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The road to 9-11 began in Saudi Arabia. GlobalPost set out to understand how the kingdom has changed — and how it hasn't — on this 10th anniversary. In this seven-part series, "Saudi Arabia: The Road Beyond 9-11," GlobalPost hit the streets of Riyadh where some women now dare to get behind the wheel and travelled Highway 15 where Osama bin Laden recruited 12 of the 9/11 hijackers. The series goes inside the House of Saud's struggle against extremism — and its balancing act between a desire for reform and resistance to the revolutionary spirit of the 'Arab Spring.'

Muhammad al ahmari
Pro-democracy Islamic activist Muhammad Al Ahmari, pictured at his office in Doha, Qatar, was born in Saudi Arabia and lived in the U.S. for 18 years before moving to Qatar to escape the heightened scrutiny he and many other Muslims experienced in America post-9/11. He said his activism would make him a target in Saudi. (Caryle Murphy/GlobalPost)

Saudi Islamists consider democracy, confront royal dogma

Thinkers supports blending Islamic values with some Western ideas.

DOHA, Qatar — Muhammad Al Ahmari followed the uprisings in Tunis and Cairo as they progressed live on the Arab satellite news station Al Jazeera, transfixing the region and the world.

Through the tumult of the so-called “Arab Spring,” he kept his eye most of all on his native Saudi Arabia and was unimpressed when the House of Saud sought to deflect the Arab world’s revolutionary mood by dispensing billions in financial benefits to Saudis. He was cynical, too, of the oil-rich kingdom’s moves to hire thousands more security policemen and expand the reach of its state-employed clergy.

“The bet for the future: the police and the preachers,” the 52-year-old Saudi wrote on Twitter, where his 19,000-plus followers look to this bearded, bespectacled dissident as a voice of truth, even if it is spoken from self-imposed exile.

From his unadorned corner office next to Qatar’s breeze-whipped, teal blue Gulf waters, Al Ahmari is emblematic of a relatively new and potentially important development in Saudi Islamist opposition. He symbolizes the growing conviction that democracy and open dissent are consistent with Islam, and that to accommodate them, the House of Saud’s official religious doctrine of Wahhabism needs revision.

“The most important thing is democracy itself, it is the best system,” Al Ahmari said in nearly flawless English learned during 18 years in the United States.

“The most important thing is democracy itself, it is the best system.”
~Muhammad Al Ahmari, Saudi intellectual

In a recent lengthy interview, Al Ahmari explained that he is among a vanguard of Saudi Islamic thinkers who “are spreading ideas more advanced than Wahhabism” in that they are “keeping Islam but at the same time getting some good ideas from the West.”

“We have evolved. We have a problem with original Wahhabism,” he said, adding that non-Saudis are intrigued to learn that “we are not Wahhabis but at the same time we have Islamic ideas.”

Pro-democracy Islamist activists like Al Ahmari are small in number and have an uphill battle because most Saudis are deeply conservative, distrustful of dissent and have a religiously-based loyalty to the ruling royal family. These attitudes are reinforced by the monarchy’s financial largesse to its subjects.

Still, Islamist dissidents pose a far more potent challenge than secular liberals to the Saudi government because they dispute the state’s political legitimacy on the all-important terrain of religion. For this reason they also garner heavier surveillance from security officials.

Some Saudis, as well as other Arabs, are drawn to Al Ahmari’s ideas “because they want someone to give them democracy and political ideas in Islamic words and he’s willing to do this,” said Saud Al Sarhan, a Saudi expert on the Islamist opposition. “People want to be reformists, but they don't want to lose their Islamic identity."

Stephane Lacroix, a French scholar of the Saudi Islamist opposition whose history he records in his new book, “Awakening Islam: The Politics of Religious Dissent in Saudi Arabia,” explained that Al Ahmari “is playing a very important role today in Saudi Arabia because he’s becoming the spiritual father of all these young activists who are pro-democracy and pro-human rights and at the same time have this Islamic thing in the background. They all look up to him. He’s the reference for them.”


Throughout the Middle East, Islamists who demanded democratic reforms usually came from the Muslim Brotherhood, the region’s oldest and largest Islamist political movement.

But in Saudi Arabia, the Brotherhood — whose members arrived here in the 1950s and 60s seeking refuge from persecution in places like Egypt and Syria — always had to contend with Wahhabism, the kingdom’s indigenous brand of Salafi Islam founded by 18th century Saudi theologian Mohammad Ibn Abd-al-Wahhab.

Wahhabism and the Brotherhood influenced each other and ultimately produced a hybrid movement of religious-political dissent unique to Saudi Arabia. Known as the Sahwa al Islamiyya, or Islamic Awakening, it reached a peak in the 1990s before being repressed by the state.

Under the influence of the Brotherhood’s political activism, the Sahwa movement broke from orthodox Wahhabism’s stance of complete obedience to the king, writing public petitions and clandestinely circulating sermons on audio cassettes. These early Sahwa leaders were not champions of democracy, but rather demanded a bigger role for clergy in governing, curbs on the royal family’s privileges, greater transparency for public funds, and a more Islamically conservative society as a defense against Western cultural influences.

Now, Al Ahmari and other former Sahwa activists are breaking from the early leaders, arguing that Saudi’s Islamist opposition should embrace democratic concepts. They also advocate reassessing orthodox Wahhabi thinking because of its hostility to Western ideas, intolerance of non-Wahhabi Muslims and other faiths, and inflexibility on modern social issues, such as the kingdom’s ban on female drivers.

Today, the original Sahwa movement has fragmented and its informal network of perhaps hundreds of thousands is in hibernation. But one of its most prominent early leaders, Salman Al Auda, has moved in the same direction as Al Ahmari arguably becoming the most popular independent cleric in the kingdom.

Al Auda fiercely opposed Saudi Arabia’s 1990 decision to invite in U.S. troops in response to Iraq’s invasion of Kuwait, and after many other confrontations with the government, was jailed from 1994 to 1999.

He emerged from prison with more moderate views, which have continued to evolve to the point that earlier this year, when the Saudi government was still firmly backing Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak, Al Auda expressed solidarity with the protesters in Tahrir Square.

In his weekly television program, he called their revolt a sign that “aging” Arab governments are incapable of communicating with today’s youth, adding that “a ruler’s isolation is not acceptable under any circumstance.” The government ordered Al Auda’s program cancelled. And in late July, he was barred from traveling as he attempted to board a flight to Egypt at Riyadh’s airport.