A kingdom divided

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JEDDAH, Saudi Arabia — On Sept. 11, 2001, Ahmed Bin Baz was on vacation in Paris, and as he watched the horrors in New York and Washington unfold on television, he felt “a huge shock” that resonated on a deeply spiritual level.

As details emerged of how 15 of the 19 hijackers were Saudi and that the plot was authored by another Saudi, Osama bin Laden, a host of religious assumptions that long had gone uncontested in the House of Saud were suddenly thrown into question for this Islamic intellectual.

“It created some sort of jolt in me,” said Bin Baz, leading him to conclude that “we had to rethink our ways ... rethink the roots of Islam and whether all what we read in books was true Islam.”

Not an easy thing to say when you are the son of Abdul Aziz Bin Baz, biggest star in the kingdom’s clerical firmament for a quarter century. As Grand Mufti, the late Bin Baz was the most prominent proponent of Saudi Arabia’s ultraconservative strain of Salafi Islam, sometimes known as Wahhabism.

This is the second part of a GlobalPost series of reports that goes inside the House of Saud and its internal struggle to reclaim Islam from Al Qaeda. Read part 1.
Ahmed Bin Baz.
(Caryle Murphy/GlobalPost)

His son, 40, only recently began to emerge from his father’s shadow, becoming a controversial figure in the process — derided by many Saudis as far too liberal; admired by others for his unusual candor.

During a rare, extended interview with GlobalPost at his palatial home in this seaside city, Bin Baz pulled back the curtain on the fascinating and fateful struggle by the House of Saud and its moderate allies to regain control of Islam from extremists who have twisted the ancient faith into an anarchist creed to justify terror attacks on the United States in 2001 and in Saudi Arabia in 2003.

It is a struggle with repercussions far beyond Saudi Arabia because, as Islam’s birthplace, millions around the world seek its spiritual guidance.

Bin Baz is a player in this struggle, even though he holds no official position and does not claim the mantle of alim, or religious scholar. A former university lecturer in Islamic jurisprudence, which he first studied at his father’s feet, Bin Baz said he prefers to be known as an “independent thinker.”

In the interview, he faulted Saudi religious officials for resisting U.S. pressure in the wake of Sept. 11 to revise Saudi school curricula, even though, as he puts it, it “has always needed revision.”

While “some serious steps ... have been taken” to eliminate “‘seeds of terrorism” from the curricula, he added, “not enough” has been done.

He has called for nothing short of an ”academic intifida,” as he puts it, to renew Saudi Arabia’s approach to Islamic scholarship.

“We cannot agree to just be bound by Shariah principles set … hundreds of years ago and try to apply them nowadays,” he said, referring to Islamic law. “We must ... try to introduce new concepts that fit today's time and reality.”

The kingdom also needs to accept more diversity in Islamic thought, he said.

“Many new emerging voices from the Salafi school ... are calmly discussing and introducing new ideas,” he noted.

Though not yet widely accepted by Saudi society, these scholars have been “greatly influenced by globalization,” he said, and understand that “the idea of the rest of the world being all atheist and out to get us does not exist anymore.”

Bin Baz’s remarks — and their implicit criticism of the kingdom’s religious establishment — have been heard before from other Saudis, who often paid a high price, including imprisonment, for their frankness.

But given his pedigree, Bin Baz’s intellectual journey from the religious outlook of his father to his current perspective underscores the new fluidity and diversity in Saudi religious discourse, according to Riyadh sociologist Khalid Al Dakhil.

“He is part of this phenomenon ... which is that many people who started as being very religious, very conservative ... shifted because they started reading different materials than what they were fed during youth, when you’re supposed to read only religious texts,” said Al Dakhil.

The result has been a broader spectrum of Islamist opinion at a time when the official religious establishment is experiencing a decline in influence and prestige, which has happened for several reasons, experts said.

First, there is the void created by the 1999 death of the elder Bin Baz and that of another senior scholar, Muhammad Salih al Uthaymin, two years later. Both were regarded as giants in conservative Salafi Islam and are still revered by its adherents. Since their passing, no one “has emerged with that degree of authority in the Saudi religious establishment,” said David Dean Commins, history professor at Dickinson College and author of “The Wahhabi Mission and Saudi Arabia.”

