PEOPLE are used to the idea that the authorities of Saudi Arabia play a pivotal role in the world of Islam, both within Muslim lands and among Muslim minorities that are struggling to reconcile their faith with life in the West. Anywhere from Los Angeles to Kuala Lumpur, you can walk into a brand-new mosque and sense the influence of Saudi cash—over the architecture, the reading matter and the training and style of the imam. And there are many observers of global Islam who see that influence as baleful: promoting puritanism, intolerance of other forms of faith (including less conservative kinds of Islam), rejecting many of the artistic, literary and scholarly traditions that make the Muslim world so rich and varied.
Indeed there are scholars who ascribe many of the pathologies of today’s Muslim world, from violence to intolerance, to the alliance that formed in the 18th century between Muhammad ibn Abd al-Wahhab, an ultra-conservative Muslim thinker, and the royal house of Saud. And there are some who blame Britain for using its influence in the 1920s to consolidate the power of the house of Saud and its clerical allies.
What people are not used to is the idea of Saudi Arabia and its monarch, King Abdullah, as a propagator of tolerance both within Islam, and between Islam and other faiths. Yet this month the king stepped up his effort to be a cultural and religious bridge-builder by convening a “World Conference on Dialogue”—as dreamily inclusive a title as anyone could ask for—in Madrid. The guest list included Tony Blair (now a ubiquitous figure on the inter-faith circuit), the American pastor-politician Jesse Jackson (who glad-handed everyone as though he was running for president of some global religious body) and saffron-robed Hindus as well as rabbis and Christian prelates. The Saudi visitor, standing beside King Juan Carlos of Spain in the sun-filled atrium of the Palacio Real, beamed like a benign grandfather as he took in a line of robed clerics and worthies.
Has the king—or even the whole kingdom—had a change of heart? One thing that shows no sign of altering is the Saudi monarch’s insistence that his own role, epitomised by his title as “Custodian of the Two Holy Mosques”, should transcend Saudi borders and extend to the whole Muslim world. He once chided a Chinese official who called the kingdom a great nation because of its oil. No, the king insisted, “we are great because of our religion.”
In truth, the kingdom’s influence in religious affairs has much to do with oil. Over the past quarter-century, the outpouring of Saudi money to the world’s mosques, madrassas and Muslim institutions has ebbed and flowed with the price of crude. There is not a single significant Muslim population in the world that has been untouched by Saudi funding, says Reza Aslan, an American writer on Islam, and the effect has “mostly been negative.”
Yet since taking the throne three years ago, the monarch has presented himself as an opponent of “extremism”, which he often describes as “deviancy” from Islam at its best; and he has urged his compatriots (including the ultra-conservative clergy that still holds a lot of power) to be ready for dialogue with other faiths.
Is this anything more than rhetoric? There is little sign of change on the domestic scene. Saudi Arabia bans churches (and all other non-Muslim houses of worship) on its soil and refuses visas to Israelis. Discrimination against Ismaili and Shia Muslims remains rife, although it has eased under the present king. The religious establishment continues to be obscurantist, even medieval. An Islamic judge recently sentenced a woman who had been gang-raped to dozens of lashes. Her crime? Being with an unrelated man in a car before the rape.
A more open question, perhaps, is whether there is some change in the role played in global Islam by Saudi-backed institutions, such as the Muslim World League (MWL), which formally hosted the Madrid meeting. Till recently, the MWL seemed like a bastion of the back-to-basics fundamentalism that draws second-generation Muslims in Europe away from the culturally rich forms of Islam practised by their Pakistani or Algerian parents.
So, is the MWL changing its stripes? Yes, partially, says Adel Toraifi, a Saudi columnist who has been critical of it in the past; it no longer produces the deadly mix of political grievance and hardline theology that it purveyed globally in the 1980s and 1990s. But “it’s not the Oxford University debating society either,” he concedes.
In fact, the MWL’s old-time credentials might just make it a plausible spreader of a gentler message. In the words of Vali Nasr, a scholar at America’s Tufts University, an initiative in the Muslim world “must be respected not in London and Washington but in Jakarta and Karachi, and the MWL has credibility in those places.” It can also be argued that King Abdullah has more credibility as an inter-faith conciliator than did his predecessor, King Fahd. Because he is devout and free of the playboy image that besets some other Saudi royals, he should be better-placed to stand up to reactionary clerics. As Mr Toraifi puts it, the king “is widely known as a pious person, so he doesn’t feel the need to appease the conservatives.”
Given that jihadist violence—seen by many people as a by-product of reactionary Saudi theology—has touched the kingdom itself, as well as cities like New York and London, the king has every incentive to use his influence to steer global Islam in a more moderate direction. But to succeed abroad, he may need to succeed more at home, and that looks very hard.