and legitimacy and on the US for
international security. But after September 11, these two
allies of Saudi Arabia are being perceived as antagonistic.
The House of Saud could not have both as allies anymore.
now becoming apparent that the House of Saud has chosen
America over Wahabism.
The conference was well
attended. The Kingdom is finally taking things seriously.
determined to maintain its relations with the US and is
actively seeking to reform Wahabism and reconstitute the
domestic basis of its rule.
Saudi society is composed of two types of elite; the
conservative and religious elite and the liberal political and
economic elite. For decades the latter had focused on
retaining political power and milking the oil cow. In exchange
for freedom to become rich, the ruling elite allowed the
religious elite the freedom to preach. Without a cultural of
internal criticism, without an engaging alternate elite,
without the emergence of self-critical and reflective voices
within the religious establishment, the specter of Wahabism
has grown and now is out of the hands of those who nurtured
ideas are now so deeply embedded that neither the ruling
elite, who had abdicated their normative responsibilities
until now, and the religious elite who are afraid of what they
have created, can rein it in. Any attempts at sudden reforms
may upset the delicate balance within the society and empower
those who have decided to use terrorism to replace both types
Arabia needs to push both social and political reforms without
undermining domestic and regional stability. It must fast
track its social reform and maintain a steady progress towards
political reform. The promise of municipal elections must be
kept and the momentum towards more representative and
accountable governance must be sustained.
time that Saudi Arabia stopped looking backwards for guidance
and started looking forwards. Those who drive by looking in
the rearview mirror only are destined to crash.
by extreme Wahhabis, for whom the clerics and the royal family
are not sufficiently Islamic, is once again forging a new
social contract between the religious and the ruling elite.
This time the House of Saud and the House of Abdul Wahhab will
not come together to establish Wahhabism, but to dismantle
Wahhabism and replace it with a self-critical, open, more
moderate, and softer form of Salafi traditions.
before that can happen the moderates within the religious
establishment must prevail over the extremists and be prepared
to make significant compromises maybe even deviations
in the Wahhabi doctrine and in Wahhabi institutions. The
extremists will then be isolated and can be fought both in the
realm of doctrine as well as in the battlefield.
staging of the terrorism conference at the Imam Muhammad
University and the seriousness of the dialogue, its high
degree of openness and criticism, have definitely raised
expectations. Let us hope that Saudi Arabia can make the
transition without trauma.
Empire and the Kingdom
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