Saudi Arabia’s harsh religious tradition is seen by many outsiders – and some Saudi liberals – as a root cause of the international jihadist threat that has inflamed the Middle East for years and struck in Paris last week.
However, while Riyadh has cracked down hard on jihadists at home, jailing thousands, stopping hundreds from travelling to fight abroad and cutting militant finance streams, its approach to religion has raised a dilemma.
It assails the ideology of militants who proclaim jihad against those they regard as heretics or infidels, while allying with a clerical establishment that preaches intolerance, although not violence, against exactly those same groups.
A Saudi border guard takes position in an observation post near Saudi Arabia’s maritime border with Yemen, along a beach on the Red Sea, near Jizan April 8, 2015. Reuters say Yemen strikes are boosting Saudi nationalism and Wahhabi Sunni sectarianism.
Wahhabism, the kingdom’s official ultra-conservative Sunni Muslim school, regards Shiaism as heretical, lauds the concept of jihad and urges hatred of infidels. Its clerics run the Saudi justice system and have funds to spread their influence abroad.
“Muslims should be fair to non-Muslims. They can do business with them and should not attack them. But that does not mean they should not hate them and avoid them,” a senior Saudi cleric said in a background discussion with Reuters last year.
For the government, focusing on that distinction, between accepting hatred and inciting violence, has let it retain the support of Wahhabi clergy and ultra-conservative Saudis while also carrying out a massive security operation against militants.
Modern jihadist organisations, including Islamic State and al Qaeda, follow an extreme interpretation of the Salafi branch of Islam, of which Wahhabism was the original strain, and whose clergy still enjoy great influence in wider Salafist circles.
Saudi men paint a mural depicting late Saudi Arabia’s Foreign Minister Prince Saud al-Faisal during an activity for national drawings in Jeddah Oct 29, 2015. Reuters
Friday’s carnage in Paris at the hands of an Islamic State cell follows a series of bombings and shootings by the same group’s followers in Saudi Arabia over the past year that have killed dozens, mostly from the kingdom’s Shia minority.
The government defends its record on combating Islamist radicalism, pointing to its detention of thousands of suspected militants, its intelligence sharing with allies and its barring of clergy who praised militant attacks.
Saudi Interior Ministry spokesman Major General Mansour Turki in an interview this summer rejected the idea that Wahhabism itself was a problem, comparing the 2,144 Saudis who had gone to Syria with the estimated 5,000 European Muslims who had done so.
He said the clerics and firebrands now exhorting Muslims – including Saudis – to go and fight in Syria or Iraq, or to launch attacks elsewhere, were themselves living in territory controlled by Islamic State rather than in the kingdom itself.
The Grand Mufti and the council of senior scholars, the top Wahhabi cleric and institution, denounced the Paris attacks and have for years decried militants as deviants and heretics.
But Saudi clerics openly defame Shias as “rejectionists”, a term in common currency among Sunni militants in the sectarian bloodbath afflicting many Middle East nations, and often refuse to accept that Shias are Muslim.
Their teaching on jihad – that it is a blessed activity in defence of Islam against infidels and heretics, and will win rewards in heaven – differs from that of militant groups only in requiring the approval of the king and Saudi official clergy.
To outsiders and to liberal Saudi critics of the ruling Al Saud, such intellectual gymnastics, reinforced in frequent clerical messages and a centrepiece of the kingdom’s militant rehabilitation programme, sometimes look like hair-splitting.
However, they fall squarely in the context of Saudi Arabia’s idiosyncratic internal politics, in which the unelected dynasty depends on the Wahhabi clergy to support its legitimacy and often voices fears of a militant uprising against its rule.
A Saudi woman paints a mural during an activity for national drawings in Jeddah Oct 29, 2015. Reuters
Certainly, the biggest historical threats to stability in the world’s top oil exporter and the birthplace of Islam have come from conservatives reacting against liberalisation.
The Ikhwan tribal army of the kingdom’s founder Ibn Saud rebelled against him over his treaties with non-Muslims. King Faisal was assassinated in 1975 in revenge for the 1966 shooting of a prince during riots against the introduction of television.
In 1979 a group of militant Islamists inspired by anger at Westernisation overran Mecca’s Grand Mosque in a bloody siege. Widespread Islamist protests seethed in the 1990s and last decade al Qaeda staged deadly attacks.
Those shootings and bombings, which killed hundreds, helped prompt the Al Saud to address open militancy among the clergy and to introduce liberalising reforms aimed at encouraging tolerance and getting more young Saudis into jobs.
They included a scholarship programme that sent hundreds of thousands of Saudis of both sexes abroad to study, a big drive to get more women into jobs, glacial reforms to the justice and education sectors and the banning of hundreds of preachers.
These reforms led to a crescendo of Wahhabi outrage against their progenitor – the late King Abdullah. While the new King Salman gets on better with the clergy, nine months after he took power he has made no big moves to roll back social change.
The dynasty’s critics counter that the state-financed clergy are more pliant to the ruling family’s wishes than they appear and that the Al Saud holds up the threat of militancy to avoid making reforms that could ultimately endanger its own power.
They add that previous concessions made against fears of a conservative backlash gave Wahhabi clerics influence that simply reinforced their intolerant message.
One problem the Al Saud have in attempts to soften Wahhabism is that the school was founded expressly to end what it saw as heretical and wrong beliefs. Another is the terms of an 18th century pact between princes and clerics dividing authority between the political and religious spheres.
To challenge either of those two principles would be to strike at fundamental beliefs and a social contract that lie at the heart of Saudi society.
Yet some changes have been made. After Ibn Saud defeated the Ikhwan, he promoted clerics who endorsed a more inclusive version of Wahhabism that recognised more liberal Sunnis as being Muslim and accepted the idea of relations with infidels.
Over the decades, the positions of official clergy have grudgingly softened further still, and the Wahhabi tent is now broad enough to include firebrands as well as clerics who are comfortable engaging with the West and modern ideas.
Meanwhile, although Saudi Arabia finances preachers, mosques and madrasas around the world, and although Salafism has become common among Muslims globally, Saudi Arabia’s own influence in the movement has become diluted.
Its Umm al-Qura seminary in Medina remains one of the principle centres of Salafist learning for international students, but its graduates have no greater clout than those of institutions in other countries.
“The Salafi scene has become so fragmented and diverse across the world that the Saudis don’t control it any more. When people go to study Salafism, they don’t go there, and what they study is a Salafism over which the Saudis have no control,” said Stephane Lacroix, author of books on Salafism and Saudi Islam.
Among militants, Saudi religious influence is even less pronounced. Jihadists often turn to texts written by long-dead Wahhabi scholars and they often adopt a Saudi style of oratory in their religious speeches, but they mock the kingdom’s modern clergy as puppets of a corrupt, pro-Western regime.