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Besnik Sinani: "Entertainment as a Marker of Religious Reform in Saudi Arabia"



Orthodoxy, Talal Asad has argued, consists of both dogma and ‘the power to regulate, uphold, require, or adjust correct practices, and to condemn, exclude, undermine, or replace incorrect ones.’ Saudi Arabia (KSA) was born out of the alliance in 1744 of a local leader and a religious reformer, resulting later in the formation of Saudi institutions that define and enforce dogma. When Crown Prince of KSA, Muhammad b. Salman (MBS), announced in 2017 the ‘return to Moderate Islam’, it marked a shift in religious policy, and one of the main markers has been arguably the promotion of entertainment. King Salman announced in 2016 the formation of the General Authority for Entertainment, emphasizing the needs of the public for more leisure activities, and the economic imperative in diversifying the economy away from oil. The reason it has attracted attention, however, is due to the fact that these entertainment projects go against Wahhabi religious norms.

Responses have varied. For pundits like Thomas Friedman, opening cinemas, and allowing women to drive means that Riyadh is advocating 'Islamic religious reform', with ramifications in the entire Muslim world. Critics like HA Hallyer have countered that if this is what counts as ‘reform’ the bar has been set extremely low. The religious establishment, he argued, has been muzzled, rather than encouraged to engage in a genuine rethinking of its ideas. MBS’s ‘reforms’ in this arena are about centralizing power. Others have suggested KSA is “putting Islam out of use.”

Entertainment is a loaded concept in KSA. At the Prince Khalid al-Faysal Center for Moderation in Jeddah in March of 2018, I was told of the idea to create an App that would measure how ‘moderate’ or ‘extremist’ Saudi citizens are, based on their responses to questions regarding entertainment. I left the kingdom shortly afterwards, and I don’t know if the App was ever used. The idea is indicative, however, that in KSA entertainment is conceptually linked to a variety of contested notions. Only recently, a Saudi preacher, A’idh al-Qarni, appeared on a TV interview committing to the moderate Islam of MBS, and apologizing for promoting extremism in the 1980s. As the interview was broadcasted in satellite channels in the region, extremism to the viewers was illustrated by showing religious activists breaking musical instruments.

The notion of entertainment is linked to conceptions of culture, modernization, and lifestyle.  The oil boom in 1973 completed the transformation of Saudi Arabia into a rentier state. According to Giacomo Luciani, it is unlikely in such states to have opposition movements motivated by socio-economic considerations. Saudi opposition groups motivated by socialist or nationalist ideas disappeared. What remained of them turned to advocating for a lifestyle perceived as ‘liberal’, while they were accused by their Islamist opponents of being ‘secularists’. Since the rule of King Khalid (1975-1982), Crown Prince Fahd assigned these liberals the task of constructing a modern Saudi culture, in line with the economic and social modernization of KSA. The existence of such semi-autonomous spheres, of liberal intellectuals on one hand, and conservative religious scholars on the other, was precisely what the Sahwa Islamist movement wanted to challenge in the 1980s and 1990s, as a way of challenging social fragmentation, and advancing the Islamisation of the society through the concept of shumuliyya (the comprehensiveness) of Islam.

During the reign of King Abdullah (2005-2015) this ideological battle was seen in the conservative critique of the liberal discourse of reform. They regarded liberals as “corrupters on earth,” who believe that “decay of religion and behavior is the basis for progress”. It was illustrated in the conservatives’ welcome of the decision of Minister of Interior Nayif to continue the ban on cinemas. The Fatwa the Grand Muftī, ʿAbd al-ʿAzīz al-Shaykh highlights the ideological weight assigned to entertainment. Cinemas, he has stated, are a gateway to corruption and the spread of atheist ideas.

