Aaron Y. Zelin looks at the emerging democratic trend among Salafists, most recently expressed by Sheikh Salman al-Awdah in Saudi Arabia.
“Important questions remain about Salafi groups’ shift to democracy. Is it pragmatic or a true ideological commitment to democratic principles?” But who, one might ask, sets the benchmark for such a commitment? A Democratic Party tied by the hip to the Israel lobby? Or a Republican Party that repeatedly tries to disenfranchise minority voters? Maybe Americans should not get too sanctimonious about who qualifies as a real democrat.
The Muslim Brotherhood has so far emerged as the clear political winner from the popular uprisings that have seized the Arab world. In Egypt and Tunisia, its affiliated political parties have either won power outright in democratic elections. But the Brotherhood isn’t the only movement mixing faith and politics in the new Middle East: Salafis — hardline conservatives who model their lives on Prophet Mohamed and the first three generation of Muslim leaders following his death — are setting aside years of theological opposition to democracy to participate in the political game.
This sea change was driven home earlier this week when Saudi Salafi heavyweight Sheikh Salman al-Awdah took to his Twitter feed and Facebook page to proclaim: “Democracy might not be an ideal system, but it is the least harmful, and it can be developed and adapted to respond to local needs and circumstances.” Although Awdah notably made his announcement on his English and not Arabic social media platforms, where his audience numbers in the millions rather than the tens of thousands, the sentiment is still positively Churchillian — echoing as it does the late British prime minister’s maxim: “It has been said that democracy is the worst form of government except all the others that have been tried.”
Awdah’s pronouncement is significant due to his history and popularity within the Salafist milieu. He was one of the key leaders of Saudi Arabia’s sahwa (“awakening”) movement, which butted heads with the House of Saud most prominently during the Gulf war in the early 1990s. During those years, key Saudi religious scholars and sahwa activists signed two petitions admonishing the Saudi royals for their reliance on the United States, and calling for the creation of a shura (“consultative”) council that would grant greater authority to the religious establishment to determine whether legislation was truly in line with Islamic law.
The House of Saud viewed these letters as a direct threat to its power, and consequently arrested Awdah and other sahwa figures in 1994. Awdah would not be released until 1999. Although he has not been as overt in his criticisms of the regime since his release, he is not part of the official religious establishment and has a level of independence, which has afforded him the ability to maintain a large following without being viewed as a lackey of the government.
Osama bin Laden was one of the young Saudis deeply affected by Awdah’s stand against the Saudi regime in the early 1990s. The al Qaeda chief viewed him as an intellectual mentor, and allegedly told his former bodyguard Abu Jandal that if Awdah had not been imprisoned, he would not have had to raise his voice up against the Saudi ruling family.
The al Qaeda leader’s admiration highlights Awdah’s influence among not only mainstream Salafists, but some of the more radical wings of the movement.
Actually, what this highlights is the radicalizing effect of political repression in Saudi Arabia.