A Saudi Break With Ultra-Conservatism?

The surrender of a Brussels mosque offers hope that Saudi Arabia is serious about shaving off the sharp edges of its brand of Sunni Muslim ultra-conservatism. Or does it?

February 20, 2018

The surrender of a Brussels mosque offers hope that Saudi Arabia is serious about shaving off the sharp edges of its brand of Sunni Muslim ultra-conservatism. Or does it?

Saudi Arabia, in an indication that it is serious about shaving off the sharp edges of its Sunni Muslim ultra-conservatism, has agreed to surrender control of the Great Mosque in Brussels.

The decision follows mounting Belgian criticism of alleged intolerance and supremacism that was being propagated by the mosque’s Saudi administrators.

Relinquishing control of the mosque reportedly gives real-life evidence of a Saudi plan to curtail support for foreign mosques and religious and cultural institutions that have been blamed for sprouting radicalism.

As with Prince Mohammed’s vow last November to return Saudi Arabia to an undefined “moderate” form of Islam, it is too early to tell what the Brussels decision and the social reforms announced inside Saudi Arabia go beyond trying to improve the kingdom’s tarnished international image.

Just a PR move?

The decision would at first glance seem to be primarily a public relations move and an effort to avoid rattling relations with Belgium and the European Union. After all, so far the case of the Brussels mosque is the exception that confirms the rule. It is one of a relatively small number of Saudi-funded religious, educational and cultural institutions that was managed by the kingdom.

The bulk of institutions as well as political groupings and individuals worldwide that benefitted from Saudi Arabia’s four decades-long, $100 billion public diplomacy campaign, the single largest in history, aimed at countering post-1979 Iranian revolutionary zeal, operate independently.

The “fruits” of that strategy are questionable. Saudi Arabia has let a genie out of the bottle that it not only cannot control, but that also leads an independent life of its own. The Saudi-inspired ultra-conservative environment has also produced groups like Al Qaeda and the Islamic State that have turned on the kingdom.

Relinquishing control of the Brussels mosque allows Saudi Arabia to project a more restrained image. It is a symbolic act to distance itself from the ultra-conservatism that has its roots in an 18th century power-sharing arrangement.

It was concluded between the Al Saud royal family and Mohammed ibn Abdul Wahhab, a preacher whose descendants are at the core of the kingdom’s religious establishment.

A Belgian debate

The decision to relinquish control of the Brussels mosque that, in 1969, had been leased rent-free to the kingdom for a period of 99 years by Belgian King Baudouin followed a Belgian parliamentary inquiry.

That inquiry looked into last year’s attack on Brussels’ international Zaventem airport and a metro station in the city in which 32 people were killed. The inquiry advised the government to cancel the mosque contract on the grounds that Saudi-inspired ultra-conservatism could contribute to extremism.

Michel Privot of the European Network Against Racism, estimated that 95% of Muslim education in Belgium was provided by Saudi-trained imams.

“There is a huge demand within Muslim communities to know about their religion, but most of the offer is filled by a very conservative Salafi type of Islam sponsored by Saudi Arabia. Other Muslim countries have been unable to offer grants to students on such a scale,” Mr. Privot said.

No similar happenings elsewhere

Despite this one decision, Saudi Arabia appears to be making less of clean break on the frontlines of its support for ultra-conservative and/or militant groups elsewhere.

Take the case of North Africa. Algerian media reports last month detailed Saudi propagation of a quietist, apolitical yet supremacist and anti-pluralistic form of Sunni Muslim ultra-conservatism in the country. The media published a letter by a prominent Saudi scholar that appointed three ultra-conservative Algerian clerics as the representatives of Salafism.

“While Saudi Arabia tries to promote the image of a country that is ridding itself of its fanatics, it sends to other countries the most radical of its doctrines,” asserted independent Algerian newspaper El Watan.

Conclusion

Saudi worries about Iran and its influence are too strong to count on more Saudi moderation, except in a few cases such as the Brussels mosque (where the PR value of a mosque closing is significant).

Takeaways

The surrender of a Brussels mosque offers hope that Saudi Arabia is serious about shaving off the sharp edges of its brand of Sunni Muslim ultra-conservatism. Or does it?

Saudi Arabia surrendering the Brussels mosque seems to be primarily a public relations move and an effort to avoid rattling relations with Belgium and the EU.

The European Network Against Racism estimated that 95% of Muslim education in Belgium was provided by Saudi-trained imams.

While Saudi Arabia tries to promote the image of a country that is ridding itself of its fanatics, it sends to other countries the most radical of its doctrines.