A Saudi leader’s test of moderation

The crown prince’s visit to the US puts a spotlight on his claim of ending the country’s past hate-filled ideology and instead embrace a ‘moderate Islam.’

Britain's Archbishop of Canterbury Justin Welby (middle, right) shows Crown Prince of Saudi Arabia Mohammed bin Salman (middle) a selection of early texts from the Christian, Muslim and Jewish faiths from the Lambeth Palace library collection during a meeting at Lambeth Palace, London, Britain, March 8.

During his long visit to the United States, one question has hung over Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman: What do you mean exactly in promising to restore “moderate Islam” to Saudi Arabia?

For a wealthy nation that exported hate-filled theology for decades and long dictated the religious expression of its people, the promise seems like an impossible revolution in thought.

What will replace the hate that has helped breed terrorists worldwide?

To many in the West, the young heir to the Saudi throne has some explaining to do.

His words seem right. Prince Mohammed, who has effectively run Saudi Arabia since 2017, wants his country to be “open to the world and tolerant of other faiths.” He seeks to “destroy” the extremist ideas of groups like the Muslim Brotherhood, Al Qaeda, and the Islamic State. And he humbly admits his country overreacted to the 1979 Iranian Revolution by adopting a harsh version of Islam.

“We will not spend the next 30 years of our lives dealing with extremist ideas,” he says.

For the past year, he’s also been showing what moderation will look like in the birthplace of Islam.

The so-called religious police from the conservative clerics have been sidelined. Mosque sermons are now controlled. Movie theaters are being opened. School textbooks will be purged of “extremist ideologies,” says the Saudi education minister. Teachers who sympathize with banned groups will be let go.

Women are being liberated in many ways, such as being allowed to drive, join the military, and start their own business. Disney has been invited to inspire Saudi filmmaking. And an opera house will open soon.

In the run-up to the prince’s visit to the US, he and other officials also made some remarkable gestures.

One close ally of the prince and the head of the Muslim World League, Sheikh Mohammed bin Abdul Karim Al-Issa, visited the pope in Rome and a Jewish synagogue in France. And he issued an unprecedented letter condemning any denial of the Holocaust. The genocide, he wrote, “could not be denied or underrated by any fair-minded or peace-loving person.”

Prince Mohammed also met with Coptic Christians in Egypt, inviting them to Saudi Arabia. And in a trip to Britain, he met with the head of the Anglican Church.

The prince’s reforms are being driven by a host of factors – such as the economic necessity to please restless youth and adjust to the end of high oil prices – as much as they are by an abhorrence of violent, political Islam. Religious moderation is a path to survival.

If a new Saudi Arabia starts to reflect an Islam of “coexistence, tolerance and peace,” as the Muslim World League leader calls it, then the hateful ideology of the country's past might be driven out.

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