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.
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.
In a Riyadh office where a wall of 15 television screens carries satellite news stations from around the region, Mohsen Al Awajy spoke of how he and other Islamists “are trying to modify our society.”
A writer once jailed for his activities in the Sahwa movement, Al Awajy said that he, like Al Ahmari, is part of a generation influenced by time spent as students in the United States.
“We were sent to the West, we studied there, and adopted a lot of values. We believe these values are not contradicting our Islamic teaching,” said the tall, gregarious Al Awajy. “One is democracy, free elections, to be represented in our assembly, men and women equally ... We have to share in decisions which are related to our lives.”
Unfortunately, he added, “there is no single step taken by the government towards democratizing our society. We are quite angry about that. We are not happy to see this. Of course we are not going to [raise] weapons against them. But we feel shame when we compare our society to those … like Ghana and Burkina Faso.”
Still, there is a small but growing slice of Saudis who are politically discontented, as evidenced by several pro-reform petitions sent to King Abdullah bin Abdul Aziz earlier this year. One demanded a constitutional monarchy. Another more Islamist-oriented petition, signed by Al Auda and Al Ahmari, asked for an elected parliament with oversight of state funds and “the right to grill” ministers.
Political parties are banned here, so when ten moderate Islamists launched the Islamic Umma Party in February, most founders were promptly arrested. One organization that has managed to survive, at least for a while, is the Saudi Civil and Political Rights Association. Established in late 2009, it includes intellectuals, lawyers, school teachers, academics and human rights activists from both Islamist and liberal-secular orientations.
Its website carries a demand that Interior Minister Prince Nayef be fired for abuse of his powers, blasting his ministry for “reprehensible methods to suppress and intimidate people through arbitrary detentions, tortures, ill-treatments, and secret court trials.” A co-founder of the group, Mohammed Al Bjady, has been held since July without formal charges.
Lately, the group has taken up the cause of detainees held for years without charges. Association co-founder Mohammad Al Qahtani estimated the detainees at 30,000, almost three times the official number. The Saudi government says that of the 11,500 persons it detained for alleged terrorist-related activities in the last decade, 5,800 have been released. Saudi society “is really yearning to develop into a civic society rather than a religious or military society,” Al Qahtani said in an interview. “Yet ... the regime is resisting any change.”
AN AMERICAN EDUCATION
Over tea in his Qatar office, Al Ahmari said he grew up in the southwest part of the kingdom and was a critic of the government even in his youth. He went to the United States in 1985 to get his master’s degree in history from the University of Northern Colorado.
For several years, he was president of the Michigan-based Islamic Assembly of North America. This organization was scrutinized by U.S. law enforcement after the 2001 terrorist attacks for possible ties to extremists. It also was criticized for its website’s links to sites glorifying violent jihad.
In the end, a former president of the Assembly pleaded guilty to bank fraud. And a Saudi student who managed its websites, Sami Omar Al Hussayen, was acquitted by a jury of charges that he promoted terrorism online.
Al Ahmari was never charged with any crime and said he was visited only once by the FBI when it was questioning many Muslim groups soon after 9/11.
Ihsan Bagby, an associate professor at the University of Kentucky and an expert on U.S. Muslims, wrote in an email that in the American Muslim community the Assembly was viewed as a “moderate” Salafi group, “which means they did not focus on condemning other Muslims as heretics … [and they] were also not wedded to the Saudi Salafi establishment ... I did not have the sense that they were sympathetic in any way with al-Qaedah and other jihadist groups.”
Al Ahmari said the group did “educational” work to spread Islamic ideas, publishing books and holding annual conferences. Now defunct, it “never got a penny from any government,” he said, because even then he was critical of the Saudi government and it “didn’t like what I was doing.”
The rubble of the World Trade Center smolders following the terrorist attack on September 11, 2001 in New York. The all-out war on terrorism unleashed by Washington after the attacks marked a turning point in US-Arab relations and nowhere more so than in once top ally Saudi Arabia. With 15 of the 19 suicide hijackers carrying Saudi nationality and mastermind Osama bin Laden being the scion of a leading Saudi family, the desert kingdom and world oil kingpin suddenly found itself on the frontline of the war on terror prosecuted by U.S. President George W. Bush.
FORGED BY SEPTEMBER 11
The 2001 attacks were a wake-up call for Al Ahmari. “After September 11 it became clear to us that ... these kind of fanatic people are among us,” he said. He realized the need to “put a clear, clear line between our thoughts and these kinds of groups like Al Qaeda and people we don’t know who they are because we didn’t know they were doing these kinds of things.”
The attacks also made him more aware of the importance of democratic concepts.
“Before that, we talked about democracy, we accepted that, but it was not as strong and clear as after 9/11,” he said.
He left the United States for good in 2003 because he found the post-9/11 environment increasingly difficult. But he did not feel comfortable back in Saudi Arabia, where “you never feel safe” from being arrested.
So in 2007, he moved to Qatar, where he works as a consultant to a cultural project. He occasionally returns to his home in Riyadh, most recently this spring, but said he always fears arrest when he does.
Al Ahmari began being noticed in 2006 after writing an article criticizing religious authorities’ involvement in politics. In a 2008 article, he called President Barack Obama’s election a sign of the freedom in U.S. society, and bemoaned the Arab world’s dictatorships.
“I said this frankly on TV, that the problem behind September 11 was the jails of Saudi Arabia,” Al Ahmari said. “If you say anything against the government, you will end in jail. You have no rights. Nothing. You can’t talk. You can’t write. You can’t say the government is bad. Then what can you do?”
The government’s recent expansion of the clergy’s facilities so they can issue religious opinions on local issues is a way “to control people,” Al Ahmari said. “We should de-legitimize the religious establishment,” he added, so people realize it is “the voice of the government, and they never will be with the people.”
And the royal family’s propensity to dispense money to keep Saudis content is only a temporary fix, he believes. “You can’t pay money every time,” he said. “You have to give rights. There is no other solution.”
(This work was supported by a 2011 Knight Luce Fellowship for Reporting on Global Religion. The fellowship is a program of the University of Southern California's Knight Program in Media and Religion.)