Saudi Arabia, a Kingdom Divided
September 11, 2001, marked a turning point in the history of the kingdom. Not only did relations with the United States, which had always been an ally, become strained, but a part of the royal family became aware of the danger posed by religious extremism, which until then had been encouraged. The May 2003 attacks in Riyadh, in which thirty-four people were killed, followed by a series of other Al Qaeda actions on Saudi territory, intensified the internal debate and eventually forced the clergy to choose between their allegiance to the regime and their sympathy for Osama bin Laden. Although a small faction called for armed opposition, the rest rallied to the side of the monarchy. There followed an intense debate on jihad, the place of Islam and the extremist quality of some religious discourse. At the December 2005 summit of the Organization of the Islamic Conference, a declaration stressed that Islam was a religion of the center (wassatiyyah), which rejects "excess, extremism and narrowness of mind." The debate affected the entire Islamic sphere.
Described by scholar Stéphane Lacroix as one of the "liberal Islamists," Sheik Abdelaziz al-Gassim is a role model for young people who have flirted with radicalism; from him they learn to reconcile Islam with political liberalism. He heads a legal organization that produced studies on Sharia. Gassim speaks with calm and conviction and talks with pleasure about his travels to Europe. For him "the most important change is opening up the field of religion to debate. The state has always wanted to control the religious institution; now it's trying to open it up. All the more so now that the deaths of Sheiks Ben Baz and Ben Uthaymin, the two great ulemas whose authority was undisputed, have created a void that no one can fill. That makes it more difficult for the government to use the religious institution, because the latter has lost some of its credibility."
The liberal Islamists are, however, subject to harsh attacks, sometimes in the press but more often in extremely animated forums on the Internet. Some have been intimidated into silence, like the bestselling author Sheik Ayed al-Qarni, who in December, in announcing his decision to abandon preaching (da'wa), denounced the combined "slander" of the modernists and the radicals. He seems to have recently gone back on his decision, but the incident symbolizes the violence of religious polemics. However, the key point is that this debate is now taking place in the very heart of society, that it is public and that it allows everyone to express himself freely. A culture of dialogue is beginning to develop in this kingdom, which until now has been so closed.
The attack on oil installations in Buqayq at the end of February shows that nothing has been settled, even if the suppression of armed groups has made some headway. As Saudi society changes, it will aspire to more freedoms, to a more certain future, to transformation of the old structures. Will the new king be able to answer these demands even as the entire region is plagued by instability, and Iraq is involved in a war that, sooner or later, will have repercussions for its southern neighbor?