On September 4, the Saudi attorney general asked for the death penalty in the trial of the Salafi religious scholar Sheikh Salman al-‘Awdah. He is standing trial on 37 counts, including sedition, incitement against the ruler, supporting Arab revolutions, engaging with and backing the Muslim Brotherhood, and supporting prisoners and calling for their release.
This development should alarm even those who don’t sympathize with Islamists. Targeting ‘Awdah is incompatible with official Saudi rhetoric these days, which indicates a desire to introduce reforms in the kingdom. ‘Awdah actually began a process to deradicalize Saudi Salafism and reform it in an inclusive, bottom-up way, without relying on state coercion. The credibility he earned in doing so has given him the latitude to legitimately oppose violent resistance to any meaningful process of reform of Islam inside the kingdom and elsewhere.
If the Saudi regime were really seeking to reform Wahhabi Salafism, ‘Awdah would provide it with a model to do so, as well as being an indispensable actor in the process. That’s because he is a man who doesn’t deny his past. During the 1990s, he was part of the radical Salafi Al-Sahwa movement in the kingdom, which denounced the royal family’s acceptance of U.S. troops on Saudi soil. After serving time in prison, ‘Awdah recanted his radical ideology and began preaching in favor of non-violent activism. His moderate views allowed him to avoid a clash with the royal family.
This earned ‘Awdah accusations that he had been coopted by the regime, but it also made him a prominent representative of non-violent Salafism. The number of his followers outside the Salafi sphere grew when he became a guest on local and regional television stations, such as Al-Jazeera. ‘Awdah also established in 2000 the Islam Today (Al-Islam al-Yawm) foundation, which provides accessible opinions on all aspects of Muslim life. The foundation’s website is available in four languages and has received more than 3 billion visits since it was founded, in addition to ‘Awdah’s more than 21 million followers on Twitter, Facebook and YouTube combined.
‘Awdah is by no means a traditional local scholar. Compared to his peers, his political and religious opinions can appeal to non-Saudis and non-Salafis. His transnational presence is reflected in his membership in foreign Islamic organizations as well as his interest in public affairs inside and outside Saudi Arabia. ‘Awdah has always sought to show that Salafi Islam can be modern, humane, politically active, and open to collaboration with other ideologies. His fatwas and activities reflect a more modern Salafi outlook that promotes equal citizenship for all, including women, non-Islamists, non-Sunnis, and even non-believers.
‘Awdah’s arrest was punishment for his political positions. While the Saudi state has actively opposed popular upheavals in the Arab world since 2011, ‘Awdah’s support for the Arab uprisings was no secret. Though he didn’t call for revolutions, he has cautioned that “repression, injustice, corruption, backwardness, and poverty [invite] a revolution.” Without advocating for the implementation of Western democracy, he has acknowledged that it achieves “justice, acceptance, and a voluntary transition of power” and that “there is nothing that prohibits the adoption of some Western practices of contestation if the people accept them; or that rejects them, if the people [decide to do so].”
These opinions were at odds with Wahhabi Salafism, which opposes revolution, promotes disengagement from politics, and preaches that the ruler knows better what is in the political interest of his subjects. ‘Awdah’s last political tweet before his arrest addressed the rift between most Gulf states and Qatar, in which he pleaded, “[M]ay God bring their hearts together for the good of their people.” Before that, he declined to state his opinion about the king’s decision to lift the ban on female drivers. ‘Awdah was arrested not because he opposed the new policies, but because he didn’t actively endorse them. This was interpreted as a lack of support for the author of those reforms. Such logic also explains the arrest and suspension of scholars from the official religious establishment and confirms that there is no space for independent opinion in today’s Saudi Arabia.
If ‘Awdah is executed, extremists will not regret it, viewing him as too liberal. However, some have taken to Twitter to make the case that his fate shows that a non-violent dialogue with the Saudi rulers is useless. His death would create a vacuum that leaves his most vulnerable followers with two choices: to follow the state that had him killed; or to follow the extremists fighting the state. The current repression of independent political, social, and even economic activism in Saudi Arabia could push some autonomous voices in the kingdom to resort to violence as the only way to make their voices heard. That is why Saudi rulers must be aware of the risks if they choose to impose the death penalty on ‘Awdah.
While the authorities in the kingdom may be trying to reform the Wahhabi curriculum, they cannot enter every home to change the hearts and minds of generations of people who grew up learning it by heart. However, ‘Awdah, by virtue of his personal story and distance from the official establishment, is in a better position to convince even the most recalcitrant of Salafis to give up on extremism and “jihad.”
The consequences of executing ‘Awdah will have repercussions for the Saudi political elite, be it in the medium or long term. The recent social and religious reforms announced by Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, coupled with repression by the state, are generating resentment within the official religious establishment and Saudi society in general. If we add this to the tensions that exist inside the royal family and the business elite, as well as the fact that modernization is increasing the social and political awareness of Saudi youth, we have the potential for coalitions between dissident state and non-state actors. According to the lessons learned from the Arab uprisings, such coalitions, not revolutions, have the best chance of toppling the leaders of authoritarian regimes.
A verdict has not yet been reached in ‘Awdah’s case. He is being tried by a special tribunal in Riyadh that was set up in 2008 to deal with national security and terrorism cases. All political activists are placed before this body, which has issued a number of death sentences that were carried out. The judges are subject to considerable political pressure from the royal court. If the tribunal decides to sentence him to death, ‘Awdah will have two stages of appeal before the king ratifies the decision, making it final. It is difficult to predict whether ‘Awdah will be executed given that many things are happening for the first time in the kingdom. However, it is certain that the court will take a decision that silences him or offers him a political arrangement by which he would bend to the regime.
The modernization of Saudi society requires reforming Islamism, and thus Islamist leaders. One can go further to assume that the Saudi authorities would have the support of the young men and women who have hailed recent social liberalization in the kingdom. However, non-Islamist youths are today facing the same repression that Islamists are facing. As of September 4, a law prohibits Saudis from “mocking, provoking, or disrupting public order, religious values, and public morals [online],” whichever way those loose terms are interpreted.
In the absence of organized social or political actors in the kingdom, religious actors remain the most capable of rallying nationally and transnationally against the regime as well as its regional and international supporters. After all, Saudi Arabia was home to the second largest contingent of foreign fighters in the Islamic State group. With the beginning of their return to the kingdom, Salman al-‘Awdah’s killing would only feed the violent radicalization of political mobilization. The authorities would do better to use those like ‘Awdah to address the social and political instability that Mohammed bin Salman’s reforms are likely to instigate.
Yasmine Farouk is a visiting scholar in the Carnegie Middle East Program.