With Afghanistan back in the hands of the Taliban as we approach the 20th anniversary of the 9/11 attacks, it would be easy to conclude that the Middle East has not changed very much since that fateful day.
But while much of the region continues to be convulsed by violence and extremism, the Kingdom, which is home to the birthplace of Islam, is a profoundly different and better place.
In the future, thanks to major change and reforms, terrorists planning an outrage like 9/11 will have to go somewhere other than the Kingdom to fish for recruits since the pool of Saudi youth indoctrinated in militant Islamism is rapidly shrinking.
The reformist government of King Salman and Crown Prince Muhammad bin Salman (MBS) has dismantled the structures and networks of radical Islam within the country. While some people believe that these reforms are “skin-deep,” the truth is quite the reverse. The fact is that this leadership, spearheaded by MBS, has undertaken fundamental and far-reaching social and religious reform in six key areas.
First, it has silenced leading militant voices and those preaching intolerance among (what some call) the “Wahhabi” religious establishment by incarcerating them. This has signaled to any fence-sitting clerics that moderation and nonviolence is the only path to take going forward.
Second, it has reworked educational curricula, excising intolerant content and placing emphasis instead on moderation. More than 120,000 individual changes have been made to schoolbooks so far.
Third, it has imposed a ban on bigoted and sectarian language from any media within the Kingdom.
Fourth, authorities have focused on creating multiple life-affirming activities for Saudi youth to direct their energies towards beyond just religion. Although it is easy to forget that music and mixed dancing in public were outlawed in the Kingdom only five years ago, today there are street festivals in Riyadh, along with cinemas showing Hollywood films and a vibrant local drama scene. In support of all this, a new foreign scholarship program for both sexes in the arts has been introduced, and multiple local academies have been set-up.
Fifth, the government has opened the public space to free interaction between men and women. Previously, women’s freedom was limited in work and travel. Women have also been appointed to public posts, from ambassadors to policewomen and members of the royal guard, something unimaginable in the Kingdom only a decade ago. Additionally, sports are now open to women, from the school field to the Olympics.
Finally, the Saudi government has cut off funding to any organization anywhere in the world that espouses reactionary interpretations of Islam. Salafi madrassas no longer receive any official or private Saudi funding, and any remaining support to mosques or other Muslim organizations abroad now has to have the official sanction of each country’s respective national security authorities. Additionally, Islamic international organizations such as the Muslim World League have been reoriented toward actively promoting tolerance and understanding between Islam and other faiths.
These reforms signal to the Muslim world that the Kingdom has adopted moderation and openness as its public policy. This will inevitably set an example that will be emulated by other Muslims, especially those who consider the Saudi interpretation of Islam to be the correct form and practice.
Today reactionaries across the Muslim world are expressing outrage at these Saudi cultural and religious reforms because they understand very well how all this will undermine their xenophobic and intolerant message with their own publics.
Nevertheless, the Kingdom will no longer be a breeding ground for reactionary and intolerant thinking. And resources that once fed this effort are quickly drying up. This massive change, with its major implications for the future of the Muslim world, has not been given the attention it merits by Western media.
Given that the dominant influence of the clerical class over Saudi society was traditionally upheld by the Saudi state, this now had to be removed, which was a bold and risky political move by the leadership.
As we have seen across the Muslim world, dealing with reactionary, intolerant, and even militant segments of society does not lend itself to dialogue and compromise. Such elements, who behave with the supreme arrogance and self-righteousness of people who believe they have an exclusive understanding of the divine, can, unfortunately, only be successfully dealt with firmly from the top.
That this sudden and radical program of reform has so far not been met with greater resistance is testament to the government’s skill and fortitude in managing the reform process. Moreover, it turns out that the majority of the Saudi population, namely, the youth, have actually been yearning to break free from the stifling and oppressive culture that the clerics had been allowed to create in the past and hence have overwhelmingly supported the changes, as anybody who visits the Kingdom and talks to them will quickly discover.