Saudi Arabia's Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman is, according to reports, leading the poll to be Time magazine's next "Man of the Year". As his address at the inaugural meeting of the Islamic Military Counter Terrorism Coalition in Riyadh on Sunday was just the latest of Prince Mohammed's moves to make the news in 2017, one can hardly be surprised.
All eyes have been on Saudi Arabia as the kingdom has hosted Donald Trump, taken decisive steps to combat corruption and announced sweeping economic and social reforms. The coalition’s declaration of “war on terrorism” and the Crown Prince’s insistence that “we will not allow such elements to tarnish the image of Islam” are welcome and should have far-reaching effects.
But there is another area in which Prince Mohammed’s words could also make a huge difference around the world, but they have not captured quite the same attention. And those are his comments on moderation.
Speaking last month at an investment conference, he said: “We are simply reverting to what we followed – a moderate Islam open to the world and all religions.” Expanding on that in a subsequent interview, he said: “What happened in the last 30 years is not Saudi Arabia. What happened in the region in the last 30 years is not the Middle East. After the Iranian revolution in 1979, people wanted to copy this model in different countries, one of them is Saudi Arabia. We didn’t know how to deal with it. And the problem spread all over the world. Now is the time to get rid of it.”
More recently, in an interview with Thomas Friedman of the New York Times, Prince Mohammed told him: “Do not write that we are ‘reinterpreting Islam’ – we are ‘restoring’ Islam to its origins – and our biggest tools are the Prophet’s practices and Saudi Arabia before 1979.” He went on to say, according to Mr Friedman, that during the Prophet’s time men and women mixed, there was musical theatre, and Christians and Jews were respected in Arabia.
What would this mean in practice? A clue was given to Mr Friedman by a Saudi minister, who showed him pictures from the 1950s of women without head coverings walking with men in public, and of concerts and cinemas.
To concentrate overly on whether women wear hijabs or niqabs or not would be to miss the point. What I believe is highly significant is the Crown Prince’s statement that: “We want to go back to what we were, the moderate Islam that's open to all religions. We want to live a normal life... coexist and contribute to the world.”
Firstly, it is worth pointing out that, contrary to the forbidding picture Saudi detractors like to paint, there were aspects of that that never disappeared. I remember countless visits to Muslim families, Arab and non-Arab, when I was growing up in Riyadh and Jeddah in the 1980s, in which women and men mixed and our Catholic family was warmly welcomed. Indeed, the hospitality and cultured nature of our hosts made a very deep impression.
More important, however, is the message that the Crown Prince is sending to the rest of the Muslim world, much of which looks to Saudi Arabia for leadership and guidance on religion. It must be acknowledged that sometimes this has provoked criticism that what are deemed to be practises or customs emanating from the Gulf are in danger of replacing local traditions, whether it be in terms of dress, language or toleration for other faiths. And this, to critics, is associated with what Prince Mohammed has referred to as a “model” that is a “problem” that should be got rid of.
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So the fact that he is doing so and stressing moderation instead could have a huge effect. In Malaysia there has been a long tradition of emphasising moderation. The current prime minister, Najib Tun Razak, has promoted the Quranic concept of wasatiyyah, or moderation or the middle way. He frequently refers to it in his speeches; has set up an institute to propagate it; and has also called for a Global Movement of Moderates and supported a foundation to spread that message. His predecessor, Abdullah Ahmad Badawi, talked of the related idea of "Islam Hadhari", or civilisational Islam.
The problem, however, has come from clerics whose pronouncements have occasionally been anything but moderate. And the danger in confronting them, as Mr Badawi warned in a speech in Oxford in 2004, has been that “those who want to carve a moderate space in the middle ground will be labelled apologists and worse, apostates”.
Prince Mohammed’s clear rejection of an old and inappropriate model – which I think we can take as referring to a rigid approach lacking the compassion and keen sense of justice so exemplified by the Prophet – and his stress on moderation and openness, could be a huge boost to the millions who are his natural allies, but who have sometimes lacked sufficient support or have been afraid to speak out. The Crown Prince’s standing gives his statements a power and resonance few can match, and his strong remarks could have a real and positive effect throughout the Muslim world.
In the long run, this could be just as important – perhaps even more so – than any military campaign against terrorism. Indeed, it would work to inoculate many against the virus of extremism. I, for one, am fascinated to hear more, and for this “restoration” of Islam to its origins to be further spelt out. As the King Salman Centre for International Peace is to be built in Malaysia, where I live, perhaps we will be among the first to be told.
Crown Prince Mohammed's reforms have been bold, and not without risk. We should all hope he succeeds in this one. If he does, he will deserve Time's accolade for that alone.
Sholto Byrnes is a senior fellow at the Institute of Strategic and International Studies Malaysia