Moderate Islam in the Arab World

Will the moderate Islamic campaign led by the Crown Prince of Saudi Arabia, Mohammed bin Salman, reap glorious results in his country? How will this impact the Middle East and, more broadly, the Islamic world as a whole?

These are the questions that arise when we observe developments in Saudi Arabia in recent years related to Saudi Vision 2030. The emergence of Saudi Vision 2030 was initially driven by the motivation of economic diversification, in which Saudi Arabia could no longer fully depend on oil sources, because its reserves were limited, and began to invite outside investors. For this reason, Saudi Arabia is trying to erase the image that has been built so far as a country that is closed from foreign cultural influences.

Closure is a taboo in the era of globalization. This is well realized by Mohammed bin Salman who is the de facto ruler in Saudi Arabia at this time. In a meeting entitled “The Future Investment Initiative” with potential foreign investors in Riyadh, he said, “We are returning to what we were before – a country of moderate Islam that is open to all religions, traditions, and people around the globe." So lately we see that Saudi Arabia has changed and is starting to open up to cultures from outside the country. For example, the government allows celebrations of Christmas Day, New Year's Day, Chinese New Year, including Valentine's Day celebrations.

Not only that, the government has also amended a number of articles concerning the rules of modesty in dress, such as allowing men to wear shorts in public places except in mosques and government offices; and women are no longer required to wear the hijab and black abaya, that is, loose, long robes — as long as their attire is decent and proper. 

In an interview with CBS television, Bin Salman said, "The law is very clear and regulated in Sharia (Islamic law): that women wear modest and respectable clothing, like men. However, the law does not specifically specify black abayas or black head coverings. The decision is entirely up to the woman to decide what kind of clothes she chooses."

Since being appointed the Crown Prince of Saudi Arabia by King Salman in 2017, Mohammed bin Salman has indeed launched a number of reforms. He got a lot of sympathy from young people for allowing the growth of pop culture. Cinemas that have been banned for 35 years were finally reopened in 2018. Even at the end of last year, the country held the Red Sea International Film Festival (RSIFF) which was attended by celebrities from Middle-Eastern countries.

Under Bin Salman's policies, Saudi women are now allowed to drive their own vehicles, have passports and travel alone, and are promoted to leadership positions.

Such inconceivable things could not happen decades ago, when a religious doctrine was applied rigidly, under strict guard by the religious police who had the authority to whip people, destroy musical instruments, raid beauty salons, burn certain books, etc.

That is the kind of thing that Bin Salman is changing. He said, "Seventy percent of the Saudi population is under the age of 30. In all honesty, we will not spend 30 years of our lives dealing with extremist ideologies. We will destroy them today and immediately." 

Through a series of reforms under Saudi Vision 2030, Bin Salman wants to do what he calls 'going back to what we were: a moderate Islam'. The phrase "going back" is important to underline because before the "religious revival" era in 1979, Saudi Arabia was a moderate country.

Sheikh Ahmad bin Qasim Al-Ghamdi, a cleric and former head of the religious police stated that before 1979 he had never heard of anyone expressing hatred or discriminating against people of different religions, sects or cultures. At that time, he said, the school curriculum promoted openness and coexistence. The religious community is sincere, not tarnished by political views. Women have strong and confident personalities, free from unreasonable restrictions in their dress and behavior.

In summary, Al-Ghamdi described that "the culture of Saudi society prior to 1979 was moderately religious." It was only recently, since the 1980s, that a culture of fanaticism, hatred, exclusion of others, and fear of science, was infiltrated into society and into the education system by fundamentalist groups, known to the world as Wahhabism. 

Bin Salman stated that before 1979 the Saudi community were not like this. This means that Saudi Arabia has been in the grip of a rigid, closed, extreme and ultraconservative Wahhabi ideology for more than 40 years. And he felt that it was detrimental to the development of his country and the image of his country in the outside world. To be honest, not only Saudi Arabia, but other Islamic countries, including Indonesia, which Wahhabism infiltrated were also troubled because this ideology gave birth to fanaticism and radicalism. In its concrete form, this ideology also gave birth to extremist groups such as Al-Qaeda and ISIS with various branches and derivatives in various countries.

So, we must support the reforms carried out by Bin Salman through the Saudi Vision 2030. Because, if he succeeds in realizing Islamic moderation in his country, and then has an impact on other Arab countries in the Middle East, it is not impossible to bring about massive changes in the Islamic world. Although this reform was originally designed to diversify economic resources, it eventually penetrated the religious sector. There is nothing wrong, because sociologically even religion is basically a social phenomenon that inevitably has to follow developments. 

In other words, a step regarding religious policy cannot be separated from the dynamics and changes in the wider economic and social sector. When the world changes, the role of religion must be rearranged.

The lesson we can learn from the experience of Saudi Arabia is that the virus of extremism can enter anywhere, including educational institutions and government institutions. In Indonesia, we experience the same thing, as many civil societies have complained about recently. Although moderate Islam is an Islamic character that grew and took root here, we still must not be careless. Educational institutions must take part in strengthening moderate Islam. At UIII itself, moderate Islam is a compulsory subject that is taken seriously by all students, even though some of them are not Muslims.