Key to the question of entertainment is the issue of public morality, particularly as related to gender-mixing (ikhtilat), given that many of the recent entertainment events are opened to both males and females. The islamization of the public space in KSA had been taking place simultaneously with the gradual political secularization. As the religious establishment had increasingly less of a say in every other aspect of managing the country, the morality of the public space was the last major space left to the control of religion.  Ikhtilat is a primary concern in this understanding of public morality, for it demarcates the battle lines between reformists and conservatives. It got center-stage in the Saudi public debate in 2009, when a religious scholar, Saʿad al-Shithri, criticized in a TV interview the newly founded King Abdullah University for Science and Technology for promoting mixed-gendered education. Given that the university was founded by the King himself, liberals saw an opportunity to attack the conservatives. The assault began with an article by the editor-in-chief of al-Watan, the late Jamal al-Khashoggi. He attacked al-Shithri for opposing “progress,” and for attacking the king. Ahmad al-Isa, who would later become Minister of Education, stated in al-Watan that ikhtilat was just a pretext for the ulama to retrieve control over education, which posed a threat to academic freedom. He concluded that “we do not want an intellectual police.” Entertainment, therefore, is conceptually linked to notions that have marked ideological fault lines in KSA.

Given that entertainment events go against established Wahhabi teaching, does that mean that ‘MBS is putting religion out of use?’ A crucial component of this process has been the role of scholars in providing support for MBS. Wahhabi support for Saudi rule became early on in the life of the movement a key component of their teaching. It does not mean that there have been no pushbacks against particular policies. Notoriously in the 1960s, the former Mufti Muhammad b. Ibrahim opposed the introduction of a set of positive laws. King Faysal had to wait for the Mufti to die in order to implement his agenda. He abolished the office of the Grand Mufti and divided his powers into different institutions in order to create a horizontal religious authority shared between the Council of Senior Scholars, Ministry of Justice, The Permanent Committee for Fatwa and Research, and the Committee for Promotion of Virtue and Prohibition of Evil. When the office of Grand Mufti was reinstated in 1993, it was weaker, and it was assigned for the first time to someone outside the family of the descendants of Abd al-Wahhab, coming from a minor tribe, Abd al-Aziz b. Baz. It was at the hands of scholars like him that Wahhabism completed its transformation from a puritanical reformist movement, into an apologist for the Saudi state. In light of latest developments, the Council of Senior Scholars has pointed at a fatwa where they enjoy people to obey their rulers and prohibit voicing opposition or rebelling.

When the current Mufti was recently asked regarding cinemas, which he had previously considered ‘a gateway to corruption’, he failed to condemn them, and spoke about the importance of safety and security in the country. In contradiction to traditional Wahhabi prohibition on music, many Saudi scholars have recently declared the textual evidence prohibiting music to be weak. Recently, a former imam of the Grand Mosque in Makkah, Adil Kalbani, appeared in an interview criticizing the ‘obsession’ over ikhtilat. Islamic scholars are requested upon changing their positions to revisit their previous fatwas, and explain the change, something Saudi scholars have not done. Support for MBS has tainted the reputation of many scholars. Since MBS has declared the promotion of tourism as one of his top economic priorities, a religious scholar, Muhammad al-Arifi, appeared on social media encouraging followers to visit the Nabataean archaeological site of Madain Salih. Not long ago he had prohibited visiting that very place on religious grounds. Twitter followers commented that he had been transformed from a religious guide to a tour guide. The Imam of the Grand Mosque of Makkah, Abdurrahman al-Sudaysi declared recently that MBS is the reviver (mujaddid) of religion in our times. Khaled Abou Al-Fadl complained that “Saudi clerics had never weaponized the podium of the prophet at the Grand Mosque so brazenly to serve the monarchy…,” and had never anointed “a Saudi ruler as the mujaddid of the age or dared to imply as much.” Contrary to ‘putting religion out of use’, MBS has made good use of religion.

I propose, therefore, locating religious transformation in KSA at the locus of this constructed duality between religion and entertainment, for it marks the continuous shrinking of the space in society where dogma can be enforced. While the incapacitated Religious Police serves as a prime example, the case of entertainment points also at the discursive dimension of this development. A more comprehensive exploration should analyze the promotion of nationalism as the dominant ideology of the state, the persecution of dissenting voices, the gradual recognition of religious diversity, the diminished power to excommunicate, and the shrinking role of religion in education. Contrary to what Friedman promised, however, the weakening authority of Saudi scholars will likely diminish Saudi religious diplomacy, as dissenting voices are already appearing in the global Salafi community.