Meanwhile, Al Qaeda forced the monarchy into a reassessment of what some of its clerical allies were preaching. For a long time, Saudi leaders did not object to their literalist, puritanical, and narrow-minded brand of Salafi Islam, which is seen as disparaging of other Muslims and non-Muslims.

But the government’s tolerance for this type of Salafi Islam became a liability after Sept. 11 and even more so after the 2003 suicide attacks in the kingdom, as critics, both at home and abroad, denounced the intolerant doctrine for seeding the ground for Al Qaeda’s deformed interpretation of Islam, Commins and others said.

As a result, Saudi rulers had to more clearly define where they stood vis-a-vis their clerical partners’ beliefs. King Abdullah bin Abdul Aziz’s reply was a reformist program that has included an emphasis on dialogue and tolerance. Under this more open intellectual environment, long-stifled moderates, both clerical and lay, are speaking out, further dissipating the religious establishment’s monopoly on doctrine.

Against this backdrop, Bin Baz’s commentaries in newspaper columns and television appearances have been getting mixed reviews.

They are welcomed in the rarefied, incense-scented halls of the royal diwan, where the elderly king is trying to prod his conservative subjects into embracing change. They are also welcomed by a large number of Saudis who support the king’s agenda and want a more progressive interpretation of Islamic scriptures.

“He’s a smart guy, his mind is organized, he has enough Sharia knowledge … and he talks better than the traditional ulama [religious scholars],” said Abdulaziz M. Al Gasim, an Islamist intellectual and former judge jailed in the 1990s after calling for political reform.

But for many other Saudis — whose numbers are not insignificant — Bin Baz is a wayward son, even a traitor to his father’s legacy. These critics, who include some of Bin Baz’s relatives, say the “liberal” media is using him to advance the secularization of Saudi society.

Mohammad A. Al Hodaif, a quality control official at a religious television network, echoed an oft-heard complaint when he said that Bin Baz “is trying to use his father’s name to be a media star ... like Paris Hilton.”

These criticisms do not seem to bother Bin Baz, who stepped into Jeddah’s scorching midday sun recently to greet visitors. “Welcome!” he called out as he shook hands and led us into a small, freestanding majlis, or reception room, with a big-screen television.

He admits to loving movies, adding: “I have ‘Showtime.’”

(His father once declared television and video recording forbidden under Islam, but later said their use for good or bad is what makes them acceptable or not.)

Relaxed and smiling beneath a crisp, white headscarf, Bin Baz said he spends his time researching Islamic issues and running a charity named after his father. He holds a master’s degree in Islamic jurisprudence from Al Imam Muhammed bin Saud Islamic University, the premier school for Wahhabi doctrine, where he taught for a decade.

He admitted that his paternal legacy gives him credibility. But it also constrains him from openly discussing certain subjects, such as whether the kingdom’s ban on men and women mixing in public is required under Islam.

The issue has been hotly debated in recent months, but Bin Baz did not join in out of deference to his family’s wish that he not publicly disagree with his father’s position on such a sensitive matter.

“The thing is, I come with heavy baggage, I carry the burden of my father, because he discussed this,” he explained.

Back in 2003, he stopped writing altogether after his columns sparked “many negative campaigns,” including from some relatives.

One subject Bin Baz will discuss is the kingdom’s ban on women driving, which is justified by a 1990 fatwa, or religious ruling, from his father.

He notes that there is “nothing which says that women's driving is forbidden” in Islamic scriptures. However, he argues that, like many fatwas, his father’s was a product of its time and issued under unique circumstances.

The country was traumatized by fears that Iraq might extend its invasion of Kuwait into the kingdom and that thousands of arriving U.S. troops would bring an “invasion” of Western culture. So when a group of Saudi women protested the ban by driving cars through downtown Riyadh, it provoked a huge conservative backlash.

These were the “mundane reasons” why his father banned female drivers, Bin Baz said.
“When these reasons have changed,” he added, “the issue can be debated.”

The palace itself encouraged Bin Baz’s recent return to the arena of public debate, he said.

“Now the time is very different. King Abdullah is different. I found a great deal of encouragement from him — on a personal level. This changes a lot of things. Also, I am finding acceptance now amongst the masses. A new generation is now rising, they are aware as they read and listen to different issues.”

This is the second part of a GlobalPost series of reports by Caryle Murphy that goes inside the House of Saud and its internal struggle to reclaim Islam from Al Qaeda. Read the first report here.