There is nothing that prompts us to encourage revolution as it is enshrined in danger...It just comes when profound reform has stumbled.— Salman al-Awdah
Like all of us watching the Arab world in the last two years, Saudi Islamists (I refer throughout to the Salafi Islamists) were taken by surprise when the Arab masses marched en masse calling for the downfall of their regimes. Official Saudi religious scholars immediately warned against the chaos of revolutions, banned demonstrations, and called for respect and obedience to rulers. Despite this, they supported the uprisings, perhaps in anticipation of Islamist parties and movements replacing the old regimes in Egypt, Tunisia, and beyond. They were, however, cautious when revolutionary effervescence started creeping into the heart of Arabia. Amid Saudi calls for demonstrations, civil disobedience, and change via the Internet, they held back from endorsing such calls, as if to assert that neither they nor their followers were ready for peaceful collective action. Instead, they applauded the bravery and determination of Arab protestors abroad and shifted their focus to local battles with the Saudi regime against the detention of prisoners of conscience, the legitimacy of peaceful collective action, and the right of the people to be represented in an elected assembly.
On the eve of the Arab uprisings, Saudi Islamists had already reinvented themselves as peaceful activists seeking reform of the regime from within. During the uprisings they reclaimed their position on the map of Saudi Arabia. They developed their own strategies in order to remain relevant and central to any debate about the future of the country. The Arab uprisings reinvigorated them as two Islamist parties came to power—Ennahda in Tunisia and the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt. At the same time they supported the struggle of Tunisian, Egyptian, Libyan, Yemeni, and Syrian activists whom they dubbed Sahwa Islamiyya (Islamic awakening). Many Saudi Islamists saw the Syrian uprising through the lens of sectarian politics and considered the Syrian rebels defenders of a Sunni revival against the hegemony of a minority Alawite regime. On the Bahraini uprising, Saudi Islamists concurred with the Saudi regime that described the Bahraini revolution as a Shia-Iranian conspiracy to undermine the security of the Gulf. They also condemned the Saudi Shia uprising in the oil-rich Eastern Province. They accused the Shia of opportunism and blamed them for provoking the regime to increase oppression and make arrests among their own activists.
Unlike the majority of official Saudi religious scholars, veteran Islamist Salman al-Awdah (born 1956) anchored peaceful collective revolutionary action in an Islamic framework and reached out for humanist interpretations that assimilate Western intellectual positions with his own Salafi orientation. He surprised his audiences when he published As’ilat al-Thawra (Questions of Revolution) in 2012. Al-Awdah rehabilitated revolution after decades of Sunni religious scholars associated it with instability, chaos, and danger. This book put him in a position different from both traditional official Saudi ulema and Jihadi ideologues, who had adopted violent strategies locally and globally. Needless to say the book was immediately banned in Saudi Arabia, prompting the author to circulate it on the Internet. In this book, al-Awdah’s engagement with the question of revolution brought him back as a relevant figure at a critical moment in the Saudi and Arab public sphere. The eruption of unforeseen and unexpected revolutions needed an Islamic endorsement, interpretation, and justification. Al-Awdah swiftly seized the opportunity and improvised a text that moved away from the duality of the permissible and prohibited in Islamic political theology.
Al-Awdah fuses western political thinking on revolution by Marx, Popper, and Fanon with his own Islamic Salafi heritage, producing a hybrid discourse that aims to reach beyond religious study circles. He defines revolution as building on the past, reform and reconstruction rather than destruction. It always starts peacefully but may later become militarized when confronted with oppression. Simply phrased, revolution is a fruit that “may ripen, dry prematurely or be belatedly harvested.”
Al-Awdah proposes to go beyond the duality of total obedience to rulers or military revolt. His “third way” centers on ‘”organized collective action that regulates political opposition and accountability.” The social contract, exemplified by the English Magna Carta, represents in al-Awdah’s thinking an early example of limiting monarchical powers and asserting individual rights. The strategy that collective action requires is not necessarily violent. Revolutionary attire, slogans, and hunger strikes prove to be efficient and justified steps in a peaceful revolution. He acknowledges the diversity of al-jamahir, the critical Arab publics behind the revolutions.
On the sharia in a post-revolutionary phase, al-Awdah calls for gradual application in an attempt not to burden societies after revolutionary upheaval, a burden that may precipitate total rejection. Post-revolutionary justice requires accepting the diversity of Arab public opinion. This justice requires reconciliation with all sectors in society including supporters of deposed regimes: as the Prophet said, “go, you are free.”
He warns against raising slogans such as demanding the immediate application of sharia, thus capitalizing on people’s emotional dispositions. According to Al-Awdah, the purpose of sharia is to establish justice, protect property, and guard lives.
Al-Awdah asserts that in Islam there is no scope for a theocracy, the rule of Islamic jurists. The Islamic state is a contractual project between people on the basis of a civil contract. In his opinion, democracy proves to be better than autocracy. He calls for representation of the people, freedom, and civil society. Why should Muslims accept autocracy and reject democracy if the latter proves to be the best available option simply because it is a western import, he asks. Democracy promises to be inclusive. Pluralism is a precondition for just government. He warns against alienating sectarian and ethnic minorities, a potentially dangerous strategy that triggers foreign intervention and civil war. He calls for respecting minority rights within a democratic framework.
While hesitating to call for revolution in Saudi Arabia, many Saudi Islamists have learned hard lessons from a decade of terror that was displaced by peaceful collective action across the Arab world. It remains to be seen whether these new Saudi intellectual mutations will lay the foundation for a new era in an age of hybridity and pluralism. From the heartland of Salafism, Islamists are beginning to engage with this hybridity thanks to those Arab masses who have opened a new chapter in their struggle for freedom, dignity, and social justice.
[This article first appeared in The Middle East in London magazine.]