ICG on two strands of Saudi Islamism

The International Crisis Group has a new report out on "Who are the Islamists?" It makes some important points about making a distinction between the types of Islamist groups operating there, a particularly important thing in a country where everybody, including (or rather especially) the regime claims to be Islamic. There are also some interesting thoughts on the need to nurture a more progressive Islamist strand that has been overshadowed by the Al Qaeda types.

Beneath the all-encompassing Wahhabi influence, Saudi Islamism developed over several decades a wide variety of strains. These included radical preachers, who condemned what they considered the regime's deviation from the principles of Islam and its submission to the U.S.; social reformers, convinced of the need to modernise educational and religious practices and challenging the puritan strand of Islam that dominates the Kingdom; political reformers, who gave priority to such issues as popular participation, institution-building, constitutionalisation of the monarchy, and elections; and jihadist activists, for the most part formed in Afghanistan and who gradually brought their violent struggle against Western -- in particular U.S. -- influence to their homeland.


By the late 1990s, the Islamist field was increasingly polarised between two principal strands. Among the so-called new Islamists, political reformers sought to form the broadest possible centrist coalition, cutting across religious and intellectual lines and encompassing progressive Sunni Islamists, liberals, and Shiites. More recently, they have sought to include as well elements of the more conservative but highly popular sahwa, the group of shaykhs, professors and Islamic students that had come to prominence a decade earlier by denouncing the state's failure to conform to Islamic values, widespread corruption, and subservience to the U.S. Through petitions to Crown Prince Abdallah -- the Kingdom's de facto ruler - they formulated demands for political and social liberalisation. Their surprising ability to coalesce a diverse group prompted the government -- which initially had been conciliatory -- to signal by the arrests cited above that there were limits to its tolerance.”


ICG reports tend to be well-balanced and insightful. Don't miss this one if you're interested in Saudi Arabia, especially because information about that country is scant enough already.
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Issandr El Amrani

Issandr El Amrani is a Cairo-based writer and consultant. His reporting and commentary on the Middle East and North Africa has appeared in The Economist, London Review of Books, Financial Times, The National, The Guardian, Time and other publications. He also publishes one of the longest-running blog in the region, www.arabist.net.