First, at the Future Investment Initiative conference in Riyadh in October, the crown prince pledged a return to a moderate past and looked forward to a technology-driven future.
“We are returning to what we were before — a country of moderate Islam that is open to all religions and to the world,” he told the audience at the conference and those around the country and the world watching on TV and following on social media.
“We will not spend the next 30 years of our lives dealing with destructive ideas. We will destroy them today. Saudi Arabia was not like this before 1979. We want to go back to what we were, the moderate Islam that is open to all religions. We want to live a normal life.”
These sentences announce a seismic shift on a grand scale. Let us look at each one, and what they imply.
The crown prince is saying that until 1979 Saudi Arabia followed a moderate form of Islam that is tolerant and open, that it will now return to that era and destroy the destructive ideas of the past 30 years, and that people in Saudi Arabia will live a normal life.
For those of us who were too young at the time to remember, or not born yet, we are told that in the 1960s and 1970s women went about without covering their hair or wearing a black abaya, and even drove cars; that music and sports were taught at boys’ and girls’ schools; that there were rudimentary cinemas playing Arab and foreign movies; that Saudi TV and radio featured women, and broadcast songs by famous male and female singers; that men and women worked together and family members of both sexes got together without being accused of “mixing,” which has become a grave sin. These appear to be tales from a world beyond, but there are black and white pictures and films to prove it all.
So what happened in 1979 that changed all that? The siege of Masjid Al-Haram, the Grand Mosque, in Makkah.
At dawn on Nov. 20, 1979, a group of up to 500 well-armed militants led by Juhayman Al-Otaibi seized the mosque and held worshippers hostage for two weeks. It ended in a bloodbath in which hundreds were killed or wounded, including most of the attackers; the rest were captured and sentenced to death. The incident was a pivotal point in the history of Saudi Arabia and the region.
With a return to moderate Islam and the stamping out of corruption, Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman is returning Saudi Arabia to the path from which it strayed after the 1979 siege of the Grand Mosque in Makkah.
Al-Otaibi and his fundamentalists had accused the Saudi royal family of betraying Islamic principles and adopting a western lifestyle and values. After 1979, an ideology of extreme conservatism was imposed — so while Al-Otaibi and his followers were eliminated, their ideology spread and took hold of all public sectors, especially education. Those who adopted this thinking and forced it on society called it an “awakening,” because they considered it a return to true Islam after being led astray.
Others saw it as being put into a coma. The whole society became stagnant, the natural process of change and development was not allowed unless it went through the filter of selective religious opinion, and everything new was taboo and a sin, from TV and radio to satellite dishes and cameras. It was not only about how women dressed and appeared in public, or worked; every detail of their being and lives was scrutinized and deemed provocative and offensive. All forms of entertainment were prohibited. Every aspect of people’s lives was judged and dictated to them. People did not feel they lived a normal life, because the minute they boarded a plane or set foot abroad they felt relieved, and lifted the mask they had to wear. Piety was associated with specific dress codes and not with acts of integrity, kindness and good behavior.
All this while one serious crime was ignored and allowed to flourish — corruption.
So the words of Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman are an acknowledgment of what went wrong and the desire to correct it; but what needs changing is not just the outer layer. It is more important to address the internal mentality and ideology, while at the same time preserving our natural conservative habits, which have always respected diversity and nourished tolerance, as a Muslim moderate society.
This is the second awakening, the real awakening; especially since two weeks after the crown prince’s announcement, our leadership have also decided to take on the genie of corruption, which has hampered development and damaged the economy — finally putting our country on the right path toward progress and growth.
• Maha Akeel is a Saudi writer.