By declaring the Qatar-based International Union of Islamic Scholars (ILUM) a terrorist organization, Saudi Arabia is confronting some of the world’s foremost Islamic political parties and religious personalities, opening itself up to criticism for its overtures to Israel, and fuelling controversy in countries like Malaysia and Tunisia.
In a statement earlier this week, Saudi Arabia charged that ILUM was “using Islamic rhetoric as a cover to facilitate terrorist activities.” The banning of ILUM goes to the heart of the Gulf crisis that pits a UAE-Saudi-led alliance against Qatar and is driven by United Arab Emirates Crown Prince Mohammed bin Zayed’s visceral opposition to any expression of political Islam.
The UAE for several years has sought with little evident success to counter ILUM’s influence by establishing groups like the Muslim Council of Elders and the Global Forum for Prompting Peace in Muslim Societies as well as the Sawab and Hedayah Centres’ anti-extremism messaging initiatives in collaboration with the United States and the Global Counter-Terrorism Forum.
The ban appears to have been designed to position Saudi Arabia as the arbiter of what constitutes true Islam and marks a next phase in a four-decade long, $100 billion campaign waged by the kingdom to counter Iran by spreading for the longest period of time Sunni Muslim ultra-conservatism, that often served as an ideological inspiration for jihadist philosophy – an iteration ultra-conservatives have condemned.
ILUM “worked on destroying major religious institutions in the Muslim world, like the Council of Senior Scholars in Saudi Arabia and Al-Azhar in Egypt,” one of the foremost institutions of Islamic learning, charged Abdulrahman al-Rashed, a prominent Saudi journalist and columnist for Al Arabiya.
Al Arabiya’s owner, Waleed bin Ibrahim al-Ibrahim, was among the kingdom’s top media barons arrested in Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman’s recent purge of members of the ruling family, senior officials, and businessmen under the mum of anti-corruption.
“The terrorism project hiding under Islam launched its work around the same time organizations which issue extremist fatwas (religious legal opinions) were founded. Like al-Qaeda and ISIS (an acronym for the Islamic State), these jurisprudential groups said they refuse to be local as they view themselves as global organizations that cross borders. The most dangerous aspect of terrorism is extremist ideology. We realize this well now,” Mr Al-Rashed said.
The Council of Senior Scholars, despite having endorsed Prince Mohammed’s reforms in a bid to salvage what it can of the power sharing agreement that from the kingdom’s founding granted his ruling Al Saud family legitimacy, is a body of ultra-conservative Islamic scholars.
Various statements by the council and its members critical of aspects of Prince Mohammed’s economic and social reform since his rise in 2015 suggest that support among its scholars is not deep-seated.
Prince Mohammed recently vowed to move the kingdom away from its embrace of ultra-conservatism and towards what he described as a more “moderate” form of Islam.
Speaking to The New York Times, Prince Mohammed argued that at the time of the Prophet Mohammed there were musical theatres, an absence of segregation of men and women, and respect for Christians and Jews, who were anointed People of the Book in the Qur’an. “The first commercial judge in Medina was a woman! Do you mean the Prophet was not a Muslim?” Prince Mohammed asked.
Authorities days later banned pilgrims from taking photos and videos in Mecca’s Grand Mosque and the Mosque of the Prophet in Medina in line with an ultra-conservative precept that forbids human images. The ban was imposed after Israeli blogger Ben Tzion posted a selfie in Mecca on social media. Authorities bar non-Muslims from entering the two holy cities.
In a statement, authorities said the ban was intended to protect and preserve Islam's holiest sites, prevent the disturbance of worshippers, and ensure tranquillity while performing acts of worship.
Founded by controversial Egyptian-born scholar Yousef al-Qaradawi, one of Islam’s most prominent living clerics and believed to be a spiritual leader of the Muslim Brotherhood, ILUM members include Rachid al-Ghannouchi, the co-founder and intellectual leader of Tunisia’s Brotherhood-inspired Ennahada Party, and Malaysian member of parliament and Pan-Malaysian Islamic Party (PAS) head Abdul Hadi bin Awang.
Mr. Al-Qaradawi, a naturalized Qatari citizen who in the past justified suicide bombings in Israel but has since condemned them, was labelled a terrorist by Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain and Egypt in June as part of their diplomatic and economic boycott of Qatar. The UAE-Saudi-led alliance demanded that Qatar act against Mr. El-Qaradawi and scores of others as a condition for lifting the six-month-old boycott.
Mr. El-Ghannouchi was named one of Time magazine's 100 Most Influential People in the World in 2012 and Foreign Policy's Top 100 Global Thinkers in 2011. He was also awarded the prestigious Chatham House Prize. Mr. El-Ghannouchi is widely credited for ensuring that Tunisia became the only Arab country to have successfully emerged from the 2011 Arab popular revolts as a democracy.
The banning of ILUM has, moreover, sparked political controversy in Malaysia. Karima Bennoune, the United Nations Special Rapporteur for cultural rights, recently noted a deepening involvement of Malaysia’s religious authorities in policy decisions, developments she said were influenced by “a hegemonic version of Islam imported from the Arabian Peninsula” that was “at odds with local forms of practice.”
“Arab culture is spreading, and I would lay the blame completely on Saudi Arabia,” added Marina Mahathir, the daughter of former Malaysian prime minister Mahathir Mohamad
Critics of PAS demanded that Mr. Bin Awang, a vice-president of the group, “come clean that he does not preach hatred” in the words of former PAS leader Mujahid Yusof Rawa, and called on the government to ask Saudi Arabia for information to back up its charges against the union.
Mr Bin Awang, referring to Saudi King Salman, asserted last week that he relied on the “Qur’an (for guidance) although the ruler who is the servant of the Two Holy Cities has forged intimate ties with Israel and the United States, because my faith is not with the Kaaba but with Allah.” One of the most sacred sites in Mecca, Muslims turn to the Kaaba when praying.
“Just like Qatar, PAS had tried to ingratiate itself with Iran in an attempt to cover both bases, along with Saudi. Now the chicken has come home to roost, and just like Qatar, global minnows like PAS find themselves caught in the middle between the two Muslim world influencers,” said Malaysian columnist Zurairi Ar.
Among other members of ILUM is controversial Saudi scholar Salman al-Odah, who was among clerics, intellectuals, judges and activists arrested in the kingdom weeks before the most recent purge.
With millions of followers on social media, Mr. Al-Odah, a once militant scholar, turned a decade ago against jihadis like Osama bin Laden and played a key role in the kingdom’s program to rehabilitate militants, but retained his opposition to the monarchy.
Dr. James M. Dorsey is a senior fellow at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies, co-director of the University of Würzburg’s Institute for Fan Culture, and co-host of the New Books in Middle Eastern Studies podcast. James is the author of The Turbulent World of Middle East Soccer blog, a book with the same title as well as Comparative Political Transitions between Southeast Asia and the Middle East and North Africa, co-authored with Dr. Teresita Cruz-Del Rosario and Shifting Sands, Essays on Sports and Politics in the Middle East and North Africa.