Saudi Arabia’s crown prince Mohammed bin Salman has suggested a turn towards moderate Islam, especially among younger Saudis who want to “destroy” extremist thoughts, but one expert suggests religious freedom is the best path for Saudi Arabia.
“As a general matter, no government can ‘destroy extremist thoughts,’ including the government of Saudi Arabia,” Georgetown University professor Thomas F. Farr told CNA. “Even when U.S. forces ‘destroy’ ISIS militarily, the problem of extremist interpretations of Islam will remain.”
Farr, who directs the Religious Freedom Research Project at Georgetown’s Berkley Center for Religion, Peace & World Affairs, advocated religious freedom as the best approach in Saudi Arabia. His remarks follow comments from Prince Mohammed, the new heir apparent to the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, who recently spoke to the U.K. newspaper The Guardian. “We are simply reverting to what we [once] followed — a moderate Islam open to the world and all religions. Seventy percent of the Saudis are younger than 30, honestly we won’t waste 30 years of our life combating extremist thoughts, we will destroy them now and immediately.”
“After the Iranian revolution in 1979, people wanted to copy this model in different countries, one of them is Saudi Arabia,” Prince Mohammed continued. “We didn’t know how to deal with it. And the problem spread all over the world. Now is the time to get rid of it.”
Farr welcomed the encouragement of more moderate interpretations of Islam, but cautioned: “their success in that endeavor will have less to do with the use of force than it will the government's willingness to move toward true religious freedom, defined in this context as the freedom of all religions in the kingdom openly to challenge Saudi Wahhabism, the ideological source of much violent Islamist extremism.” “In short, what governments can do to undermine violent extremism is to protect religious freedom,” he said.
Saudi Arabia’s religious freedom record has come under criticism. In its 2017 report, the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom recommended that Saudi Arabia be designated a tier one “Country of Particular Concern.” “Saudi courts continue to prosecute and imprison individuals for dissent, apostasy, and blasphemy, and a law classifying blasphemy and the promotion of atheism as terrorism has been used to target human rights defenders, among others,” the report said. The government also privileges its interpretation of Sunni Islam over other interpretations and bans non-Muslim public places of worship.
The commission’s report also cited the Saudi government’s Vision 2030 program, focused on economic and cultural transformation, as a reason for improved religious freedom conditions. There was a “significant decrease” in the power of the country’s Commission for the Promotion of Virtue and Prevention of Vice, a continued government commitment to reform textbooks and curricula, and increased efforts to counter domestic and international extremism.
Prince Mohammed’s remarks expanded on comments he had made at an investment conference announcing a $500 billion planned independent economic zone across Saudi Arabia, Jordan and Egypt, The Guardian reports. “Changing Saudi Arabia for the better means helping the region and changing the world,” the prince said. “So this is what we are trying to do here. And we hope we get support from everyone.”