Mohammed Ali al-Husseini, one of Saudi Arabia’s newest naturalized citizens, ticks all the boxes needed to win brownies in the quest for the kingdom of religious soft power by positioning himself as the beacon of “moderate” Islam , albeit autocratic.
A Saudi resident since falling out with Hezbollah, the Iranian-backed Lebanese Shiite militia, Al-Husseini represents what the kingdom needs to support his claim that his moderate form of Islam is religiously tolerant, inclusive and non-sectarian. , pluralist and anti-discriminatory.
More than just a Shiite, Mr. Al-Husseini is the descendant of a number of Lebanese Shiite families believed to be descendants of the Prophet Muhammad.
Put to the test, this is a billing with as many warnings as assertions – a problem encountered by other Gulf States which project themselves as beacons of autocratic interpretations of a moderate current of the faith.
Despite this, Saudi Arabia, despite pretending to defend religious tolerance and pluralism, has yet to legalize non-Muslim worship and the kingdom’s non-Muslim places of worship.
Likewise, the first batch of 27 newly naturalized citizens appeared to not include non-Muslims. If so, they were not identified as such unlike those of Mr. Al-Hussein whose Shiite faith was clearly asserted.
The 27 were naturalized under a recent decree aimed at ensuring that Saudi Arabia can compete with countries like the United Arab Emirates, Qatar and Singapore in attracting foreign talent. About a quarter of the new citizens, including Mr. Al-Husseini and Mustafa Ceric, a former Bosnian grand mufti, were religious figures or historians from Saudi Arabia.
In doing so, Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman has linked his economic and social reforms that have strengthened women’s rights and responded to the aspirations of young people with his quest for religious soft power and leadership of the Muslim world. The reforms implied tangible social and economic changes. Yet they refrained from adapting the ultra-conservative and supremacist theology that underlined the founding of the kingdom and its existence until the rise to power of King Salman and his son, the Crown Prince, in 2015.
Prince Mohammed’s notion of “moderate” Islam is socially liberal but politically autocratic. It calls for absolute obedience to the ruler in a deal that replaces the kingdom’s long-standing social contract in which citizens traded surrender of political rights for a cradle-to-grave welfare state. The new arrangement expands social rights and economic opportunities at the cost of a reduced welfare state as well as the loss of political freedoms, including freedoms of speech, media and association.
A series of recent editorials in Saudi media written by experts rather than clerics apparently with the approval, if not encouragement, of the crown prince or his assistants, called for top-down religious reforms à la Martin Luther who would introduce rational and scientific thought. , promote tolerance and eradicate extremism.
Mamdouh Al-Muhaini, director general of state-controlled Al-Arabiya and Al-Hadath television stations, explained the top-down process of religious reform which would be led by the crown prince even though the writer refrained from l ‘identify by Name.
“There are tens, if not thousands, of the Luther of Islam… As such, the question of ‘where is the Luther of Islam” is wrong. Rather, it should be: Where is Frederick the Great of Islam? The King of Prussia, who obtained the title of Enlightened Despot, embraced major philosophers in Europe like Kant and Voltaire and gave them the freedom to think and conduct scientific research, which helped their ideas to spread and to prevail over fundamentalism after bitter clashes. We could also ask ourselves where is the Catherine the Great of Islam…? Without the support and protection of these leaders, we probably would never have heard of these intellectuals, nor of Luther before them, ”Al-Muhaini said.
MM. Al-Husseini and Ceric represent what Saudi Arabia would like the Muslim and non-Muslim world to take away from their naturalization.
A religious scholar, Mr. Ceric raised funds in Saudi Arabia, Iran and Malaysia during the Bosnian War of the 1990s and championed issues close to his heart even though his own views are more liberal.
Mr. Ceric argued, for example, that opposition to Wahhabism, the austere interpretation of the kingdom of Islam that has been altered since King Salman came to power, amounted to Islamophobia even though the religious favored the more liberal Islamic tradition of Bosnia. The cleric also opposed the counting of foreign fighters, including Saudis, of Bosnian nationality, which they were granted for their support during the war.
To the benefit of Saudi Arabia, Mr. Ceric continues to be a voice of Muslim moderation as well as proof that Islam is as much a part of the West as of the East and the hard-to-defend suggestion that t being liberal does not by definition oppose ultra-conservatism.
Referring to the fact that he is a Shiite, Mr. Al-Husseini said in response to his naturalization by a country which was created on the basis of an ultraconservative mainstream of Islam which regards the Shiites as heretics: “ The glaring truth that cannot be disputed is that the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia is open to everyone… and does not look at the dimensions… sectarian type.
Beyond being a Shia Muslim cleric, Mr. Al-Husseini must have been a Hezbollah insider. A former supporter of the resistance against Israel, Mr. Al-Husseini is said to have broken with Hezbollah over financial disputes.
He associated himself, because of his new opposition to Hezbollah, with the March 14 movement supported by the Saudis and led by Saad Hariri, a prominent Lebanese Sunni Muslim politician.
As the head of the relatively obscure Arab Islamic Council that promoted interfaith dialogue, especially with Jews, Mr. Al-Husseini ticked another box on the Saudi checklist, especially given the kingdom’s refusal to establish diplomatic relations with Israel without a clear and accepted agreement. way towards a resolution of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
If Mr. Al-Husseini’s story fits the Saudi bill, its impact seems limited. He made headlines in 2015 after using social media to urge religious Muslims, Jews and Christians to downplay religious traditions that call for violence.
Al-Husseini spoke as tensions between Israel and Lebanon mounted as Hezbollah killed two Israeli soldiers in a cross-border attack.
Previously, Mr. Al-Husseini apparently became the first Shia Arab religious figure to address Israelis directly and to do so in broken Hebrew.
“We believe that not all Jews are bad [just as] not all Muslims are terrorists. Cousins, put aside our conflicts and avoid evil and hate. Let us unite in peace and love, ”Al-Husseini told an unknown number of Israeli listeners.
Mr. Al-Husseini’s presence on social media is paltry compared to that of the Muslim World League and its leader, Mohammed Al Issa. The League, the sole vehicle for Saudi financing of Muslim ultra-conservatism around the world, and its leader, are today the main propagators of Prince Mohammed’s concept of moderate Islam.
Mr. Al-Husseini’s 47,000 followers on Twitter and 10,200 on Facebook are pale in comparison to his Saudi counterparts who are spreading a message similar to his.
The League has 2.8 million Twitter followers in English and 3.4 million in Arabic in addition to 662,000 in French and 310,000 in Urdu. The League posts similar numbers on Facebook. League President Al-Issa has 670,000 followers on Twitter and 272,000 on Facebook.