TSC Report Cited by The Atlantic: What it Takes to Make Saudi Islam ‘Moderate’
November 17, 2017
By: Sigal Samuel
Saudi Arabia is going to great lengths to present itself as “moderate”—or at least, as trying to embody “a moderate Islam open to the world and all religions,” as the crown prince recently put it. Early signs suggest that the state’s rebranding efforts are working. In May, U.S. President Trump praised the Saudis as they jointly inaugurated a counterterrorism center in Riyadh, and just this week the Israeli military chief expressed unprecedented willingness to share intel with the Saudis, saying that Israel will “exchange information with moderate Arab countries.’
But how does a state associated with fundamentalism “moderate” the religion it promotes? One less-examined mechanism for the attempt is the King Salman Complex, a new center being built for the study of hadith, the reports about Muhammad’s sayings and practices that form an important source of guidance for Muslims. And it shows the limits of the “moderation” push …
If Saudi Arabia tackles the problem only superficially, there’s no reason to expect it will effect deep change. Worse, it could backfire. “The unintended effect could be that this undermines Saudi religious credibility,” said Annelle Sheline, a doctoral student at George Washington University who studies Arab monarchies’ attempts to use state control of religious institutions to reduce extremism …
“The longstanding American view is that the answer is democracy,” Sheline said. On this view, if the Saudi government were not authoritarian—if devout individuals were able to express their own views without being constrained—there would be a greater plurality of religious discourses. Some would be moderate and some would be extremist, but hopefully “this would allow people to see [the extremists] for what they are.” (However, seeing extremists for what they are is different from not generating them. An emerging democracy like Tunisia may have a greater plurality of religious discourses, but it was still one of the top exporters of fighters to ISIS—with Saudi Arabia also at the top, per a The Soufan Center study.)
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